Sunday, July 31, 2011

Inspirational Pictures--Hellfrost Campaign

I decided to look up some inspirational pictures on the good old internet for my Hellfrost campaign.  I was also digging around for a bit more of the potential underpinnings of the setting.  Stories pop into my head fairly easily, but its the texturing of details into the story that (hopefully) moves things from my "throw pop culture fantasy stuff into a blender" approach to making the setting work a bit better for the players.

Trust me when I say, however, that I harbor no illusions of being anything more than an enthusiastic hack with some dice and some really fun players.

At any rate, upon looking up what the southern Hearthland countries would be like, especially New Asper in Aspiria, it came up that, since it was built quickly and deliberately after the last in a series of really bad events in the setting, New Asper was compared by one of the people discussing this with me to the Bastides of France, which were towns built in previously wilderness areas, designed and implemented largely by a single driving force, rather than being towns that sprung up piece by piece over time and designed by multiple settlers.

Currently, in France, many examples of medieval structures that have survived to the present day have been buildings in settlements that started out as Bastides.  So I looked up some of these for inspiration on how New Asper would look.

I'm fairly certain the metal signs are much more modern than the buildings, but I kind of like those as a kind of anachronistic indicator that "could" have existed in a more fantasy style setting.

If it weren't for that darn modern street in front of it, that's a darn fine example of what watch towers might look like in the type of city I'm trying to present.

I like the above as the type of wall that you would see constructed from the native stone of the area, fairly quickly, without too much time to work the stone.   Plus, it gives the dwarves something to complain about, what with the stone not being symmetrical and visually pleasing.

A good old fashioned town square along with a well.  Makes a GM wonder what could fall into or crawl out of a well like that, doesn't it?

Hooray for fortresses built to conform to the natural contours of the wilderness.  That adds lots of character for the appearance of ye olde fortress.

I just liked the above picture for picturing people walking and discussing important matters that must be done in the more idyllic confines of the town, before venturing out into the savage wilderness.

Now, the other thing I was looking for was some inspirational pictures of the cultures that the Finnar are based on.  I could have done some digging for Engro, Saxa, and Inari, as well, but I think people already have images in their heads over Roman, Norman, German, Norse, and Romani culture.  On the other hand, I'm not sure that Sami nomadic people  (also referred to as Lapplanders, but I didn't realize that some Sami people consider that an insulting term used by other Europeans) conjure a specific image.

I knew from reading some material on Vikings and Germanic tribes that they often considered the nomadic Sami people to be dabblers in the supernatural, ascribing things that RPGs usually assign to witches, druids, or rangers to these folks.  Other than that, the culture seems to have a lot traits that are similar to, yet distinct from, Nordic, Germanic, and even north american Inuit cultures.

On to the pictures:

I thought this was a good picture to get an idea of the nomadic aspect of the culture.

I noticed a lot of colorful clothes, especially bright blues and the primary constituent color.

Lots of red accents as well.

The above are some accent pieces from clothing.

Apparently, the above was from a movie about Sami culture that was, translated, called Pathfinder.  Strangely, not about Native Americans fighting off full plate wearing horse mounted Viking invaders at all.

The above is a Sami actress in some period accurate dress, which seemed fairly worthwhile to throw onto the pile.

Another film about Sami history, and given how well I pay attention, it could very well be from that "yet another use of the name Pathfinder" movie I pinched the picture from above.

The final picture, above, came up when looking up information on the Sami, and I thought it was a nice piece to show the encroaching winter of the Low Winterlands in the Hellfrost setting, which a lot of the Finnar people would be traveling across in their nomadic wanderings.

Also, just as I was concluding this post, the following came through on Thwipster:

Thwipster Deal of the Day: Northlanders--Sven the Returned

So, now I had to pick that up as well, especially since I've been diversifying my comics reading.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It's Comic Book Day! #10 Yes It's Late, But After the Next Temporal Anomaly It Will Have Come Out On Wednesday!

Despite the tag line, we're not chatting about temporal anomalies this week.  Nope.  This week I'm thinking of digital distribution models and how this effect comic books.

Recently I had a free trial month for Marvel Comic's digital comics site.  Originally, I had a really hard time figuring out what I wanted to look at, because, I'll admit, a lot of modern Marvel titles leave me cold.  However, after settling into how the site works, I actually have to admit being really tempted to get a monthly subscription to this site.

Marvel Digital Comics Subscription Page

You can purchase digital comics, or you can read them online, and Marvel is starting to build up their back catalog in digital format.  For $60.00 a year, you can read all of the offerings that Marvel manages to put up on the site, including the whole backlog.

Now, they don't have everything up in their old catalog, and they don't hit every new comic when it comes out, but honestly, for five bucks a month, you can check out anything you might be iffy about.  That's a pretty good deal.  You can't do it when you aren't online, and you don't get your own copies on your own computer, but hey, you get to read the story and look at the art for five bucks a month.

Now, anyone that knows me knows that my heart really lies with DC characters.  So let's look at what DC has going one on their digital side of things.

Well, first off, DC comics, in digital form, are available on ComiXology.  Why, no, they don't have their own proprietary site.  Why do you ask?

