Monday, November 14, 2011

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

I haven’t had much time lately to concoct compelling fantasy role playing universes, so in order to get my role playing back on track I decided to dig into some published modules and source material (which I have oodles of around the house). The first adventure that I decided to run was the classic Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (U1), one of the favorites of my youth. It tells the story of a spooky haunted house and what is really going on inside of the abandoned manor on the outskirts of the remote fishing village, Saltmarsh. Originally published for 1st edition, I decided to run it for 3.5 since that is the version that most of the players know the best. I saw that there were some 3.5 conversions of it out there but I figured I know enough about D&D to convert it on the fly. And besides, the whole point of a module was to save myself some time. Additionally the 3.5 Dungeons Masters Guide II has an example of a premade city, which just so happens to be Saltmarsh. So plenty of stuff for me to draw on.

The main reason that I am generally not into modules is that they require the players to follow a somewhat linear path, which is not really the way that I enjoy playing the most. Sure, I will lure the players in with hooks but I really like when they just sort of pursue the agenda that they are most into, which is usually killing things, rejecting authority, and then looting all the corpses that they have left behind. And yes, I actually play with adults. But it’s a lot of fun. So my hesitation in running a module is that they would break from it right away. But the Sinister Secret is a well thought out adventure and I though that they would be into it. And they were. At least the first half of it.

The Sinister Secret is actually the first in a series of three related modules (the U series of old D&D) but I planned from the beginning that I only wanted to run the first. The following two (Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy) are a little too heavy on dungeon crawling and require the party to act nobly in order to progress the story and I knew that was not going to happen. So I modified some of the background info and made the haunted house of Saltmarsh stand on it’s own as an adventure. For example; the smugglers are working closely with a merchant in town rather than selling weapons to lizardmen or sahaugins or whatever it is that they are doing in the published module. This way it can all wrap up neatly and the party can move on.

The module is broken up into two sections; the first is the investigation of the “haunted house” and subsequent uncovering of the smuggling ring; the second part is the taking of the smugglers boat with the help of some townsfolk, ultimately smashing the smuggling ring for good. The party that I played with had zero interest in the second half of the adventure. They knew that the boat was out there, but did not seem to care about it one way or the other. In fact, they never even told anyone in town that the house was actually filled with smugglers and not ghosts! Instead, they came back to town with some gold and confirmed that yes, the house was haunted and the townsfolk should continue to stay away from it. Hmm, I did not expect that. What it came down to was a desire to head off to a bigger city or a place with more opportunity. They came out of the house with some strange, and valuable, items like a skull made of solid gold and an apple that was also solid gold. They knew they couldn’t get good value for them in the small fishing village so they were on their way to greener pastures.

It has been a long time since I have run a 1st edition module and some things really jumped out at me as to how the game has evolved over the years. One of the most interesting involves the nefarious waghalter, Ned Shakeshaft. Ned is planted in the house to slow down the party, ideally he joins the party under the guise of being a thief that was waylaid when he came into the house and at some point attacks the party after earning their trust. Now, the way that the module is written makes it so that there is really no way for the party to prove that he is up to no good. Which I thought to be really odd and strange. First off, what sort of adventurers are not going to suspicious of this guy? His story sort of adds up, but come on? The text of the module says, “ will not be possible for the party to unmask Ned simply.” He is well prepared to answer their questions and has a somewhat plausible story to tell them. Ultimately it comes down to what the party wants to believe and how they want to act towards him. It is sort of forcing the party into a metagaming role, I think. Basically, there is no mechanic to determine if he is lying or not, nor is there one to represent Ned’s obvious skill in weaving a tale to tell. Now, of course, 3.5 D&D has a mechanic for this. Sense Motive vs. Bluff is all about this. As it happens one of the party has a very high Sense Motive and used it in this situation (unfortunately for them Ned had a high Bluff and the party wound up buying his fishy story). I think I prefer this way. One of the other characters firmly believed that Ned was up to no good, but sort of fell in line when the investigator character said that Ned was on the up and up. This is a more accurate reflection of a character’s in game skills than just letting the player’s decide what is happening. I think it also encourages better roleplaying in the sense that the party will then have to play along with their perceived view of Ned, even if it is what they, as players, do not believe.

The adventure is designed for character levels 1-3, which is really nice. There seems to be a dearth of cool, low level modules that provide a decent challenge. However, it is also written for 5-10 players! Wow. That’s a lot of players. Again, it’s a reflection of the early days of D&D when a much larger group would gather for the game and probably play for an entire day. I’ve done the big group thing and I’m not much of a fan of it, but it was easy to alter it for a smaller group (four players). I do like the premade characters in the back of the book, especially Megaron the Bold and Gerald the Seeker. Who would name their character Gerald? Also strange is Caine the Despised, the Cleric/Magic User with a 17 strength and 10 intelligence. I see why he is despised.

One other aspect of the module that was top notch was the artwork. It wasn’t just generic fantasy work pulled from a neutral source, but actually detailed drawings of what was happening in the module. I thought that it was great and actually helped me understand the setting better since I could actually see what it was supposed to look like. An excellent inclusion.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is a really solid adventure. The plot is well thought out and makes a lot of sense. It is not just a group of bad guys hiding out and stocking up on magic items, waiting to be killed by adventurers and looted of their booty. It is through no fault of the module that the party did not follow it through to the end, they just had a different agenda. Which is really the beauty of D&D. The players can go anywhere and do whatever they want. And on that note, it’s on to Greyhawk! Which I am totally geeked about.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

We Hardly Knew Ye: Newport the Goblin

(One in a series about adventurers who were better off staying at home.)

Who was he? Newport was a third level goblin rogue. A sneaky little fellow with excellent lockpicking skills and some opportune sneak attacks, he endeared himself to his fellow party members with his brutal style of cold hearted murder, most exemplified by his savage killing of a town magistrate that wanted the party dead. Newport snuck into his house and waited outside of the nursery of the man’s child. When he exited the room Newport (along with his hobgoblin partner, Thatcher) ran him through with a sneak attack that quickly took out the adversary before he even had a chance to react. The party rejoiced. Previously, Newport had showed off his quick reflexes by grabbing a falling wine bottle in the cellar of the magistrate’s house, thus preserving the party’s under cover status as they snuck into the house.

