Origins 2014

The Origins Game Fair, one of the country’s largest hobby game conventions, takes place in Columbus, Ohio each summer. It starts this Wednesday. It’s a great show and I have fun every year. I’ve only missed two shows since 1995, one due to scheduling issues and the other due to a health problem which is thankfully cleared up now.

As in previous years I will be posting on social media about the show while it’s happening and I’ll have blog posts regarding it as time permits – hopefully each day, but when it’s over if nothing else. I plan to take as many photos as my batteries allow. Unlike previous years my intention this year is to game my ass off. We’ll see what I can get into on Wednesday, but I have a full slate of games planned, with alternates in case any of my first choices are filled. I will be hitting D&D and Pathfinder hard, filling in the gaps with goodies from Indie Games on Demand. I may also try that Artemis thing if I get the opportunity. I even have a miniatures game on my alternates list.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Reviewed

Almost as old as roleplaying games are boardgames that try to simulate them. Back in the day we had TSR’s Dungeon, and later came games like Talisman, HeroQuest and Descent. In principle, such games try to provide some elements of the RPG experience without the prep, bookeeping or scheduling concerns, becuase they can be played in a single session.

Roleplaying games today are a bit different than they were back in the days of yore, however. And there’s been a lot of analysis over the past decade or so that tried to isloate what the components of RPG play are and how to enhance them. This has spawned many novel RPG designs, but few boardgame emulations of the subject have tried to break the genre loose from the dungeon. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (hereafter PFACG) does that. It’s a card game that plays like a board game that plays like an RPG. Specifically like a Pathfinder Adventure Path. It’s also a cooperative game; the players try to beat the game itself rather than each other.

pathfinderPathfinder, for those who don’t know, is an iteration of the D&D Edition 3.x rules, produced and adopted by Paizo Publishing after D&D 4th Edition caused an exodus of players who preferred the previous version of the rules. It’s been wildly successful and routinely outsells D&D proper, depite the latter’s far wider name recognition amongst the general public. The Adventure Card Game is a spinoff that incorporates elements of the deck-building games that are currently popular. Note that while there are expansions for the PFACG, it is NOT a “collectable card game” in the style of Magic: The Gathering. Aside from a couple of promo cards, what comes in the kits is what’s in the game, and there’s no random packs or anything like that.

The Base Set comes with a lot of pretty cards, a basic set of dice, the rulebook and a nice card organizer tray that seats inside the box. This tray, or something very like it, is almost neccessary for play of the game, becuase on many occasions you’ll need to pick random cards of one type or another from the box, and you’ll want those oprganized into cvatgeories and ready to go. Some kinds of discards also go back in the box, while others go into your dicard pile or to the bottom of your draw deck.

One starts playing the PFACG by picking a character (one of the Pathfinder iconic characters, of which seven come in the Base Set,) who gets a starting deck that you can design yourself from the cards in the box. This deck represents both your abilites and your life points, and is subject to a number of restriction on what can go into it and what can’t. You can also just use some preconstructed decks that are provided in the rulebook, although in my opinion these are not that great but easily improved upon.

You also pick a scenario card. This can be a standalone scenario or part of a larger “adventure” consisting of several scenarios intended to be played in order. Two such adventures are provided with the Base Set: Perils of the Lost Coast, which consists of three different scenarios, and Burnt Offerings, which contains five scenarios and is the first part of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure path, a series of six linked adventures. The other five parts are found in expansion decks for the game.

Each play session is a single scenario and can be played in roughly 30-60 minutes, or maybe a bit longer the first couple of times. When the scenarios are linked into a campaign the characters can grow over time and between adventures, gradually improving and exanding their decks and gaining new abilities. While the PFACG is fun played just as a one-shot, it’s in the campaign mode that it really shines.

Aside from the character decks, each scenario will have a number of locations, as given on the scenario card. How many locations you use depends on the number of characters playing. Each location gets a deck of its own, constructed randomly using the rules in the book from the card categories listed on the location card.

Characters, alone or together, explore these locations by drawing cards from their decks, encountering challenges like monsters, traps and parleys and possibly accruing treasures like better gear and abilities. You win the game by defeating the scenario’s end boss,— but the boss can escape to another location that hasn’t been cleared out unless you cut off his escape route, which means you’ll need to find where’s he’s gone to challenge him again.

The game works on a timer; you start with a deck of thirty Blessing cards and each player turns one face up at the start of the turn, so you have thirty player turns in which to complete the adventure. If the Blessings deck runs out or all the characters die, the players lose. Various card effects can add to the Blessings deck or take away from it.

