Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Blood Bowl

A good friend of mine passed unexpectedly about a month ago. He's someone I gamed with in the mid-Nineties, in between high school and moving out on my own. Jeff introduced me to a lot of games - and a very different approach to some of them. If you've enjoyed reading my blog over the years, then you owe Jeff a small amount of gratitude, too.

The most impactful introduction he made for me was Blood Bowl, and so the weekend after he passed, I went to a Games Workshop store, and I picked up the new (2020) edition.

I have a ... complicated ... history with GW. They, for their part, have vacillated between rabidly anti-fan moves and actively supporting fansites, depending on who was in charge at any given time.  Right now, they're starting to swing back to being anti-fan.

But Blood Bowl has always been That Game for me. Prior to it, I'd never played a board game that had an advancement mechanism - that'd been something I'd considered a dividing line between RPGs and Board Games.  I'd also never enjoyed a sports-themed game - I'd tried a few, but they were always either oddly clunky or super-dry. Or both.

But Blood Bowl hit that sweet spot for me. They've released it a couple of times, and each time, there were some minor tweaks and adjustments. I got good at the game - I even won a couple of tournaments, including an official Rogue Trader tournament which gained for me the World's Ugliest Trophy.

Since then, other games have hit similar spots - especially when Games Workshop was at their absolute worst. I really enjoyed Elfball and Dreadball and Guild Ball, for example. But I kept coming back to Blood Bowl.

A week ago, I spent my weekend assembling figures.  For 3rd Edition, the Blood Bowl figures were pretty much all two-piece single-pose or one-piece metal figures (other than some Big Guys and Star Players). When they re-released the game in 2016, they upgraded the figures to the current GW standard, which is ... a mixed blessing.

With 3e (which was 1994 all the way up until the 2016 release), I could buy a box and press-fit the Orc and Human players. I was ready to play in less than an hour from the time I opened the box.

With the Second Season Edition, I spent hours assembling figures. And the instructions in a couple of cases were so bad that I had to keep going to their website to see what the finished product was like. It was a continual exercise in frustration.

And that's bad.  Blood Bowl had been an excellent gateway game for budding miniatures game hobbyists. Their simple figures meant that rookies who painted them often got decent results (but experienced hobbyists could still get spectacular results). 

For example, here is the classic Champions of Death team. They're all metal figures, and it's clear which figures are zombies and which are skeletons, ghouls, or mummies...

The new version is all-plastic - and the poses are much more dynamic. But these guys are not easy to assemble, and are difficult to paint, too. Especially if you want to make it clear which figures are ghouls vs zombies or wights vs skeletons.

Every team is similarly changed. And, while they look nice, they're not a good entry point into the miniature painting hobby like they used to be. The assembly is frustrating, and the painting is - frankly - intimidating.

With all of that said, however, I've got a team of snotlings on their way to me. Because one of my first memories of the game was Jeff showing me a snotling, and expressing dismay that they were not playable in the (then-new) 3rd Edition.

When they get here, I'll be painting them in Seahawks colors. Classic Seahawks colors, not the current ones. Because Jeff loved the Hawks.

If things ever open back up again, I may look into joining (or hosting) a league again, too.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Games Played!

 We successfully played some games last week.  It wasn't a large crowd, and the games weren't new. But it was a definite turning point for me.

We started with Bohnanza (which was new to one of the players). It's the new edition, which doesn't include the Third Bean Field.  I was initially puzzled by this, but then I read a ton of forum threads and learned that that third field is a trap. Players who buy it rarely win. Which - now that I think about it - matches my memory of the gameplay.

We followed that with a game of Skull & Roses (I know that the current edition is just Skull, but I have both of the original boxes).

We wrapped up with two games of We Didn't Playtest This At All. The game continues to be everything Fluxx wants to be. That is: good, random filler fun. If a game lasts ten minutes, you've probably missed a rule somewhere.

We wrapped a bit before ten. I was exhausted - I'm out of practice at dealing with people in person, and even when I'm used to people, I still find them tiring at best.

But it was good. And a start. With more to follow.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Horror Games: Why I Think I'm (Mostly) Done

 Last time, I mentioned that I think I'm done with horror RPGs, and, since then, I've spent some time thinking and percolating and trying to figure out how to say what I'm going to say here.

To explain my issues with horror gaming, I first need to talk a bit about Player Agency, Railroads, and Sandboxes.

