Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Council of Spiders, Part 4

Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters is all about introducing new people to the game. Session 0 of Council of Spiders was last week and as an Encounters Dungeon Master, it's my responsibility to make sure new players have a good sense of what they are doing. Part of the way I have always tried to do that was by providing clear, relatively easy to understand pre-made characters for new players to use. I also have a number of player aids that help explain certain game mechanics in an easy-to-digest way.

Last week I actually had a fellow come in who had never played Dungeons & Dragons before. We went through the character building process and he was able to grasp most of what Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms was saying, but I could not help but think that when it comes time for the actual game, he will have a bear of a time with the fancy Encounters character sheet that he wrote his character down on. I thought about it and realized I could very easily whip up a character card for him that would at least simplify the character sheet interaction. From this process, Xian was born.

Whatever you do, don't call him Belgos.
Another Bregan D'Aerth mercenary joins the ranks.
As this new player built his character, I realized that he created a very slight alternative to Belgos. I considered just giving him the Belgos character card but the differences were sufficient that I thought it would be neat to turn his character into a pre-made card and share it with the world at large.

With three Bregan D'Aerthe mercenaries in my set of characters, perhaps it is about time that I look into a different type of character.

The Council of Spiders, Part 1 (Revised)

He's busy with that.
When I first created the "re-make" of Ryltar, I did not have a good picture of the character that appears on the card. I suggested at the bottom of the post that I would revisit the character once I had a clean shot of the Drow warrior. When I finally realized that the image used for Ryltar was actually from Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, I was somewhat surprised. I had access to the picture the whole time (through the D&D Art Archives). Keeping that in mind, I poked around and found the original picture.

Of course, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the picture was much busier than I would have imagined. The entire bottom of the photo involved the severe slaying of a bullywug (or some other sort of froggy like creature). The red background was similar to what I worked with before, so that was not especially frustrating. The Drow warrior still had the quiver on his back, a thing that I still found surprisingly irritating as the character did not have a bow. Most surprising, though, was that the image had been flipped horizontally. All of these facts seemed a bit peculiar but I was willing to work around them.

New and Improved Ryltar
Now with additional abilities!
Some people may question the color change. D&D: Encounters character cards have always been color coded in such a way that you can easily determine what type of character it is just by the color. Of course, the thing that is being color coded in the classic cards is the power source (Psionic, Martial, Divine, Primal, or Arcane). Honestly, when I realized how the colors were chosen, it did not take long for me to decide against doing that. Although it would have been easier to keep Ryltar's background red as it goes better with the original image, I wanted all of the Drow characters I made to share background elements. As it ends up, this card uses the same background color as another card I worked on at the same time, so that's the reason for it. If I were more clever, I would have color coded them by House affiliation.

As the new Drow character themes were available, I changed Ryltar to be a Bregan D'Aerthe Mercenary which gave him a bonus to his Bluff check and a new combat ability, Skullduggery. All around, this version of Ryltar is actually quite playable and I hope people find him an effective replacement for the original.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Falling from the Sky... (PWA 5)

Falling from the Sky... (PWA 5)
The story advances in mysterious ways...
We now return to the primary story of the Phantasy Warrior Advance arc. This strip is one of those "moving the story along" type of strips where there isn't necessarily anything clever or witty but it puts characters in a particular place.

I had previously mentioned that this strip, Phantasy Warrior Advance, was actually a spawn of both the original Phantasy Warrior strip I did back in 2007 and it's prospective sequel, Phantasy Warrior Advance, which I worked on and abandoned in 2008. When I started writing this comic story, I thought I would unite the original Phantasy Warrior with the ideas I had for the abandoned Phantasy Warrior Advance strip into some sort of new, fancy product that would be understandable. We'll see how that works out.

I thought it would be interesting to post snaps from the older comics to provide context. As this comic introduces a new character, I thought I would hint as to his background (from the original comic strip, perhaps) to provide some context.

Yeah. I made that joke.
This is actually the sixth comic from the original fifty part series, Phantasy Warrior. The main character is the blond haired fellow, conveniently named Andy. Some of this should become more relevant as the story progresses...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Design Thoughts: Ability Scores

Role-playing games have been many things throughout the years. People spend countless tweets, forum posts, and emails debating what it means to play a role-playing game or not. A common feature of many role-playing games is the presence of some sort of ability scores (or attributes) that define a character. However, every game defines characters in different ways, stressing different features that are important for a particular context and leaving out those that are not. What role attributes or ability scores can serve in a role-playing game is important to the design of RPGs.

Generally, the design approach seems to come from the perspective of attempting to summarize a character's actual attributes in a sort of quasi-realistic manner.Dungeons & Dragons uses the classic six: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. GURPS uses only four: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Health. Savage Worlds uses Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength, and Vigor. The Palladium role-playing games (Rifts, Robotech, et al) use a rather arcane set of abbreviations as abillity scores: M.E., M.A., I.Q., Spd., P.B., and so forth. Although the details are different, they all attempt to summarize your character's ... attributes.

Rolling stats, but not with an eight-sided die...
Different games approach the assignment of these attributes differently. Original Dungeons & Dragons made it a random affair, with nothing more than a roll of 3d6 for each ability score. A lot of games, especially later RPGs, began to use point assignment systems to create a certain measure of balance. Even Dungeons & Dragons would eventually use the point buy model for official play, resulting in characters who had a relatively stable range of ability scores. Games like Savage Worlds and GURPS have used a point buy method since their inception in an effort to create balanced characters but also to allow the player to craft the character that they want to play.

Since the announcement of the new Dungeons & Dragons, I have found myself thinking a lot more about what makes for good role-playing games. Granted, this is an almost purely intellectual exercise because so much about role-playing games is subjective to the player. Furthermore, the people you play with can often be more important than the rules themselves. However, since design has become such an important point of discussion, especially with the rise of so many new RPGs and, in the alternative, story gaming, I thought it would be relevant to put my experiences into written form.

