Monday, October 23, 2017

Gaming in the Death Bat Zone These Days


Things have been busy with life and work, which has meant neglect for the blog. Luckily, it's always possible to just chat a bit about what's been going on, talk about the ongoing campaigns....

On Wednesday I continue to rotate two campaigns (each one gets a week in the spotlight). Every other Wednesday sees a continuing tale of a gang of adventurers with too many paladins (and paladin-likes) roaming the desert lands of Galvonar in Lingusia. On the other week we have the ongoing tales of a gang of sailors and adventurers for hire who have now been marauding their way through the Western Nakamura Isles, with each session slowly bringing them closer to visiting mainland Mataclan.

The Galvonar game is level 5, creeping very slowly to level 6. The Western Isles game started at level 1 and everyone just hit level 3. Both games are aimed at more visceral "low key" adventuring, with no obvious "epic plots" looming....this is pure sandbox-style adventure, survival and exploration. The Galvonar game has also been working to defy expectations and norms....the first major "lost temple" they had to explore was actually a forgotten bastion of a good deity, for example. When the players are so used to temples being for ancient evil gods that they rationalize how the "good deity" must have gone evil or rogue then you know I, as GM, both made the right choice and need to break out of my traditional mold a little bit.

Saturdays have been a serious contrast. Saturday mights have been my "historical, or something like that" evening for gaming, with two rotating games using Call of Cthulhu and Mythras, respectively. The Call of Cthulhu game is about ten sessions in and focuses on the weird happenings of coastal Oregon near the towns of Coos Bay and Astoria. It's got a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe (a subject on which I have not yet written but really should, given Twin Peaks: The Return was the best damned television I've seen in decades) but this is Twin Peaks with the characteristic mythos twist. The campaign is really about seven different mythos tales all interlaced and sometimes connected together. The adventurers have been exploring these many weird tales at their own pace and often jumping back and forth between one situation and the next according to where their investigations take them....the net result has been a fascinating proof that you can indeed run Call of Cthulhu quasi-sandbox style. The game takes place in the modern era, and I'm borrowing more than a little bit from Delta Green as well.

The off-night game for Saturday has been Ancient Mesopotamia, powered by Mythras. I plan to put more up on the blog about this setting soon, but the idea is it is a "historically precise" time period set at the dawn of the Sumerian kingdoms, some time during the formative years of the Ubaid dynasty (the first kings of Sumeria), around 2,900-3,300 BC. It's sufficiently early in the era that much of what is known from later periods does not yet apply, or is simplified (or has been mythologized)...smaller number of deities, for example, and the fact that the first direct evidence of mass siege warfare dates to around 3,500 BC. Small donkey-like asses (onagers) are the only real "horse" in the region (mostly Elam), and they are considered prestige animals for nobles to use to haul their chariots.....you don't see the Eurasian horsemen until you get out past Elam, and even then it's still a style in infancy. The professional soldier isn't a thing, yet....every able-bodied male may need to take up arms for the city but needs a viable trade to sustain his or herself outside of the protection of the city....except in Spring when everyone goes to war against the neighbors you hate.

It's been a great deal of fun running a literal swords & sandals epic at the dawn of civilization and the early bronze age. There's magic, and a hint the supernatural is real....but it's tricky, too! Players have noticed that I've been describing magical effects as potentially "influential" but not necessarily real....and the only "magic" people see is in the eyes of the one looking for it. The result is the hint that magic is real and subtle....but potentially also just a matter of belief and not necessarily really there, either.