DC Comics Store at ComiXology

On that site, you have a hit or miss collection of modern era books and a few really old Golden Age books, lots of gaps in between, and you have to purchase them all separately.  All of the "old" comics, i.e. the one's not released on sale date for the same price as the cover price of the physical books, are released at $1.99.

If DC seemed more committed to their back catalog, I might be happier with this approach.  For example, today I saw someone reference Mongul, and I wondered if DC had Superman Annual #11 on the site.  I probably would have picked that one up for the sake of warm fuzzy childhood memories.  Nope.  What about the pre-Crisis Doug Moench Batman stories that I loved?  Nope.

I point out Batman and Superman because, well, let's face it, whose catalog do you really want to get fleshed out.  And I don't know how important other people consider Moench's pre-Crisis Batman run  (its one of my favorite runs of Batman/Detective from my point of view), but Superman Annual #11?  It's one of the best Superman stories ever, written by none other than Alan Moore!  With Dave Gibbons art no less!

I will say, without reservation, I might go as high as $15.00 bucks a month if I could do the same thing with a site filled with DC comics that I can with Marvel.  If they showed a commitment to putting up the rest of their catalog, at least.

Divorcing the discussion from characters, stories, or reboots, I think that at this point in time Marvel is just a better run company.  They may do stupid things  (really stupid things), but they somehow gloss over those stupid things with the next shinny thing, and move on.  DC seems to make a mistake, trip over it, apologize for it, make the mistake again, remind everyone that they made the mistake just about the time everyone forgets about it, etc.

I'm hoping that someone at DC is, for once, really looking to copy Marvel, but not for storylines or crossovers, but just basic business model.

Hell, DC would still get some of my money after their "not a reboot" with this model, and if I was paying a flat rate, I might even take a look at some of the "not a reboot" titles.

Perchance, to dream.


Because I've heard a lot of good things about the title, and because it was on sale on Thwipster, I picked up the hardcover collection of Invincible, so I'll be looking forward to checking out this title.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Off the Grid

I have a love/hate thing going with tactical movement, minis, and play mats.  When 3.0 first came out, I was actually pretty excited to having minis more integrated into the play experience.  I thought that adding tactical movement, rules governing movement and positioning, and the like really added something to the game that had not previously been emphasized, that being actual tactics.

After reading way too many novels about heroes spinning around and looking for the perfect spot to stand to defeat their opponent, maneuvering for the high ground, fighting back to back, and flanking opponents, I was thrilled that you could actually do these things in game.

Years later, I'm less enamored of the idea.  It was fun for me, but it also created a lot of rules that I'm not sure needed to be invented in order to make sure that the concept of representational combat was fully integrated into the ruleset.

The more I thought about it, the more some of my best free form GM moments came from not having a grid and minis to show exactly where everything was.  Heck, the d20 tendency to have different sized creatures take up a standardized square actually turns rooms that would be, in real life, fairly large, into claustrophobic nightmares.

The limits of the play mat really hit me last year or so when I had a player with a sniper character concept in Star Wars Saga.  I wanted to draw spectacular maps, and provide cover and terrain and elevation and the like.  However, there is no way I could have drawn enough map to give the sniper what he really needed.

In fact, Saga, while less "fiddly" about movement and provoking rules than other d20 games, still suffered from everything being defined by the grid.  Oddly, I've yet to see the grid that could handle the functional ranges of a lot of the weapons in the game.  It created an odd dichotomy for me, where I had to write out where the long range types were on graph paper with distance notes, and then have the nice detailed map for the melee and pistol types.

That was when I really started wondering what it would be like to go back to the days of my youth and ditch the play mat.  I never did it in Star Wars Saga, because I didn't want to disappoint any players that might have been banking on their character taking various movement and position based abilities, or that just didn't want to mess with the rules as presented.

I also noticed that it contributed to my aversion to "on the fly" combats in Pathfinder.  I hated drawing maps off the top of my head, so I tried very hard to figure out every possible combat in a given scenario, which led to me creating a ton of maps that I never used, because I wanted to be prepared.

When I first started planning my DC Adventures game, I was very excited, and somewhat scared as well, because I was going to go off the grid for the first time in years.  For a while, I pondered looking into the optional minis rules in the Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition Mastermind's Manual.  In the end, I realized I wanted to take the plunge.

Amusingly I had one player as how not having minis or a tactical map was going to work.

So far I have had a blast.  I think a lot more game time is dedicated to telling a story and playing the game when I don't have to whip out maps and minis and I spend a lot more prep time working on story and background than on maps that I'm never happy with when I draw them myself.

I liked it so much that I've floated the idea to my players in my Hellfrost game of using the "without minis" rules from the Savage Worlds Deluxe PDF.

I'm not saying that play mats and minis are bad.  I am saying that I feel a bit more free as a GM when I personally don't use them.  Sometimes it's good to isolate your own strengths and weaknesses and learn how to live within them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Games in Review, July 18th, 2011

First off, I'm being really bad and posting this while I watch Alphas on Sy Fy  (obligatory ugh for the stupid name).  I'm still figuring out what I think of the series.  I kind of like it, but I still feel like it's early to make a judgement on it.

