Wednesday, August 25, 2010

D&D 4th Edition - Updated Review

Back on March 11 I posted my initial thoughts on 4th ed. D&D and concluded by saying: "I should clarify that it is early days of playing 4E and that I may yet become more attached to this sleek, plastic thing that’s eaten my old mongrel."

So, I’ve been playing D&D 4th Edition for almost 9 months now, which works out to around 35 or so sessions, or around 140 hours! In that time I’ve had three characters die, and advanced a character from 1st through to 7th level. I have to say it has been fun. Below are some of my thoughts on the game, specifically where it differs from previous editions. I’m not a big fan of D&D as a system, but it does deliver some sustainable and consistent fun.

Classes: I’ve come to accept the new class structures, although it does seem that the more recent PhB’s and option books go out of their way to try and blur the original distinctions between them, harking back to the inevitable power creep of the multitude of 3.5 books. I’ve never liked the idea that a party character composition should be dictated by the rules, but in this 4th ed. seems little different to previous editions, with a balanced party achieving better results.

Combat: Still takes ages. Much like 3.5 there are a lot of rules to check, double check and re-check every turn as almost every power has a unique twist. I accept that this is not going to be the same for all groups, but I think that it is somewhat inevitable in a group of people who are tired after a day at work, but still determined to derive the full benefit for their characters. On the plus side, this checking is usually fairly straightforward as the details are (hopefully) printed on the cards, and most people only have one attack to make. On the downside, feats don’t print in that format in the electronic system and are increasingly important elements for characters, making for some ugly overlapping rules which must be checked and clarified. While some basic moves like attacks of opportunity, bull-rushes and grapples have been tidied up, they remain fairly arduous and cumbersome. On the plus side, healing, surges and bloodied rules are neat. On the downside the multitude of new conditions can be confusing, necessitating yet more rules checking each turn, not to mention the ongoing nature of saving throws and contingent damage etc. Also resting time, and the technical distinction between short and longer rests seems incredibly regimented and unnatural. On the up-side I believe it is much easier for GM’s to prep combat encounters, which should be good for all concerned, and I do like the way that the attack powers all spur descriptiveness from the players.

Skill Challenges: In my opinion these are still not very intuitive, and the narrowed range of skills is frequently confusing. I’ve never liked players trying to use rules as a crutch to describe their characters actions, but as the skill-challenge mechanic seems to be GM driven, I’m not sure how you could set one up as a player unless you’re willing to do this. Simply put, I think to work properly and in the way intended, skill challenges should be prepped by the GM almost like a combat encounter, which is probably a fairly unrealistic expectation, given the traditional approach to D&D games of a lot of groups.

Magic Items: The change to balance these and bring them into the system makes me realize just how much I used to depend on my equipment to get me out of tough spots; particularly higher level scrolls. Now encounters lack that element, I know the basic range of damage my character can deal, and simply must try and optimize things to ensure that it is delivered to the right place at the right time. It seems a lot more mechanical and requires a lot less creative thinking in my opinion.

Down-Time: Following on from this is my major disappointment with the difference between prior editions and 4th Edition. I really liked some of the logistical problems we used to face. How to cross a hostile river, how to enter a sealed barrow or how to disguise and pilot a ship between ports, braving storms, monsters and pirates. The old range of spells and items really gave us some neat options to do some creative and interesting things. From the humble rope trick through to minute mansions and pocket dimensions, there was a lot of variety. Now I agree that despite all these great tricks, you’d usually end up in a fight, and given the current system is built for this eventuality, perhaps it just cuts to the chase. But it really does feel like the game is missing a great and important element.

