Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unboxing the "Robotech RPG Tactics" minatures game

    Christmas was very good to me in several ways, one of which is geeky enough to be worth mentioning here.  My friends got me the Robotech RPG Tactics game this year.  Now, Robotech is going a ways back, to the 80s in fact, so some of you whipper-snappers out there might not recognize it.  Robotech was an American cartoon created by splicing together 3 different Japanese anime and dubbing new dialogue.  It was the first anime I ever saw as a kid, and I loved it.  Even though it was animated, it was not a "kiddy" cartoon.  One of the main characters dies, on-screen, in the first season (ah Roy, we'll miss you).  It had some pretty mature writing for its time.  Over the years I have gotten the RPG books published by Palladium Books (though I'm the only one who knows the series, so I've never really played it - but we have played Rifts which is mechanically the same) and the DVDs of the show.  When I saw the Tactics game, and realized I had a chance to get some miniatures of the mecha, I was ecstatic.
    So here is a look at it, I haven't set it up or played it yet (for reasons that will become obvious soon).

    First, the box itself, front and back-
    Now, I took these pictures with my cell phone, and cropped them down a bit, so they are not fantastic.  They should be good enough to give you an idea of the game though.
    Upon opening the box something jumps out at you - all the tiny little plastic figures you get to assemble-
    This is old school miniatures.  None of that easy, one-piece stuff - these bad boys come in lots and lots of tiny, even teeny-tiny, pieces you get to painstakingly paint and glue by hand.  Here's the directions for some of the RDF mecha-
     And here are the pieces for the Veritech in Jet Mode-
    And the Zentradi Officer's Battle Pod-
    In all there are a lot of little plastic pieces, in fact a terrifying number of little plastic pieces.  This is the one thing that I am not so happy about thus far - I shudder thinking about just how many hours it's going to take me to assemble all this stuff.  Why, oh why, couldn't they have made the models either one piece or body and limbs?-
    And while the models are bad enough, the stickers to put on the RDF logos and such are incredibly tiny-

    You do get more than just the models of course, there are cards, dice and counters to go along with the rulebook-
    The extras are divided into the RDF and Zentradi stuff, here's a bit closer look at the RDF cards and such-
    Now, this game (from the little I've read so far) is a table-top miniatures battle game like Warhammer 40k or Battletech.  So there is something rather lacking in the box - a map or any kind of terrain.  I was wondering if I could perhaps use some old Battletech hex maps, but the bases for the Tactics miniatures is huge - here's shot of the round Tactics base with a Pathfinder lizard man on top of it-
    It looks way bigger then the Battletech hexes, so I guess if I want some terrain to play on I'll have to make it myself (which is going to add even more hours to the assembly process).

    In all I'm delighted to have the game, but it is not for the faint of heart.  "Some assembly required" is an understatement.  Now, all the work you put into it makes having it that much sweeter, but it's going to take a lot of weekends to get these guys together.  Another problem is that you have to make your own terrain, if you want any, and you also have to make your own padding.  The box looks big enough to hold the completed figures, but it has no foam padding of any kind - so you'll need to cut your own padding to protect your time investment, or put the competed figures in something else.
    This is really a game for the Robotech nut/fanatic.  I have a hard time seeing someone casually picking up this game.  Even a Warhammer or Battletech player might have a hard time getting used to it (though there are some very detailed and intricate Warhammer 40k models I've seen, so they might take to it easiest).  The time investment even before you play will be a turn-off to a lot of people.  I haven't yet read all of the rules, well enough to comment on them at least, since you can't really play until you finish assembling the pieces.  When (or if) I play I'll write a review of it.

    Really though, playing is somewhat secondary.  The joy of owning the models, of being able to (someday) display them on a shelf, is the biggest attraction.  According to an insert, they are going to come out with more figures, some of which have never been available as models or toys before - like the Zentradi Female Power Armor.  That's the coolest thing about this game, having them actually make the figures, new toys for a series that has been "out of print" for decades now.
    It is an expensive trip down memory lane though - the box cost $100 (I have really good friends) and the few expansion boxes, each containing only 4-6 models, cost around $40.  that's quite the price tag when added to all the work you have put into assembling the darn thing.

    Still, to revisit the childhood love of Robotech, I'll no doubt be buying more as they come out.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Homeless Nerd Reviews- The Hobbit trilogy

    I'm not sure how to review this.
    To say that it is too long, frequently too boring and ho-hum eye candy was something that was obvious when they announced making a short novel into an epic movie trilogy.
    Sara helped me work it out - I wish I could get back the wasted 7 hours of my life watching these movies, and have only seen the two good hours of Martin Freeman as Bilbo.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Someone Else's Christmas Thoughts ('cause they're better than my own)

    This has been a terrible year.  After starting by losing my Grandfather to cancer, to losing a High School friend and roommate to cancer, to my Aunt discovering she had cancer and my sweetheart's Grandfather dying from cancer - it has been rough.
    Now, to help take the edge off things I like to read, it's a comedy website that also tends to have some really cool and thought-provoking articles.  I'm going to link to one of them below, because I think it's just perfect for this time of the year - and it hit me deeper than I'm sure it will most other people:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts on Pathfinder's Rise of the Runelords - Part 2

    So, in my last post I described my experiences with the Rise of the Runelords campaign for Pathfinder.  Seeings how it is 6 chapters long, I made it through the first 3 before my post seemed to be getting a little long as well.  So here is my breakdown of the final half of the campaign.

    I will try not to reveal anything too important (let me rephrase that, the meta-story really is not very important and the encounters are not that difficult), but spoilers ahead.

