Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thoughts on Multiclassing

I like multiclassed characters. I like them a lot. Some times a little mixing and matching is almost necessary to get that character to be exactly who you want them to be. However, sometimes it makes no sense and the character becomes nothing more than a stat sheet and trying to even envision the type of character that they are is an exercise in itself. And even more than that, where did they learn these new skills from? How does a Ranger, who has spent the last month in the woods hunting down and killing orcs with a bow, suddenly have the ability to cast arcane magic?

I think that multiclassing to another base class should have some requirements that go along with it, much like gaining entry into a prestige class. I don’t think this just for the sake of being a ball busting DM, but rather to make sure that the characters that inhabit the world that I create are realistic, for my sake as well as the player’s. In the afore mentioned example the Ranger is probably interested in becoming an Arcane Archer and needs the arcane magic requirement to get access to it. But how did they just learn to cast spells when nothing in their background indicates it? It would make more sense if they had at least a couple of ranks in Spellcraft and Knowledge (Arcana). Have they even read a spellbook before? The real world equivalent would be a pilot waking up one day and, not only deciding that they want to be a banker, having the skills to be a banker. Even though nothing in the background of the pilot indicates an interest or talent for the new profession, they suddenly have the ability to perform the banking job at some level. Wouldn’t it make more sense if you found out that the pilot had been studying banking between flights? Maybe took some classes? I think a couple of ranks in some class appropriate skills is perfectly acceptable, and maybe even a feat or two. Want to dip into fighter for two levels? Fine, but your character has been a wizard for four levels and needs to demonstrate some level of competence in the form of a martial proficiency or two. It’s assumed that first level characters have had some training in their respective class (to what degree varies a lot depending on the class), so it is unrealistic to think that just because someone has gained a couple of levels as a thief they can translate that knowledge into being a bard.

Additionally, by limiting how easy it is to pick up new classes some of the bizarre and overpowered class combinations are a little more difficult to make work. And it also allows some classes to mesh well with each other, which makes sense. If a ranger wants to multiclass with a scout it shouldn’t be that hard, those two classes have a lot in common. Any skill rank requirements are probably going to be easy for the ranger to meet. However a barbarian who wants to be a sorcerer is going to have a harder time, as they should. The requirements for the sorcerer are probably going to be cross class skills for the barbarian. They might just have to wait a little bit longer to be a rage mage. I would hesitate to spell out specific requirements for each class, they should probably be talked over between DM and player for each case. If they are all skill based that would put fighters and their two skill points a level at a huge disadvantage. They could even just be based on some roleplaying stuff like an apprenticeship or some time with the party mage or whatever.

I think in the end the result of this is characters that make more sense and seem more natural. I hate when I read about a build that seems real powerful, but is coming out of left field as far as flavor is concerned. Where did your thri-keen swordsage learn arcane magic?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I love the old TSR products, in a way I feel like I was raised on them. I’ll be the first to admit that they certainly had their problems, but when I saw a mint condition copy of the board game Dungeon available on ebay I had to go for it. Dungeon came out in 1975 and is clearly influenced by the D&D product line that was thriving at the time. Built to be a more family friendly game (perhaps to counter all those negative devil worshipping connections to D&D in the media of the 80’s) the rules are simple and play is supposed to be quick and easy. It’s pretty standard fare; players take on the roll of an elf, hero, wizard, or superhero and fight their way through a dungeon, looting as they go. The first player to make it back to the dungeon entrance with the required amount of gold is the winner. Go!

For starters, I thought it was very weird that not all of the characters are equal. Both the elf and hero need 10,000 gold to win the game, while the superhero needs 20,000 and the wizard requires 30,000. The wizard seems like he is the best because of all the neat spells that they have, but a player finds out pretty quickly that the wizard is way more trouble than he is worth. He runs out of spells rather quickly. The superhero is a pretty good fighter and realistically the only one who has a consistent chance of defeating the higher level monsters, but even he struggles with the tougher beasts. I think it would be better if the characters were all balanced with one another, it seems like a cop out to just make some character more powerful than others and just have them get more treasure.

The dungeon layout is color coded and broken into six levels, with each level containing tougher monsters (and better treasure). I like the way the board looks a bunch, it just sort of oozes 1980’s TSR. Which to me is a good thing. The game also has about a thousand small cardboard squares that serve as markers, monsters, treasures, and everything but the player pieces. Those are represented by colored pawns. It would be nice to have something classier, but I’ve always been a substance over style type of guy and I would gladly take them when paired with solid game mechanics.

There are also secret doors on the board that make moving around significantly easier for the characters. The only ability that the elf has is a better chance of finding secret doors, which seems crappy but is actually probably the best in the game. The only problem is actually seeing the secret doors on the board. They are miniscule little lines, it took us several minutes to locate a single one on the board. Perhaps children have better eyesight. Or maybe I should play with some elves.