The Base Set contains enough stuff for four people to play; not just the character cards but gear, spell cards and such that are needed to flesh out the decks. The optional Character Add-On Deck contains enough cards to add two more players and provides four additional characters to play (the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Paladin.)

The game is probably at its best with four players, but can be played solo with one character or several. And it can be fairly challenging; my first game saw my Fighter Valeros face-planting in his first location. Not all of the characters are well-suited to playing solo with a single character; the Rogue is the preferred class for this, but it looks to me like the Ranger would be pretty good as well.

My own imperfect understanding of the rules at the time didn’t help, either. The rulebook is not lengthy but a lot of details are on the cards themselves, as is common in card games these days. On the whole it’s fairly intricate, but not impenetrably so, even for kids. It’s probably about as complex as the rules in the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. But there’s no simplified version of the game to start out with, or a gradual learning curve. You’re all in until you figure everything out, and there are a number of layers of rules that you could potentially forget, like the sepacial rules for the scenario or location, from the those cards, or the special rules for your character.

On the whole, though, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a great deal of fun, and not a bad substitute if you have the RPG itch but can’t get players together for a campaign or if nobody wants to GM. In the same amount of time it takes for one typical 4-hour session of D&D or Pathfinder you could get through an entire Adventure, store the built decks in the box, and pick up where you left off at a later time with the next adventure in the Path. Because the Adventure is randomized and there are different ways to build the character descks, replayability is high even using the same two adventures that come in the box.

Some vague guidelines are given in the rulebook for developing your own characters and Adventures, but no rigorous rules; it’ll take some expereince to get the balance and feel right, and there is support from online communities for doing this kind of modding.

At $60 for the Base Set and $20 each for the Character Add-On and additional Adventure decks, plus additional accessories if you want them, the buy-in price is fairly high… but as I mentioned above, you can get a pretty good amount of play even just out of the Base Set, you can play it even solitaire, and it’s entertainment dollars well-spent, in my opinion.

The final installment for the first PFACG campaign is due out in June. The next product will be a whole new Base Set and campaign based on the pirate-themed Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. If you’re going all-in on the game I do recommend adding some extra dice to your set. It’s likely that a lot of potential players will have those laying around anyway. And if you’re also into Pathfinder or another fantasy tabletop RPG that likes playing with minitaures, you might think about picking up the Pathfinder Pawns NPC Codex Box, which contains 300+ heavy cardstock standups that include the eleven iconic characters from Pathfinder, the same ones used in the card game. Using the standup Pawns is more fun and tactile than using the token cards that come with the Base Set and Add-On Deck.

Before the Empire

My extant version of the Arashálinu Enáthaga began with the first Emperor and only briefly mentioned Alénach, who had arisen as the leader of the White Alliance before the Empire’s founding. Nevertheless the early history of the Dhéruhir is fairly well-detailed in my archives, with an account of the migrations of the then-nomadic Laghá into the region, their assimilation of the Vádzh already living their, and the development of city-states and in time a loose alliance to ward off incursions by still-barbaric tribes dwelling to the west.

It seems to me that the chroniclers would not have started their account cold, as it were, especially given that the dynastic history was begun a century or two after the Founding, and was likely intended to be a history of the Empire to that point. So I’ve written a prologue along with additional Editor’s Notes which I may well expand at a later time.

Long years before the Empire the Laghá came to the lands of the Dhéruhir from the west and brought with them the faith of Kórbrak. They settled among the lands of the Vádzh, and soon they were one people. They grew millet and wheat after the manner of the Vádzh, and their numbers swelled, and soon they built cities where all manner of tradesfolk might gather behind high walls in safety. Yet to the west there were still the unlettered tribes of the Laghá who were called the Rekóna, with whom they warred. The great chief Hásteka led the western clans against all the cities, and Verékha and Henésta fell to them. So the Lords of the cities made the league which is called the White Alliance, and defeated the western tribes on the banks of the Menúr. Yet Hásteka fled and lived many years yet, often raiding in force though he feared to come once more against the whole army of the Alliance with his sworn tribes, so the Alliance endured for three generations.

In the last of these arose Alénach, a man of Dravá, and he became most prominent among the Lords of the cities, and the other Lords were coerced to do his bidding, lest all fall to the Rekóna, among whom yet another chief had arisen who thought to weld all the tribes into a great horde. It was Alénach who led the armies of the Alliance against the tribes, and in a campaign of six years subdued them and forced them to submit to the will of Dravá, yet not to the Alliance. After this none could gainsay him, and he set about gathering all powers to himself in Dravá, which had grown to be largest and mightiest of the cities of the Dhéruhir.