Newport was a member of a society of somewhat civilized monstrous humanoids. One day while out hunting, they returned to find that their entire clan had been killed by adventurers! No good adventurers. Killed everyone they knew, took all of their possessions and then left the area. The party was on a revenge mission. Unfortunately for Newport, he will never get that satisfaction.

What happened? A bit overeager, Newport may have bitten off more than he could chew by foolishly charging into a fort occupied by some rangers. Generally it’s not a very good idea to have the rogue with eight hit points (he was wounded) be the first one into the melee, and this example just further supports that somewhat sound theory. Waiting for him was the Forest Warden, a burly fellow with a great axe who just so happened to have Goblin as his favored enemy. Newport may as well have been a pinata. He wound up killed with a single shot, a clean slice across his chest that left him chopped into two pieces. This spurned numerous Newport:Dead Without Pleasure comments from the players at the table.

It probably would have made more sense for the orc barbarian to charge in first, but no one ever said that these monsters were genuises. The orc happen to be outside lighting the fort on fire. The fort that Newport had just charged into. In defense of the orc he had just been introduced to the exciting world of burning down the homes of humans (it started with the Magistrate) and was clearly excited by the prospect of another arson.

Personally, I enjoyed Newport and was a bit sorry to see him go. It is somewhat ironic that the player had just told me the day before that he was really enjoying Newport and looking forward to seeing how he developed. Not going to happen now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Master's Gallery review

I’ve really enjoyed both Incan Gold and High Society from the Gryphon Games bookshelf series, so I though that I would give Master’s Gallery a shot, which is another game in the series of quick playing games. At first I was intrigued by what I thought was a pretty clever game mechanic and I enjoyed the quick play. However, subsequent games have left me a little bit disillusioned and feeling like the game actually lacks much strategy and that playing it is sort of like running through the motions without having to think very much. I know, it sounds like a real blast.

Master’s Gallery is a card game for two to five players played over four rounds. There is a deck of 95 Masterpiece cards, each of which is a painting from one of five famous artists; Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Vermeer, and Renoir. Players take turns placing a card in front of them on their turn, once a single artist has six cards out on the table (five in a two player game) from all of the players combined the round ends and the players score for that round. The artist with the most cards gets a three placed on their artist card, the second most gets a two, and the third gets a one. The other two artists do not score for this round. So, If I have three Van Goghs out when the round ends and each Van Gogh is worth two points I wind up with six points for them. Very easy. Almost too easy, actually. The scoring tokens earned each round stay with the artists for the entire game. Next round each Van Gogh card is already worth two points, plus whatever it may earn on each round. Because of this game mechanic cards are worth much more in the latter rounds of the game since they have been accumulating tokens from the previous rounds, which seems like it should matter a ton but I’m not sure that it does.

The problem is that every time I have played it the game seems to sort of go the same way. Something like this: Player A plays a Renoir, Player B plays a Vermeer, Player C plays another Renoir. It’s now my turn. I have a couple of Van Goghs in my hand that I would like to play, but it’s not really worth it since they will probably wind up with little value. However, if I play a Renoir it is all but assured of being the high valued artist for that round and I want my cards to be worth the most. So I play a Renoir. On the next turn A and C follow suit with another Renoir, as do I and then the turn ends (if it even makes it back to me) and we all share in the wealth of the high valued Renoir. Why wouldn’t I play a Renoir? So I can put down a single Van Gogh and get one point for it, when a Renoir is going to be worth three? It’s just sort of a system that doesn’t reward anything other than joining with the masses and trying to get in on the big score before the round ends. And it will continue each round because Renoir cards are already worth three points, so keep playing whatever Renoir cards that you have!

There are some cards that have an additional action attached to them when they are played, such as playing another card or putting an extra point token on an artist. These make the game even less interesting in a way because they seem to really determine who wins the game. Using the above example let’s say that on his first turn Player A played a Renoir with a symbol on it that allows him to immediately play another card of the same artist. So he has two Renoirs out now. This is just letting Player A end the turn even quicker and score even more points. I have played multiple rounds where one or two players only get to go once before it ends and wind up with practically no points, whereas some players have four cards down thanks to some special powers that they happened to come by randomly. I guess my complaint is that it’s just not very fun and frustrating, and not even in a good way because it made me think hard about strategy. But frustrating because I think I’m playing the game the same way that my cat would play, and that’s not a knock on my cat or myself.

One thing that I really didn’t like about this game is that the description of the game says that the players are art dealers and gallery owners involved with valuing the Old Masters. I didn’t feel that way at all. I just felt like I was putting cards on a table, the thematic implications of those actions were so removed from the game that I didn’t even think about it. Would it have been too much to give each player a sheet that looks like a gallery wall with empty frames? Maybe then I would have at least have had an idea of who I was and what I was doing, rather than just numbly placing paintings on the table. I mean, the word is gallery is even in the title of the game. In comparison Incan Gold is also a rather simple card game, but it tells a nice story and contains a narrative as you go. I felt none of that in Master’s Gallery.

I can’t really complain about the art in this game considering that it is done by some of the great painters in history. I’m not a real big fan of Impressionism, but I can’t really argue with Monet and Degas. Thematically the art is the focal point of the game, which is actually pretty cool. Honestly though, I find myself barely looking at the actual paintings, my focus rarely going beyond the colored border and the symbol that may be in the corner.

In the end Master’s Gallery falls short of being a good game. There just doesn’t seem to be much reason to play. It does only take about 20 minutes to play a game, so I suspect that it will find it’s way onto our gaming table from time to time just because we can play an entire game quickly. When a game’s best quality is that it ends quickly it probably isn’t all that good to begin with.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

High Society review

Once, deeded lands and blue blood were required to be among society’s elite, but now you can just buy your way into the upper crust! In High Society players compete to see who can squander their newly found riches the fastest by amassing a collection of expensive and ostentatious items. Gems! Yachts! A carriage! Okay, so the carriage isn’t quite as exciting but you do need some way to transport all of your new stuff I suppose. Obtain the most gaudy and frivolous wealth and you win! High Society is a quick playing card game for three to five players. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes to play.

