Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Crit or Get out of the Chair

Now that I've made my interest in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons known, I'm considering running a game. This may seem like a no-brainer, but honestly I have some anxiety around running D&D. To be completely honest, I've had very little luck with the game since my teen years.

In the late '90s, I ran second edition just a couple times—a "default D&D" game and a Ravenloft game. Neither moved into campaign play, and the Ravenloft game was a complete failure. The only saving grace of those sessions was that my wife had fun and I introduced my sister-in-law to gaming too.

When third edition came out, I liked what I read and attempted to run The Sunless Citadel. I never finished the module, handing over the DMing reigns to another player. I did get to play a full campaign in third edition, though, at least to 12th level. And I did run some X-Crawl which, while not purely D&D, went well and gave me a chance to flex my dungeon design muscles.

When fourth edition hit the shelves, I was really excited about the possibilities in the system. I attempted to run Keep on the Shadowfell, and for various it just didn't go well. Before long, I realized that fourth edition just didn't feel like D&D to me, and it stood as the last time I got involved with the game.

So here we are with the fifth edition of the best-known roleplaying game in the world, and frankly, I have no idea how to run it.

I certainly have a desire to run the game. Actually I've been itching to get D&D right for years. I think it's part of the reason I've had a tough time keeping other campaigns going—I get the fantasy itch and can't find a way to scratch it. Pathfinder is too complex for my tastes these days, and no other  game system has the feel I recall. I toyed with some retro-clones, but it felt weird "going backwards."

One thing the third and fourth editions taught me is that I need to not run modules, and one related thing in my favor is the amazingness that is the fifth edition Dungeon Master's Guide. If I do run D&D, I'll likely use the DMG to build my campaign and design my adventures. The plan would be to create a homebrew setting, semi-on-the-fly. I'd lean on my players for background information. For example, if a player selected a cleric, they'd help me design their deity.

If I run it, I'll report on the whole journey here.

Until next time, do good, avoid evil, and play more games!

Friday, January 2, 2015

My (Very Late) Thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

I truly believe we are living in a golden age for RPGs. Roleplayers have an amazing array of choices, in terms of games available and avenues in which to buy and play them. The giant RPG publisher may be mostly dead, but not for lack of RPGs being made and sold. 2014 was an exceptional year within this golden age, and I believe it will be remembered as a landmark year, partially due to the release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

I'm not going to bore you with a breakdown of the rules and mechanics of play—I'm writing this way too late to have anything new to say in that realm. What I'd like to do is just share some thoughts on what I've seen, and what I think of it.

The first thing I should note is that for me, this feels like an alternate history 3rd Edition. Now don't assume I'm bagging on 3.x. It's a great game, and I got years of great play out of it's myriad variants (D&D 3.0, Classic Spycraft, and Mutants & Masterminds 2E being my highlights). That said, it was a huge departure from the original 2nd Edition core books. (I should note I was completely out of the D&D loop during the Black Book era of things like Skills & Powers.) When I read through and played 5th Edition, it felt more like a natural progression from those original 2nd Edition books than 3rd Edition. So what if Wizards of the Coast never released 3rd Edition in 2000 and managed to keep the 2nd Edition line, as I remember it, going? Then add in the things designers have learned over the last 14 years, and took the same "it still has to feel like D&D" approach. I believe 5th Edition is pretty damn close to what that 3rd Edition would look like. Why is this an important thought to me? Well, the original three 2nd Edition books were my favorite D&D iteration. (Yeah. I'm that one guy with 2E as his fave.)

The Player's Handbook is very well done in 5th Edition. I love how you can play through your whole class using only one section of the book, with only minor departures if you decided to play a spellcaster or take an occasional Feat. I think 13th Age does a better job of compartmentalizing the classes, but that book departs more from the feel of D&D for me (not a bad thing, just different). Speaking of "an occasional Feat," I love that Feats aren't really necessary in play. I was skeptical when I'd heard this, but it's true. The trade-off between raising your stats and getting a Feat is perfect. I think Feats are great in concept, but they got way out of hand in 3rd Edition.

There's been a great deal of positive sentiment for the 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, and I have to agree. In fact, I'd say this is the best DMG ever made. The main reason? It acts as a true Dungeon Master's, well, Guide. The tools for building a world, creating a campaign, all the tables—I'm sure this will change over time, but today, I can't imagine what changes I'd make to this book. Truly brilliant.

As for the Monster Manual, I don't have much to say, other than I'm glad it's not a binder with loose leaf like the original 2nd Edition core—which has stood as my second-biggest 2nd Edition complaint (second only to racial level limits from AD&D in general). Other than the binder kerfuffle D&D has never really had a bad core monster book.

I'm hoping to run a D&D campaign in the near future, and for the first time, I'm actually interested in trying organized play. I'm sure I'll have more on that last thing after I try it.

Until next time, do good, avoid evil, and play more games!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goodbye 2014; Hello 2015

The year I just left behind was bittersweet for me, to say the least. My family made its second big move in less than 3 1/2 years—back to where we left in 2010. I've returned to Tucson with a  greater appreciation for the place and with one additional family member. I left behind an amazing gaming community in Denver, but there have been great strides made in finding my place back in Tucson's community. My wife and I tried to revive our classic podcast, The Game's the Thing. That didn't work for various reasons. My own weekly gaming has been met with a myriad of challenges in terms of scheduling, player group, Ooh Shiny Syndrome, and my own drive and conviction. Although there were both good and bad, I have to say I'm glad 2014 is over and the prospect of a "clean slate" is an attractive one.

It's my intention to start blogging here again whenever I can. I have a lot of new things I want to try in 2015, from games to gaming techniques and styles. I intend to expand my writing beyond blogs too, and I hope to wax about that here. In addition to the printed word, I am working on a new podcast which will feature me talking with my friends, but minus my beautiful better half, Veronica. There's another podcast and project I'm working on with a friend (Veronica is involved, too, but you won't typically hear us together), which I'll talk about as soon as I can—all I'll say for now is you'll be hearing more about me as a gamer father.

So here's to new beginnings. Keep an eye on this space.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

[Play-Thru] Fate Accelerated Edition

When Spirit of the Century (SotC) was coming out, I was excited about a pick-up pulp game that used the new version of FATE. When I got the product, I was skeptical of the idea that a 400+ page tome could be used to do anything quickly, let alone throw together a roleplaying session.  Luckily SotC turned out to be a killer game, and once you have some time with it, it's certainly right for a pick-up game. Fast-forward several years and the promise of third edition FATE has come to fruition in Fate Core. It's brilliant--I'll say that--but my favorite thing to come out of one of the hottest RPG Kickstarters in history is not the main product, it's Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE). It's my favorite because it not only fulfills the promise of SotC, but it might just be the perfect pick-up game, period.

Before I get into my Play-Thru I'll clarify a thing or two. First, FAE is in no way limited to pulp adventure. You can literally use it for anything if you have a flexible mind and group. Second, at 48 pages I don't feel the need to get into too much detail about the mechanics. Just broad strokes folks.

The big difference between FAE and other versions is the skill list, in that there is none. Instead, players are asked to stat six approaches--no doubt taking a cue from Cortex+ [Edit: Turns out I was wrong about this bit; Cortex+ got it from Fate--credit where credit is due]. Players then start the game with two or three Aspects and one Stunt (which uses trimmed-back rules).

I decided to test FAE at a local charity game day. I called the adventure Quest for the MacGuffin. Here was the description: "Players will create pulp adventure characters with the new and not-yet-released Fate Accelerated Edition. These characters will then complete a quest involving a MacGuffin, in a setting the players help create."

With that information, I pretty much sat down, explained Aspects, Approaches, and Stunts, and we got to work. The players decided they wanted to do '30s-era pulp, with Nazis as the bad guys. They also decided there would be magic, but it would be extremely subtle. After the setting was decided, the players made their characters. Then the players decided their MacGuffin would be the Eye of Odin. Finally, they decided their characters learned the Eye was at a castle in Germany. The rest was left up to me.

That above process took about 90 minutes. There were four players, and two of them had never played any version of Fudge. We then used the remaining two and a half hours to play. I had the setting, the characters, and the destination, so I simply created obstacles in their path. Before the session ended, the players were in several scenes and five encounters, including a satisfying climax.

In my second test, I ran FAE for five people, three of which had never played any version of Fudge. We still got the creation process done in 90 minutes and played a satisfying story in about two and a half hours, this time the players were members of a space federation, dispatched to investigate what happened to Science Outpost Sagan and the Dark Matter Harvester. It went equally well.

One interesting side effect of both sessions is many of the players walked away with characters they cared about and wanted to play again and a campaign setting they wanted to spend more time exploring. I just found that fascinating.

Aside from pick-up games, I could see FAE being used as a sort of "proof of concept" tool. Let's say someone in your group has a setting idea, but the rest of the group doesn't get it. Run a session with the loose idea in FAE and figure it out. Alternatively, let's say your a designer and you get a setting in your head. Here's a way to brainstorm while playing.

The PDF can be had for literally any price you desire to pay. Evil Hat is selling it on a "pay what you want" model, and they encourage you to just download it for free if you'd like, and then give them money if you think it's worth more than zero dollars. The print version will only set you back $5 when it's available. Knowing what I know, the value of FAE can't be judged by page count. I'll pay the $2.50 Evil Hat asks for sure. That's a no-brainer.

Monday, June 3, 2013

[Read-Thru] Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management

I'm thinking of investing in one of those aluminum foil hats. You know, the kind that's supposed to prevent mind reading? Because I'm pretty sure the folks at Gnome Stew are scanning my brain for ideas. When Martin Ralya contacted me to find out if I wanted to do a pre-release review of the next Gnome Stew/Engine Publishing book, I was of course intrigued. Their last three entries were great, and I was pretty sure two of them were the result of reading my mind. Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management, by Phil Vecchione and Walt Ciechanowski, has me considering aluminum foil hats. The book has arrived as I'm feeling it's time to take starting and running a campaign seriously if I want to keep the buy-in of my group, who are all-too patient with my Game Mastering Multiple Personality Disorder (GMMPD). Odyssey should help me do just that.

The PDF is of the typical quality expected from Engine Publishing. That is to say it's bookmarked and hyperlinked, and it's just the right file size to make for a super-smooth read on my iPad Mini--or any tablet, I imagine. The font size should make for easy reading whether your tablet is 7" or 10". For fun, I put it on my wife's phone, which has a 4.75" screen, and I could read it just fine in landscape mode.

After the obligatory introduction material, which includes a foreword by the inimitable Kenneth Hite, the book is broken down into four sections. The first part is all about how the author views campaigns and why he thinks managing them properly is important. Given my current GMing situation, I didn't need much convincing, but I also identified with a lot of the explanation of when things work and when they don't, and why. If you want to give your GM (who clearly doesn't need any help--just ask him) a gentle nudge in the right direction, I'd recommend asking him to read this section before poo-pooing the book.

The main three sections of the book are Starting a Campaign, Managing a Campaign, and Ending a Campaign. Each section is broken down into steps, and each step provides questions you should ask, steps you should take, and examples of what happens when you do it right and if you don't do it so well. Throughout the book, Phil and Walt provide real life examples from their own campaigns. It was refreshing to read their mistakes as well as their successes. Also, there's a fictional gaming group that is used to help drive home each lesson in the book. I like that the group didn't seem fake. They were completely believable because I was able to see myself and other gaming friends in them.

After reading Odyssey, I came away feeling better about the mistakes I've made over the years, and feeling great about the things I know I've done well. I'm really excited to apply my newfound knowledge to future campaigns. This book will be a useful reference whenever I'm between sessions. Of course it's my hope I will spend more time in the middle of this book than in the other sections.

As I write this, it's my intention to do a "Play-Thru" of Odyssey. I'm about to start a new campaign. I may as well report on how each step works for me. The Starting a Campaign posts should come rather quickly. Perhaps Managing a Campaign posts would come as they apply. Hopefully, the Ending a Campaign posts will be farther into the future than might be usual for me.

So after writing this post, I've decided not to invest in an aluminum foil hat. If the guys at Gnome Stew really are scanning my brain for ideas, the information is clearly in good hands.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Savage Last Night on Earth, Part Three

For GenghisCon XXXIV, I made good on an age-old promise: to Savage the excellent zombie board game, Last Night on Earth (LNOE). I've run the simple scenario three times now, and by all accounts it's a hit. For my final post on this subject, I'll go over the tools I used for GMing and the setting rules I went by. I'll also give a quick explanation of my scenario.

I made a list of all the buildings on the LNOE boards I used. I should point out I used the additional boards that came in the Growing Hunger expansion, so I would have 20 buildings in all. I arranged the building names on a d20 table, but never used the list to roll up a random building. Instead, when the players mentioned a location they wanted to reach I'd pick that board and a random second board to make up the rectangle; then that combination of boards would stay together for the rest of the session.

I mentioned in a previous post that the squares on the boards were two inches. It's the conceit of the board game that adjacency means in the same square, and there is no limit to the number of miniatures that can be in a square. I saw no harm here and just went with that.  I also kept the board game rules regarding line of sight and that zombies can walk right through walls--not literally, of course, but in keeping with the source material, it's assumed they can bash through walls or dive through windows and such. This ramps up the tension in the board game, and it worked for the Savage Worlds sessions too.

I made a list of equipment you can find in game, based on what's in the board game. Most of it was standard fare, but the standouts are:
  • Fire Extinguisher: Roll Agility vs. zombie Smarts to push all zombies in a square back one space, two with a raise. Extinguisher is empty on snake eyes.
  • Torch: Zombies must make a Spirit roll to attack someone with a torch.
  • Signal Flare: One shot; successful hit destroys a zombie.
  • Chainsaw: Str+d12 damage; only requires Strength d6+ to wield for full damage benefit. Out of fuel on snake eyes.
  • Pump Shotgun: 1-3d6 damage; range 1-3 squares; damage in excess of destroying a zombie carries over to the next zombie in the same square.
  • Any weapon made of with mostly wood breaks on snake eyes, like a pitchfork or a baseball bat.
In any case, here's a copy of the cheat sheet I used at the table.

In terms of classic Savage Worlds setting rules, I had a few:
  • No ammo tracking; weapons with ammo simply run out on snake eyes; player takes an action to reload.
  • The No Mercy Edge was in effect for all characters.
  • Aces Wild from the Deluxe core rules.
  • Clint Black's classic deck shuffling rule, where the player with the fewest bennies gets a benny for shuffling the deck after a Joker was drawn.
The scenario I used for the game was simple. Based on the Burn 'Em Out scenario from the board game, the players had to destroy the pits from whence the zombies came. How many? Well I based it on how the timing of the game was going. In my initial playtest, it was four. At the convention it was three. I allowed Jake Cartwright and Sheriff Anderson to make Common Knowledge rolls to remember the first zombie attack, and therefore the spawning pits. I did tell the players to ignore the spawning pit art on the boards, and I used the extra spawning pit tokens from the board game to denote when there was a really spawning pit. Basically I started everyone in the diner and let them make their choices and had the occasional zombie attack. Super simple. Lots of fun.

Well that's it. I hope you can use this series to enjoy your own Savage Last Night on Earth!

