Thursday, July 24, 2014

3 Defining Features: Dungeons and Dragons 5th Basic

Here we are, presented with the 5th Edition, Dungeons and Dragons Basic set.  The Basic set is given free of charge from Wizards of the Coast's website, in a sort of generous but perhaps brilliant maneuver.  They realize people can play a stripped down D&D for free from a multitude of areas, but by giving away the Basic 5th for free, its more likely that the pool of 5th players will grow.  If the amount of people able to play 5th grows, then the paying customers will have more chance to use the material, and maybe buy more or grow brand loyalty.  Good stuff.

Defining Feature #1: D20 Base

This is Dungeons and Dragons that feels like Dungeons and Dragons.  This is accomplished by being rooted in 3.X's D20 system.  Grid combat and 4th Edition ability systems are thrown out and we go back to the evolution of 1st(through Unearthed Arcana), 2nd(through revised) and 3rd's game systems.  You have your 6 Abilities, you have saving throws(though now based on your 6 abilities), you have DC checks.  Your characters level, and have a class.  Combat is a round consisting of turns taking in initiative order.  You roll D20 to make your attacks, to make your saving throws, and to determine outcomes of various types.  You characters have hitpoints and fight with monsters to reduce one side's hit points to zero before the other.  You have armor classes and dexterity bonuses for avoiding damage.  If you've played Dungeons and Dragons, you pretty much know how it goes.

Defining Feature #2: Advantage and Disadvantage

When I read people's reactions to Advantage and Disadvantage at first, they think its just a simple re-roll gimmick.  They assume its a Savage Worlds "Benny" mechanic or some sort of Fate thing.  They are right to an extent, but what you're not prepared for is how pervasive the Advantage and Disadvantage system permeates the game.  Basically you roll 2D20.  If you have Advantage, you take the higher number.  If you have Disadvantage you must take the lower number.  You think this is mainly for combat, and you'd be wrong.  If you help someone with a skill, you give them Advantage.  If you get distracted, you get Disadvantage.  If another player inspires you, you get to use Advantage.  So much math and sub-system equations are eliminated by the use of Advantage and Disadvantage.  The best part?  It scales PERFECTLY.  In former games, if you get a +2 for helping, eventually you outlevel that, and a system has to be placed in so that at higher levels you get more.  At low levels a -2 to hit on a creature is a huge deal, but later you basically ignore it.  With Advantage and Disadvantage, they stay the same from level 1 to level 30.  Having disadvantage sucks just as much at high levels as low levels, without the need for modifiers.  Having Advantage is awesome no matter when you get it.

Defining Feature #3: Backgrounds

The new character creation system was invented to satisfy the old fans and the new when it comes to roleplaying.  A full new genre of games is very popular, and there's an argument that "story telling" games are a rejection of the miniature wargame style rules of D&D 4th.  Role Playing gets put back into the game with 5th.  When you make a character, you choose a Background.  These Backgrounds supply an origin story, a personality, an ideal to live by, and a flaw that hinders you.  Maybe you are a folk hero, a peasant that saved a town through your brave action.  Maybe you are a criminal, a forger of documents that guilds turn to for their services.  Maybe you were raised in a demon church and now reject their teachings.  Backgrounds are great and they affect your choices for skill and equipment use, and guide you in making your decisions while playing.  I can see companies making entire books of backgrounds with the random tables that help you create your character as presented in the Basic PDF.  I would buy it, and I know many others that would as well.   As presented, Backgrounds are more guidance than hard rule, but with a few tweaks you will have your Role Playing tied to your Roll Playing very easily.

3 Defining Features 01: Defining Reviews

So I have struggled for a long time on how to "review" a gaming system.

I've read reviews before, and generally they fall into a couple of categories.  I first realized this when it came to board game reviews I would watch on Youtube.  The most extensive review channel for board games is Tom Vassel's The Dice Tower.  He no longer does ALL the reviews, and for some reason I did not like the guys that help him review.  I can't just say "I don't like them" because that's too general.  They do well enough, but there was something different and I needed to find out.  What I realized is that Tom reviews games and gives you the bullet points and a good summary.  The guys that help him do "tutorial reviews" where they play the game to review it, or tell you the rules in detail... something that doesn't help me really.

