Saturday, May 25, 2019

Pet Peeves In Gaming Groups

Everyone has them and many people don't take the time to let their fellow players know about them and this inhibits your enjoyment of game. I thought I'd go over a few of mine. Please feel free to include yours in the comments below.

Players not paying attention during game-

In the past, I never had any issues getting players to maintain focus while gaming. Nowadays, there are so many things that draw players focus away from the game, and I've found too many players that actively do things on computers or other items that keep them focused on something other than the game at hand.

Case in point, in the gaming session I'm currently in (yes, I understand the irony) there are 4 players painting, one who is working on her computer, and earlier a player was playing on her Nintedo DS. None of them have been able to successfully multitask. In our combat, each one of them had to be diverted from their chosen task to be reminded of the current situation.

Don't get me wrong... I know that I have been distracted during game from time to time, but I try to make sure I pay attention as much as possible. And every gaming group will go off topic about various subjects. I often joke about talking about The Walking Dead at my weekly Pathfinder game because it's a common topic before we begin. It occasionally has the effect of bringing everyone back to focus on the game with a good laugh.

Players not prepared for game-

When you have a regularly scheduled game, you should know that you need to bring everything you need to it before you leave for the game. Also, I game with players that have been doing this for several years. You shouldn't have forgotten key materials like your dice or your character sheet. I can understand forgetting to bring your characters mini from time to time, and that's why I now always have mine in my backpack all the time.

You don't have to be a boy scout to be ready for game.

Food for players-

In many of the gaming groups I have been apart of, we have usually made plans ahead of time for meals or snacking during the game. Occasionally... when the location of the game happens to be at someones house... there has been the expectation of the host providing said food.

A past Pathfinder game I was part of had a tradition of doing a potluck every 2nd Sunday of the month. I really like this idea as it doesn't put a heavy weight load on anyone. It's worked very well. My issue is when offering food for the game... such as when it is held at your house/apartment... become an expectation from the visiting players.

It's one thing to offer a meal on occasion while game it at your place, but it's another when the players expect there to be food for their consumption when they visit. This has been a problem in the past when I have helped to host games at my home and this has been the downfall of a couple of gaming groups I have been in.

Kids at game-

I understand that some parents are not able to get childcare all the time, but there have been so many times where the game has been hampered by children who have been brought to game.

Your scheduled game time is not a time where you should bring your kids all the time. In many of the games I have participated in, the themes run from casually adult related (i.e. The occasional "foul" word) to downright R-rated (i.e. Foul language and dramatic scenes of violence and death).

While some parents don't care if their children are bombarded by such things, that isn't the full extent of my issue with kids at game. I started gaming at age 10, and was well versed in the 4-lettered words as well as graphic violence. My biggest issue is the fact that your scheduled gaming session is not daycare.

Children get bored and will accost either the parents or other adults in the gaming group to either get some kind of attention or try to find something to do that will occupy their attention for a while longer. This becomes a larger issue when the parents of these children do nothing to control them.

In addition to those parents that bring their children to game and leave them to their own devices without actually working to parent them because game time is their time, I'm upset at those parents who think that they can just sit their children in front of a TV (with either video games, movies or shows) and think that everything's going to be fine... especially with multiple children that may have attention disorders. Kids get bored of watching the same show, and multiple kids won't often agree with playing the same video game for an extended period or watching the same movie. This has been a contributing factor to the downfall of gaming groups that I have been a part of.


Life happens. We all know this. There are problems that you should concern yourself with, and there are those that you really shouldn't. Don't bring your dirty laundry to your game and realize the difference between a real problem and what is generally called a "First World Problem".

If you have real problems that others in your gaming group may be able to help you with, then sure, bring them up for discussion to help you better resolve whatever situation is going on in your life. traditionally, gaming groups are formed from people who are friends, and as a friend they should have a vested interest in helping you when they can. However, you shouldn't make the entire gaming session about resolving your issues. You're there to game and have some fun. A time to step away from the vicissitudes of the real world to partake in some fantasy time.

If you're overly concerned because another game you attend didn't go well for you (or your character), and you allow this to affect your mood that disrupts the current game session, don't bring it to your game session.

As my regular readers and friends know, I was a part of The Camarilla and Mind's Eye Society for many years. One of the reasons I'm no longer with the current organization is the fact that there was too much drama being brought to games as well as through the various out-of-game sources of communication. Because these groups were large organizations, there was a great deal of political drama in and out-of-game.

If you let what happens to you character in-game affect your mood out-of-game, you should really take a look at your priorities, IMHO.

I understand getting attached to your characters over time, but they are only characters on a piece of paper. They do not really bleed. They do not suffer from being unemployed for a long time. They live and die during your game sessions. It is said that there are 2 things you can never avoid: death and taxes. Most games don't deal with taxes but just about every game deals with death.

Getting "cock-blocked" by the DM/GM/ST you're trying to role play-

Part of an RPG is Role Playing. It's not all combat. There are things that players try to do in order to progress the background and storyline of their character. This seems to happen more often with ST's/DM's/GM's that are easily distracted by every other player and you're the single player that doesn't want to be rude and interrupt the others.