    Chapter 4, Fortress of the Stone Giants.
    After hearing that the town of Sandpoint, our sort of base of operations, is in danger of giant attack we rush back there.  At this point we are around 10th or 11th level, I don't remember exactly which.  The giant attack on Sandpoint is a very long choreographed affair.  There is a list in the book of who does what on what rounds of combat, including an appearance by a young red dragon.  Now, one spot of trouble here is scale.  There is a map of Sanpoint in the book and it has boxes for where giants/the dragon attack on what turns.  It does not have a grid.  There is a scale, 1 inch is something like 50-100' but that is a little hard to measure on the twisty city streets unless you want to take a piece of string and more time then we cared to devote.  So Aaron as GM had to make a lot of judgment calls on how long it took for us to get from one encounter to the next.  In-between the giants the dragon is supposed to attack.  He did, twice, then Sara and her Astral Construct (or summoned creature) "Mr. Punchy" killed it.  Me and Aaron killed the giants with little trouble.  In all, it was pretty easy.
    So, the book says you can capture a giant alive and has a whole page on all this stuff one of them could tell you.  We, being us, left a pile of giant corpses in our wake.  There is no convenient book pointing to the next boss, but the giant warband's footprints were easy enough for me to backtrack.  We skipped the random encounters along the way, at this point we all knew that an encounter of 6 CR 7 Hill Giants were no match at all for us 3 level 11 characters (plus Sara's summoned Mr. Punchy if needed, who was a brute).  In the interest of keeping things short we just said we killed them all and got to where we needed.
    Our destination is Jorgenfist Fortress.  Now, this was meant to be a very impressive scene.  A giant tower surrounded by giant walls and thousands of giant clans itching for a fight camped around it.  How could we possibly take on that many giants, or even sneak pass them, oh noes!!!  Except, this is one of those points where you need to calibrate your expectations for D&D (as The Alexandrian had a great post about).  Now at 11/12th Level we had a lot of power at our disposal.  I could alter my Astral Suit to give myself Climb, Flight or Burrow, and I didn't need to breathe.  Sara's Mr. Punchy could also be summoned with Flight.  Me and Aaron both had really good stealth skills, with bonuses in the 20s to 30s.  Heck, if we could bottle-neck the giants into attacking only about 6 at a time we likely could have killed all however-many-thousands of them in an incredibly long melee (300-style, <grin>).  I seriously considered trying to find a place we could fight them at and just start killing for the fun of it, to see if we could, but there is no detailed map so Aaron would have had to make a lot of judgment calls about just how many giants we'd need to fight at a time (and that would take many thousands of rolls to resolve).  In the end we just decided to fly around the area and scout, and discovered some convenient caves.  We found the dragon's old lair and plundered it (we had like 3 bags of holding and 3 handy haversacks between us at this point, so we could carry a lot of loot), there were 3 CR 7 wyverns (yawn), and another cave with 3 CR 6 Deathweb spiders (double yawn).  I can't remember if we found the door to the tunnels from the spider cave to the fortress (after all, every fortress has a secret tunnel into it) or we might have just flown over the wall and started killing our way into the tower, it's been a while now.
    Either way, once inside (there was no possible way we weren't getting inside) we start fighting our way through the tower.  The thing is though, the tower is a red herring.  While there is a fairly tough Mummy, who has some super-powerful scrolls for loot, there isn't anything important in the tower.  The action is actually in the hole next to the tower.
    So into the hole in the ground.  We go down and find a friendly giant and her ghostly husband.  She asks us to try not to kill any Stone Giants (all other types are fair game) since they have been under the influence of the evil boss.  Okay, at this point I had put merciful on my soulblade so I could do non-lethal damage if needed (as well as ghost touch, pesky incorporeal things).  There's not a whole lot of Stone Giants in the caves though; Hill Giant, Troll, Lamia, Oger Zombie, yes, Stone Giants not so much.  Would have been a good design decision to put a few Stone Giants in key locations that the PCs have to get through but instead it was something that we mostly didn't have to worry about (we might have rescued a giant or two, that's it).
    Finally we fight down another level into the ancient library that the boss has taken over.  Some more random encounters that aren't too hard and finally we fight the boss.  And, well, we kill the boss, duh.  We find a convenient map pointing us to the next chapter and now we have a whole library of stuff to learn and even a cool clockwork librarian to help us research.  So finally, for the first time and after half the campaign is over, we really start getting some good background information on what the hell is going on with the story.
    After the boss' defeat, the evil super-boss Karzug mentioned that all of his servents were marked with a rune so that when they died he gained power to go free, and that was also mentioned in the last town as well.  By this point we have killed a lot of Karzug's minions, but there is nothing anywhere about that actually meaning anything at all.  While the threat sounds nice, there is no mechanical effect, no change in any of the encounters, no matter how many things you slaughter your way through.  A very cool potential twist that was wasted.  I honestly forgot about the marking thing until I read it in the book while refreshing my memory to write this post.

    Chapter 5, Sins of the Saviors.
    Only 2 more chapters to go.  We've hit level 13, and are all feeling pretty good.  We've got tons and tons of loot and plenty of powers. We're ready to take on the big bad super-boss and turn him into red paste.  But first, back to Sandpoint.  Apparently a sinkhole has taken out part of the town, and as its only capable defenders we get called in to check it out.  Detour!
    The sinkhole leads into the Catacombs of Wrath which we had cleared in the first chapter, but now new sections have opened up.  Our boss here is The Scribbler, a resurrected priest who relies on mobility and stealth.  He's got Dimension Door and Invisibility, Nondetection and Obscuring Mist.  He also has a few CR 6 puppies.  But again, we're level 13 now.  Aaron has True Seeing (well, the psychic equivalent, Pierce The Veils) which sees through all that stuff, and I have Blindsight to 30', so I can pinpoint anything corporeal within that range (we've played Pathfinder before and lots of previous mages have cast illusions).  It is mildly annoying but we kill him.  Then we read his crazy scribblings and find out about The Runeforge, our next destination.
    We head out to find the Runeforge, first we have to bypass 7 statues that hold the keys we need to enter.  It is a DC 40 Disable Device to unlock the statue, which Aaron can do in his sleep at this point.  We wake up a White Dragon, who actually does some damage to Sara - she didn't have any cold resistance (Aaron dodged it and I had resist 30 to any element, which I set to cold).  Still, it is not too bad and we take the dragon out.  Then we loot his treasure, 'cause dragons have great treasure.
    Now into the Runeforge we go, in its own little pocket dimension.  First, a few notes about the upcoming section:

    The campaign has this alternate rule about "sin points" that the GM is supposed to give out based on each player's behavior.  What sin each player is prone to is supposed to have some few not terribly important effects here in the Runeforge (like a +/- 2, woot)  We ignored it.  For one simple and good reson, it is stupid and useless.  How and what sins a player is supposed to get is this vague, "do what you think feels right" thing that is useless for a reliable and intelligent measure of a character's nature.  The book says:

    You should give marks ["sin points" -me] for significant events in your game - don't bother marking minor events.  If a PC loots a dead goblin, she shouldn't gain a point of Greed - such spoils of war are considered a normal part of the game.  If, on the other hand, she gleefully steals the life savings of an NPC and spends all the money on herself, that should certainly earn her a point of Greed.

    Wow, talk about stupid.  Let me tackle the idiocy of that paragraph in a few bullet points:
⦁    If some activities are considered "accepted" then what are they?  List them.  The "looting a dead Goblin" is acceptable Greed, so what is acceptable Wrath or Lust or Glutany?  Also, please include more than one, one is not much to go off of (takes 2 points to make a line).
⦁    There is an important and overlooked part in that example, "gleefully."  Why someone does something, whether willingly or because they feel they have too, could be argued as a mitigating factor in whether or not to award sin points.  That is not discussed anywhere in this section.
⦁    When the hell, exactly, built into the campaign, is a player supposed to be able to find an NPC, to rob and gleefully sell said NPCs life savings?  If you are going to tie this into the behavior of the characters during the adventure then why didn't each major encounter/side quest have notes about how the players might gain sin points during that encounter?
⦁    Even better yet, why the hell, if this is supposed to be an important part of the game, didn't you write in some moral choices and spots to tempt players with?  Why is this a tacked-on afterthought and not built into and throughout the campaign?  Why does it now matter during the second-to-last chapter of the whole campaign?  Little late now guys.

    The book does helpfully list some sample sins, a whole 1 for each sin:

ENVY: Complaining loudly or frequently about another party member's good fortune, skill, or luck
GLUTTONY: Getting drunk multiple times during the game session
GREED: Robbing another PC or hiding a signficant amount of treasure for yourself
LUST: Eagerly acepting Shayless' solicitations under the pretense of hunting rats in her father's shop basement
  [the only damn event that is actually a part of the campaign, why aren't there more like this? -me]
PRIDE: Bragging about how nothing in the Foxglove Manor was scary [okay, well, if you made your saves then nothing in the Foxglove Manor was scary, it didn't effect you -me]
SLOTH: Encouraging the party to stop and rest for a day after only having one or two signficant encounters in that day [hell, that isn't sloth, that's being a Wizard -me]
WRATH: Eagerly torturing a prisoner [when would you have to do this, they all wrote everything down -me]

    There's also a list of Virtues that can balance your Sins, which I will ignore since it is just as stupid to track this in the other direction.
    The biggest problem with this is how subjective it is.  My character killed a lot of monsters, not because I was Wrathful - I was a soldier, it was my job to keep my party alive.  If a monster didn't attack me, I didn't attack it.  If anybody had surrendered, I would have let them (but the book had most of them surrender with only a few HP left, and we tended to do more damage than that and kill them outright).  I used non-lethal damage if someone told me to, otherwise I killed everything because they were monsters - not misguded civilized folk.  You can't assign sin to a character without understanding how the player created that character and the circmstances of each encounter.
    Second problem is one of scale.  If "minor" sins are okay and "major" sins are bad then you really need a good dividing line between the two.  Most of the examples given above are so over-the-top they sound like a Jim Carry routine.  Maybe I've just been lucky since I play with characters like I associate with people in real life - stay away from the bad ones.
    Third problem is how divorced from the campaign this is.  If you want this to be important to the game, you need to build it into the encounters.  Have a treasure that a player can get without the others knowing, force a choice between who to save and who to sacrifice, something, anything, that actually creates moments to bring this into the forefront.  The way the section is written it sounds like the GM should quietly be racking up a tally of everything a player does wrong to punish them - and I don't want to play with an asshat GM like that.  At least make it open, explain it is a part of the game and go over with each player what sins their character might be susceptable to, point out during an encounter if sin or virtue is involved, tell a player when they earn either kind of points.
    Oh yeah, having a character creation system that actually said something about a character's psychological makeup might help too.
    Anyways, we totally skipped this crap and didn't lose anything for it.