So that's what I wanted to avoid.  I wanted to avoid being a tutorial writer.  My blog is generally NOT for people that are hard core into knowing rules.  I think of all my friends, I am the only frequent GM when it comes to games, precisely because no one wants to learn all those rules.  So I have to make it informitive without catering to the GM crowd.  So how do I do that?  Well I do a summary.  The problem is that I am long winded and can easily get too in detail with a summary too.  It was while reading Dungeons and Dragons 5th Ed that I came up with the idea.  I thought, "if I take out what is common between 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, that probably leads 3 real strong and different things that make 5th be 5th".  And low and behold, I got my review system:

3 Defining Features.

Do some games have more than 3 Defining Features?  Yes, of course.  Will 3 well defined features be enough to give someone the gist of a game?  I think so.  A bit of which 3 features to choose will weigh on my shoulders, but I guess that's what would make my posts different too.  People that already know the system can decide on if I chose correctly, and maybe even think about what 3 features would make their list.  More importantly, I have finally defined my review articles for games.  Now I can bulldoze my way through my gaming library and give information about all the systems I do know.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons: Art Eras

With the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, we come to the point of what I hope to be a new "look" to the game.  To me, Dungeons and Dragons' editions are represented by the artwork that was presented to me when I learned the system.  For me personally, there was the nebulous time where I had 3 different versions of the rules to cypher through.  It was when I inherited my cousin's extra book set.  In it were modules from 1st Edition, the rulebooks of 2nd Edition, and then I had my own set of "Basic Dungeons and Dragons".  The common thread to all of those was oil paintings.  In my opinion, the highest era of artistry in D&D was the 80's when the Dragonlance crew was making amazing artwork for the entire line.  Here are some examples:

The dragons in these paintings seemed real, and to this day, when I play, this is what I imagine in my head.  A sort of realistic style to a fantastic genre.  Look at the character designs.  They are rooted in what people would actually wear.  There is some historical accuracy to the pieces of armor, the clothing being worn.  Things seem to make sense(except for female armor, but at least its not metal bikinis).

When 3rd came out, I loved the artwork.  As you can see in the examples below, the team went a little bit JRPG/Comic style.  Characters wore stylish armors with buckles, straps and bags everywhere.  The weapons were very much not rooted in reality, being overly large and bombastic.  It was a huge change from what 2E was presented in the Revised edition(black books), which was encyclopedic and not very exciting.

With 3rd being as popular as it was, they continued with this art style.  We have had 15 years of this art dominating the industry now.  With 4th Edition, the art style did not get changed all that much.  With Pathfinder trying to tell everyone that they were where the 3rd Edition fans should be going, they used the 3rd art style.  In my opinion, much of what Pathfinder has put out has finally rivaled the Dragonlance stuff.

But that's 15 years of the same style, through technically 4 editions of the game(3rd, 3.5, 4th and Pathfinder).  While great, I think a change in art style really shows a fresh new start, something 5th Edition D&D desperately needs.  Here's some of the cover art.

Its got a solidness to it that reminds me of the oil paintings from the 80's, yet the character designs are still the exciting super hero kind of look to them.  There have been some scans of the inside artworks of these books, which I will not repost here, but the artwork inside is just as "solid" as the covers.  Textures, metals, stone, all look like they would feel instead of having a colored style to them like the previous.  I have to say, I approve of this.  It really is sort of blending the old with the new, which is the theme for this edition.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons/Pathfinder; Schism Explained

I'm going to try and do a semi-simple explanation with less hate and bias, but I can't help having a little, I'm not a journalist.

