Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kickstarter Update

It's been a few months, and I'm trying to distract myself from GenCon right now because if I spend too much time thinking about it, I'm not going to sleep. For the next two weeks.

So ... yeah.  I'm excited.

But it's been a few months since I did a Kickstarter update, so here's how things stand in Kickstarter-land for me as of today:

Recently Arrived
The Morrow Project, 4th Edition - they had continual problems getting the softcover together, so they upgraded most (or all) of their backers to the hardcover edition.  Mechanically, it's not really to my liking. It's tons of charts and tables and graphs. A very crunchy game.

Dragon Kings - I have the PDF.  The print version is yet to come, though. So, while it's still behind, I'm glad to have seen progress.  I haven't read it, yet.  It's in queue.

Tianxia - A Fate-driven wuxia game. It's well-assembled and reads easily. And, unlike a certain other wuxia-flavored game, it's in my hands. Less than six months after funding.

Ortus - This sounded like a fun game. And, after having played it a bit, I think I like it. I want to play it more.  There are a few bits where the rules could have used a small amount of polish, and the rulebook images don't match the included components. But - again - I want to play it more to see if it's as good as I think it is.

Atlantis Geographica - I mentioned Atlantis: The Second Age last time.  This is the second book in the line, and the third has since funded. I remain satisfied with Jerry Grayson's work.

Corporia - I don't remember if this had arrived last time or not. It's a near-future Arthurian game. I grabbed it because the concept was appealing.  It's in queue to be read.

NGS - Narrative Gaming System - In queue to be read. But I'm a sucker for a story-driven game, and this is one of those rare generic story-driven games.

Adventures in East Mark - Technically our copy was returned to sender for reasons unknown. But they contacted us right away about it.  Not only that, but a friend didn't like it, so we do have a copy (which is going to be a gift for a friend).

13 True Ways - We have the PDF. And I love it.

Formula E is fun. Not amazing. Not exceptional. But fun. I'm glad we backed it.

The Card Game of Oz has a few issues. But they're not the designer's fault (although his side of the story is the only one I've heard). And he's trying to make it right out of his own pocket.

There are a few others that've arrived, but it's nothing I was concerned about. It's just projects fulfilled as expected. The system working like it's supposed to.

News From Beyond
Our copy of Top This! has apparently shipped. I'm as shocked as anyone with regards to this development.

Running Behind With No Concerns
Several of these were mentioned last time - and I'm still not concerned.

Dragon Kings - I have the PDF for the core book. I have faith that they are working on it.

Tales From the Floating Vagabond - Again: Lee (the designer) spent time in a coma. Not only that, but he's been keeping his backers more-or-less in the loop and has not treated his backers poorly in the process.

The Whispering Road - I mentioned this one last time, too. And it's still behind. But we're seeing progress, and they're not ignoring us.

 Alas, Vegas - I trust James Wallis. It's that simple. He doesn't update as often as I think he should, but James Wallis has never failed to deliver when he said he was going to deliver. He's one of the Gaming Industry Good Guys.

Fae Nightmares - it's only two months late at this point. I'd appreciate more frequent updates, but they're good about updating when there is news to report.

Castles and Crusades Codex Nordica - Several friends have received theirs, so I have faith that it'll be here soon enough.

Running Behind With A Few Concerns
Chuubo's Magical Wish-Granting Engine - We got an epub version of the rulebook, but not a PDF. And, as I'm a Kindle user, an epub does me no good without conversion software.

Call of Cthulhu - Chaosium has been a bit disorganized when it comes to their Kickstarters. Progress is being made, but I don't see many mechanical updates to the game from the (Ennie-nominated) quick start rules.  Not surprising, but a bit disappointing.

Tunnels and Trolls - I'd like a few more updates. I have no fears that it's not coming, but, at the same time, it's not here, yet. There have been illnesses on the team, and other setbacks. But the delays are starting to get frustrating.

Given Up
I will never see Far West. I've resigned myself to that. If it does show up, it's doomed to sit on the shelf until I'm done being frustrated. And that could be a very long time, because the author has spend a great deal of his time online antagonizing people. Instead of writing. Yes, he had a major illness. But if he'd been working instead of picking fights, I fully believe it'd be done by now.

