Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A (RATHER LONG, ACTUALLY) HIATUS

Apologies to both of my readers, but there hasn't been much activity on here for a couple weeks. I was without internet access for a while, and now that I once again have internet access, I don't have time at the moment to write my regular posts. Rather than crank out a sub-standard publishing schedule, I'm going to take a break for a bit. Rest assured, Dicenbuttons will return!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS DRINKING GAME

RULES:
These are all optional; most are controllable by the character, and most are ‘mistakes’ a character can make. Write up your own list before you start playing so that it is clear which ones you have decided to use. If you're interested in D&D drinking game shenanigans, check out the Crit Juice podcast.

A PLAYER DRINKS WHEN THEIR CHARACTER...
  • Casts Cure Light Wounds, Lay On Hands, Uses Sneak Attack, Casts Magic Missile, Goes Into and Comes Out of a Barbarian Rage, or uses some other suitable class feature agreed upon during character creation.
  • Drinks a Potion (finishes drink)
  • Gains a Negative Status Effect
  • Goes Unconscious
  • Becomes Bloodied (half health)
  • Is Hit by a Trap
  • Rolls a 1
  • Drinks (in character)
  • Breaks Character
THE DM DRINKS WHEN...
  • A Monster Dies (think about this one, it happens a lot)
  • A Character Rolls a 20
  • A Character Finds a Magic Item
  • A Character Disables a Trap
  • An NPC Drinks (in character)
  • A Character Spots an Anachronism
EVERYONE DRINKS WHEN...
  • A Nerdy Media Reference is Made (Leroy Jenkins, Double Rainbow, Attacking the Darkness, etc)
  • A player-character dies.

Friday, June 20, 2014

THIS YEAR'S BEST PRICES IN PC GAMING ON STEAM

The Steam Summer Sale is upon us! Every year the tides of Steam prices sink to new lows, and reveal fantastic games for often only a few dollars. If you buy games on Steam, this a wonderful week for you.This year's summer sale

DEALS! SO MANY DEALS!
There are a few categories for Steam sales. There are Daily Deals, which last 25 hours. As of the posting of this, the first one is still live, and features Farcry 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Don't Starve, and The Witcher 2, each at least 75% off. You could pick up all 4 of them for about 25 dollars. Those prices will expire at 10AM Pacific, 6/20.

There are also Flash sales, which are voted on by you, the buyer. These last 8 hours and feature 4 games each. Generally they have a theme like "Racing Games" or "Indie Platformers".

A CHANCE AT FREE GAMES!
Steam is also running what they call their "Summer Adventure". Basically this is a temporary system that awards buyers with in-game items, unique skins, and a chance at free games based on their activity on Steam during the sale. Spending money, voting on Flash Sales, and other activities earn you points for the game. Full details are available at that Summer Adventure link above, but here is the neat part if you aren't serious about earning In-Game items...

Join a "team" during the Steam Summer Adventure for a chance at some free games during the Summer sale. Based on buying activity and badge crafting, randomly-assigned "teams" are going to be earning points this week. At the end of each day, the 30 members of the winning team will each get 3 free games on their Steam wish lists. The thing is, you don't have to buy anything for a shot at free games. There's no real downside to choosing a team (here) and making sure you have at least 3 games on your wish list.

WHAT DO I SUGGEST?
There are a bunch of great games out there, but here are a few I personally think are worth playing. I don't have the time to update this list with Steam Sale info, so I'm going to just throw out some of my favorites and hope they turn up on Steam.
  • DON'T STARVE - This one is a gothic horror-ish indie survival game that was a big deal at PAX last year. I haven't gotten a chance to play it yet, but not from lack of trying. 
  • SKYRIM - If you haven't played this yet, go play it. Dragons and Vikings and epic music and Bethesda. Wonderful things which I bet will drop to around 15 dollars at some point this week. 
  • BORDERLANDS II - Great first-person shooter in a post-apocalypse wasteland. Play it with a friend. 
  • BIOSHOCK TRIPLE-PACK - Dystopian noir is the flavor of the evening. Bring your steam-powered whatsits and mutagenic plasmids! Bioshock II wasn't the best game ever, but was still pretty great. The other two gems in this pack are well worth the 15 dollars that it's at during this sale. 
  • TERRARIA - This charming little gem is just 4 bucks right now, but I suggest getting a 4-pack and running a LAN adventure with a few friends. Basically think 2D Minecraft with prettier graphics. 
  • GOAT SIMULATOR - This is one I can't in good conscience suggest paying more than a couple bucks for, but as a random open-world game where you play as a goat, I can't fault it. Be prepared for jetpacks, demonic sacrifice, and awful, crippling bugs. Best play while inebriated. 
  • FALLOUT NEW VEGAS - (Fallout anything, really) Post=apocalypse open world wonderfulness. I'm a sucker for Fallout, and in particular, Fallout 2 is perhaps my favorite game of all time. Check these out. 
  • SIR, YOU ARE BEING HUNTED - Who doesn't want to be hunted in the English countryside by Steampunk robots?
  • BALDUR'S GATE II - Turn-based fantasy role-playing at its best. This one is, if Fallout 2 is not, my favorite game of all time. It has aged rather well, and I love it in a way that isn't wholly appropriate. 
  • THE BANNER SAGA - I nearly helped Kickstart this one! Vikings and brilliant story elements wrapped in turn-based goodness. Check it out.\ 
  • BANISHED - Civ V almost made it onto this list, but Banished is probably a better one to try. I haven't played this yet, but I want to. Manage resources carefully and keep your growing town alive. 
  • GONE HOME - I can't wait to play this one. Exploration-driven narrative at its best. Explore an empty house and piece together what happened to the occupants. This one is made of emotion. 
  • FTL - Survive a journey through space in this excellent roguelike. 
  • AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT - Horror as horror games should be. Run, hide, and hallucinate your way through puzzles and dark tunnels. 
  • BASTION - This game just makes me smile. Beautiful fantasy with clever narration and a sense of humor. 
  • MASS EFFECT - These games are great. Say what you will about the end of the third game, but the story arc and scope of this series still gives me chills. The second one was may favorite of the three. Sadly, the third installment never made it to Steam.
MY POOR WALLET
Why are you still reading this? Go forth and give them all your money!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

5 REASONS THE DEAD ARE WALKING INTO OUR GAMES

With titles like Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Plants vs Zombies, and more recently Dead Island each raking in millions of dollars, there is some sociological phenomenon at work to sway public interest toward the undead. In addition to these games there are other big names that are eluding me right now, and of course there are the ‘zombie versions’ of nearly every big game. Here's a few of the factors coming together for this recent surge in popularity for zombie games, movies, and television shows.

1) THE DEAD ARE A CLEAR ENEMY
Before Vietnam, war was fairly clear-cut in the eyes of the world public. More or less anyone would agree that the Nazi’s had a bad plan and needed to be stopped. Ask anyone why America was fighting in Iraq though, and you’re going to get conflicting opinions. As a gamer, players want their character’s to be justified in their actions. Zombies give them that justification where “real world” enemies do not.

2) THE DEAD ARE POLITICALLY CORRECT
This is a time that might well be later referred to as the “age of the offended minority”. Game developers have almost no limits on the level of gore, nudity, and violence they can show, but they have to tread lightly around any minority’s rights. This isn't a bad thing, but it does mean that there are limits on the dialogue and actions of the “bad guys” in a lot of games. Russians are complicated. Women are complicated. Terrorists are complicated. Germans are complicated. The undead? Wide open. It’s okay to kill 10,000 zombies in a game, but it isn’t okay to kill 10,000 humans, especially when they’re all from the same place.

3) APOCALYPSE NOW...ISH
There were several apocalypses predicted just about now, or a little while ago, by the Mayans or Aztecs or Christian fundamentalists or Nostradamus… more or less whoever you ask allegedly said at one point or another that the end is nigh. This means that the end of the world is topical, and Zombies are a good candidate for why.

4) ZOMBIES ARE EASY
When you’re developing a game, there are about 3 big factors in budgeting. Depending on the game, these each have different relative values. First there’s the programming. The game needs to work well; enemies need to act intelligently, etc. Second there’s the writing, modeling and animation. The game has to look good if people are going to want to play it. Finally there’s the advertising. People need to hear about the game. In a zombie game, AI is easy; Zombies are dumb. Writing is fairly easy too; zombies are predictable. Modeling is easier still; zombies have been imagined for over 50 years and have an awkward shuffling gait at the best of times.

