Friday, May 29, 2015

Consumerism, the Nerd, and Myself

Thanks for the chuckle, Fanboys Online!

I'm the sorta guy whose money comes flowing from his wallet lest it catch fire. Don't let me walk into a comic book shop, cause I'll empty that sucker if left to my own devices. "I only need $50 to eat this month, right?" Give me an income and watch what most of it goes to, just go ahead, watch! Now, I never really payed this much attention, even with my parents warning me that this was all a bad idea. I mean, what did they know? Their finances weren't mine! I do what I want!

Boy, did I get a rude wake-up call in marriage.

Enter my wife, Maria, who has a tighter wallet than Scrooge MacDuck (Love you honey! Don't kill me when you read this!). She was always somewhat amused by my spending habits, until my money became our money. It's not even that she hates it when I get stuff, but apparently you need a hell of a lot more than 50 bucks to eat in a month. And then there's other things... like baby clothes. And diapers. Y'know, small stuff. So my budget's shrunk a little bit.

The funny thing is that being on a more limited budget's forced me to sit out on the vast majority of releases. And it sorta occurred to me: how many of those games did I actually need? It's not like I have the time, especially now that we've got a son. Furthermore, why the heck do I need new games? A classic game, like any other classic, can be returned to, over and over again, and something new is added to your experience, because you're different and bring something new. I mean, how many times have I played Warrior Within? And loved it each and every time, flaws and all? Or Twilight Princess? Let's face it, great games are rare (and usually bear the mark Nintendo on them, but that's just me) but well worth it. And that usually means your library's pretty small to begin with.

The same can definitely be said of my table-top collection. I got what I really want: Burning Wheel and it's children games, 13th Age, and Fantasy Flight's Star Wars. Each scratches a distinctive itch that I've always had. Could I collect more? Yeah, and I will. Collecting's fun. But with those games I mentioned I have enough ideas that I like to keep me going for decades. I could probably play just those TTRPGs for the rest of my life and never run out of things to do with them. So why buy more?

Why indeed?

I mean, I could blame the culture. This ridiculous schizophrenic culture that can be so offensive and so endearing at the same time. It's really easy to do, most of my fellow Christians have done so. The problem is this: I am a part of the culture. The world. The universe. I am the problem. So what am I going to do about it? At the ripe young age of 27 I'm not sure. I'm still young and there's still much time before I face judgment for my aiding, fighting, or healing this madness we call "modern society".

At the moment the only real answer I have is that if something truly moves me I'll try and support the people who moved me so by buying it. And to make sure I really know the difference between shock and awe and an actual reaction.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Star Wars House Rules

Last week I wrote a review about Edge of the Empire. While I praised the game's dice mechanic I wasn't so gung-ho about it's other systems. These are the little tweaks that my group and I have made to the far.

Ditch the Obligation Rolls... at first. I love the concept of not knowing how the session is going to go. Yes, I'm one of those GMs. So the idea of rolling to see who's getting the spotlight this session appeals to me. But all stories need the set-up, where arcs are introduced. And I like getting that sorta thing outta the way. So my solution? Just have everyone go, one at a time, right out the gate. After everyone's Obligation's been introduced and played once then you can start rolling randomly to see what happens, because then you've got a base to build the randomness on. 

Destiny Points. Ugh. The idea's a good one, they just don't work! The player spends a Destiny point to upgrade a dice, and what's the GM going to do? Upgrade a dice right back. Nothing happens to the point totals and it all stay static. That's boring. To make things more dynamic my group and I have made the following modifications.
  1. Take the 1 Point per Roll Limit Off. This allows you to spend multiple points to get one big effect, if you really need to. Or for the GM to just bring on the pain when the arc calls for it.
  2. Points No Longer Immediately Switch Over. Instead they shift at the end of a scene, at the GM's discretion. So you actually have to watch what happens with your points, because if the players spend them all and the GM doesn't spend any the next scene is going to be painful. Essentially it turns the Destiny Points into an actual resource that the players watch very carefully as opposed to something they spend cause they know they'll get it back almost immediately. 
That's all we have the for the moment, but I'm really wanting to work on something to fix the XP issues I have with the game. More when I discover it!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The REAL Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Review