And, of course, the rest of the usual suspects from last time.

As usual, you can check all of the projects we have backed right here.

Next week: My Game of the Year short list.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Problem of Canon: Roleplaying and Licensed Games

I, like most people my age, really like Star Wars.  It's part of what we all grew up on. It's a global phenomenon that has now had three RPGs licensed from it.

And I've always had trouble role-playing in the Star Wars universe, because ultimately, PCs have only a limited degree of ability to change the world - and small people making big changes is one of the primary themes of the setting. No. Really. Look at the original trilogy. Look at the (surprisingly low) power level of the Jedi.

And the reason we can't change the setting as PCs is because so much of it is already established. We know that the first Death Star is going to be destroyed by Luke. We know that a small Rebel strike force is going to take down the shield generators on Endor.  And, while we can participate in these, we can't change them most of the time.

The Expanded Universe has actually made things worse for that, by establishing the outcomes of most of the battles and skirmishes. The novels and comic books have filled in more and more, leaving less and less available to GM imaginations.

Yes, good GMs can find ways to include PCs all over the play.  According to Timothy Zahn, the Executor ran into the Death Star because the Emperor stopped upgrading the competence of his troops via the Force. But what if there was a team of Rebels aboard who sabotaged its controls, too? It's a suicide mission, to be sure, but clever PCs might find a way to survive ...

Again, though, that's not changing the established universe.  That's just participating in an already-fated outcome.

So I was really excited when Dark Horse announced that they'd be publishing The Star Wars. It's a one-off comic (a limited run of four issues, IIRC) that went back to George Lucas' first draft of what would eventually become Star Wars, Episode IV:A New Hope.  It's Star Wars without all that pesky Canon.  Well, almost.

But this isn't the only universe with a great deal of established canon.  Every licensed super hero game has had to deal with canon - but, since the original publishers have a history of rebooting that canon from time-to-time, it's not really been as much of a headache. Star Trek has mostly avoided the universe-shattering storylines and tells mostly stories about one ship and her crew, leaving much of the rest of the universe open.

But every licensed game has to decide how to deal with canon. Either in the book itself (direct from the publisher) or at the table (via the GM).  And there are a few options:

Canon is inviolate.
This, depending on the universe, can strangle games. The GM does their best not to break canon at any time.  It's good because the players know what to expect from the game and what is going to happen. It's bad because players can feel constrained. And what happens if something new comes out in six months or a year that contradicts the game's canon?

Canon is flexible.
Maybe small changes are possible, but the main story arc is going through as expressed in other media.  This is good because players like being able to impact the world and they like knowing what to expect.  It's bad because sometimes those small changes can lead to much larger changes later.

Canon is cherry-picked.
I'm guilty of this one, sometimes. Especially with Star Wars.  "The original movies are canon. The Zahn books are canon. Nothing else is." It's good because it can really open up the setting. It's bad because players often want other favorite things from canon included. Or other things excluded.

Canon is inviolate until
This is another form of cherry-picking. But it can also open up the world up to players. If, for example, the game picks up with the destruction of the second Death Star, then the movies are in but the Zahn books are out, then the entire future of the galaxy is in question.

This is a universal reboot. There is no canon.
Pretty self-explanatory. The good part is that the PCs can go anywhere and do anything. The bad part is that they don't know where to go or what to do without guidance from the GM. The fact that they can't rely on their knowledge of canon is a mixed blessing. This one requires more trust of the GM than the other options do, because if you build your character based on Jedi being warriors and then discover that they're just seers ... well, you're going to be pretty frustrated.

I tend to prefer the cherry-picking option, because it does a good job of setting expectations for players without running too much risk of alienating them.

I suspect that the team behind Episode VII started running into canon-related problems pretty quickly, which is why they made that announcement a few months back about the Expanded Universe being non-canon, now. And then showed off that they are apparently actually cherry-picking.