Gameplay is very simple. Every player begins with a bundle of cash in a bunch of different denominations. At the beginning of each turn an item comes up for auction and the players take turns bidding on it, with the high bidder eventually winning the stained glass window or the champion thoroughbred. Each of the ten items is valued at somewhere from one to ten (the carriage is worth one, while the chateau on the lake is the most valuable). At the end the player whose items total the most in value wins. It isn’t quite that simple because there are some catches to how you can bid and score.

The real strategy comes in how you bid and spend your money. Each player has eleven money cards to spend, each of a different value from 2 million to 25 million. Once you bid on an item you can’t pull that particular bill from the table, you can only add to it. For example; if you bid 4 million on a painting and then your opponent bids 8 million, you are not allowed to replace your 4 million with a 10 million. You can add a 6 million to it for a bigger bid but that 4 million stays in place. It matters because you may find that you have used up all your small bills when you want some towards the end of the game. It may make sense to lead with a big bill and try to scare the other nouveau riche away from the bidding altogether.

The other tricky things are the negative cards that come up for auction. I’m not sure what sort of auction house allows a Mansion Fire to go up for bid, but unfortunately it is a reality of your situation. The negative cards totally suck for everyone. You are either going to wind up with something that really crushes your final score or you are going to spend a lot to not have to take it. Essentially players are paying to not have the negative event effect you. I actually think that this might be the best part of the game. And it’s also why you need to hang onto some of those small bills, so you can maybe get out of the negative auction without having to throw down some massive dollar amount. Wouldn’t you rather spend it on a castle?

The final twist comes when the game ends. The player that has the smallest amount of cash left in their hand immediately loses. It’s as if the crocodile from Cleopatra wandered over to 19th century America for a snack. So make sure you keep some cash in the bank or all of your worldly possessions mean nothing. The remaining players then add up their total value and adjust for whatever negative cards they have. Someone wins. I’ve seen players win with a single luxury item, often the big spenders find themselves eliminated in the crocodile round.

In some ways High Society has the same pitfalls as Incan Gold in that the art is sort of crummy. I would be way more impressed with the castle and inclined to spend millions on it if it just looked a little more extravagant. The game is really simple, which is why I think it could use a little boost from the art in the game. Don’t get me wrong, the art is not dreadful. But I do think that a game like this is fun when people get into the feel of the game and actually want the items. Which would be easier to do if they actually looked awesome. I like High Society. The best thing about it is that is quick and really easy, but that’s not a knock on it at all. The world needs game like this because sometimes you only have a half hour and still want to enjoy a game.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Castle Panic's Master Slayer, or Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

I had always sort of disregarded the Master Slayer aspect of Castle Panic, thinking of it as something of a novelty in an otherwise straightforward cooperative game. I now see that it’s actually the entire point of the game. Defending the castle becomes secondary because everyone suddenly has no interest in helping each other, only in collecting orc and troll skulls. I’ve mentioned before that I find the game fun, but exceedingly easy. This seems to solve that issue since you are once again pitted against other people, rather than some sort of easily defeated game mechanic.

Playing with the Master Slayer (which is actually the way that the game should be played, the more cooperative game is an alternative to it) gives points to the players for killing monsters. Tougher monsters are worth more points. Makes sense. But the game is really structured so that players trade cards and help one another out by planning together. The cards are even played face up on the table, the game presents the illusion that we are all actually working together to save this castle. Which now seems sort of ridiculous since everyone is in constant competition, hell bent on killing the Troll Mage. The thing that makes it odd is that the game is very short sighted. If you offer me a card for a Blue Archer I know exactly what you are going to do with it. You are going to shoot the goblin in the blue zone. I don’t want to help you kill that goblin. I suppose if you offered me a Green Knight that I needed it would be, at best, a zero sum exchange as we both get something that we need. And what’s really the point of that? In a game like Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza trading is a big part of the game, but you don’t necessarily know the extent that you are helping your opponent and can always tell yourself that you are getting the better end of the trade. In Castle Panic the entire board and all of the player’s cards are on display.

The real catch comes with what is now the possible game endings; either one of the players wins or nobody does. That’s interesting. The game ceases to be cooperative. Sure, you could look at it as somewhat of a victory if you successfully defend the castle but one of your partners is the Master Slayer, but who feels that way? Who wants to sort of win, when someone else wins a little bit better? The last time that we played I fell behind pretty early on in the game. The cards I had just weren’t matching up to anything good, and the other players were racking up the kills. At that point it was really in my best interest to let the castle be destroyed so that we would all lose. It wasn’t coming from a point of bitterness, but why would I help someone beat me? Three of us played this afternoon and within a couple of turns the castle was in shambles, orcs and trolls having caused numerous breaches in our walls. No one was looking to trade anyone a brick so that they could be a new wall for it, we were too busy reloading our crossbows. It certainly becomes much more difficult to actually win.

Well, the Master Slayer has addressed what I found to be the biggest fault with Castle Panic. That is, that the game is too easy. I guess I was wrong in writing the game off so quickly and probably should have played the game the way that the designers had really intended it to be played.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Grand Dames of Smallworld review

If there is one thing that Smallworld doesn’t need it’s probably more Races and Special Powers. A better tray to organize them perhaps, but the Races and Powers have everything pretty well covered. Of course that did not stop me from indulging in the Grand Dames of Smallworld expansion, which focuses on several new all female races to make the game that much more expanded. Or something like that. It has three new Races and two new Special Powers, all of which fit well into the game. One thing that I do like about it is that none of the Races or Powers are particularly overpowering, which is frequently a pitfall of many expansions. This one is pretty good though. I also think it's fitting that two of the Races have powers centered around going into decline, since they are all female that is probably going to happen pretty quick with no one to reproduce with. So what do we have here?