I come to game because I want to role play to get away from the vicissitudes of real life. I do this by interacting with other PC's and NPC's in the games environment. My character has a rich and developed background that I worked on before the game began. It was submitted for your review so you could come-up with ways to use it within your game. Why don't you allow me to complete certain tasks setup within my background when it doesn't interfere with the game?

Players using out-of-character information in game-

Sometimes a DM/GM/ST doesn't have the opportunity to take time out of game to convey information that only certain PC's should/would know. Because of this, that information is conveyed to the player during game in front of all the players.

Though this info was directed at a specific PC or group of PC's and not the entire group, some people treat this information as common information and act upon it. This makes having secrets in your characters background and keeping secrets from other PC's very difficult.

During my time in The Camarilla and Mind's Eye Society, this was a large issue the ST's faced because there was little they could do about the fact that they needed to provide information to a small group or individual when they are running a game for a very large group. Thankfully there were only a handful of people who would occasionally use this kind of information improperly.

What really bugged me about my time with The Camarilla and using out of game information in game was when it was utilized by storytellers at a higher level. For instance, there was a PC who had committed diablerie in our vampire game. No PC's were aware, but this detail needed to be on an official ST report to the regional storyteller. Shortly after this information was reported, a group of players (a couple assistant regional storytellers included) came to our game, found the "offending" PC and worked to deal with it in game without any provocation or way they could have known about the diablerie.

Before the inclusion of technology in games, we normally passed written notes for these types of secretive communique's. In the past, I have personally utilized instant messengers that they players have had access to. I know that many places you would normally play have some kind of WiFi access, I also know from personal experience that they are not always very reliable. This is why I would prefer to keep my tabetop games at someones house where the WiFi isn't being used by everyone outside of the game.

My thought is if this upsets you, perhaps you should take it as constructive criticism rather than an insult.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Over my years of roleplaying experience, I have heard of several times where a certain character, or characters, have reached a deity-like status, or simply Godhood. I've never actually run a game where this happened, or have I been a part of a game where this has happened... but the thought has recently drawn my interest as I read the comic book series, The Wicked + The Divine.

The premise of the series is that deities are created every 90 years, but the Gods of "The Pantheon" only live for 2 years.

My first thought was to run a campaign... probably in a fantasy setting like D&D or pathfinder... where the ultimate end goal for all characters was to achieve Godhood status. Then I thought that this wouldn't really work for characters playing a Cleric, Paladin or some otherwise religiously devout class or character type.

At the very next moment, I realized that what I would need to do in order to accomplish this is to chose 1 player of the group to advanced on this end goal. But if the entire party knew that a character was wantingly striving for Godhood, they might behave differently than if they were unaware. Some players may take offense to the idea and actively work against that achievement. Though the more experienced players that I have had the pleasure of gaming with over the years would not take out-of-character knowledge and use it in-character, there are some that are inclined to do so.

My first attempt at a solution to this problem would be to survey the group before the campaign begins. I am working to develop a set of questions to provide me with a better understanding of which players/characters would be more pliable towards the idea of reaching Godhood. Once I have a candidate in mind, I will try to work the idea into the game, subtly and directly with the specific character.

So here's the questions I have about what parameters I should use to set the Godhood goal at:
  • In a level-based system like D&D or Pathfinder, should I set a specific level where Godhood would be attained, or should there be another level of measure?
  • Instead of a predetermined level, should I use a found magic item to bestow the Godhood mantle to the character? In this option, there is also a chance of a different character receiving said item and using it for themselves.
  • If the other characters in the party catch wind of the Godhood goal, should I actively use the deities for the Cleric/Paladin/Etc to work against the goal? (I guess that would all depend on the specific deity in question, huh?)
Ultimately, Godhood would come around the time of the close of the game/campaign. This would be the ultimate MacGuffin, and I while I want to eventually use it, I want to be as careful as I can. I know that players get very attached to certain characters over time, and this will create a strong bond for the player to their character and give them tales to tell over the years. I want to be able to make sure that these tales they pass on to other players help to promote similar ideas and great campaigns for future players and DM/GM/ST's.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

New Project: Salem By Night

I've been roleplaying for over 30 years now, I've been a fan of White Wolf's World of Darkness settings since Vampire: The Masquerade came out, and off-and-on from 1996 - 2011 I was a member of The Camarilla / Minds Eye Society. I have been a DM, GM and ST for so many years, and many of my non-fantasy or sci-fi based stories have been developed using my home town of Salem, Oregon.

While I was in The Camarilla / Minds Eye Society, all our games were based in Salem since we were a LARP group. I word several ST hats during those years, and I look upon them rather fondly. That's why I want to do this project.

Salem By Night is going to be the title of my next netbook. Several years ago, before Onyx Path started publishing new material for Vampire: The Masquerade, I put together a netbook called The Guide to the Bloodlines. This was my first attempt at compiling the efforts of people online to make a single resource for the various bloodlines at the time. It was very rough, but when I originally posted it, people enjoyed it.

Salem By Night will not be just about the Vampire's of Salem and the surrounding area. It will also include information about Werewolves, Changelings, Mages and Wraiths (primarily) because those are the stories that I remember from my time as an ST. There are so many great elements that I feel would make for wonderful stories, and characters that would add a variety of experiences to any game.

