20 May 2015

Android: Netrunner

I've been playing Netrunner with a good friend of mine and I have to say: I can see why people are so fanatical about it.


I'm not a stranger to card games; I played Pokemon throughout grade school, Magic the Gathering from when I was probably 10. I own two Dominion sets, a Resident Evil deckbuilder, and the core Lord of the Rings LCG. I've played a dozen rounds of Fluxx and (bleh) Cards against Humanity. I even tried the lackluster DC Comics Deck Builder, and the bizarrely fiddly Legendary from Marvel comics. Add to it Space Hulk: Death Angel and Warhammer Invasion and Warhammer Fantasy's Battle for Atluma- I've played a whole lot of card games.

Android: Netrunner might be better than all of them.

It's good enough that I'm not working at all on my FC campaign or even looking through systems to switch to when the campaign is over. I'm just looking through these NBN cards, trying to figure out exactly how much tracing is enough tracing  and how many bioroids I should be running in this Haas-Bioroid deck I'm considering. [1] I'm peeking at Shaper cards to steal for my Anarch deck, which I'm hoping will set enough fires that any corp I face will collapse.

Compared to Magic the Gathering, A:N is elegant and creative. In MtG, most of the challenge is in deckbuilding and sideboarding; deck archetypes are strong or weak to each other in varying arrays and there's nothing you can do about it in-game. You have to sideboard in or out cards after losing, and you're still playing pretty much the same deck and so are they.

In A:N, though, you don't really sideboard anything, and you're not expected to. Decks are flexible and play differently every time, because the game puts a massive focus on deception and reading your opponent.

I distinctly remember playing MtG once: I was playing monored aggro and he was playing some sort of white midrange. [2] The dude across from me had been holding back these two cards from the beginning of the game. I recognized that they were probably Wrath of God and then either Akroma or Serra's Angel, so I played around it by pretending I didn't notice but not playing any more cards. Predictably, he wrathed, so next turn I played another hasted creature. He played his angel (I forget which) but it didn't matter because in response to that I just used my last burn spell. I win, dickhead. [3]

Anyways, every round in A:N is like that because the Corp is playing most of its cards face down and the more dynamic and reactive Runner has a plethora of options available to them. Every single turn you are asked "Do you feel lucky?" as you gauge what level of risk you're willing to put on the table. Every single turn your opponent has to decide if you're playing real threats, if you're feinting, or if it's a feint within a feint. It is a turn-based fighting game, and reading your opponent (and reading their reads of you) is essential to overcoming them.

It's a very good game. I hope that I can continue playing it and that my gaming partner will continue to show interest in it! [4]



[1]Answers: "There's no such thing as too much tracing," and "As many as you can reasonably justify, plus two more for good luck."

[2] I usually played a goblin deck. Onslaught block had only recently started, so there were a lot of neat things going on with the tribal subtype. We played kitchen sink casual magic, which is basically Legacy. But without the banlist. Nobody had money enough to buy Black Lotus or anything with Mox in its name, and we only had a vague understanding of things like mana curve or efficiency, so it ended up generally being a good-spirited rumble. My opponent in this story was a smug, tubby, tall dude who always had really fancy sleeves and occasionally used a foil-heavy combo deck he was really proud of, even though it didn't go off half the time because I was just playing aggro and if you needed more than a handful of turns to win, I'd have battered you to death with fast, efficient goblins like always. He was ok, but had sort of a Dennis from Always Sunny vibe; you could tell he thought he was better than everybody else for some reason and I guess he thought everybody admired him or something but nobody really liked him and we only hung out with him when we were playing Magic. Ah, memories.

[3] I've never been one for gloating, or basking in my glory. Win or lose, I just want to improve my play. That's the kind of guy I am; stubborn and self-critical. A lot of things in my life are like that, now that I think about it.

[4] I only play with the one person right now, and online, but I imagine that I can find some more people who are tolerant of newcomers and won't tease me when I make staggeringly stupid mistakes!


20 April 2015

Racial Restrictions?

Quick question:

I'm reading through the 13th Age PDF for the first time and on page 30, it says that "13 th Age is less restrictive than other d20 games, and your racial choice won’t limit your class selection."

What d20 games feature racial limitations on classes? I can't think of any. Oldschool D&D can't possibly count since it's not a d20 game, although I guess retro-clones could. What could they be referring to?

29 March 2015

All Ogre


I've been busy with real-world stuff recently, but there's always time for FantasyCraft.

Today I actually managed to surprise myself with my efficiency in preparations. Check this timeline out:

Last Sunday- Game's over. Time to think about next session. I ran that session by the seat of my pants and my players ended up uncovering a demon cult in the center of town. Now I need to figure out what the underside of the dungeon looks like.

Monday- No motivation to prepare, so I don't. What's the rush?

Tuesday- Same. No preparations done yet. I'll get to it tomorrow, I don't have any ideas. It's barely even the beginning of the week anyways.

Wednesday- I get through five minutes of prep, then a friend calls. I talk for a while, then go to get back to work. I feel the urge to delete everything I've written [1], so I decide to call it an early night.