Ability Scores as Role-Playing

One important thing that attributes or ability scores do is give you a basis for role-playing a character. This seems most relevant to games such as the original Dungeons & Dragons where you randomly roll ability scores (and, thus, randomly generate a character). Is your character smart or clever? Charming but dumb? Looking to your ability scores can be a great way to determine how you might role-play a character that you are otherwise unfamiliar with.

Now, with that being said, I generally think of a character before I ever sit down to "make a character." I suspect that a lot of people (but not all) do it this way. Although I may try to match ability scores to the idea of the pre-conceived character, I rarely let game mechanics get in the way of what I want to do. Unfortunately, I sometimes find that the mechanics do not always comport with what I want to do with my character, resulting in a certain disconnect between my character and his or her written ability scores. My character may require a high ability score in one area simply for mechanical purposes, but I do not let that interfere with my notion of how the character may act in play. My perfect example of this is the peculiar requirement in AD&D2 that a Paladin have a 17 or higher Charisma score.

Nothing about this screams "Charisma ≥ 17."
Somehow, it was decided at the great TSR game laboratory that Paladins (essentially, holy knights) are charming, beautiful, compelling people and must be so prior to entry into the Fancy Order of Paladins. Yet, I can remember at least one time when my particular notion of a Paladin character, or even an iconic imagining of the role, was anything but that. Where they all just pretty people? Or was it a measure of their force of will? Where they all just very charming? Would turning less pretty get you expelled from the Fancy Order of Paladins? The idea of the extremely unpleasant Paladin seemed completely believable (and even expected, at times) but mechanically impossible in the AD&D2 framework. It felt like the Charisma restriction was just a peculiar way to limit the number of Paladins out there as very few people would roll a 17 or 18 and then choose to stick it in Charisma. To that end, it had nothing to do with role-playing. So, if that's the case, what does it matter whether my Paladin was a handsome and charming warrior or anything but that?

Tracking What is Important

How and what is represented through ability scores is important in that it says something about what is or is not important in the game. Sometimes, the way different games treat different characteristics is fascinating and impacts its relevance in the game. GURPS treats physical appearance and charisma as advantages to be chosen independent of the numerical attributes (similar to how having one eye would be chosen) while Dungeons & Dragons (typically) groups them together as a single ability score (Charisma) that is generated along with the other five ability scores. What a game chooses to represent as an ability score and how that representation is implemented is important.

But is an ability score or a feature? This guy doesn't care.
In thinking about the different handling of Charisma by games like GURPS and Dungeons & Dragons, an important question presents itself. What is essential enough to be represented by ability scored? What is the purpose of representing something as an ability score? Does this specific role-playing game even concern concepts represented by that ability score? Should every game use similar scores or do certain types or styles of game require different ability scores? At the end of the day, what's the point?

As a serious board game player, I actually find that the adventure/role-playing board games are an important thing to look at when thinking about the role-playing game. I am reminded of Flying Frog Games' A Touch Of Evil; The Supernatural Game and Fortune & Glory: The Cliffhanger Game. Both of these games flirt in the "adventure/role-playing" realm. Characters in those games have ability scores that are keyed to things that happen in the game. In A Touch of Evil, a game about fighting horrible monsters in 18th century America, each character has ability scores for Spirit, Cunning, Combat, and Honor. In Fortune and Glory, a pulp adventure game in the style of Indiana Jones, each character has ability scores for Combat, Agility, Cunning, and Lore.

A potential character on a 4"x6" card.
What I liked about the presentation of those games was that you had a character with functional mechanical ability scores that were tailored for the kind of adventures the game was intended for. Never, while playing those games, did I stop and think that there wasn't enough explained or accounted for. Granted, this was a relatively basic adventure-board game, but it definitely got me thinking about what is relevant when designing a ruleset.

Fantasy Flight Games, another noted American board game publisher, produces a number of adventure board games that dip their toe into the realm of role-playing. Games like Descent: Journeys in The Dark or Mansions of Madness present characters with certain ability scores like Marksmanship, Intellect, or Luck that have specific use in the context of the game. What is important with these games is that each ability score has some specific function in the game. You only have a Luck score because it matters. Same with Strength or Marksmanship.

In the end, it seems that ability scores are important for tracking concepts that are important to playing the game. A certain ability score should only be there if it is something that would come up in play and matter to the outcome of events. Sometimes, it may be worthwhile to track certain things in certain different ways because of how important that thing may be or how frequently it will be an issue in play.

Games without Ability Scores

All that being said, not every role-playing game uses ability scores. Spirit of the Century has you generate characters in a most interesting manner that involves creating the pulp novel that character appeared in, determining what other characters were guest stars in that novel, and assigning the character ability at a certain number of relevant skills. The character you are role-playing is defined not by a number of ability scores but instead by a handful of skill assignments, these particular story elements, and a set of ten "aspects" that relate to those story elements. Although it ends up feeling less "gamey" than a game like Dungeons & Dragons, a great deal of thought was still put into how a player's character would interact with the world while being fundamentally distinct from his adventuring peers.

This guy feels no need to track his attributes.
Just bananas and jetpack fuel.
The new Marvel Heroic Roleplay game has a very different notion of what defines characters. Here, iconic heroes are defined not by a series of fixed attributes but by their super powers and a number of iconic characteristics (distinctions). For example, Captain America is defined by his two powers (Super Soldier Program and Vibranium-Alloy Shield), iconic distinctions (Lead By Example, Man Out of Time, and Sentinel of Liberty), and a handful of skill-like specialities reflecting his combat and physical training.

That's right. Captain America does not have a
Strength stat except as it relates to his powers.
In comparison, Iron Man has powers more suited to his character (Powered Armor and Weapons Platform), more identifiably Tony Stark distinctions (Billionaire Playboy, Cutting Edge Tech, and Hardheaded Futurist), and a set of specialities that reflect his expertise in science and business. In addition, every character in the Marvel role-playing game are rated on their ability to function in a group, with a buddy, and on their own. All of these different characteristics and features come together during play, giving the player an opportunity to do things that fall in line with what would be expected of the character.

There are a lot more examples of games that do not use "ability scores" to represent a character. These are only a few examples. What is important to realize is that these games are completely functional role-playing games that accomplish the essential elements of role-playing without requiring the use of ability scores. Thus, despite what generations of Dungeons & Dragons games have taught us, measuring a character's attributes such as strength or intelligence is not necessarily essential to making a good role-playing game.

