Monday, November 20, 2017

And just like that, I realized Mecha really are a wondrous and terrifying reality

I recall twenty+ years ago while watching Gundam or Armored Trooper Votoms having a discussion with people who all generally seemed to agree that while mecha were cool, the reality was that no one would ever find a way to make humanoid war machines practical.

While I think it's still reasonable to say that a aerodynamic transforming mecha jet in space makes less sense when it has a pilot vs. being autonomous, this video below has now convinced me that mecha are not only in the future, but likely:

I mean....holy cow. Now imagine that guy with a seriously reinforced titanium carbon frame and thirty feet tall. Consider me.....fascinated and terrified all at once! If this sort of robotic engineering gets cheap and efficient, I predict a battlefield full of terrifying mecha killbots in twenty years or less.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Film Review: Justice League

First, I'll attempt a neutral review from a critic's viewpoint:

Justice League was a fun film, but flawed. It held the gem of hope following the success of Wonder Woman, and some of that was realized with Gal Gadot's performance. The rest of the cast and crew were fine, but this was no Avengers movie with Joss Whedon fully in control. That said, Whedon's participation was evident (even without his name in the credits) as the roughened corners of a Zak Snyder film were clearly here, polished off and rendered more acceptable to the anti-Snyder audience. In the process however the film felt less focused on one particular vision, and was painstakingly average in a year of mixed successes and failures.

Okay, now I'll write the real review, of a true DC fan:

This movie was much funnier, tighter, and focused than it otherwise might have been, probably thanks to Whedon's editing....but Snyder's absence was felt. If you hate Snyder's style, then you will not miss it in this movie; his presence is felt in only bits and bobs, like a ghost haunting the screen. If you are like me (and there are a few of us) and really like Snyder's almost resonant, mythic approach to directing then you'll sense the absence like a faberge egg....hollow on the inside but beautiful on the outside.

This film carries itself on the weight of the actors, and all of them do a fine performance (for a superhero flick). Afleck's Batman is a more reformed version, touched by the events of Batman vs. Superman in a way which has mellowed him into realizing he can't afford to be a gruff loner anymore. Gadot's Wonder Woman is just as awesome as ever, and she is the strength and spirit that binds the Justice League. Momoa actually plays a shit-kicking plain-talking fratbro Aquaman and pulls it off (YMMV but my wife also loved him). Then we have Ray Fisher's Cyborg, who was both more useful and plot-relevant than you might imagine, and managed to do the character justice. Finally there was the Flash (Ezra Miller), the junior member of the League with the least overall experience and confidence, but he got the best lines throughout the movie, with some very funny bits.

Considering this movie has all the potential for a disaster, I was really shocked to see that it came together so well. This film does lack.....a lot, honestly....compared to certain other, notably better movies out there. For example, the fight scenes in Justice League are mercifully not overly long and manage to focus on some actual action, but they remain CGI heavy in spots and are not nearly as clean and orchestrated as, to contrast, the amazing sequences seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel's movies really have cinematic superhero fight sequences down to an art now; Warner's DC films are still struggling with this, and I think Snyder just doesn't know how to do these right, to be honest.

The rest of the movie was actually pretty decent, but you do get the feeling that had Snyder been able to finish it out we might have gotten a 2 1/2 to 3 hour film, one with a lot more extraneous stuff. It might have been more compelling and amazing (for Snyder fans; tortuous for others) if this had happened, but the final film at just under two hours managed to feel exactly right to me....any longer and I would have been wondering why 2 hour films are no longer considered the gold standard, and of course any shorter and we'd all be talking about how freakishly short and undeveloped it was.

Justice League's critics are out in force, and some of the criticism once again feels a bit forced, like they are seeking clickbait....but I know plenty of people who have not liked three out of four of the prior DC Universe films, and only one who didn't like Wonder Woman. As such, it's fair to say that if this film somehow manages to rate above Batman vs. Supeman and Suicide Squad, but below Wonder Woman, I will not be surprised. This is a shame, because while it lacks the focus and polish of a Marvel Universe film, it was genuinely fun and gives me hope that the next movies in the series will build on what has come before, and hopefully Warner Brothers will manage to allow a director and producer the kind of visionary control to do what they want (like Wonder Woman), but maybe without Snyder this time. Yeah, I love his style, but clearly the DC Universe can thrive without it.

So overall: I give this one personally as a DC Fan a solid A, but my critical side says it was more of a solid B. So we'll give it an A- and let my inner selves fight it out among themselves.

Seven fun bits (SPOILERS):

1. Getting to see Steppenwolf and the paradaemons take on Themiscyra and Atlantis
2. Superman's menacing initial response to Batman: "Do you bleed?"
3. The Flash in just about every scene, stealing it. Especially the one where he rushes in to save everyone from Superman, and then realizes that Superman is the only one moving at the same time he is, at the same speed. Hysterical scene!
4. So many paradaemons. Realizing that this wasn't even an invasion from Apokalypse, but Steppenwolf merely trying to use the Earth as fuel to join Darkseid and the New Gods.
5. The flashback to the ancient war against Steppenwolf, and the army of ancient Green Lanterns.
6. The way Superman returns was oddly simple genius, from a comic book science perspective.
7. Seeing the Atlanteans and Mera really told me that DC can do this, if they just let themselves accept the scope of their own universe.

Five Problem bits (more SPOILERS):

1. Would Aquaman really be able to get drunk? Will his new friends intervene and help him out?
2. The lasso scene with Aquaman was very funny but his honest commentary at Wonder Woman was also some unfortunate timing as the press hunts down politicians, movie producers and fratbros like scattering rats in the sexual harassment scandals.
3. I was disappointed only to see Steppenwolf and no one else from the New Gods or Apokalypse.
4. Did anyone else get the feeling that the lone family in the remote Russian city making their escape was a Joss Whedon addition, to humanize the scene? My gut tells me that either that city was mercilessly assaulted and everyone killed in slow motion in some cutting floor version of Snyder's take, or it was conveniently abandoned and we could all resume not caring about endless CGI building being trashed.
5. The gang of underage teens who smelled like pot and apparently were drinking stolen liquour next to us, though in their defense they were nice and quiet so I guess that's all that mattered?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Star Wars: Battlefront II Multiplayer Impressions

Okay, since I wrote the last blog on this I've had a few hours of multiplayer to mess around and get a feel for Battlefront II, and how it is both different and very similar to the first game. My observations so far:

First, on the in-game resources to secure hero cards, it took me about 3 hours to make enough currency to purchase Vader (15,000) or maybe a couple cheaper characters (Chewbacca at 10,000 for example). Realizing that all the hype about time spent to get the heroes in-game was not exactly accurate (even if EA did drop the cost by 75% that suggested....from the articles I had read....that the time to invest would go from 40 hours to 10 hours, for example), this seems like kind of a wash, and actually still wasn't worth my time to spend the points on since --I'll be honest-- the only one in my family who likes hero battles is my son.

