Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. – My Take, Episode.068

After a considerable hiatus, I have returned to continue writing as I am inspired.

His decision was critical as his companions faced certain doom.  The black dragon reared its huge head in preparation of unleashing its fiery acidic breath blasting down upon the unprotected heroes.  Meanwhile the infamous necormancer, Pyrex, grinned maniacally from high above as he neared completion of his resurrection spell that would bring back the fallen the heroes had just slain.  The decision was critical or his companions were surely dead, but he couldn’t decide who to focus on…..so he brought out two pipes and played them in unison for he was the Grand Master Bard.

I am among those who resented the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast published in 2008.  Although I adored playing MMO video games such as World of Warcraft at the time, the 4th edition books felt too close to those when I wanted to play more of a traditional role playing game that reminded me of the older editions.  Perhaps I am an old man who doesn’t like change, but the game play mechanics simply did not fit my style and preference.  So I was hesitant on even giving 5th edition a try when it was released in 2014.  In took me a year before I sat down with a group to experience it for the first time.  I will say this – I am very impressed with the effort and result that Wizards of the Coast put forth in the books.  Very impressed.

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For one, there doesn’t seem to be as much necessary crunch as before.  While I would say that 3rd and 3.5 editions were built to be more of a strategic role playing game, utilizing the innovated battle maps and miniatures, 5th edition feels more akin to the 1st and 2nd editions.  These were less of a visual game play and more of the mind.  While maps were still used back then (and even pewter miniatures were frequently sold), the maps were mostly drawn on-the-fly by the players as they ventured through dungeons.  There were few times when a top-down view of the immediate surroundings was drawn and miniatures were placed strategically on the battle field.

Fifth edition allows for battle maps to be used if desired for those who enjoy or need a better visualization on how the fights are laid out.  It caters in this regard to the 3rd edition lovers.  It isn’t necessary, however, to use them, and in fact many times I have gone through entire fights without them.

Another feature that I really like is the advantage/disadvantage system.  This is a simple but very effective way for a Dungeon Master to make a challenge difficult without having to do much math on adding modifiers to a roll.  On either account, you roll 2 D20s rather than one, but depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage, you take the best or worst roll of the two.  There are still options to add the thousands of modifiers to a roll if desired, which was very common in 3rd edition, but if you wish to just give your players a little edge or challenge to their roll without having to over think it, this feature gives a quick result.  And that makes a good point in that streamline and pace, which I have talked about numerous times on how important they are, can be maintained with this feature.  Dungeon Masters need not look at a chart on their screen in front of them and hunt for the right situation modifier that will probably wind up being +1, +2, or +3 to their rolls.

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Short and long rests are a wonderful addition to the rules.  All too often the typical “rest” that a party faced in the past would result in an 8-hour stoppage of adventuring.  This would be mostly for the magic-users to regain their spells after blowing them all.  I always felt that it bogged play down and hindered magic-users a bit too much.  I would often find myself being very hesitant on casting a spell at an enemy because it was “early in the day” and I didn’t want to use up my 4 spells so soon.  Instead, we now have a short rest, typically 30 or so minutes of downtime for the characters before continuing on.  One of the classes fairly new to the list of Dungeons & Dragons game is the Warlock, which benefits greatly from this feature.  Although they are severely limited to the number of spells they can cast per day, they are given the ability to regain all of their spent spell slots after just a short rest.  This allows them to cast theoretically as many spells or more as a wizard or sorcerer if the party takes necessary short rests throughout the day.  Warlocks could then regain the spell slots right before a fight and concocting a plan of attack with whatever spells he knew.  Wizards would have been stuck with whatever they studied the night before and face possible expended spells used earlier that day.

Cantrip spells have become more useful.  Spells like Eldritch Blast now unleash considerable damage for magic-users who don’t want to spend any of their hard hitting spells but wish to contribute during common encounter fights.  There are even “bonus spells” that allow magic-users to cast more than one spell during a turn, giving them more options.

One of the most annoying rules that 3rd edition introduced was Attack of Opportunity or AOO.  This came into play when a character or opponent would pass by close enough to a target who could attack them.  There were ridiculous options and feats to this that really made players have to talk out the results on whether or not the situation even called for an AOO.  In 5th edition, AOO is only granted when an engaged combatant leaves their opponent’s melee area.  As long as they stay within that zone, they can move about as freely as they wish.  Just having to pay attention to characters leaving combat zones is much easier.

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And then there is the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I have only gotten to work a bit through.  However, what I have seen so far is even more impressive.  There is a good portion of the book dedicated to people who want to become a Dungeon Master, which is to be expected in a book like this.  I have been asked many times by people wanting to know how to step into the Dungeon Master’s chair, and this book is a great start.  It works on NPCs, which honestly is an unnecessary task of creating and working with since many times they are here-and-gone in an encounter.  Creating monsters and spells is another area that Dungeon Masters like to produce, and both are thoroughly explained in the book.  Monsters are more modular, in my opinion, being able to swap abilities among other monsters for unique experiences.  If one monster has a sting ability but you want that ability on another monster, it can be done and the calculations of its improved difficulty is a snap to follow.

There’s a section to make random dungeons on-the-fly by dice rolling.  This is almost exactly what can be found in the 1st edition.  It provides all kinds of listings that can be rolled and sought out, allowing you to not have to really give a lot of thought into whether a turn in the corridor is a good idea here or if a 10×20 foot room is needed and with what to fill it with.  If anything the book is inspirational for Dungeon Masters with a lack of experience or a lack of ideas.

In the end, we all have our own preferences when it comes to what we enjoy playing.  You may not even like the fantasy genre and focus just on RIFTS, Shadowrun, or Traveller.  You may just focus on the Weird West of Deadlands.  You may only wish to play Paizo’s Pathfinder because you still have a sore attitude towards Wizards of the Coast for releasing a “3.5” edition only 3 years after releasing their 3rd edition (even though Pathfinder plays much like 3.5 and you paid $50-60 on a book after refusing to buy the 3.5 books, thus ironically doing the very thing you said you wouldn’t do).

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Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most flexible systems I have ever played.  Wizards of the Coast allowed for gamers to voice their opinions on what they wanted in a rule book, and the publishing company actually listened and made the book for them.  The result is satisfying (and if it didn’t become successful, it was the gamers’ fault because it was their creation essentially).  You can play it like 1st edition with charts and exclusively with the mind or you can crunch it up with modifiers and battle maps like 3rd edition.

I encourage those still with hesitation from 4th edition to find yourself playing the game in the future.  Empty your mind and biased feelings of any previous editions you didn’t enjoy and focus on the features this new set of rule books has to offer.  You may be surprised and have a new system to spend your money on and clutter up your already cluttered bookshelf.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Pre-Ordering Games, Consoles, & Books Episode.056

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I’ve never really been a fan of pre-ordering things.  I feel that if you’re going to produce a product make sure you have enough for the demand, but I realize that companies don’t want to waste money by making more product than the consumer’s demand.  Pre-ordering can give them an idea of what kind of demand it is, but those are just for initial sales by people who are aware of the product’s soon-to-be existence.  Theoretically there should always be more people who will buy a product after the initial pre-order phase is complete.

Video games are by far the worst practice of pre-ordering.  I have never in my life seen a video game that sells completely out of stock the first week it is released.  There are always copies available at some store whether it’s at your local brick-&-mortar store or online at Amazon.  One way or another, you can always buy a copy of the video game you want.  Perhaps companies give you incentives to pre-order such as in-game items or extra content.  Generally these pale in comparison and quite often are released as “new content” at a later date such as a Game of the Year Edition.