Also, I'm bad.  I haven't posted pictures of my DC Adventures game for a while, but at the same time, I don't have much to post.  With my old Pathfinder campaign, I was drawing maps, using minis, and using handouts.  My DC Adventures game is pretty much without minis of any sort, and if I need any kind of tactical representation, I fall back on good old fashioned graph paper.

As far as handouts and the like, a lot of that has been ousted by my use of Epic Words to post recaps and downloaded files:

At any rate, on to the recap!

After the horribly dangerous and convoluted place the PCs were in on Paradise Island, this week was somewhat less stressful.  We began with the group planning their new headquarters, funded, rules wise, by all the players contributing power points, but funded "in game" by Paradox's millions.

The thought process is that the group would like to have a headquarters that isn't directly funded or built by the government, even the DMA and Steve Trevor.  Mainly productive meeting of the group to discuss the new HQ, although Fahrenheit and Myrmidon have their heart's set on a "staff" including exotic dancers, and Beorn remaining insistent that the HQ be away from the metro area of Central City and be near the local forest preserve.

Marathon was especially resistant to the "college girls trying to make a living" working at the HQ due to the fact that he's decided to ask his ex-wife and daughter to move into the HQ so he can keep an eye on them and keep them safe.

The next part of the session had to do with the group meeting their new Central City PD liason, Detective Arnold Mazlo, just out of retirement in the Coast City PD and moved to Central City for a nice, quiet job advising the New Guard  (the name that the group has more or less settled on).

What followed was a lot of fun.  Mazlo was actually the android Amazo disguised as a retired cop, and I played up the "not quite understanding human interactions in a comfortable manner" aspect of the android personality.  The group got suspicious, and Necromancer and Myrmidon teleported to Coast City to investigate.

Mazlo took the New Guard for beer and pizza  ("I have found that tense social interactions can often be defused by having the parties involved enjoy beer and pizza together").  Fahrenheit was actually completely sold on Mazlo once beer and pizza were mentioned, but Necromancer and Myrmidon found Mazlo's corpse, and all Hell broke lose.

The highlights of the fight include Amazo ringing Marathon's bell  (almost, but not quite KOed in one shot, the worst injury he's taken in the campaign, especially since the character is actually built to primarily take damage), Amazo taking nine wounds/bruises before going down  (and rolling four 1s on Toughness checks during the fight), and Paradox throwing Beorn, in bear form, ten stories in the air to hit Amazo while flying . . . twice.

All six heroes ganged up on Amazo and managed to bring him low, then proceeded to take out all of their frustration on him repeatedly, pounding him to components and then taking his head to STAR labs to be decrypted  (using Paradox's shiny new security clearance as ranking DMA member).

The party also wanted to follow up on the Black Hand killing them triffle, so they did some poking around in Waller's files, had Necromancer perform some rituals, and tracked Black Hand down.

Black Hand was a short fight, given that he's only a PL 11 character, but with some serious connections on the cosmic level.  He tried to get the party to kill him, then tried to kill himself, but the group snared him in Fahrenheit's heat constructs, took his cosmic rod and his Black Lantern ring, and shuffled him off to Coast City to the authorities  (not wanting to take him back to Belle Reve and put him in Waller's reach).

In Coast City, Paradox had a strange compulsion to sit down and write a report about everything the New Guard knows about the Reckoning, and then forget he wrote the report, while Marathon and Myrmidon flew to the Zandian bunker to stash the Black Lantern ring.

Hooray, plot threads!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition

I didn't get to do much with Mutants and Masterminds in 2nd edition, but I really liked the sourcebooks and the setting.  It kept my interest enough that when DC Adventures was announced to be part of Mutants and Masterminds 3rd edition, I was really excited.

Now, I've had a chance to run this system for months now, and I have had some thoughts on the game.  The short form is I am really digging the system.  For me, personally, the d20 trappings are deceptive compared to how the game plays  (I have, both in real life, and online, still seen a lot of people concerned that it is d20 supers, and it really doesn't play like a d20 game, other than, you know, rolling a d20 and adding a number to beat a DC).

However, just because I'm digging the game doesn't mean I'm 100% happy with the game.  There are a few little nagging bits that get to me from time to time.

Fiddly Bits Here, But Not Here . . .

Some powers have insane amounts of fiddly extras to add onto the power.  It becomes confusing in many places why you need to add those extra, because it's not always self-evident why you would add that extra, at least until you see a sample build from either the GM's Kit, the DC material, or the Threat Reports.

Even then, some of those extras don't seem to be applied uniformly.  I understand this, as the game is set up as a toolbox where you can build the same type of character in many different ways, and I respect that.  On the other hand, it does make me wonder if you need quite so many extras.

To give two examples of "non-fiddly" and "fiddly," if you take flight, for example, as a power, you can fly, hover in the air, whatever.  If you want your character to have a flaw where they have to maintain forward momentum to keep in the air, you would add it as a quirk or a limited flaw.