    Another point is about loot, specifically spellbooks.  There are a lot of Wizards and Sorcerers to loot in the Runeforge.  They have spellbooks.  The campaign book does not give any GP value for those books, and it says to assume that each Wiz/Sorc has the spells known and whatever number of other spells you want them to have.  Only a few characters have actual concrete guidelines for what spells are in their books, and they tend to be "all spells of levels x to y in the Core Rulebook except for opposition schools."  That's a lot of spells, hundreds, literally.  At the end of this chapter I actually sat down and took the table of how much a spell cost to write into a spellbook for each level and used that to calculate the worth of each spellbook (I could have made a case for adding the cost to cast the spell in the first place, plus the cost to write it, but we made a ton of money as it was).  Now, this may be nit-picking, but we didn't have a Wizard or Sorcerer in our group.  We were all Psionic characters - so these spellbooks had no use to us except to sell them.  Since the campaign book didn't give any idea for how much they were worth, I had to do it myself or have the GM handwave some value.  Really annoying.  Couldn't anyone at Paizo have sat down with the books like I did and come up with some general values/ value ranges for all those damn books?  Really guys?

    One last comment and I'll get back to the adventure.  Again, we fought a lot of spallcasters in this section.  We have also fought a fair number leading up to this, but this felt like the right place to comment on something.  Spellcasters in Pathfinder are very, very strange.  A high-level caster can wield godlike destructive powers, as long as they don't require a save DC.  Most of the spell saves were pathetic, we would on average need a 6-10 or higher on the d20 to resist whatever someone cast at us.  Now, again, we've all played Pathfinder and D&D for a while, so we know that getting our saves up was a priority, the moreso the higher level we got.  But casters have very, pathetically few, ways to increase their DCs to compansate - so it is actually pretty easy for the defender to resist than it is for the caster to make it harder.  It takes two prescious, expensive feats to get a +2 to your DCs for 1 school out of 8 in magic.  It takes 4,000 GP for a cloak of resistance +2 that boosts every save at the same time.  It's hard to be a magic-user.
    Secondly, magic-users are actually not very threatening.  Most mages have okay Initiative, but my character took the Improved Initiative feat and got a few more points from somewhere.  So on average I managed to go first, and if not me then there was Aaron and Sara, who both had ranged at-will attacks.  So it was not hard to hit a spellcaster on the first turn for some damage before they started casting.  Once hit, it is a concentration check to cast a spell when injured: DC is 10 + spell level + damage dealt.  Okay, so a concentration check is a d20 + caster level + main stat bonus (and maybe a few points from a feat or ability).  That doesn't sound bad, until we start getting to the higher levels.  When Aaron can hit a caster for 9d6 + 18 damage, that makes casting a level 0 spell impossible (we called him Gazer Beam, loved The Incredibles).   Most casters buffed themselves, per their stat block, and maybe got off a spell that was resisted for half or ignored or worked around, and then we beat them to death.  They actually tended to be the easiest to defeat, and showed how strangely balanced magic is in Pathfinder in general.

    Alright, so enough side comments - back to the story (I'm sure you've been breathlessly waiting ;)
    The Runeforge is broken into 7 parts, one for each sin.  We have been using a very simple method for exploring everything so far - we go left.  We keep going left until we can't, then we go back to the last right, and rinse-wash-repeat until we've explored everything on that level - then we go up, do it again to the top, then we go down to the bottom the same way.
    First up was the section for Pride.  This got kind of hard for a minute.  In the entryway is a mirror of opposition, it makes an evil double of whoever looks at it, and since I was in the front (as the tank), it made a double of me.  I'm kind of tough, as the tank, so this was a fairly good fight (but while I can soak up damage, it was Aaron and Sara who could dish out large servings of it).  It was a cake-walk after that.
    Second was the section of Wrath.  It had an Iron Golem archer who was actually quite mean.  The rest wasn't too bad though.
    Third was Gluttony.  More dead bad guys.
    Fourth was Greed.  The walls were covered in gems and gold, which we debated trying to pry off a few meters of - hey, magic items don't buy themselves - but we just killed monsters.  There was a cool pool that recharged magic items, we charged up all the wands we had been carrying around and never used (okay, I think Sara banged me on the head with a healing wand a few times).
    Fifth was Sloth, which apparently means dirty and icky.  We turned loose the 'evil' water elemental to clean the place.  The bad guy was off the ground in a throne supported by immovable rods - me and Mr. Punchy flew up to him while Aaron and Sara hit him with death-rays.
    Sixth was Envy, most of which had been prevously destroyed.
    Last, thank god, was Lust.  Lots of saves against Charm, a poor guy who had been the succubi's plaything, and more dead monsters in our wake.
    Finally, each sin area has had components for making a Runeforged Weapon.  After defeating the animated statue we all took an item for a dip in the pool.  This caused a moment's confusion.  Our ultimate enemy is Karzug, and we "saw" him when he took over the corpse of the stone giant who had rallied all the giants to attack Sandpoint and stuff.  We've also seen agents of Greed and Wrath previously.  We actually got confused for a moment over which of the two he was.  His actions seem more wrathful, but in fact he's greed.  In part the confusion came from us playing spread out over months, in part it was a telling mark of how badly the campaign had mentioned its main villain throughout (well, and what a weaksauce villain he is too).

    Chapter 6, Spires of Xin-Shalast.
    This is it, the final chapter, the last conflict - 'once more into the breech' and all that.  Thank god.  The campaign was starting to feel long at this point.
    Off to the partially-time/space-warped ancient city of evil in the mountains.  But one does not simply walk to Xin-Shalast, there are the obligatory random encounters first (and here i don't use random in the sense of rolling them, but rather that they do not really mean anything to the meta-story).  We found an old building that some dwarves went crazy cannibal in, fought a wendigo, and a tree.  It was high in the mountains and very cold - I was glad to have always-on cold resist and not need to breath.  Aaron and Sara both had items or abilities that let them adapt to any climate/environment - like I've said, we've played this game before.  There are just some things that are essential for a high-level character, and we were level 15 at this point.
    Xin-Shalast itself is a strange place.  There are a few scripted encounters, and there are huge sections that the campaign book literally says to 'make up yourself' for some extra adventuring either before or after fighting Karzug.  We really didn't want to wait, and didn't feel a burning desire to continue, so we skipped those parts.  One encounter included some Leng Spiders.  They did not immenietly attack, so Sara our grifter/talker rolls a natural 20 on her Diplomacy and the spiders seem quite friendly.  Then she rolls about as good on a Sense Motive and relaized that they are lying and will never keep their word and intend to attack us later.  So we killed them.  So nice of the book to put in the only not immedietly dangerous group of monsters that are really just a fight after all.  Like we hadn't wasted enough time.
    Finally we entered the dreaded Pinnacle of Avarice, dum dum dum, and had to fight through the mini-bosses to Karzug.  Said mini-bosses were pretty easy for the most part, like the majority of the campaign we never got below half health more than a handful of times.  Which led us to the final battle, the culmination of about 40-50 hours of playing, the near-max level 18 players against the evil master of Greed, Karzug.