So, in summary, I do like 4th ed. particularly the way that it makes the player experience both slicker and more flavourful and makes GM prep easier. The game seems to work best for players using the character creator, but there are several elements that are poorly resolved in the output, making things unnecessarily complicated. I miss the grand old magic options of previous editions, even though I accept it probably made things unbalanced. Yes, some classes were disproportionately better under those rules at different levels, but as I remember it, few high-level characters that didn’t have a splash of at least one other class or prestige options/kit under their belts. Obviously WotC are blurring the clear lines of their system by releasing even more supplements, with more options and new rules, but that’s been a hallmark of D&D for as long as I’ve played it…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dispatches from the front

Gaming updates:

D&D continues apace. The game has hit a nice groove at the moment, with our group finally having a more equal mix of controllers, strikers and defenders, and thus we have found the recent fights a good deal easier. More tactical options means that we now each have a unique niche that we do well, and we can attempt to tailor our skills to the enemies and environment. Most recently we were ambushed by a group of ghouls, then, a short time later by an Ettin supported by a dozen or so bugbears and took care of business with relative ease. On a campaign footing the many factions of enemies seem to be jockeying for position, attacking one another and the human encampments to capitalize on perceived weaknesses. My own character continues to be a poorly behaved semi-sociopath now dubbed ‘darksoul’ by the monsters, so I must be doing something right!

I recently ran part 2 of the Raid on Innsmouth. It was suitably epic with a bloodbath aboard the coastguard vessels and madness on a submarine, a refinery shootout and then some close encounters with a couple of the bigger scale cthulhu monsters. Only 5 of the 36 characters in play have been killed thus far, but part 3 promises even more epic action, so it should be some good fun. I haven’t run Call of Cthulhu on this kind of a scale for a long time and am a little concerned it might be hard to readjust to the slower and more atmospheric and detailed approach that is normally how Kingsport Tales runs.

Looking ahead; I’m excited about the launch of A Foreign Country this week, the Super Reception in September and getting into training for the Chuck Norris Memorial Hard Man RPG Challenge!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In the thick of it

As you may be aware, a GM withdrawal from Fright Night has left me suddenly filling the gap, which while a little stressful, might prove a great opportunity to put EPOCH into action – making a lie of my many and various excuses as to why I can’t get to this anytime soon. Thus, I have committed to run Captivating Jasper for Fright Night.

Of course, this isn’t really the first time I’ll be trying some of these techniques. I’ve been observing and using elements all over the place, from Morgue’s early Aliens games, through to my own recent games at Confusion 8, both of which were tests for some of the techniques I think might work.

I see EPOCH, in addition to having some simple tools to build the right kind of mood, as a more organized and considered approach to horror roleplaying. Reading through the list of Horror Techniques posted on Yog-Sothoth, I was struck by the fact that these techniques are not really enough in-and-of themselves. They tell less than half the story. They are like jokes for a stand-up comedian, or slight-of-hand for a magician. Useful elements, often used poorly and in isolation, but really only very small parts of a greater performance. Without an approach and mindset toward horror, supported by the right kind of tools, these will be little more than interesting quirks or amusements for the players.

Morgue recently made mention of a time mechanic in a very interesting post on Gametime. He wondered if “a horror game could benefit from a ticking clock in the actual room, demanding answers from the players within a certain number of seconds every time. Time pressure makes people nervous.” I have attempted to use this kind of device before at ‘con games (namely in Kapcon offerings Pressure Positive and The High Price of Spandex) and found that while a neat idea, it actually requires a considerable degree of adherence and discipline by the GM to make it ‘real’ in any sense for the players and have a chance to evoke the right kind of atmosphere. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done, just that I think it would need a high degree of forethought, preparation and in-room focus to work – which can be very challenging in a ‘con environment for fairly obvious reasons.

In any event, I plan to write up my first pass at EPOCH and publish it here for comment in due course, so stay tuned…

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mrs Peabody Investigates

Some games I have recently played -

A Restoration of Evil: A two part game that featured the aforementioned Mrs Peabody, masterfully played by Brady. Mrs Peabody is a nearly unstoppable force of nature, an elderly dilettante with a small dog, and a penchant for using her many contacts in New York society, and scolding anyone who tried to obstruct her investigations. The adventure began when my character (a third rate stage magician known as The Great Andini) and my roommate (a prohibition era bartender) decided to establish the New York Skeptics Society and placed an ad in the Times, only to find Mrs Peabody on our doorstep. Before we knew what had happened we were being whisked around New York in the back of Mrs Peabody’s large chauffer driven car (the dog rides in front), investigating a series of bizarre murders around the decaying Red Hook. Ultimately, we were surprised that the New York Skeptics Society survived (although is now considerably less skeptical) despite the loss of nearly a dozen of New York’s finest in a raid on the horror we uncovered. A grand time.