Anyway.....eventually I'll have content to post related to these campaigns, but not until my players exhaust one or more of the settings. In all four cases it looks like that could be a long ways off, possibly months before any one of these campaigns reaches a conclusion, especially considering all four campaigns are modeled on a sandbox-style approach. This is both cool and rough at the same time, as I have a great interest in running a Cold And Dark Campaign, or trying out Hyperlanes 5E, never mind the fact the new Conan RPG is now out and my copy awaits my chance to grab it at the game store this week! As always....too much gaming goodness, not enough time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Post-Apocalyptic Mythras (Inspiration from Horizon: Zero Dawn)


Recently I've been playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, a PlayStation 4 exclusive that is honestly good enough that if you need a reason to buy a PS4 I would suggest this is it. H:ZD is a story about Aloy, an outcast girl who grows up in a remote woodland along a mountain in the presence of a people called the Nora, who are subsistence scavengers and hunters that survive along the mountainside in a very hostile landscape dominated by animal-like machines that are at best dangerous and at worst actively determined to kill humans. The Nora have developed a wide range of bizarre taboos and traditions designed to keep their people out of trouble, especially when it comes to the ruins of old civilization that dot the landscape, and the nature of the machines.

The setting is pure post-apocalypse and possibly the best take I have yet experienced (Fallout 4 feels trite by comparison, with it's retro-styled take on the after-the-bomb scenario). Horizon: Zero Dawn by contrast is set very far in the future, and the relics of man are not just rusted hulks, but fragmentary debris that blends seamlessly with the natural environment.....you can be exploring and come across a whole city which you will not at first realize is what it is until you begin to notice the rusty skeletal structure hidden beneath the jungle canopy.

If games like The Last of Us and The Division deal with a very recent apocalypse, and Fallout 4 deals with a gonzo sci-fi retro apocalypse, then Horizon: Zero Dawn explores a potential and very eerie "distant survivors of an ancient apocalypse," and it does so very well. It's not clear to me just how far in the future H:ZD is set (it feels like anywhere from a realistic 2-3 centuries to maybe thousands of years....there are subterranean complexes with stalactites that had to have taken a very long time to form, for example*), but it's far enough in the future that almost none of the contemporary tribesmen regard the memory of old man as anything other than religion and myth.

What grabbed me about the game that led to thinking about Mythras is just how "grounded in reality" it is. This concept...that the game is grounded in reality, and runs with that as a baseline, might sound like a no-brainer but trust me, video games regularly have your avatar dealing in crazy levels of power and ability with boundless fatigue. H:ZD does the opposite, with a character who is essentially just a good tracker and hunter, can use a bow, and is a reasonable but not spectacular melee fighter. Aloy is a realistic protagonist, in other words....and her skill set is enhanced only by a relic of ancient technology that lets her see the remnants of the ARG grid that was once the principle communications technology of lost mankind.

Given that the game's character is dependent entirely on realistic skills, I realized that Mythras would be an exceptional fit for this sort of game, one in which your abilities as a nomadic hunter or sedentary woodsman might be the most relevant defining component of your character, and the only special currency for "magic" was the information gleaned from relic tech that let you tap in to a long-lost ARG grid, or an occasional bit of working tech that lets you affect the behavior of the mysterious machines.

Mythras, in fact, would be a fantastic game for this sort of extremely low-tech post-apocalypse. I'm working out some ideas right now, and I'd prefer not to rip off H:ZD whole cloth so the idea would be to work out a good altenative post-apocalyptic reality, but the idea of what amounts to a "realistic future SF P-A game" powered by Mythras has me extremely intrigued right now.



*If the wiki is to be trusted, then at a .12 inch rate/year of formation one can assume many of the stalactites seen in the underground ruins on H:ZD that are on average 4 or more feet long may have taken between 400 and 600 years to form. That's from the date when the complex was "compromised" and began leaking, mind you....or worse yet, from the date that the complex was eventually covered in dirt and began to develop cave-like limestone deposits. Some of the cave formations, assuming they weren't there before the apcalyptic event, are large enough that they may have taken tens of thousands of years to grow as large as they did. So.....yeah. Long time.