Thursday- I don't even remember, honestly. Might have had a couple of drinks? I know I was re-watching The Office because I am still doing that.

Friday- Preparing for somebody else's game. I'll write more about that later.

Saturday- I'm running out of time here but the power goes out and stays out for a couple of hours. I use the Aspects system from Fate to draw some connections. This becomes boring so I write a letter to my wife that ends up being 10 pages. The power's still out, so I get bored. I begin drinking. The power's on, now, but I'm too tipsy to write anything interesting, so I play video games and continue drinking until almost midnight. [2]

Sunday- I wake up at 730. I lay in bed for another hour; I'd had too much to drink, so I dreamt I was escaping a horde of demons (or something) by smashing my way through walls with a hammer. In addition, my head hurts. The game's not until 9, so I lay around until about 830. I realize that I haven't prepared anything, and I haven't eaten. I grab a granola bar and sketch out the underside of the temple [3], then the surface. I jot down some monsters I'd like to use, just the names. I grab a basic demon stat block from the FantasyCraft book and modify them. This one's faster and smaller. This one's got a grabbing bite. This one spews acid. Now I've got 7 areas, five unique monsters, and a plan for the next couple of sessions. I make some coffee and am ready for the game.

Moral of the Story: A half an hour of prep a week is more than enough to carry you through a session, if you focus on what you know you'll need.

The Secret: The entire world is painted in broad brushstrokes, and then I iterate. By this I mean I drill down on an aspect of a thing until there's enough detail in it, and then I go broad again.

I'll illustrate my secret another time. Maybe tomorrow?



[1] This happens literally all of the time and is responsible for me not writing here as much as I used to. Inevitably, if I write enough of anything, I will grow to despise it and the best way to make sure that it survives another day is to completely change tracks.

[2] I realize, in retrospect, that I probably should have gotten a good nights' sleep. My players deserve a better game than I can provide when I'm tired and slightly hung-over, but you know what, I did an OK job anyways.

[3] The temple snatches people and animates their corpses as demonhosts, kind of like how it works in that 40k book about Gregor Eisenhorn. I really like that book, for the most part. Some of it is kind of dumb but as a whole, I'd recommend it to anybody who likes a fairly serious 40k tone that isn't grimdorky.

04 March 2015

Maid RPG, of all things

You read that title right.

I successfully hosted a game of Maid: the RPG last Sunday. It was a strange and terrible thing.

Let me start by saying that I am not an otaku, or a weaboo, and I don't understand much about this strange anime-worshipping culture. I really don't. I don't see the appeal in discussing waifus or pillows emblazoned with anime girls or the obsession with pop music specifically from Korea or the prestige in watching cartoons specifically from one country of origin or the entertainment to be derived from arguing about one type of cartoon to the next.

I like Dragon Ball Z and Spirited Away and Samurai Champloo; I also like Aladdin and Wall-E and The Hobbit [1]. I like a lot of things. I don't see the need to obsessively devote yourself to one facet of entertainment; then again, I've squabbled over roleplaying systems for years now, so what do I know?

Anyways, since I don't understand or particularly like weeb stuff, I changed the setting. Instead of playing maids in a setting I don't understand, I decided they'd be playing temple attendents in a setting I do understand: the Fantasy Craft setting I'd been with them in for half a year now.

Instead of the Master, there was the High Priest- a 50ish year old sorcerer-priest.
Instead of the Mansion, they stood on holy ground; the great Temple and its Heart, always to be kept clean and in working order.
Instead of a maid uniform, they wore temple garb; robes, shoes, a hat, and a symbol of priesthood.

It worked pretty well, actually. The game itself is about attempting to flawlessly serve your master and be the "best maid" by accumulating the most favor, so it could ostensibly work for a number of settings; small military units, or pirate ships, or a necromancers' servants, or bureaucratic office drones or even standard adventuring parties, where the Party Leader is the master and the Mansion is the Dungeon and instead of keeping it clean they need to kill all the monsters and take all the loot.

The party dealt with:

1) Waking up late and a grumpy High Priest
2) Messing up the first attempt at a meal
3) A young temple attendant eating most of the food
4) A troublesome young lady who insisted on seeing the High Priest (who did not want to see her)
5) A surprise torture chamber discovery
6) One of the attendants (same one) playing with the implements and nearly getting a visitor hurt
7) Running out of bread and having to travel to the town to get food for the visitors before the High Priest finished his invocation
8) An irritating imp, who had to be abjured away
9) A dinner that was spilled on the ground and a small cake that was ruined

It was an eventful couple of hours! The rules are nice and simple and the action flowed, largely due to the way stress and abilities interact; every roll is 1d6 x your attribute and if you lose a conflict you take stress equal to their roll result divided by your attribute, so it really stacks up pretty quick and when you suffer your Stress Explosion (by getting more than your Will x 10 in stress), then for that many real-life minutes your maid must constantly be acting up. Some of them will become violent, some of them will race, some will go shopping... the list is tailored towards some sort of anime emulation but with a little inventiveness you can tailor the experience a bit more. I should have done that, now that I think about it.