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Pre-ordering things that could have bugs such as video games or other electronics is really a large gamble.  This is especially true for video game consoles.  Electronics have such a huge volume of executions that it is quite easy to have errors or bugs that pop up.  Companies may run their product through Quality Check, but the product only has so much of a window before the higher-up execs demand the product to be put on the market to start making a profit.  This can lead to rushed products that aren’t quite ready for the consumer.  This is when you find bugs.  Yet when you pre-order, you are giving those execs even more evidence to rush the product out the door: if they have $1,000,000 worth of pre-orders, they won’t see a dime of that until the product ships.  This will cause them to become greedy and encourage their company to continue to rush their product before it’s ready.  When you pre-order, you are essentially acknowledging that you are okay with an incomplete game.  So when you put that game in the console for the first time and it doesn’t boot up right or crashes during the middle, you simply have no room to complain.  It’s actually closer to being more your fault than the company’s.  Granted the company who made a poor quality product should not have released it, but if enough consumers are willing to pay full price for an incomplete product, naturally companies are going to release it.  Some companies value quality over quantity, but the bottom line is that every company exists to make money.  If their reputation is not tarnished from shipping broken games, they will continue to do so.  Generally they will not have a damaged reputation because they can always go back to the financial reports and publicly announce their sales.

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A minor graphic bug

Now the one thing within this blog’s genre categories that pre-ordering might be beneficial are role playing games.  Although it still goes hand-in-hand with the concept of video games in which you should print more than the masses because you are hoping that eventually they will all be bought (or the majority).  Printing books does cost more than producing a physical copy of a game.  That’s a fact.  There isn’t much involved in burning the contents to a disc and printing a label on the top then putting it in a case and shipping it.  This is even truer with PC games that are almost entirely digitally produced now (few hard copies are put on shelves anymore).  So for that thought, pre-ordering (especially for PC games) makes even less sense because there is essentially zero overhead cost on releasing the game.

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Most expensive pre-order ever – This car along with a PS3 and GRID 2 – £125,000

With hard copy books it is another story, however.  Companies prefer not to produce too many copies to where they have a shelf full of books that were never purchased.  If they have to decide, they will most likely want to error on the side of caution and produce fewer than the demand.  Books are done in “print runs” where they will have a certain number of books produced.  Small publishing companies may only have 500 copies whereas larger companies may have 1000s or 10’s of thousands.  When these are all bought, the company then has to either order more copies to be printed or do it themselves if they have the means.  This, however, takes usually more than a month to do, sometimes 8-10 weeks depending on the lead time the printers are looking at.  Some roleplaying game companies have an agreement with a printing company to dish out their books, but that printing company doesn’t just sit around and wait for their order.  They have other companies requesting their service such as schools for textbooks and yearbooks.

Pre-ordering books does tend to make for a better decision if the number of copies is in question.  Basically the rule is the smaller the company, the more reason to pre-order.  Now again, it’s essentially to just make sure you don’t have to wait 6-8 more weeks more for the 2nd printing.  If a company runs out of copies, they are going to print more until they consider the product expired and deem it out of print.  This only occurs when sales have dropped below a percentage per month, which means you have already bought your copy.  Larger companies, Wizards of the Coast for example, produce so many copies that you end up finding the books in odd locations like Wal-Mart.  Pre-ordering really is pointless at that point because the availability will be considerable.

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Now having said all that, companies have a bad habit of not producing enough copies on the first print run and blaming it on the consumers.  This is a give-and-take issue because the pre-orders would help them make a better assessment on the number of issues to produce, but generally when a company runs out of copies quickly, as in the first week or two, that’s really a horrible mistake on their part.  This happens way too often too, and the consumer usually gets the same famous line from all of them: “We were completely overwhelmed by the sheer enthusiasm from fans that we ran out of stock!”  This is one of the worst business moves you can make because it does 2 things.  First, your company stops making money for 6-8+ weeks while you wait for the next batch not only to be printed BUT to be shipped to stores.  Second, you hack off the consumers who were unlucky and didn’t receive a copy and are forced to wait while those who did get a copy are enjoying it.  When a game is released, that is going to be the “hottest” point in sales.  Usually.  Granted there are exceptions where a product doesn’t get noticed by the general consumer for several months (or years…I’m looking at you Game of Thrones).  When you run out of product while there is still a huge demand for it, you run the risk of sales going cold while you wait for the next printing.  Consumers are fickle and have short attention spans.  Our interest burns bright but burns out quickly.  New things come along that clouds are memories of the past.

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So when you are about to jump on a band wagon or you become excited for something that is soon to be released, take a moment to reflect the situation and ask yourself if it’s worth it or necessary.  Are you frustrated with video games having bugs in them when you buy it?  Are you annoyed when you go to your local gaming store and find your game out of stock?  Are you looking at your sales from the last product and realize the demand is great for this new release?  Try to refrain from being too hasty and make smarter purchasing decisions and stop encouraging poor business choices.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Discussion: Pillars of Eternity Episode.047

I was among the fortunate to have lived during the nice stretch of years when companies were pumping out classic RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and to a lesser extent Diablo.  These games all had a similar look and feel to them that complimented the flavor of the game.  The camera was fixed in an isometric view looking down upon the ground from above.  It was built more as 2.5 dimensional where things could walk behind other things but you couldn’t rotate the camera to see the other side of anything.  All items were built in 3D but rendered as a 2D object that faced the camera.  The result gave a nice illusion of depth while limiting the need of high computer resources.

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We are seeing a nice resurgence of genres of yesteryear with reboots, remakes, and sequels of games that are 15-25 years old, much to the thanks of crowdfunding websites.  Most recently, Pillars of Eternity was released that commemorates that style of gameplay much like that of Baldur’s Gate.

Pillars of Eternity is a spot on nostalgic trip back 20 years ago as the graphic style and gameplay are nearly identical.  Character creation has a similar feeling to the Dungeons & Dragons systems of before as Baldur’s Gate was.  However, to avoid licensing/copyright issues, PoE altered a bit of the stats, abilities and skill names.  The veterans of D&D will recognize Cat’s Grace, Bull’s Strength, and Owl’s Wisdom among others now renamed.

Unlike 20 years ago, technology has allowed more voice recordings for the dialogue beyond just the few choice words that games like Baldur’s once had.  Unfortunately there are simply too many lines of dialogue for the entire game to be recorded (BioWare did just that for The Old Republic MMO, but the amount of dialogue is a bit less).  But reading line after line is expected for this type of game.  Even back in the 80s when there was nothing but text-based RPGs, the entire game was without visuals.  The only element that could be considered a visual was maybe a map, which would be created using keyboard characters.   These RPGs are going to immerse you partially from the dialogue by making the game feel like enjoying a good book.

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Although if you were to put the Baldur’s Gate II side by side with PoE, there still is a clear distinction of quality that tricks the mind into believing the older of the two games has similar graphic levels.

Skills tend to be more important in this game than they were in BG and Icewind Dale.  In the past, with the exception of rogue abilities, skills came up just in dialogue.  If your Lore was high enough, for example, you could choose an additional response to the conversation that reflected that skill.  Although perhaps 10 or so hours into the game has yielded very little skill-based choices, the actual skills have come in handy.  Instead of having a plethora to choose from like you would from 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, you have just a few that are much broader: might, athletics, lore, mechanical and survival.  Just five skills are used that cover a great area though they do miss a few that just don’t come up in the game (or the closest skill just takes over in an even broader spectrum).

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The story does get you started off fairly quickly with action.  It puts you into the start of the over arcing campaign story right off the bat with a side quest to boot.  There doesn’t seem to be quite as many side quests as have been in some more modern RPGs like Skyrim (mercy the number of quests….you never got around to finishing).  There are quests that have multiple outcomes:  any choice you pick will result in completing the quest.  The result itself will be different than another choice, good or bad.  You may help a criminal escape which a woman who lost a cow to the thief goes without justice, but later the criminal gets you out of a bind when certain death is imminent (for example, this is not from the game).

They did a fantastic job with storing items.  You are given an enormous traveling case that you are able to put anything you pick up into it.  The downside is that you must either be in a city or resting for a while before you can access it.  However, the chest’s huge size carries over for each of the 6 some odd categories of items.  This means that the weapon tab can hold 50+ weapons, the armor tab can hold 50+ pieces of armor, etc.  Potions are in one along with their ingredients.  Miscellaneous tab for the millions of books you can read for weeks (just about every RPG has this).  It’s easy to get to what you want quickly, and you can take a quick nap to access something you really need right now.