5) KILLING ZOMBIES "FEELS" REAL
Bear with me on this one. The world is incredibly fake right now. Women have breast implants, chicken has saltwater injected into it, people burn fake logs, dogs eat synthetic bones, plastic looks like wood… the list goes on. In the midst of all of this fake-ness, the idea of surviving with your wits in any environment is appealing. Fashioning together weapons in a mall, setting traps in the wilderness, and rationing resources are all concepts that hearken to something deep and instinctual within us that is hard to find in a world of boca burgers, soy lattes, and cars made of plastic. It feels good to get your hands dirty smashing heads, even in a video game.

Friday, June 13, 2014

6 GAMERS WHO ARE PROBABLY AT YOUR TABLE

Every table has a few people who don't quite jive well with the rest of the group. They might be too into the game, or not into it enough. They might have some questionable social habits or loudly interrupt other players. Over the years I've spent gaming, I've noticed a few archetypes that seem to be present at most gaming tables, for better or for worse. 

1) Warning Signs:
  • Do your friends turn away or change the subject when you start to talk about your character?
  • Do you tell lots of unprompted stories about what happened “this one time” in a game?
  • Do you repeat those stories? Several times?
  • Did you write a backstory more than 3 pages long?
The Braggart isn't really that bad. He’s a passionate gamer, and generally stays in character. He’s metagamed a bit or rolled well, and he plays the game well besides, so he’s a pretty effective asset to the party. The problem with the Braggart is fairly self explanatory. He goes on about his different abilities, synergies, and backstory, long after his audience has lost interest. There's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about the crazy stuff that happens in D&D, but try to stay humble in the face of it. Smile and move on.


2 and 3) Warning Signs:
  • Does the party sigh and roll their eyes when your barbarian throws the foreign npc out the window in frustration, or laugh along with you?
  • Have you ever opened a door with another party member’s face?
  • Have you ever squelched a friend’s action to do something stupid?
The Monkey and Berzerker are two very similar players. They are both based on very basic character ideas. The Monkey is effectively insane. Her zany antics are intentionally chaotic. She might roll dice to determine her actions once a day, or make saving throws against bad decisions. Where the Monkey has no common sense, the Berzerker has no higher brain functions. Usually a barbarian, she plays axe-to-face, solving every problem with “I break it in half”. In the right circumstances, these characters can work well and be fun. In the wrong party though, they reduce the plotline to a slapstick comedy.


4) Warning Signs:
  • Have you missed one of the last 4 gaming sessions?
  • How do you react to a phone call or text at the gaming table? What about your friends?
  • Do you describe yourself as a gamer, or just a person who hangs out with gamers?
The Halfling isn't committed to the game. He’s the guy who checks his texts, replies to them, makes a quick phone call, and then takes his turn. He isn't clear on how to play, and will jokingly call the rest of the group his “nerd friends”. The flakiest member of the gaming group, the Halfling will frequently cancel at the last minute when other plans come up. Dungeons and Dragons is about having fun, and there is plenty of room around the table for gamers of all social circles and walks of life, but the Halfling can easily alienate his friends and detracts from the game with his absence. There's nothing wrong with a new player learning the game, but the Halfling takes pride in their lack of knowledge.

5 and 6) Warning Signs:
  • Have you read the rulebook cover to cover more than once or twice?
  • Do you check the book more than twice a session?
  • Do you know the calculable strength of tempered steel, or the methods used to forge it?
The Lawyer and Expert are both authorities in their own right. The Lawyer has studied up on every rule of the game, and she knows exactly how to resolve every action. She overrules the DM to help resolve things, effectively backseat gaming. The Expert does the same thing, but from the perspective of real life. The Expert practices swordplay in real life, is an amateur blacksmith, reads about occult wizardry, or is a general fantasy buff. Both of these players bring a unique knowledge base to the game, but if they aren’t careful, they can annoy their friends and slow the game down. Where the Lawyer will say "You did that wrong; stone walls have a break DC of 25", the Expert will say "There's no way that you can break down that wall; 13th century mortar was actually stronger than modern concrete". These two can be great for conversation, as along as they don't let their viewpoints intrude too much on what the DM is trying to accomplish.

There's nothing inherently wrong with these archetypes, and nobody is exactly a cookie-cutter copy of one of these. It's worth paying attention to them though, because each is an exaggeration of qualities in a good gamer. A good gamer takes pride in their character, and isn't afraid to do something crazy once in a while. A good gamer keeps the outside world in mind, and doesn't solely live within the confines of the game. A good gamer knows a bit about the real world, and a bit about the game world, and can let the DM handle the latter.

As always, game on.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

GAMER GIRLS

First of all let me say that women who are into gaming are more than just a welcome addition to the gamer hordes; women are a big part of that subculture all on their own. The world doesn’t need to “accept” the idea of gamer girls, because the idea is already a solidified reality. The world might as well “accept” the idea of gravity.

Some years ago, when I was still using tumblr, I started following the “Gamer Girls” tag. The tag was full of pictures of attractive women holding game controllers over their chests, and I sacrificed copies of Duke Nukem Forever in ritual fires to appease it. In return, I had many a picture of attractive ladygamers. The relationship was symbiotic at first. Then I started to find commentary on what a "Gamer Girl" was or was not. It seems that there is a fair amount of contention circulating online about what it means to be a girl gamer. 
Some of the discussion is downright mean. 

There needs to be a little bit of clarification on this point, so I’m throwing in my 2 caps worth. I am not a girl gamer, but this is my corner of the internet and I'm going to do my best anyway.

The gaming community is one I generally liken to a college dorm. It’s a community full of people who are enthusiastic and collaborative and wonderful, but it’s also a community with a lot of people who don’t communicate well. Everyone in the dorm wants to show their best side, and people get hurt when those sides clash. 
In any environment, people flock together to make friends, and use social constructions (categories and rules that humans make up to organize their world) to differentiate their own little circle from the rest of the world.

Women in the gaming community wrongfully fall into two different categories. It isn’t right and it isn’t accurate, but people enjoy categorizing things so the groups get constructed. “True” gamer girls who are the hardcore enthusiasts and look like they spend weeks playing WoW straight without bathing, because they do. “Fake” gamer girls are the casual gamer crowd, or the women who pretend to like games to impress men (or other women, whichever they prefer).

These two fictional categories are constantly at war with one another, which is hilarious to me, because neither one is real. Social constructions like these are bullshit, and there is literally no reason to dwell on them at all. The two categories only exist in the first place because it’s more socially acceptable to mock a group of people than an individual. Women who play games are just gamers who happen to be women. That’s all there is to it.

The world is full of female individuals who play games. Some of them are good at gaming. Some of them suck. Some of them play games to attract men. Some of them love gaming, and others play because they want to spend time with their significant other who also games. Some of them are teabagging jerks. Some of them swear like sailors. Some of them enjoy dressing up like video game characters. Some of them play games for the storyline and like turning the difficulty down to a low setting. Some of them can kick your ass at Super Smash Bros, and others will loudly complain that Super Smash Bros is an unbalanced and outdated game anyway.


For many women (and many men) gaming is a passion that has developed since their childhood. We live in an age where people can meet from across the globe without leaving their homes and happily discuss their hobbies with somebody else who they may never see in real life. Wasting that opportunity by tearing down the very enthusiasm that brings people together is criminal. There is no wrong way to enjoy video games, but trashing somebody else for enjoying their game a different way ruins the experience for us all.


One day the internet will collectively decide to start treating people like people. It will be a glorious day, and I heartily look forward to it. Until that day, keep in mind that there are no "jocks" in the world. There are no "geeks" in the world. There are humans in the world. Many of those humans play games. Some of those humans are women, and whatever their reason is to play games, they don't need to defend it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

3 DM PITFALLS (AND WHEN TO IGNORE THEM)


As a Dungeon Master, you have complete control over the game. Gods bow before your might. Vast worlds spring to creation under your fingertips, and puny adventurers are as flies before a thunderstorm. In short, you have a lot of power. As the most famous comic-book uncle once put it, "With great power comes great responsibility". Your players have trust in you as their DM, and it is important to honor that trust in the way you handle your games. This isn't a comprehensive list, but covers a handful of things that I have seen in games, and my thoughts on each.

SPLITTING THE PARTY
Splitting the party is one of the oldest and most often discouraged gameplay "mistakes". The party reaches a fork in their tunnel, or a trap drops some of the party into an underground river. Splitting the party often slows the pace of the game down though, and no player really looks forward to watching somebody play D&D while they wait for the DM to get to what's going on in their own fork of the tunnel. Few things will make a player feel more betrayed by their DM than having their character singled out away from the party and then killed because they didn't have backup.