So even though I know nothing about whatever sort of fiction it's supposed to be emulating, Maid RPG is a pretty tight little system, even if it is absolutely horribly written. [2] I'd play it again, but one of my regular players really wants to get back into Fantasy Craft, so we'll just dive back into Maid another time and see what happens at the end of the day!







[1] This one, please. Not that overblown ode to mediocrity that Peter Jackson produced.

[2] The "fluff" that takes up most of the pages is written by what I imagine to be some sort of 13 year old girl on a sugar rush from too much Pocky, one eye on Gaia Online and the other on Naruto. It's some of the worst published writing I've seen in my entire life and its purpose is a mystery to me. Nowhere in the lengthy fluff does it provide any useful examples of the matter at hand (which is simple enough not to need an example)- rather, it seems to be one long "session report" except that it is very clearly written by one person pretending to be multiple people. Did I mention it takes up more room than the rules do yet? Because it does. If you buy Maid RPG you are buying 1/3 fluff by volume, with the remaining 2/3s being largely random tables. If you cut out the tables and the fluff you are left with a one page RPG system.

09 February 2015

...and now I want to run DCC

I don't normally get what some people casually call "GM ADD." I've been running a FantasyCraft game for a couple of months now and it's going great. [1] The system isn't really ideal for my preferred type of play, and the system itself has some objective faults that are going to result in us dropping our characters and starting over from level 1, but that's part of the fun! It's nice to have a system that's broad enough that everybody has six or seven ideas, and it's fun to tinker in the system. It's broad but not too deep, and manages to scratch a neat character design itch without suffering too badly from ivory tower design.

And yet...

I read through the DCC PDF on a hunch. There was a good deal of fanfare about it back in the day and everybody who playtested it had positive opinions and house-rules out the ass for it. That's a good sign, in my book. Easily house-ruled systems are systems that are easy to make your own, and systems that inspire passion. Somehow, still, it passed me by. I continued on my GMing adventure, playing Dark Heresy (mediocre), 4th edition D&D (bad), Dungeon World (good), and 5th edition D&D (too early to tell).


The PDF absolutely floored me. First impression: This book is huge! There's no way that this book is as old-school as it says; it's got to be some sort of neo-grognard [2] 3.x influenced crap. Full disclosure: This impression lasted exactly one page. The Table of Contents is gorgeous. The Proclamations? Tone-setting. Tongue-in-cheek, intentionally pretentious, and hilarious. The introduction? Concise and helpful. The introduction text to the Character chapter? A scared looking and motley crew venturing into the dark with a torch, accompanied by text reminding all that you are not a hero, but "an adventurer, a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock." Beautiful.

But what really sold me was the funnel. What a perfect system! It immediately drives home the simplicity of generating characters, assures players that these characters will die, sets them on a task from which most of them won't come home, and immediately turns the survivors into level one characters. I could write an essay on the brilliance of this simple (and unique!) mechanic but I'll just be quick.

The really big reason that the funnel is so brilliant is three fold. Firstly, it's the first thing a new player will read. The second sentence in the chapter is "most of these characters will die." You are attempting to survive, and the survivors will be rewarded with a level. It tells you character death is not scary. You'll get over it.

Second, it requires players to use 3d6 but softens this by making multiple characters. You're not rolling 3d6 and dropping shit. You're playing the character, warts and all, and you have to do the best with what you've got. I've gotten into discussions (arguments) about this before and I stand by my point that random character generation is perfectly valid- and this game neatly side-steps anything by giving you a huge variety of choice and then letting you, the player, choose how you want to handle this. You can coddle your "favorites" and let the 1 HP ropemaker with 6 Luck stand in front and hopefully catch the arrow and let that 17 strength slave survive.

Third, you generate random gear and occupations! This leads you directly into making up stories for your characters and encourages clever use of items. When your cooper has a crowbar, barrel, and waterskin as their only possessions, you're going to try and roll the barrel onto people or throw it on their heads or hide in it because your other options are a)fight the skeleton that's marching towards you, b) run away, or c)stand there and hope it's friendly. It's beautiful.

I really enjoy each and every one of the classes, which is unusual. Clerics get a neat mechanic where each sequential casting is harder, and it straight up says "Do not use your powers in a way that would make your god mad or you'll suffer disfavor." There's a disapproval table, and as I found out reading through it, something like 75% of the book is actually tables. It has modifiers listed for trying to use divine power while not acting in the interest of the divinity, and rules for sacrificing material wealth for greater power. Turning unholy is one of my least favorite abilities in other editions (who gives a shit about undead specifically), but what you turn depends on your alignment. Lawful clerics are bog-standard, but Chaotic clerics turn angels and paladins and law-aligned humanoids, and Neutral clerics can turn animals, undead, monsters, lycanthropes, and aberrations! Neat!

Thieves get your basic old-school thief abilities, but it's very explicitly incredible. You can hide in broad daylight if you roll well enough! It's a nice balance between having a thief class and implying that only thieves can climb or steal or hide. You're better or worse at some of them depending on your alignment. Lawful theives are trap-springers and scouts, Chaotic theives are murderous thugs, and Neutral thieves are your classic stealermans. The chart is kind of hard to read but there are 13 skills so it's whatever. You only have to look at it when you level up.