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Camping is a bit better than it used to be in Baldur’s Gate.  Now you are required to carry with you firewood.  You use up one for every time you rest.  Resting restores all health to max and relearns any spent spells.  In the past, you could click rest at any time in areas where monsters were not present as much as you wanted.  Time would pass, but otherwise there was no consequence to doing so.  Potions and healing spells were only needed during combat to keep you alive to the end so you could click rest and recover.  Those games had chances of you being interrupted in the middle of the night with monsters, which was a nice feature, but they didn’t happen too often depending on where you were.  I have camped a few times, but I have not been interrupted.  There is an option to stay in the cities for free, which was nice, and there is now incentive to choose the rooms that cost money in that your party receives skill bonuses that last quite a while.  I have found enough campfire wood to keep things comfortably moving, but it is not to the point where I have to put them in the stash just because I don’t have enough room for them.

The game offers numerous levels of difficulty that range from easy to hard.  Monster frequency and number in each encounter are affected by difficulty, and there is also a hardcore version where you cannot make multiple saves of the same game along with perma death.

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Your characters have both Endurance and Health.  From what I can tell, Endurance is simply like stamina that can go down as you are wounded, but it automatically restores back to full at the end of combat.  Your health, however, does not.  Depending on the attack and amount of damage determines if you lose just a few Endurance points or dip into your health.

There is obviously nostalgia for me as I play the game and reminisce about my younger years.  However, as with many nostalgic things of our past, that feeling subsides rather quickly after we have experienced it.  Picking up a He-Man toy in the flea market may excite memories of your childhood, making you think about buying it, but after a few minutes the excitement is gone as we realize it’s just a part of our past.  Pillars of Eternity helps pick up when the nostalgia wears thin by delivering a solid game.  It offers itself as a strategy game, a role playing game, and a story-driven game.  All the while pushing you to explore more to see what the developers thought up next.  If you’re still hesitant because you aren’t familiar with this type of game, put it on a wish list somewhere and hold off on an upcoming sale before picking it up.  You may be pleasantly surprised at how much you find yourself wandering around the game’s world.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Discussion: The Black Cauldron Game Episode.043

Time has separated the 1980s enough where many of the old video games of yesteryear are slowly being forgotten.  Collectors scramble to pay for an increasing market value for 25 year old games, but they are few and far between compared to the majority of those who at least remember playing video games as children or adolescents.  There are a few I simply am not able to share the great memories I have with others because none of my friends are remotely aware these games existed.  And yet, one remains on my mind after all these years that had me captivated: The Black Cauldron.

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 Some of you may recognize the name from Disney or even the book series by Lloyd Alexander known as The Chronicles of Prydain.  Despite the movie being a complete flop (so much so that people lost their jobs at Disney after production), it still was adapted into a video game.  The adaptation was a fairly close resemblance to the film but not the original books.  Furthermore the game promoted several alternate endings much like LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion (though Sierra On-Line beat LucasArts by a year).

Having seen the movie, the game is fairly straight forward though a bit of wandering is necessary to discover each key location.  I was a kid when my parents got me the game for our Apple IIgs computer and had missed the opportunity to see the movie in the theaters since it was PG and was deemed too spooky for a 5 year old.  So I struggled with the game as a kid.  I was capable of getting to every scene in the game including some of the secret areas, but since I was in the dark from the movie or the books, I struggled to find a way to wrap the game up.

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The concept was fairly unique.  You were on a farm set in a magical world called Prydain where you were in charge of helping an elderly man named Dallben.  Among the usual farm animals, Dallben owned a pig that had the ability to foresee the future as well as locate things from time to time.  It turns out that the rather evil king of the area known as the Horned King from having a skull face with antlers extruding through his hooded cloak is after this pig in hopes of finding the Black Cauldron.  This cauldron has the ability to raise the dead to which the Horned King is wishing to build his army to destroy the kingdom.

Your job is to protect this pig and deliver her to a group of fairies who are better suited for hiding her from the king’s scrying spells.  From this point, the game begins splitting in different avenues depending on the outcome, which makes for a nice replayable game.

If something were to happen to the pig, named Hen Wen, along the way, then the game changes to you needing to rescue her back.  If you successfully deliver the pig (which if nothing happens will take all of about 2 minutes of walking), then you are able to have a bit more flexibility on what to do.

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Even going to the Horned King’s castle has options.  You can swim the moat and try to avoid the crocodiles swimming in the green, putrid water or you can try to sneak in through the front gates behind one of the king’s henchmen.  Because this is a Sierra game, there are points to be acquired by achieving various tasks.  Depending on your choices, your final points may vary to where they don’t reach the maximum number (230 points).

Because of the graphics being heavily pixelated for being made in 1986, there are more challenges than what the programmers initially planned on.  (Speaking of programmers, Al Lowe designed the game who many of you may remember from creating Leisure Suit Larry).  For example, if you are walking along a path that is set on the Z-axis, that is going toward or away from the camera, there is no real sense of depth as they drew the scenes on a 2D area using darker colors to signify shading.  This makes it challenging to know whether you have walked passed the big crack in the ground or if you’re even with it.  The moveable character does not scale to the depth of the screen.  He’s just as tall in the foreground as he is in the background.  Turning to the side to walk laterally may wind up walking into the crack.  This was typical for a lot of adventure point-and-click games of the 80s, especially for Sierra On-Line games like King’s Quest.  While it could pose for frustrating moments when you are already faced with a solid challenge, it was common enough to be accepted by gamers of the time.  Pixel art was an enjoyable look back then because it was all we had to look at.  These days, pixel art has become more of an appreciated art form knowing how tedious it can be.

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Like I said earlier, the game offered multiple avenues throughout the game and most notably multiple endings.  This was definitely a unique feature for video games as most were linear at the time.  You were presented choices not just at the end of the game but throughout that altered the ending significantly.  Most of these choices were presented in the books although, of course, only one was ultimately picked.  The game offers these “what if” alternatives to see how things could have played out.

Because The Black Cauldron was a Disney movie, originally aimed for children, the controls were made extremely simply.  For versions on IBM compatible computers, just hitting F6 was sufficient to “do something” in the game from opening a door to swinging a sword.  Every action was F6.  For the Inventory, I believe it was F4.  F5 was to save and F7 was to load games.  And that was basically all you had for controls besides movement, which was still being used on the number pad (WASD wasn’t around until Wolfenstein and Doom).

Much of the songs that were featured in the film were converted to MIDI files and play throughout the game, which was a nice addition though mostly expected since the license to make the game was bought.  The Apple IIgs version offered lesser quality songs than the IBM compatibles that were hooked up to a Roland MT-32 Sound Module.

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It is interesting to briefly note about the film for those unaware of the feature film by Disney.  First, it was by far the worst grossing animated film Disney ever made (inflation considered).  By far.  It was the only animated film at that time to have a PG rating (a cartoon for kids having a PG rating….in the 1980s no less).  Besides the other Disney animated film The Rescuers, it is the only animated movie to not have a single song sung.  This is especially peculiar because one of the characters in the film is a bard (though he doesn’t sing in the books and doesn’t play the lyre he carries with him).  The extremely dark overtones of the movie, most notably the Horned King and the Cauldron Born (undead skeletons garbed in medieval armor), kept parents from bringing their children to the theaters.  Disney quickly rebounded as they would be expected to do by creating The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and then explode with their colossal hits of the 90s starting with the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid.

The game offered some fun surprises and hidden tricks throughout.  There is even an Easter egg somewhere in the Horned King’s castle.  It is a shame it was received almost as poorly as the film.  Much like so many games of that era that were not mainstream or hugely popular, the game is nearly impossible to find hard copies (and those that are available are usually valued at a high price).  Fortunately the game is offered online through a browser to sample it for yourself since it’s nearly impossible to buy the game reasonably priced.

Click right here to go to Sarien.net, which is built for older games played through the browser.  Enjoy.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Reflection: The Last of Us Episode.042

I don’t believe I have ever had such a change of heart for a game as I did for The Last of Us.  I know, I’m late to the show, for those of you have experienced the game.  For those who haven’t, I suspect the game doesn’t interest you enough or else you would have picked up a copy by then.  However, I just played it for the first time, some 2 years after release, and I am surprised in how different the gameplay was compared to the initial demo video I watched prior to its release.