Splitting the party is often seen as a way to mix things up by separating the vulnerable wizard from their protective paladin. It can highlight the rogue's sneaking skills and give characters a bit of time in the spotlight. Done correctly, it can also put the players off balance. The overpowered barbarian might suddenly have to learn how to survive without the Cleric they took for granted. It can work, but use it sparingly.

RUNNING A FOREIGN SETTING
I once ran a supernatural campaign that took place in Germany during 1950. In it, the characters investigated various supernatural horrors loosed by Nazi experiments. Think Cold War Lovecraftian horror. My players and I loved the idea and were excited about the game, but we knew very little about the setting. I knew almost nothing about post-war Germany in terms of what was legal, what factions were active, the state of women's rights, or ideas about racism and classism following the fall of the Nazi regime.

I didn't know much about how intelligence agencies operated in other countries (players were each from a different nation). I wasn't sure what side of the road cars drove on, or whether Germany would have French or British cars on the roads along with BMW and Mercedes. A lot of this I could make up, but at a certain point making things up created a world that didn't feel as authentic as I wanted it to. The books were excellent and I had a lot of fun putting everything together, but even after dozens of hours of research, I kept getting surprised by basic things that everyone should know about the world. As the DM, this isn't really a great thing for world-building.

Understand that there is nothing wrong with running a game in another country, or with running one in another time period. Historical settings are a lot of fun. But as the DM, you should have a good idea about what the world is like. You should know the cost of bus fare. You should know the typical breakfast served in your game. You should know whether there is an imposed curfew in your city, and what side of the road cars drive on.

Science Fiction and Fantasy settings can get away with a lot of this because if the edges of the world don't quite fit together the DM can just say "it's magic" or "it's alien technology" and make everything okay, but if you're running a game in the "real world" try to make it feel "real" and know what the "real" aspects of it are.

DEUS EX MACHINA
Deus ex machina is latin, and translates roughly to "God from the machine". This is not to be confused with the excellent video game of the same name. Deus ex machina is a plot device wherein the central problem of a story is resolved by an external force. This external force can be any new event, character, or phenomenon you can imagine, but hasn't until this point been something the audience could reasonably expect. It originates and refers to old greek plays, where writers would find themselves in a corner and end their play by saying "and then Zeus showed up and hit the monster with a lightning bolt and everything was okay." Even back in the day, a lot of people thought it was kinda dumb.

There are a bunch of examples of this in literature and film, but Tolkien (Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) is somewhat famous for using both Gandalf and the Eagles in this way. Just when it looks like Helm's Deep is about to fall, Gandalf shows up and fixes things. Just when the goblins are about to roast the dwarves in their trees, the eagles show up and fix things. And it happens again and again and again. It gets old.

This is compounded in games. In a movie, the viewer suspends their disbelief and enjoys a presentation of a story. In a game, the players themselves are crafting the story. Intervening with an overwhelming force to dictate what happens removes that player agency and tells the players that they shouldn't bother to try. If they players don't try, the DM will just solve the issue themselves, after all. This is one that will cause a game to shed players, and rightly so. Unless you have a very good reason to, I would avoid deus ex machina altogether.

Failure is a part of the game. It can be fun, and create interesting situations for the players. It can be alarming and can shock them into sticking to safer plans. Importantly though, it is a part of the game. As the DM, your job is to facilitate the game. To make it interesting, and to help the players make it fun.

Friday, May 30, 2014

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS WILL BE FREE, KINDA

In a post earlier this week, Wizards of the Coast explained that they will be releasing at least some of the rules for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons for free. Titled Basic D&D, this PDF will include enough information to level a wizard, fighter, cleric or rogue from level 1 to 20. This is great news for gamers everywhere, but isn't quite as revolutionary as it sounds.

Depending on how you count, it, this is more or less the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that has been constantly evolving for many years now. After Wizards received some major flak for 4th edition (I'll write more on that eventually, I promise) they are trying to hearken back to earlier editions for this go-around. This edition appears to be dropping any numbering system and (going by the book covers) rebranding itself with a simple D&D logo above the book title.

Speaking of the book titles, I'm enjoying the art so far. Lots of epic scenes and inspiring monsters. Like the dragon on the cover of the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set. Speaking of the Starter Set, it brings me to a bit of launch information. Basic D&D sounds like it will launch at the same time as the Starter Set, which is great because it means that everyone around the table can have a copy of the rules on their tablet/phone/computer/retinadrive come July 15, 2014. Which is in just under 2 months.

The launch schedule so far looks like this...

  • July 15, 2014 - Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set launches
    • This will cost $19.99.
    • This will allow players to create characters from the 4 core classes and advance to level 5
    • The free PDF "Basic D&D" will launch, and include rules for full, 20-level character advancement.
  • August 19, 2014 - Player's Handbook launches
    • This will cost $49.95.
    • This will provide additional options for character creation and advancement.
    • The free PDF will expand to include more information to make these options playable.
  • September 30, 2014 - Monster Manual launches
    • This will cost $49.95.
    • This will provide a bunch of monsters. You knew that from the title.
    • The free PDF will continue to expand, like some unstoppable yeast-based monster which will probably appear in Monster Manual 4 during 2017.
  • November 18, 2014 - Dungeon Master's Guide launches
    • This will cost $49.95.
    • This will provide more information on crafting stories, building encounters, and things like that.
    • The free PDF will expand again, and probably become self-aware.

There are a few other products launching near the end of the summer as part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign that Wizards is running. Tyranny of Dragons is interesting to me, but I'll wait before writing more on it. For now, it's enough for me to know that it's a thing that is happening.

Wizards wants Dungeons & Dragons to expand. They're making cooler-looking books (click any of the links above, basically) which gamers are less likely to be embarrassed about. They made a shiny new logo, which will look awesome on stickers and book covers alike. I'm pretty pumped about that. I'm less pumped about dropping 150 dollars for new core-books, but Wizards has an answer to that as well.

By releasing Basic D&D, an evolving monster of a free PDF, Wizards has created multiple points of entry for new players. A player can play using only that one book, or can use it to supplement the Starter Set, which is only 20 dollars. A DM could buy only the Dungeon Master's Guide or Monster Manual, and use the Basic D&D PDF to flesh out the other rule aspects. It's a pretty awesome feature, and one that brings the new edition to parity with older rules.

That's right; this isn't as new as it sounds. There are excellent resources available already for Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 already. Check them out now if you haven't already.

For myself, I will be holding off on the main books for now, and seeing how far the Starter Set and Basic D&D will get me. Each of these products is also conveniently on sale on Amazon right now; a pre-order; the Starter Set is only $12.65.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

PLAY BETRAYAL AT HOUSE ON THE HILL

The creak of footsteps on the stairs, the smell of something foul and dead, the feel of something crawling down your back...

Over the last several weeks I have been playing mostly one board game, Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Hardly a new game, Betrayal was originally published in 2004, when it won the Gamer's Choice award for Best Board Game of that year. More recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of the game, and it was featured on TableTop in October 2013, to mass appeal.

In Betrayal at House on the Hill, players each control a character investigating a haunted mansion. They deal with strange and spooky occurrences for a while before one of the players betrays the rest. On the face of things, this isn't terribly revolutionary, but lets delve a bit deeper.

CHARACTERS
There are six different archetypes to the game: the old guy, the jock, the young woman, the teenage girl, the boy-child, and the girl-child. Each character has four statistics (Speed, Strength, Knowledge, and Sanity) which improve or are reduced as they explore the house. Additionally, each character has two versions; there is a fast Jock and a strong Jock. Players are free to choose the character option that has a skill set more to their liking.

Any time that a character takes damage, they move one of their sliders to the next lower attribute. Physical damage reduces Strength and Speed, while Mental damage reduces Knowledge and Sanity. If any attribute reaches zero, the character is lost to the House on the Hill.

Each character has a miniature that is pre-painted (I might end up touching up the paint on mine) to a game-ready standard. It's a nice step up from meeples. The characters' four attributes are tracked on the edge of their pentagonal character tiles. Each is tracked by a little slider that clings to the side of the tile.

EXPLORING
The house itself is built of a series of square pieces. As players explore new rooms, they drop a piece onto the table adjacent to the room they are entering from. In this way, the house slowly grows into a new building each time. The rooms' reverse side shows the players whether it belongs on the second floor, basement, or ground floor level. This prevents things like the Attic from turning up in the top floor.