Player Agency is the ability of the players (and their characters) to influence the story being told at the table. A lot of this is mechanical - AD&D, for example, didn't have any "Story Points" that players could spend to influence die rolls (or anything else). But a lot of it was the available adventure template(s), too - players are unlikely to negotiate with mindless undead in a dungeon. Even when adventures moved out of the dungeon, things mechanically didn't work well unless the players followed the path laid out for them by the GM. It's a style of play often referred to as a "railroad" - players must follow a set path in order to meet the adventure's goals.

Fast-thinking or flexible GMs were able to tweak this, allowing players to head in pretty much any direction. But, if you (for example) ignore that small-time necromancer a few towns over, he's going to get more powerful and be a bigger problem by the time your players decide to deal with him. But players can go anywhere they want. This is more of a "sandbox" game. A good GM either knows what's going on in various parts of the world )or can fake it well) - and players can do pretty much anything in the world.

Railroad vs. Sandbox is a lot like the Lord of the Rings series. Sam and Frodo are players in a railroad campaign. The rest of the party is playing a sandbox game.  Had they not split the party up early, we might not have seen the battle of Helm's Deep, and Wyrmtongue might still be the effective ruler of Rohan. Gondor would still be ruled by the Steward. Even after the (full-strength) party got to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, I don't know that Sauron's influence would be immediately dissipated in some of those places. It'd still be an interesting story, but it'd be very different. And readers wouldn't know nearly as much about Middle Earth and its residents. 

Mechanically, there have been a lot of innovations that support Sandbox play. The clocks in Blades in the Dark, for example, are spectacular. And can serve as a reminder to players - "Do that petty crime all you want - the Big Bad's scheme is still advancing until you stop them."

Sandbox games tend to give the players more agency, because players decide the paths they take.

Many recent games have given players tools to help define their setting (and even frame and re-frame current scenes).  13th Age, for example, lets players do a bit of worldbuilding via their skills and One Unique Things. Other games let players establish facts about the scene by spending points - Cortex Prime lets players create Assets that they can use for the scene ("We're fighting in a cave? I'm going to break off a stalactite and use it as a club!"). Scenes can also have Distinctions that players can use to their advantage.

But horror gaming throws all of that out. Horror games nearly all rush players in the direction of predetermined outcomes. "By the end of this adventure, most (if not all) of your player's characters will be dead or insane" is a not uncommon fact of horror gaming. Even the good ones push players in the direction of insanity. And in many of those games, that insanity removes the player's ability to control the character.

I try to be a sandbox GM. I'm not perfect, but I try. And I'm a more traditional GM - my players are players, and I'm the GM. But the line I don't like crossing is "Players control their characters, the GM controls the rest of the world."  In horror games, that line is all too easy to cross. Because horror often has a pre-determined end point.

There are exceptions. Dread, for example, is an excellent horror game with little railroading, and where players control their own fates (although the game's survivability does favor dexterous players).

But, all in all, when I sit down to play a game, I want my players to (mostly) control what happens to their characters. And that's super-hard to do in a horror game without a lot of railroading. And I'm not a conductor.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Life Update

It's been too long since I was updating regularly, here.  I'm working on getting back up to speed. But I figured it'd be a good time for a full update on where I am and how I'm doing in the non-gaming sphere of things (and some coverage of my gaming life, too).

Since I was regularly updating, I haven't moved. We're still in the Greater Seattle Area, which is what most of us locals mean when we tell people that we live in Seattle.  Because non-Seattle folks don't know where Puyallup and Bellevue and Everett and Redmond and Renton and Auburn and Burien and the like are. So we tell people we're in Seattle, and, when we run into another local in a far-flung land, we then narrow it down to the actual city we call home.

Our household consists of myself, my wife, a good friend who is renting our guest room, and a total of three cats (three upstairs and one down). 

As of Friday (two days from now), I'll have been two weeks after my last COVID-19 vaccine shot, meaning I'll be legally considered Fully Vaccinated, which allows me to mingle in groups with other fully vaccinated folks.  That's a good thing.

The company I worked for for just over 13 years closed up shop last summer. While doing so, though, they sold most of their inventory to another distributor that was interested and made a case for them to hire me. And they did. So one morning I went to work for one company, and the next day I went to the same place at the same time and signed in to work for another company.

The new company has a very different corporate culture from the previous one. Which is not by any means a complaint. I'm actually doing more work (both because we're busier and because we're a bit short-staffed), but I'm feeling significantly less stress at the same time. Which is super-nice. I'm also feeling appreciated here in a way I haven't ... ever, actually. 