Editor’s Notes

There are reasons to think that the transition between the loose mutual defense league called the White Alliance (for so it seems in the fragmentary records available) was not so abrupt as the tale in the Arashálinu Enáthaga would seem to imply. But records of that time are extremely scarce and have often been subject to revisionism and reinterpretation over the centuries, and a full account of the theories of historians of that age is beyond the scope of this work.

What can be known is that the people of the cities of the Dhéruhir (the claw-shaped peninsula that juts out from the eastern Surathan coast into the Luésh Alén (the “Green Waters” in Draványa, called the Sea of Doorways by many other peoples living on its shores,) were literate from at least BF 200, and possibly earlier. It is thought that the migrating Laghá and the indigenous Vádzh formed a unique cultural union to which the Laghá brought a warrior ethos and cultural pride and the Vádzh instilled agriculture, literacy and many other endowments of civilization.

D&D5 For Free

And then there arose an interesting development regarding the D&D5E Starter Set and its suitability as a stand-alone game system for long-term play. There is, as always, good news and bad news.

It’s always my habit to drop the bad news first, so here goes. At this point the Starter Set appears to be what it says on the tin: levels 1-5 and a canned adventure or two (Mearls says “campaign.”) Very similar to the kind of introductory sets we’ve seen since the cancellation of the BECMI line. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that can keep people playing for all that long, although the components might well be useful later on.

The good news, though, is a biggie, spilled by Mike Mearls early this morning. Alongside the 5E rollout we’re going to see a product called Basic Dungeons & Dragons, which will be distributed as a free PDF. It will contain the four core classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard, and will include the Halfling, Elf, Dwarf and Human races. And levels 1-20. Mike compared it to the Rules Cyclopedia, with the three D&D5 core books being the equivalent of AD&D.

As new “storylines” (which I read as “modules”) are released, there will be PDFs of any extra material not already in basic D&D but needed to run the adventure, also for free. So the guts of D&D will be available entirely for free in a presumably accessible and newbie-ready format, along with at least some de facto supplimentary material as time goes on.

Another implication is also that 5E adventures in general will be more or less fully BD&D compatible, eliminating any need for a separate line of support products (although it’s kind of getting that anyway.)

This is the kind of introductory version of the game that I was talking about the other day. We’ll see how lean it is when it releases, but it sounds very promising, and as a number of the retro-clones show, you can fit a lot of game into a relatively low page count. As Mearls says, it could provide “a lifetime of gaming.”

The fact that it’s free is important but the whole thing sings to me of a bravura marketing move. It should drive sales of both the supplementary products and the core books. If compatibility with pre-4E editions is high enough (and I think it will be, by and large) it will drive sales of legacy PDF material through D& The price of zero dollars combined with D&D’s brand recognition will lower the entry barrier to the whole hobby. And it will be an attractive option for those of us who want to play D&D and prefer that it be the current, supported version, but who would rather use a rule set simpler than the whole 5E enchilada, or say 3.5 or Pathfinder. If it’s good enough and clean enough it might even win over some of the asthmatic old geezers of the OSR.

D&D is sort of free already, of course. The 3.x SRD is still out there, not to mention the Pathfinder version. That particular Efreet is out of its bottle and can’t be put back in. But 3.x is a pretty damned complex game, and the SRD is not at all a rookie-friendly delivery system for it.

Now, there are still questions. Will Basic D&D release at the same time as the Starter Set, as Mike’s post seems to me to imply? Will there be a print edition of any kind? How will the licensing conditions for BD&D differ from those of balls-out 5E, if at all? Will there even be licensing, or will WotC contract out design work like they’re doing with the initial range of adventures? Of such questions are future blog posts made.

An Expanded Starter Set?

In a follow-up to yesterday’s post, check out this What If from Tenkar’s Tavern. While this is obviously not confirmed, Erik’s reasoning is believable. Extending the Starter Set rules to 15th level makes sense in this context, and would go a long way toward making it a fully playable, simplified iteration of D&D in its own right, even without any other supporting materials.

The D&D5 Starter Set: Complete or Crippleware?

The venerable Tobold wrote a response to last week’s article on the D&D Next reveal, in which he disagreed with me. At least he says he did; after several passes through his most excellent article I’m not sure I see where.

Tobold says that D&D4 is a great game. I agree. He says that it might have been better titled something like “D&D Tactics.” With that I emphatically agree. Indeed, I think D&D4’s biggest failure was one of branding. Had it been produced as its own distinct line with some iteration closer to the D&D mainstream still in production, many of the ill feelings surrounding it might have been avoided. Tobold says we need a true introductory product, and that neither D&D4 or D&D3.x are very good for that; with that I agree as well. Tobold actually seems to disagree more with Wizards of the Coast rather than my piece. However, had I elaborated on a few points perhaps we’d have found more fertile ground for battle.