I decided to invest those points in some different loot crates to see what popped up. Hero and Starfighter crates are cheaper than Trooper Crates....and I suspect that's because more people are playing troopers than anything else. This garnered a weird range, as I picked up a few of each until I ran out of my 18,000 odd resources to buy stuff. I did get one item I can't use, for Chewbacca, whom I haven't unlocked yet.....and at one point got a repeat, which simply fed currency back in to my stash.

Okay, enough of the was actual game play?

Multiplayer on Blast was --wait for it-- a lot of fun (heh). The maps are large, and a few almost felt too large, at least until you get familiar with them. More than a few (such as Starkiller Base) are weird corridor slogs with periodic open areas in which to have entrenched battled. Many of the outdoor areas are actually really dynamic, but I noticed that the game seemed to have trouble with spawn points at times. One more than one occasion I got the drop on an enemy spawning nearby, and likewise they nailed me a couple times. I suspect a future patch might address this.

The game otherwise plays like a very straight forward Battlefront experience, but the equipment mechanics are tweaked ever so slightly and you no longer have those hovering star disks to pick up for random stuff like rocket launchers and orbital strikes ("horrible strikes" as my kid says). However, ever character has a wider range of star cards, and many have stacking effects. Naturally you get these through unlocks.....and those unlocks can be done at the rate you acquire currency in-game, or they can be done through purchasing that currency with actual real money, which means that I expect at some point it may become obvious that certain players are dominating the game because they have spent enormous amounts of cash to get a full collection of cards and power ups.

In fact....I sort of wondered if I wasn't already seeing that.

The game, at the end of each session, takes three points of action and shows who did the best. This includes most points, most kills, kill assists, stuff like that. In my experience with the 2016 Battlefront you usually saw three different people showing on this "best of" roster. Occasionally you might see one guy with two or even three points of domination, but it was really, really rare.

In all the games I ran through tonight (about 20-30 I think) I saw time and again one player dominate the three "top dog" spots consistently, and occasionally a second player might squeeze in. Usually this domination was by a wide margin, 2:1 or better over the next best players. It was kind of obvious, actually. My thought was....are these players who've spent the money to level all cards? Or have they played so much in the last 2 days that they managed some serious unlocks?

It didn't impact my enjoyment of the game, mind you. I tended to fall right in around 5th to 6th place on each blast event after I got in to the rhythm of the game, and I felt like the chance to excel was there. But the obvious domination by certain players of all aspects of the records seemed.....weird. Maybe its just an issue with how the game is currently handling this; they need more "best of" stats that aren't at odds with one another (most kills will almost certainly go to the same guy who gets most points, for example).

Anyway......good stuff, and if you liked the first you'll definitely like Battlefront II. Unless you love the hero modes you're not going to miss the six locked heroes much, and by my experience so far I anticipate having them all unlocked within 20-30 hours of play at the most.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

GURPS is suddenly on rpgnow!

And just like that GURPS joined the rest of the gaming community. Stealth ninja marketing at it's finest!!!

Star Wars: Battlefront II First Impressions (PS4)

It's no secret I liked Star Wars: Battlefront from 2016, even though it lacked a single player campaign, and was initially a bit anemic in terms of map content. That changed quickly enough, but the design approach to the first Battlefront, which gated map and scenario content behind for DLC packs, made for your typical fragmented couldn't just play "blast" on Cloud City, for example, without getting in queue with a bunch of hardcore mofos to play only that DLC content. Still, I played enough that I got really damned good at the game (compared to my usual level of multiplayer suck), and had tons of much so I even leveled up twice, once on the Xbox One and again on the PS4! And it is the single most played co-op/split-screen game in my house with my son, my wife and myself, too.

Anyway, that's a long winded way of saying I was totally ready for Battlefront II, and had even pre-purchased it when it went on preorder, a practice that some rightly deride, but when I know I'm going to get it, and play it, I'll make an exception.

So far, the best thing about the game is actually the single player campaign, in which you play through the story (mostly) of a special forces storm trooper named Iden Versio, who operates as a sort of black ops specialist for the Empire and watches her career take a crappy turn when they fail to intercept rebels on Endor's moon from blowing up the Death Star II's shield generators. From there its a spiraling tale of Imperial fragmentation, questioned loyalties, betrayal and revelation.

It also happens to be the best thing put out for Star Wars to date (in video game terms) since the original KOTOR. Yes, that good! Not in an RPG way, but the sense of immersion and the attention to detail with the Star Wars style from the Rebellion Era is shockingly well done. There's a sequence where you get to play Luke, and I was really thinking, "This is how they could fill in the backstory between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens....this is the perfect medium."

The rest of the single player offerings, which are a mix of co-op sequences with loose stories attached and an arcade mode which generates either team deathmatch fights or straight duels is plenty of fun, and if you've heard the stories about locked characters note that that's all for the multiplayer can play with pretty much anyone on your couch (though as you play through maps set in the Clone Wars era you might, like me, wish there were more thematically appropriate hero choices...)

The game doesn't bug you with accuracy, so if you want Kylo Ren to fight Yoda on Yavin 4, go for it. Want Rey to slug it out with Darth Maul on Kamino? Why not! This was annoying the hell out of me....especially when Darth Vader showed up working with the separatists (I had a fanboy stroke for a second) but its ultimately completely superficial. Give it time, and they will no doubt release more hero characters. Right now you can play:

Heroes: Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando, Rey, Yoda
Villains: Kylo Ren, Vader, The Emperor, Boba Fett, Bossk, Maul

I fully expect to see lots more available in the coming months, as I think there's an idea that EA wants people to buy new characters (or earn them with in game credits if they have the endurance to play long enough), and Phasma and Finn are both confirmed for release with the first DLC. It also seems likely to me that previously released heroes from the first Battlefront will inevitably make their way in to this one, which includes the likes of Nien Numb, Greedo, Bossk, Jyn Erso and Commander Krennick.