OTOH some of the ruins, as ancient and crumbling as they appear to be, may not be as old as the caves suggest.....depending on your source, some studies on the likely rate of decay of a civilization like ours may happen in only centuries, if even that. So there's probably a little artistic license taken here in the game, but considerably less than is seen in, say, Fallout 4 where the setting is allegedly 2 centuries after the apocalypse yet looks and feels like the war happened only 20 years ago. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Loot Crate Problem


This is a topic that's been making the rounds recently, thanks to a sudden explosion of AAA games with very finely tuned Loot Box systems aimed at getting Real Money out of you. The most egregious example under discussion is the loot crate system in Middle Earth: Shadows of War, but Star Wars: Battlefront II is coming in at a close second with a randomized loot system that awards what appear to be very advantageous "pay to win" bonuses. In fact most big budget games coming out in the next few months are going to have some form of loot crate system in place.

This isn't new, of course....the loot crate concept has been gaining steam for a while now, and it's been in place in the Call of Duty franchise, Overwatch and other games for a few years. MMOs have been abusing the loot crate concept for a while now, and layering it with multiple forms of specialized currency, each with their own rules that are ultimately designed to get you, the player, to part with more cash. Many of these games have so far shown restraint, offering up purely cosmetic options in their loot crates.....but this season seems poised to change all of that.

There are people who see pros and cons to loot crates. One of the identified "pros" is that it's a mechanism for people who have more money but less time to stay competitive. Actually, that's the only one I can think of (or find), offhand. The publishers of these games try to spin it as a choice issue.....sure, you can buy our loot crates, they say....but you can also just play the game, acquire currency, and then get the crates in-game without spending any money.

There's a problem with these viewpoints, of course.

The first issue, and far and away the most important one to keep in mind is: the game develpers (and publishers) are in total control of this process. They set the bar for how much time it takes to grind for content (loot crates), vs. how much money it will cost to bypass the time process, and what you get if you are buying what amounts to randomized blind bags. Parents of children in today's world know of the concept of the blind bag/collectible toy conundrum: it's the way a toy manufacturer gets your kid to buy 20 blind bags to get the 8 toys they actually package in the bags (numbers will vary). If they just sold you the 8 toys you'd spend your $5 a pop, but if you don't know what you're getting, it may take you 20 or more purchases to get the same 8 figures....thus putting you in the hole for $100 or more to get the same collection.

Kids are especially susceptible to this predatory marketing tactic, due to the fact that they have not yet developed enough (mentally, emotionally and in the manner which allows them to accurately assess the risk factor of their behavior, especially in abstracts like this) to really appreciate just how insidious this is. As a parent your best bet is to step in and provide the breaks, the controls to the behavior.....but it's not easy, and you can't always be there to remind them that spending all their hard earned money on what amounts to a mess of duplicate toys for the chance of that one figure they are missing is not a good idea.

Add this process to video games, which have an insidious additional mechanism to incentivize you to purchase loot crates by making the grinding process onerous and soul crushing, then add in a large number of kids and adults under 25 (who are still mentally developing their ability to assess risk, and the publishers know it) who may be especially susceptible to falling for a gambling tactic thinly disguised as gamification, and you have a recipe for predatory sales practices aimed at pure exploitation.

"But I don't want to grind for loot, and I have limited time but am willing to spend money to get the crates," you might say. Don't worry, they have you covered! They will insure that the grind is excruciating, and only the most die hard and penniless players will suffer through this process. For the rest of us, we fall in to two categories: people who will never pay for loot crates (a small minority) even when the game provides plenty of bait in the form of some free currency or free crates to try and hook you in....OR you stylize yourself sufficiently well-to-do that you are willing to spend what it takes, even if that could be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Maybe you don't do it all at once, but over time? Sure, it will add up. You might even style yourself one of the legendary whales, the term marketing in games uses to refer to that golden player who is willing to shower their product with cash to "get it all."

If you're one of the few guys in the middle who will play the game and refuse to buy loot crates....congratulations on the self control, it's hard for most players to accomplish this, but you're one of them. Unfortunately the game no longer cares about you. If you paid for the base game? That initial $60 purchase, maybe with a season pass, was the money they knew they could get out of you already, and they got that. Now you either buy in to the game, or play it until you're no longer relevant. Odds are you won't be around that long, anyway, because you value both your time and your money, and realize that the game does not respect your time and it desperately wants your money.