    "We" killed him in 6 rounds.

    It's kind of a funny story actually.

    So the final room has Karzug, a CR 21 super-boss, and a CR 13 adult Blue Dragon, and a CR 17 Rune Giant, and two CR 14 Advanced Storm Giants.  Lava flows around the room, making it a long run or flying to get to melee range - or even close range, it's a good-sized room.  The range gives Karzug a chance to cast some spells.
    It also gives Aaron a chance to manifest some psionic abilities.
    Aaron has been a very strange character.  Since he has been player and GM he's been in a hard place.  He didn't want to have to put a lot of thought into his character, he's got his hands full running the monsters.  He likes playing thieves, he's a sneaky-bastard like that.  Since we were making an all-psionics group, he took the psionic rogue, the Cryptic.  In a strange twist though, the crypic has the most damaging at-will ranged touch attack of any character I've ever seen in Pathfinder.  From the beginning he played more like a mage, throwing the high damage around and having to stay at a distance since he was kind of squishy.  Cryptics also learn a few psionic abilities.  Most of those he took to buff the party or use in emergencies.  He had a hard time finding abilities he liked though, so by the end he started getting a fairly diverse group of powers.
    So combat begins.  I'm thinking about how I'm going to fly over to the bad guy, Sara's warming up another Mr. Punchy.  Karzug acts.  He attacks us with a Meteor Swarm, not for that much damage.  He stops time and buffs himself.
    Then Aaron stops time.  He teleports over to Karzug and thinks to himself, I've got this ability that controls people's minds.  If I cast it at maximum power it can effect people and monsters, and hit all of the bad guy's minions.  I'm sure they'll make their saves, save DCs are pretty easy, but if it takes out even just one or two guys that will make the fight easier - and make less for me to juggle.  Why not try it?  Since he's playing, he has us roll the saves for everybody.
    I roll a 4.  I show him the die, I'm so stunned by it.  Sara rolls a 1.  And I roll another 4.  Sara rolls a 3.
    All of the minions fail their saves.
    Aaron tells them, "Sit! Stay!"
    Now it's just Karzug and us.

    There is a script for what Karzug and his allies are supposed to do.  It has now been thrown out the window since he no longer has the support of his minions.  Aaron is in about melee range and the three of us are coming.  Aaron-the-GM decides Karzug will try to slow us down.  He stopsw time (the last that he can) and casts a Wall Of Force and a Prismatic Wall to block me and Sara and Mr. Punchy (big room, needs 2 walls to block his side off).  A logical move (we made his Meteor's 30-ish save DCs easily, anything else offensive we probably would have laughed at, I think my lowest save at that point was a 26).  I'm getting ready to fly and carry Sara.  Aaron fires off his Gazer Beam and hits Karzug for something like 11d6 + 38 damage - he's not casting any spells next round.  We get to the wall, Karzug attacks Aaron in melee and does some pretty good damage.  Aaron Gazer Beams him for, like, 10 times more damage - still no spells for mister greedy-pants.  Then Aaron figures he can use a move action to command his mind-controlled dragon to just pick us up and fly us over the wall of force.  More melee (poor Aaron is getting pretty beat up), another gazer beam.  I manage to hit Karzug once (I think, I'm not sure if I did manage to hit him at all - Sara didn't) and Aaron finishes him off with a final blast of ridiculous damage.

    Super-boss wizard dead, he cast like 4 spells.
    Minions never attacked.
    Me and Sara and Mr. Punchy pretty much could have eaten popcorn the whole time.
    And the thief took him out.

    After getting over the shock of it, we laughed our asses off.

Final Thoughts
    Again, while the book had some ideas for follow-up adventures, we were all tired of Pathfinder by that point.  It was time to stop and try a new system, which led to our current 13th Age campaign.  Pathfinder in general has just been getting so big, so full of tracking GP and XP and stacking magic item bonuses that it's really become a headache.  As Aaron once said, as we were shooting the breeze a while ago, "it's more fun to make characters than to play them."  Which is too true.  So much of building a character needs to be planned out, feat chains of prequisites and trying to synergize different bonuses into a cool gimmick - you pre-plan so much of your character that it takes away from actually playing it.  I'm not saying that Pathfinder is a bad game by any means, but it does get a little tiring to work so hard at juggling numbers and progression when you're trying to fit it into having a life and doing other stuff.  Again, not that planning any campaing is easy.
    As for Rise of the Runelords, I would say that overall it was an "okay" campaign, in our experience.  It takes way to long to get up to speed, and the over-arching meta-story gets lost in the weeds a lot, but it is not bad.  Again, if you have plenty of time to tweak sections to your own player's tastes and needs, it would be a lot better then running it straight out of the book like we did - it's pretty basic.  Likewise, role-playing relationships with people in Sandpoint, some stirring descriptions of the other cities and backstory would help; we didn't have a lot of time or desire to explore the cities or do a lot of the stuff that didn't directly move the adventure along.  That is a part of why I rate the experience as just "okay," we could have been a little more involved ourselves.  But also, if there were some side quests or NPC interactions that gave bonuses from learning the backstory or to accumulate sin/virtue points, it would have provided some more incentive to care.  The murder-mystery was passable, but the haunts sucked big time; the haunt system in general is just worthless.  If you have some skilled players who can optimize their characters, add a monster or two to every encounter.
    Overall, I like making adventures - as much as a pain as it can be.  We had a campaign going with rotating GMs and each new GM built on what the last did in a really fun, organic fashion.  And we weren't afraid to play with the rules.  We did a split adventure with our fighting characters in a gladiator ring and our talking characters in the stands (we all have several characters).  We used the Ultimate Combat system for performance combat and said that each point we earned on the field distracted the people we were talking to in the stands, giving the talking characters bonuses on their social checks to gather information and influence the NPCs.  It's one of my favorite adventures.  We've also created plot twists based on things that have happened in each game.  The original adventure featured a city that Aaron didn't like - so he destroyed it in the next adventure.  I filled it with a Drow army.  When our friend Matt mis-read a spell description (don't just read the blurb, always read the whole description) and drank some demon's blood I ended up giving him an evil twin recurring villain/comic relief.  While that campaign took a lot of work to prep and run, it gave us a lot more fun since it grew with us.  That's something that is hard if not impossible to replicate in a canned/pre-written campaign.  In fact, that's why I generally don't run modules or pre-packaged campaigns.  I like it when my players give me their character ideas and I can build a world and story around them.  So that also factors into my less than enthusiastic reaction, my normal way of playing is much more engaged (with, of course, some exceptions - we've had plenty of quick and dirty adventures that were not high art).
    Still, I don't regret the time we spent.  It was fun to play with my friends.  We did it, and just finishing it has its own satisfaction.  If you've got 50 or so hours to kill and some good friends, you should try it too.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Pathfinder's Rise of the Runelords - Part 1

    Well, it took 14 sessions and around 50 hours of play-time, but the three of us (we have a small group) finally finished the Rise of the Runelords campaign for Pathfinder a while ago.  We played it by the book, from levels 1 to 18.  We did do something unusual though in that we all played psionic classes from the Ultimate Psionics book.  I thought I'd share my impressions, both about the campaign and the Ultimate Psionics rules.  First, about the campaign in general.
    I was an Aegis/Soulknife/Metaforge - which if you have not read Ultimate Psionics means that I created my own magic armor and weapon (a big hammer) from my mind.  I was the tank.  Sara played a Wilder, she could cast "spells" basically like a mage but she could also use a "wild surge" to increase her caster level above her class level; she was mostly a Sorcerer in Core Rulebook terms.  Aaron was both the GM and played a Cryptic, who was at first glance a "magic"-using Rogue, but who turned out to be the highest damage-dealer, party-buffer and trap/secret-finder.  The game was meant for 4 players, but the three of us had no problems at all.

