Time is Short, but the Years are Long

Some readers of this blog may know that I both work and go to school. Neither of which I talk about very much here. I have mentioned how little free time I have with some frequency. Well, to make a very long story short, due to circumstances beyond my control, I should graduate a full semester ahead of schedule. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, I’ll get to start to normalize my life again about five months sooner. On the other, I have quite a heavy load this semester and may go insane before Christmas.

It’s probably safe to say that come next year I will get to blog more. The problem, though, hasn’t been time to blog, but time to play. That should also be fixed by the time I graduate. I may also have some thoughts about the closure of Vanguard, which has had me fairly down on MMOs in general of late.

Right now I’m playing a little ArcheAge. I like it. I may have more throughts about it at some point. Come next year I will likely try to settle down with something, and ArcheAge is looking like a good candidate.

D&D5: First System Impressions

As I’ve already mentioned, the new D&D rules have been released into the wilds of the internet, and so they are fair game for commentary above and beyond what I’ve already said based on my play experience at Origins. This isn’t a formal review, but a rundown of what’s in the game and my preliminary opinions about it.

index First, though, we’d better cover what the new product is and is not, so far. What we have right now are two items, the D&D Starter Set and the D&D Basic Rules. The former is a boxed set which includes a 32-page rulebook, a 64-page adventure, five pregenerated characters, a blank character sheet and a set of dice. The latter is a PDF currently available for free from the Wizards site. They are the same rules, but the Starter Set is aimed clearly at new players and contains a stripped-down and simplified version of the game, with enough material to take characters to level 5. But it does not contain character creation rules; if you want to play with anything other than the stock pregens you’ll need to download the PDF.

The D&D Basic Rules contains the core of the new game system up to level 20. It comes in at 110 pages and is currently at version 0.1. What this means is that it’s subject to revision, but it also does not currently include a bestiary or the rules for handing out experience and building encounters. So as of now D&D Basic is not quite a complete game. However, the Starter Set includes those monsters and NPCs which appear in the adventure, and there is text in the adventure that explains how to hand out the individual awards for each encounter. There are also some additional monsters HERE from one of the late playtest drafts (which need to be checked for balance) and some preliminary encounter-building rules HERE on Mike Mearls’ blog on the WotC site. So an enterprising and moderately experienced DM could hash this into a workable campaign even now. This stuff is supposed to be added to the Basic Rules as the hardcovers release. Down the line, the Basic Rules are intended to be a living document that will be added to as new adventures and other support materials are released that require additional rules. Considering that the July 3 release contained much more than was originally announced (it was supposed to have been just character creation,) I have no reason to doubt that this will occur.

It should be noted that the Basic Rules PDF is the core game, not the full game with all the bells and whistles and options. It gives four character classes (the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard,) four races (the Elf, Dwarf, Halfling and Human) with basic options for each representing the genre-typical vision of that race or class. It also includes what I imagine to be a limited subset of the spells, although at a good third of the book I’d say there’s aleready plenty to go with. The three hardcover books (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) that will be released in August, September and October respectively will be expanded versions of the core game described in the Basic Rules, containing many more options and expansions. But the Basic Rules is supposed to be (and right now looks like it will be) a complete and playable game in its own right if you don’t want any of that cruft. It’s actually pretty complete already, aside from the aforementioned omissions.

I’m going to punt the in-depth specifics of the two products a future post, but for now I am going to give my general impressions of the game system.

D&D5’s rules as released thus far represent sort of a return to the roots of the game. The Debbie Downers of the RPG world are calling it warmed-over 2E, or 3E or 4E depending on who you talk to. Which ought to tell you that they haven’t looked at it very closely . There are elements here which first appeared in Fourth Edition, but it’s built on a 3E chassis and the overall effect is of a melange of various editions, with none being especially dominant. It does, however, depart completely from the laser focus on combat and extreme codification of every combat-relevant mechanical effect that was a hallmark of 4E. So the fans of that version are tending to be, from what I’m seeing, it’s harshest critics. Also not appearing in this picture is the default assumption from 3.5 and 4E that you’re playing with miniatures; while you could play 3-4E without them, the rules assumed you were, and the difficulty of doing without them ranged from irritating tedium to major pain in the ass. D&D5 does away with this; all the info you need to play with minis is in there, but the compulsion to do so is gone. The overall complexity level being perhaps comparable to a pre-bloat AD&D2E — so it’s pretty lean. It isn’t as stripped down as Moldvay Basic, as some had hoped and/or feared. It’s pretty loose but with substantial structure, which is a sweet spot from where I am sitting right now.