As I dive in to the multiplayer in depth I may report back with more detail to give you a sense on whether the loot crate component of the game is really something to worry about. My experience with loot crates has (so far) been as follows: they are incredibly easy to ignore, and if they appear to be irrelevant to the enjoyment of the game, then all the better. For example, despite having some egregious loot crates in Call of Duty WWII, I can't say I care one bit and they appear to offer nothing noteworthy to the play component of the game I enjoy. On the other end of the spectrum there's that Middle Earth: War for Mordor game (or whatever it's called) where my sensibilities were already offended at the liberties the game took with Tolkien characters and lore, so loot crates are just one more dump on the pile of indecency, so I can safely ignore the game entirely.

Given that only about six characters are currently locked away (including Versio, Luke, Vader, Leia, Solo, and the Emperor) but the rest are all immediately available, this just doesn't seem to be as much a problem to me as the news cycle wants it to be. On the other hand! I really hate the principle of loot crates in general, so I feel like apathetic "meh, it's not so bad" is unfortunately just my own psyche accepting that the standards of game development have reached a new, inevitable all-time low this year with the standardization of these things. Next year, when the 2018 holiday release includes games that start sneaking pay-to-win loot crates in to the experience? Yeah, that's going to be too much. I hope. a deep, unapologetic fan of the new Battlefront series, if you just got this game for the campaign mode you would not go wrong. And if you like the multiplayer (and can resist buying loot crates), then you will show that you are strong in the force, too!

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Psychological Effect of Pathfinder Pocket Editions

These books continue to amaze me. Sure, they're just the exact same rule books I ran my campaigns with from 2009 to about mid 2013. Yeah, they're exactly the same game in every possible way, with all that entails for Pathfinder.

But holy cow they are suddenly the most portable thing I've got,* and complete, too! I want an easy-to-stow "go anywhere" set of rules that takes up minimal space and affords all the luxuries you might want in a robust rule set? Pathfinder's pocket editions have totally got you covered. Add a set of miniature dice and a 5x9 notebook and you've got yourself a stew going.

I'm definitely not advocating that if you didn't like Pathfinder before then you will suddenly fall for it. But I am saying that the psychological impact of these tiny tomes for someone like myself is shocking....I've been genuinely enjoying reading these Pathfinder books again, with almost a weird, nostalgic fervor. I'm remembering the fun times I had with Pathfinder all of a sudden rather than the intense drag I all too often recalled in the past.

I know it's a combination of "tiny and cute" and "all in my head," but I can't help it! Weird, I know.

I mean....I bet I could fit six frickin' Pathfinder pocket rulebooks into a single Pathfinder Beginner Box! (EDIT: Almost! The box needs to be a little wider, but you can get the Bestiary, Core Rules and GameMastery Guide in there, totally. I mean, if you take out the Basic Box stuff. You know what I mean!)

Anyway, if you're keeping score they have so far released pocket editions of:

Pathfinder Core Rulebook
Advanced Player's Guide
GameMastery Guide
Ultimate Equipment
Bestiary 2

Bestiary 3 and 4 along with Ultimate Magic and Advanced Class Guide are up for pocket editions next. I imagine we'll continue to get more, as it seems these must be selling well. Wizards of the Coast take heed! I could sure use some pocket editions of D&D 5E, too. I'm getting old, and my back hurts carrying eighty pounds of books to game night.

While searching around on my blog I realized that I have a real "thing" for pocket editions of RPGs. Go figure!

Final note: none of the above really relates to reality, which right now is that I am totally loving Xanathar's Guide to Everything and can't wait to get to D&D Wednesday for some 5E fun. More on this magical tome later this week.

*I have lots of highly portable OSR stuff, yes, but nothing that lets me roll a tiefling inquisitor or oread ranger/witch. The fascination I have for these pocket editions is the fact that they pack so much complexity for their size. Not everyone wants that, of course. But man am I on a crunch kick right now, and I don't know why. The only retroclone in the OSR domain I am familiar with that shoots for "more options" rather than less is Blood & Treasure...and you know, I'd buy a pocket edition of that one, too.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Traveller Archive!

It's about time I had one.....anyway, go here to see all the blog's Traveller articles (or all I could find using the search function) in one spot.

And the winner remains: Traveller

Although there's definite interest in trying out Starfinder, my group resumed our ongoing Traveller game tonight instead. We'll rotate this with Call of Cthulhu for a while (I'll get back to the Mesopotamia campaign when I decide what system to proceed with).

Traveller (MGT2E version) remains insidiously easy and available. It helps that I've worked out most of an entire sector for my "Authority Sector" campaign, a remote region at the fringe of the Imperium where most of the local nobles have pulled their interests out and essentially subcontracted the work of sector administration and enforcement to the Sector Authority. The group has some ongoing characters who've already been involved in fairly world-shattering (literally) events, and they continue to ply their trade as mercs and traders while hoping the law doesn't catch up to stuff.

The group currently consists of a Aslan bioresearcher who has a sociopathic talent, a retired military veteran who grew disenfranchised with the Imperium, a young psionically adept woman who escaped from the clutches of an order known as the Omnium Collective, a professional cyber thief who pulled off the greatest heist ever but lives on the run and an ex mafia-type who slept with the boss's wife and has been on the run ever since. This does not include deceased former PCs!

Traveling with the group (right now) includes a young noble child who the group kidnapped for reasons even I as GM am not sure about, an aslan woman who specializes in smuggling alien embryos for research, and they're about to get embroiled in a local religious war.

The thing I love about least, my that Traveller campaigns seem to go like this:
1. Show up in system, find starport, spend hours buying and selling while repairing and refuelling. Watch money go away.
2. Find patron(s) and grab job.
3. Head to planet X and in process of doing job for patron get embroiled in local politics.
4. Have horrific Reservoir-Dogs like conclusion to business, escape with lives (sometimes) and ship barely intact.
5. Go to 1.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Hyperlanes vs. Starfinder

I've been reading Hyperlanes lately, and also reading Starfinder, and I admit...I'm kind of torn.

