Nov 25 2014

In Which I Am Interviewed About Street Fighter

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I was recently interviewed by Matt Meade of SFRPG.com about my work on White Wolf’s Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game. We talk about deadlines, the mechanics of the Rising Storm Crow maneuver, and the ideal date for Backhand Bonnie Brown.

Enjoy!

-The Gneech

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Nov 21 2014

Killing 4E and Taking Its Stuff

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Coming Home to D&D

It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.

It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.

I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.

NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.

(Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)

Looting the Body

So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?

Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. [1]

Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”

What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”

Here There Be Monsters

The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.

I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).

Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.

5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.

Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. [2]

What Say Ye?

What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.

-The Gneech

[1] It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.

[2] With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.

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Nov 20 2014

Charity Expressions WIP

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Charity Expressions WIP by the-gneech on deviantART

I love this exercise, but it takes forever. If interested, you can find the template here: 25 Essential Expressions

I am still not quite happy with the designs for either Charity or Langley. I was hoping that it would smooth out as the story progressed, but if anything it’s getting worse instead of better, so I’m trying to work it out and “get it right” before going on with another issue.

Charity should be young, almost baby-faced, bright eyed, eager, and cheerful. Think Sailor Moon with spots. So, eyes bigger, muzzle smaller, lots of big expressions are the mode for her.

Suggestions? Comments? I’m all ears!

-The Gneech

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Nov 12 2014

Neverwinter: Being Reliably As Good As It Needs to Be (But No Better)

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It’s hardly a secret that I’m bearish on MMOs generally. I like the concept of them, but I don’t like the execution of the MMO genre as it’s come down through the years. The one MMO that I really got deeply into for a long time was Lord of the Rings Online, and that was mainly because I am such a Tolkien nerd, and for many years they really did a good job of embodying the lore. Also, for a brief shining moment, there was a really strong social aspect between the Turbine forums, the player blogs, and a group of folks within the in-game kinship that I really clicked with, which led to the whole “Life of a Bounder” series. And LotRO has a really, really awesome “cosmetic” system, which I have never seen matched in any other game. Assuming you can find an outfit you like (and there are babillions to choose from), you simply put that into your character’s cosmetic tab and you’re done forever.

But that was literally years ago now, which somehow seems strange to say. The group fell apart, the gameplay got scrambled and scrambled again by rules changes, the quality of the storyline faltered, and eventually I just had enough. My highest level character is mired in Rohan, needing to get through “epic battle” story quests in order to progress, and I just can’t bring myself to continue. As for the alts… I don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day again. Not if it means having to go through Rohan… again.

So it was that I started casting around for something else to play in my off-hours. I remembered that I’d flirted with Neverwinter a bit, basically getting as far as “making a character and getting out of the tutorial,” and inspired by the fun I’d been having with D&D 5E decided what the heck, give it a shot. In the intervening weeks I’ve managed to get Akikki, my tiny little half-elf Great Weapon Fighter, up to 52nd? 53rd? level, out of 60. (Yes, Akikki is basically Elsa from my 5E game; what can I say, it’s a character I’ve been wanting to play for a while.)

My thoughts? Well to put it bluntly, Neverwinter is just exactly as good as it needs to be… but unfortunately, no better than that. Gameplay-wise, it’s barely distinguishable from Everquest 2, Age of Conan, or a gajillion others. The quests are always incredibly linear and straightforward: “Follow an S-shaped path through the cave/swamp/forest/castle, fight three monsters, fight four monsters, fight three monsters, fight three monsters with a ringer, fight three monsters, fight the boss who keeps generating adds unless you can lure the boss out of his room.” Every once in a while you might find a little jumping puzzle, or an extra non-plot encounter tucked into a corner… once in a rare blue moon you’ll even find a way to approach the boss from an unexpected direction, but that usually seems to be an oversight on the map-designers’ part.

I will say about Neverwinter that it is a very good representation of the 4E Forgotten Realms setting… for better or worse. If you think the spellplague was cool, think floating islands everywhere is what D&D always needed, and you like tieflings and dragonborn all over the place, you’ll feel right at home. For myself I have no real attachment to FR, being more of a Greyhawk fan, but I wasn’t keen on 4E generally and so that aspect of the game took some getting over. It’s not really accurate to say that it’s not D&D, so much as it feels like there’s a lot of junk between me and the D&D that I have to get through. Everyone who said that 4E felt like a MMO was absolutely right: specifically, it felt like this MMO, for better or worse.