On the other hand, senses have a ton of extras that make my eyes glaze over when I try to figure out what needs to be added to the given sense power to make it do what it's suppose to do.  Acute, analytical . . . why do we need all of those extra, especially on senses.  And when compared to flight, why wouldn't you just assume if you can use a sense, you can use it to do "super" things, and then just "flaw" it down if you need to alter the sense?

These aren't the only powers that seem to have a bunch of fiddly extras that could just be assumed to be part of the "main" power unless you apply a flaw, but they spring to mind as the ones that are among the most confusing to me.

Action Economy Strikes!

One thing that Mutants and Masterminds does still share with it's d20 forbears is that action economy is king. If you want to run the traditional scene where your team of heroes fights a single powerful bad guy, be prepared to see that bad guy potentially taken down hard, especially if he has a few bad die rolls.

This isn't a bad thing.  It's a super-hero game, and you want the good guys to win.  On the other hand, sometimes you don't want bad die rolls to take your guy down before you pummel the Hell out of your heroes and make them wonder if they really will win.

Now, the core book does mention, for example, giving your players hero points for your bad guy to pull off things they wouldn't normally pull off.  That having been said, more guidelines on how and when to do this might not be bad for a new GM.

Which brings me to . . .

Guide me . . . 

Both the DC Adventures Hero's Handbook and the Mutants and Masterminds Hero's Handbook have information on how to run a game, and how the rules work, but I really think the game will benefit when the Gamemaster's Guide comes out, which, while we know it's in the works, is still in limbo as far as knowing when the product might see publication.

More example bad guys, more advice on how to have your villains "cheat" by giving PCs hero points, more generic villain types  (and minion types, and animals . . . ), and advice on how to run big scenes where one baddie keeps the player's at bay would be great.

To be continued . . . (well, not really)

As I said earlier, the criticisms that I listed above are by no means deal breakers.  I really like the game, and for the most part it runs pretty smoothly.  I like the mindset behind the game, and the flexibility.  I just get the feeling that the actual rulebooks that have come out so far are really bare bones as far as running the game, and that some of the powers have a lot of moving parts that are a throwback to earlier, more fiddly versions of the rules.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Random Thought of the Day . . . Space Prison!

On the Atomic Think Tank forums for Mutants and Masterminds one of the posters was soliciting ideas for the names of space prisons.  I threw a few ideas out there, but now that I did, I really, really like one of them that I came up with:

Schrodinger's Rock

The idea is that the Rock is out of phase between two dimensions.  The only way to enter the prison is with a special device to attune the visitor to the exact point between the two dimensions where the prison fully exists.  Schrodinger's Rock appears as a ghostly fortress on both dimensions that it phases between, but cannot be interacted with without the proper device.

Now that I came up with this idea, some day I have to use it.  Perhaps it sucks and I'm just enamored of it because it's late at night and my judgement is lacking.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It's Comic Book Day! #9 Geeks: The Next Generation

As I am writing this up, I'm looking over at the stack of items my daughter has been reading today.  She has in her stack the trade paperbacks of The New Teen Titans:  The Judas Contract and Teen Titans:  The Future Is Now, as well as the hardcover compilation of Green Lantern:  Secret Origins.

I'm so thrilled by this that I'm almost able to forget the following:

Doing a great job with this reboot DC.  Way to make an impact on the next generation of comics fans.  (The image is from the cover of Red Hood and the Outlaws #2)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Postmortem: Pathfinder

For anyone still around that remembers my old blog, I did a postmortem on Star Wars Saga when that campaign ended, pointing out my observations on the system, what I liked, and what rubbed me the wrong way.  I'm going to try and stay focused on this Pathfinder one, because it's a huge system and in many ways carries with it lots of stuff from 3.0 and 3.5 as well.

The End of The Beginning

Not counting 3.0 and 3.5, I've run a campaign using the Pathfinder Beta rules  (my Rise of the Runelords game that never survived out of the Skinsaw Murders) and my Pathfinder RPG game  (Council of Thieves, up to 9th level characters and through the Infernal Syndrome).  I've also played up to 7th level in the Legacy of Fire AP, 4th level in a Pathfinder version of the Shackled City AP, and 5th level or so with a character in Pathfinder Society.  I also have run a few Pathfinder Society games under Pathfinder RPG as well.

So, on one hand, I've played a good amount of Pathfinder.  One thing you might notice, however, is that the highest number in that  whole bunch is 9th level.  I think that is kind of telling.  It's hard to put your finger on exactly when it happens, but I do think at some point you loose the wonder of "one more encounter" so that you can level and do something new and cool, and where you start to realize you HAVE to do X, Y, and Z or the system will kick your ass, or the GM is going to be doing a lot of tap dancing around the expected flow of the game.

Been Here Before?

Before I delve too much further into this, I wanted to look at some of the 3.0/3.5 games and see where I ended up.  I had a game that died at 5th level, and ones that reached 7th level, and 13th level.  I also played in games that got up to 4th level or so and up around 7th level, as well as a bunch of one shot adventures at various levels, usually around 5th to 9th level.