Additionally, some rooms have simple-but-fun additional rules. For instance, players can move from the "collapsed room" to the basement by falling down 1 floor and taking a bit of damage. The dance hall on the ground floor is below the balcony above it, and so on. Rooms that don't quite line up are rationalized as being blocked doors or boarded-up windows, which works well for any haunted house.

Many rooms have symbols on them that correspond to cards. There are three different types of cards, but they mostly work the same way. Event cards and Omen cards usually cause the player to make a check by rolling a number of dice equal to their rank at a given attribute, trying to reach a target number of successes. For instance, a player encountering fire in a room might roll a Speed roll to avoid it. They would roll a number of dice equal to their Speed attribute and try to hit a particular number set on the card. If they succeed, they get a benefit (usually an attribute raise) and if they fail, they get a penalty (usually an attribute reduction).

Some Events and Omens reward the player with Item cards, which are useful tools that can help them in the haunted house. Additionally, some rooms allow the player to draw Event cards.

Omens are generally worse than Events, offering harsher negative consequences and fewer benefits for a more difficult check. Additionally, omens increase the Haunt tracker. After drawing an Omen card, the player moves the tracker up one mark and rolls six dice. As long as they a number greater than the current Haunt "level" they are okay. If they roll a lower number than the one shown on the Haunt tracker, they trigger the Haunt and somebody betrays everybody else.

THE HAUNT
Once the Haunt has been triggered, things go horribly wrong in all the best ways. The game comes with 3 rule books: the general rules, the survivor handbook, and the traitor's tome. Once the Haunt is triggered, the game gets really interesting. One of 50 unique Haunts is triggered based on which Omen card is triggered in which room. For instance, the "Spirit Board" Omen card has a better chance than most at triggering a "Seance" Haunt, but still varies depending on which room it was discovered in.

The players determine which Haunt has been triggered and (usually) who the traitor is, then the traitor leaves the room to read about their new objectives. The survivors flip to their page in the survivors' book, and determine their own strategy for how they will get out of the house alive. It might involve fighting zombies, eluding ghosts, avoiding a flood, or anything in between.

Each side of the Haunt knows only as much information as is in their book, so they don't necessarily know what the other side is trying to accomplish. The traitor might know that as a newly-turned vampire they have to kill all the survivors, but they wouldn't know that the survivors are looking for stakes and holy water in the basement.

MY GRIPE, AND MY FIX FOR IT
The one thing that I don't really like with the game is the character tiles, and specifically the trackers for the character attributes. Character attributes are tracked with little arrow clips that slide along the side of the tiles, but they don't quite grip the tiles well enough to be reliable. What I've been using instead are torn up bits of sticky notes. I just move the little adhesive bits up and down as needed to track my attributes, which works fine. My personal suggestion: Throw a pad of sticky notes into the box if you plan on playing a lot.

Interested in buying the game? You can hopefully find it here on Amazon. This is a game to shop around for; it SHOULD cost around 45 dollars, but often fluctuates to well over 125. Timing is key, but you may also find a used copy on Ebay with a bit of luck. If you can get your hands on a copy, this game is well worth playing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

CO-OP MMORPGAMING, PART I

CO-OP MMOR-WHAT?
Cooperative games are games in which the players work together rather than playing against each other. Cooperative game modes are often abbreviated to co-op, since gamers are by and large a lazy folk.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been around for a while now. Depending on how you count it, since either the 80s or 90s. Some of the most popular ones over the years have been Ultima Online, Everquest, and of course World of Warcraft. In these games, a player joins the same game as thousands, or even millions of other players in order to adventure in the same fictional world. Many games have multiplayer features, but MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games take multiplayer to another level with an immense, persistent world. This article isn't really about the origin or history of MMO games, but knowing a bit about the genre will make it a much better read. With that in mind...

Welcome to CO-OP MMORPGAMING, a chronicle my delve into playing an MMO with my girlfriend. It's the first experience I have had with playing an MMO as a local co-op game, sitting next to the other player. We will be attempting to play more or less the whole game as a two-person party, which is entirely new to me. Hopefully it will prove useful to gamers on a time crunch who are looking to start an MMO with their significant other or close friend.

MY MMO PAST
About five years ago I had lots of time for gaming. I was single, working part time, and was a student with few enough time constraints that I could game from about 5pm to 3am, several days a week. And I did. I devoured games, completing most shooters and adventure games over the course of a weekend. RPGs held my attention a bit longer, and I could spend weeks or months on them before exhausting them of new content.

Around this time I tried my hand at MMORPGs for the first time. I played The Old Republic (a fun Star Wars MMO) for about 6 months, because I loved the KOTOR series. For the record, KOTOR I and II are still the best Star Wars games out there. I played EVE Online (spaceships and spreadsheets) for about a year and loved it, but ultimately tired of my trading and space exploration. I played Guild Wars (a fantasy MMO with a focus on player-vs-player team fights) for a few months before I lost interest, played TERA (a fantasy MMO that includes a race of Ewok-ish creatures) for a bit, and played AION (a fantasy MMO where you can fly with awesome angel wings) as well. Ultimately I decided that MMOs weren't really my thing. The gameplay structure was based on playing with friends, but my friends never stuck with any one game longer than a few months.

MY CRITERIA
Fast forward to now. I work full time and am living with a wonderful young woman who would like to play games with me. We have gone through a number of cooperative console games, and I decide it is time again to try out an MMO. This interest, in part, was sparked by the excellent anime Sword Art Online. We both work and have too many hobbies (gaming, cosplay, music, art, dancing, writing) so we only have an hour or so a day to play games.

Here's the catch... her computer isn't that brilliant, and most newer games require some pretty impressive hardware to run. The second catch... we don't want to pay money to play the game. 

A lot of free-to-play MMO games are either very limiting to free players or require you to pay money for cool stuff. They let you play for free up to level 10, or to play a few classes for free and pay money for the others. Some let you do certain quests for free, or require that you pay money for decent gear. Some games are free to play, but don't offer any real challenge or excitement and are arguably not even games at all. Social games like Farmville fall into this category. We wanted a real game that we could get a lot of content out of for free.

CHOOSING OUR GAME
I did a bit of research and determined that our options for a fun, free-to-play MMO with friendly graphics requirements were a bit limited. Dungeons and Dragons Online looked good, but was very locked into D&D rules. I love D&D, but wanted to try something different for an MMO. Another option was TERA. TERA boasts some pretty graphics and the option of playing as a Popori, which are cute little animal-creatures that look kinda like Ewoks. Finally we had Aion, which is a bit older but allows players to fly around on awesome wings.

I chose Aion because I figured my girlfriend would like the idea of flying in an MMO. Aion is also the middle-ground in terms of graphics among the three games, and seemed a good starting point to judge system performance. We installed Aion on both machines and fired it up, then waited about 7 hours to download the numerous patches the game has had (it's up to version 4.5 now) since it launched...

Stay tuned for CO-OP MMORPGAMING, PART II

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

D&D EXPLAINED: DEXTERITY

Dexterity is probably my favorite stat, most notably because I love rogues. Dexterity is what characters use to dodge attacks, aim ranged attacks, sneak in the shadows, perform feats of acrobatics, and avoid traps. It factors into their initiative and their Reflex defense. More than that, dexterity is the measurement of balance, poise, precision, and accuracy of any given character. It’s incredibly important to anyone who wants to do things with their character that involve speed and timing; it’s the ninja stat.

8…

...is below average. You have trouble walking and chewing gum. Coordination just really isn’t your thing. You might hit your head walking through doors, drop things you’re carrying, shoot yourself in the foot while reloading, and get stuck in small spaces. You usually avoid any tasks that could involve balance, timing, stealth, or poise. Maybe you have a crippling injury, are prone to seizures, have impaired sight or balance, or are overweight. Fumbles, from GoblinsComic, has 8 dexterity.

10…

...is an average dexterity score. You can balance, sneak, and react about as fast as anyone else. When out of your element, you fall on your face; when in it, you generally succeed at things you attempt. Not a lot to say here; you’re as dexterous as say, Gimli the dwarf (LOTR).

12…

...is above average. You’re more agile than most of the people you know. Your balance isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad either. You can throw things with accuracy, and while you can’t sneak up on animals, you can sometimes get a jump on other people. Frodo Baggins has about 12 dexterity.

14…

...is impressive, but nothing incredible. Maybe you juggle. You can palm small objects with some degree of competence, and you don’t feel any particular risk carefully balancing over a steep cliff. You can move around with a blindfold and avoid tripping with even odds. I would give Link (Zelda) 14 Dexterity.