This game references the Savage Worlds game system, available from Pinnacle Entertainment Group at www.peginc.com. Savage Worlds and all associated logos and trademarks are copyrights of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Used with permission. Pinnacle makes no representation or warranty as to the quality, viability, or suitability for purpose of this product.

Last Night on Earth, the Zombie Game is Copyright 1999-2013, Flying Frog Productions, LLC. This is a fan work and no challenge to that copyright is intended.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Savage Last Night on Earth, Part Two

For GenghisCon XXXIV, I made good on an age-old promise: to Savage the excellent zombie board game, Last Night on Earth (LNOE). I've run the simple scenario three times now, and by all accounts it's a hit. For my second post, I'll go over how I handled the zombie enemy in the game.

I'll start out by providing the zombie stat block I used:

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigor d4
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d4
Pace: 1 (Running is Pace 2); Parry: 5; Toughness: 6
Special Abilities 
- Claws: Str+d4 
- Undead: +2 Toughness; +2 to recover from being Shaken; called shots do no extra damage (except to the head). 
- Weakness: Shots to a zombie’s head are +2 damage.

If you break open your trusty Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer's Edition, you'll see this differs from the stat block in that book. I felt that LNOE zombies should do more damage but be slightly easier to take out. Also, there are cards in the board game that certainly allow players to sort of intimidate the zombies, so I dropped that. Finally, I slowed the zombies down and gave them a straight double move when they "run."

One thing I really love about LNOE is the cards the zombie player can use to enhance the zombies or mess with the players. I picked some of those and Savaged them, and then each time the players met a new set of zombies, I rolled a d10 and consulted my table to determine what their ability would be for that encounter. Here's the table with the Savaged cards:

Oh the Horror – Roll 2 Zombie Abilities.
Shamble – Zombies move d3 spaces. Running adds a d3.
Cornered – Zombies get +1 gang-up, to a maximum of +5.
I Feel Kinda Strange – If a hero takes one or more wounds, they make a Vigor roll. Failure causes an additional wound, which cannot be soaked.
Undead Hate the Living – Once per round, the GM or a Zombie Player may force a player to re-roll dice.
Uuuurrrggghh! – Zombies get a Wild Die.
“My God, They’ve Taken the…” – Zombies overrun a random building. It is lost.
New Spawning Pit – A new spawning pit forms at this location.
“This Can’t Be Happening!” – A random hero loses their Wild Die for this encounter.
Braaains! – Zombies get +1 to all attack and damage rolls.

One of the things I set up in the game is a player character would become a zombie if they were killed, which would give them one more chance to keep playing before they were completely killed out of the game. It never came up (though it came close once or twice), but here are the changes a player would make if they were killed and became a Zombie Hero (a Wildcard zombie):
  • Undead add +2 to their basic Toughness
  • Undead add +2 when attempting to recover from being Shaken
  • Undead don’t suffer additional damage from called shots, except headshots, which are +2
  • Undead Wild Cards never suffer from Wound Modifiers
  • Undead do not suffer from disease or poison
  • Pace –1 (Running adds a d2) 
  • Remove all Hindrances and Edges 
  • Remove all Skills, except Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d4 Claws Str+d4 

 Finally, I should note that since this was a convention game, I wanted to ramp up the tension as the game went along. I did this by ramping up the zombies. In hour one, the PCs faced one zombie per player. In hour two, they faced two zombies per player. Three in hour three. Four in hour four.

This game references the Savage Worlds game system, available from Pinnacle Entertainment Group at www.peginc.com. Savage Worlds and all associated logos and trademarks are copyrights of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Used with permission. Pinnacle makes no representation or warranty as to the quality, viability, or suitability for purpose of this product.

Last Night on Earth, the Zombie Game is Copyright 1999-2013, Flying Frog Productions, LLC. This is a fan work and no challenge to that copyright is intended.