First, to describe the 13th level game.  That was a game with a group of people playing at a private venue, with me having a metric ton of house rules.  I don't like being that guy, but the higher the level the campaign rose, the more I felt I had to put some damage control out before a train wreck could happen, so my list of house rules got longer and longer.  No one objected, but I didn't like it.  It wasn't that I thought my house rules were unfair, and I tried to make sure everyone knew about them and had a copy before I implemented them. 

Part of what contributed to not wanting to be the house rules guy had to do with reading message board posts.  I read one particular contributor to a site that made a really compelling argument that when people sign on to play a game, and they aren't your buddy, and you don't know them all that well, what is bringing them to the table is the game itself, and the further you deviate from that, the more you are asking them to trust you as a GM, when they may not have much experience to base that trust upon.

This became even more important to me when I started running games at the FLGS, and especially when I was running Pathfinder Society scenarios.

I mention all of that in order to point out that I don't think that the 13th level game would have reached that level if it weren't a home game where I had a huge stack of house rules going into the game.  Too many gonzo spells, prestige classes, magic items, and feats towards the end of 3.5 for me to have juggled it all had I not chopped up and mutilated the options allowed.

Even with all of those house rules in place, we actually had a fight with a band of demons at the high end of the campaign that lasted over half of a marathon 8 hour session.  The fight was fun in its own way, but somehow that really didn't seem like the way to go.  I don't even run sessions at the FLGS that could have encompassed the timeframe of that fight.

Part of what Pathfinder was suppose to do was to streamline the problems above, and balance the game out a bit better.  The problem is, getting up around 7th to 9th level, I'm still seeing the same problems that I saw in 3.5, although I have to admit, some of those problems were exacerbated by the same problem 3.5 had . . . namely, rules supplements.

Something New

Before I dive into this section, I'd just like to say that I don't blame any player for taking this option.  Honestly, unless a player is being troublesome or trying to pull a fast one on the GM by doing things without explicitly explaining what he is doing, the players operate in the parameters set by the GM, so ultimately, if you allow something as a GM, you've only got yourself to blame for problems that come up.

Disclaimer in place?  Good.  I hate paladins in Pathfinder.  When I first read the description of smite, I thought it was a mistake.  The original argument was that paladins, when they smite, would use their smite, and if they missed, it was gone.  Why would your god want you to smite something, then let the ability fade just because you swung wide?  I get that argument.  That is actually an easy fix.  Your smite lasts until you actually hit your opponent.  Hooray!  Game design is fun.  Wait . . . what?  The fix is that you smite an enemy and from that point on, until it dies, you get your smite for every single attack?

And on top of that, you gain your charisma bonus to your AC as well?  And you do double smite damage to undead, dragons and evil outsiders?  I can't say that paladins were that bad in 3.5, but I can say that this new rule was very annoying.  At low levels, it wasn't too bad, but from mid level on, it became very tiresome.  Not only is the paladin likely to dish out some insane extra damage, but he's a fully armored class that gets yet more of a boost to his armor class when doing his job in the party.

It it weren't for the fact that paladins can be a pain to play due to alignment, there would be almost no reason to play any other martial classes.  I realize that combat in d20 systems can be swingy anyway, but a crit by a paladin can easily come up often enough that your BBEG never, ever get a chance to shine, especially if they are built more for endurance (hit points) than defense (armor class and movement).  

Something Old

Magic items and wealth continue to be the greatest issue in d20 games that I have played.  It's hardwired into the system that you will need boosts to your ability scores, armor class, and ability to harm an enemy that you will not get from leveling up.  On the other hand, I've noticed that there are a lot of flaws in the logic of assumed wealth per level.

We'll skip the "PC died and replaced by a new one issue."  Pathfinder actually addresses this by noting that you should either bring the new PC in with no wealth or use the wealth of the old PC, rather than stat up the new PC with their own level appropriate gear, to keep from inflating the party.  Good move on Paizo's part.  

The problem is that any expensive magical gear counts as part of your wealth per level, and some magic items can be wildly effective in some places, and worthless in others.  "We can fly" can completely negate an encounter, or it can be a needed ability when dealing with a creature like a dragon that can fly itself, and is constantly out of range of most of the party.  

Add to that the weird quirkiness of what harms some higher CR creatures, and you have a mess where PCs always want more because they always feel like, even at the proper wealth level, they are under equipped and need to sell and trade off for the next encounter.

What do I mean by the quirkiness of higher CR creatures?  Keep in mind, I'm actually a fan of the "golf bag," i.e. having lots of different weapons that harm different creatures.  It's a genre staple for monster hunters to have a whole bunch of specialized gear to deal with different threats.  The problem is, Pathfinder  (and 3.5 before it) has some wonky requirements.  Are devils hurt by silver?  Most are, but lots of them also require a holy weapon as well.  Can I cleave into a golem with an adamantine weapon?  Well, probably, but it should be magical as well.  Demons?  Cold iron, magic, and holy would help, just to be on the safe side.

