Mar 04 2011

March 4th: Happy Gamemaster Day!

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There is a burgeoning movement in the gaming community to declare today, the anniversary of the death of Gary Gygax, as “Gamemaster Day” in his honor. (And it’s also “march forth,” get it?) I hereby endorse this idea!

So wish your local GM a happy Gamemaster Day! It might save you from a TPK. 😉

-The Gneech

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Feb 25 2011

Encounters, Resources, Difficulty, and Uber PCs

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Feh … bad sleep for two nights in a row makes The Gneech an unhappy camper. -.- But that’s not what this post is about! This post is about my Pathfinder game.

The characters hit 12th level after last session, right in the middle of their assault on the hill giant fortress. On the one hand, this is a good thing, as they will gain extra resources (in the form of new hit points, spells, and so on), and I was a bit concerned that this scenario would use them all up ‘cos they don’t get a rest until they rescue Lord Jaarmath from the giants’ clutches.

On the other hand, this means I also have to refactor the rest of the scenario to account for the fact that I’ve now got a 12th level party instead of an 11th. I could just leave it as written and let them faceroll through it (after all, it’s the same giant fortress they were in 5 minutes ago, right?) … but I know from experience that my players generally prefer to be chewed up, and they tend to tear right through anything I throw at them anyway.

Some of that is due to the nature of traditional D&D encounter design: the idea is that instead of one or two “do-or-die” encounters, you have several different encounters that eventually use up your spells, hit points, healing, and so on. This model worked fine in the context of going down into self-restocking dungeons of rooms connected by corridors populated by wandering monsters … but it doesn’t really go quite so well in a story-building context. In a game where you’re making quick strikes into monster territory to achieve a specific goal, then getting out again, it suddenly becomes a much more effective strategy to pour everything you’ve got into every encounter, then get the heck out and rest up.

Thus was born the “15-minute workday,” which itself led to 4E’s radically altered nature of being balanced by encounter, rather than by day. That makes it much easier to build and balance cool encounters, but unfortunately, it also leads to one of 4E’s biggest problems, namely that any given encounter doesn’t really make a difference. Unless someone uses one of their daily powers or by some quirk of fate a character actually manages to die, you’re in exactly the same shape at the bottom of the dungeon as you were in the first room: fresh as a daisy and rarin’ to go.

Navigating the tricky path of making it tough enough on the party that they feel like they’ve had a fight, versus not making each encounter so hard that they use up all of their resources and retreat, is further complicated by a systemic imbalance in Pathfinder, which it inherited from 3.x: the sheer uberness of fighters.

In previous editions, fighters were something of a pointless class, because all they did was fight, and not that much better than anyone else. Yeah, they had the best one-on-one combat stats, but not by so much that it really made them stand out. Once the wizard got fireball, the fighter was pretty much relegated to the role of “speed bump.” So when the new edition came, they decided fighters needed a boost, and what a boost they got! Nowadays, against most opponents, a decently-built fighter can just tear through anything at-level, and kills things below their level simply by flexing their biceps. Other than a well-placed confusion spell, the only thing that slowed fighters down in 3.x was, quite literally, being slowed down: armor gimped their movement … at least until they found those boots of striding and springing.

Pathfinder has removed even this restriction, by giving fighters the ability to move at-speed in increasingly heavy armor as they level up (thus causing the paladin to lose their “mobility on the battlefield” edge … but that’s for another post).

Now, I’m not begrudging fighters their day in the sun; I like playing fighters myself. But the simple fact of the matter is that in the majority of encounters, I have to design it with an eye on “what to do about the fighter” first. Fighters do a ton of damage — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has enough hit points to not get one-punched. Fighters also have real high defenses — so I have to make sure every non-mook critter in the encounter has some way to actually hit, either from bumping their stats or doing a lot of “Aid Another.” It usually takes two on-level opponents (typically a spellcaster and their bodyguard) just to keep the fighter engaged for more than a round or two, which by itself blows away the encounter XP budget. Adding additional foes to give the rest of the party something to do means that every combat encounter is APL+1 or APL+2 at a minimum.

This can also lead to a certain amount of “why are we here”-ing from other party members. Wizards’ AoE can hurt lots of foes at once, giving them something useful to do (assuming there are lots of foes to hurt); but rangers and rogues especially find themselves playing a distant second fiddle once the combat starts. A good adventure should hopefully have something other than combat in it, of course, giving the stealthy-skillster types the opportunity to do their thing, but let’s face it: the phrase “kill monsters and take their stuff” didn’t come from nowhere. D&D is a very “fighty” game, and the occasional Disable Device check is never going to make up for being consistently outclassed in every fight.