So next time you're playing a loot crate styled game, keep that in mind: every single step along the design process was aimed at getting you, the consumer, to play the game the way they want it. So the question is not "grind vs. pay," got it? That's an arbitrary distinction that was built in to the game to make you think you have to grind or you have to pay. They did not have to make it that way, but they did, to give you the illusion of choice here.

A lot of the new games being criticized are only just now about to come out. We'll have to see what the landscape looks like in the next few months, if these games prosper or wither and die. Unfortunately I am not betting on the latter. The psychology of addictive behavior, combined with the cunning manipulation of gamification, suggests that this approach will continue to prosper. Our best best for those like me who are getting tired of this predatory design practice is to continue to purchase and enjoy the games that have not yet fallen victim to the loot crate design philosophy.


On the plus side, there is (as yet) still no way for this kind of nonsense to affect the tabletop RPG experience....

Monday, October 9, 2017

FrontierSpace is Live and in Print!


If you have heard of DwD Studios then you know their amazing lineup of low-cost, easy-entry games which include the OSR White Box inspired White Lies, the D00Lite powered Barebones Fantasy RPG and Covert Ops Espionage RPG. Now we have a new addition to the fine roster of games: FrontierSpace, the sci fi RPG. I've been reading through the PDF and really like what the game offers. To give you a brief run down:

5 major races (covering five core types including humans, robots and three suitably exotic but familiar races)
12 skills (in the "d00Lite" system skills are comparable to professions or classes you simultaneously level up in....think of it like a sort of professional "bundle" of skills that each one represents)
Lots of neat stuff in character design (homeworld, quirks, background details, charts to roll on)
A very large equioment section with plenty of cybernetic implants
Lots of vehicles and starships and rules for both
A short overview of the default setting
A bunch of pregenerated character examples

FrontierSpace's core mechanics is very simple: roll percentiles against or under a target number that's usually an attribute plus skill modifier. So if you have a 50 agility and +20 in warrior might have a chance of success of 70 or less to dodge out of the way of an attack. Modifiers and situational bits apply, but the basic rules in the game cover about 14 pages of actual content.

Like the other DWD Studios games, this one is complete in one modest volume. It's worth noting that unlike some other recent releases this is a complete game in its own right. The world of FrontierSpace is designed for straight science fiction and provides no rules of psionics, weird space magic (the Force cough cough) or anything else....though I imagine you could hack Barebones Fantasy to add some of that to your game if that were your thing.

If you're looking for an easy pickup and play system, with lots of details but a mechanically lite approach that still has plenty of working parts, this is a great choice. Very much recommended!


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Justice League's Latest Trailer

November 17th is not that far away! I am completely stoked...I think I'm looking foward to this one more than Star Wars.....(well, almost, maybe):



Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Diving in to Mass Effect: Andromeda (Out of Touch Dad Game Review)

When this game released it was to an instant firehouse of disdain and mockery, with never-ending videos of goofy animations and awkward glitches filling up the news of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Some of my cohorts reported also being less than satisfied with it. I tried the PC version briefly (before the wave of patches that released) and was met with a combination of some glitchy behavior and characters who didn't sync well with their environment, as well as the harsh reality that the lead female character (Ryder the sister) looked....well....weird.

Cut to the near present, snagging a cheap sale copy of ME:A on Xbox One I decided to check it out with all the patches in place as well as Bioware's confirmation that there is no future DLC planned that I need to wait for (I'm still annoyed that the Citadel DLC came out for Mass Effect 3 well after I finished the campaign; it was very anti-climactic to try and go back and finish that DLC.)

So the good news as I see it: the patches seem to have fixed all the animation issues I had noticed on PC, or at least Xbox One certainly doesn't have them. The graphics are sharper than I could get on my PC edition (I have a pretty nice rig but ultimately some games are just designed to run and play more smoothly on console) and the HDR effect on the Xbox One S is a nice touch. The character models are not bothering me this time, although I didn't even both to go for Ryder's default animation and made her a distinctly more asian gal with features that are less off-putting.