The problem is, once the above weapons have to be magical as well as composed of a special material, and holy to boot in some cases, you are talking about a major, major investment in gold if you don't have a campaign "theme" locked in where the PCs aren't likely to meet certain types of monsters.  On top of that, once you spend that much on a weapon, why not just save up for a weapon with enough plusses to overcome the whole she-bang?  Sure, it kills the flavor you were trying to create, but it makes more sense in the overall game.  

"This monster can only be harmed by a blessed, silver, magical weapon, or by what we like to call the magic of greater plusses."

Action Economy

This is another one that you don't really see biting you in the rear until you get up to higher levels.  However, once characters can swing multiple times, things do start to slow down.  If that were the only issue with action economy, however, dealing with the slowing game wouldn't be so much of a problem.

However, Pathfinder has also introduced new spells and the like that allow for extra actions  (Blessing of Fervor) as well as immediate action casting.  If only one of these factors were in play, it, again, wouldn't be quite so bad.  But when you have one character adding actions to other characters, and another player taking immediate actions, and several characters with multiple attacks, some of which might have been criticals . . . things slow down.

Not to mention the fact that one monster against a group normally has a problem with action economy  (i.e. they take one action to the party's four to six or so).  When you add extra movements and actions on top  of that, you can almost never have one monster as a credible threat to a whole party unless its wildly out of sync with what the party should be facing, or that monster has been heavily tweaked by the GM.

(Note the recurring theme:  The system can work, if you have a GM that invests a LOT of time in the system. And I mean a lot.)

Let Me Sum Up

1.  Low level is fun for the GM, somewhat fun for the players.

2.  Mid-level is pretty fun for the GM and the players.

3.  Starting around 7th and building up to about 9th, the game gets to be a pain.

4. Paladins are way overpowered if you use evil creatures as any kind of dramatic encounter.

5.  Magic item shopping is built into the game, and has to happen unless you do a lot of work as a GM to work around it, but it grinds the game to a halt and tends to really harm suspension of disbelief. 

6.  Supplementary material makes all of the above worse and adds in even more trouble, like:

a.  Immediate actions on a regular basis

b.  Fiddly point based systems that are more trouble then they are worth  (Summoners and their Eidolons)

c.  Spells and class abilities that allow characters to do things the baseline game doesn't normally assume  (door sized walls of force, daily commune spells, pit spells in areas that can't reasonably fit them but should because they are extra dimensional spaces, etc.)

I Want To Be Wrong

I will fully admit, I want to really like Pathfinder.  A lot of what drove me over the edge were the options in Ultimate Magic that swung from "useless" to "obviously better than anything in the core."  I fully admit that it could be a deficiency in my own GMing style that has failed to overcome some of the above problems.

I really do welcome discussion on this.  I don't want to argue, but I am willing to look at other points of view, but I will point out one last thing:  I am really looking at this from a "very very minimal house rules" point of view, meaning that most rules have to work on an "on/off" paradigm, not a "use it but use it this way that is slightly different" way of working.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Games in Review, July 11th, 2011

Can't say that I have too much to report this week.  Since I ended my Pathfinder game, last Thursday was the character creation session for my Savage Worlds Hellfrost game.  I'm fairly certain we have six of seven characters nailed down, and I'll do some follow up on the characters after my DC Adventures game tomorrow night.

I was going to snag a copy of all of the character sheets so I have them for references  (especially important in games where taking flaws or drawbacks is part of the game, so Mr. GM doesn't fall down on his "make the character's life interesting" part of the job), however, I wanted to make sure everyone had settled into their character decisions before I do any collecting, so I should snag these after our first session next Thursday.

I'm only just now getting an idea of what we are doing, since I wanted to see the characters we had before I narrowed down what part of the setting I was going to use.  Brand new to actually running in the setting, so I wanted some way to narrow down my options.

More on things as they develop, but I'm starting to get some exciting ideas on what to do in this campaign.  Hopefully I can pull it all off in a way that is entertaining to the group as a whole.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reboot versus Paradigm Shift: The Logic of Comic Book Companies

Newsarama posted an article that posits a change in the overall logic of comic book numbering here.  In it, they propose that if comic book companies think that higher numbers scare away people looking for a "jumping on" point, perhaps each "volume" or year of a comic book's run should start the numbering process over again.  I've got problems with that, but it brings to mind something I posted on my old blog a few years back.

There are several problems that modern comic book publishers cite often:

1.  Numbering causing issues with figuring out when to jump onto a series.

2.  Continuity issues.

3.  Strong series dropping off in readers over time.

What I posited a few years back, and what I'm reminded of upon thinking of DC talking about making dramatic moves, is to honestly change how business is done in the comic book industry.  Dark Horse has already moved in this direction with many of their Star Wars series, i.e. the Legacy series not running past 50 issues, then continuing with that set of characters in a shorter mini-series format.

What I posited then, and I'm bringing up now, is, why have monthly comics at all at this point?  By monthly, I don't mean not having comic books come out every month in sequential order.  What I mean is, why put out comics that come out every month, theoretically in perpetuity, thus creating the driving factor of finding something to put in that comic every month?

In other words, no monthly Batman comic, where you have a really strong comic arc, some filler issues, a so-so arc, then a horrific arc, and a dramatic shift in creative team to keep sales up because of a drop off in interest.