I also have to contend with the fact that half of my party has resistance to fire. How are all those drakes and fire giants going to hurt them now? >.< They can go swimming in lava for cryin’ out loud!

-The Gneech

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Jan 12 2011

And D&D Takes Another Hit.

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There go the miniatures. Not surprised, given how quiet the line has been, but still disappointed. My purchases from WotC now consist of Dungeon Tiles and Gamma World, and there’s only so long those can sustain.

Also of, er, interest(?) in the same article: the website stops pretending to be Dragon magazine, and the addition of collectible cards as a core mechanic (not kidding).

I hate seeing a great legacy botched like this. 🙁 But at least there’s still Pathfinder!

-The Gneech

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Dec 06 2010

The Intersection of Pathfinder and 4E

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These days for my fantasy gaming I’m reasonably content with Pathfinder. It’s not “the perfect game,” but it works and irons out some of the kinks from D&D 3.5, so I’m fine with it. Particularly as Hero Lab continues to develop into a smoother, easier-to-use desktop tool, I’m getting back into my “3.5 + E-Tools” happy place.

I will be the first to admit, however, that before their recent abandonment by WotC [1], the 4E desktop tools, especially the monster builder, were mighty nice. Looking back at the scenario I came up with for our 4E playtest, I gotta say that being able to quickly bang out sea devils and harpies that could be used against 1st-level heroes with the click of a button was pretty sweet.

The Pathfinder community has been making strides in that direction, especially with the concept of “simple templates” and emphasis on “reskinning.” For instance, if I wanted to make a 1st level sea devil for PF, I could slap a “negative advanced template” on it once or twice or even just take an orc, replace “Ferocity” with “Blood Frenzy,” and go. The players are never going to see the stat block, so the fact that the weapon entry says “falchion” instead of “trident” doesn’t really matter.

But the big thing is training yourself to think that way. Back in my HERO System days, thinking of the game stats and the “special effects” as separate entities was as natural as air, but there’s just something about having books full of monster stats (and very detailed tables about just what size hit die undead should have as opposed to monstrous humanoids) that makes it easy to get caught up in all that fiddly-to-no-real-good-purpose math.

If anything, that was 4E’s brilliant mental breakthrough: figure out the mechanics for what you want the creature to actually do, and then skin it to suit. What makes a sea devil a sea devil, besides the green skin and flippers? It’s going into a shark-like (or piranha-like) frenzy at the smell of blood, not that they have 2d10 hit dice. So once you’ve got that aspect, all you need to do is tweak the numbers up and down to give your players a good fight. And the Monster Builder software made that very easy, in a way that Hero Lab just doesn’t quite at this time.

In a similar vein, I’ve started taking to putting in all kinds of things that make the stat block work mathematically, and then changing the part the players actually see. For instance, I tried a variety of ideas to bring the minion mechanic into Pathfinder and never really did come to a conclusion that was the quick-and-easy convert I wanted. So what I started doing instead was using low-CR monsters and giving them cheesy equipment — Ogre with a +3 greatclub, baby! — so that they’d actually have a chance to hit the AC 30+ monster PCs I’ve got. But then when the ogre goes down, what actually “drops” is the regular gear you’d expect to see on an ogre.

Does this hurt the game? I’d say no. Remember that the rules are there to facilitate having a good time, not as an end to themselves. Tearing through an army of ogres that are still at least a little dangerous is fun; tearing through an army of ogres that can’t possibly hit back is just a math exercise. But at the end of the day, being able to loot two dozen +3 greatclubs would neither make a lick of sense, nor be good for the long-term gameplay due to the out-of-whack treasure reward.

What I’d really like in the game “out of the box” would be to be able to control every stat a critter has, independent of every other stat. Pathfinder, being based on 3.x, has all kinds of intricate rules for building critters based on their type (“Aberrations” have good Will saves and mediocre hit dice, while “Constructs” have good hit dice and great BAB, but rotten saving throws, etc.). I can see why this was done, but I don’t actually think it adds enough to the game to be worth the hoops it makes you jump through. And of course, as the GM, if I want a construct to have an awesome Will save, there’s no reason I can’t say “Sim salabim, it is done!” But I do think that the 4E model, in which a critter’s stats are based on whether it’s going to be a melee bruiser or a stealthy sneaker, and then you give it “signature” abilities to establish its theme, is a better model overall.

I am working on a “Quickie Monster Generator” program that will do some of these things that I’m wishing for, largely as an exercise to keep up my programming chops as much as anything. But I hope to be able to release it as a freebie utility for other Pathfinder GMs in time.