The three races are the ghostly White Ladies, the pious and somewhat insulated Priestesses, and the wandering Gypsies. All of them are user generated contributions, apparently Days of Wonder had some sort of contest and got people to send ideas in to them and then made the best of them. They did a good job. The White Ladies are kind of tough to play, but can pay off in the right circumstances. Since they are ghosts they pretty much stick around forever, haunting your opponents with their ability to just sort of hang around. Their special power is that once they go into decline they become immune to conquests and powers, making them pretty much invincible. The winning combo here is Stout White Ladies to start the game. The big issue is that you only get two of them (plus the number from the power) and if they are not available early in the game they are not all that useful. But, if you can spread them out over a couple regions and then go into decline they can really pay off over the course of the game. Think about it, say you are able to conquer three or four regions over the first two turns and then go into decline. For the next six turns they will be paying out three or four coins a turn until the game ends. Not only will they pay better than any other declining race, you also don’t have to worry about defending them. But if they don’t come out early they are not all that useful.

Like the White Ladies, the Priestesses have a power that is triggered when they go into decline. When they throw in the towel all the holy women gather together into a single “ivory tower” in an occupied region. Each turn they score points equal to the number that are holed up inside this temple of learning. So they are essentially digging in and relying on each other for defense. The issue that I have with them is that they are just begging to be attacked. I can’t imagine that a single region that is generating six or seven gold a round is going to last for all that long. Smallworld is sort of all about being mean to one another. This tower has a huge target painted on the side of it. Unlike the White Ladies, it has no additional defense so the Dragon could wipe it out with one move. Ha ha, that sort of cracks me up. And the thing that I don’t understand is what happens to all of them? There is probably a rule somewhere that explains it, but I assume that they are all killed rather than the typical one in a conquered region. I mean, there is nowhere for them to go? I also don’t like the look on their face.

The Gypsies are my favorite of the Grand Dames. For one, sexy ladies in half shirts that are flipping knives in their hand are just sort of cool by nature. I think that we can all agree on that. And their power is original, productive, and really sticks to the stereotypical view of the vagrant gypsies. I am sure that there are many Roma out there who may take issue with them, but I think they are awesome. Every time a gypsy abandons a region they are given a coin for doing so, you just can’t reconquer it this turn. This is good on a bunch of levels. You can actually flee from superior forces, don’t need to worry about defense all that much, and can free up more forces for conquering. Winning! When they are combined with Flying they make one of the most formidable races in the game since they can abandon their area and just go to the most vulnerable spot around. They don’t work as well with powers that generate more coins for specific land types (Forest, Swamp, Hill) since by nature they will want to abandon them, but most powers work real well with them.

The new special powers are not as interesting as the races. Historian gives bonus coins for races that are in decline, going into decline, or when they go into decline. It is very circumstantial to be of any actual use. At most it will generate, what, five coins in a game? That doesn’t really seem to be worth it. Peace Loving goes against everything that Smallworld is about. If you go a turn without attacking an opponent you get three coins. Aside from not being fun at all, I just don’t know when this would work. How are you supposed to do anything without attacking the other rotten races that are trying to inhabit the world that is rightfully yours? No sense. Are you just supposed to sit there and occupy the same spaces all game? Apparently Days of Wonder were going to name this power Boring, but decided against it.

I think that the Grand Dames are a very worthy expansion to Smallworld, however it’s not all that necessary to making it a better game. There are so many possible Race/Power combinations that one could play for a long time before seeing them all. It is very cheap though (I think that mine was ten bucks) so I certainly couldn’t argue with someone who wanted to spice up their game of Smallworld.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last Night on Earth: Escape in the Truck

A classic scenario. The only way out of the zombie infested town is a single old pickup truck marooned in the center of the town. Unfortunately, it has no gas in the tank and the keys are lost somewhere in the town. Such is the life for the poor survivors in the Escape in the Truck scenario for Last Night on Earth. This is definitely one of my favorite scenarios in the game. It combines a good story with a clear, obtainable objective and is generally a lot of fun. It is also one of the few scenarios that the heroes can win quickly if they get a little bit of luck. Of course, if they get no luck they will be slowly torn apart as they continue their futile search for automotive supplies.

The goal is pretty straightforward in Escape in the Truck. The heroes need to find some gasoline and put fuel in the truck, then get a set of keys and two heroes into the truck and get out of dodge before the sun comes up. The challenge here for the heroes is to find the items and survive long enough, the zombies should focus on constant harassment of the heroes and be prepared for the showdown at the truck, which is when the heroes will be their most vulnerable. Like most of the scenarios in LNOE the advantage goes to the defender (in this case the zombies) but this one is a little more evenly balanced than most of the others. It is also one of the shorter scenarios, lasting only fifteen turns. So the heroes have little time to waste.

One aspect of this scenario that I enjoy is that you actually get to use some of the cool pieces that the game comes with. There are tractors, meteors, evil books and all sort of other neat little game pieces that rarely see the light of day because there is no actual use for them. But here, you at least get to employ the hard working old truck. Which looks like it is from the 50’s. I have a hard time believing that this is the only functional truck in town, but I’ll suspend disbelief for the sake of the game. But yeah, having an actual truck in the middle of the board is nice.

The board pieces that wind up being used don’t make a ton of difference in this game. The gas station is nice to have, but really only comes into play once you have already used the gas once. And you only need to use it once, so there. Should your gas carrier get killed (which is a possibility) it is convenient to be able to go pick up another quickly. Like any scenario that involves getting items Jake the Drifter is an ideal choice for the party to have. His ability allows him to cycle through cards twice as fast, doubling the possibility that the valuable keys and gasoline will make an appearance. The other hero that is very useful here is everyone’s favorite prom queen, Amanda. Why? Well, for a single turn one of the heroes is going to be an absolute sitting duck and she is the best choice for it. In order to gas the truck up a hero must begin the turn on the truck, sacrifice the gasoline, and do nothing else. It is literally a sign on the hero that says come and maul me to death, quickly. Which is what usually happens. But if the hero does not survive the turn the gas is lost and the truck still has no fuel. Amanda has the two wounds that is typical of the teens, but her Hide power allows her to cancel any fight with a good roll. I’ve seen her frustrate the zombies to no end with this. Make sure that she has a weapon and a hero card to help her out and she just may live to take the ride out of town. In the absence of Amanda try to get someone well armed to fuel it up. Like in most scenarios, Becky totally sucks.