I know that Salem, Oregon is not a metropolitan area like Portland, Seattle of Los Angeles, but there are stories to tell and I would to bring them to you. My hope is to also help inspire other fans of the World of Darkness to make similar netbooks about their local area so we can put together a more robust world to ST in that includes the less affluent areas that are typically used as background settings.

I already put the all-call out to my friends and fellow games in Oregon, and will try and keep you posted on the progress of this project. If you're a gamer from Oregon, I would invite you to add yourself to our group on Facebook: Oregon Roleplayers.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A funny thing happened to me on the way to breakfast...

As I was driving to breakfast this morning, I passed by a large empty lot where there once stood a mushroom factory in my youth. Then I thought to myself:

Self - "You know what would be cool there?"
Me - "What?"
Self - "A place where roleplayers could go to game."
Me - "YO!"
Self - "And not just tabletop. I'm thinking a place large enough to have its own LARP areas; indoor and outdoor."
Me - "Damn! That would be awesome!"

I remember when I was heavy into LARP that we always had a difficult time finding indoor facilities during the colder months. Right now I'm trying to figure out the best location to be able to run my Pathfinder game without having to beg one of the local shops for space that they would rather give to people who play Magic or Warhammer.

I've always had a dream of someday owning a RPG/comic shop that would have space enough for gamers of all types. Now I'm thinking of a space that would cater specifically to gamers who need a place they can go without the hassles of being pressured into buying things when they game, and comfortable enough to be able to relax when they do so.

I know this sounds like a huge pipe dream, and it may very well be. Let me address some concerns right off the bat: (From this point forward, I'm going to refer to this idea as the "facility".)
  • What I am proposing would, in no way, directly compete with any of the local stores because the focus wouldn't be on selling products.
  • As far as actual sales go, there would be food and beverages as well as incidentals items that gamers may need from time-to-time such as pens, paper, dice, other items to be determined.
  • There would be dedicated rooms for tabletop RPG's and areas designed primarily with LARPing in mind. Landscaping around the building would also be used as LARP environment.
  • There would be no direct involvement with hosting tournaments/events around games that are already locally supported by various stores. (i.e. no pre-release Magic: The Gathering stuff, no qualifying tournament stuff for any other CCG's.) If there is a need for space to host tournaments of this nature, it would be arranged with the facility and the supporting store.
  • There would be a membership fee of some kind to help differ the costs that will be associated with the facility. The actual cost and privileges of membership are yet to be determined.
My thought was to initially set this up as a crowd sourced project. While I am good at coming-up with ideas, implementation and design are qualities I lack. Here's what I'm thinking I would need help with to get this off the ground... if enough people think this would be a worthwhile project:
  • Project Designer - Someone who can see past the idea and help to figure-out what the path to success will take.
  • Facility Designer - Someone who has the ability to take the ideas and put them down in an illustrated format. Some CAD, some illustration based on CAD designs.
  • Crowd Sourcing Engineer - Someone who can help us get initial funding for the project.
  • Financial Adviser - The realist who has a firm grip on the concepts of money in, money out. Also someone who can assist the Crowd Sourcing Engineer find alternative methods of funding. (i.e. grants.)
I know there's probably more that needs to be considered, but that's where my idea begins to get blurry. I'd love to hear your ideas on this concept.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Expedition to Undermountain

Title: Expedition to Undermountain

ISBN: 9780789641575
Price: $34.95
Publisher/Year: Wizards of the Coast 2007
System: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

The cover is the same material and finish as Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, but is a good deal more red than the greyish brown of that book. Still, the book feels like it's not going to be sliding around on the table when you use it, and that's really the important part.

The general format is unchanged, though there's one major difference in the table of contents. Instead of laying everything out twice, which there apparently wasn't room for, the single-encounter expansions are relegated to being referenced from the appropriate encounter entry. They do still manage to put each of them on its own page, though, and none of them starts the first of two pages on an odd page, which is still damn handy.

They haven't actually cut out any of the Forgotten Realms flavor text, except for the name of the city, Waterdeep. Waterdeep is referenced and described somewhat in a 1/3 page sidebar, but they excised pretty much every world-specific thing they can, presumably to get more people to buy it. Regardless, it's not as though Undermountain is exactly dripping with Forgotten Realms flavor in the first place. It's pretty much now the classic "There's an insane wizard, and he's got a gigantic dungeon under a huge mountain, let's go raid it!" adventure of D&D.

There's a quick, two page or so rundown of services available in the city, from who, though no major NPC write-ups are given, just names, and sometimes not even full names. Khelben Arunsun, for example, isn't mentioned at all, though Blackstaff Tower is, as THE place to go for effective, but extremely expensive arcane aid.

The opening premise of the adventure is pretty simple. One day during midday or so, gigantic screaming Halaster faces appear in the city, screaming in despair, along with visions of ruin and destruction and a distinct feeling that the shit is about to hit the fan. That night, a whole bunch of adventurers, of all levels, are hit with visions summoning them to Undermountain to fix something that's gone very, VERY wrong.