Asmodee has gobbled a few more small publishers. At least one - Plaid Hat - ungobbled themselves.  I haven't worked on a game in ... a while.  I've worked on promotional materials here-and-there, though.

You know what a weird feeling is? It's seeing a new edition of a game you worked on that doesn't have your name (or that of the translator you worked with) anywhere in the credits. That said: I love the new edition.  I'll talk about that ... sometime.  Add it to my "posts to follow," list, I guess.

So all in all, my life is better than it was at the beginning of 2020. 

While 2020 wasn't pleasant for anyone, I was one of the lucky ones. My job was considered essential, so I didn't miss any work. Steph was able to work remotely (and was actually more productive that way).

I had some Kickstarter projects come in - that's another post I need to write, I guess.

... and that is the Eric Update, I guess.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Cross-Compatibility

Some rambles for your Wednesday morning:

You're probably already aware of this, but I buy a lot of games. Board games, card games, role-playing games. You name it, I buy it. With the exception of collectible games, really. And, even then, I occasionally dip a toe in to see if it's any good.

Even through 2020, I still bought a fair number of games. And I read and re-read a ton of games.

Something I've become quite fond of in games is cross-compatibility, especially in the board game end of the hobby. It's not a new thing -  Dominion: Intrigue was a standalone expansion for Dominion in 2009. The three Hero: Immortal King games released in 2007.  I know there are earlier examples (Stoner Fluxx was released in 2003, and appears to be the first standalone expansion in that series). Magic: the Gathering's Ice Age set was released in 1997. If I remember correctly, it was the first standalone expansion for MtG.

Board game expansions (and standalones) are almost always 100% compatible with one another.  Once in a while, you'll see a set from a game that recommends that you don't play it with certain other sets. For example, The 7 Wonders (first edition) expansion Babel integrates poorly with Armada. Not because of a rules clash, but because players suddenly have a lot more to juggle on their turns. More experienced or advanced players can do it, but even then it's less fun.

Babel, by the way, seems to be the most divisive expansion to the game. It is a love-it-or-hate-it set because of the fundamental changes it makes to some of the strategy. 

Race for the Galaxy has a couple of expansions that are not cross-compatible, too. It's not unheard of, it's just unusual on the board game end of things.

Meanwhile, on the RPG end of things, people tend to expect that a "house" system will be cross-compatible. And, much like the board game end of the gaming hobby pool, it usually is. Mostly.

It probably goes back further, but the oldest example I have a significant amount of personal experience with is the old World of Darkness series of games, starting in the mid-Nineties. Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, and  Changeline: the Dreaming. These games were ... mostly compatible. But there were (for example) Werewolf powers that targeted an opponent's Rage. Which was all well and good when using it against other Werewolves, but Vampires didn't have Rage. Nor did Mages. Or any of the others.  And so groups tended to collect house rules on how to mix-and-match.

I've seen discussion back-and-forth on why they're not fully compatible, and the most compelling argument I've seen is that in-character mixed parties are not supposed to happen. Werewolves hate Vampires, for example. So the various "others" should be treated as monsters in games other than their own.

But then we get into newer and more modern games. I'm a huge fan of Cortex Plus (now Cortex Prime). But no two games of Cortex Plus have been cross-compatible - you can't take your Leverage Crew into Smallville or Firefly without a ton of work. It was the first time I've seen a house system that was still recognizably the same core system, but was so grossly incompatible.

Modiphius' house engine, the 2d20 system, is similarly not cross-compatible.  Your Starfleet ensign can't beam into the Mutant Chronicles universe, or visit Barsoom without a lot of conversion work.

At first, these incompatibilities between games really rankled me.  I wanted to see Leverage-style play in the 'Verse. I was curious what Magneto would do in my personal Smallville. 

But then I read more closely, and I saw how the various tweaks and adjustments flavored the game - and refocused it. Smallville wasn't about what most super-hero games was about - it was about the relationships between the characters. So not giving characters traditional attributes very much made sense for that setting.

Where I'd expected a GURPs-like, "Every book adds genre-specific player options" series of releases, the various Cortex Plus games each drilled in and hyperfocused on the core of what they were about.

The first few 2d20 games from Modiphius - Mutant Chronicles, 3rd Edition and Infinity are ... very crunchy. But they're also based on universes from miniature games. I'm honestly surprised they don't have conversion rules that allow you to use your character in the connected minis game. Later games, however, like John Carter of Mars and Star Trek Adventures are significantly less-crunchy. I won't say they're storygames - they're still very traditional in their build and their outlook - but they're definitely a step back from the first two.