Potential Perils of Ability Scores

This Dwarf is a Shaman.
Strength is his dump stat.
Couldn't you tell?
Dungeons & Dragons, with its iconic six attributes, has slowly expanded the role of the ability scores over time. By the Third Edition, ability scores that had classicaly been "dump stats" suddenly starting gaining mechanical relevance. By the Fourth Edition, each ability score had relatively equal relevance in the game system, with a variety of classes utilizing previously forgotten scores such as Charisma or Wisdom for basic attacks. A sorcerer or a warlock must have high Charisma to do well with her powers while a Cleric uses Wisdom to do attacks. On its face, this seems like a great idea.

One of the peculiarities that began to happen in these later editions of Dungeons & Dragons is that many players disconnect the ability score from what it actually means. Charisma is less a reflection of how charming, attractive, or willful a character is and instead reflects a Sorcerer's ability to deal damage, a Paladin's ability to empower himself with divine strength, or a Bard's ability to heal. Since the game aspect is so dependent on an arrangement of ability scores in a certain way, players do not look to their ability scores to define who and what the character is and instead focus more on things like race, class, background, and theme to explain the character. The importance of the ability scores seems diminished when you start to look at it this way.

Of course, if the ability scores are just a representation of how effective a character is at his skills or powers and most players will select an arrangement of ability scores that follow a very specific distribution, the question arises: why even use ability scores? Why do we need to track Wisdom or Strength if every Cleric will have 18 or 20 Wisdom and every Fighter 18 or 20 Strength? Maybe it would be more convenient to say that every character has certain fighting abilities based on a more generic Combat ability score, akin to the the Flying Frog board games. Or, perhaps, eliminate them all together. Would it matter that a Fighter is as good at attacking with his sword as the Wizard is at striking with his magic? Do we need to ability scores to help represent that? It is hard to say.

Take Away in the End

When I first sat down to write about ability scores, I really thought that the best solution would be to get rid of them entirely from the role-playing game. After spending time playing through a few different games, I wonder if there is some value in keeping ability scores but either making them more abstract while cutting down the number of concepts represented by ability scores. As a big board gamer, I am excited by the simplicity of a game like Mansions of Madness or A Touch of Evil. As I continue to look over different role-playing games during this time of market upheaval and evolution, I will continue to think about what kind of ability score system, if any, would be best to properly describe the kinds of games I would want to play.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Council of Spiders, Part 3

Having made a Drow servant of Lolth, I thought I should also make a few characters that fit in with the other "factions" of the new Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters season. Of course, my ability to craft quality Drow characters is surprisingly limited by my ability to find good pictures of Drow to use for the card. Keeping that in mind, I thought I would try and make some sort of quality Bregan D'aerthe mercenary using a picture I was able to grab from the Neverwinter Campaign Guide book.

For those unfamiliar, Bregan D'aerthe is an elite Drow mercenary company primarily composed of male Drow of fallen houses. Founded by noted R. A. Salvatore character Jarlaxle Baenre, Bregan D'arthe works for the various Houses of Menzoberranzan and anybody else wealthy enough to pay their fee. I felt like any Bregan D'aerthe mercenaries I make should be powerful and have his power come from a unique and peculiar source. The Lady of the White Well, the cursed daughter of Sehanine and a mortal enchanted by Lolth to look like Corellon, seemed like an interesting thematic match. From there, the Fey Hexblade mercenary Kelnozz was born.
A bold mercenary of Bregan D'aerthe.
His Cloud of Darkness is bigger than yours.
I have been trying to give these new Encounters characters a little bit of backstory to plug them into the plot of the adventure. All of these characters come already "slotted" into one of the three factions presented in the Encounters packet. Obviously, Kelnozz is an agent of Bregan D'aerthe. I also selected the Bregan D'aerthe Spy character theme from the Neverwinter Campaign Guide as it was available in the Character Builder and effectively captured the essence of the character concept.

Hopefully, Kelnozz will bring new players a more interesting experience than the pre-gens provided by Wizards of the Coast. He fits nicely into the pre-built factions provided in the Council of Spiders adventure and should be an interesting addition to the set.

The Council of Spiders, Part 2

When the new season of Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters was announced to be the story of Drow machinations in and about Menzoberranzan, it was apparent that the "classic" pre-made characters would not work. Wizards of the Coast provided a set of new characters to use but I found them to be somewhat lacking. After looking at them, I felt it was appropriate  to remake all six of them so they would be more effective at what they were supposed to do.

After finishing the first one, the Drow Slayer Ryltar, I started looking at other interesting Drow character possibilities. It did not take long for me to decide that it would be a little more interesting to make my own Drow characters for use in D&D: Encounters. For my first attempt, I present a very different kind of Drow priestess.

Not the best front line character, with defenses like those...
Who doesn't love turning into a giant spider?
When I was putting this together, it made sense to me that a loyal servant of Lolth would be able to transform into a giant spider in service of the Spider Queen. The only real character class that supported this was the Player's Handbook 2 Druid, a class that gets very little love or respect in the Dungeons & Dragons 4E continuum. I had been talking to a friend about how to do the PHB2 Druid properly and I thought this was a good opportunity to do that.'

Technically, the Druid's Wild Shape can turn into any animal. I limited it here to "Spider" only. Honestly, I cannot imagine that any self-respecting servant of Lolth choosing to polymorph into anything BUT a spider. Because spiders are a thing...

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Council of Spiders, Part 1

I have been in the business of making pre-made character cards for Dungeons & Dragons: Encounters for quite some time. I never would have expected to need to make new pre-made characters but I quickly found that some players wanted to use the Encounters program as an opportunity to explore new character types and concepts without having to to go through the trouble of making the character. Adding novelty character "images" was something I was more than happy to do.

One of the biggest problems I had with the pre-made characters provided was that they were not always well implemented characters. In fact, I find that they often had a plethora of poor choices in the design process. While there is something to be said about providing something to be improved upon, the idea that these characters felt like they had been made by somebody who did not understand the game was disheartening. Further, when a new person arrives and plays with a group of "regulars" with their own characters, the deficiencies of the pre-made characters became quite apparent.