Meanwhile, I just heard thunder and saw some lightning, so I should shut down and walk away from the computer, now.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

GenCon

About all you're going to hear about from me for the next month is GenCon.  Because it's that close.

Travel-wise, Steph and I are waiting for our plane tickets, but we have hotel reservations (thanks, Carol). And should have those plane tickets by the end of the week (thanks again, Carol).

But here's what you can expect from me during the show:

The same sort of thing as last year, realistically.  Only less here and more at the show.  Last year, Ben & I ran tournaments all show long, and there is downtime during tournaments. Not a ton, mind you, but more than there is on the demo tables.  So I don't expect to be able to say much during the day.

I'll be snapping photos off-and-on, and will probably upload those directly here. Or to my (rarely actually updated) twitter.

So what games will we be demoing?

I still don't have a complete list, but here are a few I'm expecting to see in the demo area. And, ideally, for sale, too.  As to when I'll have a complete list?  Probably after the show.  Maybe.  Because inevitably, we'll be cleaning up, and I'll see a copy of Jungle Speed or Werewolves of Miller's Hollow - a couple of old standbys that I really enjoy.

We'll almost certainly be demoing the Spiel des Jahres nominated Concept and Splendor games. A lot.  And I'm looking forward to running those demos.

But here's what I know of the new stuff (thanks in large part to BoardGameGeek's GenCon Preview):

Abyss will be in the booth for demos. I worked on this one, and am really looking forward to seeing the finished product. Early reports suggest that the art on this one is astounding.

7 Wonders: Babel might have a demo copy available to show off - if we handle it like we have handled 7 Wonders expansions in past years, we'll be demoing the base game and telling folks what the expansion adds or changes.  I worked on this one, and am looking forward to it.

Ca$h 'n Gun$ will reportedly have its second edition there. I worked on this one, too. It's changed quite a bit from the earlier edition, and I can't wait to get this to the table.

The expansion to Mascarade will be there for demos (but not sale). I worked on it, too.  Those of you who follow my twitter account will have seen that I played Mascarade a whole bunch a few weeks back - it's because I wanted to make sure I was up-to-speed and ready to go.

Unita, Colt Express, Conan: Hyborian Quests, and Hyperborea will apparently be in the booth for demos. By following those links, you can learn as much about them as I currently know. But I'll be reading those rulebooks I can find between now and then.

And who is this "we" of whom I speak?

It's the Asmodee Demo Team.  Hopefully it'll be the same crew we had last year (and more), because the last few years, we've had an exceptional team that it's been a genuine pleasure to work with.  Even if I can't remember everyone's names most of the time ...

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Fifth Edition

I made a decision a very long time ago not to support people who are toxic or bad for the hobby. It's sometimes tricky, navigating those waters - and I'm not perfect.

I try not to be negative, here. I tend to write about games I like and things that get me excited, so this post is a bit out of character for me. And I apologize for that.

With that said, I will not be buying the new edition of D&D.


Several of the names on this list are among the most awesome people I've ever interacted with. Kenneth Hite is a phenomenal writer and designer with an excellent sense of humor.  Robin Laws is also an excellent writer and designer.  S. John Ross is likewise. I encourage you to track down their work elsewhere and buy a lot of it.

But I will not support anything which profits the RPG Pundit in any way. Period.

There are a number of reasons for this, but, to avoid degenerating into incoherency, I'll just post this link, which summarizes Sage LaTorra's problems with him, and this link. And say that there is more to it than just that.

I've already pre-paid for the starter set that drops today. That is the last 5e product I will be purchasing first-hand.  It'll be the first version of D&D I won't be buying into since I had the ability to to so.  It's a weird feeling.

As to what you should do: I leave it 100% up to you to make up your own mind. But I do encourage you to do a bit of research before you decide.

And - if you decide not to buy - tell Wizards of the Coast. Otherwise, they'll just assume it's business as usual.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

13 True Ways

We backed the Kickstarter for 13 True Ways - the supplement to 13th Age, and the PDF arrived last week. And it is chock full of awesome.

I'm not sure if I've said it enough, yet: 13th Age is the best game I've played in nearly a decade. I even like it mechanically better than I like FATE.  And I do like FATE.

