Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"You're Only As Good As Your Opponents Make You"

In the late nineties, I was still playing Magic: The Gathering. Almost to the exclusion of everything else, in fact. It was all Magic and World of Darkness for me.

In short, it was an era of my gaming history of which I am not proud.

I worked, briefly, at a card shop which was primarily a sports card shop, but, like every single other card shop in the world at the time, they had started dabbling in Magic. Because it was like a license to print money.

Like most card shops, they bought and sold singles - and engaged in limited trading.  As an employee, I was given rough guidelines to follow, and I did so.  To the letter.

And it almost got me fired.

See, I bought a card that the store owner thought was useless, despite its high cost.

This, by the way, was shortly after Fallen Empires had come out. To give you an idea how good that set was, even now - almost twenty years later - unopened packs will cost you about $0.50. I don't think any of the cards from that set have been reprinted into newer base sets.

The card I bought wasn't from that set. And I didn't really buy the card so much as trade for it with the store's stock - again, following their stated policies. I recorded the trade in the log (as I was supposed to).

When I got in the next morning, my boss was fuming. "Clearly," he said, "you don't know what cards people are playing or what's worth trading for." Because the card that I had traded for was (to his mind) useless. "I need you to start attending this weekly gathering of players, so that you can see which cards have value and which are worthless. Otherwise, I'll have to fire you for this mistake."

He had a specific gathering in mind.

Here's something else you need to know about me at the time:  I was a tournament-level player. I didn't actually participate in tournaments, but several of my friends did - and did very well. I did reasonably well against my friends in play, too. They used me as a trainer in some ways.

I had two decks which were in use - a Black/White/Artifact Meekstone deck that tied up my opponent's creatures while my smaller (mostly flying) creatures attacked relentlessly (with occasional instants like Howl from Beyond; a Red/Black Land Destruction and Direct Damage deck that destroyed my opponents' lands and picked at them directly (it wasn't completely creatureless, as those decks weren't quite viable, yet).  The exact compositions of the decks fluctuated, based on what cards I had at any given time.

"Fine," I told him.  "I'll be there this week.  And, while we're discussing it, let me buy that card you think was a mistake.  I'll use it at the gathering to prove that it's a good card."

That Thursday, I showed up with my Red/Black deck.  This club was set up so that, once registered, you received a slip indicating how many "stars" you were worth.  When you played people, you found out how many stars they were worth, and you reported your wins to the organizer.

Once you had accrued a certain number of stars-worth of wins, the organizer would break out his deck, play against you, and then give you an additional star.

It was a pretty good system.

Like any group, there were good eggs and bad eggs. This group had a handful of baby seal-clubbers, who had gotten all of their stars by beating one-star players. And they were eager to face me. Because I was completely untested and they knew they could beat me, because they'd never seen me before.

My boss was there, with his five-star deck - and he was a seal-clubber. He thought he was great.

I played a few games against other one-stars for a bit.  When I was undefeated after a handful of matches, the seal-clubbers saw it as their duty to prove that my deck wasn't that good.

When one of them barely squeaked out a win against me, he asked me how many stars I was worth. His response has stuck with me for years. "One star?  With that deck?"

At this particular gathering, they played a very specific style of Magic. The decks either all fit the same profile or were set up to defeat that same profile.  It didn't matter what the profile was - the people there only played the people who were there. There were no varying deckbuilding philosophies at work, because they'd all learned how to play from one another.  When faced with a deck built along different lines, it baffled them because they didn't know how to face it.

Their decks - in all honesty - were good decks.  Solid, playable, functional decks. And, had they tweaked three or four cards, they would have beat me more reliably. A while back, I talked about regional variants being common for many classic games. This wasn't actually a variant - it was a style of play difference. 

It was before the 'Net Deck' phenomenon that (for me) sucked all the fun out of the game. Because I really enjoyed seeing multiple styles of play. And I liked some of the home-constructed decks that we used to see in those days.  There were some really odd decks out there that would never see the table even in casual play these days.

As it is, when my boss decided to face me, I trounced him.  He had a Red/Green Big Creatures deck that relied on getting a lot of mana out quickly from relatively few lands. But "relatively few" still requires at least one or two.  He quickly sideboarded and challenged me again. And, again, I annihilated him.

I used the card in question during both games.

And was unsurprised to find myself out a job the next day.

Following that, I did see him in tournaments, and he had tightened and tuned his deck considerably. He even occasionally beat me.

See, when you play in a small group, you can get "really good" at a game - but you won't know how good you actually are until you move beyond your group and encounter a different style of play.