16…

...is worth bragging about. Your muscles might not have a lot of bulk, but they have tone. You can dodge oncoming attacks, hit a target on the move, and balance on a beam, but probably not all at the same time. You can control your body in ways that can occasionally leave people around you in awe. Jackie Chan has 16 dexterity.

18…

...is utterly amazing. You react almost before things happen, and it sometimes scares people. Legolas the elf (LOTR) has 18 dexterity. His heightened sense of balance and fast reactions allow him to perform feats of agiltiy like this and this. Because apparently elves are ninjas sometimes.

People more agile than this pass into legend. Their aim improves, their balance as well, but these changes aren’t clear to the passive observer. The greatest pinnacles of dexterous achievement might well go completely unnoticed, a silent shadow in the pages of history.

When you are distributing your dexterity stat during character creation, think about how your stats got to be where they are. Did you train as a pickpocket? Were you a burglar, an archer, or a daredevil? If you’re an assassin now, where did you learn your craft? How do you maintain your disciplined agility? If your dexterity is low, how do you rationalize that weakness? How do you roleplay it?

Friday, May 16, 2014

WHY RUNNING AN EVIL CAMPAIGN MIGHT NOT BE SUCH A GREAT PLAN

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” 
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Most groups who play together regularly eventually consider an "evil campaign", as a way to change the pace of their games and play some antagonists. After so much time saving princesses and defeating dragons, they want to steal, murder, and pillage the town. They want to defeat the heroes for once instead of the villains. They want to play a scheming lich, a brutal orcish warlord, or an insidious drow sneak-thief. On the face of things it sounds like fun, but there are a number of reasons I recommend against it.


ADVENTURING WITH MURDEROUS CRETINS IS A BAD TIME
Evil for evil's sake is neither fun nor realistic, just kind of gross. If the players created their characters so that they could kill puppies, the game will leave everybody uncomfortable. Watching movies that focus on truly evil characters instills emotions in the viewer of disgust, revulsion, and fear. Horror movies focus on evil as a way to alienate the viewer for artistic purposes, but you can't do that in a game. When you, the player, are the villain, this just isn't possible. It's a different experience to cringe watching SAW than it would be to play the movie's villain, Jigsaw.

But maybe the adventurers don't want to do "evil" things. Maybe they just want to be the "bad guys" for once. "Bad Guys" don't really have a reason to stay together as a party. There is a reason that there aren't any major books that follow a group of truly evil characters; these characters don't let you identify with them, because they aren't human. Nobody wants to be in an adventuring party with Sauron (LOTR) because he's one-dimensional and not a fun guy. As the embodiment of evil in middle earth, he has no respect for human life and would do anything for the sake of his own power.

You may be able to get some humor out of an over-the-top evil game, emphasizing the ridiculous lengths your characters go to in pursuit of their misdeeds, but this is tough and very specific. The PC game Overlord did this rather well, but it has niche appeal and doesn't work as well in groups.


HOW CAN I KEEP MY GAME FROM DEVOLVING INTO EVIL CHAOS?
All this said, evil campaigns CAN be run well, but it has to be done carefully. Rather than evil for evil's sake, the characters could be working as pawns to a more powerful entity. They might not be truly evil themselves, but might have to work for the demon who owns their souls, or for the sorcerer who is holding their families hostage. This allows you to include interesting moral dilemmas and give the players diverse challenges.

Alternately, the characters could be working together as a result of rigid power structures. I played an excellent drow one-shot where the party was entirely composed of dark elves, and each character had a "hidden motive" that the other players weren't aware of. Mine was to kill one of the other PCs, a priestess who was working for a rival noble house. It didn't end well for my character, whose botched assassination attempt led to the rest of the party sacrificing him for the main quest, but it was fun nonetheless.

Maybe your party is performing a heist, where their evil actions are strictly profit-seeking. These characters are often present in Shadowrun games, where the characters are all performing

Similarly they could be doing something evil for a greater good. Lex Luthor genuinely believes that the world would be a better place without Superman in it, and orchestrates repeated plots to destroy the man of steel. Luthor is also a huge philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to charitable organizations. Moral ambiguity can be fun to play with.

You can make the game work by having characters with strict limits on what they will and will not do. An assassin might say that he "never kills kids" for instance. Real people have limits, self imposed or otherwise, that form the rules they live by. If your party thinks of themselves as "honorable villains" the game will likely run smoothly. These redeeming qualities can make an evil campaign bearable and prevent it from devolving into mindless, ugly slaughter.


KEEP IN MIND...
Running an evil campaign is different from running evil characters in a "good" campaign. They party might involve evil characters in a party doing good things, or doing morally ambiguous things. If the players are defeating monsters and helping people, they are playing a different game than the one mentioned here. They might be driven by greed, respect for the party's good characters, a debt of honor, blackmail, or any number of other things. The excellent web comic Order of the Stick uses a curse to keep the party's (evil?) character from killing anyone within the limits of an established town. The party might still be entirely composed of evil characters forced to adventure or work for a lawful organization, as well.

Running an evil campaign is also not the same as running a game with a dark setting. World of Darkness games in particular take place in a very dark world, and often involve characters who do questionable things. They aren't necessarily evil though, which is what makes them compelling. A character with evil motives might still be a basically good person. A character who finds their own vampirism repellent isn't truly evil, just deeply flawed. Flawed characters can be a lot of fun to run, but as the DM, talk to your players and nail down exactly what they are looking to get out of the session.

I often find that players who want to play "evil" characters really just want a world where they can do whatever they want without repercussions. While Dungeons and Dragons is about having fun with friends through story-storytelling and escapism, it isn't healthy to take that overly far beyond the bounds of morality. There is no wrong way to play D&D, but take care that the game stays fun and safe for everybody involved. If the players just want to kick puppies, maybe they should take a break from gaming and look at what's going on in their lives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

D&D EXPLAINED: WISDOM

Everything is based on mind, is led by mind, is fashioned by mind. If you speak and act with a polluted mind, suffering will follow you, as the wheels of the oxcart follow the footsteps of the ox. Everything is based on mind, is led by mind, is fashioned by mind. If you speak and act with a pure mind, happiness will follow you, as a shadow clings to a form.
-Buddha

Wisdom is often confused with intelligence, because the two are usually found together in world figures. In Dungeons and Dragons, they have no bearing on one another. Wisdom measures a person’s judgement, common sense, accumulated knowledge, and levelheadedness. Wisdom contributes to a lot of skills, and also determines your character’s will defense (their ability to resist mind-affecting spells or abilities like illusion and enchantment).

8…
...is below average. You’re impulsive, reckless, and perpetually out of your element. You have no head for history, or for subtleties of the world around you. With 8 wisdom, you’re blind to subtext. Kind of like Michelangelo, of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

10…
...is considered average. Certainly some things get past you, but you’re as wise as anyone else. Ron Weasley has 10 wisdom; it isn’t anything remarkable.

12…
...is above average. You know what’s up, and some people look to you for advice. You know how to weigh the pros and cons of a situation before making a decision, and you usually feel good about the decision in retrospect. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben has 12 wisdom; just enough to come up with a snazzy line about power and responsibility.

14…
...is impressive. A lot of world leaders (or the people who advise them) should be up here. They aren't, because politics tends to value unscrupulousness over morality, but they should be. You’re well traveled, and generally know the best course of action for a given situation. You can tell when somebody is lying more often than not, and people look to you for advice.

16…
...is among the top 5% or so. Gandhi. Martin Luther King. Rafiki (Lion King). You know a lot about a lot. At this point, think about your wisdom as you role play. Your character should probably have a moral compass or ideology of some kind that you are working toward; what you say, how you act, should reflect that.

18…
...you’re a paragon of wisdom. When you open your mouth, people around you are inspired and awestruck. Yoda, Jesus, and Buddha had 18 wisdom. (I’m going with an all-or-nothing viewpoint on whether they existed, because I really want to live in the same universe as Yoda) You are a font of wisdom, so that should definitely be reflected in how you role-play. Choose your words carefully, and try not to be too impulsive.

Wisdom is a great governing point on how your character should react to situations, but ultimately it is up to the player. Even characters with a high wisdom can make mistakes (many of my paragon examples were assassinated, and the other agreed to train Darth Vader) and that has no bearing on their overall wisdom. In my opinion, these mistakes come out in role-playing the same way that a high dexterity character can trip when they roll a 1.

It's important to remember that Wisdom is not the same as education. Wisdom represents your character's life experience and judgement. The healer in a barbarian tribe could be wise and illiterate, the same way that a power-hungry young wizard could be learned and unwise. Wisdom isn't about what you know (most wise characters have gained their wisdom through study/meditation as well as experience) so much as how you act.