It also makes sense for the heroes to work in pairs. One to do the searching, the other to lure them away and take shots with some sort of gun if they have it. The fact is that if the heroes are not constantly searching they are not going to do so well.

The zombie strategy should be to keep the heroes on the move, thereby not allowing them to search over and over. The more that they are on the move the less likely they are to get the stuff that they need. It’s sort of Zombie 101. The real key to this scenario is to not allow the truck to get fueled up. At some point the heroes have to go to the truck and wait out a turn there. There should be a horde of the undead waiting there for them, preferably equipped with every nasty Zombie card there is to just take apart the hero who is foolish enough to challenge them.

The actual escape is much easier to accomplish because the heroes can just show up there and end the turn in the truck. As long as the have some keys they are good to go, so the play here for the zombies is the fuel up period.

Last Night on Earth can be a complicated game at times. Some times the rules drag or are so obtuse that they seem counterintuitive to the rest of the game. When this is coupled with a more complicated scenario (such as Plague Carriers or Zombie Apocalypse) it can really slow things down. Escape in the Truck is simple and clean, it’s obvious what needs to be done and how to do it. The hard part is actually doing it. For the heroes it is very exciting and satisfying to see that truck pull away to victory (I wouldn’t fault you if you actually made an engine noise and physically drove the truck off the table), and the zombies should always elate in foiling the plans of the living.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Street Fighter prestige class

In the exciting world of medieval fantasy role playing games, players can choose to be such heroic characters as dragon slaying cavaliers, wizards that bend the very fabric of the universe, priests who literally commune with their deities, and common street thugs. Hmmm…the thug does not sound so appealing in comparison to the others, which is the part that has always thrown me off about the Street Fighter prestige class. Not to be confused with Ryu or Zangief, the Street Fighter specializes in nothing in particular. But he is always spoiling for a good fight! Preferably in the street.

I like characters that are not really powerful, that’s not the issue. As long as the whole party is on board with it, it’s fun to be a group of rogues looking to run a criminal cartel. Not every party is striving to seal off extra-dimensional portals to prevent the hordes of the netherworld from overrunning a village of orphans and widows. Some people would rather extort money from those same orphans and widows. What I’m saying is that there is a place for the street fighter, I’m just not sure that they need to be a Street Fighter.

The Street Fighter is essentially a Fighter/Rogue hybrid, with the emphasis being on the martial aspect of the two. D8 hit die, 4 skill points a level, full base attack and a good fortitude save. And it goes for five levels. Nothing special, but not bad either. The requirements are also pretty straightforward and allow for several types of characters. To get into this prestigious class one must have a BAB of +5, Combat Expertise, Improved Feint and five ranks of Bluff, Intimidate, and Knowledge (Local). I think that the best approach to this is some sort of Rogue and Swashbuckler combo. The Swashbuckler has those loaded early levels which make it ideal to switch out of and this class screams out to be lightly armored. I just can’t picture the thug on the corner wearing platemail. It seems a bit out of place. Swashbuckler 3/Rogue 3? That seems to work pretty well.

If the class has a signature ability I suppose that it is Always Ready, because this guys is well, always ready. For mediocre combat I guess, but at least he is ready for it. Always Ready is an initiative bonus (starts at +1, goes up every other level) which certainly works well with any sneak attack, but it’s pretty weak for a key class feature. There aren’t many initiative boosting abilities so it has rarity on it’s side, and combined with a high Dex and Improved Initiative the Street Fighter can get the drop on opponents pretty regularly. At 2nd level they get Streetwise, which is nothing other than one of those feats that gives +2 to two skills. In this case Gather Information and Knowledge (Local). It is what it is.

Stand Tough is one of those class features that sounds real good when you first read it, but then you think about it a little and it gets worse and worse. It’s supposed to make the character a little more resilient and street tough, and it sort of does. But not really. For starters, the name is real lame. When the Street Fighter takes physical damage they can attempt to take half the amount of non-lethal damage by making a fort save against the total damage. So, let’s see. It is usable once a day (twice a day at fourth level) so it’s the sort of thing you want to save for when you really need it. Maybe. At 8th level (around when they first get it) it’s very feasible to be dealt 30 points of damage (actually, that’s on the low end). With a base fort save of, say, +11 that still means you need to roll a 19 or higher. That’s not too good. It’s probably better used for some low damage when it will actually have a better chance of succeeding.

The best thing that this class gets may actually be the +1d6 sneak attack at 4th level. Sneak attack is a great ability, but once in five levels is pretty weak. It does mesh nicely with the required Improved Feint. Uncanny Dodge at 5th level is a nice little reward for sticking it out until the end of the class.

An ability that would work really well for this class is the improvised weapons skills possessed by the Drunken Master prestige class.  It's more cool that powerful, so it is certainly not game breaking by any means.  And what says street fighter more than swinging a bench as a club or gutting an adversary with a mead bottle?  Of course, I never really understood what kind of adventurer doesn't have a weapon, but maybe they ran into one of those awful sunder based builds.

The Street Fighter is not altogether useless, but it falls into the category of something that is easily replicated by a base class. Want to be a tough, street level character? Rogue with a little Fighter works great for that. The full base attack is nice for this character, it certainly makes him a little more lethal than his rogue brethren, but this guy is going to live and die by getting the drop on his adversaries not by out slugging them. I could see some uses as opponents to a party. If they can successfully Stand Tough against a PC they could at least scare them for a moment, unless the non lethal damage knocks them out anyway. Which would be very funny.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shadowrun Campaign Wiki

In the past I’ve really enjoyed keeping a campaign journal for D&D and Shadowrun. I find it’s a nice way to recap, keep track and sort of analyze our game sessions. With our new Shadowrun game starting up I wanted to do something again, but not quite the same old. Truthfully, keeping a journal can be rather time consuming. On top of planning for the next week and trying to maintain a game blog it often felt like a chore to make sure that I posted each week. After talking it over with the group we decided to create a campaign wiki to document what is occurring in the alternate world of our fantasy lives. I just got it set up and I must admit that I am sort of stoked on it. It’s located here.