The first time I tried the game I felt like the rush to get people down to an alien world (Habitat 7) and in to a firefight was a bit too contrived and worked against the intended grain of the tale (colonists from an entire other Galaxy, showing up to their new home fully armed and ready to rumble). Now giving it more time and many more hours in I have to say...this feels like a pretty decent game to me, with all of the "Mass Effect bells & whistles" I like. But given how much everyone crapped on this game (and on ME3 previously, which I also liked), I guess perhaps the IP was doomed in the eyes of the teeming masses before it ever had a chance. EA releasing it with obvious animation and character issues was icing on the cake.

In the end, it just really amuses me that Destiny 2 is suddenly the darling of the hours, ME:A remains one of the more excessively reviled games for "reasons" and so the internet trundles on. Not that there's anything wrong with Destiny 2.....I have always been a Destiny fan, too; but Destiny 2 is really not any different than its predecessor....other than the fact that it had immensely better marketing and apparently knew how to target the fickle gaming audience just right. Go figure.....either way I win, though.

Well, except for the fact that EA/Bioware may have cancelled future ME plans indefinitely. Sigh. Maybe next time they can get Nathan Fillon to voice act a snarky, charming rogue robot and then rake in the dough. Fillon = profit!


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Zweihander RPG - Monstrously Large Tome in the Warhammer Vein

I only recently learned of the Zweihander RPG, from Grim & Perilous Studios, but let me tell ya...this thing's a beast! 2017 is shaping up to be a very interesting year for alternative fantasy RPGs and this one is no exception. At 692 pages this is a monster of a book, but from scanning the PDF it appears to be very complete.

Zweihander appears to be an "inspired" retro RPG based on classic Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (mainly 1st edition and 2nd edition influence it looks like). For those of you unfamiliar with this style of fantasy RPG, it's nestled deep in the grim, gritty and dark domain of a grimy, plague-ridden pseudo-Europe  where life is both cheap and hard.

I've got the PDF but the POD is on the way, after which I'll have proper time to absorb it (let's me catch up on Dungeon Fantasy while waiting). I'm not sure how much longer this promotion is on for, but if you'd like the print edition go support Tenkar's Tavern through this link for a specialoffer on the print copy for only $44.99, which is discounted from $59.99. Also, the PDF is only $13.00 right now.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

AAW Kickstarter: Mini-Dungeon Tome

This one I'm really excited for: Adventure-A-Week produces a ton of content for both Pathfinder and D&D 5E. They have a line of two-page mini dungeons that are fun and easy to integrate into short adventures or to cover you for a night when you haven't had time to prep, and less time to read up on a normal sized adventure. I've used a few already for D&D and even adapted a couple to Savage Worlds with no fuss. They now have a Kickstarter for a hardcover compendium of these adventures, for the system of your choice:


This one's a no brainer! Getting it, backed. These modules are incredibly functional and extremely easy for a time-strapped GM or a GM who just needs "that thing" to drop on the map somewhere. If you're in to hexcrawling this book provides a lot of utility, too.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is in the Wild

My Kickstarter set of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, including the Companion and GM Screen, arrived today. It's a monstrous set: the box is HUGE in traditional over-the-top Steve Jackson Games form, with four core books, a module book, dozens of figurine stand-ups, the stands, dice, and two large maps.

It's so much that I doubt I'll have time to absorb it for the next few days....but it is most definitely the GURPS experience, just pared down to the relevant Dungeon Fantasy bits. Off hand the book seems to cover most of what the DF line has presented in the past, but one can clearly gain additional benefit from many of the other DF modules out there (I noticed for example that there are only a few racial options in the boxed set).

I hope this sells well, and it encourages SJ Games to produce more DF books in print. I'll talk more about it soon once I've had a chance to properly read through the beast...