An Open Game

The original Dungeons and Dragons publishers finally floundered in the 1990's from bad decisions and low profitability.  The grandfather of modern fantasy gaming was dying and the upstart company, Wizards of the Coast, took the money it made off of Magic the Gathering and rescued it.  Vowing to treat it right, they put together a team of the most respected free lance content producers to create a new version of Dungeons and Dragons for the modern era.  This group of free lancers created the most free lance friendly gaming system of all time.  They pitched an "Open Gaming License", a sort of open source for the gaming world where anyone would be allowed to produce content for Dungeons and Dragons and SELL it along side official releases.  This would ensure that there was lots of new stuff to buy without WOTC being burdened with doing it all themselves.

A Turn of Events

Wizards of the Coast was bought by multi-national conglomerate Hasbro.  Hasbro has long been run by CEO's instead of gaming people for many years.  They did not understand how a company could freely give away permission to make stuff for games, and they did not understand why a company would not cancel a line that did not make $50 million a year, especially when Magic the Gathering was making over $200 million a year.  The caretakers of D&D from the 90's were bullied out or fired from the company, and Hasbro got a group of people they could work with.  They wanted new editions.  WOTC tried to tell them that new editions were not in their interest, and so they compromised and made a 1/2 edition, Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.  A few years later Hasbro had enough of the stalling, and 4th Edition was to be created.

A Change of Audience

Wizards of the Coast needed a "Hail Mary" pass to appease their employers.  Recently World of Warcraft came in and took an industry from 200,000 subscribers as the "top" tier, and turned that into 10 Million Subscribers.  WOTC would now use this as the basis for their new 4th Edition.  Unlike 1st to 2nd or 2nd to 3rd, 4th Edition would scrap much of the game and make its own.  The current audience was gambled, put on the line, to try and get a new, larger, higher spending audience.

The Great Schism

Much like the often used "schism" plot line in Dungeons and Dragons stories, there was a great split among gamers.  There have always been die hards of certain editions, but this schism was large enough to affect the sales.  The internet created a huge underground movement to keep playing 3rd Edition, and allowed them all to gather.  Hobby stores were split, and several could not even keep 3rd and 4th Edition materials in the same area for fear of arguments breaking out.

Enter Paizo

Wizards of the Coast needed to cut their waist line.  The company never put much faith in modules or magazines, but kept them around for "tradition".  They decided to sell contracts for companies to take over the duties of making these things.  A group of fans in Redmond Washington decided to make a new company for the reason of buying the rights to do these things, they called themselves Paizo from the Greek word that means To Play.  After a few years, WOTC decided to not offer the contracts out any longer, and so Paizo found itself with nothing to do, but a whole company ready to publish.

Finding the Path

Paizo looked around and saw the schism.  It was already known that 4th Edition was floundering.  Paizo got out the old book of Open Gaming License and researched it to see how far they could push this license.  In 2009 they released Pathfinder, a game that is basically Dungeons and Dragons 3rd(3.75) reborn.  Paizo put a new effort into constructing adventures and gaming aids for players.  For the first time since the 1970's, Dungeons and Dragons(in the guise of Pathfinder) was being created by players that did not have CEO's from other industries looking over their shoulder.  For the first time since it was created, Dungeons and Dragons was outsold by another RPG, Pathfinder was King.

A Turn Around

If there's one thing they can convince Hasbro to let them do, its create a new edition.  WOTC by this time had given up on 4th Edition, cutting out all publishing of material a full 2 years ahead of the announced new edition.  They went back to the drawing board, and vowed to go back to the older style of gaming.  They would release alternate versions of the rules for whatever edition you loved to play the most.  For two years they playtested and developed a new edition.  We're about to see the clash of the Titans on a common battlefield.  The new D&D was developed to compete with Pathfinder with a rejection of 4th Ed and a re-embracing of the old style game play.  People are starting to ask if Pathfinder is going to evolve and change.  Paizo made itself on the back of not changing, but will Pathfinder start showing its age?  Many believe an RPG's life is about 10 years(WOTC is pushing out new D&D's much faster lately), and the back bone of Pathfinder is past that now.  Online gaming is getting to be "normal" among many groups of players, and Pathfinder was developed without this in mind, while 5th Edition D&D does have that in mind.  It will be an eventful year.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Fairy Tale: The Card Game

