Monday, May 17, 2010

Green Star Adept review

I’ve thought for a while about how to say something positive about the Green Star Adept, the much maligned and very bizarre prestige class that slowly transforms the character into some sort of weird green robot like monster. It has awful requirements, an odd assortment of abilities, and really does not do anything all that well. It’s not a full caster, has virtually no skill points, and does not particularly excel at combat. As far as I can tell it’s pretty good defensively, so at least it has that going for it. And it gets to turn green by eating metal.

My biggest issue with the Green Star Adept is that I just think it is really lame. Who would want to be this character? I suppose that if you have played every other type of character it would be an interesting role to get into, but other than that? I just don’t know. Eating metal? I think that it just falls very far from the realm that I view as medieval type fantasy. Then again I also do not understand why anyone would want to be a Warforged either.

The requirements at first seem like standard fare for a caster/melee gish; +4 base attack, Combat Casting, and Arcane caster 1st. Just like the Abjurant Champion! Unfortunately the similarities end there. It also requires 2 ranks of Decipher Script, Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering), Knowledge (Geography), and Knowledge (History). Plus, 8 ranks of Knowledge (Arcana). Seriously, this is one knowledgeable character. But to what end I have no idea since the class has nothing to do with any of those skills. Especially Decipher Script. You would think that such a wordly individual would know to not each metal. The tough thing here is finding a class that can get into at a reasonable level. A wizard seems like the best choice, except taking this class as a caster is a horrible waste of time. It’s not as bad as a melee class, but which one? Since it requires arcane casting the options are really Hexblade and Duskblade. Dipping into another class to meet the requirements really seems like going down the wrong path. Duskblade has all those skills as class skills so it probably makes the most sense (we will just pretend that taking this class makes some sense), unless your human Hexblade has a high intelligence. Our earliest entry is looking like Duskblade 5.

The other strange requirement is consuming several ounces worth of Starmetal, a magical metal infused with power and the source of the Green Star Adept’s myriad of mystical abilities. I would hope that any DM running a game with a Green Star Adept would make sure that the metal is obtainable, especially since the character needs to continue to consume Starmetal in order to level up. Though it would be really funny if a character got all the requirements for the class only to find that they existed in a world devoid of Starmetal. Sounds like the basis of a great campaign.

Now that we’ve navigated the treacherous waters of class entry, what happens now that we’re there? In general not too much, but paired with the right class it is much better than I had initially given it credit for. As a class the Duskblade is a front loaded powerhouse with fragility problems. The Green Star Adept matches up pretty well with it, really the only good match that it has. Our green friend has a medium Base Attack, d8 hit die, a good Will Save, increased casting at every other level, and 2+ skill points. It’s like a lot of other classes, nothing special there. It also receives a slew of other abilities that continue to scale upwards as the character grows in power.

The best of them is probably Damage Reduction/Adamantine equal to the class level. That’s pretty solid, no pun intended. For a “glass cannon” style class like the duskblade it becomes even more valuable. At 1st level it also adds it’s entire GSA level to it’s caster level, which is very nice for some of the variable effects that go along with spells. It sort of softens the blow of losing five caster levels in order to turn into a statue.

Star Metal Rigor has the character trading some agility as they slowly transform into a construct. Basically dexterity goes down while both strength and natural armor go up. It caps at 10th level with a total gain of 6 strength and natural armor, and dexterity decreased by 3. Unless you are a ranged character or a rogue that’s a pretty fair trade. It also makes up for the loss of a couple points of base attack.

The other really nice class skill is the fortification which gives immunity to sneak attacks and criticals. It starts at 25% and moves up over the levels. Both sneak attack and criticals can mess a character up in a hurry so it’s a bonus to not have to worry about those all that much, especially since I think that the awkward green man is not going to be hiding from many rogues. They also get something called Unnatural Metabolism which gives a +2 saving throw bonus to a variety of effects. Among these poison and death effects are the best. The bonus increases to a maximum of +6.

Additionally there are also some other perks that they get along the way; a natural slam attack, darkvision, immunity to sleep and drowning, and no longer needing to sleep, eat and breathe. The slam attack is totally worthless but the others have some use in game. But mostly they just add to the whole living statue gimmick that the class has going on.

At 10th level the Green Star Adept receives it’s capstone ability Emerald Perfection. This ability is not just useless, but it has a negative effect on the character. Really, this class should be looked at as a 9 level prestige class. At 10th level the transformation has been complete and the character is now fully a construct. It gets immunity to all of the same effects that tie into Unnatural Metabolism (which is like taking a retroactive dump on that class feature), fortification becomes 100%, immunity to any Fort saves, and no longer ages. That’s an allright set of class features. However an equal amount of horrible things happen as well. They lose their constitution score (and all associated hit points), die immediately if reduced to 0 hit points and can’t be healed by cure spells. No thanks.

The Green Star Adept is not as bad as I initially thought it was, but it is still completely uncool. I could see it as an NPC, maybe some sort of guardian keeping an engineering ancient artifact safe in exchange for a steady diet of Starmetal. Or an obsessed artist looking to create the ultimate artwork…himself! But as a PC? I don’t think I could do it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Guillotine review

Historically the French Revolution seemed like a chaotic mess of death and mob rule, yet Guillotine puts an orderly spin on it. In this card game usurped nobles wait patiently in line for their date with Madame Guillotine. As the heads fall the players collect them, gaining more points for such high valued nobility as Marie Antoinette. The game is played over three days of slaughter and at the end of this time the player with the most points wins. It is for two to five players and should take about a half hour, though it can certainly go faster than that. I had just finished reading the Scarlet Pimpernel and felt that I should buy this game. So I did.