Warriors get a "deed die" and better crit tables. Deed dice add to attack and damage, so you occasionally get mighty swings of momentum where you're hitting at +4 and really slam into that guy. You can also do "bonus effects" where if your Deed die is 3 or more then you can disarm people or push them over or break their things. It goes into detail with some example deeds. You eventually get more actions that you can use to do things, so a warrior's pretty deadly. Probably the "strongest" class to play, and it's nice that they're not just rolling to hit and standing there. They're a complex class in their own right, really.

Wizards are fantastic. Each spell is its own self-contained thing, and they are all weird. Learning spells requires you to do some gnarly stuff, sometimes, or cost you a lot of money, and rolling too low means that bad things happen to everybody around you and you might even get corrupted. I'm talking James Raggi / Warhammer Fantasy level badness. In addition, your spells all have bonus effects, called "mercurial magic," that happen every time you cast it. Some of them are almost cataclysmic! To compensate you can "spellburn," which involves a ritual where you do some seriously distasteful things. I'm not going to name them, at all, I'm just going to say that being a wizard makes you a strange, dangerous being to be around. Wizards have patrons you can call upon, not that you probably should. The whole class reads is kind of like that, really. Your party is going to yell at you for casting spells carelessly, and townspeople are going to accuse you of famines and curses everywhere you go.

Dwarves are basically warriors with shield bashing. They can smell gold, which is fun. Elves are allergic to iron, have patrons, and are basically wizard/warriors that are worse at either. Halflings are the strangest departure, in that they are really good at dual-wielding, sneaking, and being lucky. Looks like a fun class, though.

The skills page is one page and says "Roll d10 if you're not skilled at a thing, d20 if you are, +2 if you might be ok at it, and then compare to the DC." It's just 5/10/15/20 all the time, based on how hard it is for a normal human being to do it.

Equipment is short and sweet. Weapons are just sources of damage and are otherwise unremarkeable. Armor increases the badness of your fumbles, so if you're wearing plate mail you're rolling worse results on the fumble chart. Finally, a system were naked barbarian warriors makes sense!

Combat is simple as well. I'll probably forget to apply the combat modifiers but who cares, the real gem here is the crit table. There's one for 0th level characters/wizards, for thieves and halflings, for clerics and elves, and for warriors/dwarves. Wizards are getting lame crits and warriors get awesome ones. Mounted combat is nice and easy, and morale saves make a comeback! I love morale saves. Monsters should get scared and run, and intentionally fighting to the death should be an oddity.

There are three saving throws, which is odd. The one thing I don't miss about old-school games was having multiple saving throws, but at least there's luck, which can take the place of many things you'd use a unified saving throw for anyways.

Magic is detailed, with each spell having its own large chart with effects and drawbacks determined per-spell. It claims that trying to stay on the path of subtle benign magic generally results in longer-lasting mages but rolling a 1 on pretty much anything can doom you to suffer corruption. It's true that you'll generally suffer more minor drawbacks on elemental spells and enchantments but there's always a chance to suffer some corruption. There are ways to boost your spell checks beyond your normal casting die + stat bonus, but none of them are easy and many of them are dangerous.

The rest is Judge stuff which is neat, with the standout rule being the bit about experience. You determine how much encounters are worth after the fact, based on how much trouble they had with it, so that players are always encouraged to bite off a little bit more than they can chew, and no matter how easy an encounter "should have" been, they're rewarded proportional to the effort they expended.

Magic items are flavorful and neat, with rules on crafting them. They're available only to higher levelled characters [3], and usually involves some serious questing, weird components, and dark secrets. I love every word here.

The monsters table has charts to help you make your fantasy less predicteable and stat blocks for a bunch of generic monsters. You are encouraged to make your own and just kind of throw stuff out there. There's a couple of funny entries and a lot of great design on display here.

In summary: I love everything about DCC and as much as I like playing Fantasy Craft I absolutely want to play DCC, ideally right now, with my group. Every inch was lovingly designed by a team that really does understand old-school design and old-school fantasy. The art is beautiful and the book oozes with so much flavor that some of it spilled out of my monitor and is floating around my house. If you haven't read through it yet, you're missing out. I give DCC my absolute highest recommendation.



[1] We just got a couple new people and they are fitting in marvelously, to the point where sometimes we will talk on Skype for hours on end about nothing in particular. I tell them that they are one of my favorite groups to run for all the time, and I really mean it.

[2] It drives me nuts that people will sometimes claim to be grognards and play 3.X D&D. That is not how this works. If you are playing and prefer modern systems with modern expectations of game design or gameplay balance, you are not playing an old-school game and are diametrically opposed to the old-school style. I can't give my endorsement to this. I say this as a person who appreciates both new and old school philosophies, before anybody gets their undies in a knot. This is why I prefer to call myself an "old-school fan," if anybody ever asks.

[3] Another refreshing thing is the way that they specify that 5th level is pretty damn high and makes you a local legend at the very least. There's a chart that specifies how many of a given person would be around, and it repeats over and over that you're playing in a middle ages styled setting where everybody's illiterate and rumors (if there was any basis in truth) are wildly distorted and might not even make sense. Traveling over to the next city is interesting in its own right and going into the wilderness should be more than a little scary. It's really great stuff.