Chapter one opens with some important advice and tips for the DM, including a third of a page or so on creating the illusion of more detail than you have, something that more DMs could stand to read, and how to railroad PCs temporarily until you flesh out certain areas, which ideally shouldn't be done at all. Also given page time is random encounters, which Undermountain doesn't exactly use extensively anymore, but ARE present, because it makes sense. Undermountain has always been largely random, and while this one's less so than the rest, if you remove the randomness entirely, it's really not Undermountain anymore.

A couple pages are devoted to factions in Undermountain and Skullport, though there aren't many, and they're mostly in Skullport. There's nothing really remarkable, here, and for those familiar with Undermountain, it'll all be pretty old news.

The overall map of Undermountain makes it look less impressive than it is. It almost resembles a map for a Metroid area, though there are fewer vertical areas than there really should be, and no major slopes.

If there's one major complaint I have about this book, it's that the maps, being confined to the 8.5x11 splat size, cannot possibly do justice to the size of Undermountain. The first level map was, in the original box set, a full poster, eight times the size of the one we get here, and it shows. The map is very twisty, very turny, and it is, as far as I can tell, totally intact, including the homage to adventure module B1, In Search of the Unknown. Yes, faithful readers, the entire first level of the keep, in most of its screwed up geometric glory, is present on the first real dungeon level of Undermountain. To check for yourself, you can open the module itself, and go to page 19 of Expedition to Undermountain, look halfway up the right side of the page, and look for the cross-shaped room and the < corridor right below it.

Even the Lost Levels from the Undermountain II box set are reproduced here, including the Wyllowwood, in all its underground forest with fake sky glory.

Honestly, the maps are so absurdly small in places that WotC should consider selling D&D branded magnifying glasses to go with this thing, or at least giving a disc of printable large scale maps.

The random encounters section is actually depressingly small, leaving it to the DM to add more variety if he wants it, though I approve of random wandering Crawling Claw Swarms. Splinterwaifs are pretty pathetic, honestly, but if the DM overuses their "special" hook, the game's going to get "special" real quick.

Unfortunately, the adventure conclusion is a whole lot of a letdown. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's definitely not really a conclusion in any sense except that it marks the end of the module.

The "new" mechanics section is really, REALLY short, as almost everything used in the mod is prefab. There's a new legacy item valid only for dwarves, and for dwarven wizards, it's absolutely amazing. Too bad the Least Legacy is absurdly difficult for a PC to complete. Two Augment Crystals (from MIC) are included, but they're not new. For some ungodly reason, they saw fit to grant an eighth of a page or so to a named greatsword that has nothing unusual about it other than having a name related to its function, another entry for an alternate-form headband of intellect +2, and a new variety of potions that aren't liquid, use Craft Wondrous Item, and are limited to a really tiny spell list, most of which sucks. On the up side, apparently WotC has determined that the Brew Potion feat is worth less than 5000 GP, since there's an item that grants a better form of it for 5 grand. Not only do you get brew potion, if you already have it, you can brew in half the time, you can convert scrolls directly to potions for the upgrade cost, and you can buy a half-cost potion of cure light wounds once per day from it, for no XP cost. Sounds good to me, potions are terrible.

Five spells are detailed in the back, only two of which are new, and have been a LONG time in coming. Specifically, Halaster's Scrying Cage and Halaster's Teleport Cage are both printed, on page 219. For a not so very expensive cost, you too can teleport-proof AND scry-proof your entire stronghold. This is something villains have needed for a long time, so you can expect these spells to show up in the hands of a conscientious DM near you.

New monsters, there are only two. The second is a Myconid, which nobody actually likes. The other, though, is a swarm of Eyeball Beholderkin, which are just the cutest li'l abberations ever. The thought of hundreds of the cute little buggers working in perfect hive-mind concert makes me giddy like a schoolgirl. It's pretty obvious why these things are rated at CR 4. They can easily slaughter a party of level 1 or 2 characters, but as soon as you're level 5, you're practically immune to everything but their crappy damage, and one good ireball really ruins their day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Firefly Role-Playing Game Core Book

Title: Firefly Role-Playing Game Core Book

ISBN: 9781936685325
Price: $49.99
Publisher/Year: Margaret Weis Productions 2014
System: Cortex
Out-of-print: No
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

Debuting in physical form around GenCon 2014, the Firefly Role-Playing Game whisks the players off to the ‘Verse of the Joss Whedon “western in space” television program of the same name. If you haven’t watched Firefly, let me just say that you are seriously missing out and should stop immediately stop reading this review and go download it on Netflix/buy it on Blu-Ray/whatever. This review will assume that you have done so. Checking in at north of 360 pages, the full-color hardcover has a suggested retail price of $50. The book is also available as a PDF, and this review is based on the PDF (it was a review copy, for those who consider that an important thing to know).

Note: This is a review of a book, not a system. This is a review of a core book, which means I’ll be talking about basic mechanics, and I’ll say if something seems obviously problematic or cool, but this review should not be mistaken as a source of subtle analysis of  things like character creation or combat option balance.