The game turn is pretty simple, but unfortunately also repetitive. Players move up to five spaces each turn, if they end in a chamber they flip over a monster card for that level and fight whatever is lurking there. Combat is decided by rolling 2d6. Each monster lists all the player classes on it (elf, superhero, etc..) followed by a number. That number is what the player needs to roll to defeat the monster. Very simple. If the player wins they get a level appropriate treasure card and move on. If they lose, something bad happens, most likely the monster gets a treasure from the player. The problem is that when the player loses they just keep trying every turn to beat the monster, and eventually they will. Earning the treasure card and getting back whatever they lost. It’s just sort of boring.

One other aspect of the game that also did not sit too well with me was the ending. It is very anti climactic. All that a player needs to do for victory is get back to the start with the right amount of gold. There should be some sort of final battle, or at least a better story line than finding some money. Isn't there a lich that needs to be dispelled or a beholder terrifying a kingdom and only a rare treasure can defeat it? The game contains the letter of old TSR, but rarely the spirit.

The replay value of Dungeon doesn’t seem to be very good, I feel like I get it after having only played it once. And even worse, I don't care to know much more. Maybe I would like this game more if I was 9 years old and playing it with my parents. Actually, I think I would love it if that was the case. But those days are long gone.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Complete Mage

I try not to buy D&D books at full price when there are so many readily available used. Because of that I have been slowly adding to my 3.5 collection of material for the last several years and I just got around to purchasing The Complete Mage. I have mixed feelings on it, it’s not awful but certainly isn’t one of the better books. I suspect that power gamers love it since some of the classes (like the Abjurant Champion) are really powerful and the reserve feats are pretty ridiculous.

I really like Warlocks and one of the reasons I got this book was that I knew there was a lot of new material for them in it. The invocations are neat and well balanced, I especially like Otherwordly Whispers and Swimming the Styx. The Warlock prestige classes don’t make too much sense to me. I thought that the big idea behind Warlocks was that they draw their power from non Arcane and Divine sources, but the Eldritch Disciple and Eldritch Theurge are just the opposite. Seems like fluff following mechanics, which is never a happy marriage in my mind. The Abjurant Champion seems a little overpowered, but still decent all around. To me it makes sense that a fighting type would dip into magic for the sake of protection. The only real issue is that they have access to all the wizard spells, maybe they should be limited to abjurations and one or two other schools. I would like to see one in action. My favorite prestige class in the book is the Unseen Seer, a rogue who dabbles in divination magic. But, like the Abjurant Champion, they get access to all schools of magic and only need one level of wizard to get into it. And it advances Sneak Attack (at a slightly lower rate) and throws in some extra abilities. Again, a little overpowered when compared to something like the Arcane Trickster but I really like the flavor of a divination magic wielding rogue.

The heritage feats are fun; I dig the idea of characters having some sort of weird ancestry (in this case Fey and Demonic) that comes into play during the game. None of them are all that powerful but they could add a lot roleplaying wise. On the other hand, the reserve feats are just absurd. As long as a spellcaster keeps a certain spell in reserve they are basically given some sort of power that they can use all the time. Come on, like wizards need more options. Example: Wind Guided Arrows allows the caster to use an immediate action (it doesn’t even have to be their turn!) to give a +2 (for allies) or a -2 (for enemies) to any attack rolls with a ranged weapon. All they have to do is have an air spell of 3rd level or higher available to them. Wow. Others allow for summoning creatures, shooting lightning, seeing in the dark, and a whole host of stuff. One of the only real drawbacks to being a spellcaster is running out of spells. In a way this removes that because it allows the use of some other powers without burning up spell slots. So now, in a lesser encounter, the wizard has no need to use up a spell. They can save everything for the serious encounters. Boo.

The book also has a bunch of advice for building different types of casters, which is sort of helpful but actually the part of the book that I found to be the most enjoyable on purely a reading level. I skimmed a lot of the book, but I think I read the entire Arcane Archetypes section. It was practical and well written enough, though it sort of steers the player into the realm of power gaming. I haven’t really spent any time yet with the new spells in the book so I shouldn’t comment on them.

If you are real into arcane magic I would think that this book is nice to have, though not essential. Realistically I don’t see a ton of the material in here finding it’s way into my campaigns. Probably some NPC’s will employ a couple of the feats or the prestige classes. I wish I had this for the Warlock NPC who had been badgering the PC’s for a couple of months, but now he is dead and never got to benefit from it. Sucks for him.