    Oh yeah, since I am going to be talking about my experiences with the campaign, spoilers (duh) - though I will try not to reveal anything too important. (and, honestly, I doubt it matters)

    There are 6 major parts to the campaign.
    Part 1, Burnt Offerings, starts with goblins attacking the city of Sandpoint.  Even though I wasn't the GM (well, except for one section), I talked with Aaron about his take on running the campaign and I read over the book after we finished - which leads me to my first comment.  While there is a lot of background information for the GM, it's not very clear on how much the players will discover, and what of that background is really useful.  Before the first page for the players there is a full page about Nualia, the main boss for the first section, and while her backstory is cool-ish, little of it will actually be revealed to the players.  This is a running issue for the whole game, in my opinion.  Having a cool backstory is nice, but if the GM is the only one to hear it, it is pretty much wasted.  Also, if it is not directly relevant to the progress of the story, it is also immaterial.  If investigating this background stuff gave some sort of benefit to fighting a villain (perhaps by revealing a hidden weakness) or allowed the party to anticipate future events, then it would be helpful - but since the players don't even get any real clues of where to investigate there is not much to build on.  I wish there had been a block for each villain with its motivation, goals and means to achieve them, and hooks/key things the players may be able to investigate or ways to explore the villain's background and how that may be useful.  A clear bullet-point list instead of a page of rambling prose.
    Also, thank god every NPC writes everything down and sends letters to each other.  Just about every section ends with finding a letter or journal on the main bad guy that spells out where to go next and points towards the next villain.  This is quite ham-handed, and one of the things I did not like in general about the campaign, and also Pathfinder as a game.  Having to take people alive to interrogate them is a nice tactical and strategic challenge (-4 to hit if trying to go non-lethal, and grappling is hard if you are not a fighter class, or trying to grapple someone who is), and using divination magic to speak with a dead spirit or read the "aura" of an object or place gives the magic-users something to do besides toss fireballs.  While these things exist in the game, they are sub-par choices; being good at grappling means taking at least 2 feats and a fighter class, which is a noticeable investment, while the -4 to hit really sucks at lower levels and divination spells are scarce for investigating.  And for this investment you have to remember, the PCs are likely to be killing more people/monsters then they take alive, so strategically speaking building your character this way will possibly hurt more than help (depending on your campaign style of course).  The game kind of relies on this ham-fisted approach because there are so few mechanical options for doing anything else - and you have to pre-plan and build your character to be good at non-lethal combat.  It makes me like the Brawler class from the Advanced Class Guide (may talk about that book somewhere down the road), the Brawler has an ability where they can temporarily gain a combat feat, so something like Improved Grappling, but only 1/day (up to like 3-5/day max).  This at least gives them some of that tactical flexibility to use when needed instead of having to pre-plan everything.  Would be nice if spellcasters had a similar way to dynamically generate a needed effect, like a speak with dead, instead of having to wake up in the morning and think "hey, I might need to talk to the bad guy we accidentally kill later today, better memorize that speak with dead spell." (and, of course, be a 5th level cleric - the only ones with that spell, guess no wizards ever tried to talk to the Great Majority)  This is a general complaint about the rigidity of character creation, but even more rules lite systems like OD&D have the problem of how to adjudicate taking someone alive (not sure when the grappling rules were added, think it was in 2nd Ed, and if I remember right it was a horrible kludge) or what to do if you accidentally jogged someone's memory too hard.

    Anyways, back to the campaign.  The goblins are a sort of comedy relief with fangs, and their attack is kind of entertaining while also being fairly dangerous for 1st level characters.  There are some random encounters after that, then the next big encounter with the assault on the glassworks.  The final boss there, a monk 2/rogue 2, is a pretty good fight.  The last two locations are the Catacombs of Wrath (which kind of bug me, the main villain at the end is Karzoug, who is a master of Greed - but throughout the game we only see Wrath, with Greed near the end, wish they would have focused on just Greed or more evenly included all the sins) and the goblin fortress of Thistletop.  None of these locations are very memorable, or very difficult, and there is almost no loot until the final enemies at Thistletop, so when you hit level 2 you are likely to be under the "recommended adventurer wealth" until you finish the goblins and hit level 3 - after second chapter, there is plenty of money, our 3 person party ended with level 20 total wealth at level 18.
    One thing we did was ignore XP and just level up when the campaign said the PCs should be whatever level.  This worked out just fine, really I think more and more that counting XP is an exercise in tedium and the party should just level up whenever they feel like it and the GM is ready to up the monsters/challenges.
    Another side note is about accessories.  You really need to have Monster Manuals 1 and 2 (I think there might have been a few from 3, not sure) since not all the monsters are described in the book.  Also, we got the hard-back book with the complete campaign, not sure what differences there are from the six soft-back books originally published.  And if you got the "pawns" collection of cardboard figures for the campaign, also get the pawns for Monster Manuals 1 and 2 as not all monsters are in the campaign collection (or, like we did, just make a cloud giant substitute for anything).
    At the end of Chapter 1 the book says:

Relatively little involving the metaplot of Rise of the Runelords occurs during the course of "Burnt Offerings."  Although the chapter's events are closely tied to Karzug's awakening, and certain characters in the adventure have ties to characters whom the PCs are destined to meet later in the campaign, the adventure's primary purpose is to introduce them to their new home of Sandpoint and to instill in them a desire to protect it and its citizens.

    I have several problems with this goal.  First, my character had no connection to Sandpoint and did not give one good damn about it.  Playing the adventure did not instill any desire in me to protect the town or call it home.  I saved Sandpoint because it gave me XP, and it was scheduled in the campaign.  I think it is generally a bad idea to try to make your characters care about anything.  Unless you know your players very well, you don't know what they will actually bond with.  And, why should they like the town?  What is there about it that is so much more likable than any other town?  Throughout the campaign the players are going to go to several towns, and even long-lost cities, so why care about this one little hamlet?  Mechanically, whether a player likes the town or not has no effect on their abilities or options.
    Second, if you have a metaplot, for God's sake kick it off early and refer to it often - otherwise, as with this campaign, by the time you actually get to the meat of the metaplot your players may feel like they have been wasting time chasing down random side quests.  In media res, "in the middle of action," is the old writing advise- if you have a slow start you make it that much harder for your players to emotionally invest in the crux of the story - worse, you might mislead them into thinking they are playing a different type of game and have them miss options and plot points they should be working on.  Knowing the metaplot means you know why you are doing each individual step, how this current boss is going to get you to the final boss, and thus you feel like you are accomplishing something with each step.  RoR did not do a good job of creating that feeling.  We played the whole first chapter in 2 quick settings, and honestly we could have just started the second chapter at level 3 and not missed anything important (or still better, skipped to the 3rd chapter).