The Firefly RPG is set up for the PCs to be a group similar to the main characters of the show, if not actually just playing as the main characters of the show. You have a ship, you have a crew, you’ll hopefully have a job, and you’ll be flying around the 5 star systems and 72 planets of the ‘Verse (I can tell you these numbers only because the RPG tells me these numbers, so the RPG does deliver some the basic political and geographical situation of the ‘Verse in a more coherent and detailed way than you get it in the show). Note that you do not have to play a crew that is hostile to the Alliance.

Firefly is published by Margaret Weis Productions, and uses their Cortex Plus system that is also used in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Smallville (each of these games uses variants on the system – Firefly is Cortex Plus Action, Marvel is Cortex Plus Heroic, Smallville is Cortex Plus Drama, and there is a lot of variance between them). Note that the older Serenity RPG used what is now called the Cortex Classic system. Characters have various traits – mostly commonly Attributes (mental, physical, social), Skills, Distinctions, and Assets – and each of these traits has a die rating (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). When taking an action, the player rolls dice (at least two for Attribute and Skill, possibly 10 or more if there are a whole mess of things going in the character’s favor) and then adds the two highest together. This roll (called raising the stakes) must exceed the total rolled by the GM for the NPC involved (the GM’s roll is called setting the stakes, is produced in a similar fashion, and is rolled first). If the PC is on the defensive, then the order will be reversed – the PC sets the stakes, and then the NPC must raise the stakes. Any die that comes up a 1 is a jinx – it can’t be added to your total (even if this leaves the character with zero or one die), and might saddle the PC with Complications. All ones is a botch, and I think we can all safely assume that’s a Bad Thing for the PC.

Each player starts each game session with one plot point, but there are several ways to get more. Pretty much all of the Distinctions (more on those later) can give out plot points. If a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to create a Complication (more on those in a moment). And the GM can hand them out if the player is awesome in some fashion. Plot points are quite versatile, and can be used to activate certain Distinction abilities, create an Asset that lasts until the end of the scene (or for the rest of the episode, for two plot points), add a third or subsequent die to the die roll (chosen after knowing the roll and possibly after knowing the target number, so a very potent function), or not getting Taken Out.

Assets are any random thing that the player can come up with that has some positive relation to the activity. Normal assets are created temporarily by spending plot points. Signature Assets are permanent, appearing on the character sheet and getting used whenever applicable (Signature Assets can also have abilities like Distinctions). Assets can be physical objects, preparation, attitudes, or relationships. So, for example, Malcolm Reynolds might have the Serenity as a high-level signature asset – any time he makes any roll that has to do with the Serenity, he gets to roll an additional d8. Or Zoe and Wash might have assets that give them extra dice to roll when they’re working together. Kaylee might have an easier time convincing someone she’s innocent of a crime because she’s so gosh durn cheerful and sweet. And so on. The only limitations on adding dice from Assets are how many plot points are on hand and how much the GM will let the player get away with.

Complications are something like anti-Assets – they’re something the character is saddled with that gives the opposition an extra die when it comes into play (and the PCs may get to add Complication dice to their pools when the NPCs have Complications). Whenever a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to inflict a Complication (the more jinxes, the nastier the Complication). A character may also have been saddled with Complications in order to stick around in a confrontation rather than being Taken Out. Complications can be worked off – there are recovery rolls, and PCs can spend plot points to reduce or remove Complications whenever an NPC rolls a 1.

Assets and Complications play a big, big role in shaping the action in the Cortex system.

The GM may determine that a roll is high stakes for one or both of the characters involved. If a roll is high stakes for a character, then losing the roll means that the character will be Taken Out for the rest of the scene. The most obvious example of a high stakes roll is combat, but there can also be social rolls that invoke this rule (e.g., the character is humiliated and cannot meaningfully socially spar any more that night). By default, this is still a single roll – so, unless one of the combatants wants to extend the fight, even combat is a one-roll affair. But characters with plot points available (and who are not hopelessly overmatched) will likely want to stay in the fight a little longer. A character can spend a plot point and taken a complication (typically a wound, for a combat action) to keep on rolling. This makes the next roll worse for the character, but at least she’s still got a shot! Well, for a little bit anyway – eventually one of the complications she’s been saddled with will be too much, and will Taken her Out anyway.

There are three levels of character creation available in Firefly. First, you can just play as the crew from the show (Jayne’s Hat is not a Signature Asset – I say start a petition!). Second, you can choose one of two dozen archetypes with some additional customization. Third, you can build your character up from scratch.

If building a character from scratch, you can make all of your Attributes even, or set them primary/secondary/tertiary if you want the character to be have broad strengths and weaknesses. Each character starts with three Distinctions, which can represent roles, personality traits, backgrounds, or whatever (examples include Alliance Officer, Con Artist, First Mate, Doctor, Mechanic, Companion, Captain, Pilot, Chatterbox, Fashionable, Know It All, Brothers, Rich, Drunk … there are a whole mess of them). Each Distinction does several things. First, each identifies three highlighted skills. Each of these skills improves from the default d4 (if a particular skill is highlighted in multiple distinctions, the skill gets stepped up multiple times), and makes the skill cost have as much to advance later. Each Distinction will add an additional die to any appropriate roll – so if you have the “Fed” Distinction, which relates to hunting down criminals, then you’ll get to roll an extra die whenever you’re hunting down a criminal. Finally, each Distinction has three triggers. One of those three is the same between all of the Distinctions and you always start with it – reduce your Distinction die down to a d4 in order to gain a plot point. The others tend to require spending a plot point or taking some other temporary disadvantage to activate, but some particularly narrow effects have no cost. You get to choose a couple of these triggers (in total, not per Distinction) to start with as well.

