Thursday, December 04, 2014

On 5e: Complexity & Character-Focus

I have the first two books. I've seen the DMG but I don't have my own copy yet. I've played a fair amount (all online) and am beginning work on my own game.

So far my reaction is broadly positive. My main comment so far is that it strikes me as "old school character-centered D&D," which was definitely an open spot in the D&D pantheon.

There are at least two axes that have separated the editions that I think of as "new school" (3e, 4e) from the editions I think of as "old school" (everything else, more or less) but until now they were always paired. On the one hand, old school D&D tends to be focused on the world more than the character. Your character develops over time and maybe accretes some kind of individual identity, but they don't start out that way, and their fate is a lot more random than it is in the later games. In those, you have a lot more control over your character "build," and your dude is a lot more durable, so it makes more sense to put some effort into them up front.

This goes hand in hand with the another major difference I see between the editions, which is that the older versions are generally a lot simpler than their descendants. It's faster to build a character and easier to run an adventure. This fits with the focus on world rather than character-- if your character can die easily, then you want to be able to roll up a new one quickly, and if less of the fun of the game comes from your character being unique and special then it's less important for character creation to be complex-- but one doesn't necessarily follow the other.

5e is a very character-focused game. I have a lot of options when I sit down to make my character, and my character is pretty tough and capable. They dish out a surprising amount of damage, if you're used to older editions. But it's the first "character-centric" game where character creation didn't drive me completely up the wall with fiddly nonsense.

That's mostly because 5e strips out the complexity that's unnecessary to that goal of "making my character interesting." Individual skill points are out, and skills themselves are largely side-effects of other decisions. Feats are strictly optional-- they're relatively small modifications to your character, so the complexity cost was always a lot higher than the customization value. Instead, the character complexity comes more in big "packages" that do a lot of work for you at once: You make a couple of big decisions (which kind of fighter am I? what's my background?) that quickly narrows the focus of the small decisions you need to make down to a manageable size.

Which is, I think, a very good thing, and so far I'm glad they went in that direction. I don't always want to play that kind of D&D, but I am sometimes in the mood for it, and now I have an option that doesn't require a spreadsheet or five to build my character with.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Khans of Tarkir + Diablo II's Sanctuary

Figured I'd do a bit of public brainstorming

  • Archdemons/Prime Evils
  • Angels with mysterious agendas
  • Many races of fiends swarming over the world
  • Soul-trapping gems
  • Magical gems in general
  • Magic item crafting
  • The Church of Light
  • Corrupted jungle temples
  • Desert tombs
  • Towns built on the borders of great evil wastelands
  • Cathedrals
  • A distinct sense of East and West
  • Clans (of mixed races)
  • Steppe nomads
  • Warbands
  • Desert fortresses
  • Jungle palaces
  • Tundra encampments
  • Mountain monasteries
  • Rakshasas
  • Ancient dragon bones
  • Poison
  • Martial arts

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Absolute vs. Relative Time

How often do you actually refer to a specific date (October 1st, third day of the first moon of spring, etc.) or year in your campaign, rather than a relative date? (Next week, two days from now, next summer?)

I've used the relative time a lot but it occurs to me that even when I know the former, it doesn't actually come up in play much. In Risus Monkey's Buffy game I usually knew the exact date, but that was because it was a real historical date, (the game was set in the early 90s) and since we were college students, what holidays were coming up and whether it was the weekend or not was pretty important. Also, because we used the actual weather in the area from that date, part of the "beginning of session" ritual involved looking up and discussing the date.

In Trollsmyth's game I have no idea what the calendar date is and never have. This is partly because the pace of that game tends to be really slow, but also because, as adventurers, what I care about in terms of time is "how long until we get to the dungeon?" and "how does it take to recover from the last dungeon?" It also just doesn't come up a lot from other players/characters in the game. If Brian mentioned it at the start of every session I'd probably remember.

I seem to remember doing that in the cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic d20 Modern game I ran in high school, and I think the people who cared remembered and wrote it down. I don't know that we used it that much, in play or in talking about play, though. Same with the Arcana Evolved game I ran at the end of high school. I don't know that I've even known myself in all the games I've run since then, although that's partly because they've been rather scatter-shot. I haven't started keeping real thorough track of time in the ACKS game, but I've been keeping the notes that I'll need to go back and normalize it if/when I decided specific dates are important.

Monday, September 23, 2013

New Adventurer Conqueror King Campaign

Here's an e-mail I sent to the players in my new Adventurer, Conqueror, King game this morning. We've had one session, mostly character creation crawl and a little "oh shit! we're 1st level! this game is scary!" but they were asking a bit about the setting so I wrote some stuff up. I'm trying to take it easy and build stuff as I go with this one.