Like with a lot of card games the game play of Guillotine falls into the very easy category. Basically the cards are shuffled and then a row of 12 cards are dealt out on the table. This represents the daily menu of nobles that are being led to execution. Each unfortunate member of the upper class has a point value, as well as a colored border which represents their background (church, military, government, etc..) Player are also dealt a starting hand of five cards. Each player gets to play one action card from their hand, and then takes the card at the front of the line. That’s it. The action cards wreak havoc on the line order, give bonus points for certain types of cards, and all sorts of other things that really make your opponents mad. The day ends when there are no more nobles queued up, and then it starts all over again for two more days.

I’ve done fairly well at Guillotine, but I will be the first to admit that this game is more skill then luck. The cards in your hand make all the difference, and while you can certainly play them poorly you can’t do all that much if you were stuck with a beat hand. I always prefer a good mix of luck and skill in games, but I think that Guillotine tilts things a little too far in the luck department.

The art of Guillotine is very nice and bubbly, in stark contrast to the rather grim nature of the game. It’s actually rather easy to forget that one is collecting heads in this game, the smiles on the faces of everyone almost makes it seem as if you are just making new friends. They are also on nice, thick paper and shuffle very well. You know, it’s really the little things that go a long way. The cards also have a great sense of humor. The actions cards in particular got a couple of chuckles out of me.

I am also a fan of extraneous game components and in this regard Guillotine does not disappoint. It comes with a charming little pop up guillotine that goes at the end of the line to serve as a reminder of just where it is that the nobles are headed. It also folds back up very easily and fits back into the game box without a problem.

I do like Guillotine a lot but that never stopped me from having a couple of criticisms of the game. One is that for a card game it takes up an awful of space on the table. It shrinks as each day goes on but a row of 12 cards is bigger than you may think. A good aspect of card games is that they usually travel well and have a small footprint on the table. Apparently the French Revolution is a bit more high maintenance than that. My other gripe with this game is that it is only for five players. The two best things about this game is that it is quick and that it is really easy to learn. It just screams out to be a party game, but since it can only support five players it falls a little flat in that area. I’m sure that you could probably squeeze in a sixth, but anything more than that and I suspect that the game card supply will be exhausted before the player’s hunger for blood.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who Goes First?

Going first in a game usually affords an advantage to that player, though it is not substantial and most likely normalizes over the course of the game. But still, an advantage is an advantage and most games recommend that for the sake of fairness the players roll a die and the highest roller will kick things off. This is fine, and usually the preferred method in the games I play in. However, some games do recommend alternate methods of deciding the first player. Here are some of my favorites, with suggestions to improve them as well.

It makes sense that the starting player of Pandemic is connected to illness, that is after all what the game is about. In this cooperative game the rules state that the player who has been sick most recently goes first. I like this one a lot and in our games we always stick to it. The reason why? It’s always different every time that you play, essentially making it random. I don’t think that this one needs fixing.

One of the stranger methods of choosing a starting player is employed by Smallworld. The player with the pointiest ears gets to go first. Certainly an odd way of picking things, I do like that it rewards such a bizarre personal trait that really may have never come up before in the person’s life. However, like a lot of these methods it winds up being redundant in a group of players that frequently game together. Unless someone is so committed to victory in Smallworld that they alter their ears the same person will continue to go first. Here is my suggestion for an alternate method. Once the initial races are all out on the table the player who most resembles the race in the first spot goes first. Sure, it could cause some hard feelings when trying to figure out who among you most resembles an orc or a ghoul, but really it’s just setting the tone for a game that is all about slaughtering your friends. And if an elf pops up you can still fall back on the pointy ears.

Ticket to Ride rewards the most well traveled of a group of gamers. The initial player is determined by the player who has visited the most places. Like Smallworld this gets old fast, though it does at least have the possibility of changing if you have a long term gaming group. People travel, usually for the reason of improving their chances of going first in Ticket to Ride. Not really, but this game is not really about traveling. It’s about trains. How about the first player is the one who has most recently been on a train? Done.

It’s fun to pick on old people, and clearly the designers of Bohnanza agree with me. In everyone’s favorite game about bean farming, the first player is the player to the left of the dealer. Which is pretty standard fare, however the rules state that the dealer is the oldest player. Ouch. Not only does the elder gamer have to do all of the setup, but then they ultimately wind up going last as well. Not sure what any of that has to do with beans or farming and it also suffers from the redundancy problem, though in a different way (the first player is always changing, but the last player stays the same). My fix is rather simple. Prior to shuffling all the players flip over a single card, the player with the most common bean then has to do all of the shuffling and be the last player. Come on, growing old sucks as it is. Does Bohnanza really need to be against you too?

For a game that is all about being an evil overlord it seems like an odd choice that Dungeon Lords chose to reward the nicest player by having them go first. But I think it is a brilliant way of deciding. There is nothing quite like watching several people argue over who is the nicest among them. It is also the type of thing that is subject to rapid changes based on recent actions. I think that this method is pretty solid, and since in Dungeon Lords players are not really getting a chance to actually kill one another it’s nice to be able to get some animosity out with a healthy argument to start the game.

There is nothing wrong with the random roll of the dice to determine who has the minor advantage of going first, but sometimes a game deserves a little better. Plus, these games all have one thing in common. They don’t use any dice so something else needed to be implemented. (The exception is Smallworld which has the reinforcement die, but it is not a traditional die and could result in a bunch of ties. So we will forget about that one.) I applaud the game designers for coming up with a solution that has some personality to it, even if they are a bit redundant at times.