After distinctions are chosen and give their skill increases, you get points to spend on more increases, but they cost double if they aren’t highlighted skills. Finally, you get a pool of points to spend on Signature Assets and Skill specialties. Specialties add another die whenever applicable. So if a character had a Physical d10 and Shoot d10 and a Rifles specialty and, say, a Vera d8 Signature Assets, then whenever he shoots at you with Vera he’s rolling a 2d10 and a d8 and a d6, which is why Jayne is really good at shooting you – and he’s probably using his Mercenary Distinction to throw in an extra d4 and gain a plot point.

A character’s “experience” is simply based on the number of episodes she’s completed. Episodes can be used in two ways. First, each of the episodes in a characters Episode Guide can be used once per session as a plot point if the player can come up with a callback to what happened during that episode.

Second, episodes can be spent to train up the character’s abilities. Episodes can be spent to increase all sorts of things, but they’ll mostly be used to turn temporary Assets into Signature Assets, add skill specialties, and maybe unlock new abilities for Signature Assets and Distinctions. Attributes can be modified and Skills can be increased, but these options are prohibitively expensive compared to messing around with Signature Assets and specialties.

Ships have some similarities with characters, but are ultimately more straightforward. Like characters, ships have three Attributes (Engines, Hull, and Systems). Ships also have three Distinctions, one of which will be its Class (e.g., a Firefly-class freighter or a Tohoku-class Alliance cruiser … because your GM is totally going to let you have one of those). Each ship has two more Distinctions, one based on its history (Brand Spankin’ New, Battle-Scarred, etc.) and one for customization (Cruisin’ the ‘Verse for better passenger-carrying, Automated Controls to hopefully be able to avoid using a Pilot, etc.). Like character Distinctions, the ship distinctions have their own abilities. Ships can also have Signature Assets, and each comes with two for free. Once play begins, Assets and Complications can be applied to ships just like they’re applied to characters, and most rolls involve ships will involve some dice from the crew as well.

So, the above is about 105 pages, which leaves quite a bit more. What else is in there? About another 40 is GM material – how to use the narrative system and general GM tips. There’s an adventures (What’s Yours Is Mine), and that’s almost another 40. The biggest single chapter, however, is an Episode Guide, which runs about 130 pages. And I have to say that I found it a rather odd bird.

Finding an episode guide in a licensed product like this is not new – I can recall a number of anime RPG core books that were more episode guide than RPG. But this is not an episode guide in a traditional sense. It goes through all of the episodes, but the purpose isn’t to serve as a reference on the episodes, but rather to use the retelling of each of the episodes to remind and inform the players about the setting, and to very slowly introduce game mechanics, using examples from the series, up to and including GM techniques. Also, scattered throughout the episode guide is where you’ll find all of the NPCs, ships, equipment, and gazetteer information that I’d normally expect to find broken out in their own sections of the book (there are also suggestions for how the GM could do things a bit differently than what happened in the episode). Chinese phrases are also scattered throughout this chapter, but for them there is an appendix later with a complete list.

Unfortunately, this combination of functions leaves the episode guide fairly ineffective at these two distinct functions. As a “learn to play” section, it’s too long – you just have to read through too much stuff that’s not really related to learning how to play. And as a reference it really does not work. They have put an index in the front of the book and then a list of citations later in the book in the GM chapters, but it’s still really inconvenient to try and look up crunchy bits in an RPG book when they’re scattered all over the place. I remember when the L5R RPG switched to having literally all of the mechanics in its supplements at the very back of the book (they used to be clumped at the end of each chapter). I was skeptical of this at first, but once I actually started using those books it turned out to be incredibly convenient. Firefly goes in the opposite direction, making it a hassle to reference NPCs, ships, and gear during session prep and gameplay.

The art in the book is a combination of screen shots from the show, new photographs (most commonly new NPCs, and drawn art for the chapter openings and the character classes. The shots I tended to like best were (1) the best character straight-on character images from the show (or, possibly, from promotional material for the show), then jazzed up with effects like star backgrounds and presented on a large scale; and (2) the sepia-toned shots that are mostly (I think) their own work. I have to say I was not a fan of some of the split-screen art boxes that were used, where they had a square or vertical rectangular space they put art in, and they fill it with two or three screen shots stacked up on top of one another. The images sort of blend together in a way that I did not find appealing.

Editing, layout, and graphic design were good – not a lot of typos, layout looked nice and I didn’t see any goofs, and things like the graphic displays of the five start systems (one with all five and five with one each) were well done. There are also schematics of Serenity and some of her component systems.

I do not know if it’s something inherent to the Cortex system, or something modified just for Firefly, but I think that the way the experience costs push character growth makes it feel like what you see on the show. Character capabilities don’t really change much – Wash doesn’t become an even better pilot and Kaylee doesn’t suddenly learn how to punch well. What you tend to see instead is learning more about characters’ pasts and personalities and relationships. In the game, these are Signature Assets, and they are relatively cheap to acquire.