    Having saved Sandpoint from goblins, we kick off Chapter 2, The Skinsaw Murders.
    This was my least favorite chapter, and Aaron the GM disliked one part of it so much that I had to step in and GM a section for him.  It begins with a serial killer known as the Skinsaw Man taking an interest in one of the PCs, in this case our only female player, Sara.  This, I guess, is supposed to be a cool departure from the typical "kill the monsters and take their treasure" paradigm that the rest of the campaign will follow.  Instead the players get to investigate a murder mystery.  Again though, Pathfinder itself has no real structure or rules for investigating a murder, so we get another series of ham-fisted clues and rambling role-playing sessions that just feel slow.  Also, again there is no clear link to the metaplot, so all this feels like a pointless side quest (which kind of fixes itself at the end with the obligatory letter to the next villain).
    I will say though, this section had an amusing accident.  My character was a tank, and a backup thief (he was designed for a different campaign where we didn't have a thief, so Aaron's Cryptic ended up taking over the thief duties and negated some of my character's concept, which was no big deal).  My race was the Forgeborn from Ultimate Psionics, and there was a mention of how the race tended to be interested in history.  Now, as a fighter-type I got pretty good skill points, 4 each level, and my Int was a 14 for 2 more points each level.  So I made Disable Device, Perception, Stealth and Survival key skills that I always leveld up.  I also put a random point into a few skills here and there, and somehow I ended up making Knowledge: History one of the skills I always leveled up.  As the tank that seemed a bit of an odd skill, but I thought it added some interesting flavor to my character.  Well, darn if it didn't turn out to be useful after all in investigating some of the historical bits throughout the campaign.  I actually made the DC 25 check to identify the Sihedron Rune at level 3! (not much I know, but you take what success you can get)
    In our "mystery" you wander around and investigate in the town and the neighboring farms.  One thing happened here that I can kind of clearly remember, but not exactly place.  Since this was a mystery we were looking around at everything, so I was asking Aaron about the description of, I think it was, an insane asylum.  He read me the incredibly long block of flowery-prose and totally non-helpful description.  I got a little miffed since I was just looking for some practical details about the place, not some Steinbeck turtle-crossing-the-road detail on non-important things, to which Aaron replied, "I didn't write this shit."  It was something that we would hear time and time again.  Reading a lot of the descriptions in the book is quite tedious, they put way more detail into it than we needed - we were not looking for a novel, we wanted an adventure.  More nouns (things we could interact with) and less adjectives (since for the most part we didn't care about what things were like, just what they were).  Also there were some times, and its been long enough I can't remember any specifics, when an NPC would do something stupid, or we would comment on the convenience of finding yet another letter to another bad guy in a faraway place, that would elicit once again the refrain of, "I didn't write this shit."  Which was totally true, Aaron is normally very good about describing what's important and keeping the action going logically - he was deliberately trying to run this one straight out of the book, and he works regular overtime so he didn't have the luxury of reading it all and then re-writing it to his tastes.  But it was funny to hear each time he said it.
    So after wading through a mountain of random details and events you finally put together that the evil Skinsaw Man is actually Aldern Foxglove, an NPC you met and saved in Chapter 1, oh noes!!!!  Actually, whatever, it really doesn't mean anything at all - the meeting with Foxglove was to go boar hunting after the goblin attack.  The book says that Foxglove is a "charming character" and can be used to "establish details about the characters" like where they grew up and totally random crap like that.  It does not mention that he is going to become a major enemy and so you should prepare the ground ahead of time.  Also the PCs never see him again.  There's a really bad lack foreshadowing for the GM in the book to make him be an effective villain.  But at least now knowing who you're hunting means traveling to the haunted Foxglove Manor.  Dum dum dum (that's supposed to be dramatic music).

    This is the section that Aaron didn't want to GM.  I don't blame him, since I did.  It is, in a word, stupid.  The Foxglove family and the haunted manor have an incredibly long and detailed backstory going back about 90 years and 3 generations.  You do manage to learn all this backstory by exploring the manor and dealing with the haunts.  Haunts were introduced in the GameMastery Guide, and they are basically traps.  But they can't be disabled like regular traps, instead you have to make one or more saving throws to resist their effects.  Now here's a problem, a saving throw is a passive effect.  You cannot really "role-play" your saving throws or strategically build your character to be good at them (there are a few feats and traits, but a miniscule number compared to the non-saving throw feats/abilities).  So making a saving throw does not feel like you did something clever, it feels like you got lucky.  Making 30 saving throws (one for each room) feels like a chore.  The only good thing about the haunts is that they pull you back in time into the shoes of a previous inhabitant of the house, and show you ghostly images of what has happened in the past, revealing the tragic story of the Foxglove family (well, they did the way I played them, the GameMastery Guide is kind of vague on that and so is the RoR campaign book - it's a possible interpretation that if you succeed on the save you don't see anything, it doesn't effect you at all; since that would rob what little we had to learn, I described the haunt and said the save just meant it didn't get under your skin/force you to act strangely).  Which, again, doesn't mean one damn thing.  This family's story is not connected to the metaplot, so nothing you learn does you any good whatsoever.  It is a long, rambling exposition dump for a different movie than the one you are watching.
    During all this haunting we were also rolling pretty good and only had one failure.  Aaron's character blew a save and contracted the evil "Vorel's Phage," a disease that did Cha damage and if it killed him would turn him into an undead horror.  Except it has an onset time of 1 day and saves of 1/day, so it was very easy after we got done to bop over to a cleric and get a Remove Disease for him.
    Our stay in the manor also ended very badly.  Well, it was kind of funny, we did chuckle, but it was not much of a boss fight.  See, in explorer fashion we went from the ground level to the top of the manor and then down.  But at the top level we found the murdered wife of the boss monster.  She has been turned into a Revenant.  She is stuck staring at her reflection in a mirror, but if you cover the mirror she then wakes up and immediately seeks out her killer (we made the knowledge check for this one).  So she ran down to the basement and the tunnels underneath and into the room where our killer was.  They looked at each other, talked for a sec, and then she attacked.  We decided to actually play this out.  Sara took on the revenant, Iesha Foxglove, and I played her husband who murdered her, Aldern Foxglove.  She butchered me in three rounds, revenants get a lot of hit and damage bonuses against the one who killed them.  Then she died too.  And it was over.  Now, we played this out but remember, our characters did nothing at all to defeat the final boss, and did nothing except roll saves against the haunts of the manor, and really it felt like two hours of nothing.  Some backstory, sure, which was moderately interesting, but not like we actually accomplished anything by our own will or determination or cleverness.  We were observers, not players.  I honestly wish we had skipped the whole chapter.
    But it wasn't over yet.  We watched Foxglove be defeated by his wife, and then found a letter he received from the next bad guy in the neighboring city.  Turns out he was working with another group of bad guys, oh noes!!!!  So we go to the next city, and we have the stupidest ambush ever.  And I do mean stupidest ever, in the history of all adventures of all time, stupidest.  See, Foxglove has a townhouse in the next city, Magnimar.  A logical place to go visit and look for more clues.  But in this city there is the bad guy Foxglove was working with, and he knows that some pesky adventurers might come looking around, so he has set an ambush.  He has dispatched two "faceless stalkers" who can shapeshift, and they are currently mimicking Aldern and Iesha Foxglove.  That's right, the two people we just watched fight and kill each other.  So, the second we see the faceless stalkers we know that they are bad guys of some kind.  I cannot grasp why on earth the adventure would have the bad guy make a shapeshifter look like the other bad guy that he is afraid the PCs will defeat.  That is beyond stupid.  Why not make them look like Long-Lost Aunt and Uncle Foxglove (or even just servants, or the missing sister and her husband?) and invite us in for poisoned tea?  So, needless to say, they did not get the drop on us and we killed them quickly and easily.
    From the townhouse we go to the sawmill and fight the stupid bad guy who left the stupid "ambush" and his minions (of course, thanks to a note in the townhouse).  Kill all them and another journal points to the abandoned clock tower, there to kill the final boss and end the chapter.  This was the first section where one of us was seriously hurt, me.  After a trap in the clock tower (a falling bell) I was left with just 1 HP.  However, the only reason I got so low on HP was because I did not stop once in the chapter to heal myself.  I had been taking so little damage overall that I got cocky and didn't heal myself between fights like I should have.  Still, I drank a few potions and made it out of the chapter alive.
    I know that I'm picking on the campaign overall, but what someone does wrong is easier to see than what goes right (and, honestly, more informative on average) - however, in a campaign that overall was okay, this chapter was downright bad.  Long and boring and stupid and just plain bad.