There’s a lot of open questions about 5E; I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind the XP requirements for leveling, for example. At a glance it looks like you rocket through the very early levels really fast —— like maybe to level 3 in the first session. My gut instinct is to hate that… but it’s incredibly easy to houserule, and there’s a chance I might be sold on it anyway. We’ll see what happens with the next additions to these core rules, but what I see now looks like a robust and appealing system in its own right, without any real need for additional supplements. If that’s the intention, and I gather it to be, then I approve.

On the D&D5 Credits Controversy

The free PDF of the new D&D Basic Rules hit the WotC website over the holiday weekend. I’ll have words to say about the new rules in future posts, but right now, because it’s the raging topic of conversation in my circles, I feel obliged to comment on the controversy.

Yes, controversy. About the new D&D rules. Well, not about the rules, but about two people who appear to have contributed to them.

Now, I have resolutely managed to steer clear of political matters in the seven years I have been writing this blog. I’d rather talk about gaming on this outlet. In this case, however, matters of gaming and politics are intertwined, so you’re going to get some of my politics if you continue reading. So be warned, and stop now if you don’t want to know.

With that out of the way, though, and because folks who don’t follow me on social media may not be aware of it, I am a staunch and vocal supporter of both LGBT rights in society at large and inclusiveness within the gaming community. It is our community, and, imperfect though it may be, we should make every effort to make everyone in it feel welcome and included, no matter their race, creed, religion, gender identity or orientation, sexual or otherwise. However, I have friends on both sides of this argument.

Now, the individuals in question are Zak Smith and John Tarnowski, who goes by “The RPGPundit,” both of whom get credited in the new rules’ “Additional Consulting by” section. The allegations start with these people being “hostile to inclusiveness,” whatever that means. Specifically, that they are hostile to LGBT people. Some have even called for a boycott of the new edition over the inclusion of these two as (allegedly) paid consultants. Now, if those credits bother you that much, I say it’s your time and money, so knock yourself out. But this strikes me as an asinine over-reaction for several reasons.

Both figures are fairly well known within the tabletop RPG community and within the OSR movement in particular, and both have some designer cred as well. Both are unquestionably controversial even outside of this specific squabble.

If the allegation was that these two guys are assholes, well, that’s not a charge I will defend them against. Zak, for example, has some hot-button issues on which he will argue very aggressively, to the point that some people feel cornered by him when he asks them to clarify or defend their views and won’t let them dissemble. Among those issues are freedom of artistic expression, censorship and hypocrisy. And also people throwing out wild accusations with no proof or documentation. Yes, he can be “needlessly aggressive” as one commentator put it, but to my mind he is also right on every one of the issues listed above. He is also right to push back and demand clarity and/or documentation when this kind of thing comes up in his circles.

But being an asshole isn’t the accusation against him, which has ranged from being LGBT-unfriendly to having a “hit list” and calling people in the middle of the night with death threats. The former is laughably implausible considering Zak’s line of work, even without taking into account his numerous statements indicating otherwise. The latter is criminal menacing, not a charge you want to throw around without evidence… and yet, without exception, when the accusers are asked for documentation all they can come back with is “it is known,” like they’re some kind of GoT robots. There isn’t the slightest shred of evidence of any kind corroborating any of this, of course, just hearsay that seems to originate from three specific people on G+ whose stories are highly suspect, and who have known axes to grind with Zak.

Tarnowski is rather a different case. He has a long history of online misbehavior, a laundry list of places where he’s not welcome and a blog where he posts juvenile screeds fairly regularly. Unlike Zak much of this conduct can be corroborated with a simple Google search even without digging for any of his former aliases, and level-headed people I know and trust can relate stories of said improper behavior. He also has a pretty good eye for RPG design, is clearly not the moron roughly 25% of his posts imply him to be, is certainly capable of holding down his end of an adult conversation when he wants to, and his blog is home to some compelling articles and insights, which I why I follow it. But he is, to my mind, a far more problematic character than Zak. You might say that he is indisputably an asshole, and I wouldn’t argue with you — but neither would he, I’m guessing. It’s part of his schtick.

In this case, however, the specific transgression he’s been accused of — that of being LGBT-hostile — is also untrue. And he’s been vocal about it, and one of the characters on the cover of his historical RPG Arrows of Indra is possibly the first transgendered character to occupy such a place.

An additional irony is that the new rules contain an unprecedented (at least for D&D) passage that explicitly states that players should feel able to apply definitions of gender to their characters that are different from the so-called cultural norms. Both Zak and Tarnowski have explicitly stated their support for this passage, although some people — including the same people throwing around wild-ass accusations against Zak — have taken issue with that for supposed insensitivity to LGBT concerns, and alleged that obviously the authors didn’t consult any transgendered people about it. Except that, as it happens, we now know that the passage was written by a man with a transgender daughter and edited by a gay person with a trans sibling. So there goes that allegation out the window as well.

As I said above, if you feel like avoiding the new edition of D&D over this, that’s your prerogative. I don’t buy from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A because of the repulsive bigotry of the people running those corporations. I don’t read Orson Scott Card because he is a cretin who has stated publicly that gays should be killed. Where you make your own stand is up to you, but I caution you to make that decision based on the facts, not on hearsay from people with grudges.

I will note one other thing before I close this discussion. Neither Zak nor the Pundit have any connection to Hasbro, WotC or the D&D design and development team, other than being asked to look over the rules and give their input. And there are 85 other names listed in the D&D Basic Rules credits, none of whom have the slightest controversy attached to them. Do you check to make sure there’s no bigots or assholes with a similarly tenuous connection to say, Radio Shack or Hot Topic before you shop there? If not, then you should consider whether your response is proportional and appropriate.

I will not be writing another post on this subject. Feel free to offer your opinions in the comments, but be warned that I will be policing them very strictly, so be polite.

Origins 2014 Wrapup Part 2: The Games

Here’s my breakdown of the games that I played at Origins.

Full Thrust (Thursday)

IMG_20140612_150017Full Thurst is a generic-ish starship minitaures combat game that I’ve had my eye on for a number of years. Unfortunately there were two games of it running at the same time, and I picked the table that wasn’t full. So it was basically me and the GM running through a fairly quick space battle. I had fun, but I’m guessing that the folks at the full table had more. I did win the game, however.

The Full Trust rules play a little bit like Star Fleet Battles Ultralight (more like a cross between Starfire and Mayday, actually, but that’s a more obscure comparison) and even large fleet battles with lots of big ships can be resolved in a reasonable amount of time. There are also hacks available to port the rules to Star Wars or BSG or Babylon 5 or whatever. The minis themselves are pretty nice. After having played it it’s not a game I am dying to buy into, but I’d play it again.

13th Age (Thursday)

IMG_20140612_20453713th Age is essentially an evolution of D&D4 with a great deal of the mechanical baggage pared away and less focused on combat encounters. I found it very enjoyable. What I did like most about the system, though, were the tools to encourage player investment in the campaign structure. These are nothing earthshakingly innovative by storygame standards, but they’re well-executed here and eminently stealable for other games. This particular event was a town bit followed by a wilderness encounter and a brief dungeon crawl, so we got to see most of the moving parts in action, except for those interesting storygame bits that only really shine in campaign play.

D&D BECMI, B4 The Lost City (Friday)

IMG_20140613_084355This classic is one of my all-time favorite D&D modules, so I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the skeletal system lacked player options under a GM unable to provde them narratively, and as a result the players, including myself, seemed bored. This could have worked, and worked well, but to be honest about it I considered bailing. There were a number of character fatalities followed by immediate replacements, usually with a nigh-identical character, but I’m happy to say I survived. We got far enough into the pyramid to get some needed supplies, and then departed. I’ll have more to say about why this game didn’t work for me in Part 3 of this report.

D&D Next, The Legacy of the Crystal Shard (Friday)

The most successful of my three D&D events, this game was well-run and enjoyable. We didn’t play using the final D&D5 rules (which are already at the printer,) so under the late playtest rules that we used there were some pretty obvious balance issues. Nevertheless it played well and smoothly.

What I took away from the new ruleset in actual play was the impression of a blend of about 50% 3.x and 50% other versions of D&D (including 4th,) with the overall complexity dialed down to about a quarter of what you’d see in 3/4E. It was a good mix, and I continue to look forward to the new version of the rules, but I remain uncomitted to it as a rules platform for my own use… but I’ll have more to say about that in the next post as well. We only played through a small fraction of the published adventure.