Although I was impressed in the video of the detail and graphics, the atmosphere and aesthetics, it felt like the game played a bit too much into its cinematic role.  I don’t mind setting the controller down and enjoying a good cut scene, especially after a very stressful part in the game, but it felt like I would move the character 10 feet and another cut scene would be triggered.  I was completely mistaken and learned an old lesson again: don’t judge a book by its cover.

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It’s tough these days to really get an understanding of whether you are going to truly enjoy a game for the entire length of it or if it will be a fun 5-hour game that goes back into your stockpile, never to be launched again.  I have numerous games that fall into that category.  And then there are some games that captivate me from the immediate start of the game and drive me to completion.  One such game was The Last of Us.

I’m not going to bother going into details of the story because that’s really the point of playing the game.  There are quite a lot of cut scenes (so many that the Main Menu has a list of them to view).  It plays out cinematically for sure as a 15-17 hour long movie, broken down into 4 bitable segments.

But inevitably I have definitely eaten my own words from a few years ago when this game was first released and receiving so much publicity and praise.  I tended to look at it as more of a movie that had moments of interaction than a game that had elements of a movie threaded within.  Generally I would rather have no cut scenes and complete interaction.  Instead of breaking off for a short clip that bridges two scenes together, I’d prefer the game to break into the transitional movie in-game as I’m standing there moving around.  Of course, we aren’t quite ready to make video games with cinematic-quality during the entire game.

I don’t recall ever having initial negative feelings about a game and then changing them 180 degrees after I played it.  The character acting was pretty good for a video game.  There weren’t any Academy Award moments, of course, but for what we have come to expect in AAA games these days, it stands up to the rest.  I think some outshined more than others.  Joel, who is one of the main characters in the game and the one you control 99% of the time, has a rough personality with a monotone and deep baritone voice.  Consequently this does not give much room for any dramatic acting though Troy Baker’s role.  His role is quite excellent as the cold-shoulder attitude to the world.  His rough sounding voice definitely makes you feel that he has experienced all kinds of horrific sights in his life.

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The game creates fairly good suspense, although I tend to become highly paranoid in horror games which lead to me doddling about unnecessarily too much.  One thing about that I noticed was when there were non-player controlled characters accompanying you.  You really didn’t know if something was going to be in this room or the next room, but if your companion following you is casually walking around looking at everything and entering the next room, you knew nothing was in the area.  This kind of killed that sense of tension when it could have remained throughout.  You don’t have to crouch and creep around inspecting each room at that point.  You could sprint through the section if you wanted to.  This was another feature when the game featured horses.  When you are on horseback, you were 100% safe.  The game doesn’t offer mounted combat, so they cleverly make it so you have to get off your horse and become separated from it before combat begins.  It also kills the surprise as you begin to realize combat is coming up when the game forces you off your horse.  On the flip side to that thought, you know it’s coming so the tension begins to rise since you are unaware of what is about to be thrown at you.

There were a couple of moments where I enjoyed the initial concept of a specific scene but by the time that chapter was complete, I was tired of stumbling around almost aimlessly to find where I am supposed to go.  These include special environmental scenes where disorientation is meant to be a key feature.  However, for some people it may become more of a hindrance than for others in that disorientation, much like in real life, may lead to unnecessary moments of wasting time.  The immersion of the situation was almost too realistic they did it so well.  There was a moment I definitely caught myself catching my breath having traversed through a particular nasty and difficult portion that had nothing to do with the threat of being attacked.

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Like many horror games that are respectable, audio is a key element, and this game holds its own.  Ambient noises, proper echoing of sounds to make it sound far off but not too far off, and general sound effects of motion all tied in to the atmosphere.  Even subtle sounds of whether an object landed on a solid surface or soft ground was considered.  However, the character you’re controlling also has footstep sounds, and this sometimes causes confusion as to whether you hear someone approaching or not.  Often I would have to stop dead in my tracks, swirl around 180 degrees, and discover it was my own feet making the sound.  With an echo, it can make a fool out of you on thinking it’s caused by something else, which is excellent for deception.

About 60-70% of the way through the game, having logged in about 12 hours, I began to think of movies that are longer than the typical 2-hour timeframe.  The movies that have extended footage that pushes 3 hours or even more generally are thought to have more story involvement.  Whether it is extra footage of scenes that dive into the meaning behind the shot more or just additional content to the storyline, these longer movies tend to be more popular among movie aficionados but not so much with the typical movie goer.  With a “movie game” such as The Last of Us, it begged the question for me to wonder about a movie that went 15 hours long.  We wouldn’t sit through a movie that long in the theaters, but we play games that long (or more).  Specifically games that are focused on the storytelling rather than the actual interaction lead us through to the end where we look back and are blown away by the character development, conflict, and hopefully a resolution.  We don’t beat these generally in one sitting, saving and pausing for another day.  Production in video games are much cheaper than movies, so 15 hour long “movies” can be done, and typically a gamer will sit through that long of a film as long as there is some moderate interaction throughout.  The Last of Us had me sit through a very enjoyable 15 hour long movie that left me wanting to play again to enjoy the story once more.  It was that good.  I would be curious to know, however, how little of interaction would be tolerated before a player would not sit through that lengthy of a game assuming the story line was as good.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Notable Figures as RPG Characters: Zelda’s Link Episode.036

Now that you have fully healed yourself, you’ve regained your key abilities.  It is a good thing to as you are surrounded by a small band of gnolls.  Swirling around in a complete circle, your whirlwind ability slashes deeply into them, felling each one before they have a chance to swing at you with their halberds.  They were foolish to get so close with such a large weapon.  Spotting one last straggler attempting to run and warn the rest of the tribe, you flash your sword in his direction, sending a phantom of your blade into the enemy’s back.  Catching your breath from the skirmish, you reach down and hold the large crystal heart over your head in triumph as you feel your energy expand a bit more.

On occasion, it is fun to take an existing character in media, literature, or gaming and challenge myself to create an accurate, playable character for an RPG.  Typically I use a modern-style rule system such as Pathfinder or D&D 3.0+ as they give me more variety on options.  Although I can create a general likeness of a famous character in a 1st edition AD&D game, the choices to make that character are much more limited and simplified.

My favorite character to create is Link from the Zelda video game series.  Although most would classify him as a fighter type character, ever since the N64 “Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” he has clearly been a bard.  A bard is the truest form of jack of all trades.  They are the cleverest bunch, able to sort out just about anything from their wealth of knowledge during their travels.  They are capable of understanding things merely but inspecting them and remembering either studying from their college or adventures.  Magical items are familiar to them.  They can cast spells.  They can pick locks and disarm traps.  They can brandish weapons and pit against warriors.  They can heal.  They can speak dozens of languages.

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Focusing on Link and his history throughout his long-lasting series of games, he has always had a sword and a shield.  He never wears heavy armor.  He has a backpack full of both magical and mundane tools and lots of them.  He can play musical instruments.  He’s handy with the bow.  All of these point him in the direction of the bard.

Using a system like Pathfinder, we begin with the basic elements of the character.  Link is a Hylian in the video game series, which according to lore, matches very closely to Half-Elves in Pathfinder.  We’ve already established him as a bard although he could multiclass into ranger, paladin or alchemist for the use of bombs if the GM allows.  Statistically he is great with a one-armed sword and shield, so he will need some strength while his bow shots demand his dexterity to be respectable.  His intelligence and charisma can be dumped because even in the cartoon he wasn’t the brightest person.  In fact, I don’t believe he ever talks in most of the video games (not saying a mute is ignorant, but someone with low intelligence might be remain quiet from confusion on what to say).

Since the N64 version, he has had the ability to roll to dodge attacks, so his Athletics skill should be as high as possible.  He never has had a need to pick locks as obtaining keys for locked chests has been a staple in his series, so save the points on that for now.  Knowledge Arcana, Dungeoneering, and Nature should be purchased as he has respectable backgrounds for each.  During the games since 3D was featured, when something important was within proximity, the game would immediately focus on that point, so his perception should be high.  He can ride Epona, so Riding should be another feature along with the feat that allows him to shoot a bow while riding, Mounted Combat.  Swimming was a feature after acquiring flippers as far back as Links Awakening and a Link to the Past, so Swimming would be fitting although perhaps not as important as a usual choice.  Finally Use Magic Device would be a definite choice as he has used an assortment of magical items.