Fairy Tale
by Satoshi Nakamura

Fairy Tale is a rare kind of card game where the gameplay is based upon "Drafting" a hand of cards to play.  To give a history, "Draft" gameplay began with Magic the Gathering.  You would buy several booster packs and pass them around the table.  Everyone would open a pack, choose a card and pass the pack until everyone had a pre-determined amount of cards to build a deck from.  The skill was in the knowing and utilization of the entire expansion's set of cards, and a little luck.  Fairy Tale emulates this.

The players draw a hand of 5 cards from the main, randomized deck.  Each turn they take 1 card and pass the hand to the next player.  Everyone does this until they have 5 cards.  The more players you have, the more mystery surrounds what everyone is playing.  The cards in the deck work together to perform point accumulating combos.  There are 4 colors, three of which are identical and 1 that focuses on forcing the other colors to flip their cards, or having you trade points for desired effects on your own set of cards.  It takes a little while to figure out how things work, but it is somewhat simplified in that 3 of the colors work virtually identical  to each other.

Fairy Tale is a game that can be played and enjoyed by 2 people.  I do this a lot, as I tend to play a few games with my girl on Sundays after breakfast while we relax outside.  There is less "set up" time than other card games, and much less complication to have at an outside table.  As I said before, upping the player count ups the mystery.  In a 2 player game, there is only one card per round you have no idea about, but with more there are more cards flying around, and you're not sure what you'll be getting back as cards rotate around the table.

Fairy Tale has an added complication that is both genius and confusing.  The game originally was released in Japan and all the cards had all the rules on them, but that meant they had to produce a different set for each language the game was released in.  The newest edition changes almost all text into symbols and numbers that are more universal in interpretation.  Through the use of this, they can reprint the rule book in the native language and use the same cards virtually everywhere.  It adds a little bit to the confusion of learning the game, but ultimately serves the game well.

Another cool aspect is that the cards can tell a story if you read into their artwork and their motives.  The story progression is actually a time progression and you can reveal it by looking through the artwork.  It does not serve the game very much, but its a neat little easter egg if you take the time.

Once everyone knows their stuff, its a quick game to play and quick to tally up at the end.  Its smaller on the player interaction between cards, but if you play black you CAN mess with the other players. It can be had fairly cheaply on Amazon, you might want to get some card protectors.  The cards are better than Munckin and Fantasy Flight quality, but nowhere near as nice as Flying Frog's card stock.  If you loved Draft in Magic the Gathering(as I did), you'll love the mechanics.  Also it is self contained, it is not a collectible card game, you do not need to buy expansions.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Murder: the table game by Me


There is a video game that is part of "Gary's Mod" on the Steam video game service.  In that game all the players are put into an area.  One person is designated "The Murderer" and the others are the "Bystanders".  The Murderer has a knife and can kill the other players.  Only one of the players gets a gun, which they can drop and it can be picked up by the other Bystanders.  The trick is for the Murderer to isolate the players and kill them without alerting the one with the gun.  There is no way for anyone to be able to tell who is a Bystander and who is a Murderer aside from what they say and do.

I have come up with a sort of table top game based on this.  I did a little Google searching and did not find anyone that had done this already, but it seems like such a no-brainer that I'm sure I am not the first to do it, so I claim no right of "first".

A Game of Notes

What you will need is some form of hat or bucket and several pieces of paper.  The game is separated into Rounds and Turns.  You begin a round by writing "Knife" on one piece of paper, "Gun" on another piece of paper, and "Bystander" on all the others.  You put these in the container and the players draw them.  Until all the players have had a chance to take a piece of paper, no words are spoken.  After the last piece of paper is drawn the players are free to say what they will.  They can declare they are bystanders, they can even declare they have the gun, it would probably be unwise to claim to have the knife.