There are nuggets of joy to be found in the game, for all that. At the player auction house, one of the random bits of NPC dialogue is the auctioneer expressing doubt that an item being put up for auction really is “the Head of Vecna,” for example. There are bits of deep D&D geekery and that occasional touch of trippy dorkiness scattered across the landscape, and those are worth their weight in gold.

Speaking of gold, currency is a strange beast in this game. Although you’re constantly collecting gold pieces, there’s almost nothing to spend them on, particularly once you’ve bought a horse and hired a companion. Anything and everything worth buying (including stuff at the auction house) is bought with “astral diamonds,” an in-game currency that you collect by doing daily quests. And the prices are nuts. I have, now that I’m 52nd level, something like 16,000 astral diamonds. A single piece of cosmetic clothing often sells for something like 300,000. To alter the appearance of your current armor to look like that favorite piece sitting in your vault (the closest thing the game has to a proper cosmetic system) usually costs 20,000+.

What the heck.

I’d think this was a FTP-grab for cash, except that you can’t buy astral diamonds for real world cash. Really more than anything it feels like devs saying “We don’t want you to have nice things.” It may be that I’m missing something somewhere– this game has tons and tons of subsystems and no meaningful help dialog anywhere– but if so I have no idea what it might be.

Still, after all that, Neverwinter does have one really neat thing, and that’s the Foundry.

Intended to be a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights, with its DM’s Toolkit and tons of readily-downloadable user-generated content, Neverwinter‘s Foundry enables you to create your own dungeons, including quest goals, dialogue trees, and all sorts of game assets for locations and foes. Foundry-created quests are shared within the game at “Adventurers’ Job Boards” and the like, and since these are the quests that provide astral diamonds, there is plenty of incentive to go on them. They scale automatically with level, so if you wanted, you could go all the way from the game start to the level cap playing just Foundry quests and skip the solo campaign all together.

Given the linear nature of the solo campaign, that might not be such a bad choice, either. Being user-generated content, the Foundry quests are very hit-and-miss, often amateurish or filled with a junior-high aesthetic of what would be a cool dungeon (I can’t tell you the number of times Akikki has been hit on by other women because the quest designer just assumed that all player characters were male). On the other hand, many of them are very creative and entertaining, such as the quest in which my character sat down for a game of Call of Cthulhu with a gnome, an elf, and an ogre as the other players. If you play a lot of Forge quests (as I have), you’ll find yourself out-leveling the solo campaign pretty quickly. That’s not really a problem, as the Forge quests scale to your level on-the-fly, so you can always find a challenge. It just means that when you go back to the solo campaign, you might find yourself yawning as you wade through the requisite four-monsters-then-three-monsters-then-four dungeons.

I have not really done much group stuff in Neverwinter yet, so I can’t really say how well that works. There is an easy-to-use dungeon queue, and there are “open tap” landscape events (such as the current massive dragon encounters all over the map) where you can just jump in and go to town if you happen to be there at the right time, and those have been fun. Each zone of the game also has a capstone dungeon, of which I’ve done exactly none, but might like to go back and do once I’ve finished the current solo campaign. I don’t know if those scale or not, but they recommend 4-6 players for all of them, regardless of level. I’ll have to see what they have to offer.

-The Gneech

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Nov 03 2014

Issue Two Is in the Can! So To Speak

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Today the last page of the second issue of Suburban Jungle: Rough Housing went up on the website! The files are sent off to the publisher, including a piece of bonus art that isn’t on the website (but will go up on the Patreon page soon). Naturally, I’m quite pleased about this. 🙂

I’d be very interested to hear any comments or feedback folks might have. I’ve been experimenting with some different art techniques as well as deliberately coming up with things that would be challenging to draw in order to break out of my old habits of “medium shots of people with crossed arms standing around talking all the time.” The art will probably be shifting slightly again between issues, as it’s still not quite where I want it to be, but it’s getting closer. As always, the real tension is between “getting the page right” and “getting the page done in less than a week.”

As I did between issues one and two, I’m going to pause the web page updates between issues two and three, so I can work on rebuilding the buffer, as well as getting some real work done on “The Other Comic,” for which I have scripts and some layouts done but need a few days of uninterrupted work to get actual pages drawn before we’ll make the official announcement and launch date etc. I’m also going to be building an Etsy shop, getting ready for two(!) conventions in December and… oh yeah, selling my house and moving. O.o

Why do I never do things that are easy?

-The Gneech

Suburban Jungle: Rough Housing
FurPlanet (my publisher! <3 )
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