21 January 2015

On the Special Snowflake GM

If you haven't read through the "On the Special Snowflake Setting" by the irreplaceable Courtney Campbell, you should. He goes over a number of problems more eloquently than I would and I pretty much agree with every statement, so I'm not going to bother adding more.

I just want to offer some practical advice.

If you look, his examples start with "Does anybody have any feedback?" and that's a great question if your players are all comfortable with each other and have a reasonably open relationship. But not all games are like that, and not all people are like that. I've personally found that a lot of people I've ran games for have serious reservations about giving feedback for fear of "complaining" or "being negative." [1]

Far more effective for me than a blanket statement to the whole group is individually sought feedback. People that might not answer a call for "anybody's" feedback will almost certainly answer if you ask specifically for theirs.

A quick example of how both approaches play out for my current group:

DM: Does anybody have any feedback?
Players: ...
DM: ...Really, nobody has any feedback?
Joe: No, everything's good!
DM: There's really nothing you have to say? I'm completely open here, I'm looking to improve.
Steve: Well, yeah, what he said.
DM: Alright, well, see you next week, then!

~fin~

Not exactly productive. But if you ask each player individually:

DM and Player A via IM
DM: So what did you think about last week's session?
Joe: Oh, it was alright. It was frustrating not being able to damage those guys, though. That one guy took like seven hits and was still alive! [2]
DM: Oh yeah, well, I did get a couple of lucky rolls and plus you know that kind of armor has damage resistance against your weapon type.
Player A: I guess, but still, it was frustrating, especially since they couldn't really damage me, either. You know that NPCs can also have Option X and Option Y...
Cue cooperative NPC creation theorycrafting

Or another example:
DM and Player B via IM
DM: Hey, what did you think about the session last week?
Steve: Oh yeah, it was fine.
DM: Just fine?
Steve: Yeah, I thought the story was going to be different- I created a character for Plot X and it ended up being Plot Y, and I'm not enjoying being in the jungle!
DM: What do you mean?
Steve: Well me and Player C are really urban, you know, like we're from cities and are used to grifting and stealing and partying and charming ladies and all that and that doesn't work with the jungle!
DM: Well, that's true, but you shouldn't be stuck there much longer! You did find that outpost, remember? And what did you mean about the plot thing? [3]

And so on...

The point is that, if you have a group like mine that won't give feedback in front of everybody, asking them in private what they're thinking about the game can get them talking.

If they still insist things are fine, you can suggest things that you're not personally happy with. Leading with a "I wish Charlotte would speak up more" or even something a bit self-deprecating, such as "I keep making the battles too easy!" or "I'm sorry the game's so slow, sometimes" can really let people know that it's ok to talk about the game and that you really are looking for criticism.

If they still insist things are fine after all that, maybe things are OK. Maybe they really are happy.

Or maybe you're such a bad GM that they don't feel like it's worth wasting their time giving you their opinion because you won't listen anyways. You're going to have to pay attention to see which it is and honestly if you've read this much, you at least have the right attitude.


[1]: Plus some players are just shy! I have a hell of a time convincing myself that my opinions are important or valuable, especially when everybody else seems to be fine with the way things are. But sometimes you end up on a trip to Abilene...

[2]: He'd become used to swinging his sword every turn (and indeed, built his character around it) and had a hard time thinking outside the box with another way to deal damage. He could have tripped, taunted, used the environment, or any number of other things... But in his defense, "sword attacks" had been working for him the whole time and he was just delaying while the rest of the party dealt with the archers on the flanks. I'm not sure what either of us could have done differently, knowing what we know. Each turn I was thinking "You're not getting anything done, do something else!" and he was thinking "I haven't done anything yet but this next blow could be the one- I'll just keep at it!"

[3]: I said "roll up characters that are leaving their home for some reason- you're going to be starting on a ship travelling across the sea," and one guy said "like Morrowind?" I replied "Kinda, I guess," and I had meant just "can't go home; must go forwards" but none of them went with that angle in their backstories- 2 of them ended up on the boat by accident, 1 was a self-exiled wandering-warrior daughter of nobility, and 1 of them was an amnesiac priest looking to do good, and 1 of them was a quiet street rat running from the law. So I scrapped it, because by all of them creating characters with links to their old world they have indicated that their character's homeland is still very much important to them. It actually turns out I was right, as when I told them the cultures of this new land they all immediately decided they wanted to be one of them, and one of my players actually helped me flesh out his characters' homeland because, so we spent a very pleasant two or so hours hashing out all of that.

13 January 2015

For Lack Of A Game

I have not played a game in two weeks! This is not for lack of wanting, but because two of my players have been busy and then also some of my other players are unreliable! [1] This would make me upset except that I have been filling the space with many other things!

I have been reading webcomics!

Some people binge on seasons of their television shows. [2] Pshaw! Child's Play! You ought to be binge-reading webcomics!

"Webcomics," scoffs the cinemaphile, "are the last resort of the failed artist, and are nothing more than the chortling playthings of insular dudebros who write about video games!"