With the new season of Encounters, a new stock of pre-made characters have finally been included for players to choose from. As this new season centers around the Drow and their machinations, it only made sense that a set of Drow adventurers would be included with the adventure content. The biggest problem with these characters is that they are actually just the previous six characters with the race option switched to "Drow." Some of these characters are so poorly implemented as to beg the question: Why print them at all? In response to that, I decided to look at each one in turn and see how I would have better developed it.

For once, I have chosen to abide by all of the official rules. This character is developed entirely from standard Essentials content. He is a Drow Slayer Fighter and all of his choices come from those allowed in the Essentials core books.

Drow + Slayer? Not the standard combination.
It's amazing what a good feat choice can do.
Ryltar is the Slayer Fighter of the bunch. On first glance of the character card, I was already thoroughly convinced that the folks responsible for making this did not have a good working knowledge of the game. The original Ryltar was a Strength-based Slayer with a Constitution of 14 and a Dexterity (his secondary stat) of 12. None of this felt right. I looked at it and realized that I had already made a Dexterity based Slayer, so it did not take me long to come up with a quick fix for ol' Ryltar. Swapping out his "Toughness" feat for "Melee Training (Dexterity)," I shifted the 18 Strength to Dexterity (bumping it up to 20). Keeping the Constitution at 14, I put the rest of the points into Charisma (for effect, I suppose).

The net effect was astounding. This new Ryltar was better at hitting his opponents AND dealt more damage. I swapped out his hand axe for a dagger so his ranged attack became absurdly more effective. With a high Dexterity, he was able to wear lighter armor and benefit from the natural Dexterity modifier, making his speed higher and most of his armor-affected skill checks better.

Honestly, after making this Dexterity based Ryltar, I could not see a way in which the original was superior. My Ryltar, made only using the elements of the Essentials books, was simply a more finely crafted character. A new player who picked this character up would still be able to compete with Encounters participants who made overly-optimized "super characters." Although not perfect, I think it better fit the intent of the original character while retaining it's Drow-iness and Slayer-iness.

NOTE: The image for this character card was taken from scans of the official D&D Encounters character card. Due to that, it bears characteristics of the medium. Once high-resolution images of the Drow characters are available, it will be updated accordingly. This website apologizes for the quality issue.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Board Game Review: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Uwe Rosenberg is a well recognized name in the board game business. His first major hit, Agricola, still sits at #2 on the BoardGameGeek list of highest rated board games. He followed that up with other notable titles: Le Havre, At the Gates of Loyang, and Ora & Labora. His most recent addition in his popular series of work-themed games is a sort of spin-off title of his first game of medieval farming, Agricola.

Rosenberg's new title is Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. It takes gameplay elements from the original Agricola, narrows down the theme, and simplifies a few things to make a much quicker game. It is also strictly for two players. In effect, this game attempts to capture the basic gameplay of Agricola while making it more approachable, quicker, and better designed so two players can enjoy it. The question is, though... Does it work?

Inside the Stable

Holy cow! Animeeples!
The game comes with all of the bits necessary for two players to play the game. There is an action board, two starting farms, farm expansion pieces, wooden tokens for resources, cardboard tokens for notable buildings, and a big bag full of animeeples. Although there are a significant number of the different wooden tokens, there are also cardboard chits for representing larger numbers of beasts and resources. Running out of bits its generally not a concern in this game as it comes with enough of everything to play the game.

For those unfamiliar, animeeples are little wooden pieces cut into the shape of animals that they are meant to represent. When the original Agricola was released in the United States, it came with wooden cubes for the animals. Although the original publisher provided animeeples as a preorder bonus, it was not until years later that another company shipped an "expansion" for Agricola that included the animeeples. So, for this new Agricola game, animeeples are the standard playing piece.

Old school Agricola animeeples, once highly prized.
The game sets up relatively quickly out of the box after a little cardboard punch out. Each player begins with a farm board, containing a bunch of open field spaces and a cottage. The main action board has a number of action spaces, some of which require placing resources on them every round (refilling, as it is called). Each player takes a set of three worker discs, representing the three workers on his or her farm. They each also get nine border pieces (long yellow wooden pieces representing fences). At that point, the game is set up and ready to play.

The game setup at the start. Liter of beer not included.
Eight Rounds of Farming

The game plays out over eight rounds. Each rounds has three (or, apparently, four) parts. In the first phase, spaces on the main action board are refilled with resources. Every space is filled with a certain amount of resources every turn, such as "3 Wood" or "1 Border." These resource spaces accumulate over time, so if a space is not taken during a round, it will have even more on the next turn. Players of the original Agricola will find this quite familiar. Some of the resource spaces accumulate a bit differently, though. They get one type of resource if the space is empty but a different type if the space is filled. It keeps certain types of things (such as more valuable horses or cows) from accumulating too quickly.

Once the first phase of the round is complete, the game moves into the main part of the game: the action phase. Here, players take turns placing their workers (the red or blue discs) on spaces on the action board. Actions let you claim the resources on the space, get specific resources from the supply, or build things on your farm such as buildings and fences. Everything seems relatively simple and I found it can be a little confusing at first as to what actions are best to take. But, like any Rosenberg game, it does not take long to at least figure out something that looks like it will work for you.

Agricola: ACBaS during the fifth round of play.
Building resources like stone, wood, and reed, can be stored with no limit but animals have to be put in pastures, stalls, or stables. As animals are the thing that get you points at the end of the game, the bulk of the game experience will be creating places to store animals and then claiming animals from the resource spaces. Stalls and stables are special buildings that are built on the farm board and allow storage of a few animals. Pastures are built by fencing in an area and allow the storage of a certain number of animals per space of the pasture. Feeding troughs can be built in a pasture or on a building to double the storage capacity of that pasture or building. The key is to optimize your farm to get as many animals on it by the end of the eighth round.