Basically, this is what I’ve got for the world so far: Sword & sorcery, ancient empires, a little more psycho-fantasy dreamscape than realistic. People use swords and ride horses, magic is around and people have heard of it but no one trusts sorcerers. Priests are a little more common (the town has one or two) but there’s a cacophony of minor gods and weird cults more than any kind of organized religion.

The town, Khujak: It’s a river town, built near where the Muar river meets the Diamond Sea, and mostly built on stilts because sometimes the river floods and then everything is terrible. It’s a trading town, where merchants pass through on their way from the civilized lands of the east to the pirate lords and barbarian kings of the west, and back again. It’s run by a man named Baron Svandir, who theoretically pays homage and tithes to the Thousand Faceless Kings, in the east, but an emissary of the Faceless Empire has not been seen in this land for more than a generation.

The area has been a crossroads of trading, empire, and barbarians for more than a thousand years, and there’s ruins of various ancient empires (the learned among you might have heard of the Hora Quan, an race of undersea vampire sorcerers, the Nephilim, men who were half angel and half demon, and several kingdoms of elves) all over, as well as, perhaps, stranger things.

Directly to the west of the town is the Black Marsh; to the the east, the Bay of Eels, with an ancient lighthouse on the other side. The Diamond Sea proper, and its many islands, is to the south; to the north are fields and forests, and snow-peaked, brooding mountains rise out of the horizon.

There’s a small library in town, funded by the Baron himself in imitation of the old ways, that copies books brought through by travellers, though its texts are often mistranslated and incomplete. The scribes there can answer general historical and factual questions, but often will have to direct you to experts elsewhere for more detailed information.

The town has a several taverns, bars, and inns, the main ones being Istvan’s Meeting House, The Stump and Claw, and The Goat’s Tavern.

What you know about what the locals call the Old Tower:
  • It was built by an empire of Men, said to be necromancers, who carried golden blades, and who conquered this area and drove the vampire sorcerers back into the sea.
  • It’s lain in ruin for several generations, but recently seems to have come under occupation by a group of goblins; goblins have been harassing travellers on the main road in that area.
  • The guide you acquired last session (Oldrich, and a friend of Art’s, mentioned below) says that goblins this far south is very unusual, especially at this time of year (late summer) but not entirely unheard of, and that they can likely be bribed or threatened into leaving.
  • The witch, Nergui, who lives deep in the Black Swamp (will mark on the map) knows a great deal about the Necromancers who built the place, and is said to be interested in objects of their power. However, the price for her help can be high, and she cannot be paid in gold.

Other News & Info You’ve Heard
  • Ancient elven priest-kings buried a fantastic treasure in the black marsh.
  • Pirates, always a nuisance, have been attacking ships in greater and greater frequencies lately.
  • The old lighthouse across the bay has recently started shining again.
  • Dreamblossom reputedly grows where things have died recently in the Black Marsh. The opium dens in town will pay a great deal for fresh pollen, but collecting it is treacherous.
  • There were reports of a huge green dragon in the forest a few months ago, but since then no one has heard any sign of it.
  • An old bridge on the Muar river, built by the Imperials, collapsed two springs ago. The Baron would like to send out a party of workers to repair it, but so far his attempts have been foiled by weather, bandits, and the river’s more exotic dangers.
  • A fortress manned entirely by skeletons lurks somewhere within the Black Marsh.
  • No one’s come through the northern mountains at all this year. One trapper, a man named Art, went north to see if he could find out what was going on, and hasn’t been seen in two weeks.
  • Any man or beast you meet in the northern mountains could secretly be a goblin in disguise.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

More on Amateur Hour

When I say that RPGs are "amateur hour" I mean a couple of different things. On the one hand that term has a pretty negative connotation-- of unprofessional-ism, etc.-- and I very much do mean that. Not just that there's a lot of badly made, badly edited products out there (although I do mean that) but also that I see, compared to other game design communities, a lack of seriousness in a lot of the RPG design discussion that goes on in various quarters.

What's the challenge of game design? Making games that are fun. What do Magic designers talk about? What different people find fun, and why, how to make cards that appeal to those people. What do RPG designers talk about? Why my fun is better than your fun. Not all of them, mind you-- but that this conversation happens at all is a supreme waste of time.

There's another side to the "amateur" coin, though, and it's that there's a lot of RPG products and content produced by people who are doing it just because they love the game, not because they have any professional aspirations. You can do that in RPGs because the physical barriers to entry are so low, and it's a good thing-- my own RPG bookshelf certainly attests to that.

Magic has consistently higher quality than 95% of the published RPGs out there-- including and really especially the professional stuff. They have a bigger budget for everything, and they're rewarded much more for "getting it right"-- for tight design and art everywhere and good visual design and good copy-editing. People have more fun, they can measure it, they get paid.