Wizards of the Coast had a long and very successful run with Star Wars. I owned a number of their books, but never found much of a reason to run the game. I didn't quite know it at the time, but the mechanical similarity to Dungeons and Dragons is what stopped me. Don't get me wrong, I played DnD for a numbers of years, 4th edition in particular, but somehow I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of using almost identical mechanics  for different stories. It just didn't make sense to me. Again, this is saying nothing was wrong with Saga (or any of the other things Wizards released), I just had a DnD itch already scratched. But what proper nerd doesn't want to run Star Wars in some way, shape, or form?

Enter the new Star Wars, managed by Fantasy Flight games. They came out the gate swinging with X-Wing, a first rate miniatures dogfighting game, and then announced Edge of the Empire, the first in a trilogy of role-playing games set between Episodes 4 and 5. Edge of the Empire is focused on the outer rim of the galaxy, far away from the bulk of the Empire.  That means that things are murky. You have responsibilities, obligations, problems. No one gets out clean.

Edge of the Empire has a unique dice system, as illustrated above.  Your six stats (Brawn, Agility, Cunning, Intelligence, Presence, and Willpower) generate green Ability Dice. Your skills let you swap out those green dice for yellow Skill dice, which have better symbols of success on them. The GM, in turn, has purple Difficulty Dice that can be upgraded to red Challenge Dice. Blue Boost Dice have a smaller amount of success symbols but might work in your favor. Black Setback Dice are the negative version of Boost Dice. You assemble your green dice and upgrade some of them to yellow dice. The GM then adds purple dice and might upgrade some of them to red dice, adding in blue and black dice at the GM's discretion. You then roll all of these dice and read the symbols on them to determine the result.

Using these results the GM and players determine what happens with every check. It's a bit time-consuming, but more than worth it when you consider the results. 

For instance, Jedi master Plo Koon is fighting young Boba Fett. After rolling  and cancelling out the results Plo Koon's left with a success and two threats. Plo Koon barely hits Boba but lost his footing for the next attack, giving Boba a boost die on his next attack.

This is not a dice system for those who simply want the rules to get out of the way. The dice mechanic is the entire reason to play this game and the authors make no attempts to say otherwise. I cannot stress it enough: the dice mechanic is the major hook of this game. Everything else revolves around it to the point where the game plays almost nothing like how it looks. And what it looks like is a traditional RPG.

Character creation is, again, pretty standard. You have your races  (which grant you your base stats and your starting XP), classes (which grant most of your skills) and your sub-classes (which grant you talent trees and a few more skills). You're given some cash to buy stuff and man, it's not enough. Neither's the XP they give you, especially when you realize that you can't raise your attributes/stats past character creation unless you buy super-expensive and hard to get to talents, and even then you can only raise one attribute/stat by one. And stats in character creation take the vast majority of your XP. Which is when the GM offers you the Devil's Deal: more cash and XP for Obligation. 

Obligation is your hook into the game. It's your character's bad past catching up with them now. Each Obligation is given a numerical value (usually 5-10 at the beginning of the game) and a chart is made combining everybody's Obligations. Here's my group's at the moment.
Jer'Ani (Bounty): 1-20
Kaneen (Family Curse): 21-30
Betsy (Betrayed into slavery): 31-40
Melody (Lost brother): 41-50
Zeke (Confirmed Jedi): 51-60
Jabba's Escaped slaves: 61-70
Wanted by the Empire for stealing Death Star plans and seeing the destruction of Alderaan: 71-90

As you can see you can also get Obligations from events you did in the game. At the beginning of the session the GM rolls a d100. If he rolls higher than the chart trouble doesn't come looking for the players. If he rolls any of the numbers on the chart, however, trouble finds the players, from whichever part of the chart that corresponds with the number. This stresses out everyone in the session, the person whose Obligation was triggered in particular. If doubles are rolled something really bad happens and the penalties are doubled.