My farm, late game. Lots of sheep and horses, a couple of pigs, and
one notorious "house cow." Not sure what a "house cow" might be.
The game also provides four "special buildings" that can be built on a farm using a specific action space. These one-of-a-kind buildings are not necessary but provide bonus points, bonus animals, or additional storage for animals. These buildings provide different options and provide a good opportunity for players to diversify their plans from one another.

At the end of each round, players take all of their workers back (the "Home phase") and then have the "breeding phase," where new animals are born. If a player has two or more of a type of animal, they can get one additional animal of that type. Thus, investing in an animal early will yield bonus animals throughout the game. The only unfortunate part of the breeding phase is that animals for which there is no room "run away" and are lost. So, a player has to ensure that there is room in the stables for the new creatures. After breeding, the round is over and play continues to the next round, starting with the refill phase.

At Game's End. As it ends up, we tied, but I lost because I had the starting
player token in the first round. My farm was cooler, anyway.
The game continues for a total of eight rounds, readily tracked by the extra border space. At the beginning of the game, eight extra border pieces are set aside and one is placed on the extra border action space each round. Thus, when you place the last border on the space, you know you have come to the last round of the game. Once that is over, final scoring occurs.

The game scores relatively simple. You get one point for each and every animal you have. You also get bonus points for certain buildings on your farm. There are bonus points (and potential negative points) dependent on how many of each type of animal you have. Finally, there are fixed bonus points for filling every space of any expansion boards that you may have picked up through the game. Generally, your points come from getting lots of animals.

In Comparison to Agricola

Agricola: ACBaS captures a lot of the gameplay principles as its predecessor, Agricola, with a few notable changes. Some of those changes are actually quite pleasant while some of them feel somewhat limiting. For those unfamiliar with the original Agricola, these comments may not have much context, but they illustrate some interesting features and unfortunate parts of the game.

No need to fear the
Begging card!
Where the original Agricola required that you feed your family members, ACBaS has eliminated that. There are no feeding requirements in Agricola: ACBaS. It tends to make the game less frustrating because you no longer have to spend every few rounds worrying about food. Instead, you can focus entirely on getting the most animals.

Not having to worry about meeting some minimum resource threshold every turn does change the overall feel of the game round. In a game like Agricola or Le Havre, it often feels like most of the turn is spent stressing about meeting the end of round feeding requirement. Some players may find that kind of situation engaging or interesting as it continuously gives you short-term challenges to face. After a few games of ACBaS, I actually came to find the lack of a feeding requirement to lead to a much more entertaining game. I could put together more coherent long term strategies instead of constantly stressing about avoiding the starvation penalty. So, in that regard, it was a nice change.

Agricola: ACBaS has no random elements in it. Agricola itself had randomly dealt "Occupation" cards and "Minor Improvements." Le Havre had randomly selected "special buildings" which could impact your potential strategy. Several of the people I played with felt that although the game had a lot going for it, the lack of any sort of random elements as in Agricola or Le Havre created a certain lack of depth. I could imagine a pro Agricola player finding a "best" strategy, or perhaps a small number of "best" strategies, and continuously repeating those strategies. Perhaps Rosenberg already has plans for a ACBaS expansion that includes something akin to the Occupation/Minor Improvement system in original Agricola, but its lack here does seem to limit the game experience.

Fans of the original Agricola will also notice that this game has brought horses from the original Agricola expansion, Farmers of the Moor. As with the original Agricola, horses are simply the most "valuable" animal in the gaming, granting the player bonus points at the end for an overall smaller number of horses. As the game focuses exclusively on animal husbandry, it would have probably been too limiting to only have the original three animals (sheep, pigs, and cows), so the inclusion of horses was nice.

That's right. This horse has a bum leg. I spent some time
trying to find the Glue Factory special building in my set.

Agricola makes Medieval Farming fun (again?)

After a few games of Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, I can honestly say that it is a really good contribution to the Rosenberg library of games. It is a quick game in comparison to most of his titles, it plays well with two, and it has enough going on to give you quite the Rosenberg worker placement experience. Playing ACBaS really does feel like playing any other Rosenberg worker placement game, but a bit lighter. Further, it's quick to set up (unlike a game such as Le Havre). It also falls considerably cheaper on the price range, coming in at roughly $40 USD.

All that being said, the game does have a few negative points. For a two player game in a relatively modest box, it seems bit pricier than I would have expected. Everything about the box says "$30 game" except the price tag, but Rosenberg games have always had a history of being priced in a seemingly high fashion. The lack of any random elements like Occupations or Minor Improvements distresses the long-term replayability of the game, but we all felt that this will be quickly remedied in some sort of expansion.

Overall, I consider it to be a really great title and I recommend it for anybody interested in worker placement games, especially if you wanted something a bit lighter than the typical worker placement fare. It's biggest flaw will likely be remedied over time, whether it be through new "special building" expansions or some new random element, making the game a worthwhile purchase and worthy contribution to practically any game library.

It Only Took Me Twelve Years... (PWA 4.2)

Phantasy Warrior Advance: It Only Took Me Twelve Years (PWA 4.2)
I'll finally stop beating the Rule 6 joke to death, now.

APR 6 (Rule 6) is a rarely exercised rule in the Washington State Admission to Practice Rules. Specifically, it's the rule where somebody can become a "law clerk" under a supervising attorney and, after completing a specified program, apply for admission to the state bar association. The Rule 6 clerk still has to take the bar exam, but they do not have to attend an ABA accredited law school. To that end, it's the equivalent of an apprenticeship program.

All that being said, it's extremely rare to see people do it. It's notorious for taking an extremely long time (10 years). Further, I have heard rumors that it does not have the best bar exam passage rate. When I started my own bar review class, there was a Rule 6 guy. The person running the bar review class was quite surprised to see a Rule 6. I took that as a bad sign for him...

I imagine in a fantasy world where adventurers are commonplace, there would likely be absurd certification programs, including a laborious apprentice program that very few people ever properly accomplish. This goes along with my ridiculous notion that being a professional hero (or adventurer) would have an overwrought schooling system and a perverse guild that one would have to join. So, I suppose I've applied my history of bureaucracy and nonsense to fantastic notions of adventure.