As a player, the key contents of the new book are the new classes and the rules for multiclassing. As a GM, there are a number of locations which are better-detailed, some new monsters, a full chapter on devils and how to use them, and then a full chapter on GM advice with a number of tools and suggestions.

I'm only going to talk about the player end of things, here, because I'm lucky enough to be a player.

It's worth noting that, unless you decide to multiclass, there is nothing in this book for existing characters. No new gear, no new Feats, no new spells ...  The sole exception to this is the Ranger with an Animal Companion, who now adds a couple of spells to their repertoire.

This book is - for players - all about the new classes and the multiclassing rules.

Since I'm in an established game with established characters, the new classes are not something I expected to be dealing with anytime soon.  But I did take a quick look.  They are the Chaos Mage, the Commander, the Druid, the Monk, the Necromancer, and the Occultist.

The Chaos Mage reminds me a great deal of the Wild Mage from the 2e Tome of Magic. There are random effects that will go off around one of these characters.  But they Chaos Mage also doesn't control what kind of spell they are going to cast - they randomly determine at the end of each round what type of spell they can cast the next round.  It's a powerful class, but the lack of control over your own actions mitigate this by quite a bit.

The Commander has things in common with the 3e Warlord class - they gain abilities to buff the party.  They can allow allies to rally, to make bonus attacks, to re-roll damage, and so on. They have two different groups of powers that do this - Tactics and Commands.  Commands are performed on allies' turns and are interrupt actions. Tactics are preformed on the Commander's turn, and are sometimes Quick actions and sometimes Standard Actions. All of the cost Command Points, which the Commander refreshes by making successful attacks or by doing nothing but gathering points.

The Druid is an oddly flexible class. Depending on the talents chosen, druids can go in a lot of ways. Druids can be forest wizards, healers, rangers, shapeshifters, and more. Realistically, you can have a party of Druids who are all very different from one another. Moreso than a party of Fighters or a party of Wizards or anyone else, really.

The Monk is a master of unarmed combat. Many of their attacks function as combos, with each attack setting up the following attack. There's a bit of bookkeeping for them, as they have to keep track of ki points, which are used to power their attacks.

The Necromancer is a Wizard who deals with the dead. A necromancer will deal direct damage with 'negative energy' attacks, and can learn to summon undead minions. There are Talents that allow you to take more of the base game's Wizard abilities, too. It's worth noting that the book explains that Necromancer does not necessarily mean Evil. There is even a section on the various Icons and how they use Necromancers.

The final class in the book is the Occultist. The Occultist is a one-of-a-kind character. It's a spell-casting character type from "Beyond." The fact that they have close ties to another reality allows them a degree of control over this reality. It's a really weird class that has abilities that fit into several other classes - "Better Yet, Here," for example, is the sort of ability that would be right at home in the Commander's ability list.  Other abilities have special effects like ongoing damage, even on a miss. There are some really neat ideas in this class, but it seems a little disjointed with no clear focus like so many other classes have.

Multiclassing. I'm sure this is being heavily-discussed elsewhere. The 13th Age approach to multiclassing is different from anyone else's approach. And it's ... weird.

Let me back up a bit. In 2e, multiclassing meant you needed most XP than anyone else to go up a level, because you would take any XP received and split it into two separate numbers to compare to two (or more) separate XP charts, and you leveled each class separately. So a Fighter/Cleric would progress at half the speed of either.  And the pairings were restricted. You couldn't be a Fighter/Paladin, for example. It's worth reminding people that in 2e, each class leveled at a different speed, and there were minimum stats to get into the various classes.

In 3e, multiclassing was a "sandwich" approach.  Start with a level of Fighter, and then drop a slice of Cleric on top of that. And then, when we level again, add more Fighter or Cleric or whatever. It was possible to combine any number of classes, so you could be (at fourth level) a Fighter/Cleric/Paladin/Bard.

In 4e, multiclassing was a power swap. You took the Feat to allow multiclassing, and it would allow you to swap out one of your abilities for an ability from the other class. Later on, there were more advanced multiclass swaps available so you could swap higher-level abilities. You had minimum stats to multiclass - to multiclass into Bard, for example, you needed CHA of 13+ (IIRC).