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He doesn’t wear any armor, but if we were to truly keep him accurate, gauntlets would be required, preferably Gauntlets of Ogre Power since they were exactly that in the game, giving him the ability to lift heavy boulders.  His tunics were nothing but leather or cloth, but some featured resistances to various elements such as fire in A Link to the Past.  For now, the gauntlets will suffice although perhaps a ring of protection +1 might be nice to help his starting AC depending on what level to make him.  Beginning a character from scratch, the only way to present the gauntlets would be an inheritance though it would still give the low level character quite a starting boost.

His choice of weapon has always been a long sword to accompany his shield, which changes throughout the games.  Almost all of his shields have been all metal, so no need for wooden shields, and they must not be larger than a medium size.  He had only a few shields that were capable of blocking just about everything, but it should be assumed they were small enough to handle easily and still be dexterous rather than carrying a tower shield.  Call the sword a Master Sword (longsword).  He could acquire a Mirror Shield later on as he advances.  A composite longbow will round out initial weapons for now as the hookshot, boomerang, and other iconic weapons can be acquired as he progresses.

His choice of bardic instrument would be the ocarina, naturally, as he is most famous for playing such.  Similarly to the N64 game, the instrument could be a progressive magical item, granting him a new song every few levels.  This would be a house rule as typically the bard’s ability to either counter alluring songs or hypnotize others is through his magical ability as a bard and not the instrument itself.

For feats, Toughness would need to not only be a choice, but a regular choice throughout.  Granted hit points increase naturally as you gain levels like the rest, but his increase in life comes from acquiring quarter and full hearts.

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The whirlwind attack is another feat to add as he picked up that ability in the SNES version.  When he is fully healed, his sword was capable of blasting phantom versions of his blade at enemies.  Although no feat does this, there are a few spells that have similar effects such as Death Ray that can be placed upon the longsword.  Alternatively, the sword can have a simple House Rule where it deals electrical damage as a ranged touch attack when wielder is at full health.  That is a bit powerful for a beginning character, so perhaps it can merely attack as a ranged attack, using Dexterity instead of Strength, when at full health.  The former suggestion could be something acquired much later in advancement.

So Toughness, Mounted Combat, Whirlwind Attack, Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack, Weapon Focus/Specialization (longsword), Shield Focus because why not, and Combat Expertise.

Feel free to post a PDF of your version of Link as a character suitable for your favorite RPG.  I’ll post mine later this evening on here for easy download.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Star Saga: One – Beyond the Boundary Episode.033

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I was fortunate enough as a child to have a computer before any video game consoles.  We owned an Apple IIgs, which had some significant improvements that really were advanced for its time.  There was one video game we had for it that, looking back, really had a great concept that never really took off.  Back in 1988, Star Saga: One – Beyond the Boundary was released.  It was for MS-DOS as well.

The game combined those classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books we used to reads as kids with a tabletop roleplaying game using a user interface.  The game was a pure sandbox game, which for a video game in the 1980s was almost unheard of.  Games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy were about the only ones out there that allowed you to travel anywhere without a specific direction (though both of those games gave you quests and storylines that would navigate you somewhat).

The game begins by selecting one of six characters that had their own background and motivations.  You could actually play the game solo because your character could die at any turn if you made poor decisions, but it was naturally more fun with other players involved.  The motivations would be kept secret so it would make it difficult for players to thwart the others’ plan.

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In the massive box (that weighed 3 pounds), there was a giant double sided fold-out map depicting a small sector of a galaxy on one side and the entire galaxy on the other.  It was divided into a series of triangles that represented a planet or some special feature like a large asteroid.  It came with tokens for each player, and there also was the series of booklets.  These booklets were what fueled the game and where the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure came in.  When you began your turn, you would place your token on an adjacent triangle, and then type in the number that was printed on that triangle into the game.  The game would then give you a book number and page number to which you would need to refer to, to learn what resulted in your move.  Usually the paragraph resolved the situation by the end, either losing cargo, having a part of your ship damaged, rescuing someone for a reward if you take them home, or something random.  The system would typically update automatically after the result was concluded such as an updated inventory list.  Although reading could slow things down a bit, the game allowed for multiple players to make their move and be reading at the same time.

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Each section was unlabeled on the map, and it was encouraged to either use post-it notes on the board as the players discovered each world, but personally we always kept that information a secret.  We would always watch where the other players are located, and sometimes we would strike a trading deal with another to know what that planet’s main resource was to save travel time.  It could go beyond the scope of the initial game by keeping a running total of who owes what until the two players could reach a common spot on the map.

Although a bit slower process, the game is capable of being played online via a Cloud server such as Dropbox.  There is one small file the game operates on, much less than 1 MB if I am not mistaken, that can be uploaded and overwritten after each turn.  The game file increases in size as it has to remember each turn, discovered planets, and the like, but the size never even comes close to being an issue.  Phones with the right OS that can access the (I believe) .bat file can even play it.

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So what’s the point of the game?  Well as said before the players have their own ultimate agenda, which may be as complicated as discovering a specific planet on the map and building something on the surface, or it may be as simple as trading every kind of cargo available.  Once that occurs, the game is essentially over.  However, with the vast amount of space to discover (and the map is extremely huge), the number of turns could go into the 100s if the whole map is to be unveiled.  The booklets totaled 13 with 888 entries to read, so you can see the game could take a long time if so desired.  It would sometimes randomly have your turn intercepted by random things like pirates that would have their own entry.

The ship you begin your game is simple but fully upgradeable.  From increased cargo holds to shields and weapons, you were in complete control over how you wanted to develop your ship.  The shields seemed to always be the first to be upgraded because we noticed a lot of ship-to-ship combat in the game.  The amount of cargo holds was the next because you end up being a packrat as there are a lot of kinds of cargo to pick up from radioactive material to food stuff to munitions.  Many times the game will hint that another planet is currently buying a specific cargo for X amount to which you can stop your current trek and divert to that planet (assuming it’s even discovered).

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One other feature they include is suspended animation for players who aren’t available to play that day.  Their characters merely are skipped while they do not face any dangers as the other players continue their game.  With well taken notes, if your character happens to die, catching up is not too difficult as you already will know any secrets along the way.

And with the advance in technology, the game is available for free as abandonware.  An interactive map has been created so that notes and tokens can be placed and moved on the board for everyone to see.  This can be uploaded and viewed from multiple computers so that multiplayer is capable around the world.

There was a sequel that was made with a third installment intended to make the trilogy, but the company who developed the software, Masterplay, went out of business.  It is interesting to note that the creator of the game was Andrew Greenberg who some of you may recognize the name from the classic Wizardry series.

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It will feel like a pseudo-pen and paper sci fi RPG when you play it.  It might take you back to nostalgic years of reading those books that told you to turn to page 88 or 92.  Or it may just bore you to death.  Either way, the game was another one of those inventions of the 80s where it was simply too far ahead of its time in innovation to be as popular as it deserved to be.

For those of you interested, head to this link {Star Saga: One} where you can find the download game file along with the PDF booklets and interactive map.

If you want to play it straight online, Virtual Apple IIGS has both the first and second games available to play in-browser here {Star Saga: One Online}.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Mastering as Game Master: Conceptual Dungeons Episode.030

You find yourself following a series of twisting corridors barely illuminated by your dying torchlight.  It’s been nearly two hours now of walking on the cold, stone floor, and you begin to feel the stiffness in your knees.  Most of the doors have been locked and barred from the inside.  With no means of entering them, you have been forced to press on.  However, you have heard whimpering behind each one, and the constantly increasing number of barred doors has made you start to wonder about things.  What could be behind them?  Why would denizens of a dungeon keep themselves secured inside so many rooms?  And what is causing them to whimper?  The questions are immediately erased from your mind as your last torch begins to flicker its final light, and the sound of hundreds of high pitch clicking noises enter your ears.  There is movement up ahead, but the light is faded and gone, leaving you in the darkness with the source of the sound.  You’ll soon find out what is making the noise, but then it will be over.