-The Gneech

[1] This is not strictly accurate … WotC is redoing them as an online-only subscription service. But as I am no longer subscribed and doubt that I’m likely to subscribe again for the foreseeable, the net result is the same.

Nov 24 2010

Whither (Wither?) the Rogue?

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Two seek adventure...Something that struck me recently as I was pondering the state of roleplaying games, is “Whatever happened to the rogue?” Is it my imagination, or did somewhere along the way the whole rogue concept get neutered? Do games have thieves’ guilds any more? Have locked, trapped doors really disappeared or does it just feel that way? And when was the last time anybody actually took ranks in Thieves’ Cant?

Granted, the rogue (thief, burglar, scout, choose your term) was always something of a problem character, particularly in a dungeon setting. Without townsfolk to pick the pockets of, it wasn’t that uncommon that he’d try to skim an extra share off of party loot, and worse, as they guy forever running up ahead, he was prone to hogging the GM’s time and attention for long stretches, leading to three bored players watching one guy having a ball … with the net result being that the rogue annoyed everybody at the table and generally made a crap game without a lot of careful compensation by the GM.

There are ways around that problem, such as putting trap-type hazards in the room with the monsters instead of sitting alone in the hallway, so the rogue’s moment to shine comes at the same time as the fighter’s and the wizard’s, but most groups seemed to handle it best by either all being rogues (or rogues-at-heart), or by beating the rogue senseless until he learned to behave as a functional party member, and then letting him “get away with it” from time to time to throw him a bone.

2E seemed in some ways to be the golden age of the rogue, with Lankhmar — the city of wickedness from which the Grey Mouser himself sprang — being an officially-licensed setting, and the awesome-from-start-to-finish Complete Book of Thieves, which included very nifty ideas on an all-rogue campaign (and got a lot of use as background during my various Fantasy HERO campaigns in Richmond).

3.x, by comparison, wasn’t real kind to rogues … traps, when they appeared, were generally designed so they could hurt anybody in the party, including the fighter, but the poor rogue only had a squishy little d6 hit die and a modest AC. Granted, if the trap called for a Ref save, the rogue would just point and laugh while everybody else went up in flames. But aside from unlocking the occasional door and un-poisoned-darting the occasional chest, the rogue didn’t actually have that much to do in the new “back to the dungeon” world.

4E was the unkindest cut of all, where a rogue’s job had nothing to do with sneaking, scouting, or even stealing treasure, but was all about trying to out-damage the fighter. Everything that used to make a rogue interesting (at least from the traditional rogue’s point of view that killing monsters is a dull and inelegant way of getting what you want) got lumped into a single skill called “Thievery,” and then a bunch of pointless combat skills were piled on.

I’m told that Essentials has relabeled “the mobile damage-dealer class” as thief instead of rogue, but I don’t have the product, so I can’t say if any actual burglary has been added back to the class. But given that “Essentials” is still 4E at its core, my suspicion is that at the end of the day, it’s still all about how you stab things, with infiltration and espionage still considered part of that boring stuff that happens between combats.

And don’t even get me started on playing a rogue-type in a computer game. I imagine the Thief: The Dark Project series probably did reasonably well, I never could get interested in the series … but for my money the only CRPG that really did the right thing by rogues was Quest For Glory II — which came out in 1991. (Although I see here there’s a recent remake! I’ll have to try that out.)

Anyway! I guess there’s not much left to say on the topic, other than a general lament on the current state of gaming. My current Pathfinder campaign has only a part-time rogue in the form of a ranger/rogue archer who dodges dragons’ breath weapons with amazing regularity, but has never picked a pocket in his life. I added a barbarian/rogue NPC to the party with the intent of adding some more tricks-and-trapsy goodness, but the last time a trap showed up, the party tank walked up to it and deliberately set it off, just sucking up the damage. (It was a great comic moment, but a low point in party subtlety to say the least.) Maybe later today I’ll roll up a rogue or two in Hero Labs just for the fun of it. They’ll get saved in the “Characters I’ll Never Get to Play” folder with the rest, but at least they’ll have lots of company. ;P

-The Gneech

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Oct 24 2010

Gamma World — Cheese and Leaky Fusion Rifles (Review)

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Until recently, when I heard the phrase “The Big Mistake” in reference to gaming, my first thought was of the release of 4E, which I dislike intensely. But when I heard they were going to use the same system as a framework for a new edition of Gamma World, I decided it would be worth a try. After all, a lot of what irritates me about 4E — characters are a random bunch of powers that don’t really make any sense, storytelling has been systemically shoved aside in favor of a series of pumped-up encounters that may or may not be related to each other, and so on — are actually core conceits of Gamma World and have been since 1978. And though I’ve been a gamer since the Reagan administration, I’ve never actually played Gamma World before, so it seemed like a good time.