Hyperlanes has the following pros:

  • Fantastic alien design system for players that gets unique results fast
  • Six core classes that appear diverse and interesting
  • Hardcore space opera SF thematics; you add magic if you want from D&D 5E, but it assumes nothing
  • The gambits are a interesting and effective way of having "spells" without having spells
  • A simple but effective chart/template mechanic for designing NPCs and foes quickly with a default balance mechanism

Hyperlanes cons so far:

  • As near as I can tell, there's very little escalating damage baked in to the game, but hit points keep accruing. This suggests higher level games will be long slogs of "get shot twenty times" events which has me nervous; 5E usually balances high HP at upper levels with high damage output.
  • Absence of any sort of psionic class without reskinning seems like an oversight
  • The weapons tables are pathetically small for a SF game, which relies on equipment and tech as a key feature (imo)
  • It doesn't appear to have any pending support forthcoming in the future

Contrast with Starfinder....

The Starfinder Pros:

  • A robust range of classes, pregenerated alien races, and some interesting mix-ups on the D20 mechanic with themes and archetypes baked in
  • A really extensive set of mechanics for equipment, ships and gear
  • A very nice monster manual (Alien Archive) that oozes with plot ideas
  • Plenty of support for your favorite sci-fi themed space fantasy game that aims for the veneer of "high tech" fantasy
  • One could conceivably use Spelljammer universe design principles with Starfinder and get away with it

The Starfinder Cons:

  • It's running on the Pathfinder 3.75 D20 system so YMMV
  • Why do starships have levels? Why does gear have levels? Why is this all mapped out in a manner which feels suspiciously like the gamey D&D 4E approach?
  • Thematically tied to the Pact Worlds setting in a manner which feels hard to easily separate the setting from
  • Aimed at high-tech space fantasy only; hard SF need not apply (in it's defense hard SF wouldn't be able to apply at Hyperlanes, either....but it could pretend more easily)

Decisions, decisions.

My group is largely leary of Pathfinder. I have two "hell yeahs" and a mess of "oh nos" to contend with. But if I run it, I think they will give Starfinder a shot. Hyperlanes has so much coolness going for it, though......but I predict a game lasting to level 5-6 before we start noticing that the only dude with escalating damage of note is the muscle. For me, I'm really tired of "high hit point" style games and even D&D 5E gets a bit annoying for it at times. Pathfinder handled it fine until about 10th level when everything started to get too big, too gonzo. 5E remains balanced consistently throughout, and it plays very well as a result....but I am concerned that maybe Hyperlanes' classes weren't thought through so carefully, and their escalating structure is missing as a result.* I'll need to play around with it a bit more, see if I can identify if there's something there I'm just missing.

But Starfinder...wooo! That Alien Archive alone makes me want to run this baby. Hmmmm.

(It doesn't help that I've been thinking seriously about returning to Pathfinder for a campaign again. Sigh)

*Example: most core 5E classes do one of the following: gain extra attacks on their attack action (fighter), gain damage increases for their special (rogue) gain level up bonuses (all casters with at-wills) or similar effects that have a net result of the class insuring that as you level up and foes get tougher, your ability to dish it out gets better. It makes lower CR foes easier to kill, and higher level foes aren't as devastating if you are able to concentrate fire. I'm just not seeing that in the Hyperlanes class structure for most of the options, even though HPs will go up, and creature templated damage goes up. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Cool new stuff: 13th Age Bestiary 2, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea 2E, Symbaroum: The Witch Hammer and Conan RPG

A number of new games have started filling my "to be read" shelf. If you didn't know about the following, here's a head's up:

My print copy arrived last week, and after unpacking the monster I have to say it's a really impressive package. The original boxed set was very nice and retro, but this beast will hold it's own at the table, clocking in at an impressive 608 pages with a full color map insert. Everything you liked about the 1st edition --plus a lot more-- can be found within, but this time in a weighty tome that almost dwarfs Zweihander in size. Almost. I'm keeping the two together on the shelf right now, they make Hero System 6th look like a slim economy system when placed next to each other.

Symbaroum is a fascinating Swedish fantasy RPG in the vein of "simple rules, dark classic fantasy" with some impressive art and design. The second major campaign book is now out, and honestly, this is one of the few "packaged world setting" books I will likely run exactly as day, when I get around to it. Like the other tomes, this one is a mix of campaign setting content and modules, written in a sort of open-world style that I really enjoy.

If you're on the fence about Symbaroum, I'd liken it to a cross between Zweihander, Beyond the Wall, and Grim Dawn, but with better art design and a slick, modern system.

13th Age remains my favorite D&D alternative. When I am not running a D&D 5E campaign it is probably because I am running a 13th Age campaign. The new Bestiary 2 only enourages such campaigning because it is chock full of amazing monster adaptations and evocative ideas for your own games. Like the first Bestiary, but even cooler.

I hardly feel like this one needs pimping, but now that I have a physical copy in hand and have had some time to explore it, I feel compelled to offer my support for a very well designed and researched RPG. Conan was my primary gateway in to fantasy fiction and gaming, right behind Tolkien, and evidence of Howard's (and Carter, de Camp, Nyberg, Wagner, etc.) influence in my own gaming and fiction preferences is obvious. I also (fair disclosure) wrote some books for the Mongoose seeing Modiphius make such a fine book is really fantastic, and I can't wait to give this iteration a spin.

I had a chance in 2005 to write for Mongoose. I did Tales of the Black Kingdoms, and the second and third books in the Messantia Adventures set. Some of my Black Kingdoms content somehow showed up in their Return to the Road of Kings release, too. Writing for Mongoose was an interesting experience.....but the  pay was not bad, honestly. Tales was commissioned based on a book idea I pitched (I was quite happy to dive in to it). Messantia Adventures was a request....the author dropped from the project (or moved to another) after writing book one, and so I was asked to write the system material (book 2) and adventure (book 3). It was....tough, I'll put it that I hated what he had done in book 1 (it had little that I felt was distinctly genre-appropriate, and was not written to be engaging), and disliked what was required of book 2. Writing social combat rules that were instructed to be in volume 2 when I felt they were not appropriate for Conan as a genre was hard, but I had a lot of fun working up the adventure in book 3. The final boxed set had a great set of cards, some not bad art, but as I recall some map errors that only lamp-shaded the problems Mongoose had with product quality, errata and typos. Tales had issues too, albeit less so than Messantia....odd typos, some changes to the adventure I didn't really follow, but overall wasn't that bad. Plus it had one of the best covers in the line, I felt.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Griping about Mythras Combat

Recently I've been running a campaign set in ancient Mesopotamia, powered by Mythras. In some ways this seems like a no-brainer: Mythras by design appears to be eminently suited to running a historical campaign set in the ancient world, and it absolutely is.