One Night in Arkadia

Dusted off the shelf and pulled out an old favorite the other night, Arkadia from Ravensburger Games. In Arkadia players become medieval architects competing for the commissions of the noble families in the area, the whole time also helping to build the large castle in the center of town. The game is a lot of fun, not too long of a commitment, and pretty easy to understand. Katie, Mike, and I had played a bunch of times before, this would be the first time for Nick, though he seemed eager to get started. It had probably been about a year since any of us had played Arkadia so I went through the rules and once we got going it all seemed to come back fairly easy. This is definitely one of those easy to learn, hard to master type games. Each turn a player has the option of placing down a building on the board (each of which bears a seal of one of four colors) or placing down workers to close out a building. A building is closed off when all of it’s sides have either another building or a worker on it. The player that closed it off gets the seal from the building, and everyone who has a colored worker also gets a seal of that color. Additionally, when a building is completed another piece of the castle is added. Each castle piece has a colored tile that corresponds to the four colors, and how many of the color are currently visible in the castle construction is how much in gold each seal is worth. The castle is also essentially the timer for the game. When construction begins on the third floor of the castle the game enters it’s final turn.

As is typical with this game, play started off pretty slowly. We were all being very cautious in placing our buildings and trying not to give each other openings to seal off a building. Right away Nick grasped the value of the neutral workers gained from covering up camps and picked up a couple early on. The neutral workers don’t garner any seals for you, but they help close out buildings which in turn helps control the value of the colored seals. Mike was the first to use some of his banners and cash in some seals once he had picked some up. At this point in the game getting the two colored workers is probably more useful than cashing in. Mike was to my right, so I also had to deal with his stingy ways and he was giving me nothing to work with. I was off to a much slower start than I had wanted. There were several buildings with silver seals concentrated in one part of the board and I wound up using most of my resources in that area, leaving me with a bunch of silver. Unfortunately no one else was into silver and it’s value kept plummeting as no new silver pieces were added to the castle. I figured I would just hoard them for now and hope for a big payoff later in the game, but I wasn’t sure that it would ever come.

As we moved into the second half of the game Nick and Mike started to pull away. They were both gathering in a lot of the olive colored seals so they were helping each other by adding more olive to the castle. Nick in particular seemed to be doing well, though his tent setup in front of him kept his gold total unknown to me. I suppose I could have tried to track his total in my head, but defense against one individual in a four player game is almost impossible so I didn’t see the point in it. I did eventually get a decent return on my silver, I cashed in 12 silver seals at four gold each for a total of 48 gold. I swore to myself that I was going to wait until silver got to five gold before trading in, but that day never arrived so I had to do something.

One of the tricky things about Arkadia is how quickly the ending sneaks up on you. For a game that starts off very conservative, it ends in very aggressive fashion with all of the players quickly trying to play whatever workers they have and cash in their seals once the third floor of the castle is started. I misplayed my hand entirely and wound up with some colored workers still in my hand at the end of the game, which is a cardinal sin in this game. When the last turn finished up we cashed in our remaining seals and the score looked like this: Nick 97, Fran 95, Mike 84, Katie 71.

Despite the fact that a rookie player won the game Arkadia really does have a lot of strategy. In the four player game it is tough to plan long term since the board changes so much by the time it comes back around, so the best thing to do is look for general trends and make the best move you can at any given time. I like this game a lot and I hope it’s not another year before we play again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Dread Pirate prestige class

All of the talk of piracy in the news these days, as well lots of games of Pirates Cove, has led me to including some pirates in the current D&D campaign. The PC’s were recently attacked by some pirates, who naturally needed some sort sea faring, swash buckling Captain. So I took a look at the Dread Pirate prestige class in Complete Adventurer and I found it to be a very cool, well balanced class. Since so much of it is suited for sea travel it probably is not the most versatile class for a PC, but it works great for an NPC as it equally balances skills and both combat and non combat abilities. Of course, in any sort of nautical themed campaign this would work great for a PC.

The requirements are pretty straightforward and offer a couple of options for getting in; +4 Base Attack, non-lawful, 8 ranks of Appraise and Profession (Sailor), 4 ranks of Swim and Use Rope, Quick Draw, Weapon Finesse, and ownership of a boat worth 10,000gp. The ideal class for this would be the Swashbuckler if the character plans on mixing it up in melee a bunch, but a Bard also works great due to the synergy of Inspire Courage and the Dread Pirate’s Rally the Crew. Some Rogue is also a great fit. I love that a wide variety of pirating types can be produced with the class.

Once the requirements are met the class offers full Base Attack, good Reflex, d8 Hit die, and 6 skill points. That’s a decent offering. Seamanship is a nice 1st level ability that will continue to improve, but Two Weapon Fighting is even better. A Rogue or Swashbuckler can take real advantage of two weapon benefits, they just need to resist the temptation to take it before going into the class. At 2nd level the Pirate is given a choice between being an honorable or dishonorable Pirate, the decision effects whether they receive a bonus to Diplomacy or Intimidate, and other abilities at higher levels.

The honorable or dishonorable feature of the class is a neat mechanic and I’m glad it was included. It’s just another step in giving the class options and something to differentiate one pirate or another. I just don’t see how it meshes with the alignment restriction for the class. The description makes a point to show how this class could also used for an honorable type of seafarer (the example given is a pirate who honors flags of truce) as well as the ruthless marauder and profiteer. So my question is, why limit the alignment? Honoring flags of truce seems very lawful. Perhaps lawful evil in the case of a pirate, but lawful nonetheless. As a DM I would gladly look past the alignment issue.