The premise of Gamma World, for those who don’t know, is that reality broke a long time ago (nuclear war in previous editions, a “Big Mistake” with the Large Hadron Collider in this one), and your characters live in the crazy post-apocalyptic world that arose from it, encountering mutants, monsters, and wacky high-tech stuff in the ruins of Ancient cities and installations. And of course, reality is still a bit wonky, causing you to mutate randomly during the course of play. It’s two parts Logan’s Run, two parts Escape From New York, and one part The Muppet Show, although you could also think of it as Fluxx: The Roleplaying Game.

The new boxed set includes a smallish (and a bit flimsy) rules booklet, a deck of Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards, a sealed booster deck of same (more on that below), a pair of battle maps showing several encounter locations in the starter scenario, two sheets of heavy cardstock character/monster counters, and some (smallish) character sheets. Aside from the usual selection of gaming dice, the box contains all you technically need to play, although I recommend you download the character sheet and print it at full page size. A 4E D&D GM screen might also be handy, and as I have a wide variety of miniatures, I used those instead of the counters, but that’s a personal preference.

Character generation, at least if you do it “right,” is completely random. (The game allows for you to have some choice, if you really insist on it, but has no qualms about calling you a big baby if you do.) Thus, my players ended up with:

  • Lee: A gravity-controlling android with a high Charisma and a Dexterity of 4, named Downshift.
  • Jamie: A permanently-on-fire cat-anthro, sort of a furry version of The Human Torch, named Blaze.
  • Josh: A radioactive swarm of rats who share a hive mind, named Mick.
  • Laurie: A huge human with telekinesis, named Gina.
  • Me (NPC): A superfast human who can create duplicates of himself from alternate realities, named Buzz.

Due to the random generation of gear, almost everyone in the party ended up owning 5 gallons of fuel — but nobody had a vehicle aside from a couple of horses. Mick (the rat swarm) did have a canoe, which I thought would make a cool chariot pulled by the horses, but he traded it in for two rolls on the Ancient Junk table, ending up with a boardgame and a string of Christmas lights, which he actually liked much better. (“I can make them light up, see!” *bzzt*)

Unfortunately, one big problem Gamma World shares with 4E is a philosophy that “roleplaying is that boring stuff that happens between encounters,” and this is reflected in the starter scenario. A paragraph informs you that robots have been randomly bothering “the village” and so your characters are on the first encounter map because they’ve tracked the robots up here.

Um, what village would that be? Why should the characters give a flap about that? What is the world like when there are no dice involved? The game doesn’t care. Heck, they didn’t even bother to give the main “boss” of the starter scenario a name. That annoys the heck out of me, because I care a lot more about that stuff than I do about whether combat is balanced or not. So, in the two hours or so of prep time I had, I whipped up the village of Dozer Hole, including a saloon called “Let ‘er Rip” and its hawkoid owner, and even (*gasp*) came up with a working name and backstory for the baddies.

With the help of the randomly-determined gear the party was carrying, we worked out that they were a traveling band of adventurers who used to have a car, but that it underwent some sort of catastrophic existence failure. So they scavenged the fuel and are now looking for another car, which is what brought them to Dozer Hole. However, Dozer Hole operates almost entirely on a local currency called “bucks,” which the party naturally had none of. Fortunately, Kaziza (the owner of Let ‘er Rip) would extend them 500 bucks worth of credit if they’d take care of the problem of robots trundling down out of the hills and blowing up at their town.

A couple of skill checks in the book provide a little more information, but not much. There are raiders in the hills; the robots are products of “Stupendico” (Kid-Tested, Mom-Approved!). A while back some people came around Nameless Village asking about robots and were rebuffed. If I’d had more time to flesh out this part, there could have been a lot of wacky fun interacting with the colorful postapocalyticish eccentrics of Dozer Hole — but the book didn’t provide any and I didn’t have time to come up with ’em. So we breezed over this bit and went right to the first encounter (and by extension, right to the first fight).

I won’t detail what they found in the mountains to avoid spoilers, but Gamma World is powered by the 4E engine, so combat, apart from being just a hair sillier, felt pretty much the same. Lots of random shifting, lots of trying to figure out some kind of power to bring to bear instead of doing a “basic attack,” and so on. Although one improvement here is that doing a basic attack feels less like “a turn wasted” in this version; I think this may be because there are fewer powers generally (and no feats at all).