But....I really dislike the combat system, I've decided. Every time I run Mythras I am confronted with the specter of my more intimate familiarity with the BRP system, especially Magic World and Call of Cthulhu. I keep saying, "why does this game have so damned many special exceptions, variables and obscure little mechanical contrivances to do what the other BRP games accomplish to exactly the same effect, but with fewer rules and less effort?"

I've told my group we can plow on through....the last time I had a successful campaign with the Mythras system it was shortly after RQII from Mongoose released, and I remember I was about three sessions in and hating the combat system before it "clicked" and seemed to get easier, as well. Maybe that will happen here....or maybe I'll wimp out and tell everyone to convert to BRP.

I suppose I could also mod out Mythras a bit. Borrow some BRP elements and simply adapt Mythras to work more to my liking. Instead of tracking action points, just tell everyone "you have  2 APs" and then instead of Evading and Parrying costing APs use the mechanic where each successive dodge or parry incrementally increases in difficulty by 30%.

I could also keep the APs but have each person take a single combat round to spend all three, then reason out order of actions from there. "I run 6 meters that way, draw sword, attack" can become one declaration rather than drawn out over three phases of a round.

I could state that specials don't happen unless they are pre-declared, and use the mechanical reward of specials as the confirmation that the special happened.

If I were ever to have an opportunity to suggest a rewrite to the system, I would get rid of descriptors used in place of actual numbers. No more "increase/decrease 1 increment, go see other chart X that we don't tell you about here" nonsense. No more "Formidable" or other descriptors, just tell me right here what the frickin' value is. I hate it when a system adds two layers to a task by attaching a descriptor and a number, where the number is what you need, then forces the descriptors in the text instead o just know...numbers. FFG's Star Wars RPG does this (sort of). FATE does this. It's all annoying.

Some of this will make it more like BRP, of course, but I consider that a good starting point. Mythras remains forever a weird duck to me, because it changed the mechanical foundation of BRP style combat just enough to throw it all off, and in the name of elaboration and detail it sacrificed flexibility and intuitiveness--at least, until you play it long enough for everything to become second nature. But I just don't have the energy and time anymore to get to that point....I don't think. Do I?

Things I must mull over. But damn if we (my group) don't all agree that Mythras remains the system we love so much until it comes to the combat.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Call of Duty: WWII First Impressions (PS4 release)

I'm about five hours in to exploring a mix of the campaign, multiplayer and zombies modes in Call of Duty: WWII (which fortuitously came out as my extremely busy last two months of work came to a pause), and it's an interesting enough bag of angry cats that I felt compelled to comment on it....

First off: The Campaign

The campaign mode isn't going to win converts over. It's got the exact same linear format that you see in all other CoD campaigns, which means you're basically on rails with just enough room to not feel like it. The cut scenes/story is really well done, as you might expect; after several years of grizzled future mercenaries mugging the camera while betraying each other with shocking regularity, the homey forties-style "average guy sent to war" comraderie of the characters in the main story is downright quaint and refreshing all at once.

Unfortunately the cut scenes end and suddenly you are forced to play a game which is simultaneously the CoD we all know and either love or loathe, or maybe have gotten tired of.....but they decided to mix it up with two things I feel are contentious: quick time events (QTEs) and health pack regeneration.

QTEs are easy to hate, so I won't elaborate. You're forced to aimlessly hit random button/swing of the analog stick moves to get past a cut scene that has been arbitrarily gamified.

Health packs (medkits) though......I know health pack regeneration is a hallmark of classic gaming, and there's a division among FPS fans on those who feel that auto-regeneration is unrealistic and coddling vs. those who really enjoy not scrounging for arbitrary resources every fifty feet to heal up. Having gotten quite used to the "hide and regenerate" method since Modern Warfare (I forget if World at War introduced it) I have to say....going back to health packs, which for about ten minutes seemed amazingly cool, suddenly became the most immersion-breaking component of the single player experience yet. Here's why:

Stopping to heal with a med pack every couple of minutes lampshades just how non-immersive the experience is. People who claim this is more realistic aren't thinking about what's going on here. If you use the "hide and regenerate" mechanic it's surprisingly easy to assume your PC narrowly averted a near-death experience by taking cover, and that the indicators on screen suggest a bullet grazed you, or the are a metaphor for a near death event. But a medkit says, "I am taking the seventh dose of morphine and bandages in as many minutes, and that directly suggests I am very badly shot up, but I'm the only guy on the battlefield with a magic medkit which heals me, and only me, with perfect precision and no consequences of overdose, ever."

I'll have to try it on a hardcore mode, maybe it limits your medkit useage, which I would find more appropriate. But I've heard at the hard move the accuracy of the enemy becomes painfully, annoyingly precise even when blind hmmm.

Finally, the game doesn't feel to me like it was fine-tuned for the medkits. It doesn't offer as many reasonable cover points for hiding to heal as you'd expect (at least, it felt to me like it was offering the usual "charge forward" thematics of most CoD campaigns while discouraging that tactic with the medkit requirement). You also are assailed with uncommonly accurate distance shooters in the campaign, who target you like you're their bitch when you're forced to hold the line at a mounted gun.

On top of all of it, odds are there's always a medkit nearby, or a medic ready to hand you one. If you're going to add resource management to the game, then why not make these things more scarce? I'll have to try it on hard mode and see if that changes things.

So....good bits, but actually more frustrating than normal for a CoD campaign.

Next: Multiplayer

Mutliplayer is much tighter, and you can tell more effort at fine-tuning it went in to the design. It's actually a real pleasure to play on the PS4...when you can get it to work. So far it's been 50/50 on whether the online component was working when I log in so far.