Monday, September 18, 2017

D&D 5E: Wolven in the Age of Strife

Work on my 5E edition of Keepers of Lingusia is coming along (slowly) but here's a recent entry:



The Vyrkasha Wolven (beastmen)
CR 1/2 (50 XP)
LN medium humanoid (wolven)
Initiative +2
DEFENSE
AC 15 (studded leather, shield)
HP 9 (2D8)
OFFENSE
Speed 30 feet (40 feet when running on all fours).
Multiattack wolven may make one bit and one scimitar attack per round
Melee Attack bite +3 attack (one target, reach 5’), 1D4+1 piercing damage
Melee Attack scimitar +3 attack (one target, reach 5’), 1D6+1 slashing damage
Ranged Attack long bow +4 attack (one target, ranged), 1D8+2 piercing damage
Statistics
STR 12 (+1), DEX 14 (+2), CON 11 (+0), INT 11 (0), WIS 12 (+1), CHA 10 (0)
Languages: common, wolven
Senses: scent, darkvision
Skills: Intimidation +3, Perception +3, Survival +3
TRAITS
Scent: Wolven are gifted with exceptional noses and this grants them advantage on any roll to track or detect a target in which scent could play a role. The target could be up to a week old and the wolven would still gain this tracking benefit; if the target is more than a week old, or recent rains have eliminated evidence of the scent then the advantage may disappear (at GM’s discretion).

Quadruped: While running on all fours the wolven gains a Speed of 40 feet. Wolven can shift to all fours as part of a move action, and can also stand back up in the same move action for a 5 foot cost.

Wolven Characters: 

Wolven gain the following traits if run as player characters:

Scent: see details above; grants advantage on any perception or survival skill related to smell and tracking.

Bite: wolven can bite as an attack, dealing 1D4+STR modifier damage. This is considered an unarmed attack.

Run on All Fours: the wolven are ideally suited to running on all fours, and build leather armor with slings to let them carry weapons easily and without hindrance while running. To many men, this has made wolven look like they transform into wolves, but in fact the wolven are simply adept at moving this way. While running on all fours the wolven gains a Speed of 40 feet. Wolven can shift to all fours as part of a move action, and can also stand back up in the same move action for a 5 foot cost.

Dark Vision: Wolven have dark vision and can see exceptionally well in starlight.

Attribute Bonuses: Wolven gain a +1 to Dexterity and Wisdom.

Languages: Wolven know their native tongue (vyrkashan) and one of two possible human tongues: the northern tongue (Zarnian or Autrengardian) if they dwell in the Deep North or Middle Tongue (common) if they dwell in the southern reaches of the Deep Wilderness. Wolven of other worlds know common.

Vyrkasha wolven are indigenous northern beastmen who dwell in the region known as the Northern Wilderness. In the Era of Strife the wolven are engaged in a fierce territorial battle with gnolls who seek to gain control of the vast peninsular region. The wolven are strong but hampered by being divided over seven tribes. Still, the tribes often work together against the demon-worshipping gnolls.

Wolven structure their tribes around a chieftain, and usually among every 10-15 chieftains a warlord will arise who serves to coordinate and protect the tribes and families in his domain of control. There are currently seven “kingdoms” in the northern Wilderness.

Wolven regard the deity Wolfon as their creator deity, but they also pay reverent dedication to the Emerald Queen, a great Dragon which dwells in the Emerald Green of the deep north, and is believed by some to be the Brood Mother of all dragons. Others say the Emerald Queen is favored daughter of ancient Hazyk, who dwells in the Domain of his own name, and is believed to be a ten-thousand year old direct son of Tiamat.

Vyrkasha priests of Wolfon tend to be cleric/rangers while those who serve the Emerald Queen are usually druids. Most adventuring wolven are known to be barbarians and rangers. A few wolven bards exist, calling themselves skalds as the Austrengardian bards do.

The name Vyrkasha is the title wolven ascribe to their own kind, and means "the people" in their own tongue. Wolven is the title applied by the men of the north and south.