For instance, at the beginning of the next session I roll a d100 and get a 22.  Kaneen's Obligation of his family curse has been triggered and, thanks to the fact that I rolled doubles, it's a particularly bad session for everyone. 

The GM can offer you more Obligation for more XP and cash. As you can see, Jer'Ani took me up on my kind offer. The Obligation system was a bit tough for me to use at first, but after realizing that that's the primary hook for the session (above and beyond anything else, regardless of what the book tells you), it got a lot easier to work with Obligation. 

Another meta-mechanic is Destiny points. There's Dark (for the GM) and Light (for the players) You can use these points to improve your own dice rolls, hurt another character's dice roll, or make up a small fact about the adventure that wasn't established before. You can only have 1 point spent per side on a single action. After playing it a few times my group and I found that this mechanic was great in theory, not so great in practice. Since you can only spend 1 point at a time it's really easy for both sides to spend a point and for nothing to change. Great idea in theory, not so great in practice.

Combat's pretty standard. You roll for initiative, trying to claim slots in the initiative order that you're allowed to swap with other players. There are two types of damage: wounds and strain. Wounds represent physical harm and strain mental harm. Wounds are harder to recover from than strain, which can just vanish after every encounter. Going down to 0 for either one will take you out of the fight. There's also a critical hit system triggered by Triumphs and enough Advantages, which makes you roll a d100 to determine what type of hit you just dealt/took. Even if the effects of the critical go away the actual status doesn't change until the critical hit is healed, thus adding a modifier to the next critical  hit roll. It adds up pretty fast and, coupled with the dice system, you get some really fun combats that are truly cinematic.

The final important thing is the XP system, which is frustratingly lacking. GMs are expected to hand out between 20-30 XP a session, for...well... whatever you want to reward them for. It's astoundingly loose and informal, which I don't personally count as a strength. You do get rewarded for following your Motivation, but that's all there is to it. It's not that the system's simple: it's simplistic and lazy. 

The bottom line is this: Edge of the Empire is an astoundingly fun system. The dice mechanic, the true core of the system, is a ton of fun and makes up for some well intentioned but flawed story mechanics. Definitely worth buying if you're into Star Wars or just like a narrative dice system.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Orthodox Method: The Jesus Prayer

One of the foremost prayers in Orthodoxy is the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. You're supposed to repeat this prayer as often as possible until it becomes a part of you and you just... pray. I learned this prayer around 13 or 14 and immediately attached to it. It's a beautifully simple yet profound prayer, one that changes with you. When I first started on this prayer I had  a pretty large amount of anxiety and the Jesus Prayer helped calm me. Repeating it over and over and over made me feel watched for, loved, and safe. God was watching over me.

Now, again, you're not supposed to stop saying these words. So when I started to doubt  my faith midway through college I just kept saying it over and over again. After awhile  my principles started changing and I found myself doubting the idea that God was love at all. But still I prayed. The Jesus Prayer became a prayer of desperation of a man who wanted to keep believing but didn't know how. Finally, at some point in the last few weeks, something clicked in my head. Christ was someone who wanted to save me and all that He wanted was for me to ask. The words didn't change, but I did.

And that's the brilliance of the Orthodox method. Unlike the Latin method, which uses differing words and topics to reach the person where they're at the Orthodox ask for the person to mold to the words, to the ethos that's behind the words, to the Spirit in the Word.. The Spirit and the Word call upon us to mold ourselves to them.

The words don't change. I do.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Spyder's Burner: Character Burning

Character burning for Burning Wheel is a very involved process. It's exhausting and takes a toll on the players, much like session game-play of Burning Wheel. After being in five games (ran four played in one) I found a weird trend: that first, exhausting session of gameplay was never really referenced for the rest of the game. And each time it's felt like such a waste, cause so much time was spent on making the character, so much effort went in to making this character's history, and how much do the players have to show for it?