Friday, May 9, 2014

5 TIPS FOR RUNNING A LARGE PARTY

Several months ago I started running a DCC game (If you haven't played it, you should) with several friends. It immediately grew beyond my expectations and after shedding a few players, currently has about 8 regular attendants. In the DCC ruleset, players each run around 1-3 characters at a given time. I started DMing with small groups of around 3-4 adventurers, but our party has around 14 characters run by 7 players right now. To deal with this small army of players and characters I've put together a few tips, detailed below. This list is far from comprehensive, but helps with any group.

HAVE SNACKS ON HAND
Food can be a valuable ingredient to any game, but large groups add unique food options. Tell your players to bring snacks, or award a bit of XP/gold to players who bring something to munch on. A hungry adventuring party soon becomes an unhappy one, so have options. If your group drinks, remember that beer is basically bread in terms of calories, and can hold off hunger with surprising effectiveness.

I usually suggest building a game around a meal (lunch or dinner). Everybody can chip in for takeout (send a runner and keep the game going) or order in. I generally ask my players to each bring something (drinks, chips, whatever) along with 5 dollars for pizza. After gaming for a couple hours, we order pizza delivered, and the 5 dollars generally covers about half a pizza with room for a tip.

BE PREPARED
Regardless of how much you prepare, the party will do something that you aren't prepared for. They will kill the bartender when they get bored, ignore your quest hooks, and blindly miss the traps you thought would be unavoidable. That said, preparation makes the difference between a long and boring, frantically-researched session and a smooth session.

Before each session, I generally get a basic idea about what's going on within 1-2 miles of the party and write that down as a few bullet points. If this involves any monsters, traps, or challenges, I jot down the book/page that includes the rules I may need. If it's entirely original, I'll throw my notes (custom dragon stats, loot tables, town guard names, etc) into a folder for quick reference. I keep this list on the side since it probably won't come up, but when it inevitably comes up anyway, I have it there for reference.

POCKET SOME DIVERSIONS
When the party moves beyond where you think they were going or they move in a different direction, make sure you have a backup plan. Their guide could suffer apparent poisoning or a curse, forcing them to find the antidote to save a life. They could receive urgent word from the king/duke/count that their help is in need. It's good practice to keep a list of things you can drop on the party at a moment's notice, just in case.

Another option is to keep a list of wandering monsters handy, and throw one of them at the party to slow them down. If the party was searching for a lich-king's lair, send a few undead at them (sentries) to point them in the right direction. While I'm personally not a huge fan of random encounters, you may be able to introduce quest items to the party this way. Maybe that Troll killed a messenger and still has the note on him. Maybe a monster was carrying a weapon inscribed with the name of an NPC or family the players know. Tying the encounters to the world you have created will help create a sense of realism to the game.

INITIATIVE
Managing initiative for more than half a dozen players is just silly, and keeping everybody focused easily falls to one side. There are a couple schools of thought for this. One is to have everyone roll initiative as normal, and have the highest initiative roll go first. From there, play proceeds around the table, ignoring all other rolls in favor of simplicity. This can work pretty well, but tends to leave players feeling a bit under-powered if they end up at the "end" of the circle. They have to wait for the 10 other characters to each go as the circle creeps slowly toward them. 

For some groups, this works rather well. Mine isn't one of them. Many of my players, as I mentioned earlier, are running 2-3 characters each. DCC has high character death, and by throwing more PCs at the grinder they have a better shot at surviving. To speed up initiative, I generally just have players each roll initiative with their "fastest" character. That way instead of dealing with fourteen initiative "turns" I can deal with more like seven.

In any initiative system, try to keep a running announcement of who is "on deck" to act after the current player. Anyone who isn't ready to go will have time that way to catch up with the game before the rest of the table is waiting on them.

BE HONEST, BE FAIR
Running a game with more than six players is hard. Make sure your players understand this, and they will try to make things easier for you. If you find yourself overwhelmed, it's 100% okay to say "Hold on everybody, I need to figure out what's up ahead" and take ten minutes in the middle of the session. Don't make a habit out of it, but keep in mind that it is totally an option. Your players would rather have a DM who is comfortable running the game than a DM who's scrambling to put something together on the fly.

Communicate with your players and make sure that they are ready to play when their characters need to do something. Keep a picture in your mind of what the players are each doing, relative to the world around them. Make sure that threats affect each player so that nobody feels forgotten or safe. Nothing will turn players off in a game faster than feeling like their character doesn't matter.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

D&D EXPLAINED: CHARISMA

Charisma is the all-encompassing attribute for personal magnetism, physical attractiveness, leadership, seduction, subtlety, and acting. In the right game it can be an important stat; no other attribute directly deals with social situations. If you aren't a Paladin, Bard, or Sorcerer, the chances are pretty good that Charisma was a dump stat. There are some great possibilities that a high Charisma opens up, especially if you embrace it through the way your character interacts with the world. How does your charisma reflect on your character? Here’s a good breakdown:
8…
...is below average. Your character has something clearly off about his appearance or demeanor. You probably have a harelip, a stutter, or a disfiguring scar. Maybe you’re just eerily silent and look menacing. Jaws, from the Bond movies, has 8 charisma. Maybe you’re missing an eye or an ear. Ladies of the evening will probably charge extra.

10…
...is pretty standard. You look unremarkable, speak clearly but with no particular skill, and though you may have a few minor social flaws, they are balanced by your strengths. John McClane (Die Hard) has 10 charisma.

12…
...is above average. Nothing amazing, but certainly respectable. Han Solo would be a good example. You might look average, but have a great personality. Maybe you’re unusually friendly. Women don’t fawn over you, but you don’t have too much trouble finding one, either.

14…
...is pretty damn high. You have a natural sense of leadership about you, and are definitely sure of yourself. That sense of confidence carries across to your appearance. Aragorn (LOTR), has 14 charisma.

16…
...is starting to reach the limits of human potential. If you don’t look stunning, you are incredibly persuasive. If you are familiar with The A-Team, you are Lt. Templeton “Face” Peck. People stop and stare for a moment as you walk by, and you are usually the center of their attention. Conversation revolves around you wherever you go.

18…
 is unbelievable. You are a charismatic icon, and a legend follows in your wake. Women swoon as you pass, and try to catch your eye. Jaime Lannister might have 18 charisma. If you have any physical flaws, they only make you more attractive. When you open your mouth, honey drips off your tongue.

As a player, when you plot out your charisma, think about how you want the world around you to react to your presence. Have you been scarred by some terrible trauma, physically or mentally, or both? Where did you learn your manners, and how is that carried over in your personality? How much luck have you had with the opposite sex? With the same sex? Do you obsess over your appearance, and if so, why? Who are you trying to impress?
And remember…
Charisma Motivational Poster

Friday, May 2, 2014

PLAY FTL: FASTER THAN LIGHT

SPACE... THE EIGHT-SECTOR FRONTIER
Faster than light, or FTL, is a game that (as of this writing) has sucked 53 hours out of my life. I say that strangely with a smile on my face, as I curse Steam's habit of tracking such things. FTL is (if you haven't heard) a single-player PC game that is now available on Windows, Linux, Mac and iPad (hopefully coming soon to Android). You, the player, pilot a small spaceship across the stars in order to deliver vital intelligence to your fleet. Pursuing you like a horde of slow-moving space zombies is the rebel fleet. The game uses a top-down viewpoint where you direct your crew around the various rooms of your ship to fire weapons, maintain shields, and try not to blow up.

Because blow up you will. In theory, a player could beat FTL in several hours. I will preface this by saying that I may not be excellent at this game, but in the 53 hours I have spent, I have yet to ...technically... beat the game. Playing on "easy." FTL is a "rogue-like," a game in which the player is unable to reload if they fail or make a poor decision. In FTL, every choice you make while traveling across the reaches of space impacts your odds of survival, and the wrong decision will leave you floating in the void.

Traveling across space means navigating across a network of randomly-generated 8-bit stars through a branching path of nearby sectors. At each star, you are prompted with a text-based decision. These decisions vary wildly. One star might involve deciding whether or not to attack a rebel cargo ship, and another might be choosing what method to use when surveying an asteroid field.

STAYING ALIVE AMONG THE STARS
Combat is a constant companion in FTL; it seems every alien race has it out to kill you. You can direct your crew (who each slowly improve at their shipboard tasks) to various stations at the ship, where they improve system performance. If you want to get the best out of a room, it pays to have a crew member there to operate the console and make repairs as needed.