At 3rd level the dishonorable pirate receives 1d6 Sneak Attack, while his honorable brethren gets the Rally the Crew ability. Rally the Crew is a free action that gives +1 to attack, damage, and saves versus fear to all the Pirates allies. It also lasts for minutes per level and continues even if the Pirate is unconscious, and the range is any ally who can hear it. That’s not good enough? It also stacks with the Bard’s Inspire Courage. Excellent ability all around. At 7th level the bonus becomes +2, and the sneak attack goes up by another 1d6. Advantage honorable Pirate.

At 5th level Luck of the Wind and Scourge of the Seas are given to the honorable and dishonorable pirates, respectively. Luck of the Wind allows a 1/day reroll on most failed rolls, while Scourge of the Seas allows Intimidate to affect all within 30 feet. Both of these are pretty good, but nothing game breaking. The final pair comes at 9th level with Fight to the Death and Motivate the Scum. Fight to the Death grants the allies of an honorable Pirate temporary hit points (10+Pirates Cha modifier), the Diehard feat, and a bonus to AC equal to the Pirates Cha modifier. For a Bard based Dread Pirate this can be extremely powerful. Since we are looking at a character that is probably going to be around 15th level it’s not unreasonable to think that the Cha bonus may be as high as +6. That’s a huge AC bonus and the hit points are pretty nice too. If a dishonorable Pirate kills a helpless individual in front of his allies it will activate the Motivate the Scum ability, such is their fear of the Pirate that they are motivated to do an extra 2 points of damage on each attack for the next 24 hours. If the killed individual is a member of the crew the bonus is +4, though a -2 to Will saves also applies. The real key here is the 24 hour duration, which can certainly lead to a day long orgy of murder and looting.

At 10th level all Pirates gain the Pirate King ability which is essentially the Leadership feat.

I think that I would just remove the alignment from the class and allow the player to decide which type of Pirate they would like to be. A high level Dread Pirate with a large crew is indeed a fearsome opponent. And probably a very fun class to be as well.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Game time?

How long should a game last? Until it's over is the proper answer, I guess. But what's the right length for a game? The group of people that I play with meet primarily on weeknights, so we have some time constraints. While I love the idea of a game that takes six hours to play, it's just not very feasible. Maybe for a once in a while planned gaming experience, but certainly not on the reg. And there is something that bothers me about a five or six hour game. What happens if you are out of it after three hours, you just kind of hang around and go through the motions while the remaining players plug away at one another? Are you obligated to play the spoiler? Is it wrong the make moves that intentionally help another player, even if it's not the best for you? I don't know the answers.

I think for most board game a good time length is about 20 minutes per person involved, maybe a little longer if there are 3 or less. Five people and the game takes between an hour and a half and two hours? Perfect, I'm into it. An hour is a good length for two player games. This also opens the options of multiple games in a night, which I really like.

Our weekly D&D game goes around three and a half hours each week, which I find to be nice. As a DM it keeps me off the hook from having to prepare a ton of material for the game, but it's also enough time to cover a lot of ground and get a couple of combats in. In the past I have played games that meet for six hours or more, and that is also a lot of fun but I could never sustain that on a weekly basis. Maybe if the game met every other week or less frequently that would be the favored method.

The Druidic Myth

There is a school of thought amongst the message boarders and internetters of the world that the Druid is one of the very elite base classes in the world of D&D. They turn into animals! They cast spells! They have an animal companion! They resist the lure of fey! These things are all true, yet in the end I find that the character really lacks in power when it comes down to it. I still like the druid a lot and there is a ton of fun stuff one can do with it, but this myth about it’s absurd power levels needs to stop. The druid does a lot of things, but none of them all that well. (Ironically, the bard is much maligned for those same reasons.) Sure, a 20th level druid with all sorts of neat tricks is an impressive character indeed, but in the games I play in that druid had to be a 1st level druid initially and in the lower levels they really struggle. At it’s best the druid should be sending their companion into the fray to do some damage, while they hang in the back and support the party. Of course, at higher levels they are quite capable in combat, but even then survivability remains an issue.