That's mostly true! But not all of them. Nimona, for example, is about a shapeshifting girl who teams up with a supervillain to topple a heroic Institution that's not quite what it seems! Hemlock is about a witch with a checkered past in a darkly Scandinavian fairy-tale world! Hark, A Vagrant, for all two of you who haven't read this, is a fanciful retelling of history's most interesting stories, told in the silliest way possible! Nedroid is, like Seinfeld, a comic about nothing. Just kidding! It's about Beartato and Reginald the bird (?) and their adventures through silliness! I've been reading Kid With Experience, an autobiographical comic about the charming Jess Fink! I've been reading other things, too, that I can't remember! [3]

Nimona has a short temper for many things

I have been reading actual things!

Mother Night is a fantastic book, and it's odd reading Welcome To the Monkey House because it's all snippets of stories I'd read online "somewhere" and had completely forgotten about, because Kurt Vonnegut gets reprinted everywhere, endlessly, and for good reason. He's probably as good an author as America can ever produce and if somebody from another country said "what are Americans like, anyways, your television shows are all weird" then they should read some Vonnegut because we haven't changed from the 1960s nearly as much as we like and some of his stories are set much later than that anyways, thank you.

Also good is "FILM CRIT HULK," because when Hulk is talking about movies, Hulk is actually talking about stories, and stories are literally what every human being lives for. Hulk is talking about you and me and life itself, and when you can get past the stylization and unique voice you're finding a person who knows and loves very deeply and passionately. Reading Hulk is like being hugged in your brain. It's a blog, go read it now.

Girls Read Comics is fantastic, in that it got me to consider my previously-unconsidered views on the absurd sexism in comics! I'd never much liked the female superheros common in most Marvel or DC offerings, excepting Black Canary and Hawkwoman [4] in Justice League Unlimited- they were such weak and boring characters. They never did anything exciting or had interesting back stories and just kind of stood around in the back. Even Wonder Woman was like this! I wondered how anybody could be a fan of these women. And then, reading Girls Read Comics I realized that they were boring because their authors were sexist idiots and they always stood in the back because they were supposed to play second fiddle to the "important men" that stood in the foreground and suddenly everything clicked!

I've been playing games!

Tabletop games with my brother! It's pretty cool. My wife isn't as big a board game enthusiast and doesn't like playing them via computer so I'm usually about out of luck, but my brother is a big fan and he's here so we've been going all out.

We've played Darkest Night, which is a decent but flawed game I'll probably review in more fullness later. I want to like it, but it's slow and grinding and really, really random and there's just not enough meat on the game for me. There's a lot of bits and bobs but the game isn't delivering it for me.

A real surprise was Death Angel Space Hulk, which he picked out at random and it turned out to be great. You're Space Marines clearing out this half-wrecked spaceship that's full of vicious aliens, and you're marching ever onwards through corridors while blasting everything and doing your best not to die. It's complex at first but that's just because everything is symbols. It is smooth as hell in play and a really slick design.

Seriously, look at this! Onirim, you done good.
Onirim is a simple card game that is all about hand management and set collection. Your objective is to explore this dream realm and use a key to open doors, or to play three symbols of the same color in a row. Getting in the way are Nightmares, which can slow down or reverse your progress, and your own awful luck. You can pick through your deck using keys, but it's risky, as you're also thinning your deck at the same time. Works great as a solo game, probably alright for two players too. Did I mention it's beautiful? [5]

7 Wonders is a fun civilization building game. There's a dummy with two players, but I find that it actually adds to the depth. This is another one I'll be writing more about in the future, since it's a fairly big game. Smooth in play, slightly Byzantine scoring, great art. Only played one and a half times, so we'll see if it's got longevity.

Red Orchestra: Rising Storm isn't a board game but it is a video game about World War 2. The really cool part is that it's not a big and macho game where it's this big manly heroic thing, it's a really realistic game where you're scrabbling through foliage only to get shot by a guy you didn't see and then you respawn and next life you're machine-gunned down while you're running for cover and then next life you're pinned by machine gun fire and you can hear somebody running and you hope it's backup but nope! It's an IJA and he bayonets you and your squad leader! And for what? To lay claim to a bit of land in the middle of a bombed-out and ruined village on an island nobody's heard of. Really great stuff.

That's it, I guess!

This was really long but a lot of fun to write and it's nice to look back at what I've been doing and realize that I'm not completely wasting my time even if I'm not working on something or (some days) even leaving the house. Life is grand and everything is good.

Oh, hey, if you have any recommendations for good webcomics or board games, let me hear them, because I need to put more things in front of my eyeballs and inside my brain. Thank you very much, and goodnight!

---

[1] If any of you are reading this, I mean that your attendance is unreliable in general. You are all very good at telling me that you won't be there, but it is unpredictable. This means that the net effect is that when I look at my calendar I can't predict when you'll be around and when you won't. You're all beautiful people.