If the crew act as one resource in combat, the other resource is power. After upgrading my weapons systems and getting a new missile launcher, I found that I could only power all my weapons if I turned off the "nonessential" systems for a while. Nonessential systems like the medical room.. and life support. This worked well as my crew ran about, repairing damage from enemy weapons, until a stray blast ruptured the hull and disabled my engines. My engineer immediately started to fix the engine, and I moved power to shields to compensate my ship's immobility. Meanwhile, air leaked out of the engine room, and I opened up several nearby doors to feed more in. By the time the hull was repaired (and air stopped leaking into the void) my ship was barely providing enough oxygen for my suffocating crew. I moved power from the shields back to life support, and watched oxygen levels slowly climb back up to normal levels.

These frantic moments of the game, where you scramble to target weapons, repair rooms, balance power, and keep your individual crew alive as they repel intruders or fight fires, make the game fun. When you add in the thrill of teleporting to an enemy ship, hacking their systems, launching attack drones, or venting rooms to put out fires, the game becomes addicting.

UPGRADING YOUR SHIP
Part of the strategy in FTL involves handling your ship in combat, and the rest is wrapped up in how you choose to upgrade your ship. Almost everything you do gives you scrap (the currency of the game) which you can use to buy new weapons, systems, crew members, and upgrades to your ship. In addition to these upgrades, you spend scrap to pay for repairs, fuel, missiles, and drone parts to keep the ship running. You decide who to hire as crew; there are half a dozen distinct races. You decide if you should upgrade shields or get more system power. You decide if your ship's weapons should be replaced, and with what. Maybe you should get a teleporter so that your deadly Mantis crew members can teleport aboard enemy ships, avoiding weapons systems altogether. Maybe you should invest in drone systems, and control a squad of robots to attack, defend, or repair ships. Is it better to repair your ship now, or to buy more power so that you can keep shields and weapons going without turning off life support? The choice is yours.

These choices matter, because when you get to the eighth sector, you fight the rebel flagship. The flagship is the "boss battle" that you have been preparing for in your journey across space. So in addition to surviving to cross the stars, you're also trying to make your ship into something that can survive the final boss.

DOES IT GET OLD?
Replay value is something worth mentioning here... and it's hard to pin down. FTL rewards repeated play-throughs with unlockable ship layouts. In addition to your starting vessel, you can unlock half a dozen other ships by completing specific actions in the game. Impress one of the alien races in the right way, and you get their ship. Each ship comes with 3 layouts, which change the way the ship plays significantly.

FTL isn't for everybody, to be sure. When your ship explodes, you lose all progress that play-through had given you, which is frustrating. It does serve to make every moment in the game more tense though, and to keep you on your guard. For me, it doesn't get old.

I've fought with aliens, made shrewd business deals, and explored the vast reaches of space. I will probably come back to FTL one day, but for now I'm basically done with the game and look back on it favorably. 50-odd hours into FTL, I still have things I could unlock and I still run into unique encounters in space. It's worth at least a couple of play-throughs, and hard to pass up for ten bucks.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

D&D EXPLAINED: INTELLIGENCE

Haeg peered into the darkened tomb, taking in the dusty bones and clinging cobwebs with indifference. Something in the blackness glittered, and his face creased with a smile. He quickly lit a torch and moved toward the huge treasure chest, peering over his shoulder to make sure that his friend was still behind him. The hulking warrior threw open the lid, which burst into the air and closed once more, biting down on his head. Terrified, confused, and alone in the dark of the mimic's mouth as it clamped down on his neck, the barbarian wailed in pain. Behind him, the bright-eyed mage looked up from her book through a loose curtain of wind-blown hair. "Haeg, you consummate moron!" she yelled, a blue ball of fire snapping to life in her hand, "How many times do I have to tell you?"

Intelligence is one of my favorite attributes, because although it is often a dump stat, it affects many skills, and many of the role playing choices available to you as a player. Let me illustrate:

8…
...is below average. You're slow. Not retarded, but pretty damn close. More likely than not, you don't know how to read. If you do know, it isn't something you enjoy or that you have fun with. Brittany Pierce (Glee) has 8 intelligence. While playing, keep in mind that your character probably doesn't know very many big words. Magic probably scares you.

10…
...is considered average. You probably don't own any books, but you can find your way around in town without difficulty, and you probably know how to read. New skills are still difficult for you to grasp, but no more so for you than for anyone else. A great example would be Sansa Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire).

12…
...is above average. People around you can tell that you know what you are talking about, but you aren't infallible. You're about as smart as Amy Pond. You own a few books, and might enjoy reading. You might bring philosophical questions to light as your party explores questionable moral territory that isn't obvious to everyone around you.

14…
...is impressive. Sometimes you get lost in your own soliloquies. You probably have a vague grasp of magic, or at least understand the basic principles involved. You can think of interesting stories, even if you don't tell the well. You may have probably gone through some sort of formal educational system, so keep that in mind role playing. Mystique (X-Men) has 14 intelligence.

16…
...is among the top 5% or so. Think straight A's. Think Harvard. Think a lot, because you do. You're the master of almost any strategy games you find, and people around you know it. You're almost always reading, honing the greatest weapon you have: your mind. You are Hermione Granger.

18…
...is just too smart. That's all there is to it. You don't just out-think the people around you, you know what they're thinking before they do themselves. Your vocabulary doesn't just include a lot of words, it includes a lot of languages. You are River Tam.

Beyond these values, a character approaches frightening levels of intelligence. These gifts may be the product of years of study, or of some divine blessing, but they surprise anyone who encounters them.

When you're building your character, think about your educational background. Who taught you what you know? Where are they now? Do you know any spells? Rituals? What are your favorite books? Do you play an instrument? How do you keep your mind fresh? Why do you bother?

Friday, April 25, 2014

5 ENCOUNTERS TO KEEP IN YOUR POCKET

I don't generally "railroad" my games, but I like to have an idea about what direction the party is going in so I can flesh it out ahead of time. If the party wants to assassinate the corrupt Duke of Telvos, I'm going to want a bit of notice so that his keep will be an interesting and intelligently guarded place. There are alternatives to this, but those aren't a part of this article.

Unexpected pauses can buy time for planning, but they can also be boring for the players and can discourage creativity. Instead, I like to keep a few "pocket problems" in store to slow down the party as needed. These are the kinds of things that you can drop on them any time if you need to take a breather. By the time the party deals with the challenge, you'll be able to comfortably wrap things up for that evening and have a week or three to plan the next session. I don't like random encounters, so I also use this sort of thing instead.

PICKED POCKETS
A band of pickpockets steal from the adventurers in a crowded city. This works well if you make the pickpockets smallish children. I sprung this one on my party, and it led to one of the characters bleeding out in a forgotten back alley while the rest ran away, abandoning them.

While seeking information in the poor quarter, I rolled a few pickpocket attempts against random party members. A few minutes later, I told the fighter his purse was gone. The character grabbed one of the kids, beating him (to the horror of the rest of the players) into leading him back to the Theives' guild. By the time the crying child had led them to the warehouse to meet his handler, the player had lost all the good will of the party and was almost alone. From here things took a turn for the worse when the player tried to exchange the pickpocket as a hostage for his stolen money. The handler, a stubborn man who saw his 'crew' as his children, ordered the band of thieves (hidden among the shadows) to attack. Chaos ensued.

THAR BE DRAGONS
I like me some dragons. I put dragons in all my worlds, and generally imagine a dragon to rule over perhaps a 50-300 mile radius of their lair. As such, I make sure to announce dragon sightings on a regular basis off on the distance, if the party spends much time near a lair.

If I need a bit of time, the dragon can cause some chaos nearby. Setting fire to a nearby farm is a good option, but dragons can do so much more! Maybe the party encounters a band of dragon-slayers, alive or dead. The party could seek out the lair or rescue a town's "tribute". They could be hired by a high-level dragon to do any sort of job, which would explain the dragon seeking them out by reputation. The options are limitless.

TRAVELING BAND
While traveling, the party encounters a band of entertainers who carry ill tidings from a nearby town. This is a good way to force a quest hook on the party if they missed the one in town. They can spend the night with the entertainers, who could number anywhere from 4 (small family) to several dozen (traveling troupe or circus) depending on your world. The party might dine with the travelers, or could merely speak with them and then seek out the relevant quest hook.

A larger caravan could hire the adventurers on as guards, or include their talents as part of their act. The fighter could act as strong man, the rogue as acrobat, the wizard as magician, etc. This can also serve as a way to get the party from one place to another across a guarded border, or to allow them to travel through dangerous land.