Instead, you publish by the story.  Someone comes to you with a great storyline.  You figure how many issues it would take to publish said storyline, then you publish it.  So writer X comes to you with what seems like a 12 issue arc, and you start publishing "Batman:  Edge of the Coin," a year long epic with Two-Face at its heart.

If no one has another great Batman arc ready to go by the end of this arc, no new Batman story.  Batman is just an example, but the point is, you have a good story, you publish that story.  Someone else gets you a good idea for another story, you publish that.

Someone gets you a good Wonder Woman arc, but no one knows what to do with her after that awesome story arc?  Guess what?  You don't have to worry about it, because she doesn't have to have a ongoing monthly format.  Six months later, if the same writer has a great idea for a follow up, there you go!

So how does this address the above?

1.  The mini series renumbers at each story arc, thus providing a natural jumping on point with clear delineations.

2.  Continuity issues are alleviated because the story arcs are naturally self contained.  If you have a Justice League arc that you start while you have a Superman and Batman arc going on, you should have the ability to very clearly figure out where the arc fits in terms of your other story arcs, instead of juggling several monthly series that are all ostensibly going on simultaneously.

3.  Some of that drop off of readers is due to the feeling that a series has reached a crescendo, a peak, and once a story arc ends, going back to the shorter arcs is a bit of a let down, almost like an acceptable time to move one.  If every arc is self contained, you have more investment in that particular limited series.

I could be way off base here, and indeed, there are great one shot stories, and this paradigm does make it harder to present those.  My solution to that would be to have an ongoing comic like DC Showcase or similar comics where you can do good single issue stories. 

This could be a horrible idea.  I could be foolish to even conjecture to go this direction, but I do think it might cut down on what seems to be the biggest culprit of both cluttered continuity and reader burnout . . . the filler issues that are born of needed to produce product on a monthly basis.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Games in Review, July 4th, 2011

Yeah, I skipped this last week.  I was still reeling a bit from the end of my Pathfinder campaign to post about that particular session, but I'll recap that one here as well, since our Thursday night game didn't go off last week, and it will round out to two games recapped in this particular installment.

End of an Era

The Second to last Pathfinder session found the party outside of Liebdaga the Twin's chambers, and the party was casting spells and buffing themselves in preparation, waiting to answer the last riddle on the doors before they opened and they fought Liebdaga.

The group had Liebdaga's soul object, and had shut down all of the cooling towers, so the pit fiend was saddled with five negative levels and was staggered.  Staggered is frustrating for a GM.  The bad guy either has to tear into the nearest good guy, or they have to charge, or try to move towards someone without being able to do anything else.

I wasn't trying to kill any party members, and in fact, in the end, Liebdaga did take out our dwarven fighter/ranger/Hellknight and our half-elf investigator rogue.  In the end, however, I would have rather not killed anyone, but scared the whole party by being able to pull off some nasty effects and conditions on the group.

Can I prove that I would rather inflict conditions on the party and "do things" to them instead of kill them?  Yes, yes I can.  At the end of the adventure, there is a half-orc monk that shows up to assassinate the party, and I was having a blast with him.  He really had no real chance of killing the party, but he was tripping them left and right, charging around without provoking, getting AoO on people, and trash talking the party the whole time.

So, while Liebdaga killed two PCs, it felt like I did very little but hand out hit point damage to the PCs that ended up close to him, while the monk, who took out no one, charged around, tripped and hit multiple PCs, and it was fun.  Your mileage, as they say, may vary, but for me, the monk was actually more fun than the BBEG pit fiend, which seems wrong somehow.

In the end, with two fatalities, the PCs manage to take out a BBEG that had been foreshadowed since the second adventure, so I guess that's a bit of a resolution.

Now, on to the DC Adventures game!

When last we left our nameless band of super heroes, they landed on Paradise Island, Myrmidon had dumped Cadmus' teeth on the beach, and Artemis was ready to kill Myrmidon, with the rest of the party having no idea how to resolve this situation.

I'm really pleased with how this unfolded, because the PCs dug themselves in slightly deeper, then resolved the whole she-bang really nicely.  It was also nice that they picked up on the fact that Ares couldn't set foot on Paradise Island.

Long story short, Marathon took Steve Trevor with him to find Hippolyta and reason with here directly, Ares tried to force everyone to fight, which everyone but Steve and Javier  (the NPC pilot) resisted, Myrmidon's troops and the Amazons engaged, and Myrmidon and Artemis started beating the Hell out of each other.

Marathon, Paradox, and Necromancer all teamed up to drag Ares onto the beach, in a very comic book like moment of awesome, and Zeus shows up to lock Ares up.  Ares plays his last card, as he's done some backdoor dealing to get Isis soul, and gives her to Myrmidon as his bride, then the gods all end up locked on the other side of the gate to Tartarus.

After an amusing moment where Necromancer turned Isis back into a corpse briefly, the group ends up trying to take Isis to Black Adam rather than trying to wed Myrmidon to her, and in the end, Black Adam is happy for one more moment with his wife, Isis goes back to the land of the dead, and the group was one big happy family, despite being ready to kill each other at the end of last session.