Interestingly, the multiplayer uses the "hide and regenerate" mechanic, which I kind of wish it didn't....if it had an optional setting which let you turn on the medkit rule, and then allow it only once or twice per life, that would be a really cool hardcore option (hmmm maybe it does and I haven't found it yet). Think about could have a hardcore immersive mode in multiplayer. That would be cool (YMMV but I would love it; not surprising, given that I enjoy the hardcore modes most of all in CoD MP).

Overall the success of MP in CoD:WWII will depend entirely on how many current CoD fans are willing and able to go back to the less jumpy thematics of old school combat, and set aside the wacky wall-running of the last three years' of games. For what I want, the WWII multiplayer is fantastic.

Finally: Zombies

The WWII Zombies campaign is least explored so far but I got through the prologue. So far it looks more elaborate, and provides a shockingly higher level of serious detail to the storyline. I am intrigued to explore this option at length and will report more later. For now, let's just say that if you really want to play Ving Rhames killing zombies in WWII, this is the only place you can. this point, my suggestion is: if you have been waiting for CoD to get back to where it was in the Modern Warfare and original Black Ops/World at War era, this is it (except for the medkits). But I don't think the campaign is living up to the original Call of Duty 1 and 2, except for the amazing graphics. As for multiplayer, if you think the future was held in Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare, then this is not the CoD you are looking for.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Ruins of the Four Corners - Aztec and Salmon Ruins

By fortuitious coincidence I had an opportunity to explore some ruins in the four corners area after a work event. No family around to go "But I'mmmm Booooored!" means I get to take my time and enjoy the trip....anyway, had fun in two Chaco Outlier sites, relatively easy to get to in the Bloomfield/Farmington/Aztec area: Aztec Ruin is the more public and accessible (and very well restored) location, but Salmon Ruin had better literature with more interesting "here's what we found in here" facts, which was cool....

Anyway....there is nothing like exploring some ruins (even if it's well restored in a ranger-maintained national park!) to really here you go:

Exterior shot of the main complex at Salmon Ruin.
Not as restored as Aztec, but every room was laden with interesting details.
Also the site of a room with an identified ceremonial altar
used to mark sunlight around June 19-22 for the Summer Solstice.

Old ranch house/barn remains near Salmon Ruin

The Tall Kiva entry with restored ladder approximately where the
Sipapu roof entrance would be.
Entry to Aztec Ruin's hidden interior, where you can first pass through restored
original entries as intended, but then turn west and you are faced with numerous
taller, reinforced entrances dug by turn-of-the-century pot hunters leading
into the deep, dark interior...

Looking back through the deep, dark interior of Aztec Ruin

Panorama of the ruins from the north side view

View from the south side of Aztec Ruins

The fully restored/recreated Great Kiva at Aztec Ruin
The restored/recreated interior of the Great Kiva at Aztec Ruin. It had an unmistakable "feel" it as a place of ceremony and worship. It was also incredibly quiet and cool inside.

Both of these sites popped up around 1084-1090 AD and thrived until the collapse sometime around 1180-1200 AD of the greater Chaco Culture in the region. Both of these ruins were outliers to the main Chaco Complex (which is a fantastic exploration in its own right), which itself was either an outlier of or influenced through trade by northern Mexican traders (pochtecca, as they would be known during the Aztec period) of the Mogollon culture as well as Hohokam groups in southwestern Arizona.

The Chaco Complex was part of a northern trade network operating around the time the post-classic period Toltecs were going in to active collapse in central-southern Mexico. This strikes me as a bit too much of a coincidence....even if the Chacoans in these regions never met an actual Toltec trader, they no doubt traded with other northern complexes such as the Mogollon group at Casas Grandes (which had some overlap around 1130-1180 AD) in northern Mexico (Chihuahua province), as many trade goods, including carefully kept macaws, demonstrate.

If there wasn't some non-coincidental consequence that ultimately impacted the greater Southwest region as a result of conflict or an interruption of trade I would be very surprised. Even something as simple as a collapse in trade with the south, followed by a few years of drought near 1280 AD, could have been enough, as this was not a region known for stable conditions. The dwellings were ultimately abandoned and settlements began to appear elsewhere in the region, such as the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Those cliff dwellings are incidentally better, more defensible positions (as well as providing better access to resources, albeit with more climbing)....just saying! Remember, when the material provided talks about "social differences or conflict," that's polite phrasing for "somebody was probably killing their neighbors around here." Not always....but sometimes, for sure. And if resources are suddenly scarce? That doesn't help.

Keep in kind that, depending on which scholar you read, it is possible (likely, in fact) that the Athabaskan groups we know as the Apache and the Navajo began to arrive in the region, right around the time of abandonment in the area. The ancestral first land of the Navajo called Dinetah, which is directly east of these ruins, is awfully close. There's a lot of evidence that these new arrivals did not get along well with the existing puebloan groups.

This is also a gaming blog, so it seems unfair not to include some actual maps. Next time you have a neolithic high desert culture that needs a community for trade, commerce and ceremony, consider these:

Aztec Ruin Map

Salmon Ruin Map

Monday, October 30, 2017

Zweihander: The Grim & Perilous RPG free in PDF right now

Grab it here! The PDF of Zweihander, and enormous Warhammer Fantasy RPG retroclone is free right now until Nov. 1st. Well worth it, trust me....I have it in print and the sucker is giant, and very, very complete. Thanks to Tenkar for spreading the word.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

13th Age: The Death of Kalen Dan Hesperos (Lingusia in the Age of Strife)

Earlier this year I ran a reasonably long campaign that took a party of level 1 13th Age characters from 1st to 7th level. The initial story arc was as follows: escorting one of the PC's cousins, the knight Hesperos, to be buried after he was killed in a battle with trolls. Here's my very lightly cleaned-up main notes from that first story arc:

The Death of Kalen Dan Hesperos:

Opening Event: the group is part of a caravan that just arrived from the southern route to Dagger Falls in the city of Lancaster. The caravan has set up camp in the grounds outside the city when the Mihidir Trolls make a major strike! A Troll Warbrute is leading a charge to destroy the city gates….as the PCs seek to protect the caravan, the knight Kalen Dan Hesperos, who was negotiating a fair price for supplies with the Merchant Nesmith, asks them to aid him in fending off the attack. The city is more vulnerabile than usual as half the main garrison was sent east to investigate an attack on Baldric Castle. Most of the remaining garrison are fresh recruits from Octzel, assigned for a summer of drilling and general patrol duty. The trolls haven’t mounted any raids in nearly a year….