But the most interesting stuff that Magic makes isn't near half as interesting as the most interesting stuff that's come out in RPGs-- even in just the last year. Magic doesn't do weird. They don't do specific. They do well-produced, slickly-rendered, everybody-kinda-knows fantasy with a slight Magic: the Gathering twist. This has gotten even worse in the last few years, as they've gotten more successful. One of the lessons they've said they learned from Kamigawa block, their Japanese themed world, was that they should have been less specific and less culturally accurate and stuck more to what their players "know" about Asian fantasy.

Which is fine. I enjoy what Magic does, and they do it well. But I enjoy weird and specific and particular, and it makes me sad that Magic doesn't-- can't do-- more of that. One of the advantages of RPGs relative amateur-osity, is that they can do a lot more of that.

If they can quit arguing about who's way is better long enough to just do it.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What I've Been Up To

Wow has it been a long time since I posted. Some updates--
  • I play a lot of Magic now. It's basically a once a week (or more) habit. That's cooled off a little in the last couple of weeks but I've been busy with holiday stuff and a new set comes out at the end of the month so who knows.
  • I play RPGs once-or-twice a month with Risus Monkey and his crew. We're starting a new campaign and ending an old one soon so that should be fun.
  • I'm on G+ on-and-off, and I talk a lot with Trollsmyth. That's where a lot of the game thoughts that once-upon-a-time would have ended up on the blog have been going.
  • Work lately has been being on the computer a lot, doing very repetitive, computer-y tasks, so by the time I get home I am sick of it and want to be off the screen for a while.
And here's a thought:

RPG design is in a lot of ways amateur-hour, compared to the games that make Real Companies Real Money. 

Getting outside of D&D for a while and playing a lot of another (much more financially successful) game has been eye opening in that regard. There's a lot of stuff that people in Magic design know and think about and talk about that just never comes up in RPGs. Or the reverse-- there's a lot of pointless stuff that RPG people fight about that never comes up in Magic because people have better things to do with their time.

Like: different people play the game in different ways and for different reasons is basically taken for granted in Magic. When players complain about a card the standard response from the designers is "Of course you don't like it. It's not for you." Everyone with aspirations to Magic design accepts and understands this. Understanding this makes Wizards an awful lot of money, so they have an incentive.

There are still fights on the player/community level, of course. But RPGs are, in comparison, basically all player/community.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Magic 2013 Pre-Release Report

I spent most of this weekend at or recovering from Magic 2013 pre-releases. I have a great game store (Comics & Gaming in Centreville) and the Friday night post-FNM midnight pre-release was a great time. (Had to spend all of Saturday in bed or on the couch, and I'm still not fully recovered mentally, but totally worth it.) Sunday wasn't quite as good since it was mostly a different crowd and people were kinda hung over, but it was still fun, especially since I won prizes for the first time ever-- 5 packs after going 3-1 with a black/white life-linking deck. I probably could have gone 4-0 if I'd played better, but I'm still happy about that.

Some cards I liked, and am looking forward to first-picking in draft:

Rancor: I got blown out by this, Odric's Crusader, and 2 Captain's Calls in my first game on Friday night. It won't be nearly as good in draft once people learn how to counter it, but it's still sick.

Ring of Xathrid: Get this on Nighthawk Shaman or Tormented Soul and bad things will happen. Won me almost all my games.

Nighthawk Shaman: See above. Lifelink is good and it seems like there's a lot of it in draft. Paired with evasion and removal and it wins games. Nighthawk gets you the whole package.

Murder: Have I mentioned that I really like black in this set?


And a very special honorable mention to Duress, which won me my first match on Sunday. It revealed to me my control deck-playing opponent's Planar Cleansing into Stormtide Leviathan game plan, and knocked out the Planar Cleansing. Stormtide is surprisingly easy to deal with if you have a few turns to plan for it and a deck that runs 2x Murder and 1x Public Execution. Hold back a game-winning creature the 2nd game and you're good.


I'm looking forward to drafting versions of two decks I saw this weekend: A better version of the BW lifelink deck I ran Sunday, and something like the GW aggro deck I saw a fair amount of running around on Friday. So far I'm not super-impressed with Exalted, but I love almost everything else the colors do, and green has some sweet tricks going for it as well.

In general I'm pretty psyched about M13 as a draft format-- I was definitely ready for something new after like 7 weeks of triple AVR. While I made a lot of play mistakes this weekend, and desperately need to improve my ability to keep track of the board state, I also feel like I've made some serious progress in the last couple of weeks. (Perhaps due to the Duels of the Planeswalkers I've been playing on my iPad? The puzzles in particular have really helped me expand my thinking about Magic.) I'm really starting to think in terms of a game plan, and beginning to learn how and when to hold back creatures and whatnot, instead of just dropping everything as soon as it I get the mana for it.