13th Age uses none of these approaches. It's closer to 2e than the others, though.  In essence, you pick-and-choose the talents from two classes, and then you get the better of this and that and so on.  And then you use both class progressions - but at one level lower. So a paladin who multiclasses won't get an extra Class Talent until 6th Level. But this only impacts the Talents, Spells, Battle Cries, and so on.

There's no "power stacking" here - which is good.  So you can't use a Barbarian Rage to roll more dice to hit and add Sneak Attack damage on the end of it.  This means that some classes are better-suited to multiclassing than others right off the bat. The Paladin, for example, looks like it'd multiclass well with just about anything. Because - other than their Smite Evil attack - the Paladin doesn't have many special abilities.

In fact, I multiclassed Hochnor as an exercise the other day - just to see how it turned out. I multiclassed with Commander, because it's an interesting class that looked like fun.  The hitpoints at 4th Level were 57 instead of 60. I had to change on Talent to a Commander Talent, so I gave up Bastion and added Sword of Victory.  This required that I change my Bastion Feat, too - so I just changed it to the Sword of Victory Feat.

And then I added the Fight from the Front and Weigh the Odds class features. And, finally, I added Commands and Tactics.

Realistically, it made my character dramatically more effective. At the cost of 3 hit points and one AC.   More effective to the point where I'm going to ask +Wade Rockett if I can keep the multiclass. But I don't know that (for example) a Wizard/Cleric would be as powerful.  But when I hit sixth level, I'm going to gain two new Talents, once from each Class (because both classes normally gain an additional Talent at 5th Level).

The core book has a bit on Page 75 about Ease of Play.  I suspect that the lower the complexity of the class, the better-suited it is to multiclassing.  I'd wager that Barbarian, Ranger, and Paladin will all benefit from multiclassing, whereas the Wizard and Bard probably suffer from multiclassing, because of all of the moving parts. But I'm not sure - I may need to stat up some Wizards and then some Wizard/Bard or Wizard/Sorcerer characters to see.

Either way: 13 True Ways is not a must-have for a player unless you plan to multiclass or are playing a Ranger. Or want some additional choices for your next character. With that said I do believe that every GROUP should have at least one copy of this book for the players and one for their GM.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Diversity of Product

I realized this morning that it's a bit weird for me to not even mention Origins when it's going on.  And I didn't. I didn't mention the convention or the awards.  Which is very unusual for me.

I was busy.  And, in fact, I'm still busy.  I have a couple of deadlines I'm chasing for things that are due for GenCon and/or Essens Preview and/or Release.

I almost got to go to Origins this year, too.  Almost.  Asmodee asked me if I could, and (for the first time in a very long time) I had to turn them down because I don't have enough vacation time.

It sounds like the Asmodee booth was a good one, though. That "not forcing specific games down peoples' throats" has always been a strength of Asmodee's selection. A lot of publishers go to conventions only with the HOT NEW GAME - and that's what their demo teams push. And push. And push. I feel bad for the demo team members who are stuck pushing One Game that they don't like.

While Asmodee does usually have one or two "focus" games, they have historically made sure that they have other games, including a few old standbys in the booth, too. Like, for example, Jungle Speed, a game which has been refreshed every few years - but which has been in the booth for more than a decade in one form or another.

And the broad base of games means that there is something there for nearly everyone. Seriously.  Poke around a bit. You'll see more games in more categories ...

Want an introductory-level strategy game? They have done a great job of making sure that there is something at or around that complexity level available. Currently, the Timeline series of games fills that "introductory" niche - but it's not alone. Rise of Augustus is also relatively light (and won't bore many of the hardcore, either).

Want a party game? Check out Concept (a Spiel des Jahres nominee this year). Or Mascarade (which has an expansion that's coming).

Dexterity? I already mentioned Jungle Speed. But there's also Rampage (which is undergoing a title change to Terror in Meeple City).