There tends to be a fairly decent separation between RPers:  those who began playing RPGs in the 70s and 80s and those who began playing in the 90s and 2000s.  I have met enough gamers in the last 20 years to convince me that this holds true.  The style of gameplay, the focus of the adventures (especially published modules), and the setup of each encounter has changed drastically.  Dungeons have grown smaller with notable occurrences much closer together than before.  What was once a long, winding series of tunnels that eventually led to a room are now more compact, almost as if they were written for short attention span players.

Encounters are the most significant change.  It once was expected in a description to have a block of text to read to the players, describing the situation followed by some notes for the DM to be aware of.  Although some of that remains, the larger publishers out there who produce miniatures focus the fights more on strategy and utilizing their full-graphic battle maps and pre-painted miniatures.  Of course, it’s a smart move financially as you want to promote and encourage consumers to purchase your entire product line.  These features can enhance or clarify situations that otherwise might become cloudy.

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More modern RPGs have a more tactical approach to combat.  There are more rules for combat these days that try to answer every situation and provide all forms of maneuvers.  It can add more visual elements to the table and more flavor to the excitement as the fighter no longer simply swings his sword but bull rushes against the opponent, sending him over the cliff’s edge.

Traditionally, the earlier you go back in history of RPGs, the more the game is focused on developing the scene in your mind.  Although it still holds true to today that the game’s core concept still resides in the mind for the most part, there are now elements that take away that need for imagination such as the use of figures on the table.  Twenty plus years ago, the game relied entirely on great storytelling to make sure everyone had as close to the same understanding of what is going on as the other.  Naturally there were times reiterating the situation was necessary in order to more clarify and paint the mental picture better, but for the most part, everyone tended to enjoy their own version.

We generally prefer to play the games we were first exposed to.  Playing for years in 1st edition AD&D, one might be less inclined to playing Pathfinder for very long.  There is a more comforting feel of a game that we are familiar with.

I prefer dungeons that are long, drawn out.  I keep track of things that other DMs may not such as torch and lantern life.  However, more traditional dungeons sometimes take a different approach in order to keep the pace going as the corridors can stretch for considerable length and have numerous turns.  A single level filling an entire page of notebook paper is not out of the question.  If you have stuck to more modern dungeons and are interested in trying to bring back a more traditional style, there are a few things to keep in mind.

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Don’t describe things in 10 foot intervals.  Nothing can be more boring and dragging than to say, “You continue down the corridor, traveling 20 feet.  Up ahead the corridor continues another 40 before turning to the right.  You continue down 40 more feet.  The hall turns to the right 90 degrees.  Up ahead the corridor continues before making a left.”  This proves nothing except point out the corridor continues on for a while.  There is no need to go into that much detail when talking about a dungeon unless something is important such as an encounter.  In long years past, the thief was the leader in a dungeon, checking for traps every 10 feet to assure the rest of the party doesn’t succumb to a fatality.  It is a terrible idea to have the thief check every 10 feet.  Broaden the scope of checks and allow for an entire corridor to be checked.  It goes with rooms as well.  Even if the room is tremendously large, the roll should be about finding traps and not based on the size of the room.  Instead factor the time it takes to search the entire room and calculate any chance for random monsters if applicable.  Keep the game moving.

Structure your dungeon with logic.  This is a big change in the evolution of dungeons over the years.  One could almost deduce that the architects of dungeons 20-30 years ago were all completely mad, creating illogically laid out dungeons that made zero sense.  The monsters roaming around would soon die from lack of food and water unless the place had a steady stream of adventurers, to which would mean that the odds are against the monsters surviving every party.  Every dungeon does not have to be filled with just monsters.  Roaming creatures that are harmless but are meant to be food for predators can not only make your dungeon more believable but give more realism to the experience.  I often will throw the old “cow’s eyes” trick on players where their lantern sees 2 glowing eyes in the darkness outside their lantern’s light.  Nine times out of ten they fire an arrow at it because they are spooked.  Then they discover it was just a cow.  There can be kennels, stables, even special grazing dens for herd animals.  Yes, herd animals can be in dungeons.  Rooms can be large enough for grazing, and as long as there is some form of light source somewhere, life, uh, finds a way.  Natural lighting can come from a hole in the ceiling high above like a cave, or there can be magical means from an old permanent spell.  Perhaps the vegetation itself casts light that aids in other vegetation to grow.  Every living creature must sleep at some point to regain strength.  Therefore they all must have places of rest.  The more intelligent the creature, the better the accommodations will be as they appreciate comfort more.  Be creative in sleeping quarters for monsters that are not bipeds.  Don’t just make them sleep on a pile of hay.  Maybe they sleep on a pile of warm coals that are heated by lava far below but is just far enough to be toasty and bearable.  Some could sleep in a hammock that was abandoned years ago by someone.  Wood crates that are opened at one end could be a nice nook for a creature to cozy up in.  Flying creatures might have rings suspended from the ceiling to roost on.

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Dungeons don’t always have to have a plot to exist.  There usually is a reason for every dungeon’s existence, but there doesn’t have to be an actual plot.  There might be small situations such as a prisoner wishing to escape but has nothing to do with the overall scope of the dungeon.  More traditionally, dungeons are built to protect something or someone or just torment adventurers.  They are fortresses in a sense because they are there as an obstacle.  Players may simply stumble upon a half-hidden door in the side of a mountain or even a small sink hole no bigger than 3 feet in diameter in the middle of a forest clearing that leads to a colossal dungeon.  They can be more of a grab n dash where the purpose is nothing more than to clear out the monsters and loot the treasure.  Plot can exist, yes, but create the dungeon to the plot itself if doing so.  For example, if the players must discover why archaeologists have been disappearing from a cleared out dungeon, build plenty of rooms that are half-excavated with proper tools lying about.  Provide fluff such as journals that discuss the history of the structure they are working on.  It can slowly unfold the plot of what is causing the disappearances as they learn more about the place.  If the plot involves a beholder who is coordinating assassinations on a nearby town in order to wipe out a family line prophesized to slay it in the future, provide rooms that demonstrate the various eye stalk powers and spells as a hint of what is going on but offer confusion as to the source.

Keep things moving.  Unless there is a door, trap, monster, or split in the corridor, move things along.  Describe it as a whole.  For example, “The corridor spans about 100 feet before making a series of turns, left and right, with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it.  Finally your walk ends at the beginning of a stretch of doors on either side of the corridor, all made of wood and lined with old iron.”  Even that was too long winded.  It is important to give them the mental picture that the dungeon twists and is maze-like (if it is), but the overall movement goes from situation to situation.

Try to keep your dungeon at least 60/40 with interesting rooms.  Empty rooms can be rather boring, but sometimes they need to be to keep the meaningful rooms more meaningful.  These empty rooms are not truly empty; they are there for the logical side of the dungeon’s structure such as sleeping chambers, eating quarters, storage rooms, or even a latrine.  However, don’t overdue one or the other or the value will be lost.  I generally  like to provide 1 meaningful room for every 2 empty rooms.  I also won’t hesitate to make one of those empty rooms have something meaningful hidden within such as a secret door.  Players will begin wondering if they should pass the room up or investigate further.

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Utilize unique rooms wisely.  It is tempting to throw all of your aces into each room the players come across.  Especially when the creative juices are flowing, we have a book full of great ideas to entice the players.  However, it is important not to saturate the dungeon too much or else the flair will be lost.  Unless the dungeon is in the style of “Through the Looking Glass,” which players are expecting everything to be off-the-wall unique, use them sparingly.  Don’t worry about thinking outside the box in your more traditional dungeon either.  It’s okay for one room to be a reverse gravity arena where everyone is on the ceiling or a living tropical jungle that spans several miles in every direction.  Make part of the dungeon multidimensional.  Just make sure there is a proper balance, that there is some constructive thought behind your placement and not just random chaotic crap.