[2] I do too, actually. Me and my wife would watch entire seasons of Futurama, Scrubs, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, True Blood (don't judge me), and on one particularly cozy afternoon/evening, Adventure Time. I guess you could call watching Band of Brothers or The Pacific "binging" but the goddamn episodes are like an hour long each and they're really emotionally draining. At least the Pacific is. If you're looking to join any part of the military that has anything to do with being anywhere near combat you should watch that show and then think about whether or not you'll be there. I'm not saying my experience was nearly as bad as that show, obviously, but for some people it probably was.

[3] There have been a lot, seriously! You don't have to read tripe like Penny Arcade or whatever Buckly's B^U comic is called. Real-life comics can be funny and sexy and highbrow and don't just have to be jokes about dicks and video games featuring talking heads or capes and neither do webcomics! (And if you like that sort of thing that's fine too, I'm just sayin' there's more out there)

[4] Black Canary was always so cool because she'd be off doing her own thing, in a normal-ass costume, beating up punks and showing up at random moments like "oh damn Black Canary, what are you doing here!" And then the Huntress is like "You should join the Justice League!" and Black Canary says "Nah, it'll just cramp my style," and then BC leaves, presumably to go kick more villains in the mouth. What a great character! And then Hawkgirl was neat because she was from ancient Egypt or whatever and she actively rebuked her wanna-be husband/lover because he was awful to her, and she didn't need him around for anything because she was with a dude who respected him. And she always wanted to smash things. She smashed the crap out of things like, all the time. Although now that I'm reading the webpage it turns out she was just a pawn of her husband and then she betrays everybody and then re-betrays everybody and I guess she isn't that cool in the later episodes. Well, bummer.

[5] Why are "dreams" such an underused concept for games and media, anyways? The only things I can think of that use it as a theme are Onirim, LSD Dream Simulator, and the role-playing game Lacuna. At least Inception got people thinking about that sort of thing, even if nothing really happened about it except that people talk about dreams-within-dreams sometimes if it comes up. That reminds me, I need to figure out lucid dreaming some day.


05 January 2015

Attribute-less 5e

I'm involved in an intermittently-running 5e game, and was making a new character when I had a small thought. What if 5e dropped attributes entirely? Do we even need them? I've got a lot of things on this character sheet already right now- could I get by with one less?

I slept on it, which meant that I rolled the idea around in my head a little, and decided to use this post as a sort of sounding-board. If you have any ideas or complaints or anything at all to say, let me know in the comments!

Moving on!

Attributes serve a couple of purposes in 5e:
  1. Character specialization. A 15 strength fighter is different than a 15 strength druid (but more on this later).
  2. Multiclass restriction. Since your character is not good at everything, there optimal and suboptimal classes. (Again, more on this later.)
  3. Racial Benefits. Some races get bonuses to one stat and penalties to another. This one's short and sweet but check it out. They don't matter at all.
  4. Increasing General Power. Increasing your primary stat does a number of things for your character and is built in to your class every couple of levels. What do you do about that?
But what of those are necessary?

Character specialization is something I've been thinking a lot about recently, especially because of my recent interest in Fate. In that game, you have aspects and skills/approaches and that's it. It's not really necessary to know exactly how strong your character is in terms of weight carried because it's not important to the narrative. Conan never worries about the weight of his gear because he can carry as much as makes sense and the only time anybody cares is when he's being chased and- oh no- he can't carry the gem of Clizzak-teff and escape the lizard people! Will he fight or stay?

D&D has a long history of sort of doing this backwards. Nothing in D&D says "this system will produce the interesting stories you want to tell." On the contrary, it's "this is the story you will be telling; make it interesting," and as long as you're interested in a story where you're on a dungeon-crawling treadmill and counting your coins, then you're set. [1]



Where am I going with this?

My point is that attributes don't really impact the story. When you're asking for a dice roll, what you're asking is not "are you strong enough to do this" or whatever, you're asking "are you capable of this?" Nearly every roll that one would use an attribute roll is already covered by another skill. Brute force is a subset of Athletics. Dodging is Acrobatics. Knowing history is History. If you can think of a use for an attribute that isn't covered by a skill, I am extremely interested in it. I can't think of any.

See, here's where it gets a little fun. The math's not right without the attributes being rolled in with stats somehow. You'll be a little short on most rolls (and a little ahead on some of them.) So what do you do? That's actually surprisingly easy.

Give everybody a flat, unchanging +2. Call it a "Hero Bonus" or something, and apply it to anything that cares about any attribute bonus. Add it to your attacks. Add it to your AC. Slap it on all of your skills. When you're proficient in a thing, add your proficiency bonus on top of it.

That's it.

Yeah, that means that everybody's sort of got the same capabilities, but who cares? Was that -1 Intelligence on your barbarian important to you mechanically, or do you ignore it half the time anyways in favor of playing your barbarian the way you want? Was the -1 strength on your sorcerer the only thing keeping you from running in with your dagger and getting some quick stabs in or was that always a stupid idea because you are more or less made of fireballs and are wearing a tattered nightgown? [2]

A bit sticky are attribute saving throws. How do you mark down an attribute saving throw without attributes? Well that one's easy: You don't. Attribute saving throws literally don't do anything at all now. Every save works the same way: Hero Bonus + Proficiency Bonus. Hey look, we've got a unified saving throw again! Isn't that neat? I'm getting whiffs of Swords and Wizardry here.