It’s vitals are pretty good; medium Base Attack, D8 hit die, 4 skill points (with an okay skill list), and two good saves. Add full casting to that and you’ve got the start of a really good character. An animal companion too? What could be wrong with this? Well, for starters the druid does not have the Armor Class or the Hit Points to stand on the front line with the fighting types. At low levels they can mix it up for short periods and come out okay, but they don’t have the staying power for a prolonged fight. The equipment is probably looking something like Hide Armor and a Scimitar, and chances are that Strength and Dexterity are not going to be too great (most druids pump up INT, WIS, and CHA in anticipation of Wild Shape). This forces them into a support role in combat for the lower levels. Cure spells are nice (though the progression of them is slower than the clerics and they can’t be cast spontaneously), Entangle certainly has it’s uses, Heat Metal is handy, etc…The point is there is not a Glitterdust or Hold Person in the bunch. The summonings are totally outclassed by the wizards Summons, and many of their spells are environment dependent. A druid in the city is at a large disadvantage (the converse, the wilderness druid, is at an advantage certainly). The animal companion is pretty good at low levels. A wolf can certainly hold it’s own in a fight and makes an excellent flanking companion for the party’s rogue, a riding dog is good as well. Birds are best left as familiars. It’s also useful for spells that the druid casts on himself can also affect the companion, but they end if they are more than 5 feet apart from one another, essentially tethering the two to one another. Not so useful. So what is our low level druid doing in combat each round?

At 5th level the druid receives it’s signature ability; Wild Shape. Now they can turn into mighty creatures and rip their foes apart! Sort of. At 7th level they are still limited to medium and small creatures of 7HD or less. The list (in the Monster Manual) isn’t pretty. A crocodile is probably the best option with it’s 15AC and +6 melee attack doing 1d12+6 (with Improved Grab, which is real good). In comparison the party barbarian of the same level is probably attacking at +12 melee and doing way more damage if they throw in some power attack, and getting a second attack on top of it. The animal companion is actually going to be a much better fighter than the druid at this point, but they are all going to suffer from low AC. How long is the Brown Bear going to last with a 15 AC? Barkskin can help the druid last longer, but that ape is screwed. Of course, Wild Shape has a ton of non combat uses as well. Flying, swimming, and climbing all have a lot of applications but some of the animals best abilities (scent, low light vision, blindsense) it is denied. Plus the druid is now also denied the ability to talk to his fellow party members, which a DM should play up for all it’s worth. Natural Spell is a required feat, essentially denying the druid the feat for 6th level. The spells are getting better, but still a step behind the cleric and two steps behind the wizard. Though Giant Vermin is super cool and very awesome. Dispel Magic is pretty much a staple of any spellcasters arsenal, though druids get it at 4th level compared to 3rd for Wizards and Clerics.

Things get noticeably better at 8th level when Wild Shape can take on the form of large animals, but the problem is surviving that long.

Druids also seem to be one of those classes that greatly benefit from the inclusion of non core material, specifically extra Monster Manuals that greatly expand the Wild Shape arsenal of the druid. And for a class that is all about the natural world they are also very dependent on magic items (especially AC boosters). So in games where magic items are readily available (to the point that one can assume they will obtain them as they progress in levels) building a druid is considerably easier.

All in all I like druids a lot. I think the chaotic eco-terrorist druid is a lot of fun (a great villain also), as is the lawful forest warden type. They have a bunch of different options available to them and wilderness campaigns obviously suit them very well. I just don’t think they are one of the more powerful characters in the game.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hall of Fame: 2nd Edition Complete Book of Thieves

I can’t even begin to think of the hours of my life that I have spent reading Dungeons and Dragons books. Thousands at least. And I don’t want any of them back. They’ve all been well spent as far as I’m concerned. Since I’ve been about ten years old they’ve been my default entertainment the way that others use television. I’ve owned and read well over a hundred different role playing books, but if I had to pick a favorite of all time it would be the 2nd Edition Complete Book of Thieves. To me, this book was the best. It had the perfect mixture of new statistical information, as well as really interesting ideas on running campaigns that used thieves, how to create thieves guilds that made sense, and cool new items. But more than anything it was really well written and the subject matter didn’t seem that far fetched and rammed down my throat. Perhaps I was gullible in my youth, but I felt like I really needed to have this book because it was so relevant. Now I feel that most of the books are written just to be a product that can be sold.

Until this book was published classes did not have a great range of options available to them. If you had a 5th level thief, he probably didn’t look that different from your buddies 5th level thief. But this book presented the ideas of kits, which were essentially ways that you could customize your thief to fit into a certain type of character. (Disclaimer: All of the Complete books had these and I don’t know what order they came out in, so I can’t say for sure that the concept was introduced in this book. But it was to me.) Now maybe your thief is more an acrobatic Swashbuckler with the skills to match, while your friend has rolled up a sneaky Cat Burglar for himself. I loved it. I think I probably rolled up characters for everyone of the two dozen or so kits in the book. Of course, barely any of them ever saw the light of day, but such is the plight of a longtime DM. This was definitely the precursor to the advanced skill system and prestige classes of 3.0/3.5.

I couldn’t wait to find ways to get new items like the housebreaker harness, face black, and listening cones into my campaigns. Sure it may have been weird that everyone in town walked around with a sword hidden inside of a cane, but it was cool to me. I still remember some of the NPC’s presented in the book, and it’s been years since I have read it. And the art was excellent. I’m pretty sure it contained that awesome painting of the thief luring someone into an alley with some jewelry, while a knife wielding gnoll lurked in the shadows.

The writing in the book was engaging and really the emphasis of the subject, the numbers and rules all followed suit after the text established the tone. Maybe that doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it’s what really carried the book. For example, the writers came up with the idea of the Thug, a kit who was more focused on the brutal, physical aspect of being a thief. They thought of what they wanted him to be and then wrote up some rules around that. I feel like the inverse is probably true now. A designer has an idea for a power and then tries to find a way to incorporate it into the game. How else could the Green Star Adept possibly come about? In the end the game benefited by having a type of character that could exist in a game world. D&D is first and foremost a role playing game, not a roll playing game and this book nailed that concept.

A Pirates Life for Me

Had a four player game of Pirate’s Cove last night with Cris, Mike, and Jesse. This was about the sixth time or so that we have played so I am starting to get a solid feel for the strategy and I went in with a definite plan on what I wanted to try and do. I thought that if I could get to about 35 points I stood a good chance of winning as that seems to be around the magic number so far for our games. That’s about 3 points a turn, which seems very doable when you look at it that way.

My strategy early on was to build up my hull and maximize the amount of treasure that I could carry, I planned on making two trips to Treasure Island over the course of the game. One would be on the 12th (and last) turn, the other would most likely be in the first half of the game. I wanted to make sure that I had full treasures every time that I went. That pretty much left me with ten turns to get as many other resources as I could. I tried to look at each Treasure card in terms of Fame Points, as that seems to be a good baseline to convert everything into. I made some quick adjustments and roughly equated resources to be worth the following: Treasures-4/5 of a point (obviously they are worth a fame point each, but there is always the risk that they never get buried), Gold- ½ a fame point (Again, three gold are worth a fame point, but the fact that you can use gold for all sorts of stuff makes them worth more), and Tavern Cards- 1 fame point (worth two gold each, but can be real hit or miss. Definitely a wild card in the game). I also wanted to make a definite effort to avoid combat so I decided I would be a wimp about things and try to steer clear of islands that looked very tempting.

Things started off well when I drew the parrot that lets you shoot six dice in combat (I forget it’s name) as my initial Tavern card. Unfortunately I sailed to the same island as both Jesse and Cris and before I could even attack my parrot had been killed. At least I had no fame points to lose. I wound up losing the battle as well and retreated to the Cove for a little R&R and to plan my revenge. After that things went well for me as I avoided battle for the next couple of rounds and tried to concentrate on building up my ship and grabbing some tavern cards. Mike and Cris jumped out early in the Fame Point lead, but the one thing I am certain of in the game is that an early lead means nothing so I paced myself and tried to stay on target of getting at least three Fame Points (or the equivalent) each round.

I finally made it to Treasure Island on Round 5 and buried a hull’s full worth of booty, but I was still in the back of the pack, though Jesse was struggling mightily as I had managed to damage most of his ship with a well rolled Six Gun Salute. Mike was in hunting mode as he managed to take down both the Flying Dutchman (with help) and the surprisingly wimpy Captain Hook. This was setting up a showdown with Ann Bonny and Mary Read who I knew would be at Treasure Island on the last turn, which was fine with me as I was spoiling for a fight at this point. I had Grapeshot Attack sitting in my hand for my final stand, and since the lady pirates attack every part of your ship I didn’t really care about damaging my cannons since my sails were going to be crippled first anyway.

Heading into Round 11 I played Consort on Mike. It wound up getting me 1 Fame, 3 Gold, and a Treasure. I was happy with that.

On Round 12 I went to Treasure Island with 9 treasures stowed away in my hull. Jesse also went there so I had some backup for the fight, which I was happy about. I was surprised to see Mike go to Tavern Island, even though he had some treasure in his hull. Cris also opted to stay away, having been there last turn to unload and take the lead. Cris also dispatched the Royal Navy after Mike, taking advantage of his weak hull and forcing him to Pirates Cove. Jesse and I made quick work of Bonny and Read with the help of good rolling and Grapeshot Attack. Between the buried Treasure, buried Gold (I had 17 gold!), and Fame points from the Legendary Pirate victory I netted 17 points on the final turn which pushed me into the lead. After we played the cards in our hands I wound up with a 1 point win over Cris. Another close exciting game.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

R.I.P. Dave Arneson

The world of fantasy gaming lost another of it’s founding founders when Dave Arneson passed away on April 7, 2009. He was 61 years old. Along with Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson was credited with the creation of the first Dungeons and Dragons boxed set released by TSR in 1974. The following year he also created the Blackmoor setting for use with the D&D world. Among the firsts in the set were the introduction of both the monk and the assassin classes.

In later years he had falling outs with both Gygax and TSR, but continued to be involved in gaming and the world of fantasy adventure. He even taught a class on game creation and rules at Florida’s Full Sail University. I would think that would have to be one of the greatest college classes ever.

With Gygax failing his save versus death last year and now Arneson also missing his roll, it got me thinking a bit about the individuals behind some of the games that I love so much today. Sometimes people make contributions to the world that are truly wonderful, but you can’t help but think that if they had not done so then someone else would have come along and accomplished the feat instead. People were always looking for ways to light up a dark room, Edison just got there first. I don’t think that is true of what these men created. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the world of board gaming was well established with companies like Avalon Hill producing quality products that had very involved rules and immersive strategies. By the 1980’s video games were arriving on the scene and immediately developing a cult following. Given those parameters I’m not sure it’s a given that Role Playing Games as we know them today would have developed if not for, what I consider to be, the singular contributions of men like Arneson and Gygax. The idea of actually being a character, rather than just controlling one, is what set these games apart from board games and video games. I think that’s the element that these men really got; it wasn’t just about planning and executing a strategy or beating a boss and getting to the next level that mattered. It was about having fun and telling stories, being someone and somewhere else for a while, and getting together with friends. And in all those ways not much has changed since they first came up with it.

I hope that Dave and Gary are throwing some dice together and talking about old times and planning some new ones as well.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pirates Cove Review

Avast ye maties, thar be a pirate game! In Pirates Cove (Days of Wonder) players compete by plundering islands for treasure, battling legendary pirates like Blackbeard and the Flying Dutchman plus one another for high seas supremacy, teaming up with famous parrots (I also had no idea there were famous parrots), and upgrading their ships; all with the goal of being the most famous pirate that the Caribbean has ever seen. The game takes place over the course of a year (12 game turns) and at the end of the 12th turn the pirate that has accumulated the most fame points is declared the winner. Seems simple enough, so let’s get to it.

The components of the game are pretty good, but nothing mind blowing. The small plastic ships used by each player serve their function well and have a decent amount of detail, but the single color of each kind of makes them seem bland. The board is nice though. A little on the small side (which I don’t mind), but each island has detailed drawings that add some fun and personality to each of the game’s seven islands. With the rowdy party going on there, Crew Island seems like the hottest spot to be, but that may be just me. Cannon Island seems a bit threatening. The most interesting game component is the navigation wheel that each player gets and uses to chart their course of looting and battle. There are also the standard cards, dice, and punched out pieces of gold. The instructions are very easy to understand, which is always a bonus. I read through them before playing and felt like I really got it, and then when we played I barely needed to consult them (though I suspect we may have done a couple of things wrong the first time).

It is in the game mechanics that Pirate’s Cove really comes into its own, really standing out amongst the turn based resource harvesting model that prevails among the world of gaming. One of the aspects that I really enjoyed was the non linear game turn. Rather than having a set order of play each turn, play progresses based on which island each player has sent their ship to. There are five islands that yield variable amounts of treasure and fame and a sixth that allows the pirate to bury the treasure they’ve plundered for fame points (the seventh island, Pirates Cove, is a secret hideaway that pirates flee to and repair ships at). Every turn a card is flipped over for each of the five islands that reveals what booty they have that turn. Each player then, using their navigation wheel, secretly picks the island they are going to. Should you find yourself as the lone pirate on an island the booty is all yours. If another pirate is there you must fight them using your cannons and crew, perhaps aided by some Battle and Volley cards. There are also the Legendary Pirates that move around the board and generally are beasts in combat and best avoided until later in the game. Actually, it’s pretty much suicide to attack a Legendary Pirate by yourself in the first half of the game, which results in a bunch of players usually picking the same islands in order to avoid the Legendary Pirates and duking it out with each other early on. The loser gets sent to Pirates Cove to lick their wounds and vow revenge, while the winner celebrates their victory.

Combat is quick, simple, and random enough that the battles are all pretty competitive. Pirates target one of the four parts of their opponent’s ship (sails, crew, cannon, and hull) with each volley and attempt to cripple the ship. The interesting aspect of this is that it is a bad policy to ignore any one part of your ship since it will constantly be targeted by your fellow pirates and make you an easy target. Players roll d6’s in combat until someone is defeated or flees to Pirate’s Cove.

All in all, Pirates Cove is an excellent board game that should be a hit with most gaming groups. It’s relatively quick (90 minutes once you know how everything is supposed to go), easy to play, and has enough personality and twists to keep things fun. It also lends itself well to taunting and gloating, which is sort of the point of games. Having now played the game a couple of times I have come to see how well balanced the game is. Every time that we have played has been a close affair, with the winner not being settled until the final turn. The game designers clearly made an attempt to keep it balanced and competitive and it shows. Even when a pirate loses a fight there is something to be gained by ending a turn at Pirate’s Cove, otherwise a couple losses early on would doom a fledgling pirate to mediocrity and watered down rum for the duration of the year. I like this game a lot and am looking forward to playing it more and checking out some more of the Days of Wonder catalogue.