Give your players enough room.  This actually doesn’t matter if you are using battle maps with miniatures and modern rules or exclusively classic rules with just the imagination.  There is still the need for movement.  Sure it is fun to wedge your party into a narrow area and pit them up against a challenge that requires mobility, but in the end, it becomes cumbersome to manage.  At first there will be the sense of dread as the players realize their traditional method of fighters dancing around in melee while the rest move for cover in the back won’t work this time.  As soon as that realization wears off, it still has to be dealt with.  It’s very uninteresting (not to mention too fair) if one player is forced to take the entire blunt force of the opposing enemy simply because the design of the place is inadequate.  It is okay to put them in tight situations, but give them opportunity to have some freedom.  Don’t constraint them to the point they might as well be fighting out of cages.  The game is about allowing players to do whatever their characters can do not tunneling them down a glorious vision the GM dreamt up.  If you are using battle maps, blow the entire place up bigger than you think.  A 3×3 room may be a nice 15 foot wide space, but when the miniatures take up 1/3 of the width, it becomes tight very quickly with 3 or 4 in there.  Let the players and monsters dance a bit.

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Don’t let players map your dungeon out.  This takes forever.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog months ago that falls into pace.  No one in their right mind is going to bring pieces of paper, quills, and ink with them on a dungeon excursion to document every turn.  It’s highly cumbersome to begin with.  There are no cartridge pens in a fantasy setting.  Future settings would just use some kind of a GPS system to coordinate it all out.  Using quill and a bottle of ink requires a table.  It’s not something you can stop and press the paper against a nearby wall and dabble the quill in ink then proceed to draw it.  Not to mention that graph paper didn’t exist either.  Adventurers are there to explore.  If the players get lost, have the one with the highest wisdom deduce backtracking.  Recommend the players use landmarks or even simple notations such as an unusually large crack in the wall near a juncture in case they do have to retrace their footsteps a bit.

These are just suggestions for dungeons, and the suggestions could keep on going such as making dungeons more narrow and vertically oriented with the risk of falling through the floors.  Perhaps keep the initial dungeon relatively small and simple with dimension doors that take players all over the world to explore part of a ruin or a few rooms of a sunken temple before finding an important clue and returning to enter another dimension door.   The point is in this entire article is that we need not commit ourselves to just one look or line of RPG.  Our comfort zone may be in one edition or another, but opportunity abounds as long as we keep an open, positive, and willing mind to keep exploring.  Traditions and modern concepts need not be kept in separate cages.  Dig out the books you’re not used to using to find new inspirations.  Give yourself a chance to look into classics that you didn’t think was possible or interesting before simply because it didn’t feel right.  Nostalgia might always be nagging at you to go back home, but don’t let yourself miss the chance of discovering what’s over the next hill.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Mastering as Game Master: Creature Altering Episode.029

The morning sun rises over the horizon as you and your party stretch and walk out of your homes with the start of your adventuring career moments away.  You fumble with your gear, feeling the awkwardness of strapping on armor for the first time or the density of the oaken staff in your hand.  With a glance around, you silently bid your hometown farewell as you know dreaming of returning is moot.  It’s as if you sense……suddenly soaring above the treetops, screeches from two black dragons fills your ears and turns your blood cold.  Panic fills your nerves as you scramble to get with your other companions in hope of fending off the oncoming enemies.  Yet you can’t help but wonder, why are we pitted up against this level of creature at 1st level?

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Many GMs, especially newcomers, fall into a strict set of guidelines in running a campaign or adventure.  The party is about this level, so they should be facing the monsters in this list.  The rules state that a player is not allowed to do this, so I’m prohibiting the players from doing so.  It’s always been done this way for decades since D&D was a gleam in Gygax’s eye.  It really is time to learn how to be a GM and shed the cloak that has navigated our creativity and methods for so long.

What in the world am I meaning?  We can do whatever we want as GMs!  But do we?  Do we throw adult black dragons at the party of 1st level characters?  No, of course we haven’t because they would be killed before they had a chance to attack, and they wouldn’t be able to shed any damage off the dragons….right?  Why is it that creatures have to be used at appointed times and not any time?

I believe often times GMs get either lazy or overwhelmed by the notion of altering situations to better fit the party.  More and more rule books are standardizing how each encounter is supposed to be run.  That manticore looks like it would be a great encounter for the party….but it’s 6 “levels” higher than the group so that’s out of the question.  So are we to just allow these sourcebooks dictate everything?  They encourage us to make the world our own….within their guidelines.  The important notation is that nearly all of them say at one point or another to alter anything in the book to fit our own playstyle.  Anything!  And yes, we commonly have home rules that we incorporate that adds to our system, but seldom do we really make serious alterations because….well….we paid $50-60 for the book.  What’s the point if we are going to just end up writing it from scratch?

One of the most enjoyable features I like implementing into a campaign is the concept of the world being alive and vast rather than built for the players.  I don’t place a dungeon near where they are that is built for their level because the world becomes a convenience for them and lacks life.  Sometimes you wind up in a bad part of town where you shouldn’t be.  You get into situations that are dangerous.  Life isn’t built for you; you are built to adapt to life.  Whether that is to fight, negotiate, or run away, it is up to you to recognize the situation and make the choice.

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So sometimes I will create a campaign that is just like that:  dragons can appear at any time or the party may stumble upon a ruin filled with creatures far more powerful than they are, yet they have to get inside to a tomb to get an amulet.  This isn’t something I surprise them with because they would be killed in seconds.  I always write up a document that explains the various nuances of the world, races, acceptable and unacceptable rules/features, etc.  They are fully prepared to approach every situation with caution and judge the situation as they see fit.  It adds much more realism and tension with the players knowing that the world is a deadly place not catered to them.

You could adjust the difficulty greatly and still have the freedom to present anything you want to the players, regardless of level, by adjusting the world to fit the players.  This is definitely something new GMs should not tackle because you are essentially stripping down monsters and challenges to accommodate the players.  For example, a dragon might have two claw attacks, a hind leg attack, a tail, their wings, and a bite before blasting their breath weapon.  Instead, the creature could have severely lowered damage, say, 1D4 on all attacks, and no two attacks could be done on one player each round.  Special abilities such as paralyze could simply be removed or altered to last only 1 round.

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Creatures that fly would hover low enough off the ground that melee with long weapons such as spears and halberds could still attack, giving reason to carry more unique or less common weapons.  The trick is to not fall in love with a creature so when you are trying to strip it down to a suitable level, you aren’t wishing you could keep a special ability because it’s cool.  Introducing creatures at different times of the campaign will add spice because players are somewhat expecting certain creatures at certain times.  Kobolds and goblins right off the bat, beholders, liches, mind flayers, and demons toward the end.  The point is don’t allow guidelines guide you too much.  Remember back when we were kids and the rules neither mattered nor made any sense and we just played what we enjoyed?  We have to follow rules every day that structure our lives, which is why we love role playing games so much.  We can break away from the classifications, categories, restrictions, procedures, protocols, and laws in order to truly do whatever we want.

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Keep your players in the know of what your intentions are without saying you are fudging the dice or nerfing the monsters.  Explain that you are implementing a living world where any creature is possible.  While you are unable to mix and match lethal versions of a dragon with tolerable versions (they wouldn’t know whether to run or not until it was too late), both options are available for campaigns.

Now I understand there are games out there that already have this in mind such as Dungeon World.  However, their game, although extremely enjoyable, can also be terrifyingly lethal.  It has the same mentality as mentioned earlier in that the world is a dangerous place, tread lightly and don’t assume you know the creatures in a meta-game view point because you don’t.  With Dungeon World, literally anything can happen at any time, and the game encourages the more fantastical situations than tradition.