Later, the DM can tug on the players' heartstrings by allowing the players to find the caravan destroyed/killed/burned down to introduce a new villain/dragon/band of assassins after one of the characters.

ASSASSIN'S GREED
The party is attacked during the night, and the assassin carries instructions signed by a local lord. This can lead into almost any sort of villain with resources. A good way to spin this is to introduce a friendly NPC and then have him betray the party when they are vulnerable. Maybe their guide in the mountain pass cuts their rope and then flees into the forest. The acolyte leading them into the catacombs below a church could trigger a trap or lock them into a dangerous room. An innkeeper or friendly noble could poison their food, or a fellow thief could turn them in to the guards. In any case, this serves as a setback and that can also work as a flexible hook to a longer adventure.

SPACE PIRATES!
For the truly desperate DM, there are planar pirates. You can rip open a rift and sail a ship through it, literally anywhere, to throw pirates at the players. Like the dragon, these can drop anywhere, and could even seek out the players as a quest hook. The ship can be anything you could imagine, though I personally enjoy Eberron's elemental-driven vessels. The crew could vary wildly among races, and could consist of a anywhere from four to several dozen members.

As an alternative to this, the party could discover a ship or village that had been attacked by planar pirates. This is also a great way to foreshadow a later planar campaign by getting the players familiar with the idea of the planes. To expand on it, the pirates could be fleeing some other threat; like a flying inter-planar riftbeast covered in writhing tentacles and mind-breaking fangs. Much cooler than bandits.

These are only seeds to an adventure, of course, but hopefully they prove useful or inspirational. These can each easily be stretched into something more developed, but I include them as a challenge that would take about 1/2 a session to solve. They can all be dropped almost anywhere with minor changes, and although they aren't subtle, they are also rather varied and should keep the party's attention.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

D&D EXPLAINED: CONSTITUTION

Constitution is an interesting stat. For most players, it breaks down to their hit point total and their fortitude defense, but there is a lot more to it than that. A character with outstanding constitution can take more hits, survive harsher conditions, and survive poisons that would leave a lesser character twitching in their death throes.  I usually imagine that constitution also encompasses, to some extent, physical combat training, determination, and a basic medical knowledge. Having a high constitution doesn't necessarily mean that your character is a beefcake, just that they’re really hard to kill. Here are some example constitution scores:
8…
...is below average. You aren't well. You might have asthma or low blood sugar, or maybe lactose intolerance or IBS. (You should totally run a character with IBS!) You look tired, with a sickly complexion and maybe a slight wheeze. Sam Tarly (Game of Thrones) has 8 constitution.
10…
...is an average constitution score for any generic fantasy world. You can take a punch, but a couple would probably lay you out. Sometimes you get sick, but you generally get better. You might have a minor condition, maybe allergies, but nine times out of ten it doesn't stop you from functioning. Doctor Horrible is a solid example of a character with a constitution score of 10.

12…
...is above average. Think James Bond. You eat well, get enough sleep, and are in good physical health. You exercise regularly, can definitely hold your own in a fist fight, and are rarely floored in a drinking contest.

14…
...is impressive, but not truly staggering. You have been in a number of physical scrapes, and survived them. You probably have some pretty impressive scars to show for it. You’re about as tough as Batman. You train daily to stay in shape, and it shows in your physique.

16…
...is truly amazing. You are at the peak of physical fitness, can drink almost anyone under the table, and can run several miles before your hands start to shake. Your body is built like a well oiled machine. You are Jason Bourne.
18…
...is utterly phenomenal. You are built like a tank; you probably look like a football player, even though you aren't wearing any armor. A good example would be Edmond Honda, from Street Fighter. You are nearly unkillable. You might be covered in scars, giving you a rough, layered hide.
The human body can only change so much, so higher scores in constitution really don’t yield a physical result. You become tougher, sure, but those changes are more than skin deep. You perfect your ability to absorb damage, moving with the punch to soften the blow. You sample poisons in small doses to build up immunities. The first impression of townsfolk in the world though, will remain unchanged.
When you are plugging in your constitution stat, think about some of these questions: How well do you take a punch? Where did you grow up, and how did the dangers of that place shape your body? Do you ignore pain, deal with it, or relish coming close to death? Do you have any physical problems that bring your constitution down, like addictions or wasting sicknesses? What reasons do you have to live?

Friday, April 18, 2014

SIDEQUESTS: I SMELL A RAT

"And the dust did settle in the crypt of the great king, and amid the broken bones of his enemies there crawled a teeming swarm of bright eyed vermin. Choking the floor, they did move in a carpet of teeming bodies, digging violently into and through each other, trampling some beneath. They pressed out and beyond the crypt, and where they led, death followed."
-The Green Empire, vol 3



Some time ago I heard about “Rat Kings”, a real-world phenomena where groups of rats grow connected at the tail. They are occasionally discovered inside walls or sewer tunnels. I thought to myself for a bit about “Rat Kings”, and decided that they were an alarming way to include rats in a Dungeons and Dragons game as something other than a starting monster.

Rats are one of the more tame monsters in Dungeons and Dragons, and generally pose no threat to most adventurers. To change that, I wrote this low-level sidequest idea, which focuses not only to put your party on edge but also to treat rats with a dignity I believe they are due. The trick here is numbers. This idea hinges on the party quickly becoming overwhelmed as they discover more and more rats, and retreat is not an option.

The town of Mornvale is relatively new, but has been expanding quickly in recent years. Lately though, three different buildings have had a rat problem. The general store, tavern, and an old warehouse have all been experiencing missing stores, chewed rafters, and an unidentifiable stench of death.

The party explores these three ‘mini dungeons’, each bookended by a conversation with the shop keeper or custodian, and a hint about what is going on. Put a few rats in each room, but nothing overly challenging. The point here is to lull the party into a false sense of security. In one of the three buildings, there is a hidden tunnel, or a deep crack in the stone floor. This is the source of the rats.

There’s a bit of railroading here; the party will want to explore the crack, especially if you put something shiny at the bottom of it. After they repel down though, something chews through the rope, or they find some reason to remain in the tunnel. These are general ideas; choose the one that reflects your party the best.

What the party has discovered is a tunnel leading through an old, abandoned orc temple to Yurtrus, their god of death and decay. Half of the fun of running a dungeon crawl, as a DM, is building the dungeon, so I leave that to you. Just use a lot of rats. More rats than the party can handle. You can use zombies or oozes too, and make them fit by describing them as ‘desiccated corpses covered with writhing furry bodies’. If a rat swarm seems too boring, describe them as ‘green eyed, skeletal plague rats’ and all will be forgiven. Use a few different diseases too; rats are full of nasty things.

The temple contains a supernatural Rat King as a sort of "boss monster”. Depending on which edition you're running, you could use the stat block from an Otyugh, Beholder, or Hydra as a good starting point, and flavor it up to be a massive tangle of large rats, connected at the tails, with glowing eyes. As far as attacks, anything goes: it could spew plague-ridden filth, bite and scratch, detach smaller clusters of rats when struck, or dissolve into a ghostly rat swarm and re-solidify somewhere else… the sky is the limit.

A large statue of Yurtrus (I couldn’t find a description of him, but I like the idea of a fat, rotting orc with rats crawling from his eye sockets) sits against the far wall in this chamber, casting a glowing aura of decay that seems to empower the Rat King. Maybe it gives the Rat King the ability to fly, boosts its damage, adds more hit points, grants it additional effects for attacks… whatever sounds appropriate. A cleric could spend an action chanting (Knowledge: Religion or Spell check) to disable that empowerment, or a strong character can attempt to smash the statue (Strength check or attack) to disable the effect more directly.

Destroying the statue, in any case, will get rid of the rats (they are drawn to it, or created by it) and solve the town’s problems. The party can either leave through some side tunnel, transition to the underdark, or discover a portal to another plane. Maybe this shrine is only a piece of an entire orcish ruin.

You can extend the temple by adding additional challenges, or rat-themed traps. Things like a pit trap with rats at the bottom, or a room that gets flooded by rats. You could fire or flood-based trap signaled by the squeals of panicked rodents, too.

To expand this into something larger, think about what happened before the adventurers showed up. Why wasn't the statue's power evident before the town was founded? Where did the crack/tunnel come from? What happened to the orcs who worshipped here? Did Yurtus's shrine have a relic of unholy power? How will the adventurers get rid of it?

In any case, the goal with this dungeon crawl is to make players see rats with something more than the normal boredom associated with them. If you opt to run this, let me know how it goes!