How appropriate, I guess.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

On Gaming Conventions and GaymerCon

Recently, a group of fine folks based in San Francisco put up a Kickstarter for a new thing. They call it GaymerCon. Essentially, it is a gaming convention, like PAX, GenCon, BlizzCon, GeekGirlCon, or similar but it has a very specific purpose. It intends to create a gaming environment that is LGBT friendly and it intends to demonstrate the importance of the LGBT community within gaming. It has the public support of a number of recognizable people and, if the Kickstarter and media coverage are any indication, it will happen and it will be a big thing.

You can tell it's a thing. They have a logo.
I normally do not like to write about social issues. It is not that I do not believe in anything or that I think that my opinion is not worth expressing. It is just that as a person who writes about gaming, I believe that gaming is what is important. It brings people together, lets us share experiences, and helps us form common bonds. I do not want to muddy the water by bringing up pet political issues or social problems that may disrupt or offend. Yet, all that being said, I wanted to say a thing or two about GaymerCon, because some of the conversation surrounding GaymerCon seems to threaten the ideas of coming together, sharing experiences, and building common bonds. As it ends up, that is something that I need to address.

Some people dislike folks who identify as LGBT and, thus, oppose GaymerCon on principle. To those people I have little to say other than express my concern over how the actions a person takes in their most distinctly personal spaces somehow affects your ability to respect them or appreciate them outside of those personal spaces. That is not what I hope to address here because nothing I can say will remedy that deficiency.

I bet that they don't support GaymerCon.
There are a number of people who have expressed a different concern. Why do these LGBT people want to segregate themselves? Why do they want their own, separate, suggestively exclusive event?  As it ends up, my initial instinct is to agree with that sentiment. Why a separate event? Why segregate the LGBT folks from the rest of the gaming world? It almost seems like the opposite of the notion of community inclusiveness. For me, this makes it something worth talking about. Ideally, a gaming convention should not have anything (or at least very little) to do with your sexual identity or sexual preference. That makes perfect sense. Whether or not you liked Bastion, prefer Fourth or Third Edition D&D, play Ticket to Ride, or found the new expansion for Civilization V compelling does not, on its face, have much to do with your sexual activities.

Okay. So this may be construed as surprisingly gay.
Some bloggers have suggested that LGBT gamers would not have any problems if they just did not bring their personal life into their gaming. Yet, that being said, there are many stories on the Internet regarding LGBT folks and the (negative) experiences they have in gaming. I read one story about a young fellow's simple search for a partner to go adventuring with in World of Warcraft quickly turned ugly after, on questioning by this newfound gaming partner, the young LGBT fellow admitted he had a boyfriend. Further, there are many LGBT folks that can tell about their frustration in finding that practically every game created in the modern day seems to assume you are a straight, male, 20-30 year old player. Some of the vitriol expressed over the very idea of GaymerCon is just as telling as any personal story out there.

On the other hand, there are some gamers who consider themselves as much classier than those people. They have no intention of judging somebody on such a basis. But they still have a problem with GaymerCon. A reoccurring theme in comment threads and discussion boards suggest that everything would be fine if LGBT folks would stop making a bid deal about their gender and sexual identity. Stop waving the flag! I have even read discussion threads and post comments suggesting that LGBT gamers are just making it worse by promoting their own convention. This is an important thing to think about and address. I want to address this by looking at my experience at PAX and similar conventions while also looking at my experience as a Seattle game event organizer. Hopefully, I can provide a perspective that will properly and sufficiently address the concerns regarding GaymerCon.

I've heard Birdo has a LGBT story
that she wants to tell the world.
Last year, at PAX, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a panel regarding LGBT gamers in gaming. The host, a respectable designer working for notable company, talked about his experiences as a gay male gamer. A gaymer, as it the name goes. He described how, as a gamer, his gay friends looked at him as an oddity, an outsider. "You play role-playing games? And video games?" On the other hand, he described how the gamer community disregarded or, even worse, disapproved of his sexual lifestyle. "You are gay? Like, you are into guys?" As he described it, both of these communities shunned his involvement with the other. It seems strange to me that people within these two groups, gamer and gay, groups with a history of being repressed, ignored, segregated, or belittled, could find it in their hearts to repress, ignore, segregate, or belittle one of their own simply because he (or she) was different. Maybe, then, there is something to be said about creating a welcoming environment like a convention for gay gamers. And, for that matter, all LGBT identified folks and their supportive friends.

The idea of a separate convention for a specific subgroup of society may still seem strange, even coounter-productive. I had the same concern a few years ago. Living in Seattle, I discovered GeekGirlCon. It was a gaming convention designed to create a safe space for women gamers. It was also open and welcoming to those non-women who desired to help create that supportive space. I actually wondered what the point was at first. Was not the gaming community supportive and welcoming enough? Why a separate convention? Why segregate? I figured such a separate convention would only further harm the position of women in gaming. Or, so I thought.

Then I spoke to a few women gamers. Gaming, as an industry, tends to target straight, male, white gamers, typically ages 18-30. So many games present their world through a very specific lens, targeting a very specific audience that seems to fancy scantily clad, big busted, sexy women. Women in games, and especially female protagonists, tend to look more like sex objects than heroic figures. There were exceptions, but rarely did I find a game that felt like it targeted (or, often, even considered) women. Or, for that matter, gay men. The fact that these other groups, these fringe sub-groups,  liked these games seemed more like a convenient accident than anything else. The bulk of the target market was young, straight men.

Wait! You're suggesting that this character wasn't
designed to appeal to female gamers?
The current convention scene is, as it ends up, not very different than the game marketplace. There may be the occasional panel or guest speaker focusing on women or LGBT folks, but the bulk of the convention, and the experience, targets that same, familiar market. In my three years at PAX, I have yet to see a strapping lad or muscular gent amongst the "booth babes" on the convention floor.  I have seen countless young women in revealing costumes trying to convince me to buy some product or another but not a single, loosely dressed "marketing specialist" intended for the women, gay men, or other non-straight men to gaze upon. If there is an attractive man working the booth, it's by random chance that he was an employee of the company and he just happened to be there to talk about the products. Usually, you can tell by the company polo shirt in lieu of the exposed midriff or tight, highly cropped pants. Booth babes don't usually wear polo shirts.

At CES, this is as close as you get to a male booth babe.
I have known women and gay gamers who have considered themselves alone within the gaming culture. Having something like GeekGirlCon or GaymerCon is important because it lets those people have a place to come together, meet one another, and know that they are not alone. So, in that regard, maybe GeekGirlCon and GaymerCon have a really important purpose in bringing together people that normally feel alone and ostracized. It's okay to be a woman gamer or a LGBT gamer; here are conventions of people that specifically respect and support that.

But, it is more than just that. I have heard on multiple occasions that the emphasis, both at conventions and in development, is the way that it is (in favor of young, straight men) because straight, young, white men make up the vast majority of the gaming market. I have heard suggested that it is not a prudent business decision to try and be inclusive of such small sub-groups at the risk of the target demographic. Perhaps these speciality conventions can show businesses that the market has changed or that it is different than they assumed. This year, GeekGirlCon moved into the Washington Convention Center. That is the same convention center that PAX Prime is held in. The argument that women gamers are a niche market seems, in this light, a gross understatement. I believe the rapid funding of GaymerCon is not all that different. These are communities that exist and are important but have been ignored or disrespected by the industry for a long time. These conventions are a way for the gaming industry to learn that they are not dealing with fringe sub-culture. It is a big deal.

In thinking about all of these things, it does not surprise me that geeky women should want their own convention. And, keeping that in mind, it does not surprise me that LGBT gamers would want their own convention.  In an ideal world, we would not need conventions intending to provide safe, inviting space for specific classes of people. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Until we do, I am proud to be a public supporter of both GeekGirlCon and GaymerCon. I may not be going to either event, but I realize that women and LGBT gamers should have a space to come together and share with fellow gamers while not feeling afraid, intimidated, or ostracized because of who they are. The rest of the gaming community should look at this and recognize that it is a relevant part of their market that needs to be considered.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Elements of a Classy RPG: Dungeons & Dragons (Third Edition)

Dungeons & Dragons has had many versions, editions, supplements, variants, and novations through the years. One of the most important editions of the game came to the public eye in 2000, when Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition was first released. It came after the Second Edition had been around for eleven years, seeing countless product releases, rules supplements, adventure modules, campaign settings, and gaming detritus that still litter the shelves of second-hand bookstores across the country.  Where Second Edition maintained a lot of the core mechanics of the First Edition, Third Edition took a significant number of steps away from the recognized canon. Although a number of "sacred cows" were retained but many features, previously considered untouchable, were eliminated, evolved, or re-engineered into a new framework. The class system is one of the features that had notable changes worth discussing here.

Gimble is a Bard, not a Sorcerer/Thief.
You can tell because he has an instrument.
The Player's Handbook contained eleven classes. Most of the classes had been standard selections from the previous edition. A few classes, such as the Barbarian and Monk, had previously existed in some form or another but now made their debut as core classes. One class, the Sorcerer, was a new class intended to fill the growing desire by players for a non-Vancian (or, as I prefer, non-Gygaxian) spell-caster. However, the most novel feature about classes in the Third edition, and potentially the most important, was not their variety, selection, or number. It was the multi-classing rules that made Third Edition something to really think about and value as a game.

Third Edition characters have two concepts of level. Character level is the overall measure of the character's experience while class level is specific for each class and measures the character's training within that class. Whenever a character gains a level, the player chooses which class to level in, generally selectable from any class. So, if you make a half-orc Fighter at first level, you could very well choose to take a level of fighter, thief, or even wizard when you advance to level 2. For that matter, you could take a level in whichever class you wanted. Third Edition broke open the class system, allowing a player to make whatever choices they wanted regarding their character and his or her "class."  Of course, there are a few technical limitations. Generally, characters must keep all of their class levels within one level of each other or the character will incur (experience) penalties. That level 5 Ranger, level 2 Paladin, level 3 Wizard, level 8 Fighter you had always wanted to take on an adventure is a problem within the 3E framework because she'll get less experience and, thus, level up at a slower rate than her adventuring friends. But, barring that restriction (to which there are exceptions), the system lets you do what you want with your character.  Does Gronk the Fighter want to spend some time at the Wizard's Institute of Technocery? Grab a level of wizard!
Ember was upset to learn that she, as a
Monk, would be unable to multi-class.

It does not even stop there at that, though. Third Edition was the system for people that wanted a grotesque amount of character options. Beyond the initial eleven character classes, this version of D&D featured advanced classes that had some sort of prerequisite for entry. Called "Prestige Classes," these classes provided even greater abilities for characters that were able to take levels in the class. Prestige Classes were exciting because they provided a special suite of abilities, powers, and bonuses that catered nicely to a specific arrangement of class features. Wanted to make a fighter who used a bow and knew magic? The Arcane Archer provided bonuses and special abilities for that combination of talents, allowing the character to infuse his arrows with magical energies. Beyond the small number provided, the Prestige Class was an opportunity for Players and Dungeon Masters to create specific classes suited to the campaign setting or player concept that were limited in scope (maybe 5-10 levels worth of advancement) but that emphasized a certain synergy of abilities, powers, or features.

Although the first publication of D&D had few Prestige Class options, each supplement continued to add to the roster of available options, making the field of class options quite expansive. Later publications even included new base classes, further expanding the options for character advancement. Some characters were merely alternatives to existing classes, such as Fighter variants or Wizards of different schools. Some where entirely new classes readily injectable into the mighty multi-class morass that had developed. As a player, you had many choices to make at each level with regard to what class in which you wanted to advance. This was a role-playing ruleset where anything and everything seemed possible. Because of this freedom of character design, Third Edition earned a reputation as a player's game.