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator (Friday)

I could write a whole post explaining what this is, but instead I will have you watch the video below. Essentially it’s a computer-assisted LARP in which you play the bridge crew of an Enterprise-like ship. Actually participating, it’s tremendous fun and I will happily sign up for a few slots of it next year. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to do every week, but I wished I’d gotten to play it once or twice more. It take about 45 minutes to play through a single scenario.

D&D BECMI, X2 Castle Amber

The GM for this was extremely good. Unfortunately, by that time I was running on 40+ hours without sleep, and my play reflected that before I crashed in a corner of the hall after about an hour in. My wife retreived me once the event was over, but she assures me she had fun.

Pathfinder Society, Destiny of the Sands, Part 1

IMG_20140614_110913Of my three Pathfinder games, this one was the least enjoyable. Not becuase it was a bad event, or becuase it wasn’t run pretty well, but because it was a home group (GM included) with me as the tacked-on sixth player. This is always damned uncomfortable, but there were also too many mousy players at the table, and me providing the only active personality was really awkward, especially in this group, in my first Pathfinder game in ages and my first Pathfinder Society event ever. But it wasn’t so bad for all that, and the adventure was good.

Pathfinder Society, Destiny of the Sands, Part 2

IMG_20140613_150433A highly enjoyable game. The GM was relatively unseasoned but carried herself very well despite a few rough patches in the rules, including one instance when myself and another player fucked something up (failure to notice that we had already used our AoOs that round) and we had to back up half a round. But a fun, fun event with rock-solid players who remained highly engaged the whole time.

Pathfinder Society, Library of the Lion

I broke out my Wizard for this very combat-light event, which I enjoyed enormously. The one fight was against some animated books and the rest was skills roles and puzzles which were at just the right level of difficulty for such an event. The GM was not good with boxed text but was otherwise excellent and the people at the table were fully engaged, except for one player who sat at the table silently knitting socks the whole time. Don’t ask me.

Pathfinder Society Play

As I mentioned, this was my first whirl with Pathfinder Society stuff and my first time doing any kind of organized play in many years. It was great fun especially for the third event. This despite the fairly chaotic marshaling process, which was not aided by the on-site book misprints which had incorrect start times, incorrect event prices and variuous other cockups. Now that I have a better understanding of how this works I can plan better for the next time and tweak my characters to be more effective in this kind of play.

That’s the wrapup of games played. In the next installment I will have some additional thoughts about how and why the Pathfinder events generally beat out the D&D events.

Origins 2014 Wrapup Part 1

Origins 2014 has come to an end, and a great time was had by (mostly) all. Here is part one of my show wrapup thoughts.

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The Games

Origins is all about games, and I’ll have detailed thoughts about the things that I played in my next post. In general, however, gaming at Origins is thriving. The Pathfinder and Shadowrun rooms, driven by organized play, were booming. The Indie RPGs on Demand room was also hopping the whole time, and the cavernous D&D room was better-attended than it looked. As usual there were a large number of Call of Cthulhu events. Even oddball games like Traveller and Rolemaster were sellouts. Massive tournaments dominated the board gaming area, and deck-building card games like Ascension and Dominion were very prominent.

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I’ll have a separate post up about the events I myself participated in.

The Exhibit Hall

The dealers’ room this year was a paradise for boardgamers. So much so that some prominent publishers like Mayfair and Asmodee got their own sales areas — but in the Board Gaming hall.

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The dealers’ room was not so strong for RPG players and wargamers of either the hex-and-counter or miniatures variety. Many major players, including WotC, Paizo, Games Workshop and GMT did not exhibit, but the Steve Jackson James/Atlas/Chaosium booth had a big presence, and they were dealing both Paizo product and Numenera. Kenzer also exhibited, and there were both sellers of indie RPGs and a number of smaller publishers on hand. The big booths selling old and out of print RPGs and wargames were entirely gone. Columbia Games and Decision Games were there to represent old school wargaming.

As Origins evolves, the number of dealers selling cosplay and LARP stuff continues to increase.