There is also a lot less fluctuation in hit points; although you can still take a Second Wind, there are no Healing Surges — and no cleric — so for the most part hit points go in only one direction: down. This means you have to be a lot more careful about surviving any given encounter (and take your second wind as soon as you’re bloodied), because there’s no healer to pull your bacon out of the fire. On the other hand, you regain all of your hit points whenever you take a short rest, so assuming you stay up longer than the bad guys do, you’ll be fine at the beginning of your next encounter.

“Treasure” is awarded in the form of draws from the Omega Tech deck, representing high tech stuff you find either on your dead foes or lying in the corner of the room ignored. Omega Tech tends to be stuff that alternates between being very useful, or blowing up in your face, such as the little buddy robot Downshift found, which follows him around and shoots at his foes, but if it misses his foe shoots at him instead. (I used a miniature of K-9 from Doctor Who for that — it seemed appropriate.) At the end of an encounter, any piece of Omega Tech you’ve used has a certain chance of breaking, although some of them are salvageable as less-powerful permanent versions of themselves. The idea is that you will gain and lose and gain and lose Omega Tech cards a lot over the course of the game.

Similarly, Alpha Mutations (powers which are things like growing an extra pair of limbs, or suddenly developing laser beam eyes) change at the start of every game session, during every extended rest, and can theoretically change during the course of the game if there’s some triggering event (referred to as “Alpha Flux”). The powers are on cards, and whenever Alpha Flux occurs, you discard your current one and draw a new one.

Players can (and the WotC marketing department hopes they will) create their own personal deck of Alpha Mutations or Omega Tech by buying booster decks — and is anybody surprised by this? There are rules as to how a personal deck must be built, so you don’t just build yourself a deck of nothing but Fusion Rifles over and over, but it does allow you to create a themed deck that will work with your character. If you’re a psychic, for instance, you might build a deck heavy on psionic mutations. Of course, if your character croaks and you then roll up a timeshifted seismic, all those psi cards are going to be less useful. But given that it would probably take three or four booster packs to build a workable deck, you’ve probably got spares to reconfigure with.

So! What’s the overall impression?

The Good

If you’re an old-school gamer, you are probably already familiar with Gamma World, or at least familiar enough to know if you’ll like it or not. Jamie, who is an old-school GW player, says that it works much better with “a more modern rule system,” and certainly the inherent weirdness of the setting is the only thing that can make 4E work for me. The fact that the critters are on-level compatible with those from D&D is a big plus — all you need to do to create a funky new mutant for your characters to face (since there are only two modules announced and they won’t be out for months) is pull something out of a 4E adventure and re-skin it with more psychotropia added.

The Bad

The starter scenario included is, in a word, weak. It’s a super-linear dungeon crawl designed to escort players from fight to fight with no background to speak of and almost no flavor at all. Considering how wild, crazy, and awesome the world is described as being, this is a very lackluster way to introduce people to it. The rules are 4E nonsense, but the world is also nonsense, so it fits. I will say that although the idea of booster decks of cards is a very blatant “Actual Game Sold Separately” mechanic, it doesn’t bother me because the game is perfectly playable without it and the constant fluctuation of powers and gadgets is part of the world. I can also see how, if you’ve been playing a while, seeing the same cards over and over would quickly get tiresome. Whole splatbooks full of nothing but new origins for players who don’t want to be another mind-reading hawk-man would not be out of line for a hardcore group.

The Ugly

The stat blocks for several monsters are wonky at best — I was transcribing foes from the adventure into WordPerfect so I could have a print-out handy instead of having to flip pages during the course of the game and I encountered badly-calculated ability score bonuses so many times that I had to double-check they hadn’t changed how those were figured. Who knows what other, less-obvious problems there were! I didn’t have time to refigure stat blocks, so I don’t know how off the numbers actually were. (The good news is, at first level at least, +1/-1 either way is probably the largest variation, so it wasn’t really an issue.) Also, the main book is small (5″ x 7″ -ish) but was clearly laid out for full 8.5″ x 11″ size — so the type is tiny and can be hard to read. On top of that, the binding is cheapy … one read-through and the spine was already broken.

Final Verdict

It’s OTT, silly fun, and is worth rotating in to your game schedule. However, at least until the modules come out, you’ll have to do a lot of the heavy lifting of making a viable campaign out of it, and if the starter scenario is any indication, you’ll still have to do a lot of the heavy lifting then. On the other hand, character development tops out at 10th level (no Paragon or Epic Gamma World, it seems), so campaigns will tend to be short and sweet, which is probably for the best. Like the MST3K mantra says, “Just repeat to yourself, it’s just a game, I should really just relax.”

-The Gneech

PS: Josh’s mini-review. Same conclusions, many fewer words. 😉