Encounter One: Lancaster, which is built defensively against a great wall along the mountain, is sieged by an army driven by the mihidir trolls, led by several massive trollish warbrutes…a 50 foot tall giant bred as a living siege engine. The trolls are led by the warmage Hanun-Daval, an ambitious mihidir warmage who seeks to destroy the human city and claim it for his people.

The PCs are pipsqueaks in this. They can run interference while Kalen Dan Hesperos tackles the warbrute. Hesperos will be picked up by his war griffon and start the attack, leaving the PCs to face a horde of mihidir shock troops:

Encounter #1:
1 Troll leader (troll, main book)

1 Mihidir Warmage
1st level caster (humanoid, lesser giant)
Init +4
AC 17 PD 11 MD 15 HP 26
Black Bolt +6 ranged attack against up to 3 nearby targets, 2 necrotic damage per bolt
Claws +6 attack, 3 damage; on a 16+ target takes 6 damage from a rend
Dread Growth (5-6); pick one Mihidir grunt. The grunt grows to large size for the remainder of the combat, gaining 20 hit points and doubling its claw and rend damage, but discards its cleaver.
Trollish Regeneration 5: when damaged the mihidir warmage heals 5 damage at the start of its next turn. It has 5 regeneration tokens. It does not regenerate and loses a token if dealt fire or acid damage.

The mihidir war mage is a clever troll of the mihidir kindred, born and bred in the depths of the Ancient City of their kind for war and magic. The warmages are indoctrinated at an early age in to the teachings of the god Thasrik, lord of slavery and domination. They learn to abuse and subjugate the grunts to tortures considered “humane” and “character building” in the eyes of the mihidir elite. Over time, the best are culled from the chattel and taught a mixture of necromancy and polymorphic magic, especially the ability to enhance the already volatile chemistry of trollish flesh.

20 Mihidir Grunts (mook)
1st level troop (humanoid, lesser giant)
Init +3
AC 17 PD 15 MD 11 HP 7
Cleaver Strike +6 attack, 4 damage; on a 1 or 2 attack roll cleaver breaks!
Claws +6 attack, 3 damage; on a 16+ target takes 6 damage from a rend
Trollish Regeneration 5: when damaged the mihidir grunt heals 5 damage at the start of its next turn. It loses this ability if dealt fire or acid damage. The troll may make a save (11+) when dropping 0 HP, so long as it has not taken acid or fire damage it will restore 5 hit points.

The mihidir grunts are medium sized trolls by any other standard, but still stand at least 6-7 feet tall against men and elves. Bred in the breeding pits of Thasrik, the grunts know only slavery, subjugation and torture. They are raised and released as dogs of war, chattel to be thrown against the enemy. The average grunt is an adult by age 6 and dead by age 7.

If the PCs somehow get in to a major tussle with the warbrute:

Mihidir Warbrute
5th level huge wrecker (greater giant)
Init +8
AC 22 PD 20 MD 13 HP 220
Claws +10 attack (two attacks), 30 damage per hit. If both attacks hit a living target it deals 20 extra rend damage and tosses the target 15 feet.
Siege Strike: If both claw attacks hit, and the target is an object (such as a porticullis or defensive castle wall), then double the damage and target collapses if both attack rolls were 16+.
Trollish Regeneration 5: when damaged the mihidir warbrute heals 20 damage at the start of its next turn. It has 5 regeneration tokens. It does not regenerate and loses a token if dealt fire or acid damage.

The worst spawn of the breeding pits, the warbrutes are shaped and morphed into monstrous savages by the mihidir elite to become living siege engines. The warbrutes are so large, some up to 50 feet tall, that they are often mistaken for giants. They can transport dozens of mihidir grunts and are usually “directed” by a mihidir troll.

Side Action: Kalen Dan Hesperos will slay a warbrute on his own, where the troll lord Hanun-Daval is mounted, and almost kill him as well, but not before Hanun-Daval rips his heart from his chest and then somehow manages to slink away, calling a retreat as he does. The green troops of Lancaster rally, when the High Priestess Elana Tovarei (of Mitra) appears and aids them with columns of fire. She seems to take a great toll in calling this magic forth, however.

 The PCs should, ideally, be regarded as exceptional for their efforts in the battle, and if possible their close proximity to where Hesperos fell.

Elana Tovarei will rush to the aid of Hesperos, but see that he has been mortally wounded (and his heart missing). She will grieve, but after a day’s ceremonies she will announce that he is to be canonized for his great deeds over many years as a defender of Lancaster, and so the duke Maldric Gonn Esantras will declare that a procession shall carry his remains to the Island of Mitra off the coast of the capitol for burial in its tombs as a saint in the goddess’s honor.

Either their presence on the battlefield or their relationship to the Dann will lead the PCs to be invited to escort the procession.

The procession will start off well enough; the journey will be led by priestess Elana Tovarei, who PCs may deduce had some sort of relationship with Hesperos. Thirty pilgrims of the High Temple of Mitra and ten monks of the Order of Graethos will accompany the procession and carry the decorated coffin by hand. It makes for slow going, but seems to be the proper ritual. A dozen additional soldiers who all served under Hesperos also volunteer to accompany the procession as guards, along with the PCs.

Travel Encounters:

1.       A farmer with his family have a broken wheel on their melon cart. Their two horses are a bit sickly. It’s raining and they need assistance.
2.       An area has washed out and revealed a stream exposing bones and old armor. The armor has ancient marks on it; it looks like old Halic armor, from the barbarian peoples of old, predating Octzel’s founding. The stream cuts through an innocuous hill, but a partial dolmen has been exposed. 50% chance of a wight and skeletons inside….
3.       A caravan of musicians and murmers passes and tries to entertain, despite the dour nature of the funeral procession. Before being run off by the priests a woman dressed as death will proclaim that the funeral is a farce, and that she senses no soul to be buried….if pursued, the high priestess will contend she is a fraud, and expose her as such rather cruelly.
4.       One day a horse in the group collapses and dies. It seems to have some sickness that made it overly pale and weak.
5.       An orcish warband will be spotted in the distance and pace the group, waiting for an opening to strike, or maybe just to suss out vulnerabilities before deciding to look for easier prey elsewhere. The orcs are led by Huul Drag, a younger warrior looking to make a name for himself. They will follow for at least 3 days to assess weakness, and prospect of making a name for their band if an attack succeeds.