Whichever you decide, make sure you are running the game according to your plan and not the plans of others.  Take what you will as advice, guidelines, suggestions or the like, but keep in mind no one outside of your game room gives 2 craps to how you run your game.  You aren’t out to satisfy Paizo by running their game by the book because no one at Paizo cares.  At all.  These are all merely suggestions as well and not law because it may not suit your playstyle.  Perhaps you prefer the structure of a particular ruleset.  If that is the case, go crazy with it and enjoy.  However, sometimes repetition for too long, even the things we love to do, become stale and demand a sprinkling of change here and there.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Mastering as Game Master: Galactic Building Episode.028

The display panel erupts to life, illuminating the pitch black room with a dazzling array of holographic images moving about.  You concentrate on one, a sphere representing a world that you have looked for in hundreds of galactic charts for decades.  All of the information gathering, the countless hours asking questions of so many, tracking each one down, not to mention the exceedingly difficult task of acquiring the databook that almost cost you your life.  You hope it all was worth it as you send the coordinates up to your ship and order it to begin calculations for hyper space.  Clicking the display panel off, you flick it in the air and catch it on its descent with controlled anxiety and excitement.  Gerosh IV, here you come.

Sometimes having too much material for a GM is too overwhelming and becomes a major issue in campaigns or adventures.  When we are limited to something more confined, such as simply a tavern or minor outpost, although we could design those areas basically anything our imagination will convey, we still have a sort of tunnel vision at times as we perceive just a narrow subject such as a single building or small dungeon.  We most likely won’t worry about the effects of a bog or how a blizzard would render a party vulnerable if we were working on a small dungeon under a castle.

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But consider the possibilities of how much data can be conceived when you create a world!  It could have literally anything imaginable within its realm.  Anything!  A portion of your planet could be a void-like space that has small spheroids large enough for colonies to thrive upon and rely on air ships to travel.  The entire planet could be pure lava with hovering rock formations that are bridged by, shoot, elephants that are gripping the tail of the elephant in front.  Granted, you could say the same thing with something relatively small such as a single city building if you go to the extremes of the imagination in design.  However, it is the amount of information to create that can be overwhelming.

Take a science fiction rpg for example, such as Traveller.  Now it goes beyond just building your world.  It becomes the monumental task of creating….a solar system?  A galaxy?  You’d have to take into consideration the demographics of the inhabitants, flora and fauna, weather patterns, geographical features and layout, economics, politics, social formations, festivals, religion, and its history.  Some of those listed may not be relevant enough to include in your campaign, but even one of those can be a daunting task.

I’ve talked to so many GMs who will mention how each time they set out to tackle world building for their campaign, they work effortlessly coming up with specifics such as names of NPCs, city structure, buildings for an important town, and surrounding monsters typical for the areas.  But soon the foreboding of repetition begins to sink in as they slowly realize the amount of work they poured into pales in comparison to the amount of work left.  What started out as a weekend project has now proven to be a yearlong endeavor filled with drudgery and lackluster enthusiasm.  So, what?, GMs should just forego all world building efforts and wing the entire ordeal?  I’d enjoy seeing you try and not exhaust your resources at some point.

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There are essentially two methods of world building, beginning on a macro level or micro level.  Different strokes for different folks in this case.  You will find your comfort zone taking everything in as a whole to begin with (establishing cosmic entities and ending with small settlements), or beginning with a single planet (perhaps a galactic central capital) and working outward.

For beginners, I would highly recommend taking the macro to micro approach.  Otherwise you won’t get very far with so much area to cover.  I would first settle on just a minor solar system, perhaps of 6 planets total.  Approach it from barely a macro level by creating the names of each of the planets and a brief description of the type of planet such as terra-like, gaseous, greenhouse, molten, or frozen.  Next, think about the most appealing type of world and the possibilities within.  That should be your last planet you develop because it will be the easiest.  Your enthusiasm on filling in the details is strong enough that it will carry you through the end.  Instead, pick a planet that you aren’t too wild about but know it will make for a good adventure or two.  Perhaps all of your ideas are the greatest thing ever and you are beginning to feel that sense of overwhelming odds trying to come up with enough material to fill a solar system.  One suggestion is to either buy a single Composition notebook and put the planet’s name on the front, or open a Word document saved as just the planet’s name.  Nothing else really will go in here other than relationships with other planets that might involve things like trade.  Otherwise, stick with just that planet.  Ignore the others and treat the planet as a campaign that is still in its infancy years of intergalactic space travel.  Even if your planet you are working on is extremely advanced and uses teleportation to other planets now, concentrate just on the planet’s life for now and leave that to the end.  You can use that area as your transition to the next planet.

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Now when you are working on a single planet with the fact you have dozens after it, accept the fact that these worlds are not going to be completely fleshed out like your D&D fantasy campaign setting.  Unless you work fast or spend eons working on it, chances are there is going to be some information you have to leave out in order to have time to fill in the rest.  Consider the 5 areas only at first:

Demographics

Flora & Fauna (macro level)

Civilization structures (countries, kingdoms, etc.)

Political structures (monarchy, democracy, etc.)

Population (categorized broadly as sparse, ideal, crowded, overcrowded)

Don’t go crazy on details yet.  Just brush your planet out in general outline format.  List the various races found on your planet, give some general idea if there are typical animal groups on the planet or if there are any missing (no water so no fish, for example).  If there are multiple politics within the world, list them, but don’t worry about assigning them yet.  Finally, give a moment to consider if your planet’s population is either barely filled or overcrowded or in between.  At this point, put the pencil down or push the keyboard away, and close the book/document.  It doesn’t seem like you did much, but the planet is essentially set up.  You have already described it earlier what type of planet it is, and no you have the basic concept of that planet.  Leave it broad and vague so it hopefully sparks some imagination and creative ideas when you return to it.  Get the rest of the planets established this way, ending with that one you were craziest about.

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Again, with its own book or document, approach the planet one adventure at a time instead of a global entity.  Don’t bother creating the huge, complex city on the other side of the planet if you are going to run the session in the frozen mountains 2000 miles away.  Write a one-shot adventure for your planet.  It’s a more comforting feeling because you are eating the elephant one bite at a time.  You know how to make a one-shot.  Do your typical methods by establishing whatever you feel is necessary as you work on it.  Set aside an area in your book for planetary information on a global scale.  When you write something in your one-shot that reflects a macro viewpoint on the planet or large scale, make note of it in the planet information such as the planet experiences earthquakes frequently that causes enough reverberation that their technology is powered by the vibrations.  Use a highlighter and cross over individuals who are famous or noteworthy.  Start a list in that book of those people, giving a 1-sentence description of the person and the page number they are either first mentioned or first described.

Once you have your one-shot adventure wrapped up, go to the next planet.  It is important not to saturate your planet too quickly with information to avoid fatigue or boredom.  Keep going from planet to planet, even in a particular order, as you cycle through and develop one-shots.  You will find that the information you come up with for your one-shots will greatly reflect and affect your world-wide system.

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On your journey through world building your first solar system, begin making a point to either have a recording app on your phone or bring a traditional pocket notepad and pen for notes because you are going to have them all the time.  If you are finding yourself struggling to come up with information on your planet, try searching online for novels or short stories that use the specific planet you are wanting to develop such as a greenhouse planet.  It may seem obvious, but watching science fiction movies, especially the cheesy ones, will spark your imagination and rekindle your passion.

Keep everything organized.  You will need to be OCD in this area simply because the amount of information you are going to eventually collect is staggering.  Overestimate.  Stick tabs on your notebooks, make bookmarks in your documents, or go full regalia and purchase database world building systems like RealmWorks or something more traditional like OneNote.

Also, take an hour one evening surfing Google Images with sci-fi pics, and save as many as you can that look appealing and interesting into a folder.  Again, try separating them in a logical method such as planet type, biped or animal, artificial or biological, etc.  This will be your library of inspiration when you need it.  Imbed the images into your documents if you’re working digitally.

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Lastly, I would highly recommend getting involved with online discussion boards involving world building.  It is a true hobby for many people, and they have volumes of ideas that go beyond a few pages of a blog from weather patterns to effects of geographical phenomena to alternative politics.  They can also be your inspirational mentor when you need to rediscover your drive you had at the beginning.  Know that this project is not something you should expect to be done in a weekend or a month.  Understand it is a hobby like playing golf, cycling, video games, or photography and that it’s always available and not needing to be done right this instant.  This is a journey that you are supposed to enjoy.  Otherwise the concept would not have sparked you brightly enough to pick up the pen and jot down the notion of creating a world or a galaxy.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.