Considering the system laid out in the Third Edition, one may think that it should have been the definitive take on a class system as it provides numerous options and the freedom to do practically anything. But, there are a few peculiarities.
Alright, guys. Which of these multi-class option should I take?
One problem faced by the Third Edition system was the contrast of basic, wide-reaching classes to specific, narrowly-tailored classes. To illustrate, consider two brave adventurers, Bob and Tom. Bob and Tom are both level 4 humans. Bob is a level 2 fighter and level 2 cleric. Tom is a level 4 paladin. Both have some fighting prowess. Tom is strictly better at hitting than Bob but Bob has a few more options in combat from his fighting feats. Both have divine abilities, although they express their divine powers in different ways. Bob casts spells, choosing from an expansive list of Cleric spells, while Tom can sense evil, heal his allies, and gain bonuses against evil foes. But, as far as characters go, they are both... holy warriors? They both battle monsters and wield the forces of their god. The biggest difference is that Tom the Paladin has a more restricted set of abilities than Bob the Fighter/Cleric.

She's actually charting the requirements
for her next Prestige Class. It's complicated.
This clash highlights one of the dormant issues in the Third Edition system: What is the purpose of the Paladin, a specialized Holy Warrior, in a game with free multi-classing rules that allow a Fighter/Cleric Holy Warrior with little to no fuss? The ungainly restrictions attached to the Paladin make it even stranger: Why can only Lawful Good gods have Paladins? Is there something inherently Lawful Good about detecting evil? My Fighter/Cleric can do it, except that he does it as a spell. There are other examples of the peculiarity, such as with the sorcerer/thief and the bard (different shades of the magical trickster), but the Paladin and Fighter/Cleric represent the most obvious example.

In a system like Rifts, where each class told you how you fit into the world, D&D Third Edition almost feels like it does quite the opposite as it provides different ways to make the same character concept but with different mechanical outcomes. Want to be a dashing duelist? Maybe you could make a Fighter/Rogue character. Maybe just a Rogue. Or, perhaps a Swashbuckler? Swashbuckler/Rogue? A Fighter/Swashbuckler/Rogue? The system seems to get strangest when mixing basic, broad classes like the Fighter or Wizard with very specific, specialized classes like the Paladin or Bard. One begins to wonder what it means to be a Fighter/Ranger/Paladin character. Technically, these feel like they should all be same shades of the same basic character, but within the Third Edition framework, they are distinct classes to be chosen when leveling up a character.

After playing Third Edition for a brief period, I started to think that that all I really needed were the four "basic" classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, and Thief) and cleverly designed Prestige Classes.  The rest would be composed of some combination of those classes, maybe throwing in some specific Prestige Class along the way. Unfortunately, although the four basic classes covered a lot of ground, it is clear that they leave a vast array of potential character ideas out. Eventually, I began to hypothesize that what the game really needed was a solid array of basic classes that naturally developed into more specialized, advanced classes attainable after a few levels of dabbling in the core classes. Interestingly, that would later be done within the same d20 System framework in the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game, but that is a discussion for another time.

Krusk later regretted that level of
Librarian he took early in his career.
Another peculiar feature of Third Edition's class system was that, with such an abundance of options, it was quite easy to make bad choices. In fact, it was probably far easier to make a bad choice than a good one.  It is quite simple to realize several levels down the line that grabbing that level of Ranger early in the campaign was a terrible mistake. Or taking that Toughness Feat. While some choices may simply be situationally poor (such as taking Magic Item creation feats in a game where there are no Magic Items), others are simply not meant to be chosen together. It is strange that a game in which one would expect to play the same character for months, even years, would have a rule system in which bad choices are not only possible, but likely, and that no method to rectify bad choices exist. For players that hoped to do more than just play the pickup game at their local convention, Third Edition seemed to have it against you.

Unfortunately, for a system filled with a plethora of rules for different situations, it was not until Player's Handbook II that 3.5 addressed the idea of retraining. Granted, I would imagine any DM would allow players who realize they had made catastrophic mistakes with their character to have a go at re-building the character, but the idea that it took years of supplements to formalize it in the ruleset was peculiar, to say the least.

Some of the more obvious peculiar expressions of the Third Edition multi-class system came about in the d20 Star Wars RPG. Based on a very similar version of the d20 ruleset presented in Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, the Star Wars RPG took the game to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Game books would always feature stat blocks for iconic characters. As new source books were released with new Prestige Classes, feats, and features, some iconic characters would change class or build to better suit the new content. The Dark Side Sourcebook includes a stat block for Emperor Palpatine that included the following text:
The statistics presented here differ from those presented in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.While these statistics provide a much more holistic interpretation of the Emperor's abilities, either version of the Emperor works perfectly well for most roleplaying purposes.
I have multiple, different stat blocks, young Skywalker,
but I'll happily electrify your ass with any one of them.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with having to adjust, even ret-con, the occasional stat block, the idea that even the villains needed a few chances to "get it right" said something about the potential complexity of the system. I could almost here the player upset on discovering that an important boss has multiple game statistics. "But, last week he couldn't do that!"

This was even more apparent with the "power creep" that often appears in Dungeons & Dragons. Later content, such as classes and monsters, would be more powerful than earlier classes. Sometimes done to "balance things out" while other times done just to make new features interesting, the net result was that things introduced later would have a higher power level than earlier options. This could lead to new features, feats, or Prestige Classes meant to balance out the problems. The net result was a slow escalation, leaving early sourcebook options relatively unimpressive in later years. "Oh, you're a standard Fighter? I'm glad you think that still works for you!" Eventually, the iconic heroes and villains featured in early sourcebooks would have to be replaced by a more powerful version to keep up. It is no wonder that only four or so years into the game they felt the need to release an updated rulebook, version 3.5, to blank the slate.

The Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table, at least with respect to the Dungeons & Dragons game. A more flexible and robust system let players make characters that felt more like the character they wanted while giving them unique or interesting abilities to distinguish them from every other character out there. Unfortunately, having too many options or unnecessarily repetitious options weakened the impact of the system. Overly specific character classes did not mesh well with extremely general ones, leading to peculiar results. Further, having identifiably bad options or, in the worse case, secretly bad options, undermined the strengths of the system. Finally, the slow progression in supplements of raising the power level tended to make earlier options less impressive, sometimes even relegating them to obscurity. In the end, it opened a lot of interesting doors in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and class-based RPG systems, but it leaves open a lot of strangeness that should really have been better resolved.