It applies equally well to both board and card games, too. I'm really good (in my group) at Modern Art, but I have to wonder: Is it because I'm good, or is it because my opponents' style of play is weak against my style?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why Don't You ... ?

I keep getting asked why I haven't written about Dungeon Twister in a while. And it's true - I haven't had much to say about the game lately.

It's not because I've lost interest. DT is still my all-time favorite game.

The reason I'm not talking much is because there's not really any news to report.  Traps (the next expansion) is "coming."  The League is in a holding pattern, waiting for information.  The video game is "coming."

In fact, I had an e-mail from Hydravision a few weeks ago telling us that they hoped to have good news within the next little while.  That "good news" should (I hope I hope I hope) be a release date for the video game.

Why no "multiple uses" posts for the French-only sets? Because I haven't played these sets enough to familiarize myself fully with the characters and items. I'm working on it. Slowly but surely.

So what am I doing in regards to the game right now?

I'm starting from scratch. I have gotten a small handful of folks at my regular Wednesday gathering interested in the game.  And they're playing pretty regularly - generally at least one game per week.  I'm hosting a tournament in May or June (I'll post the exact details here once I have them).

Once there is news to report, I will report it.

I've made some very good friends through this game - I'm not giving up on it, and I hope you don't, either.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What I Want From 5E/D&D Next

Now that we're a few months past the Big Announcement and the fire has (to a great extent) died down, I thought I'd chip in with my input into what I want from 5E.  Not that one more person's input will change things. But here is my spare change:

Better Multiclassing
Of all the editions of D&D so far, I think 3E was closest to getting it right. Splitting your XP in 2E made your character less than half as effective as most of the rest of the party. Spending Feats to borrow powers from other classes in 4E effectively made multiclassing a waste of time and XP.  Adding levels like 3E did worked, but it had some issues - for example, taking a single level of Fighter instantly gave you the ability to use all non-exotic weapons and wear any armor without penalty.

I'd like to see 5E move closer to 3E on this front - but nerf it slightly. You first level in a new class, you get half of some benefits. Half the skill points, a limited number of Weapon and/or Armor Proficiency Feats, a reduced number of spells.

Honestly, I'd create two versions of the first level of each class - "Base Class" and "Multiclass."  If I'm a Fighter who takes a class of Wizard, I get the Multiclass version of Wizard instead of the Base Class version. For that first level.

A Better Skill System
3E had this about right. There was a set skill list and each class gained a certain number of points to spend on the skills. I'd increase the number of skills, though, and put them into categories. Fighters might gain six Combat Skills and three General Skill Points. It's a step closer to 2E's Weapon Proficiency/Non-Weapon Proficiency divide, but it allows for truly different characters (one of 3E's strengths).

In my opinion, FEATS should highlight what's already there or accent pre-existing abilities. Much like many of the 4E FEATS - "You have a hammer? Great! Now you do +2 Damage with that hammer!"

XP for Non-Combat Interaction
This, for me, is a huge deal. I'd like to be rewarded for outwitting the dragon and getting out alive.  I'd like the system to encourage players to avoid combat sometimes, and experience is a good way to do this.

More Story Control for Players
Maybe I've been spoiled by all the Indie games I've been reading. Or my FUDGE game history. I just like the idea of players being able to influence the story. It's not a new idea - look at James Bond 007 for a relatively old example.

Give players a limited number of Plot Points - you can even call them Action Points (and award them similarly to how they are currently awarded). Spending a point lets the player influence the story in some way.  Maybe that store does have the potion you're looking for. Maybe the librarian doesn't have the tome, but he knows where you can find it. Maybe you know that bandit - the third one on the left - and so you won't necessarily have to kill all of the bandits just to get through their roadblock.

Less Black & White, More Shades of Grey
I really dislike D&D's alignment system. I always have. It seemed arbitrary and weird. Even the improved 4E alignments (which remind me more and more of Palladium's alignments) are odd to me.

Why not use a system that's more like King Arthur Pendragon uses for Virtues? Fading Suns used a similar system, and it worked very well.  You can easily give each class a set of "highlight" Virtues - Paladins, for example, would probably tend to be Just and Merciful, whereas rogues will be Greedy and Selfish.  Not only does it give more definition to the character, it also gives the GM another story hook to use ... "Roll a Wisdom check against a difficulty of your Greed to sneak out of the Dragon's Den without filling your pockets with gold and angering the dragon." And it gives PC's another way to earn XP for good role-playing (or earn those story control points I mentioned earlier).

Conversion Notes from Earlier Editions
When 3E came out, Wizards of the Coast published a conversion book that allowed players to take the 2E characters they'd been playing for years and continue to use them.  It wasn't perfect, but it worked. No such booklet appeared for 4E.

I'm not looking for a step-by-step breakdown, but there aren't even basic guidelines to go from 3E to 4E. Unless you consider fan-created conversion notes. And there aren't a lot of those, either.

Class Creation Guidelines
Let's be honest - 5E will probably be class-and-level-based. That's not necessarily a bad thing - Legend of the Five Rings RPG is one of my favorite RPGs, and it is the strictest class-based system I know of. And it has a level-based system that makes sense, even if it only extended for five levels.

When I bought 4E, I was disappointed when they left out the Bard class (one of my favorites to play). Had there been some sort of class construction guideline, I could have made my own Bard glass and been satisfied. In fact, no matter what classes they include, there will be others which are excluded. Many of them will have fans.  A full set of rules isn't necessary, here, either - just guidelines. With an example class so we can see how it works.

My list is probably different from most other lists out there. In fact, I'd be shocked if my wants/needs matched anyone else's.  I'm sure there are things on my list that overlap those of others out there.

But that's where I stand on 5E.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

GameStorm 14

So. A few weeks back, Stephanie and I went to GameStorm 14. I've been to a few small local game conventions, ranging from DragonFlight to the (now defunct) SeattleGameCon.

I've spent the last few years wanting to go - but not with any degree of drive.

I now regret that decision.

The convention was held in the town of Vancouver, Washington - it's about a three hour drive from home. Just far enough that getting a hotel room is a better idea than driving, but not so far that getting a hotel is a strict requirement. We did, however, get a hotel room. In part because we weren't sure how the parking situation was going to be - and this is always an issue at conventions. In part because we had a friend in town from California.

We checked in on Thursday night, and went to see what sort of food Vancouver had to offer. While out walking, we spotted a movie theater showing what is - quite possibly - the best film ever made: The Princess Bride. This, for me, was a strong indicator that it was going to be a good weekend.

Well, that and the food we had for dinner that night.

At the theatre, they were serving Dublin Dr Pepper. Another good sign.

Following the movie, we headed back to the room and crashed.

On Friday, I had two panels scheduled - one at 9am and one at 3pm. The 9am panel was "Statistics for Gamers" - and it was helpful and interesting. Some really good information that will be helpful as I continue working on my own game designs.

The 3pm panel was on designing characters you'd like to play. It was ... well ... the panelists were good. There were a few audience members I'd like to have tagged with a clue-by-four.

In between the two panels, I headed to Blue Moon Camera for a bit of geeking out with our visiting friend (who is ALSO a camera nut). Picked up some film and dropped some off for processing.

That evening, we went out to dinner again, and again had an amazingly good dinner.

Saturday, I had two games - a 9am Mistborn RPG session and a 2pm Psi-Punk game. Each was scheduled to run for four hours.

I had been really looking forward to the Mistborn game. A friend of mine got me hooked on the books a few months ago, and then dropped the tidbit that an RPG was in development. I've pre-ordered one through my game store (random aside: do we all use the possessive when discussing our local game stores?), and may order a hardcover direct from the publisher as well.

Gaming at a convention is an odd beast - you never know who will be at the table with you and how you'll click. And the fact that it's a one-shot can radically change the behavior of players.

In this case, my fears were unfounded. There were four players plus the GM, and we all clicked pretty well. I spent four hours laughing and generally having an excellent time. We all knew the setting, and they filled in enough of the system that we weren't lost from the beginning.  It was one of the best one-shots in which I have ever played.

Psi-Punk is an upcoming FUDGE-based game. Most of you probably already know this, but I love FUDGE. I own a significant number of FUDGE-based games (and I'm including FATE games in this). FUDGE is the universal system I like most.

Unfortunately, I didn't click as well with the players, and the lack of familiarity with the setting made this a bit of an awkward exercise for me. Don't get me wrong: I had a good time. I liked the game. It was just a bit awkward.

HEAD IN FISH!Following Psi-Punk, we went out and took some photos. Mostly, we were just goofing off with the smaller cameras to get comfortable with them, but we did break out my big camera for a few shots.

Those have not been developed, yet. To the left, you can see what happens when you find a large fish sculpture and have a Polaroid Land Camera 210 close at hand. And you're in the company of someone who is a bit goofy.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Dinner on Saturday was in the hotel's in-lobby restaurant.  It was ... it wasn't as good as the dinner the two previous nights had been, but it was still pretty tasty. And they had a cheese platter for dessert - something for which I am a bit of a sucker.

Sunday, I played Wits & Wagers. We took second, but I didn't need the prize (a copy of the game) so we passed it along to the third-place finisher.

All in all, it was a busy weekend and a lot of fun.  Well worth the price of admission, and we hope to attend again next year.