Bad Ideas: The DMPC

As a long time DM I have come to accept the fact that I will seldom get to play characters that develop over time, gain heroic reputations, or die gruesome deaths in questionable circumstances. In exchange I get to play gargantuan monsters, scheming villains, and try all sorts of unusual builds and combinations. I think it’s a fair trade off and I am actually real into it. Every DM has to be, or else they wind up making bad decisions and try to ram something as bizarre as the DMPC into their campaign. For those not in the know, a DMPC is a Dungeon Master Player Character, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Yes, some DM’s think that it’s a good idea to play a character as well as run a game.

I just don’t understand how it works and the thought of doing so seems more akin to schizophrenia than it does to roleplaying. For one, the character can’t really contribute much outside of combat without cheating. I don’t care what someone says, there is no way to just forget all the things you know and switch into another role. So essentially they are just relegated to be combat bots, and there is already a name for that. They are called NPC’s. Maybe the DM gets to level them up at the end of the day but they are hardly an actual character that is contributing. And what about during combat? The DM will obviously know exactly what they are fighting and what kind of tactics it will employ, so in turn the character will as well. Lame. And will the DM kill his own character, should it come to that?

And non combat situations are even weirder. Does the DM talk to his own PC? Does the PC answer back? Are the PCs asking questions that they already know the answer to? Don’t they know just who to ask and what to ask of them? I suppose that the DM could just have his DMPC stay out of social situations, which again brings them back to NPC status. None of it makes sense to me.

One other argument that I sometimes hear in support of the DMPC is that there are not enough players and someone is needed to fill X role in the party. “There is no healer in the party,” says the DM, “so I will control this Radiant Servant of Pelor that will be adventuring with you.” I think that a much better solution is to just tailor the campaign to what the PC’s do have. A couple years back I ran a campaign for two players; a monk and a ranger. Sure they were missing just about every iconic D&D character role, but I adjusted and things were just fine. If I had some personality void vending machine of healing following them around I doubt that it would have made the game more fun.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Serving Time on the River:The Harsh Realities of Prison Life

I am pretty sure it is the most unusual board game I have every played. It certainly is not the most fun, though I’m not sure it is even trying to be. It is also probably the most genuine, thoughtful game I have ever played. Serving Time on the River: The Harsh Realities of Prison Life is a game in which the players all take on the role of an inmate serving time in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana. The goal is nothing other than making it to the end of your sentence and surviving to see the outside world again. Of course there are a seemingly limitless amount of problems to confront you along the way and make your stay in prison a permanent one.

The game was created in 1991 by Roscoe Jones, an inmate in the very facility in which the game takes place. Jones came up with the game while in solitary confinement for eleven years (while serving a life sentence) and with the help of some guards and administrative staff he was able to produce the game and have it sold on the outside. The game itself is clearly homemade; the cover appears to be colored with pencils, all the text on the board is printed out and glued on, and I’m pretty sure that the built in spinners are filed down plastic utensils. Jones says that each game takes him about 2 hours to make.

Roscoe’s interest in the subject matter is clearly personal and the level of authenticity he brings to the game makes it as much a social education tool as a diversionary game. Created by a man who is spending the rest of his life in prison, the game certainly has a cynical (though probably very accurate) view of Corrections. Example, one of the playable inmates is named Eugene Fisher and has a capital death penalty. He has no chance of being released from prison so for the player the game is essentially a futile exercise is running out the string on his life. Players are encouraged to randomly choose which inmate they will be playing; the group ranges from drug offenders to aggravated rapists to murderers.

Life on the River
itself is a pretty straightforward game in which the players move around the perimeter of the board and land on different spaces, each with a different function. Most of the squares represent the passage of time and give points to the inmate, with the goal of the game being to accumulate enough “time” to have your sentence expire. Unfortunately there are also numerous other squares that have such heartwarming titles as Suicide, Killed in Prison, and Died in Prison. Any of these squares end the game immediately for that player, though they are encouraged to get back in the game with a new, randomly selected inmate from the remaining list. Along the way there are some rewards that may come your way (a cup of coffee, or a boy-gal moving into your cell), harsh realities (Use-you-up, and HIV positive), and rehab programs (church, and self help groups). In addition to having their sentence expire, an inmate can also win by scoring an early release through parole.

None of the positive endings seem all that likely considering that the first time I played the game with three friends we played for about two hours and eventually the game ended because all 12 inmates had died in prison without being released. Perhaps we were particularly unlucky, but I suspect that Roscoe Jones may be trying to tell us something. I feel awkward saying that the game was fun, especially considering the subject matter and the origin of the game. But I feel that Roscoe would appreciate more the fact that we all discussed life in prison while playing his game and probably learned something from it. He says in the introduction that the main reason he created the game was to serve as a deterrent to crime.

The board is signed and dated by Jones and with the game he enclosed some photocopied information about his life in prison. It also included a hand written note thanking me for the purchase and some questions. There also appears to be no record of this game existing anywhere on the internet so hopefully this review will at least let people know that it exists.