Bad Moon Rising: A two part adventure, featuring the previously described frustrating investigation phase, concluding with a climax that was equal parts epic and bizarre and surreal. My private investigator survived in body only, alas, his intellect remains trapped in the far future. The sheer degree of narrative strangeness puts this squarely amongst the most challenging Cthulhu scenario’s to GM.

Not So Quiet: A great little one-off Trail of Cthulhu playtest, run by Andrew, set in the Great War. The pre-generated characters were great, although keeping them involved in the investigation was unnecessarily hard work for the GM. My suspicions about the wickedness proved to be wrong, the real menace was far more nuanced and wrenching than anticipated. I had fun and gave as much feedback as I could.

D&D 4e: The weekly game in the ruined magical city continues with our characters having nearly reached 7th level. I have been keeping things interesting between epic fights by inappropriate use of a philter of love and trying to convey how an emotionally crippled character deals with the effects. One of the characters has been turned to stone, and we’ve had several ‘trial’ spots filled by new players. Good fun.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Confusion 8

So this Saturday past I attended Confusion 8 a relaxed one day roleplaying ‘con. For various reasons I had offered to run 2 games, which I initially had cause to regret. First, I somehow managed to get sick on Friday night; I had a fever and only managed a handful of sleep hours. Also, the weather on Saturday morning was not exactly hospitable. Just to top things off I was having a lot of trouble getting my head around Castle Bravo, and felt woefully unprepared for it.

However, I had pledged to run games and take Fright Night registrations, and was still capable of functioning, albeit with diminished capacity, so I braved the rain and headed to the ‘con for the first round where I was to run Mutants and Masterminds.

Round One – Running the Proteus Plot
This is a fairly straightforward published scenario with a neat twist. To keep things interesting I had made some additions to put a lot of focus on the characters, which are created using templates and some randomly assigned elements, then fleshed out a little using some light collaborative method. It’s a bit challenging because I really ask each player to work with me and flesh out some initial scenes, requiring some up-front engagement and creativity - A big ask first thing in the morning.

As it happened, I had the maximum load of 6 players sign up for the game, which wasn’t ideal for this style of game and in light of my diminished capacity. On the plus side they were all talented and experienced players with love for the genre. On the downside, the collaborative hero creation process was a little rocky for some, but I did find that we got a cast of really great characters who really added more interest and depth to a simple plot. The Supers created included:

- The Spirit of Justice, a billionaire body-builder with a troubled marriage
- The Crown Prince, an elderly dad with a utility belt of 1980's gadgets
- Rain, a wealthy party girl turned dark avenger with a predilection for gun violence
- Crisis, a time travelling bad-ass loner with electricity powers and a stray cat
- Edge, a psychic investigator with a crummy day job and a rocket powered skateboard
- Beast/Simon, a man and monster fused together with a helping of anger issues

It was, for me, the fun romp that I had envisaged and I think every player got some decent spotlight time, and had a measure of fun. I don’t know if it hit everyone’s buttons, as there wasn’t a huge amount of investigation, combat, relationships or grand ideas, which I know some people really dig. I was fading a little toward the end, so was not really able to push for an epic cinematic ending of the type I think supers ‘con outings deserve, but all things considered, it was a fun game for me.

Round Two – Playing Apocalypse World
I missed out on the signup having chatted to people, then trying to take more notes for Castle Bravo while I ate lunch, so I arrived in Apocalypse World by default. On the plus side Mike (the GM) was really enthusiastic about the game and setting, and there a number experienced veteran players at the table who I enjoy gaming with.

I was nominated to be the Hard Holder, which was the gang leader in a Mad Max (2) style world. Accordingly I modeled my character, Calibre, after Lord Humungus, and took a fairly brutal approach to gang management theory. Unfortunately the dice betrayed me at several crucial moments, my captive escaped, some of my bodyguards tried to kill me, my ruse to uncover traitors failed and during an epic battle my gang turned on me and handed me over to the enemy gang and I was seriously injured (okay I can actually only blame one of those on the dice).

Thus, Calibre spent the later stages of the game confined to a hospital bed, being tended and often sedated by our ‘Angel’ or medic when she disagreed with my ideas. In all fairness, the real roleplaying hammer fell on Mash’s character Spice, who was the hottest guy in our gang, and also the unlikely vehicle of our salvation from a more monstrous foe.