    So we move on to Chapter 3, The Hook Mountain Massacre.
    Oddly, we don't find a note to move on this time - instead one of the NPCs from the last chapter tells us to go check out the village of Turtleback Ferry, which has lost contact with the nearby Fort Rannick (which was actually a nice change).  On our way to the fort we run into a lost animal companion and then a farmhouse of ogres who have captured the last of the "Black Arrows" Rangers who were manning the fort.  Easy enough to kill and rescue.  Now we get 3 companions, along with another one we met in a previous chapter, to help us retake the fort.  Honestly, we didn't need them.
    Retaking the fort is supposed to be a big tactical problem, how do you few adventurers take on the many more powerful and scary ogres?  In actuality it was a cakewalk.  It got off to a crazy start when our new ranger friends suggested we drive some Shocker Lizards out of a cave and into the fort.  Those damn lizards, as CR 2 creatures, wiped out a half-dozen CR 8 Ogers in a single fight.  But even without reptilian help, two-to-one odds of ogers were a breeze.  We killed them easily and in droves.
    Next we ended up going back to the city in time for a huge flood to awaken a sea monster.  The sea monster is a CR 15 challenge, and we at this time are level 9.  It is only supposed to attack for a few rounds and then swim away, but a lucky critical from me and another lucky critical from Aaron end up killing it.  Then we go to the broken dam in a fairly pointless side quest.  Apparently the dam is controlled by demons, something no one noticed or cared about.  But one of the two demons powering the ancient device is dead and the other near death, thus causing the flood of the town.  This is a whole page for something really stupid.  The magic of the dam, created by evil sorcerers long ago, needs to inflict 1 negative level on some hapless creature in order to control the floodgates.  But it is only 1 level, and on any creature, so you can simply cast a 1st level Summon Monster and feed it to the device.  That's not exactly a big problem.  Station a 1st level Wizard or Druid up here, or heck, for like 500 GP you can make an item that will summon a 1st level monster 1/day and keep a steady supply.  The book sort of seems to make this a big deal but it really isn't, and how the hell has the town survived all this time with no clue that its fate was controlled by a demon-powered device?
    A few more side quests in the forest and we end up in the cave of some giants, whom we kill with little trouble.  Honestly, most of the fights in the campaign ended up being relatively easy, despite there being three of us instead of four.  After taking out the boss a convenient letter warns us that Sandpoint may be in danger (again).  Apparently Sandpoint in Rise of the Runelords is like Tristram in Diablo - that annoying city that is always being attacked.

    This finishes the first half of the campaign.
    Up to this point we were meeting pretty infrequently, maybe just once a month or so.  So this first half took a long time to finish.  Given that we're trying to stop the rise of the runelords, there have so far just been some dribs and drabs of hints as to who exactly the runelords are and how exactly they are rising (also, it will turn out to be only a single runelord rising, not plural).  Most of the fights have been pretty easy, and only my own stupidity at not drinking some of the half-dozen healing potions I always carried brought me to a critically low level (throughout the campaign I rarely got below half)(no, wait, there was the lucky critical by the x4 scythe that did a good number on my health in the bell tower).  Really, while the total experience had not been that bad, there had not been anything more exciting or engaging than the ad hoc adventures we have come up with on our own (in fact, during our own adventures we've tried to push things and make up our own non-combat mechanics to broaden our storylines).  The attempt at some "non-combat role-playing" with the murder mystery and haunted house really fell flat.  They were not very engaging.  And the slow drag of metaplot has made it unclear on who exactly the bad guy is and how we're supposed to stop him/it/them - or, honestly, give a damn whether they rise or continue sleeping/napping/clipping their toenails/whatever they are doing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Addiction Is Not Gameplay - I'm Looking At You Diablo

    I've been playing Diablo 3 recently, and also played Diablo 2 in the past (never did play the first one though).  I don't really like Diablo 3, the only reason I'm still playing it is that it's one of the very few games where you can play with a friend on the couch (who do so many games let you play with people on the other side of the world but not right next to you?).  So the three of us have been grinding away characters.  I've got a level 70 Crusader, Monk, Witch Doctor, Wizard, and Barbarian - my Demon Hunter is only level 55.  Also got up to Paragon 83 and completed 61% of all the challenges in the game.  Which, for those who have not played, means I've put a pretty good amount of time into a game that I don't really like.  And while there are a bunch of reasons I don't like the game, one in particular I want to ramble on about for a few paragraphs - because it's relevent to my ongoing 13th Age campaign in a way.

    The Diablo series is really about one thing, collecting loot.  Yes, it has classes and levels and some RPG-like trappings, which don't mean much.  A naked character is impossible to play, since all your skills do damage based on your weapon - you at least need a rusty nail to channel magic through or stab someone with.  The bulk of your fighting ability comes from your gear, and the whole point of the game is to replay levels killing bigger monsters to get bigger gear.  It is a very well-designed skinner box: random rewards at random intervals produce the most addictive behavior.
    Now, as someone who has struggled with mental illness, namely depression but I've got plenty of other issues, I really don't appreciate game designers who deliberately design addictive behavior into their games.  It's a part of why I like crafting, it is a system of clear goals and deliberate creation instead of the "random loot drop" paradigm in most games.  It's also why I don't play most of the MMOs I used to play, eventually they tend to devolve into random loot drop timesink grinding as well.  If a friend is playing I'll hop on with them (and if I had more friends I might play more)(though what I lack in quantity of friends I make up for in quality).  But by and large when the game has run out of new experiences and story it just devolves into mindless addiction collecting, at which point I need to stop playing.  Like I said at the beginning, I played Diablo 2, and didn't know about skinner boxes or appreciate my own mental issues at the time, and I spent hundreds of hours on it.  Well, no, say wasted hundreds of hours on it.  Because ultimately, when you have grind-ed the very best of all gear for all your inventory slots and reached the pinnacle of power, what the hell do you do?  When killing the monsters is easy and offers no new reward, why keep playing?  Where are you at the end?  In a story-based adventure, you reach the end, you face the final boss, save the world, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset (weather you want to or not, damn you Fallout: New Vegas).  There is resolution, closure.  In a loot-grind like Diablo or most MMOs you don't end by killing the final boss, you've already killed him/her/it hundreds or thousands of times to try to grind a new shiny.

    Now, I mentioned that this was related to my 13th Age campaign.  See, what hit me was that as a GM I had been falling into the same sort of grinding rut myself - but this time inflicting it on my players.  I tend to be the oddball GM, the guy who runs the game when we don't have any characters, have some new people, and want to start playing right now.  I have developed a formula to deal with 30 minutes of prep time while my new group is making characters, I pick 5 groups of monsters and throw a veneer of story as to why the party would be fighting them.  It is not deep, but when my own players have no concept of their characters (since we usually throw them together at that moment and most games don't have you do a lot of character-building during character creation, Fate being about the only real game that does with its Aspects) and usually we are not in any published setting (I've literally never played in the Forgotten Realms in about 30 years of D&D except for a computer game) so this is a fast and dirty way to give everybody something to do.  Every game really has clear rules for "kill the monsters" and that is a pretty easy story to craft.
    The problem is that this is loot grinding in a slightly different form, 'monster grinding' if you will.  After playing the very long Rise of the Runelords campaign that was pretty boring overall, I really want to do something better, something deeper for my players and me.  What sucks is that requires a lot of prep time and creativity.  Thankfully we are now in a fixed situation, I know the characters involved, and each player has crafted some backstory to their characters (the One Unique Thing and Icon Relationships are great in 13th Age for helping to actually build characters instead of just combat roles) and we are committed to playing these characters for a while (11 more game sessions).
    But what still sucks is that while the game has lots of clear and detailed rules for how to kill monsters, it hand-waves everything else.  I want our next adventure to be somewhat of a mystery.  Something bad is going to happen, its been fated to happen so my little 3rd level players can't stop it - but then can mitigate it.  If they can figure it out beforehand and prepare themselves, then they can reduce the damage done and make their lives easier in upcoming adventures.  They just have to solve who is going to do the bad thing and where and how, in the few days before it happens.  Our first adventure was a pretty straight monster crawl except that the final boss monster wasn't really a bad guy and didn't need to be killed.  Our second adventure had a series of rooms/encounters that were riddles to solve.  So hopefully we are on a nice trend of doing things other than monster-killing (though we will get back to that in adventure 4, which is basically a dungeon-crawl with a few twists).  Creating this has been a headache though.  "Just role-play it" sounds like great advise, but this isn't a movie where we are all watching and waiting for the big reveal at the end; this is an RPG where the players have to do the hard work to figure out what the big reveal is at the end.  And "role-playing game" has two complimentary parts, "role-playing" and "game."  Games have rules, without rules they are just make-believe.  And rules are good because they provide a foundation, a box if you will, that players can play inside or outside of.  I think it was Joe Haldeman who once wrote "Art thrives on restriction."  He was talking about how people would ask him to write a story for them, which he was happy to do - but they had to give him something, some event or concept or seed to work from and build off of.  I think that principle applies very well to RPGs.  The rules are not a straight-jacket, they are a spring-board (well, as long as you don't have too many rules, eventually rules bloat will crush anybody).