The plot point flow seems extremely important – you might almost be hoping to roll a jinx here or there to tempt the GM to hand you out some more. At a minimum that will let you trade a few lousy rolls at one point in the adventure for a killer roll later in the adventure, which is usually a fairly strong effect.

One of the observations I frequently make about RPGs is that a lot of us will buy a lot more RPG books than we will ever use (or buy books where we really only end up using one particular mechanical bit). That means that it can be important whether an RPG is simply good reading material. For that purpose, I can’t recommend the Firefly core book – too much is taken up by that 130-page intro/episode guide chapter, and it does not make for good reading material.

Ultimately, I think that whether you’ll value this as a game will, unsurprisingly, come down how you feel about Firefly (or, more specifically, roleplaying in the Firefly universe). On the bright side, I think that if you are interested in that, this will work – licensed RPGs just fall flat on their faces from time to time, or try to implement systems that just don’t work well with the feel of the source material. Firefly avoids any such pitfalls. With that said, having successfully surpassed that threshold, how much players dig the Firefly RPG may depend on how they feel about the fairly elastic nature of the Asset system. Do you have nightmares of players getting to just make up any random old thing to try and get a bonus whenever they want one, without any real mechanical limitation? Then this system may not tickle your fancy. Do you think it’s really cool to be able to just name relationships and equipment on the fly, following your narrative without excessively detailed mechanical restrictions? Then you’ll probably really like this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk

Title: Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk

ISBN: 9780786943586
Price: $34.95
Publisher/Year: Wizards of the Coast 2007
System: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk was one of the final products WotC published for 3.5E D&D before the 4E announcement. It is part of the “Expedition to…” series of hardback adventures that tried to recapture the magic of some of earlier editions’ greatest hits.

The adventure takes characters from 8th to 13th level. (One of my minor annoyances is that there are no explicit guidelines about how the characters should be advancing in power through the adventure, though – for such a long adventure, that information would be very useful.)

The hardback book is 224 pages long, with 2 pages of advertisements, a seven-page appendix of new creatures (including the aurumvorax and cataboligne demon) and magic items. Production values are typical of WotC during 3.5E nice heavy, glossy full-color pages, generous illustrations, and lots of maps.

The adventure is written in the “Delve” format typical of WotC’s later 3.5E (and 4E) adventures, in which combat encounters each get a full page or two page spread, complete with a map, detailed tactics, and careful explanation of terrain. Another advantage is that it incorporates full statblocks for all the creatures – an easy reference, and allowing the designers to use the whole 3.5E catalog without assuming that the GM actually owns everything!

This makes combats easy to run, but it has a couple of serious disadvantages. Most importantly, the story part of the room description is separate from the combat, which makes it difficult to read the adventure and interrupts the narrative flow of the game. Second, it makes it more difficult for a GM to let the adventure “flow” between encounter areas and rooms, since each combat is specifically designed to work within the confines of its map.

On balance, I find the delve format to be somewhat annoying, but I do see its usefulness in combat situations.

The adventure opens on the road to Greyhawk, when the PCs encounter a group of orc raiders as they attack a caravan. There they rescue an innkeeper and receive their first hook to Castle Greyhawk: recovering the innkeeper’s magic sword, stolen by orcs who had earlier escaped.

This is not exactly a complicated setup, but it sets the hook and gives the PCs a base of operations in Greyhawk – the Green Dragon Inn, well-detailed in the first chapter. That chapter also gives an overview of the city itself, as well as details on a number of important locations for adventurers. While clearly not at nearly the level of detail as previous products (like the excellent The City of Greyhawk), this is a nice, compact treatment that makes the city useful for an adventure. Moreover, sprinkled throughout are a number of “side quests” that provide extra motivation for exploring Castle Greyhawk – from recovering mushrooms to getting to the root of a major mystery (the desecration of the High Cleric Riggby’s body). These side quests add some “sandbox” elements to what is otherwise a pretty linear adventure.

The escaped raiders’ trail leads to Castle Greyhawk, an immense and mysterious complex built by one of Greyhawk’s great wizards, Zagyg the Mad Archmage – who has since then risen to demigod status. It is one of the most important dungeons in Greyhawk and in real-life D&D history, as it was the setting of Gary Gygax’s original campaign.

The Castle has appeared in print twice by TSR/WotC before (see this geeklist; most importantly in the oft-derided but in my opinion hilarious WG7: Castle Greyhawk, and in the very odd adventure WGR1: Greyhawk Ruins, which included the briefest of descriptions of rooms in the enormous complex, and nearly no plot), but neither bears any relation to Gygax’s original. He was in the process of publishing his version when he passed away; unfortunately, it thus looks to remain unfinished. The authors, all known as huge Greyhawk fans, here set out to pay homage to Gygax’s original vision and to restore the Castle as a serious and important dungeon.

The Castle consists of some above-ground ruins and three towers. The meat of this adventure is a series of dungeon crawls through the complex underneath each tower. The PCs are assumed to have self-imposed missions within each one (but suggested by the side quests), so the adventure does not attempt to describe the entire complex. Instead, it provides details on the relevant levels and some tools (a few encounters and some tables) on expanding if the players wander off-course. It does provide a fair amount of detail on the history of the Castle, so this can easily become a location of continuing importance in a campaign.