Days 1-3: uneventful, but slow due to rain and mud. Each PC makes a DC10 save vs, CON to avoid coming down with a cold or flu. Failure means they must roll again each day and take -2 penalties on all actions until better.
   Observant PCs will notice that Elana seems to be sick as well, and gets worse as the procession continues.

Day 4: The procession arrives at the mountain overpass, where a crossroads with a hangman’s tree is located, as well as the nearby Inn of the Croaking Raven. The skies remain dark and dour, the rain almost constant. Everyone is ill and there is a worry the pass will suffer from flooding and washouts. Elana calls to stay the night here, and wait out the rains.

The innkeeper, a stout fellow named Taunten, offers his cellar for the body, but several customers will quietly steal away. These four men will make their way to the bandit enclave where the brigand Artosios Valdurante operates….a former Hyrkanian soldier who went awol two years ago during the war and has set up his private army as a bandit prince. He is intrigued at the idea that the coffin may contain a saint’s body, and associated magical reliquaries. He decides to take it…

Day 5: the group finds the rains unabated, and three trappers arrive saying that they saw a storm giant in the pass. Elana grows sicker, and that afternoon the innkeep tells the PCs his daughter Masra has gone missing, and he is worried she may have been lured away by the local bandits (he’ll speak of the brigand Artosios). If they take his offer of 100 gold to look for her while the group is stuck here, he will do his best to describe where she might have gone. Tracking is impossible in the rain and mud, however.

If the group leaves for a day to look for the daughter then they will be absent when the group is attacked that night and the bandits haul the coffin off. If they do not go, then they will be there when approximately 40 bandits and the brigand prince Artosios attack.

(32 level 0 bandits L1)
(8 level 1 bandits L2)
(1 level 3 bandit prince L4)

They’ll try to abscond with the coffin in a bargain for the lives of the priests and monks. Failing that, they’ll try to torch the inn. If the PCs are absent, they will return to find that the bandits escaped with the coffin after taking the priestess Elana hostage, but three knights defending the coffin fell, though not before a dozen bandits were killed. The rest of the knights are out trying to find her in this event.

Day 6: The bandits are back with the coffin and possibly Elana by midnight, assuming they succeed. If they failed, then this event does not happen and there is one more day of dreary rain and flooding.

The bandit caves are north of the crossroads, not far from an abandoned lumber mill (about 7 miles). Locals, such as the trappers, will mention that they have seen the bandits going in to and out of a valley beyond the old Harrid Mill. They also warn that the mill is haunted. Leaving in the morning will mean most of the day is spent travelling due to the horrible weather conditions.

The Harrid Mill: Vance Fatterad ran this mill long ago and stripped the region of trees. He and his boys were rough woodsmen, but they were all curious looking souls, overly large and ungainly. No one ever spoke of their mother…..because as it turns out she was a gruesome ogre woman named Abara, kept deep in a basement below the mill!

After a major fire the mill was abandoned, Fatterad and his boys were run out when accusations of their impure blood were leveled. They left Abara behind, though….stories are the place is haunted by Fatterad’s wife, but they are only half true. She’s still alive, and lives in a carefully dug out complex beneath the mill where she and a new pack of ogre children now reside.

Anyone poking around the mill will risk getting caught in a spike or pit trap, or spotted by ogres. A careful search can reveal the secret trap door that opens up to the compound below. Abara has grown to immense size, unable to move from her bed chamber, but her boyz are busy expanding the complex and providing for her.

Regardless….anyone searching for Masra will find her blue scarf in the ruins. Turns out she may have been taken by the ogres below…in fact, interrogating an ogre will reveal they captured her, but then their brother “Ghasambad” stole her away!

The Valley:  The valley has several denizens of note, including…
1.       Ghasambad, son of Abara – an ogre penitent who regrets the family he grew up in, but remains close to his mother to try and mitigate the evil his siblings may commit to. He just rescued Masra and is keeping her at her camp to heal her wounds. She has taken a liking to him.
2.       Near the entrance to the cave is a scout lookout point where usually four bandits are assigned to guard at any given time.
3.       A wild bullette roams this area, and likes to stomp and churn and prance and threaten any who approach its territory at the base of the valley. Astute trackers will notice the embedded trails go well around the valley floor.

The Bandit Cave: The cave entrance is shadowed and hard to spot along the cliff walls toward the valley’s end. The entrance contains tall pillars of stone carved into crude images of ancient solders and monsters, and the walls are covered in the main entry with ancient petroglyphs of Halic design. Inside the main entrance is a passage opening into a huge amphitheater-like cave where an immense stalagmite has been carved in the crude image of a giant, ancient mother goddess figure which resembles an ancient rendition of the goddess Hellias, or possibly Karsyllym.

The bandits have turned this chamber into a large encampment, and a hole in the ceiling with ladders leads to a smaller upper chamber where Artosios dwells with two women, Kala (human) and Etana (tiefling) serve as his consorts. He also keeps a small horde here of some 3,200 GP, 3 potions of healing, a potion of strength (+4 STR 1 hour), a quiver of ten twin strike arrows and a longsword +1. Lots of trade goods are here as well, and a crude rope pulley system for lifting and lowering goods. He’ll have the coffin in the lower area, having not yet raised it.

Below in the encampment are his fifty-odd followers, less any lost in prior excursions.

If the adventurers arrive here within hours of the coffin’s capture, they will find the entire camp abuzz with activity. Assuming they are looking for the girl and not the coffin, they will find the same. 

If the coffin has been here a day or more, they’ve opened it and discovered the secret within: Hesperos has become a vampire with his heart captured by the troll warlord! He has slain the bandits and they have been raised as an army of undead…..but Hesperos will lie dormant in the coffin. If Elana was captured, she will be silent and terrified in the upper chamber, protecting the two women and possibly the bandit prince. If forced to confront what happened, she will reveal that she needs to get Hesperos to the temple to purify him and save his soul from the troll warlord….nothing else will work. But so long as the coffin is not opened, he will remain at rest!

Part II: this could go a few ways, but in the campaign as run the adventurers made it to a port where they took Hesperos, contained once more, by sea to the Isle of Enki where he was properly put to rest by the priests. Perhaps more on that soon!