    So this post has turned into an epic ramble, let me try to pull my thoughts together.  Making a grind is easy, weather by just adding more loot or more monsters.  But is that enough?  Maybe for a one-shot pick-up game it is, but for a long-term campaign that you want your players to be invested in I'm not so sure.  However, making non-combat and -loot activities is hard, most games do not support that very well and you are left with creating your own system of rules or trusting in your acting ability.  Still, I think it is a worthwhile goal.  Addiction is not gameplay, as I noted at the beginning; merely repeating the same actions in hopes of better loot or a higher level is a pretty small goal for something as vast and creative as an RPG.  I wish I had a great system or advise on how to make deeper games, but I've got my hands full trying to figure it out myself (before next Monday when we play again).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

13th Age Impressions After 2 Adventures

    After wrapping up our Rise of the Runelords campaign GMed by my friend Aaron we have now started a 13th Age campaign GMed by me.  This is our first time playing 13th Age, and while I will try to write a good review of it later, here are some first impressions after finishing our 2nd adventure.

Simpler Is Better
    One thing about transitioning from Pathfinder to 13th Age is how much simpler 13th is by comparison.  In 13th Age classes only go up to 10 levels instead of 20, and there are fewer mechanical bits to track.  It's a general design philosophy that we have embraced, I don't bother to hand out gold pieces, I just assume that anything reasonable my characters want they have - and my players being reasonable people that works just fine.  We also don't do XP.  We played out Rise of the Runelords in 14 sessions, going from levels 1 to 18; my friend Aaron thought it would be cool to play 13th Age in 13 sessions going from levels 1 to the cap of 10.  So we will be leveling up after about every session, which takes care of the whole XP tracking thing.  In general we have streamlined everything from the overly-bloated Pathfinder into a more manageable system, and I love it.  Personally I don't feel like we have lost anything, but we only have 3 players of different classes and nobody wanted to try some weird or unusual idea for a character concept - so we haven't needed a lot of archetypes or alternate rules.

Rangers Get Hosed
     One bad simplification though is with the Ranger class, which Sara plays in our game.  Rangers either take weapon traits and are basically fighters, or they take an animal companion.  Seeings how there are only 3 of us, Sara decided to take the companion to have a 4th character and someone who could protect the squishy Wizard (me).  Which was cool, and had that Ranger vibe.  Except, that was it.  You only get 3 Class Talents to start, and taking the Animal Companion takes up 2 - so that companion is pretty much all that's unique/cool about your character.  The problem is that they are rather boring.  Every companion has the same stats, based on level, and one power based on the type of animal (Sara's Bear gains temporary HP when it hits something) but the stats are fixed and the power never changes.  You can add a few extra powers with feats, most of which are either passive one 1/day abilities.  Companions do not have attributes, do not have any special attacks or options in combat, and are quite boring to play really.  There are very few ways that the Ranger and Companion can interact, something that should be at the heart of that character concept.  We did get 13 True Ways, which added a few 1/day spells to use on a companion, but while that is better than nothing it is not an actual fix.
    My Wizard and Aaron's Rogue are both cool enough though.

Combat Is Unexpected
    Our first fight was 3 1st-level Goblins against the 1st-level Ranger and Rogue characters plus the Bear.  Some things are just tradition in D&D or any of its derivatives.  I expected the fight to be somewhat tough but doable, since Goblins are usually pushovers.  The Bear was knocked unconscious and both players injured before the Goblins were defeated.  It was a lot harder fight than I expected.  And combat has been like that, hard for me as GM to predict weather it will be easy or a TPK.  Part of that is because it is a new system and none of us are used to it yet (including my players knowing how to use their abilities to maximum advantage).  Part of that is because with fewer levels the monsters are kind of tougher - a 1st-level 13th age Goblin feels more like a 2nd-to-3rd-level Pathfinder Goblin.  It has been good so far, but is definitely taking some getting used to and adding to the burden of being GM (I don't like to kill players, so I hate not being sure just how many of what monsters they can handle).

It's Fun To Be Creative
    We last played a canned adventure straight out of the book with RotR, so I've been trying to do something different with 13th Age.  Our fist adventure had some fights, but also ways to non-violently end some confrontations and a bad guy who wasn't all bad at the end.  The second adventure was a series of riddle-encounters, which turned out to be the longest and hardest since one of my players was sleepy and not at the top of his game.  It's nice as GM to be free to make up things, while there is a sketchy outline of an adventure in the core rulebook and another in 13 True Ways, there is not really any kind of solid campaign so I've had to make stuff up.  That's also been kind of tricky, since I now have the burden of making stuff up for a game system I don't really know.  Overall though it has been good so far.
    I have ended up making some character sheets though, the ones in the book are mediocre at best.  That has added a lot of time behind Adobe Illustrator on top of writing out ideas.

There's Not A Lot Of Magic Items
    Magic Items are much simpler in 13th Age, each type of item having a fixed benefit (like a weapon giving a bonus to hit and damage, armor a bonus to AC, cloaks a bonus to saves) and then having one special property on top of that.  The core rulebook has several sample properties, but it is not a great selection.  I really wish they had dropped the concrete examples for a chapter on the idea behind magic items, how powerful roughly they should be and what kinds of abilities would be game-balanced.  Sara is the bow-wielding Ranger, so she would like a magic bow, but there is only 1 example in the book - the rest are magic ammunition, and the book does not say how many shots would be appropriate (though being Pathfinder-based I'll go with 50).  Likewise there are some armor special abilities that let you use your base AC for one of your other defenses (physical or mental, non-weapon stuff) - which is useless for my Wizard since my base AC is my lowest, and was no help for Aaron's Rogue where two of the three are the same number.  It's just hard to think of a new magic ability that is not over- or under-powered from the few examples in the book and no clue as to what the designers were thinking/planning for in the system.
    Also, the default bonuses are pretty small, a +1 to +3, which while better than nothing is not exactly a game-changer for the character.  Now, Pathfinder had to opposite problem of magic items being potentially over-powered, but here they feel not quite powerful enough.

    Anyways, there are a few of the things that have stuck out so far.  Again, we have only played 2 adventures, so we don't really know the system yet.  I have to say though, if I was forced to choose between playing 13th Age or Pathfinder, I think I would go with 13th Age.  I'm not really an "old school" player who misses the days of 1st Edition D&D, but I do think that Pathfinder has just gotten too big, too bloated to be fun anymore.  13th Age is a nice middle-ground between 1st and 3rd edition D&D styles of play and I am glad we have started playing it.  As a new game it requires some GM work to fill in the blanks, and there are some things about the rules I am not super-fond of, but on the whole it is a good game.  Aaron and Sara seem to like it overall too.

    I'm still working on my write-up about Rise of the Runelords, and when I finish my 13th Age character sheets I'll post them here as well.  Hope everyone has a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays.