Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: The Dark Eye

In the United States, the dominant tabletop role-playing game has basically always been some version of Dungeons and Dragons.  In Germany, however, the dominant game is and has been one of the five editions of Das Schwarze Auge, or in English The Dark Eye ("TDE").  The story is that a German game publisher was looking to license a German-language edition of D&D in the early 80s, but decided to make German language D&D clone instead and use the royalty fees to market the game.  This proved to be a wise decision, as TDE took off, spinning off an enormous number of tabletop RPG supplements and a number of computer game releases.  While the first edition of the game looked a whole lot like D&D, the game since diverged from its original inspiration, both in terms of rules content and in terms of tone.

The current custodian of The Dark Eye is Ulisses Spiele, the folks behind the new edition of Torg: Eternity.  As part of their English-language push, the 5th Edition of TDE and its associated product line has been released in English, beginning with the Core Rules in late 2016.  There is a lot to like about TDE and its product line, and there are some things that are going to make certain players and groups run away screaming.

Let's begin with the positives.  First off, for a product line that is basically a series of translations from German, the writing is excellent; you would not have any reason to believe that the text was originally written in a different language.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but translations are extremely hard to pull off well, and the seamlessness of the translation is a significant achievement.  To me, it shows that Ulisses Spiele is serious about being a presence in the English-speaking tabletop RPG market, rather than just trying to grab a few extra bucks on top of their German base.

Second, the books are visually spectacular.  The cover of the Core Rules is one of my favorite pieces of fantasy art (I would love a print of it to hang up in my place), and it continues throughout the product line.  What I like about the art style of TDE is the way that it walks the line between realism and surrealism, giving everything a fantastical but grounded sheen.  I like the art in TDE more than the art in 5e, and much more than Pathfinder.  The internal lay-out is clean and very readable.  The books are extremely well made and high quality, up there with anything made by the major tabletop producers.  I should also point out that the primary books are available in affordable softcovers in digest size, and that's awesome. My only presentation complaint is that my PDFs are slow to load and crash often, for reasons I haven't been able to identify.  But, otherwise, everything is top quality.

But the real selling point of TDE is the setting--the continent of Aventuria.  Aventuria is very much an alternative Earth, with very clear real world parallels.  And they don't hide from that--in the Aventurian Almanac, there is a paragraph in the description of each country or region listing the real-world inspirations.  As I mentioned in the Midgard review, I know that some people don't like this kind of parallelism, but I do, and it is very well done here.  As you might expect, medieval Germany is a major inspiration--one of the two primary powers is "the Middenrealm," which feels very Holy Roman Empire-esque, both in name and in tone.  But pretty much all of Europe gets a showing, along with a couple of different Middle East inspired areas and some southern jungles that seem to be Africa/SE Asia-flavored.

There are a couple of reasons why Aventuria is compelling.  First, it has a very distinct feel from your standard D&D campaign setting.  For one thing, it feels much more "low magic," while still coming across as fantastical.  This is done, quite simply, by putting hard caps on the power of spellcasters.  Each spell or prayer must be learned individually, spells often have long casting times, and your mana points are a fairly limited pool that recharge fairly slowly.  As a result, starting spellcasters feel more or less like low level D&D spellcasters, but the power curve is far more shallow than in D&D, and TDE casters simply don't have access to the kinds of world-breaking abilities that are fairly common in middle and high level D&D play (at least, not in the Core Rules).

Another distinctive of the magic is that it is tied pretty closely to classical, folklore-based depictions of magic and spellcasters.  There are fantasy-style wizards in the form of "guild mages," but there are also druids and witches, and they feel more like druids and witches of fairy tales than druids and witches of tabletop games and computer games.  In service of this feel, the names of some of the spells (especially guild-oriented spells) are in pseudo-Latin a la Harry Potter, so you have "Ingifaxius" as opposed to something like "Firebolt."  In sticking close to folklore touchstones, it provides a low magic setting has some dark shadows, but avoids the (in my opinion) tired and performative "grimdark" of many low fantasy settings (*cough* Warhammer *cough*).

There also seems to be a deep focus on making the world feel "lived in."  D&D campaign settings tend to function primarily as platforms for adventures first and actually coherent worlds second--Greyhawk, the grandfather of D&D campaign settings, explicitly developed this way.  Aventuria feels more like a world-building project that also works for a setting for adventures.  The Aventuria Almanac has an extensive chapter on trade and trade fairs, as well as a chapter on all the plants and animals that live in Aventuria.  Along those lines, Aventuria has a continuous, updating metaplot that has been developing since the original edition of the game.  Want to know the latest events in Aventuria than might affect your campaign?  There is a biannual newspaper that you can get online; just read about the latest events.

Now, there is a school of thought, especially those influenced by Dungeon World and other indie games, that this sort of deep lore is actually an impediment, and that all this background stuff should emerge through play.  But as much as I understand the rationale of these arguments, I'm a sucker for deep lore and world-building, and this has it in spades.  If you haven't picked this up, I really, really like Aventuria and its sense of place and depth.

So, what's the problem?  TDE is a crunchy, complicated game.  This complexity is purposeful--there is a rationale for each element and a clear benefit to game play stemming from the element.  But the sum total of all of these elements is a lot, and more than I suspect that many people are not going to be willing to take on.

The complexity comes in three primary places--the resolution mechanics, character creation, and combat.  The basic resolution system is an attribute check that works much like attribute checks worked in pre-3rd Edition D&D--you roll a d20 and try to get equal to or under the relevant attribute (of which there are eight--basically D&D Dexterity is split into Dexterity and Agility, and D&D Wisdom is split into Courage and Intuition).  Because you want to roll under, the normal d20 systems are reversed--a "1" is a potential critical hit and a "20" is a potential critical failure (which you have to confirm a la 3e D&D).  That will be an adjustment for folks used to the d20 system, but it's not crazy.

But things ramp up when it comes to skills.  Each skill consists of three linked attributes, which in some cases can be the same attribute multiple times.  So, for example, Riding is Charisma/Agility/Strength.  If you think about it, this makes sense--you have to be able to relate to the horse (Charisma), have the balance to stay on the horse (Agility), and the strength to control the horse (Strength).  Likewise, Seduction is Courage/Charisma/Charisma--you need the Courage to shoot your shot, but otherwise it is all about your personality and attractiveness.  To make a skill check, you must roll an ability check for each of the three linked attributes and pass all of them.  You also have a pool of skill points for each skill that you can use to bump down the rolls to get you to the target number on a one-for-one basis.  If you pass the check, any left over skill points are read on a levels of success table, which has individualized outcomes for many of the skills.  Oh, and there are 59 different skills--to give you a sense of the granularity involved, "Treat Wounds," "Treat Disease," and "Treat Poison" are three different skills.  And, for the record, each spell is a skill, so the magic system works on the same three-roll basis.

Again, there are benefits to this level of detail.  One of the more interesting elements is how you can narrate failure in a more specific way.  If you fail a Seduction test because you rolled very poorly on your Courage attribute, you chickened-out; if you blow one of the Charisma rolls, the object of your affections was just not that impressed with your game.  The linkages between attributes and skills is completely logical and sensible, and makes attributes very important and meaningful.  But it is slower than a single d20 roll (even if you roll all three checks at the same time, which you should), and, while it's not calculus, having potentially three different target numbers for each check and doing the mental math of how many points you need to spend to drop the rolls down to hit those target numbers requires a bit of doing.  Will it get easier the more you do it?  Of course.  Is it still pretty complicated?  Yes.

Then we come to character creation.  It's full-on point-buy--each level of an attribute or skill, along with a set of advantages and disadvantages, has a cost, and you spend your pool of points to buy what you want.  This is nothing new--GURPS carried the torch for point-buy for a long time, and other games have had similar systems.  And there is a very clear and cogent argument in favor of point-buy--you can make the exact character you want, and characters tend to be relatively balanced (and it's easy to fix balance problems by adjusting the cost of particular character options).  But point-buy systems, almost invariably, make character creation a time-intensive, laborious process.  Point-buy systems also will exacerbate any option paralysis that a potential player might have, because you are released into a sea of options.  To be fair, there are a series of race and profession packages that make the creation process a little more modular, but no matter how you cut it there is a lot of heavy lifting involved.

As I was making a character, one thing I struggled with was translating the mechanical pieces on the paper into the vision of what the character could do in the world and in the game.  Obviously, having six in a skill is better than four, but how much better?  And what sorts of challenges could my character be expected to accomplish with six in a skill as opposed to four?  There is a mathematical answer to this, but the skill mechanics are such that it is hard to figure out without a differential equation.  Thinking about this points to one of the virtues of 5e that I hadn't thought about--the transparency of the math behind the game.  In a d20 game, a +1 increases your chances of success by 5%; if you have a +5 in some ability, you will succeed at DC 15 tasks 55% of the time.  You don't need a complex equation to figure out how the numbers on your character sheet relate to outcomes in the game, whereas with the TDE the mechanics are much more opaque in the way they translate into results.

Finally, you have combat.  Here, unlike with skills, your combat skills (divided by weapon type) require only a single d20 roll, which is opposed by a defense roll (either a dodge or a parry).  Not to beat this theme to death, the parry mechanics are pretty logical, in that it becomes harder to parry second and subsequent attacks.  Combat in general is pretty lethal--you have a relatively small number of Life Points (i.e. HP), and as your Life Points go down, you take increasing levels of the Pain condition that reduce your combat effectiveness.  So, combat is much less cinematic than what you get in D&D, in keeping with the lower-powered tone, and combat is slightly but meaningfully slower as a result of the opposed rolls.

So, TDE is at least one standard deviation more complex than 5e D&D in basically every dimension, which is going to be its primary competitor in the US in the fantasy space.  Is it more complex than 1st Edition Pathfinder (or, from what we have seen so far, 2nd Edition Pathfinder)?  Probably, but the complexity is distributed differently.  Pathfinder's complexity is found primarily in the options that are available, making character creation and optimization require a high level of system knowledge.  TDE, by contrast, is more complex in its core mechanics, but lacks the sprawling character creation and combat options that bog down Pathfinder play.

To be clear, this complexity is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is true that the zeitgeist in tabletop RPGs is toward simpler game systems, but that's not some sort of inviolable rule.  TDE is not really any more complicated than the median TTRPG in the middle 90s, and is actually complicated in a similar way to many of those games.  In a way, I think part of my hesitation about diving into TDE has to do with expectations set by more modern games.  If you are used to fitting monster and other opponent stats on a index card (which, while tough in 5e, is routine for something like 13th Age), being confronted with a page long stat block for a relatively basic opponent feels overwhelming, even if that used to be normal and unremarkable.  TDE feels "old school," in the sense that it feels like it has a different set of design influences and touchstones than what you see with many of the recent US games.

If you are looking for a true D&D alternative (as opposed to a variation on the theme) while being recognizably European fantasy, are interested in (or at least OK with) a lower magic and more deadly combat system, and are looking for a compelling, highly detailed setting, then The Dark Eye provides a very attractive package--provided you are willing to dig into a more complex and more deliberate game engine.  That last part, I suspect, is going to be a major hurdle for many people.  If you are someone who routinely plays GURPS or Shadowrun, then nothing in TDE is going to phase you.  But if you are accustomed to 5e or modern indie/indie-influenced games, then you will be taking a major leap in complexity by getting in to TDE.  But the rest of the package is compelling enough that someone on the fence about the rules complexity--like me--might be willing to give it a shot.

So, my bottom line is that if you have any interest in what TDE provides, you should check it out, because it is an excellent execution of the things its is trying to do and trying to be.  But you should know what that thing is.  No game is for everyone, and this one in particular is going to be something that many people are not going to be ready for.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Through Hardship to the Stars, Part 1: Review of Starfinder and Esper Genesis

Per aspera ad astra, "Through hardship to the stars" (Motto of Starfleet from Star Trek, as well as, e.g., the State of Kansas)

I have never heard a credible explanation for why sci-fi RPGs have never been as popular as fantasy RPGs.  Until Lord of the Rings broke through in the broader culture, the general consensus was that fantasy was commercial death, while sci-fi was both acceptable to the mainstream and able to be taken seriously as a genre.  But in the tabletop space, it was the opposite--D&D and its fantasy imitators/competitors dominated, while sci-fi games were often marginalized.  Yes, there was Traveller, there were licensed games (especially a couple of well-regarded Star Wars games, none of which, to be honest, I have played), and there are some other excellent games from a design perspective.  But nothing remotely approaching D&D, and nothing corresponding to the overall popularity of the genre.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that I think sci-fi is a broader genre conceptually than fantasy.  To take an example, compare the three most recent bits of sci-fi that are in my DVR queue--Guardians of the Galaxy 2, old Babylon 5 episodes, and Season 3 of The Expanse (I suppose you could object that Guardians of the Galaxy is really from the superhero genre because it is part of the all-consuming Marvel Cinematic Universe, but taken on its own terms I think it is definitely sci-fi).  These three properties have human-like creatures traveling through space and ships fighting each other and extra-terrestrial life (albeit of radically different sorts), and that's about it for similarities.  It's hard to imagine making a sci-fi game which would encompass the feel of all three of these properties, without creating something so open-ended that it is less a game a more a toolkit to design your own game.  This might be why, with the exception of Traveller, the most successful sci-fi games have generally been licensed properties--when you pick up a game that says "Star Wars" on the front, you know exactly what you are getting, and in fact that's the point.

Whatever the reasons, fantasy rules the roost in tabeltop RPGs.  And so, if you are looking to put out a sci-fi game, it makes sense to find some way to draft on the popularity of fantasy games, and one way to do that is to use the same or similar rules engine as a popular fantasy game.  Since most of your potential audience has played the fantasy game, making it as easy as possible to transition to your sci-fi game is a smart play.

This is the exact concept behind both Starfinder and Esper GenesisStarfinder is Paizo Publishing's reworking of Pathfinder 1st edition for sci-fi, while Esper Genesis by newcomer Alligator Alley Entertainment uses the rules engine of D&D 5th edition.  Starfinder has been out for a little over a year, while Esper Genesis is basically brand new. 

Despite similar premises, I detect a different feel between the two games.  Starfinder strikes me as full-on science fantasy, in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy.  Starfinder is a game of zooming spaceships and humanoid aliens and limited interest in real-world physics and space magic of a couple of different sorts.  While Esper Genesis has many of those same elements, it comes across as more explicitly "sci-fi" and less fantasy.  The authors of Esper Genesis name-check a number of space opera properties as inspiration, but the one that really jumps out at me in reading Esper Genesis is the video game franchise Mass Effect.  No one will mistake Mass Effect for the hard sci-fi of something like The Expanse, but it still fits well within the normal sci-fi space. 

Part of the reason that Starfinder feels more like fantasy is that the game is set in the same default fictional universe as Pathfinder, an unknown number of years in the future of Golarion.  Unknown, because 300 years ago an unexplained event took away the planet Golarion into some other dimension, replaced it with a giant space station, and erased everyone's memory.  Contrived to some degree as this might be, this move effectively breaks any sort of continuity with Pathfinder, so you don't need to know anything about Pathfinder to play or appreciate Starfinder.  It is still the same world, however, and so there are still Easter Eggs for Pathfinder fans (many of the deities are the same, the station is named after the featured big city of Golarion, and I think the names of the planets are the same).

In linking Starfinder back to Golarion, the designers do a good job of walking the line between having enough links to satisfy Pathfinder fans, without getting swallowed up by canon.  The focus of the setting material is a single solar system with about a dozen planets or other locales, which has been further fleshed out in its own sourcebook.  But interstellar travel is available, and the core book only gives a handful of minimalist descriptions of extra-solar worlds.  What's smart about this is it allows the GM to mix and match homebrew content with canon material--just put your homebrew stuff in one or more solar systems, and have your game go back and forth between those systems and the Pact Worlds (or not, as you choose).  Surely Paizo will eventually detail more solar systems as part of canon--they have demonstrated that they will eventually provide a player/GM as much content as they are willing to buy.  But since each solar system is a self-contained unit, none of that needs to muck up the GM's own ideas.  This is an advantage sci-fi has over fantasy (which is limited to a defined map), and Starfinder leverages that advantage smartly.

Esper Genesis does a similar thing with its setting.  In the universe of the game, certain star systems contain moon-sized hyper-tech artifacts known as Crucibles, and a star ship can travel to any system with a Crucible instantaneously.  However, starships can also travel to other systems "the slow way."  The setting material in the back of the Core Manual lays out 20 or so key systems with active Crucibles in very rough form, forming the core of the setting a la the Pact Worlds.  Based on the statements in the Core Manual, published material will be focused on those key worlds, while leaving the rest of the universe open to GM development.  And, if a GM wants to integrate one of his or her creations into the core setting, he or she can just plop a Crucible in that system.  Once again, this allows the GM to control the interaction between the "official" material and homebrew material, without worrying about continuity problems.

On the rules side, both games leverage the rules chassis of their parent properties, and indeed that is a big part of the value proposition of the game.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, Esper Genesis hews closer to 5e than Starfinder does to Pathfinder, notwithstanding that Esper Genesis is a third-party product and Starfinder is first-party.  Esper Genesis makes essentially no changes to the 5e engine--you will find the familiar six attributes, hit points, armor class, advantage/disadvantage, 5e the action economy, etc.  Some of the classes use "power points," but that's just the optional spell point rules lifted from the 5e DMG as is.  Moreover, the eight classes presented in the Core Rulebook are mostly 5e classes that have been slightly tweaked.  So, the Sentinel is basically a Paladin, with the same progression and most of the same abilities, reworked to be a cyber-knight whose cybernetics allow them to talk to God/the universe/the great unknown and which gives them purpose.  The class design here is very clever--I particularly liked the way the Warlock is transformed into the Cybermancer, and the Cleric becomes the Engineer (turn undead becomes an EMP pulse that disables drones and other mechanical constructs!).  It's more than a simple re-skin, but it's similar enough 5e player will be able to bring forward to Esper Genesis all of their existing knowledge of how to play a particular class.  Perhaps the only criticism I can offer is that I was disappointed not to see a transformation of the 5e Bard, though perhaps that reflects the fact that the 5e Bard is a bit OP.  Still, some sort of dedicated "face" class would have been nice, and well within genre.

With regard to the classes as a whole, one of the choices I liked was to declare that all of the character classes are basically magical.  See, those mysterious Crucibles produce a material called Sorium, which produces limitless energy and powers everyone's technology.  Contact with Sorium and the Crucibles also causes some people to become "espers," at a moment of awakening called an "esper genesis."  This gives them Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, which manifest in a diversity of forms (i.e. eight different classes).  I know some people are really into the idea that "my character gets by through grit and a good weapon, and doesn't need some fancy magic," but for me the "everyone is magic" frees up design space for the less overtly magical classes to still do cool things, and enhances verisimilitude by providing an explanation for some of the D&D-isms like increasing HP (it's one of the reasons I really liked Earthdawn back in the day). 

To the extent Esper Genesis is bringing new things to the table, its almost exclusively by addition.  There are some simple, and fun, zero-g rules (if you are moving in a particular direction and want to stop, you have to make an Acrobatics check; otherwise, you keep moving in a straight line until you hit something), and a pretty robust set of vehicle rules, including rules for starships and starship combat.  These rules are, in keeping with 5e's ethos, pretty simple and abstract, though we are promised more detailed vehicle rules in the forthcoming Master Technicians Guide.  I suppose now is an appropriate time to mention that, as of this writing, the core product line for Esper Genesis is not fully available.  The Core Manual is basically the PHB with some setting material, with a "monster manual" a/k/a the Threat's Database, and the DMG-esque Master Technicians Guide promised by the end of the year.  So, it's not quite a complete game at this point.  To that end, there is a free PDF available with a selection of opponents, some rules for Forged equipment (i.e. magic items re-skinned), and a useful set of planet generation charts.  That free PDF seems pretty close to essential until the release of the core books, and I wish the Core Manual was more explicit in pointing you in that direction (I stumbled upon it more or less by accident).  This unfinished quality makes the game a little hard to fully evaluate--while some obvious things seem to be missing (there's no equipment entry for a spacesuit, as a small example), it could be that those things will be filled in within a few months.

Starfinder, by contrast, "opens up the hood" more on the basic Pathfinder engine, including making changes to some core concepts.  Perhaps most interesting is what they did with hit points.  They are still there, you get them in more or less the same way (a fixed number per level based on your class), and if you go to zero, you are dying.  Only now you also have a pool of stamina points, roughly equal to your hit points (and your Constitution bonus goes to stamina points, not hit points).  All damage comes off the stamina points first, and stamina points heal much more quickly.  Plus there is a third pool, your resolve points, which can be used to, among other things, fully recover your stamina points after a ten minute rest.  In addition, if you go to zero HP, you start to bleed resolve points until you are stabilized or out of points and dead.  You can also spend a bunch of resolve points to auto-stabilize, and then if you have resolve left, on your next turn you can spend one point to heal up to 1 HP.  By splitting your "take damage" pool into three parts and putting them on different refresh timers (resolve points fully recover after an 8 hour sleep), it allows characters to reflect a wide variety of different states without resorting to permanent injury mechanics or other cumbersome solutions.  Because magical and other sorts of true healing seems to be rarer in Starfinder than in fantasy games, losing hit points is punitive without being oppressive, because you can easy get back your stamina point cushion to protect the deeper, more permanent wounds.  It's a lot more to keep track of, to be sure, but it does model certain kinds of outcomes in a way that most D&D-based system struggle to reflect.

They also changed the weapon damage math.  Weapon damage in Pathfinder, along with all editions of D&D except 4th (and 13th Age, if you want to count that as a "edition" of D&D), doesn't meaningfully scale with level.  At 1st level, a long sword does 1d8 points of damage; at 20th level, a long sword does 1d8 points of damage.  Even if you have the best magical long sword available, a long sword +5, only does 1d8+5 damage.  Meanwhile, hit points increase 20-fold from 1st to 20th, far outstripping weapon damage.  Starfinder has levels of gear, so you begin with a weak laser pistol and over time get a better laser pistol that has more damage dice.  It's not obvious to me how that is explained in-game, other than "this costs more" and "this is the awesome stuff for more awesome heroes; that is the scrub stuff for scrubs."  But I have a high tolerance for that sort of handwaving, so I am not particularly bothered by that.  And this change should make high-level combat less of a grind, though I haven't played at those levels to know for sure.

Gear and gear acquisition is clearly a big part on the Starfinder experience.  In fact, I got the sense that it might end up playing like an RPG version of a looter-shooter video game such as Destiny or Borderlands--there are mechanics for taking your existing gear and improving it, splicing in various sorts of upgrades, the default assumption is that you will trade in your lesser gear for better gear you find or buy, etc.  Actually, Destiny (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) is a good comp for the feel of the setting, in its fusion of science and fantasy elements.  Obviously, this gear focus is not some radical new development--every version of D&D is gear focused to one degree or another--but not every sci-fi games goes down this road.  But, as D&D and Pathfinder and all of its cousins prove, a high adventure loot-based game can be very compelling.

Part of the gear game involves space ships.  The default assumption here is that the party has a space ship, and it levels up as the characters level up, without having to spend money.  That's a departure from the approach taken from something like Traveller, where a big portion of game play is (or, at least, can be) running your ship like a small business.  Esper Genesis of course has space ships, but perhaps in keeping with the flatter 5e math, there does not seem to be a focus on "leveling-up" your space ship (though, of course, that might be forthcoming in the Master Technicians Handbook).  One thing I can say about the space combat in Starfinder is that it is pretty tactical, and pretty slow, especially if you have multiple smaller ships.  One space combat in a Starfinder Society game involving our ship fighting off a half-dozen fighters took almost two hours, though to be fair both the GM and the players were pretty green.  Slow starship combat is not exactly some radical new problem in tabletop RPGs, but it is a problem and worth throwing out there.  Also, it should be noted that I have not used Esper Genesis's starship combat rules "in the field," so I can't really speak to the speed or complexity of those systems (though, just from reading them, they seem simpler).

Notwithstanding the starship combat rules, the consensus among devoted Paizo stans is that Starfinder overall moves the Pathfinder rules in the direction of simplification.  As I mentioned in my Pathfinder 2nd Edition playtest post, I am not deeply immersed in Pathfinder enough to be able to have an informed judgment on that.  But one shouldn't get the wrong idea--it's still a tactical, crunchy game by any measure.  Combat is still on the 5ft square grid.  There are in the neighborhood of two dozen status conditions.  Character creation is very option-focused, just like Pathfinder (and now with three different major choices--race, class, and theme--as opposed to just race and class).  My experience playing some demos and a couple of sessions of Starfinder Society is that all of this fits together smoothly and the table experience is quite good, but reading the 528 page core rulebook while contemplating GMing Starfinder is intimidating.  That's not to say it's not doable--it's not brain surgery, I've run more complex games before, and it gets easier the more you do it--but it is still a big task to take on, especially for those with limited Pathfinder background.

As an aside, this might be an issue for me with the way Paizo writes its rulebooks.  I pulled the Pathfinder core rulebook off the shelf last night and opened it to the combat chapter, and I thought that I was going to bleed out of my eyes.  And, yet, my experience playing Pathfinder (limited though it is) is that it really isn't that bad.  Conversely, I've had almost opposite experience with 5th Edition D&D--it reads like it is incredibly simple and straight-forward, but I found running it that there were edge cases and weird nuances that didn't come to the forefront until playing.  To be clear, I'm not saying that Pathfinder or Starfinder are poorly written, because they are not (or 5e for that matter).  I think that for whatever reason it doesn't interface with my brain as easily or cleanly as other presentations.

As with Esper Genesis, the most notable omission from the Starfinder corebook is the almost complete lack of any monsters, aliens, or other antagonists (there is a CR20 uber-goblin that almost seems to have been thrown in as a joke).  If you want to run Starfinder, you likely need the Alien Archive, which has all the critters.  In Paizo's defense, there were no monsters in the Pathfinder core rulebook, either; you needed the Bestiary for any kind of antagonists.  Also, alien/monster stats are available in the SRD which can be assessed online for free, so it's not completely gated behind an additional buy [in the interest of equal time, Esper Genesis also has a robust free version of the rules for download, though it includes only some of the classes and races a la the 5e SRD].  Still, I would have liked to see even a few opponents, if only to allow GMs to get a sense of what opposition they should be throwing at players.  In the case of Pathfinder, because it was so grounded in previous D&D experiences, someone brand new to Pathfinder might be able to fake it without the Bestiary.  I for one have little idea of where to go antagonist-wise absent the looking at the Alien Archive material, not just in terms of stats but in terms of ideas.  Starfinder might have fantasy elements, but it is different enough that you can't just draw from your pool of normal antagonists.  Even a few ideas pointing you in a direction would have been nice.

To be fair, Esper Genesis is maybe worse in this regard.  The Core Manual name-checks things like "the Shadow Technocracy" and the "Lorendi Imperium" and gives you either no information (in the case of the Shadow Technocracy) or only the most skeletal information (for the Lorendi) about them.  Again, you get a little more help stats-wise with the free PDF, but my biggest complaint with the Core Manual is that it could have really benefited from another ten to fifteen more pages of setting material.  I'm hoping the Threats Database is not just stats, but also lore and fluff material (for what it's worth, the Alien Archive is excellent in that regard).  That kind of material really transforms a monster book from something totally utilitarian into a truly excellent product (and is why the 13th Age Bestiary is maybe my favorite product I own), but Esper Genesis is particularly crying out for this kind of support. 

One last note about the physical presentation--both are beautiful books.  For Starfinder , this is not a surprise, as it is basically in line with Paizo's usual high standards.  But Esper Genesis is every bit as nice, and for my taste a little nicer, as Starfinder--the Esper Genesis art is a little more photo-realistic and a little less cartoonish, which is purely a personal preference of mine.  Alligator Alley Entertainment is a relatively new company, but you would never know that from looking at Esper Genesis, and that makes the visual design an even more impressive achievement.  Esper Genesis can stack up toe-to-toe with products from Wizards, Paizo, MCG, and some of the top producers from a visual perspective, and it give me a ton of confidence and encouragement for what they might do in the future.

Six months ago, I would have told you that sci-fi conversions of fantasy games are a bad idea.  But Starfinder and Esper Genesis are truly excellent products and product lines, and I'm a convert to them and their virtues.  I have very little interest in Pathfinder or Pathfinder Society, but I play Starfinder Society quasi-regularly now.  And Esper Genesis has really dug its claws into me.  In particular, the setting of Esper Genesis really hits the sweet spot for me--a big part of the reason I am frustrated at the lack of a description of the Shadow Technocracy in the Core Manual is that the Shadow Technocracy seems incredibly cool and I want to know more about its clearly Evil Plans.  I could see myself running Esper Genesis, maybe even as part of their new organized play program.  While the presentation of the setting is not particularly detailed, what is there is very attractive and flavorful.  If the idea was to Keep 'Em Wanting More, then it worked, because I want more.

If you want an accessible way to play sci-fi, one that will not require you or your players to start from scratch with brand new rules concepts, both Starfinder and Esper Genesis are compelling options.  Which one is for you depends in large measure on the underlying products they are based on.  If you don't like the way 5e plays, then you will not like Esper Genesis; if you think Pathfinder is too complicated, then you will likely find Starfinder to have the same problems.  The learning curve for Starfinder is steeper than Esper Genesis, but Starfinder is a more complete game right now.  But within their respective lanes, both games do an excellent job of leveraging the familiar fantasy base while presenting a full-featured sci-fi experience.   

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: Numenera 2

Second editions of tabletop RPGs are tricky things.  On one hand, you need to provide a compelling reason for the fans of the first edition to switch over.  Because, if you don't, you have the problem that Dungeons & Dragons has had for all of its history, which is that people stick with the first edition and you are in competition with your own product.  That means you have to change things enough to provide a reason for fans of the first edition to switch.  But if you change too much, you are implicitly bagging on your original game, which tends to alienate your core fans.  Wholesale changes also make all of the first edition material useless, which also alienates the people who bought all of that stuff.

Into this conundrum comes Monte Cook Games, or MCG.  Six years ago, Monte Cook and Shanna Germain kickstarted Numenera, a science-fantasy RPG with a brand new game engine.  It raised over a half-a-million dollars, marking the first big tabletop RPG Kickstarter and kicking off the company.  MCG made Kickstarter a core part of their business model, using it to roll out four additional product lines--The Strange, Cypher System (a "generic" version of the Numenera rule set), No Thank You Evil! (a wonderful, smartly designed vehicle to introduce kids to tabletop RPGs), and recently Invisible Sun.  In a short time, MCG has built a devoted fan-base and is comfortably ensconced in the "mid-majors" of tabletop publishers with the likes of Chaosium, Modiphius, Pelgrane Press, and Pinnacle Entertainment Group.  It's a very impressive accomplishment in a short time.

So, I was a little surprised a year ago when MCG announced they were doing Numenera 2Numenera was not only relatively new, but it formed the mechanical foundation of The Strange and Cypher System, making the prospect of a full reboot a strange one.  If they completely overhauled the game engine, they would not just be running into the objections that you normally get when new editions overhaul the game engine, but also would be breaking the symmetry they had with their other products.  If they didn't change the engine, it was hard to see the value proposition for a new game, especially when the old one had only been out for a relatively short period of time.  So, in part out of curiosity but more out of the confidence that MCG has earned from me with regard to their stuff, I backed the Kickstarter, and got the first wave of new materials a month or so ago.

The core of Numenera 2 is two rulebooks--Numenera: Discovery and Numenera: DestinyDiscovery is, in essence, a slightly edited and revised reprint of the original Numenera core rulebook.  There are almost no mechanical changes to the game engine, and I found nothing that would create any impediments to using a character created using the original ruleset in Discovery.  The biggest change I saw was that the powers of the Jack (one of the three primary "Types," or character classes) have been changed from essentially a combo of the Glaive and Nano powers into a unique set of more rogue-oriented powers.  There is also a new mechanic called "Player Intrusions," (mirroring the previous "GM Intrusion" mechanic) where a player spends XP to create a particular effect or circumstance, much like Fate Points or Hero Points in other systems.  Otherwise, it's the same game.

To be clear, Discovery doesn't hide the ball on this--it is very explicit in telling the reader that what it is doing, and how this is fully compatible with the previous edition.  In fact, in a small but very clever and smart touch, it gives cross-references that help you line up the page numbers for a particular item in the original corebook with the page number for the same item in Discovery.  MCG is hands-down the best in the business in term of lay-out and indexing, stuffing its products full of page references to other products, and now all of those references that went back to the original corebook are still usable.  All of this is designed to beat you over the head with the idea that all of the previous Numenera content is not wasted.

Since the system is the same, let's talk about the "Cypher System" for a moment.  Basically, it is a rules-light system that has, from my point of view, two outstanding qualities.  First, it is very easy for new players to grasp and get into.  The basic game concepts are very intuitive, there are very few stats or other widgets to keep track of, and game play from the player facing side is primarily resource management (your three attributes are expressed as a pool from which you spend points to accomplish tasks, and are whittled down when you take damage).  The second big advantage is that it is easiest game I have found to run as a GM on the fly, as the GM has essentially no mechanical work to do or keep track of.  All the GM has to do for any challenge, including fights, is to pick a Level from 1 to 10 for that challenge.  That's it; no stat blocks to juggle, no other attributes, just a single number.  Even the monsters in the book alter this basic formula only by saying "the monster is difficulty n for all circumstances except X, in which case the difficulty is n-1/n+1."  You can truly run full Numenera or other Cypher System game sessions without cracking open any book and with no preparation.

On the down side, it really is a rules-light game, and if you are looking for detailed mechanical engagement, then you are not going to find it.  My experience with Numenera was that this lack of mechanical engagement really comes home to roost in combat--combat is so abstract and so simple that it wasn't very engaging for me as a GM.  As a GM, you really have to narrate the heck out of combat to make it interesting, as opposed to letting the mechanics carry you along at least part of the way.  But this is not really a critique of the Cypher System so much as an observation about rules-light games generally--I had the exact same experience GMing Dungeon World, for example.  Also, I find that Numenera characters are pretty resilient, making it a little hard to challenge the PCs without throwing high level monsters that the PCs will struggle to successfully hit, which is not super fun for anyone.

In any event, Numenera and the Cypher System delivers a particular sort of play experience, and if you like or liked that play experience you will like what you find in Discovery, and if you don't or didn't then you are not going to be keen on the new version.  They added new sample adventures to the back of the book, which I did not look over in detail but MCG is pretty reliable on that score, so I assume they are at least usable and probably much better than that.  But, if you already had all of the previous Numenera products, I don't think it is essential for you to go and pick up Discovery.

The really interesting product is DestinyDestiny is 100% new material, including three new Types and a host of new mechanical systems.  All of this new material is focused on something that was once very common in tabletop RPGs but is now almost absent--domain creation and management rules.  In earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, when the players reached a certain level, they would attract followers and would have the opportunity to build castles or wizard's towers or what have you.  This would spawn a conceptually separate domain management mini-game, where the player would rule territories, go to war with other kingdoms, and generally run your own fantasy version of Crusader Kings.  Probably the best version of domain management could be found in the "BECMI" version of "Basic D&D," which did a really good job of setting up the domain rules as a relatively self-contained set of systems.

Destiny has the same sorts of systems--simple and clean rules for giving communities stats and different kinds of abilities, a mechanism for communities or other factions to get into conflicts with each other, and ways to improve the capabilities of your community or undermine other communities.  In keeping with the Cypher System's rules-light approach, there is less crunch than you might expect--like the rest of Cypher System, everything has a Level from which all of its other stats are derived.  So, if you want some deep, immersive experience like Civilization where you are determining what percentage of the population should be farming as opposed to building monuments, then you are going to be a little disappointed, as Destiny approaches the topic from a much higher level of abstraction.  But it seems easy to run and easy to wrap your mind around, and the bookkeeping is very minimal. 

But why put this stuff into the game?  Before getting into that, we should talk a little bit about the setting, and my odd reaction to it.  In the broadest terms, Numenera is set a billion years in the future, in the aftermath of the rise and fall of eight successive hyper-tech civilizations.  While the overall technology base of the emerging "Ninth World" is essentially medieval, the remnants of those previous civilizations (the titular "numenera") litter the landscape.  In keeping with the famous "Clarke's Law" ("Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic."), this hyper-tech detritus functions for the people of the Ninth World the same way magic functions in a standard fantasy setting--some people have a vague understanding of how to harness it to do specific things but can't really control it, most people view it as something to be feared, bad guys use it to oppress people and be bad guys, etc.  So, while in a way Numenera is a fantasy setting, it doesn't feel like a standard fantasy setting at all, but something much weirder.

I feel strange talking about the Numenera setting, because my prior experience with reading the material is that I should be all-in on this premise and execution, and yet something hasn't really clicked.  Everything is there.  The art is consistently spectacular.  The writing is great.  The concepts are genuinely creative and innovative, with very little recycled or reskinned ideas.  And yet, I come away from reading Numenera material with the nagging question "what am I supposed to do with all of this creative stuff?"  I have this weird feeling that I am missing something, the hook or the core of the thing that will unlock all of this goodness.  One component of it is that I've never really been into post-apocalyptic fiction, and Numenera is at least post-apocalyptic adjacent.  Some of it is that weird alchemy of why certain fiction resonates and other fiction doesn't.

But, in reading Destiny, I think I have hit upon one structural problem in the original presentation of the setting that Destiny solves, or at least provides a solution.  Both the original Corebook and Discovery repeatedly emphasize that adventures in Numenera should be structured around discovering things about the world.  In good modern tabletop RPG design fashion, this principle is baked into the advancement system--players receive rewards in the form of XP for discovering secrets or uncovering numenera, and not for killing things.  Great.  But this raises a higher level question--why should I care about going out and discovering stuff in this world?  Because the original Corebook and Discovery also emphasize that characters in the setting will never be able to really understand how the numenera work.  And Cook et al. make a point of taking off the table what to me is the most obvious meta-goal of these discoveries--the possibility of reconstructing what happened to the Eighth World and why it fell.  I understand why the designers have gone this route, as if it were possible to figure out in a comprehensive way how everything works, Numenera stops being a quasi-fantasy setting and becomes a science fiction setting (and therefore has to be rebuilt to some degree from scratch).  But this makes the discovery of secrets and numenera sort of like a ball of string that is dangled in front of a cat just out of reach--you can never really get anywhere or get a hold of the string, so eventually you will get frustrated and stop trying.

What Destiny provides is a reason to go out and make discoveries, which is to bring them back to your home town and use them to improve the place.  The narrative loop that Destiny sets up goes something like this.  First, the PCs' settlement is facing Problem X, which can be solved with numenera MacGuffin #1.  As a result, the PCs go to some weird ancient ruin and either discover numenera MacGuffin #1, or else salvage enough parts to build MacGuffin #1.  This is then taken back to town and solves Problem X, but that solution leads to Problem Y, which requires another expedition to get numenera MacGuffin #2 to boost some capability of the community, etc.  The point is that Destiny provides a narrative reason for the PCs to go and do the things that Numenera tells us that PCs should do.

In service of that narrative structure, Destiny also provides a fairly detailed series of crafting rules, as well as a new Type, the Wright, that is the crafting expert.  Numenera can be broken down into an abstract resource called "iotum," which is then the materials that can be combined with the proper plans to build a numenera device.  So, to use an example in Destiny, the PCs might come into possession of plans for a water purifier.  If they want to build the water purifier for their town, they would then go and scrounge enough iotum to take to the Wright to build the machine, which would then improve the town's stats and potentially cause it to grow.  But Wrights can also craft ray-guns or other sorts of "adventuring equipment," so the concept is not strictly limited to civil engineering projects.

There is no question in my mind that some groups are going to be totally disinterested in the sort of campaign envisioned by Destiny, finding it too mundane.  This is in part why splitting the core material into two books is brilliant--notwithstanding my mostly idiosyncratic problems with the original presentation of the setting, you could run a pure Discovery campaign (i.e. a campaign similar to what was presented in the original Corebook) and never engage with any of the crafting or community systems in Destiny.  But, for me, Destiny gives an on-ramp to a campaign concept that can act as a vehicle to take advantage of all of this cool setting material, which was something that I struggled with previously regarding Numenera.  I am a sucker for "concept campaigns," and now there are all the pieces for a really interesting, weird concept campaign set around a little community and its struggles to make it in the world.

Looking an Numenera 2 as a whole, I think you have to conclude that it is an example of 2nd editions done right, and perhaps the best example of 2nd editions done right.  Rather than ret-conning previous material, MCG expanded the game outward, adding new types of game play and themes that build on the stuff in the first edition.  It provides a clear reason for old players to buy into the new material, without invalidating or cancelling the stuff they previously purchased and enjoyed.  No game is for everyone and no game is perfect, but MCG have proven themselves to be among the best in the business in terms of both creativity and the products themselves.  And Numenera, their entre into the world, is still their flagship, and a game definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The "Seven Cities" Campaign--Basics

I've been working on an idea for a new type of campaign, which I am calling (for now at least) a "Seven Cities" campaign, after the Seven Cities of the Midgard campaign setting where I plan to set the first incarnation of this idea.  By "new type of campaign," what I mean is a new type of campaign structure--the organizing principle that undergirds how the campaign functions.

To explain what I have in mind with a Seven Cities campaign, we have to start with a discussion of a "West Marches" campaign.  The idea of a "West Marches" campaign was developed by Ben Robbins.  (Matt Colville has a good video explaining more about the idea).  As Robbins describes it, a West Marches campaign is designed to do two primary things (1) encourage/force the players to be more pro-active in directing the campaign, as opposed to having them just show up and wait for the GM to shovel content at them, and (2) be more flexible from a scheduling perspective, accommodating the fact that it is hard to get everyone to a single session at a fixed time.  To do this, a West Marches campaign uses a large group of players (at least eight, and preferably in the teens) who group up into more normal sized adventuring parties and self-schedule sessions with the GM.  The adventures that the specific group will undertake are selected by the group from among a list of possibilities put forth by the GM in the form of a common "treasure map" that all of the players have access to.  As an example, Bob decided he wants to go to the Goblin fort in the Dark Woods, so he rounds up Susie and Pete and Mary, and they schedule Tuesday at 8 p.m. to get together with the GM to go to the Goblin fort.  Meanwhile, Steve and Dave and Karen want to defeat the trolls over in the Bleak Marsh, so they schedule Saturday at 1 pm to go do that.

The Seven Cities campaign is a deconstruction of the idea of a West Marches campaign.  I want to keep both of the goals of the West Marches campaign, especially the first one, and put the onus on the players to drive play and determine the direction of the adventure.  However, (1) I don't have enough players to pull off a West Marches style game, and (2) instead of a exploration focused "hex crawl" which you get in a West Marches game, I want to do a more story-driven style of game, with an emphasis on politics and a world where events move forward as the campaign progresses.  What I want, from a narrative perspective, is for the campaign to be like Game of Thrones, with multiple storylines going on at once in a shared, dynamic world.

One of the problems conceptually with creating a Game of Thrones-style story in a tabletop RPG is the spotlight problem.  In a TV show, if you want to have an episode that focuses on a particular character to develop that character's individual storyline, the writers can just put the other major characters on ice for a couple of episodes, and then bring them out of storage after the subplot is addressed.  That's very hard to do in a tabletop RPG, because putting a character on ice means putting the player on ice as well.  You are basically telling the player not to play, which sucks.  So, instead, most GMs will do a "soft" version of this, where the GM takes the subplot and weaves it into the overall story that impacts all of the characters.  But that's tricky to juggle, and it limits the sorts of subplots you can have, because it requires the subplot to at least peripherally involve all of the characters.  Instead of trying to keep these balls in the air, the Seven Cities campaign spotlights the stories of the individual characters one at a time, while giving the other players ways to be involved in those stories as they wait for their "turn" to be in the spotlight to come around.

So, here's how it works.  Each player begins by creating a character that they intend to be their "Core Character."  This character is going to be a major protagonist in the overall story.  In Game of Thrones terms, this is Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei, etc.  These characters then play through a short arc (no more than a half-dozen sessions) that is pre-scripted by the GM and designed specifically to be an introduction to the world that sets up the major antagonist factions, the major NPCs, and the current state of play.

Once that is done, each player tells the GM and the other players what their Core Characters goals are, and what they want their Core Character to be doing.  Having done that, each player then creates a "Secondary Character" for each storyline other than that of their Core Character.  One-by-one, the storylines for the Core Characters are resolved, with other players playing their Secondary Characters on the Core Character's adventure.  The GM and the players then keep spinning the wheel, jumping from storyline to storyline.

While all of this is happening, the GM is moving events forward in the world, using tools like Fronts from Dungeon World or the Faction turn from Stars Without Number.  The adventures that the players select are going to impact the advancement of those background factions--if Core Character X decides she wants to wipe out the Hobgoblin Empire and succeeds, then the Hobgoblin Empire is eliminated as a threat, but the other antagonist factions that were not targeted advance their plans without opposition, and so grow in power.  Since goals are ultimately in the hands of the players, the players can react dynamically to how different factions have advanced their objectives--Core Character X might, after defeating the Hobgoblin Empire, realize that the threat of the Evil Necromancers is now the biggest challenge, and decides to go off and do that.

The idea here is that, by rotating whose Core Character is in the spotlight, each player is allowed to develop a full subplot for their character, while giving the other players a way to participate while that subplot is being resolved.  It does require the players playing Secondary Characters in a particular session to accept the idea that it is the Core Character player's show and defer to them, but since everyone is going to get a turn in the sun, that should be easier to swallow.  It also gives the player more freedom to develop their Core Character's arc, because they no longer have to keep the story in the same narrative space as that of the other player's characters.  It also opens the possibility that Core Characters to be working at cross purposes to other Core Characters, without raising all of the issues that are normally associated with PvP--in session #1, Core Character A is trying to do whatever it is he is trying to do, and then in session #2 Core Character B is advancing her contrary objectives, but Core Character A and Core Character B are not directly fighting or otherwise in conflict during a particular session.

It also allows for the campaign to handle player death easier.  If a Core Character is killed, then at the end of a complete rotation of stories, the player can promote one of the Secondary Characters to Core Character status, or create a new Core Character.  In doing so, the GM can be less afraid of throwing deadly challenges at the players, because even a TPK for one particular Core Character and their associated Secondary Characters doesn't derail the campaign as a whole.  It also allows a player who wants to retire or sideline a Core Character to do so without mucking things up too much, as the player could promote a Secondary Character to Core Status and develop subplots for that new Core Character.  All of which is very much in the narrative spirit of Game of Thrones.

Finally, it creates more flexibility in terms of scheduling.  If a player who is not in the spotlight in a particular session can't make the scheduled game, then there is just one less Secondary Character on that particular adventure, which is not nearly as big a deal as if a normal PC is absent.  You still might need to explain why a particular Secondary Character isn't present, but I think it is less consequential, because at the end of the day it's a story about the Core Characters.

So, that's the idea.  The beta test of the idea is scheduled to kick-off in September, once we get done with our Torg arc.  I plan to post campaign notes and other information here as we go along. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

The State of Fantasy RPGs, Part V--Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest

I mentioned in the last post that I played in a two hour Pathfinder 2nd Edition (hereafter, "P2") playtest at Origins, and I wanted to give my thoughts.  But first, I should say that I am, at best, a casual fan and player of Pathfinder 1st edition.  I have played Pathfinder probably a half-a-dozen total times, entirely in the context of Pathfinder Society.  I have never GMed Pathfinder.  I have also never played or GMed D&D 3.5, which is the direct predecessor of Pathfinder.  I recite all of this to say that I really have no emotional commitment to Pathfinder 1st Edition, and so I am approaching P2 mostly as its own game on its own terms.  Similarly, if you are looking for a deep dive into the Golarion lore consequences of making Goblins a core Ancestry (i.e. The Artist Formerly Known as "Race"), then I'm not your guy.

Second, I want to give a shout out to Luke Woods.  He's a local Pathfinder Society GM who happened to be the guy who ran the demo for us (Paizo, as usual, had a big operation, and it was a mix of locals, Society GMs from other places, and Paizo employees).  Because he's a local, I've played in a couple of games he has run, and he's an excellent GM and seems like an excellent dude.  He also spent some time after the game chatting with us about his thoughts on P2 with the perspective of running six two-hour demos in a day.  Whatever you think of organized play, the GMs who run games in those settings put in a ton of hard work in tough GMing conditions and deserve to be cheered, especially the good ones.  So, props to him.

Third, I'm going to focus on overall impressions as opposed to listing every mechanical element.  Paizo has done a series of blog posts about the various changes that is pretty comprehensive that you can go to for the deep dive, so instead I am going to focus on the things that jumped out at me from play.  Plus, we'll have the full playtest document in six weeks or so (which, after playing at Origins, I will be picking up, especially since it will be free), and I got the sense from Luke that some elements were still be worked out, so if you want more detail it makes sense to wait to get the actual product in hand.  This post is more about helping you figure out whether or not you are going to be interested in looking at that product in the first place.

OK, now on to my thoughts:

1.  It's Still Crunchy.  Reading the forums the day that P2 was announced, the #1 concern I saw was that Paizo was going to follow the current zeitgeist and dramatically pare down the volume of rules.  I can confidently tell you that this is not the direction they went with for P2.   It may end up being slightly less crunchy than it predecessor, but it is clearly going to be on the crunchier side of the spectrum for RPGs (especially newer RPGs), and it is clearly going to be crunchier than 5e.  And this makes all the sense in the world--they need to find a way to distinguish themselves from 5e, and "more options, more tactical, more mechanically engaging" is a very sensible way to do that, especially since that's where your fanbase is already located.

As some examples, there are a ton (at least 20, based on my quick count of the reference sheet) different status conditions.  That's a lot, especially for someone who routinely forgets to apply conditions to rolls (which I did in the climax of the demo, but upon reading the Paizo blog, it turns out the condition that I forgot to apply actually would have worn off by the time I forgot to apply it.  So, I accidentally did it right).  The character sheet, for a 1st level character, was two full pages of dense information.  We were using pre-gens, so it was hard to get a sense of character creation, but it certainly seemed like you will have lots of relatively small options that you can mix and match to make the character you want.

My sense is that this, in general terms, is what Pathfinder fans want--if they didn't, they probably would have ditched Pathfinder for 5e.  I'm more on the rules-light end of the spectrum, so P2 might be a bit crunchier than I would prefer.  But the point is that it seems they are not chasing 5e, but instead providing an alternative.  That's a good sign for the overall project, I think.

2.  The Death of the 5 Foot Step.  The biggest take-away I had from combat was there was a lot more movement.  Pathfinder combat (and, IME, 5e when using a grid) tends to be pretty static--the parties maneuver around in the beginning, but then the sides settle into a set battle line and trade blows until it's over.  In the demo, folks were moving around quite a bit even in the later stages of a fight.  Even my Paladin, which I was playing extra-tanky on purpose, was moving around quite a bit.

I think this mobility comes from two things.  First, they ditched the move action/standard action/full-round action taxonomy in favor of three actions per turn that you can use anyway you want, including 3 move actions.  Since you can move up to x3 your movement every turn, you can usually get to any spot that you want on the battlefield.  My experience is that if it takes more than a round to get to a spot, players tend to say "forget it," so being able to get to a spot in a round (even if you can't do anything when you get there) encourages players to get and stay moving.

But the bigger factor is that they made attacks of opportunity a special ability, as opposed to something that everyone can do.  And a relatively rare special ability at that--as far as I could see, none of the monsters we fought could do attacks of opportunity, and I think only Valeros the Fighter could do so among the PCs.  I find that the presence of AofO create a psychological barrier that discourages movement, because the players feel like they have screwed up when they trigger an AofO (I know I do), and so they end up moving less to avoid that screw up.  Taking that away empowers players to flit in and out of melee range.

One class that will definitely be seeing more joy in P2 is the Rogue.  I wasn't playing the Rogue and I didn't have the character sheet in front of me, but it didn't seem like the Rogue's abilities were buffed.  Instead, the freedom of movement allowed the Rogue in our party to more consistently get into position to use those abilities.  My experience with Rogue enthusiasts (*cough* Jason *cough*) is that this is exactly what they are looking for.

3.  Shields and Other Equipment Stuff.  So, shields.  My Paladin had a shield.  Basically, you spend one of your three actions to raise your shield, and it stays raised until your next turn.  In addition to bumping up your AC, your shield absorbs the first melee or missile weapon attack against you.  If the attack does damage equal to or greater the shield's hardness (5, in my case), it gets a "dent"; if it takes damage equal to twice the toughness, it takes two dents (I think).  With two dents, it's broken and no longer effective.

This mechanic is great, particularly because it "felt" good.  The fact you had to spend an action to raise a shield made using your shield was a tactical decision that had real trade-offs (one less attack or one less move action), but it was powerful enough to be worth doing.  But it was also the idea that you were actually doing something to block attacks with your shield, without creating a set of cumbersome parry mechanics.  It felt the way using a shield should feel, something that no previous edition of D&D or its derivatives have done.  Extremely well done.

On the equipment front, it seems like they are leaning into individual mechanics for individual weapons, to make a long sword play differently from a spear which plays differently from a dagger.  For example, if you want to multi-attack, the 2nd attack is normally at -5 and the third at -10.  But, if you have a rapier, it's -4 and -8, respectively.  I think that is going to be done via a "tag" system, where each weapon has one or more tags that carry with them the specific properties.  I really need to dig into the rulebook to have a full sense on this system, but Luke seemed particularly excited about it from what he has seen.

4.  No More "Roll for Initiative".  The most genuinely innovative idea that I saw in the playtest was that they have done away with initiative and the initiative roll.  Instead, during "exploration mode" (i.e. the out-of-combat adventuring period), you roll skill checks based on what you are doing during that mode.  So, if you are just generally looking around, you roll Perception; if you are sneaking around, it's Stealth; if you are follow tracks, it's Tracking (or whatever the tracking skill is), etc.  If you do run into a fight, the result on that roll carries over into the fight as your initiative.

Conceptually, this sounds awesome.  One of the things Luke mentioned, and we saw at least the promise of this in our very straight forward demo adventure, is that it allows for encounters that blur the lines between combat and non-combat.  Once the GM says "roll initiative," there is usually a Pavlovian response from both the players and GM that "it's fight time now."  But here, because there is not that clean break, exploration mode can flow into encounter mode (i.e. the fight) more fluidly.  I predict that this will encourage more role-playing and non-combat solutions.  That's great.

Here, though, I need to see it fully described and fleshed out in the rulebook.  I presume the rule is that initiative is determined by the last skill check you attempted--if you were looking around at the beginning of the travel and then started following some tracks, then your Tracking roll and not your Perception roll would control--but I could see how that could get kind of messy in play.  Also, it seems to me that it has the potential of encouraging players to spam their best skill at all times, no matter how appropriate it is narratively (Rogue player: "I'm moving stealthily." GM: "Uh, you have an audience with the king and you are trying to hide?"  Rogue player:  "Yes, exactly.").  So, I can see a bunch of ways where this basically great idea could really fall apart in play, so I am optimistic but reserving judgment until seeing the rule book.

Bottom line--I am much, much more interested in P2 then I was before Origins.  The full playtest document comes out at Gencon in early August, and then they are going to have a year of a public playtest, with a full set of playtest scenarios (spanning all character levels, and apparently designed to really "stress test" the system) before the final version is released.  After what I saw, I'd like to participate.  I might even be convinced to run it with the right group, which would be my first foray into GMing Pathfinder.  It very well may end up not being something that I'm going to want to play long term, but what I saw makes me very willing to give it a shot.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

My Origins After-Action Report

I have the good fortune of having a big games convention right in my hometown--Origins Game Fair, commonly known simply as "Origins."  I've been going for the last few years since I got back into the hobby.  This year, I ended up going in the evenings on the weekdays plus a full day on Saturday (I wanted to do a full day on Friday, but various work commitments got in the way.  Next year).  With the convention over, I wanted to give my thoughts on the convention and what I played.

1.  The convention itself.  Origins might be the perfect size for a convention.  It is, by all metrics, a big convention--one of the top five every year.  But it is not nearly as big and chaotic as Gencon, which is a couple orders of magnitude bigger.  I've been to Gencon twice, and it is so large as to be kind of exhausting.  Origins is much more manageable, but yet has a wide variety of events and experiences such that you get the "big con" feeling.  In the last two years, it has had a very Wizards of the Coast/5e presence and focus, but Paizo brought out the full show (including the Pathfinder 2nd Edition demo--more on that in a bit and in a subsequent post), as well as a number of small and medium-sized publishers with a presence (not to mention all of the board game and miniatures folks).

The one major problem, and this has been an issue for the last couple of years, is that the registration system is bad and unreliable, leading to a number of system crashes.  I wasn't focused on 5e particularly (I tend to use cons to play things I wouldn't/can't play in other contexts), but those events were weirdly not available to register for when I logged on the first day to register, freezing out lots of people from the D&D Open and other big name events.  Plus, the system apparently doesn't let even the event organizers see how many people are signed up for the event, which prevents people putting on multiple events from organizing themselves more efficiently.

They really need to fix this.  There is no reason why it should be like this.

2.  GMs not showing up.  While I am in complaint mode, I was really excited to play a Midgard event that was (or at least, appeared to be) sponsored by Kobold Press.  Cool, Midgard is awesome, Kobold Press is awesome.  So, 9 am on Saturday rolls around, and no GM.  Turns out, according to the people in the room, that he hadn't been there for any of the prior scheduled sessions as well.

This is extremely uncool, and really screws up people's cons.  If you volunteer to GM, you need to be there.  And if someone can't make it for true emergency reasons, the folks organizing the event need to work to find someone, or at least tell people that the event is cancelled ahead of time.  Kobold Press did not, as far as I could tell, have a presence at Origins, making it hard for them to react when someone didn't show up.  I get that, but I feel like if they are sponsoring events they should have a contact person at the event to be able to respond to situations like this.  Don't make people scramble at the time of the event.

Enough about the event.  On to the games.

3.  Torg: Eternity (GMing 2 4 hour sessions).  This was my GMing turn, running Torg under the auspices of the Ulisses Spiele's (technically I guess, Ulisses North America is the official name) demo team.  The groups were smaller than I was hoping, I think in large measure because of the time slot (4 pm, which is sort of in-between sessions--next year, if UNA wants to run demos, I'm going to push for mornings and evenings only).  But I feel like they went well, especially the second session.

One of the things that came across running Torg in a convention setting is that Torg is an easy system to teach noobs.  Torg is not exactly "rules light," but I think the rules are mostly intuitive, and that makes it easier to pick up on the fly.  My worry with Torg is that the card play would cause too much task loading on new players, but people took to the cards quickly.

Anyway, it was fun.  Torg is great.  Go play more Torg.

4.  Pathfinder 2nd Edition (2 hour demo).  I've got a separate post coming in a bit that goes through my thoughts on the demo.  My basic take is that I am far more interested in Pathfinder 2nd Editon than I was prior to the demo.

5.  Starfinder short adventures (2 1-hour sessions).  This was my biggest surprise.  I signed up for the first of these sessions simply because it was the only thing that looked remotely interesting in the time slot I had after I ran Torg, so expectations were decidedly modest.  I went from minimally interested to slotting in a second session and buying the book.

The critics will say that it is Pathfinder in space, and it is impossible to ignore the family resemblance, which is why I was initially lukewarm on the game.  But two things jumped out at me and, to my surprise, grabbed my attention.  First, while I would have to dig in to see exactly why this is so, it does seem to be simpler and move faster than Pathfinder.  No one will mistake it for Numenera or a PbtA game, but combat moved quickly, there were not 40 skills to juggle, and class abilities were straight forward.

But the big thing was that the setting grabbed me.  It's weird science fantasy, with all sorts of brand new races (I was playing a Kasatha, basically a four-armed, grey skinned Conehead).  The central point of the campaign is a giant space station a la Babylon 5 or Deep Space Nine or the Citadel from Mass Effect.  You have sort-of clerics and sort-of sorcerers and the sort-of monk that I was playing, but also gadget based characters and other sci-fi archetypes.  It's nothing close to hard sci-fi--no one will mistake this for Traveller--but it was interesting and fun and it kind of hooked me.  Honestly, the best comparison I can think of is Guardians of the Galaxy, the RPG.

As I said, I went from no interest to looking around for a Starfinder Society game.  I will probably do a Starfinder review in a week or so.

6.  The Dark Eye (2 hour demo).  The Dark Eye is #1 German fantasy RPG, with a 30+ year history and deep lore.  It's published by the Ulisses Spiele folks.  I own the book and have done a read-through, but had never played until Origins.  My basic take is that there is a reason that national stereotypes exist, as this game is very German.  My character sheet was six pages in length, not including a four page cheat sheet providing the descriptions of special abilities and spells.   The skills systems is completely logical--all tasks engage multiple attributes, and so each skill check consists of three sequential attribute checks, which can be manipulated with skill points, and then any left over skill points determine levels of success.  Each successful attack always a dodge or parry roll to try to avoid the blow.  Many spells seemed to take multiple rounds to cast.  And so on.

Now, the world seems very cool--like Midgard, its inspirations are (surprise, surprise) very German and central European.  And it has been a living campaign world since the 80s, with ongoing events that change things up.  The Ulisses Spiele folks want me to run some demos and I want to help out my crew.  But, I mean, a six page character sheet.  That seems like a big ask for a demo situation.

7.  Numenera 2nd Edition (4 hour session).  Also a sneak peak at a 2nd edition (though, Numenera 2nd edition is supposed to be 100% compatible with 1st edition), also really encouraging.  The new stuff, in the form of three new types (i.e. classes) are an explorer type, a tinkerer type, and a face type, fills out the world and adds new dimensions to play.  That's needed, because my #1 problem with Numenera is that it throws a torrent of weird and unique ideas at players and GMs, but doesn't give them a good sense of what to do with all of that stuff.  It seems like they are leaning into a settlement and base-building dimension to play--all the players are set in a town, and they go out and get stuff to help the town grow and prosper.  I like that, though we only saw glimpses of it in the convention adventure.

The bottom line is that Numenera is a great game--it's a breeze to run in the moment to moment, it's easy and fun to play, and the quality of the material you get from Monte Cook Games is uniformly strong.  Great GM, too (whose name, embarrassingly, I can't remember).

8.  Adventurer's League [5e] (2 hour session).  I have not had good experiences with Adventurers' League. A couple times I have had bad GMs.  This time, I had a great GM, but I felt like the adventure was pretty meh, and my fellow players were pretty meh as well.   I don't know what else to say--people love Adventurers' League, and I'm not suggesting they are making it up, but my experiences have not been good.

9.  War of the Cross [boardgame] (dealer's area demo).  New from the 7th Sea folks.  It's basically Diplomacy, with individual faction powers and changing objectives like Twilight Imperium.  Yes please. They will be Kickstarting soon, and I will be backing.

10.  The Ninth World [boardgame] (dealer's area demo).  I bought this game, which is set in the world of Numenera.  It's similar to those "adventure card games" such as the Pathfinder one, in that you play a character that has abilities, complete quests or gather equipment in the form of cards, etc.  One thing I really liked about this game is that it can be played both in a cooperative mode and in a competitive mode, without radically changing the gameplay involved.  I think it will be accessible to people who are not tabletop RPG players or already engaged with Numenera.  It's also beautiful as a physical artifact. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The State of Fantasy RPGs, Part IV--Why World of Warcraft Matters

In a couple of places in the last few posts, I have made the claim that the shift toward more story-based and narrative focused games in the tabletop RPG space is not just because of the popularity of Critical Role or the design features of Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition, but reflects a broader, more structural change in the tabletop RPG hobby.  And, I think that change has to do with the ubiquity of video games, and more specifically the existence of MMOs like World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls Online (for purposes of this post "World of Warcraft" is going to be used as a stand-in for all fantasy MMOs, because everything that applies to World of Warcraft for purposes of this discussion applies to those other MMOs as well).  Those games fill a space and provide a play experience that originally was filled by tabletop RPGs, but video games do it better.  As a result, tabletop has drifted toward experiences of play that MMOs can't recreate.

Let's unpack that a bit.  I would venture to say that the vast majority of people who play tabletop RPGs also play video games to some degree.  And the vast majority of people who play either of those two forms of games have a limited budget in terms of both disposable income and free time.  So, at least on a conceptual level, a hour spend playing a video game is an hour you could instead be playing a tabletop RPG, and visa versa.  Video games and tabletop RPGs are, in that sense, substitute goods.  That's not to say they are the same, or that there is no reason to prefer one over the other, but that to the extent you spend more time and money playing one, you are likely to spend less time and money playing the other.

In an absolute sense, all video games are substitutes for tabletop RPGs, as it would be seen as a faux pas to be playing Fortnite or Minecraft while you are in the midst of a climatic battle in 5e or Pathfinder, so you have to pick one or the other.  But, in a much more specific way, games like Skyrim and the Witcher series are a more direct substitute, as it allows me to play a character in a fantasy world that kills monsters, collects gold and other loot, interacts with NPCs, completes quests, explores new areas, etc.  In other words, playing Skyrim allows you to do many of the the kinds of things that you do in most tabletop RPGs, so it makes sense that if you can't or don't want to play D&D, you might play Skyrim instead.  But an even closer substitute is an MMO like World of Warcraft, because World of Warcraft lets you do all of the stuff you can do in Skyrim but also allows you to interact with other players.  So MMOs also allow you to get some component of the social dimension of tabletop RPGs, alongside the loot and quests and what have you.

If it is the case that World of Warcraft and D&D are substitute goods, why would someone pick one over the other?  To answer that question, the place to start is to look at what each of them bring to the table that the other does not.  Approaching it from the WoW side, the biggest thing that you get with a video game is the visuals.  Instead of having to imagine your character, the monsters, the terrain, and all the rest, you get to see all of that, often in beautifully rendered detail.  There is a definite benefit and joy to imagining things yourself, but the visual representation has definite advantages, especially in complex situations like combat.  Second, MMOs provide better options for a solo experience.  You can make a character and go on quests without having anyone to play with.  Plus, keep in mind that when WoW came out in 2004, there was no such thing as Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds--if you wanted to play a tabletop RPG, then you had to gather together people physically in the same spot.  If you were in an area or circumstance where you didn't have people around you to play with, you basically couldn't play a tabletop game, whereas with MMOs you could meet people through the game and get that social interaction that way.  Finally, the resolution of mechanical actions in video game is faster, as the programming is able to calculate hits and damage, and translate that into game action, at a speed that no tabletop game (no matter how simple) can do.  As a result, actions in MMOs, especially combat, moves much, much faster than even the most streamlined tabletop RPG.

With that in mind, consider a classic form of tabletop RPG scenario--the mega-dungeon.  In its classic form, it is a big, set-piece series of primarily combat and loot-oriented encounters, with large groups of players approaching it in a primarily tactical way.  In other words, precisely the thing that WoW is best at recreating in its high-concept raids.  A WoW raid gives you all of your combat and loot-oriented tactical mega-dungeon goodness, except everything moves much faster and you get to watch the thing unfold in real time.  I understand how others could disagree with this, but I think MMOs provide a better experience for playing those kinds of games than tabletop RPGs do.  And, in an environment where MMOs and tabletop RPGs are substitute goods, some significant segment of people are going to migrate from the tabletop to the computer or console.

In light of this, there are basically two choices.  One is to try to splice elements of the MMO experience into the tabletop experience, essentially co-opting the advantages of the MMO for the tabletop.  In his excellent video on 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Matt Colville makes the point that many of the design decisions behind that edition make much more sense when you realize that the original plan was for the game to ship with a dedicated virtual tabletop platform.  People complain that "4e was trying to be an MMO," and that is true in the sense that the designers were thinking about how to take the things that MMOs provide that the tabletop experience does not and integrate them into the play experience (as opposed to the way that phrase is usually deployed, which is to accuse the designers of 4e of "selling out" and mindlessly copying WoW).

As we now know, a combination of unforeseeable bad luck/tragedy (the original lead designer of the online tools committed a murder-suicide just after the launch of 4e) and a perhaps over-optimistic timeline made the virtual tabletop component of 4e vaporware, leaving a game that was in some meaningful sense incomplete.  But someone is going to go back to the well and try this again in the near future, perhaps with an even greater focus on the visuals.  I am really interested to see how the game master mode in Divinity 2: Original Sin grows and evolves over time, because that might reflect the ultimate end-point for some of the concepts they tried to roll out for 4e.   Imagine a game platform that allowed for both pre-scripted, WoW-style content and game master generated content that a single character could seamlessly transition between.  And, because the rules mechanics where the same in the computer game and on the table, you could then port your character to a home game sitting around a table.  Isn't that, in some sense, the ultimate version of something like Pathfinder Society? [and why isn't Paizo exploring that path as opposed to whatever the heck Pathfinder Online is?]

That would be very cool, but it doesn't exist right now.  So, the alternative is to push the tabletop experience toward those things that you can't get via video games, even MMOs.  Tabletop RPGs can't compete on visuals, and they can't compete on combat speed, but they have a human DM or GM who can change and swap out story elements on the fly, manage character and interpersonal interactions, and otherwise bring all of the story and narrative parts of the game.  MMOs can't do any of those things.  Think about how crude the dialogue options are in something like Skyrim or the Bioware RPGs as compared to the kinds of dialogue that you get in a normal tabletop game session.  No video game can have the player decide, 7th Sea style, what sort of quest he or she wants their character to complete and have the system whip it up out of the ether.  Video games are necessarily constrained by their systems and their need to design elements (or at least the mechanisms that generate the elements) in advance, while the tabletop experience can transcend those limitations.

Because of this, it makes sense that people who are looking for something different from MMO-style experiences are going to be drawn to tabletop RPGs that are oriented toward story and narrative, because that's the thing they weren't getting from the MMO experience.  I have been struck, in my totally informal survey of Youtube channels of people new to tabletop RPGs evangelizing for the form, how many of them say "I was big into WoW, and then I found Critical Role and was inspired by the storytelling to try tabletop RPGs."  Narrative and story is where tabletop RPGs have a comparative advantage over video games, and so pushing in that direction is the way to showcase the things that the form does better than its alternatives.  I can do something that looks a lot like the Temple of Elemental Evil on a computer screen, but I can't recreate anything like a session of Monsterhearts in the same way.

It follows then, as video games get better (better visuals, more complicated quest structures, better online and collaborative functionality), it makes more and more sense for RPGs to push toward the place of its comparative advantage.  It's not surprising that mega-dungeon style play was more popular in the early days of the hobby, as that was before you had robust substitutes on the video game front.  A game like Ultima I, with very basic visuals and constraints on story complexity imposed by storage limitations, is an inferior substitute to playing D&D, even if all you are looking for out of either of them is killing monsters and taking their stuff.  As video games get better, they make a stronger case as a substitute for tabletop play; as video games make a better case as a substitute, tabletop is encouraged to push into places where the video game is not a substitute, i.e. narrative and character-focused play.  I think this is what we are seeing in the tabletop RPG space right now.

This does not mean that playing a dungeon crawl on a tabletop is Badwrongfun and everyone should take up a narrative style or they are Doing It Wrong.  But some of the folks who are rather vocal in their disdain for narratively-focused play tend to present the trend in that direction in almost conspiratorial terms--nefarious outside elements intruding on the original truth of tabletop RPGs and imposing alien ideas and concepts.  That's nonsense--people aren't moving from mega-dungeons to character stories because they have some secret agenda, but because they think they can get the mega-dungeon experience better by booting up a computer.  There are clear "market forces" at play, and not simply in terms of tabletop game designers wanting to make products that sell (though, that, too).  "Do what you are good at" is always a solid piece of advice, and narrative and story is what tabletop RPGs are best at, especially when you take into account the alternative vehicles for some of the other modes of play.

Once again, the moment you buy tabletop RPG books is the moment get to play however you want forever.  I'm not interested in triumphalism or gate keeping.  The point is not that old-school play is not fun; the point is that many people find they can get that same fun in a more accessible form by turning on a computer.  Instead, they are coming to the tabletop RPG space looking for something different, something the computer can't provide.  And the tabletop RPG space is providing that, and will likely be focused on providing that more and more as time goes on.  The move toward a more narrative style is a natural and I think an inevitable product of people thinking about the kinds of things tabletop RPGs do best, especially when compared to alternatives.