It was a really fun game, despite my characters incapacitation, and I must give kudos to Mike for a great setup and execution while also allowing us an effective ‘sandbox’ approach to the game. The only real downside was that one of our number played a character that was really very creepy, even by Mad Max standards and was effectively ostracized by our characters, effectively cutting him out of the main action. I felt even worse when my character executed his character at the end for a perceived assassination attempt.

Also, my Calibre voice, really tore up my throat in a way that left me concerned about whether I’d be able to last out Castle Bravo.

Round Three – Running Castle Bravo
As I have alluded to, I was concerned about making sure I understood this scenario adequately. It is written as a series of increasingly bizarre events leading to an epic crisis point. This is set against nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll during the 1950’s. It was also my first experience at running Trail of Cthulhu (although I had previously run other GUMSHOE games). I had a full house again (6 players) which again, was not really ideal for the mood and pacing of the scenario – but them’s the breaks in the big show.

It was also the last slot of the ‘con, and a late one at that. We kicked off close to 6pm and I could see many of the players were wilting fast.

Overall, it went surprisingly well from my perspective (perhaps because I had so much anxiety about the detail). I think I managed to convey the creepy and bizarre against a backdrop of ever more dire circumstances. Most of my efforts were centered around the major NPC, which worked out fairly well. Despite their tiredness the players all engaged with the elements well, and worked with me to really push things along - particular kudos to Henry one of the few unfamiliar faces at the table who engaged really well with the plot and his PC.

On the downside, because this is a ‘purist’ scenario the players are left without the real opportunity for ‘victory’ and really have to settle for a much less decisive outcome. Also some of the more important information that is imparted to the players at the beginning didn’t really come out until the end, which meant I had to push things along in a more direct way than I’d prefer. Whether or not it’s reasonable to expect the PC’s to dump this info in a single scene, as envisaged by the scenario, is perhaps more of a question. Also providing some real detail and ambiance to the setting of the aircraft carrier was something I don’t think I really executed well.

In either event we made it without anyone falling asleep, or me losing my voice entirely, so I’ll call it a win.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Be Prepared

Last night I ran the first part of the Raid on Innsmouth. It’s a scenario for which I have some fondness, having run it several times more than a decade ago, but as I geared up to run it again, I wondered just how much attention I had paid to the scenario the first time around.

It’s a neat outing. There are six objectives, each a unique scenario with a series of ‘supporting characters’ and for each objective there are three parts. You switch frequently between each objective, as the actions of the raiders in other parts may change the circumstances of current objectives.

I like the idea, and the ability for one set of characters to take actions that impact on other sets of characters. But it’s pretty hard work. To compound the problem each of the 6 objectives has 6 pre-generated characters which can be used by the players. Again it’s a nice idea in concept; a player should be able to play several different marines, a sailor, a submariner and a treasury agent, in addition to their own character who is acting as a civilian advisor. Unfortunately the book does not make this simple, by printing the character sheets and info in a way that could just be copied and distributed. Instead they put the character information into the text, omitting base skills and often lapping over pages, making any quick attempt to copy and distribute characters impossible. So, it took me many hours to prepare the 36 pre-generated characters. This necessarily ate into the time I would normally spend preparing the actual scenario.

Then the actual game itself was pretty challenging. Run as written it’s fairly mechanical for a Cthulhu scenario with a lot more gunplay than an ordinary outing, which necessarily bogs things down a bit. On top of that there are a range of special weapons and equipment, and several NPC’s I need to keep animated, while also running the combat. I also found suddenly switching to a new group of characters to be a difficult process, and not especially smooth.

Thus far we have only managed to play 1 part of 3 objectives in about 3 hours, but I am reasonably sure that things will speed up as we go on. I guess I’d conclude by saying that the Raid on Innsmouth is an unrepentantly old-school Cthulhu outing, which really puts a Keeper through the wringer if run as written.

While I’m on game-prep, I really need to spend some more time making sure I’m ready for The Proteus Plot and Castle Bravo which I’d like to run at Confusion tomorrow, assuming I can actually find enough players.