Playing a Round

The players begin the round by each getting a turn to make a case for their innocence.  They may not show their piece of paper at all, unless the person with the gun wishes to use it as proof they are not the Murderer.  The choice to show the gun is up to the player, if they wish, they may hide the fact that they have the gun.

After each person has had the chance to defend/declare themselves, new paper is passed around to the players that is blank.  If the player is a Bystander(even if they have the gun), all they can write down on this paper is Innocent.  No one is yet to share what they write down.  The player with the Knife may also write down Innocent, or they may write down the name of a non-Gun holding player they wish to kill.  All the papers are folded and put into a container.  Before the papers are revealed, the person with the gun may reveal they have the gun and kill a player using it.  This is the only way to pre-preemptively stop a murder from happening and can only be done once per round.  They can also just wait and see what happens if they wish, and not kill anyone.  After the first piece of paper is revealed, the person with the gun can no longer shoot it this round.  If the Murderer tries to kill the Bystander with the gun, without anyone knowing that person has the gun, then the Murderer is shot and dies instantly losing the game.

Each piece of paper is revealed.  If the Murderer has killed someone, they leave this game.  If the Bystander with the gun killed someone innocent, the killed Bystander killed will profess their innocence and leaves the game.  If the Bystander with the Gun kills the Murderer, the game is over.  If there are Bystanders left, the game starts a new Round, repeat the steps of the Round.  If only the Murderer and the Bystander with the gun is left, the Murderer kills him or her and wins the game.  Repeat the rounds until either the Murderer kills the Bystander with the Gun, or the Murderer is dead.

There are some scenarios that players can do to be jackasses and ruin the fun.  A point system can fix this and I've wrote down a few, but I'm not sure I want to go the points route.  I think this will work good enough for some light fun.  A simple, quick rule that will encourage Gun holders to fire and Murderers to murder is that for each person dead at the end of the game, the Murderer gets 1 point, for each one alive at the end of the game the Murderer gets -1 point.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The John Doe Era: a group story building idea

I came up with an idea the other day for a Savage World game, and thought it could be used in several other games as well.

Savage Worlds has this mechanic that happens during down times(like if the group is camping for the night, or staying in a motel between cities, etc) where you invoke an "Interlude".  In the Interlude, a character is given a chance to expand their character's story and personal life out of the context of the game.  A trend that started in the Happy Jack's podcast circle of friends was that the GM would get an Interlude out of someone without them realizing they were Interluded.  Speaking from experience, it is hard to get an Interlude going without people realizing, and without that, the Interlude can feel artificial and out of place at times.

My ideas lead to me doing directed and cooperative Interludes.  I would pick something that happened in the last session and ask the player to talk about it with the group in character.  Maybe the character had questions about why someone did this or that, or why someone could not do this or that, this leads to some pretty good discussions.

The new idea, though, is something I feel is one of the best I've come up with in a while.  When explaining it, I used the name John Doe, so that's why its called the John Doe era.  I was watching The Walking Dead the other week, and in it the group skips ahead about 9 months.  You are not specifically told what happened in those 9 months aside from the fact that the group because more like a family to each other, and a whole lot of surviving happened.

I thought to myself "what if I skipped ahead a certain amount of time, and told my players that someone had joined the group and now is not a part of the group anymore".  This was the era of John.  At the interludes I would ask the person something about that time.  "its nights like this that remind of why you liked John, maybe you want to tell the group a good memory"  or "one time you saved John's life, why did you never tell the group, and what happened that day?" and after the character of John is built, I pull out the big one, "why is John not with the group any longer".  It is completely up to the players to build this character that they never played with.  It is up to the players to give him personality without the GM judging or coercing.  John could be good, he could be an asshole, he could have left over a disagreement, he could have been killed, its up to the group.

Its collaborative story telling that is out of the hands of the GM, and a lull in the action, during an Interlude or another such time in other games would be a perfect time to let the GM have a break, and to let the group control things a bit.