Well, in my games? Nothing.

As I pondered the problem I looked at the way my group did character burning. We just put the lifepaths together after some talk about the characters and the situation, and that was it. It was a solely mechanical affair and I sure as hell never took notes. No wonder none of it mattered, we hadn't made it matter! A game about character progression and we never bothered to track their pasts, even a little bit. Now Burning Wheel says to not detail out the backstory too much, so I'm not talking about all of it, but the broad strokes can't hurt.

And then I thought about it another way. Alot of long novels, like the Count of Monte Cristo, Game of Thrones, and The Brothers Karamazov start with a short biography on what the character's been up to right until this point in the novel, explaining the psychology of the character so everyone knows what they're getting themselves into as they start the story. And that's exactly what the first session could be: the explanation of where everyone's been up to this point.

So here's what I want to do the next time we burn up characters:

  1. Ask questions! "Who was the knight who you were a squire for?" "How did you wind up becoming an assistant for the court?"
  2. WRITE THE ANSWERS DOWN, both of you! There's a notes section in the character portfolio, make ample use of it. Note important persons from the past, why you stopped being the town baker and joined the army, things of that nature. Don't make answers, make questions that can be resolved later. 
  3. Ask how big of an impact the character's decisions have had on those around him. Mandate reputations and affiliations to match.
  4. Ask even more questions. Consider different angles on the characters' actions. Could they be the villain in someone else's story already? A hero? Write down more.
The focus would be to develop a persona with the player, a person who lives, breathes, and has bled. The mechanics should back up the story and the story should generate mechanics. Here's hoping that during the next campaign I can fix the problem. The first session is the beginning of the characters' story. Everyone should know what's going on.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Better Late Than Never: Maleficent

Maleficent tells the story of the villainess from Sleeping Beauty. Starting out as an innocent fairy in the depths of the forest the movie follows Maleficent in her betrayal, downfall, and eventual redemption. Yup, that's right, redemption. Which I'm totally fine with, by the way. Didn't think I would be (and the part of me that doesn't like wanton messing with myths still doesn't), but I can't help myself: The acting is much better than I expected, particularly Jolie, who's known for her not-so-acty roles. There's a good amount of chemistry in the cast and it's the chief thing that helps sell the premise. Jolie really sells the role well and the writers pair her up with Aurora in an inspired way! The movie puts a fair amount of pathos into Maleficent's struggle to become the pure-hearted being she once was.

The effects are...decent. There's some obvious CGI here and there that's a bit annoying at times, but most of the effects are done well enough that  I didn't notice them. I did find myself liking Maleficent's wings, they help define the character in ways that are hard to talk about without spoiling. And the dragon at the end's pretty cool as well.

Speaking of the end, the movie builds to what is ultimately one of the most disappointing endings I've seen in a movie. All of a sudden the movie seems to forget it's own interior logic. Maleficent goes from badass to damsel in distress because the writers demanded that it be so. It's sad, because the movie forgot that sometimes it's OK to not go for the big and flashy salvation and stick with the "stay true to the character and things will work themselves out" approach. Because, had they done so, I would have found myself a fan of the movie instead of a frustrated viewer. There was promise in Maleficent, and the fact that they screwed it up with that horrible and hammy ending is a bitter pill to swallow.

While it was a good movie 3/4's of the way through, Maleficent gave up on it's engaging, character-driven plot for sound and thunder that amounts to nothing more than a sick feeling in my stomach. If only they had realized when the actual moment of Maleficent's salvation was the writers could have let the movie have the sweet ending that it deserved. Instead we got... that.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Creating a Zelda Paper and Pencil Dungeon

Ever since the inception of Zelda there's always been a group of poor, pathetic, souls who want to make a Zelda-themed dungeon.  I am one of those poor, pathetic, nerds, so during my time playing DnD I tried as hard as I could to make Zelda-ish dungeons, always to the harm of my campaign. Part of that is the open nature of a paper-and-pencil RPG, but that's hardly the only thing standing in the way of making a good Zelda paper and pencil dungeon. Most people who have tried (and failed) to make Zelda dungeons just try copying blindly, which is the biggest mistake made.

What makes a Zelda dungeon so much fun to play?

  1. Physicality. Zelda dungeons are always solved by doing something physical that isn't related to combat. Push the blocks, blow up the wall, push the button!
  2. Analytical Thinking. Instead of having the completion of the dungeon hinge upon combat Zelda dungeons force you to use your head.
  3. Flair for the Dramatic. Hard or easy, you're gonna remember the Ancient Cistern, where you had to climb up a rope to escape an endless horde of zombies while your stamina gauge was running out. Memorable does not mean hard (although the Water Temple is a reminder that it can)
  • Use any of the puzzle elements from Zelda. Zelda's a videogame, and most of the best video games (in this humble blogger's opinion) are very aware of it and make no effort to hide it. As a GM you have a much lower suspension of disbelief threshhold than Zelda. So no buttons! No torch-lighting! Or killing all the enemies to open the door! Or crystals! Any of it! NO! BAD GM!
  • Make puzzles with one solution. Zelda can afford to do this because it's a video game and, by the very nature of a video game, it's much more acceptable to railroad. You're not playing a video game, however: you are playing something that allows your players to do whatever the heck they like. Do not squash that, otherwise you ruin the whole point of doing a table-top game in the first place.
  • Use Dungeons and Dragons. It's my blog and I'll opine like I want to. Dungeons and Dragons of almost any edition is a terrible fit for Zelda dungeons because of the overemphasis on combat. If you want the focus to be on the dungeon you'll want a rules system that focuses on other aspects of an adventure besides HP.
  • Make tests physical. Zelda dungeons are physical affairs, so you need to know the physical world pretty well. How do load-bearing walls work? How much oxygen do you really have in a cave? Questions like these aren't boring, they're pieces of the puzzle you're about to throw at your players.  For instance, if you want to do a magma dungeon (like I always find myself wanting to do) then the first problem is oxygen: how are players going to breathe? Or you're in a temple to a forest goddess and the vegetation works like poison ivy but worse. All of it.
  • Make puzzles that suggest gear but don't bloody railroad it. Zelda's a gear-based game, and rightfully so: your stats don't ever improve beyond the supernatural (yet another reason why DnD, particularly 3rd and 4th editions, don't fit). You have to make puzzles that, by their nature, require gear to get around them but don't force them down one path. Always, always, always allow the players to come up with a solution themselves, even if it means they have to make their own tools. 
  • Use a game that's focused only on dungeon crawl. Torchbearer's your best bet because of the emphasis on the mundanity of your characters and the grind that's present, but I'm sure there are other games available. I just wouldn't use any other DnD than Moldvay (or possibly 5th, if you really limited magic item use). You  could even use Burning Wheel if you wanted a more character-driven dungeon crawl than Torchbearer, but then the emphasis stops being on the dungeon itself, and where's the fun of that? Ultimately it's to your taste, just make sure that if you're going to do a Zelda crawl you keep the magic items down so the ingenuity of the players can run rampant. 
  • Go with a theme. Yes, do your Forest Temple. It wouldn't be Zelda if you didn't. Just remember to go with the Zelda theme using table-top strengths: imagination, creativity, and surprise. Throw out your monster manual if you have to, do whatever it takes to just focus on your theme. Research animals, flaura and fauna, and fantasy them up! Whatever it is, stick with the theme and go for it. 
  • Research, research, research. This is now shooting the dead horse, but it bears repeating: the more you know about how the physical world the more people will be engrossed, because they already know the rules well enough.
  • Read this and all the links on that page. They're awesome and you should read them regardless of whether you're going to make a Zelda styled dungeon or not. They're just good for basic dungeon-building tips. 
  • Make most puzzles gear based, link gear to boss battles. Nuff said.
Making a dungeon is a whole lot of fun. Making a Zelda dungeon should be fun and challenging. Go out and make awesome stuff for your players!