What I really like is that while Necromancer and Myrmidon got roughed up a bit, in the end, the fight wasn't about "taking out" opponents so much as figuring out how to get Ares out of the fight as a factor and trying to reset the diplomacy clock.  It was a lot of fun, and felt very "comic booky."

After all of that, Beorn managed to hack Amanda Waller's computer, Marathon had a touching reunion with his family, Paradox, Fahrenheit, and Myrmidon went to a strip club, and Necromancer went to the Dreaming, met Destiny, and handed the dreamstone back to the new Dream.

Oh, and the party (sans Myrmidon and Paradox) found out that Black Hand may have killed them to start this whole chain of events.

"Wait, who is Black Hand's master?"

Also, Heroes and Villains Volume One was very hand.  Ares was everything I wanted him to be using him straight out of the book, and Isis was pretty impressive as well.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Near Miss: Why I Almost Checked Out 4th Edition Essentials

This isn't just going to be a story about 4th edition or WOTC, so if anyone is turned off by negative discussion of 4th edition, I'm not turning this into a WOTC bad, everyone else good kind of thing.  In fact, in light of recent gaming events in my own gaming life, its more of a commentary on the industry as a whole, especially once businesses get to a "certain level."

My biggest issue with 4th edition ever, always, was the drastic story element changes.  I was a devoted Forgotten Realms fan, and if the history of the Realms had stayed the same, had a minor tweak, or even reset back to the Old Grey Boxed set, I'd probably have been playing 4th edition for the last few years. 

Thus when my friend Gopher Dave started running a 4th edition game at his store, I got involved.  I knew that Dave wasn't using any established setting, so the story side of things wouldn't cause me any mental distress.  I had a really good time in that game, and I would have probably stayed with the campaign until the bitter end if it had not been for scheduling issues, but Dave got a bit burned out by the cavalcade of new splat books.

I'll be honest, I was a little burned by that as well.  I had an eladrin paladin, a "Defender" in 4E parlance, and when we had a dwarf fighter using Martial Power join the campaign, I felt positively outclassed.  I also felt a big red flag go up when the thought wormed its way into my brain that "I'm sure when Divine Power comes out, I'll be able to keep up."  That's wrong.  Within a few months of a new game releasing, I shouldn't be in some kind of splat book arms race to have an effective character. 

Once that occurred to me, I realized that I pretty much was just going to roleplay my crazy Eladrin paladin  (who was convinced that Corellon was his father and never doubted the honor of any other Eladrin ever) and if I sucked in combat compared to the dwarf, so be it.  Statistical effectiveness wasn't going to ruin my fun!

At any rate, I eventually had to give up the game because I had too many schedule changes that involved me not being able to show up for the game, and it's not fair to the GM to not be able to count on me showing up.  So I dropped, and in a few months, Dave mentioned that he was ending the campaign, because he was just tired of the new splatbooks and the like altering the "baseline" of the game.

(Dave, if you read this, feel free to correct me on any of this, since I don't want to ascribe words to you that are not accurate)

I kept up my subscription to the Insider, because I did have some fun building characters and modifying monsters, and I was trying to see if I could hybrid a format for Star Wars Saga NPCs.  I could see a lot that I didn't like, but I was, like any good GM, looking at how I could have restricted here or there to make the rules work the way I wanted them to work.

Flash forward to the announcement of Essentials.  My first thought was that this was 4.5.  My second thought was I wasn't that concerned by it, because I knew there would be a 4.5 version of the game that threw some experimental mechanics for the next edition of the game into the wild to see how they fly.

The problem was twofold. 

Problem One:  The online tools that I actually had grown to like were radically changed to a new format around this same time.  I liked the old character builder and the monster tools, and if I wanted any of the new content to play with, I'd have to convert to the new, less flexible tools. 

Problem Two:  While the above kept me from really looking hard at Essentials  (since I couldn't preview the material by looking at the character builder or the monster tools), it seemed like within only a few short months from introduction, WOTC was backing way off of the Essentials line completely.  Lots of products canceled and juggled around the schedule.  Lots of corporate double speak about Essentials being a separate line but also being the same line and informing design while not being a new paradigm. 

It seemed like WOTC didn't really have much enthusiasm for anything except their new board game launches, and the D&D brand was doing its bare minimum to remain alive.

Why do I mention all of this?  Transparency is great.  It's really needed in many cases to maintain customer trust.  However, being just a little bit too transparent and you don't seem as professional as you could.  But if you aren't transparent enough, people have no idea what you company is planning on doing, because nothing you say gives any clue to anything.

So I guess the fine line to walk when you are one of the big boys is to give out information that is valuable and true, do it fairly often, but make sure when you first think of a reply, that you run it through a filter of professionalism and "do I need to say it this way" before you present your comment to the public.

For our purposes today, let's just say that WOTC presented Essentials as an exciting new direction, then within a few months presented it as a short, contained line of products, and finally presented the whole D&D lines as something you buy in between board game releases.  Its a confusing, mixed message that makes it look like you really don't have a plan for your product line.