Either way, where I was originally frustrated by the Cortex Plus engine, I now look forward to each new iteration.  Tales of Xadia, the Dragon Prince game due out later this year looks to be a lot of fun - and a solid engine for Cartoon Action.

I also dread each new Modiphius title less-and-less. I've been a fan of the Mutant Chronicles setting since forever ago, but their system clunked for me and (something I need to write about) - I think I'm basically done with horror-themed RPGs in general. I have all of the books they've released for it, but aside from a one-shot (that did not go well online), I don't think it's going to hit the table again in its current incarnation. But I've also loved Star Trek since I was a small child, and Star Trek Adventures is night-and-day from Mutant Chronicles, 3rd Edition. Where MC3 clunks, STA moves easily. But it still has too many moving pieces for online play, IMHO. I'm actively looking forward to Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

I hope your FLGS survived 2020, because there are some very good-looking things showing up in 2021. Even if they're not cross-compatible.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Soon.

This last weekend, I played a game in person for the first time since February 29, 2020.

It was a two-player game, played with my wife, but it's still the first time I've gamed non-digitally in over a year. And I loved it and I want to do it again.

This pandemic has been tough. in all honesty, I've had it pretty easy - I'm considered essential at work, and so my routine hasn't changed much. But the lack of gaming for me has been rough.

For a few months, BoardGameArena filled that gap, but, as time went on, it ... didn't.  I'm still gaming there.  A lot. But it's not scratching that itch that I need filled. And, honestly, I found that trying to force it to scratch that itch made me resent it a little, so I stepped 100% back from gaming on Wednesday evenings. Because if there's one thing I do not want to resent, it's gaming with friends.

My buddy Rob stepped up and has been keeping Wednesday going without me. And I really appreciate his doing so.

I hosted an online movie night for some friends - and have done so for most of the last year, in fact - and that has helped some, too.

But I still need something. I need that in-person face-to-face social interaction.

Someone on Twitter said, "I can't wait for this all to be over so I can go back to being an introvert by choice," and ... I feel that. I feel that to the very core of my being.

But we're almost through, friends. Vaccines exist, and are being distributed. People are slowly being able to come out of their homes and meet up again safely.

I expect to be hosting my weekly game night again by midsummer. I hope to be hosting it again sooner than that, but that's out of my control.

Since I haven't been gaming, I haven't had much to say here. I hope to change that soon, too. I slowed my game buying over the last year, but I didn't stop. And a few Kickstarters delivered, too. This means that I have a number of games to play that will be new to me (and new to my group, when it exists again).

Thank you for sticking with me. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Playing Online

Due to the current situation, I've had the opportunity to play role-playing games online three times in the last few weeks. It's both wonderful and painful.

It's wonderful because I get to see and interact with people who I know and like. And we get to game.  Hell, Wade got us through one of the major arcs of our long-running 13th Age game.

Wade runs his games using Slack for die-rolling. He has a few more plugins and customizations there, too, and it works. It makes sense. We use Google Hangouts for the interaction with one another. Voice, video, etc. It's good to see the crew, but I very much hate that we can't all cluster around the same table the way we usually do.

Last weekend, I ran Mutant Chronicles for most of my L5R group. I used Discord for the die-rolling and - again - Google Hangouts for the face-to-face.  It was ... less-good than I'd hoped.  The system has too many metacurrencies to easily keep track of online, and tracking damage required that players have scratch paper, so - online at least - the system really got in the way.  And now is not a good time for dystopian horror.  But it was largely a test drive to see if the group could handle online play without weirdness, and it worked. So until we're allowed to game in person again, I'll be moving the L5R game online. The "Sidekick" bot even handles roll-and-keep and exploding dice, so the die-rolling is super-streamlined for us.  The characters were up on Obsidian Portal.  When we needed a map or an image, I just cut-and-pasted it into the Discord chat (and it worked pretty well).

In addition to running L5R online, I'm likely to do more one-shots. One of my players really desperately wants to play some sci-fi, so I'm re-reading Hellas for a one-shot play.

The problems I had were the same problems I have face-to-face.  I have one player who doesn't do much - he rolls his dice, but his character rarely engages. He will react if poked (and will interact with NPCs who interact with him), but for the most part, he sits back and lets the party play.

My party also does a lot of cross-talk. We spend a ton of time interacting with other players. It's the kind of thing that some groups really hate, but I enjoy it. Gaming is, after all, my social outlet. And they do snap back in character when I approach them in character.

I just really really want to see them in person again.