One aspect that I really like about the wiki is that everyone in the group can contribute to it, rather than it just being a GM dictatorship. We sit at a round table so we should all be equal. I think that is the best practice for all, it’s all of our game. It’s cool to get the point of view of everyone involved rather than just a narration of events. I imagine there being conflicting accounts of certain things, which I think is great. Shadowrun is such a morally grey universe that nothing has an absolute truth to it. It does raise the question, though, of what it is that the players should be contributing. For now I have asked them to create character bios and some background info on their contacts. I did ask them to keep everything reasonable as far as their contacts are concerned. No megacorps presidents, dragons, or super generous wealthy benefactors. In the past I have always created their contacts (after they selected them) and I sort of see this as a challenge to me because I have to use and develop these NPC’s in ways that I need, but their origins are coming from someone else. I’m into it.

I am still struggling with exactly how game events will appear in the wiki. They can certainly pop up in an entry for a character and summarize their role in a certain situation, but that doesn’t really provide the big picture. I was thinking maybe anonymous Shadowland style posts about something that went down, or perhaps a media account from a third party. I was in a Shadowrun campaign years ago with a different group of players and one of the players would routinely write these newspaper style accounts of our runs and send them around. It was actually pretty cool. And I’ve already told everyone that I will be giving out karma for contributions, so that should give an incentive to put some work into it.

So what is the point of this whole thing? Well, it can keep track of NPC’s, give an additional platform for the players to flesh out their characters and is another method to include all sorts of superfluous info (or maybe it’s actually really useful info). I imagine that if it’s successful the players will be able to find pertinent information in there that can aid them in game. In a way it is some sort of ultra metagaming, but it is also realistic for the world that the party is in. Why wouldn’t they turn up some info if they snoop around about their latest Johnson? They could certainly just make a skill check and get the info, but this could be a little incentive to do a little more. In this case it’s my job to drop some “Easter Egg” style info into the game and see if it turns up when we meet at the table. One example so far involves the party shaman. In her backstory is some sort of corp character that she fell in love with. That’s all that had been decided. So I created an entry for this guy, gave him a name and a story and dropped it into the wiki. Now he exists and he has never really come up in game so far. It gives the player some info if she wants to pursue that storyline and it’s something to maker her ears perk up at the table if a certain name should come up. This is also opening the door for Shadowrun to occupy even more of our time, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

Another aspect that I like is that it gives some permanence to the game. Now I am not the most sentimental of people and I think that RPG campaigns are rather disposable in the grand scheme of things, but I actually really like the idea that this campaign can live on in the cloud of the internet. Anyone can read it, we can also reminisce about it and check in and laugh (or cry?) over these characters for years to come. Perhaps some other folks will even get some inspiration or ideas from something that they read there. Which is neat.

The most surprising part of it for me is how fun it is to include pictures in the entries. I didn’t really think about that and then one of the players added a picture entry to all of the PC’s. Totally awesome to see some imagining of who these people are that we pretend to be. They are just images taken from Google and plugged in, but they are completely our characters now. We never use miniatures in our game, rarely maps as well. So this is the most visual we have ever really been with characters.

I used Google Sites to set the wiki up, employing their wiki template to get started. I’m not the most tech savvy but I found it very easy to use. The appearance of the page still leaves a lot to be desired, as does the layout but these are both aspects that can be improved over time.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cooperative Games Have Got Me Down

These days Shadows Over Camelot routinely leaves the kingdom in shambles, the world is festering with disease and pestilence whenever the CDC leaves us in charge with Pandemic, even the lost treasures of antiquity rarely make it off of the Forbidden Island. Forbidden Island is a kid’s game! It’s for children! I used to think that cooperative games were great for bonding with my fellow gamers, but now they just leave me feeling hollow inside.

I don’t mind losing a game to friends. In fact, it happens all the time. I usually play games with a smart and savvy group and wins are distributed fairly evenly amongst us all. It’s losing to a game mechanic that I hate. And I don’t mean losing a game because of some sort of rule technicality, I mean when the game is actually the winner. Cooperative games have really got me down these days. We just seem to rarely win, and the silent gloating of the victorious game pieces looking up at me is almost more than I can bear. Whether it’s the stack of black cubes surrounding Mumbai and Tehran, or the hordes of siege engines massed in front of the castle makes no difference to me.

Recently four of us were playing Shadows Over Camelot and we were doing really well. We had won the Grail Quest and several others and basically just needed to keep the siege engines at bay until the game ended. Two of our braves knights had returned to Camelot to do battle with the belfries and catapults of our foes, and they got mangled. Not just defeated, but really embarrassed. On three consecutive rolls the enemy rolled an eight (on a d8) and both knights were killed in successive turns. Undermanned, the remaining two were quickly overwhelmed and the kingdom was plunged into darkness. It was heartbreaking. The next time we played we were dead men walking. We didn’t stand a chance. Our fragile mindset, so recently elevated as we were on the cusp of victory, doomed us from the beginning. We overreacted to threats, jumped around the board like novice squires and bickered with one another. We had lost the psychological game to a non-entity, literally something that had no brain or psyche had gotten inside our head.

What I need to do is play more Castle Panic. That game is absurdly easy, maybe that’s why people seem to like it so much. Because they always win. But therein is the problem. If a game doesn’t present much of a challenge for the group than it’s not a very good game, it makes me feel a little bit like a bully. But if it’s too challenging and we just lose all of the time we feel like doormats. True, it does make victory all that much sweeter, but I’m beginning to forget what it tastes like at all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Shadowrun: 2nd Edition Character Creation

So you want to be a shadowrunner? More specifically, you want to be a Shadowrunner using the character creation rules from the early 90’s? Awesome. Let me help. Second edition Shadowrun uses a priority system to create runners. No rolling going on here. Players assign a ranking to each of the five categories; Magic, Race, Resources, Skills and Attributes. The priorities are A,B,C,D and E; A gets the most out of that category, while E provides the least. It can be tricky to figure out what is going to work. For starters, Shadowrun is definitely a game that rewards smart play. So you don’t need a great character to succeed. But it helps.