The adventure begins as a simple pursuit of the innkeeper’s magic sword, the trail of which takes them to the Tower of War at Castle Greyhawk. But the PCs quickly realize that the raiders were only a part of a larger force in the service of Iuz gathered within the Tower (who arrived through the Underdark). The PCs confront the army’s general, but after the fight they learn that the true leader, a vain wizard named Vayne, hides in a different – currently inaccessible – dungeon, below the Tower of Magic. Fortunately, they at least recover the magic sword, lending some sense of progress.

One of the nice things about the adventure is the number of side quests sprinkled throughout, which continue to pop up even inside the dungeon. I particularly like the rivalry between the evil gods that plays out; these really help to keep things interesting.

The PCs’ next task is to find a way into the Tower of Magic. Fortunately, the Greyhawk Thieves’ Guild has a plan, and with their help the PCs can break into the Guild of Wizardry to steal the key. This section is a little contrived, but a couple of tough but interesting encounters (a beholder!) and a meeting with Mordenkainen – who tasks them with the mission of rescuing his former adventuring companion Robilar, who had inadvertently traded places with an evil twin (it’s actually not quite as silly as that sounds) – makes up for it. This gives the PCs another plot thread to chase, and the Thieves’ Guild’s price for helping adds yet another.

This section also contains a few side quests within the city, which provide a nice change of pace from the more-or-less straight dungeon crawl of the rest of the campaign.

Finally able to return and enter the Tower of Magic, the PCs confront more of Iuz’s troops, soon learning of an impending invasion of Greyhawk. They bounce back and forth between the Towers of Magic and War, confronting the gathering army and Vayne. Along the way there are some memorable encounters with a mind flayer rogue and an imprisoned half fiend (though PCs must be fairly na├»ve to fall for her). This is a pretty straight dungeon crawl with some entertaining scenery.

It ends with a bang, though: Iuz teleports into the dungeon upon Vayne’s death and nearly kills the PCs. Fortunately for them, one of Vayne’s projects – a simulacrum of the legendary Iggwilv (Iuz’s mother) – has plots of her own, and she uses a legendary artifact called the godtrap to confine Iuz before he can kill the PCs. (The presence of such a powerful item actually makes sense, since it is what Zagig the archmage used become Zagyg the demigod long before). Now the plot twists again, and Iggwilv’s simulacrum becomes the BBEG.

This is the weakest part of the plot – why should the PCs bother to stop a mid-level wizard who has trapped one of Greyhawk’s greatest evil creatures? It wasn’t clear to me after reading it, nor after playing it, except that it is clearly the Right Thing To Do because she is up to No Good. So we went along with it, especially because the side quests continue pushing you forward. But it’s not as compelling an ending as stopping Iuz’ invasion!

In any case, this takes the PCs into the third and final of the Castle’s dungeons, below the Tower of Zagig. This section clearly puts the PCs in Zagig’s territory, with lots of weird wizardly rooms and traps, plus quite a few well-done encounters (I particularly like the juggernaut.) The PCs will eventually work their way into Zagig’s Ziggurat, which contains numerous clues to the mad archmage’s mind and, more directly important to this adventure, the sundered pieces of the godtrap key that the PCs need in order to stop the simulacrum.

This is a fun part of the adventure for a couple of reasons. First, the pieces are actually hidden on demiplanes accessible from the dungeon. This was a key part of Gygax’s campaign, and the demiplanes are a great change of pace and great for nostalgia value – two refer to the early adventures WG6: Isle of the Ape, EX1: Dungeonland/EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Second, their guardians are evil twins of Zagig’s adventuring crew – whose real names (Heward, Murlynd, etc.) will be familiar to long-time D&D players.

With these pieces in hand, the PCs can finally confront the simulacrum in the godtrap itself. Unfortunately, the climax is far from the best encounter in the book. While challenging, the key terrain in the room is very hard for the PCs to use unless they are extremely well-prepared, so it ends up being not very dynamic. But most importantly, only one PC per round can enter the chamber, no matter what! While this helps extend the combat for dramatic purposes, it means that most of the group will be sitting around twiddling their thumbs for a good chunk of the encounter! This seems like very poor design to me, in an otherwise well-done book.

All in all, I think this is one of the better WotC adventures of the 3.5E era. It provides a reasonably fleshed out setting – the city of Greyhawk – with enough small plot hooks to keep PCs happy (these side quests are really great). It has a lot of very interesting encounters. The plot is convoluted but revealed in bite-sized chunks, so the way forward is always clear. There are some nice changes of pace outside the dungeon (in the City and in hidden demiplanes). And there’s an awful lot of new Greyhawk lore for fans of the setting.

Nevertheless, it’s not perfect: the final section needs better motivation, the delve format gets on my nerves, those without an existing connection to Greyhawk may find the many links to Greyhawk canon grating, and the final encounter’s design is very disappointing.

Still, if you are looking for a solid dungeon crawl for mid/high-level 3.5E or Pathfinder characters, I definitely recommend this one!