If you don't like that, then keep attribute saving throws, but rename them. Your characters are now Strong and Dextrous. When you have an attribute saving throw, then you get your Proficiency Bonus, otherwise it's just your Hero Bonus. Look at us! Saves space and only comes up when the game asks for an attribute saving throw, specifically, to resist a thing.

Here's a really neat thing that you can do, now that you've got +2 in everything- multiclass! If you ever wanted to be a Barbarian/Sorcerer you're in luck. I'll admit that it's not perfect, since the one thing that 5e really does well is give interesting subclasses and you can kind of do that already but hey, who cares? You can go Barbarian 1/Sorcerer 9 and won't have wonky stats that make you worse at both. You can be a Wizard 2/Cleric 2 without feeling like a dork because you're only getting part of the benefits.

You know what else is cool? There are no more optimal and suboptimal races. (Well there still are but it's less so, now.) Every race is equally good at everything else, while still feeling unique since they've all got good racial skills. Dwarves are still stout, elves are still graceful, half orcs are still violent sociopaths, much less changes here than you might think. Elf barbarians are on equal mechanical footing with half-orc barbarians, and dwarf rangers are as good as half-elven ones. Neat, right? [3]

I do recommend, if you're using this, to use one of the variant Human traits, because the human racial of "+1 to everything" was always pretty lame but it's extra lame when that's "+1 to every nothing." I personally like the skills one best, but do your thing. You also might want to change up the Mountain Dwarf- nobody's going to be a mountain-dwarf fighter if all they're getting is armor feats they had already, so something as simple as "if you already have this, then grab another feat" or make something new up. But what's a rules hack if you're not changing things? And such small things they are!

The last thing I can think about is the fact that attribute bonuses are a form of progression within the game. You're expected to eventually reach the end limit of 20 in your attribute at some point, and you'll probably leave the other attributes down in the dust. This one's tricky, because part of me is saying it doesn't really matter, while another part of me is saying that the DC of casters' spells relies on their attribute bonus, at the very least. You're really going to want to use the Feat variant that replaces attribute bonuses for characters, and you might want to add a "Spell Mastery" feat that increases the DC of spells cast by that character by 2. It's nice and narrow and means that the character has an emulated Intelligence bonus of +4 solely for keeping up with any mean NPCs who have managed to increase their spell defending abilities somehow.

Let me reiterate how this hack works in nice and easy steps for any interested tinkerers.
  1. Yank out attributes.
  2. Include a +2 Hero Bonus. Apply this bonus to literally everything that requires an attribute, including hit points, attack rolls, skill rolls, and saving throws.
  3. Decide whether to include attribute saving throws.
  4. If you do, write the adjective version (i.e. Strong, Tough) and apply the proficiency bonus to those saves.
  5. If you don't, decide right now whether to give the proficiency bonus to all of the saves or none. This makes heroes either slightly more durable or slightly more vulnerable to save-based attacks.
  6. Use a variant Human trait and consider the Mountain Dwarf.
  7. Use the "Feats instead of Attribute Bonus" variant and consider adding a "Spell Mastery" feat that increases spell DCs by 2 for any spell that character casts.
  8. Bask in the glow of a slightly shorter character sheet and slightly more even characters because you're done.



[1]: I actually really, really like this level of play and wish D&D would figure out what it wants to be. I like coin-counting, expeditionary dungeon-delves where I'm trying to figure out how many rations I need and if I'm going to need to get an ox-cart to haul supplies and setting up base camps to retreat to at night. I like spiking doors and counting the hours left on my oil supply. What I don't like is when D&D forgets what it is and pretends it's something it's not. 5e does a pretty good job, actually, barring a few odd examples like the Outlander's complete removal of any need to forage, and some of the variant rules in the DMG that don't make any sense. It's certainly doing better than the last two editions, at any rate.

[2] What I'm trying to say here is that your class is self-defining and attributes don't do anything about that. Wizards are almost unarmed but cast spells. Paladins wear thick armor and smite their foes. Slight differences in attributes mean very little and edge cases, like a gnome ranger with 8str and 10 dex, are signs that either its creator is attempting a joke at the expense of their fellow players, that the rules of the system are not understood, or that they're attempting something extremely unorthodox intentionally as some sort of challenge or statement. None of these goals are harmed by what boils down to a standardization of attributes, unless I am misunderstanding something.

[3] This I expect to be a matter of personal preference, since one of the reasons that people like D&D is that it gives them something to build around by handing them problems to solve, i.e. "how do I make this gnome barbarian good" and all that. That's fine, but I feel like 5e isn't the right game for that anyways. The classes are all straightforward and the feats are compartmentalized in such a way that I have a hard time envisioning alternate and unusual ways to make something work. Instead, 5e tries its hardest to tell you "high wisdom is just plain better for clerics" and hammers it home by having half of your class abilities and all of your spells working off it and then limiting your attributes anyways so the only real benefit of having a high wisdom race is being able to hit that magical number 20 faster and then you have to improve else anyways, or else grab a feat (if you can.) I really like this. Some, surely, do not.