We will start with Magic, because it’s the easiest priority to assign. If you want to be a mage or a shaman it gets priority A. If you don’t want to be one of them, you can dump it to E. The only exception to this is a metahuman wielder of magic, in which case you can put priority B here, as long as you use A for your race. Magic is actually really powerful in Shadowrun. It has it’s limits, but the power that it makes available is a fair trade for your highest priority.

Friday, January 7, 2011

More thoughts on All Flesh Must Be Eaten

I recently wrote about some of my initial thoughts and impressions regarding All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a zombie themed horror roleplaying game. Well, we just finished up our second session of it and I have some more to say, having now actually played the game. I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable of a game it was. The whole group had fun and it was a nice change of pace from what we had been playing. However, I couldn’t see our group playing a whole campaign of it though, or at least I wouldn’t be interested in running one. Not because it isn’t fun (it is) but I think this genre is more conducive to a shorter, quick game. I also think it’s strength lies in the characters just being normal people, who may not live very long. AFMBE also has options for playing tougher “Survivor” characters and others who have magical powers. That doesn’t seem right for this game world, but longer term games are more geared to those types.

Since this game was not really going to have a strong central plot (it was more about survival and we only planned on two weeks) I wanted to keep the pace of the game rather frenetic and chaotic. If they stopped to rest there were zombies, every time they tried to go somewhere there was pressure to keep moving. In trying to create a panicked environment I thought that this was key. Keep them on their toes since death lurks around every corner! And the game mechanics work with this. Most things are resolved with a single roll and combat is fast. I’ll be honest, I barely learned the rules to the game but I knew enough to keep it going. The rules do seem pretty simple though. It uses something called the Unisystem, which is d10 based. Hey, whatever works for you.

As I had felt going into it, controlling a bunch of zombies is not necessarily the most fun tool in the gamemaster arsenal. I do like that they are virtually infinite, but none of them are all that memorable. Sure, some of them had on distinct outfits and made different noises but when it came down to it they were all sort of the same. The game does have options for making all sorts of zombies (some of which breath fire, are immune to all sorts of things, and really everything else) but I stuck to the basics for our first time. I did have one big showdown planned, but the party never went for it and I did not want to railroad them an unlikely scenario.

The real strength of AFMBE are the characters. We opted to go with the Norms, the least powerful of the options. Zombies are scary because you are just a regular person, if we had made some of the more powerful types I don’t think that we would have enjoyed it as much. It was interesting to see what everyone created, usually they are making some sort of character that is anything but the norm in society. But not here, that’s just what they were. We wound up with a stripper, a weed smoking butcher, a cocaine addicted homeless street performer, and a totally inept Lord of the Rings obsessed bus driver. What a crew! Everyone also did a good job roleplaying their characters. Those who had addictions made it a point of playing that up (such as breaking into a police station to get into the evidence locker for some blow). Sometimes they were cowards. And they were all realistic in their builds. Why would a bus driver know how to shoot a gun?

I think the best part of it was we set the game in present day Philadelphia, which is where we all live. This allowed them to draw upon actual knowledge of their environment and put it to use, rather than making a roll to see if they know where to find something. It was fun to see. They knew about the bus depot on Moyamessing, the gun shop in the Italian Market and the police station on 11th. Just like their characters would know. Blurring the lines of fantasy and reality indeed! This made it both easy and hard to plan for, definitely a mixed bag. In one sense I didn’t have to make much up, I really just drew on my knowledge of Philadelphia and zombified it. However, it was also impossible to predict where they were going to go and do. For example, in other games I have some control over that. If the party needs to get to another town I know that the only ways that they can go are through the forest, along the main road, or take a boat. I have some idea of what each has in store for them. In Zombie Philadelphia that’s not the case. Just going from South Philly to Center City they could choose a ton of options, right down to which block and where they were going to turn. And they all expected it to be realistic. It had the potential to be hyper detail oriented. In the end I just sort of made it up as I went, which I'm fine with in this type of game.

Monday, January 3, 2011

DM Theory: Total Party Kill

In some campaigns it is merely a hushed whisper never given life, in others it is an all too harsh reality. The Total Party Kill. For the uninitiated it is just what it sounds like, the death of every player in the game and, by default, the current campaign. Now, I don’t think that a GM should ever kill a party deliberately, but I do think that there are plenty of situations in which the entire party gets themselves annihilated. Let us discuss.

At the end of one of our most recent Shadowrun sessions one of the players remarked, “I can’t believe that worked.” As a GM I liked that comment for a lot of reasons. For one, it was rewarding for the group to develop and execute a plan. They had a lot of fun with it and ultimately accomplished their goal. However, the reason that I really liked it was because it shows the outcome of the situation was genuinely in doubt. The players know that if they mess up there is a very real chance that they are all going to die. I can’t imagine playing in a game where the outcome is essentially predetermined, which I think is the case if there isn’t the actual threat of death hanging over their heads. I’ve talked to many fellow GMs over the years and I am shocked at how many of them never have PC death, let alone a total wipeout of the party. It blows my mind. Like I said, I don’t intentionally kill players but dungeon crawling and shadowrunning and exploring the far reaches of space are dangerous professions. If people aren’t dying from time to time then something is wrong. But the total party kill is more than just a death because it means the end of the game. But that’s just an opportunity to make new characters and get a new game started up. It’s like a forest fire. Sure, it seems like a gruesome and pointless thing, but in actuality it’s necessary in order to keep things healthy and moving along.