Organization

As in previous years, show management was very disorganized. Lines were long and slow for those unfortunate enough to try to get in on Saturday morning, the events book suffered from many, many misprints and many events had to be moved at the last minute, with no notices posted. Thankfully, random people on hand were generally happy to point you in the right direction. Events were frequently listed in the book at the wrong times or with the wrong prices, so folks kept showing up early or with the wrong number of generic tokens in their pockets.

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Origins is changing — not necessarily for the worse, but it is changing in directions away from where GAMA’s expertise lies. Wherever that is. Every year, for example, there are more and more cosplayers, and GAMA has no idea how to deal with or appeal to them.

The Origins Awards, which should logically be the gaming hobby’s equivalent to the Oscars, were again bungled. Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, which is both a great and entertaining show and is driving large numbers of people into boardgames, won a well-deserved award, but when folks started congratulating Wil on Twitter, it turned out that nobody had told him he was even nominated. This kind of incompetence would be laughable but something like it seems to happen almost every year, and for every step forward there seem to be two steps back.

What GAMA needs to do is hire a professional event management firm to run the show for them. They did so before, and in comparison the convention was very well-run in those years, but politics of the anti-WotC variety caused GAMA to end their arrangement with Andon.

Now, I’ve seen worse, at both Origins and Gen Con. It was better than some years, and no issue was so devastating as to completely torpedo the whole show. But it was very sloppy in a number of places, and the Origins Award thing is just a goddamn embarrassment.

The Food

There are many, many worthwhile places to eat around the convention center. My schedule was so compact, however, that I didn’t have the opportunity to go anywhere but the Hyatt’s food court, where the grub is merely serviceable but very cheap by con food standards, with a sole jaunt to North market on Friday, where I had some excellent curry followed by ice cream. Alas that I did not make it to Barley’s or the Flatiron, my two favorite places to eat in the area.

Overall

GAMA’s blundering aside, in general I had a great time. I did not get to spend as much time playing or attending as I would have liked, but that’s par for the course for folks with adult responsibilities.

Origins has historically been and remains a great show to attend to play actual games. Get gamers together and the magic happens, despite whatever mistakes the convention organizers made.

Lessons for Next Year

Every year I find some things that I would have done differently, and that list reflects changes in the hobby, changes in the show and changes in personal circumstances. But here’s what I’d like to do differently next year:

  • Budget more money for the convention. This year I bought very little aside from dice, but my food budget could have been bigger.
  • Play more Pathfinder. I’ll have more to say about this in the next post, but I found the Pathfinder Society stuff to be very enjoyable. But I still want to do other games as well, so…
  • Budget more time for the convention. This means taking two days off from work, which I have not done for the last few years. This would give me, minimally, a full day to play games on Thursday as well as the opportunity to get in on stuff on Wednesday as well. There were things I wanted to do but couldn’t because I had to go to work on Thursday night.
  • Maybe run a game or two. It occurred to me that I have never done so at Origins. There are all kinds of available avenues for this, but stuff for Indie Games on Demand would be a possibility, or I may try to do Rolemaster or Traveller or something else similarly underserved. It would be nice if my RPG was finished by then, but that’s very unlikely to happen by next year.
  • Have a better way to do online blogging from the show. Partly this is a function of time, but there were also equipment and battery issues, and I didn’t do as much reporting from the show as I would have liked.

My Origins Event Schedule

Origins 2014 has begun, and today I picked up my badge and signed up for as many events as I could fit into my schedule (below.) I will be reporting on each event as the con proceeds, in addition to tweeting under the #OriginsGameFair hashtag, plus as much else as I can get in.

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Thursday

  • 2 PM – 6 PM: Full Thrust (Miniatures)
  • 6 PM – 10 PM: 13th Age

Friday

  • 8 AM – 12 PM: D&D BECMI, B4 The Lost City
  • 1 PM – 5 PM: D&D Next, Legacy of the Crystal Shard
  • 7 PM-8 PM: Artemis Spaceship Brudge Simulator
  • 8 PM – Midnight: D&D BECMI, X2 Castle Amber

Saturday

  • 8 AM – 1 PM: Pathfinder, Destiny of the Sands, Part 1
  • 1 PM – 6 PM: Pathfinder, Destiny of the Sands, Part 2
  • 7 PM – Midnight: Pathfinder, Library of the Lion

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Sunday’s up in the air, as the 8-hour marathon Pathfinder game I’d planned to be in was sold out.