Medium-weight strategy? Spyrium was one of our focus games last year. In my opinion, it hasn't received nearly enough attention. Splendor is another Spiel des Jahres nominee this year. Both are excellent choices.

Want something beefier?  Eclipse and Nations are both pretty beefy games that are well worth looking at.

Seriously: Look at this page. There are 294 results on that page. Yes, there are duplicates there. Yes, there are games that are French versions of other favorites. Yes, there are games that never saw an English release. And there are games coming that aren't on that list, yet.

I honestly think that this diversity of product part of what makes Asmodee one of the best booths at GenCon.  But only part.

There's a lot that goes into a good convention booth. Maybe I should talk more about that at some point ...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Changing Times, Changing Tastes: New Editions

As I'm sure you all know by now, I am a huge fan of most professional wrestling. So when the WWE Network went live, I subscribed the first day, and have been spending far too much time watching it.

My best friend is a huge MMA Junkie. A few moths ago, he loaned me Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. A book that is all about professional wrestling, with a focus on its roots - when it was real in all respects.  The book was fascinating - and eye-opening.  But it got my friend interested in some of the current state of professional wrestling. Especially as a number of MMA fighters have started to utilize some of the traditional elements of wrestling in their game.

But that's all beside the point.

The point is this: We've been watching a _ton_ of old PayPerView events. Most of what we watched was from the "Attitude Era" of the WWE.  This was pretty much an "anything goes" era.  A week or two ago, we watched an event in which there was a matchup between Jamie Noble and Billy Gunn in which if Noble won, he would get to sleep with Kidman's valet/manager/friend. A woman who was repulsed by him.

I turned to my friend and said, "Wow.  That just wouldn't fly today."  Because it wouldn't. The WWE moved from the "Attitude Era" into what is being called "The PG Era." In some ways, it's dumbed down a few of the storylines and made some characters less interesting. But in a lot of ways, it's strengthened the product.

But - because this is me, it made me think about games. Because the WWE's transition from one era to the next is - more or less - a new edition of the same thing. The Golden Age of the Eighties became the "New Generation" era of the early nineties, which became the "Attitude Era" of the late nineties into the early oughts. And now we're in the PG era, which is functionally similar to the "New Generation" - only with a handful of innovations (new match types, more high-fliers, etc.)

Through each era, the focus has been the same - athletic showcased presented as a competition with some "behind the scenes" work to create a consistent story for each character. They even managed to transition characters from one edition to the next.

The reinvention was necessary to keep the product form getting stale. "To keep sales up," essentially. When viewership drops, something needs changing.

Each "edition" has borrowed something from one of the other (smaller) competitors out there, too. The "Attitude Era" was, for example, clearly influenced by the old-school ECW product. Which is not surprising, as several of their top names had worked for ECW.

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition.  When it first dropped, I enjoyed it.  Mind you, it was clear that a great deal of the system was "borrowed" from Talislanta. But this was not surprising, as Jonathan Tweet was the Lead Designer on both.

As the d20 era continued, however, I was one of those who grew disaffected with it. Around the time 3.5 dropped, I realized that it'd become more-or-less an exercise in optimization rather than what I looked for in a game. They lost the interest of this audience. Pathfinder took that optimization exercise and turned it up to 11. I played it a bit, and really disliked the game.

I am one of the folks who didn't hate 4e. It wasn't 3e. It wasn't a flexible game at all, in fact. The skill system was overhauled and turned into something that was oddly similar to 2e's proficiencies. The gridded combat of 3e remained firmly in place - but if you read 2e, it was there, too.

4e was the first time D&D felt different to me, with its list of specific powers for the various classes. Even the Feats of 3e didn't significantly change the "feel" of the game for me.  But these Healing Surges and Daily Powers and Encounter Powers were all unlike anything I'd seen before. It wasn't a step back for the game - but it wasn't a step forward, either.

And now, here we are, about a month away from the new starter box for 5e. By all accounts, 5e is (in many ways) a callback to the days of 2e. Only with some innovations (high AC values are good, saves continue to be 'roll high').

It's as though Wizards of the Coast has decided it's time for its own PG Era.

I wonder how long before the audience grows bored with this one ...