So, how exactly does a Total Party Kill come about exactly? Well, it’s just like one character getting killed but it happens a couple of times in succession. Which is actually plausible if you think about it. Characters rely on one another and they all fill roles, and sometimes if one or two of them are unable to fulfill their function (because they are dead) then the whole house of cards crumbles. It could be bad rolls that gets the ball moving against the party, or it could be a poorly executed plan. If it’s the result of the party coming up against a vast number of superior foes than I feel the DM is to blame. That seems like you are just setting up a party to be killed. Of course, running away is always an option but I find that it is one that players rarely go for. If the assumption on the part of the GM is that the party will recognize that they are outgunned, than it’s a bad assumption. But other times it just happens. Like I said, these are dangerous times.

I think that the biggest argument against the Total Party Kill is that it ruins everyones fun. Only a rotten GM would do such a thing. Essentially all of these nice people have gathered together to share in this fun, communal activity and now it is destroyed. All that they have worked for has been left unfinished, food for the crows of the battlefield (or the alligator filled pit or the underwater science lab, whatever it may be). So what? It’s a game and a new one can be started right away. But it gets back to the idea of accomplishing something in a roleplaying game. Now, treasure and levels and money and all the other rewards that players receive are all fake. We all know this. This is a game and none of it is real. However, success isn’t as fleeting when measured in accomplishments. If you don’t always win there is a chance for a real reward. Knowing that you and your friends looked at a problem and found a solution to a difficult situation is a lot of fun. So is getting some lucky rolls and feeling like you got by on the skin of your teeth. But sometimes it goes the other way. You can’t have one without the other.

And the other side of this is that “winning” does not necessarily mean you have had fun. Shockingly, I have seen smiles on the faces of characters as they are all being painfully killed one at a time, slowly becoming aware that their number is up. Everyone gets to go out fighting or empty their bag of tricks in a last ditch effort to save the day. Some die as brave heroes and others go out as chumps. But as players, rather than characters, we all get to try again some other day.

One final point is that campaigns, or any long term games, have to end somehow. I’m not a fan of the eight year campaign. Maybe it’s because we play every week and the idea of playing the same characters in the same world for that long would drive me insane. So assuming that a game has an end it really only leaves a couple of options. The players achieve what they were trying to do, the game just sort of dwindles away or everyone chooses to end it, or everyone dies. I have been involved in multiple campaigns of each variety and they all have their merits, but in some ways the TPK is the most memorable.

By the way, the Shadowrun game I mentioned above ended the following week with a Total Party Kill.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Macho Women With Guns!

I decided to dust off the shelf and introduce the gaming group to another fun game from my youth. Wanting to change things up a bit and not commit too much to an intense game, we opted to go with the incredible Macho Women With Guns. MWWG is a thoughtful, delicate role playing game that requires tact and patience on the part of the players. That’s not at all true. It’s actually just what it sounds like. The players are essentially pissed off females with guns and knives, out to kill the oppressive and dumb males that rule society. It’s not meant to be serious (obviously) and seemed perfect for a single night of gaming. The version we played was the original from 1988. The rulebook is all of 12 pages. Totally awesome!

Character creation in Macho Women is a lot of fun for both it’s simplicity and humor. The entire game is actually really funny, but especially making the character. For starters it is just a point based system and allocating them is very intuitive and easy to do. You want your lady to look good? Put a lot of points in Looks. Is she strong? Then her Strength should probably be high. The best part are the skills. Not many roleplaying games offer such areas of specialty as Running In High Heels, Hit Things With Other Things, and Do Technical Stuff (my favorite). As if all of this wasn’t enough to get your inner teenaged boy excited, there is also a blank template to draw your character. Oh, the fun we had! Seriously, more games should encourage players to draw their characters. I’m sort of torn if this game is a parody of the fantasy and roleplaying depictions of women, or just about the most egregious example of such chauvinism. I mean, it’s not really a surprise that I discovered this game when I was thirteen. Our group is half female and they all thought it was funny, if anyone takes this game seriously they should probably be arrested.

This version of the game was made during the height of the Reagan years, and as such the Gipper is attributed to causing many of the world’s ills. With it being well into the 2000’s I didn’t think that was rather relevant or funny any more, but it was shockingly easy to update everything to George Bush era USA, so that is the world that our Macho Women were unleashed into. Throw in some hell gates, a little bit of mysticism and a blatant disregard for order and we were ready to go. Since the book is only 12 pages there really isn’t much source type information, which I found to be totally cool. If anything the book sort of gives mixed signals about the world. For example, the cover shows a woman with a baseball bat and a pistol fighting aliens. Yet, J Edgar Hoover and Puppies of Tindalos are listed among the main enemies. To me this said to just do whatever I wanted to. And I did. And I think that more people should take liberties with fantasy worlds and just shape them to be whatever you need them to be. This is a point that is clearly spelled out in just about every role playing game handbook, yet I feel that a lot of people cling to what is written in them as gospel. That’s too bad, but a rant for another day.

Since the point of all this was to have a quick, fun game I pretty much let the players have and do what they wanted. When we started one character was driving a monster truck and their weapon was an extension cord with a padlock at the end. Another was wearing a Soviet style thong bikini and fought with a hammer and sickle. Another was weaponless, armed with only a pink catsuit and her feminine wiles. It was an excellent crew and no one spent very long coming up with their character. Leaving us plenty of time to play. Which is a good thing because the session was filled with explosions, murder, a thrilling car race and an orgy with JFK and Taylor Swift. Wouldn’t want to run out of time on any of that.

I’ll admit that I’m not sure if Macho Women is actually even a roleplaying game, it seems like it may be more of a table top game (later versions of it certainly are). Regardless, there are very few rules and the ones that do exist are either really easy or real easy to ignore. I found that rolling a character’s Macho was about the most important thing and frequently came up in interactions with the characters. This is not a game for rule lawyers. They will find precious little to work with. Everyone really enjoyed it and I am certain that it will find it’s way back to the table when we are between campaigns again. I do not really see this as being a long term campaign type of game, and I’m sure the designers would agree with me. But not everything needs to be. Macho Women With Guns is perfect the way that it is.