Moldvay BasicIt seems to me that Tobold’s position rests on the presumption that the upcoming D&D Starter Set will not be a good introductory product for new players, and he gives several reasons for thinking so. He may be correct; as he rightly points out, WotC has never successfully managed this. The danger in releasing such a product with the aim of drawing new players into the hobby is that such a product will be, essentially, crippleware, good for an evening or two of introductory play but then essentially mandating a step up to the “advanced” rules. Oddly, the introductory set that Tobold points to as a superior example was, to my recollection, exactly that — a hobbled game designed explicitly to drive players to AD&D, and containing only enough material for a few evenings of play at best. But perhaps he’s only talking about the price point and quality of components, whcih did land in a sweet spot.

Mentzer BasicWe have many questions about D&D5, chiefly about its method of delivery rather than the rules themselves, most of which have been in circulation for quite a while. The one to which Tobold spoke the other day and to which I am writing today is one of the bigger ones yet unanswered, whether the new D&D Starter Set will be a complete game in its own right. Tobold presumes no; I think it’s too soon to say, but I see his reasons for concern. Since my article was published I’ve learned that the D&D5 Starter Set will not contain character creation rules, a worrying sign. Those rules will, however, be made available online, for free. Personally, I would say that the level 5 cap isn’t as important as it might appear. The old D&D Basic Set (pictured in both its incarnations) only gave you three levels, and from personal experience you could get quite a lot of play out of those three levels before you felt obliged to step up to the accompanying Expert Set, and with that accessory you could basically play forever. But the assumptions underlying the speed of character progression were very different back then, and if you were listening to Gary Gygax’s advice on the subject you could spend months playing before your characters were in danger of reaching level 4. Not that everyone adhered to that, even Gary from what I hear.

Ideally, the D&D Starter Set would contain a complete RPG (even if character creation is shunted into some online document,) simpler than the full D&D5 rules, that would be suited to introducing new players to both the game and the hobby. Especially youngsters. And it would be supported by at least a few of its own adventures, and an add-on kit that would enable play through, say, level 10 or 15, while keeping the overall complexity level in keeping with what’s in the Starter Set. You could play forever with that. But I have no indication thus far that such a line of support products is planned, and indeed I strongly suspect that it isn’t. Then again, a great deal depends on WotC’s licensing plans for 5E. It may be that they’ll be open enough to allow some intrepid third party publisher to produce exactly that.

Tobold and I appear to have no substantial disagreements insofar as the points made in our respective posts. We do disagree as to the potential merits of D&D5 in general, but that’s a discussion I am unwilling to have until the actual products are released and in my hands. There is also, however, a matter of design and/or marketing philosophy that I may feel obliged to expound upon later in the week.

D&DNext Incoming

This week Wizards of the Coast announced the release schedule for the new edition of D&D, titled simply “Dungeons & Dragons” but referred to by all as D&D5 or D&DNext. My feeds and social media have been choked with the traffic ever since.

Some have squawked about the pricing, at US $50 per core book. The new price is a bit over four times what I paid for a Player’s Handbook in 1982, but it’s for a book with almost three times the page count and in full color. And the dollar ain’t what it used to be. Talk to your congresscritter about that.

Some have whined about the staggered release schedule, invariably in the same breath. In addition to the stated reason of giving the publisher better control over quality (as good a reason as any,) it also lets the consumer buy the new books on release without having to dump $150 all at once. Those of us with families and mortages can appreciate this, but even the youngsters should be able to appreciate spreading their money over three months.

There’s also the $20 starter set, which we’re assured will provide a complete (albeit low-level) experience by itself, without neccessarily forcing people to buy the full rules. D&D has needed such a product for many years, as the success of the Pathfinder Beginner Box suggests, and every effort since the demise of the BECMI line has fallen on its ass.

Some have questioned WotC’s marriage to the traditional three-volume presentation of the rules, citing Pathfinder as an example of how everything can be crammed into one volume. In answer I will point out that Pathfinder’s single rule book a) includes no bestiary and b) is awkward as fuck both at the table and durng GM prep. I much prefer the bulk of the rules to be presented in a player’s book with GM reference material in a separate volume where it can be presented in its proper level of detail. I question whether anyone who thinks folding all this into one 600+ page volume is a good idea has ever actually played this game.

Nota Bene: There are plenty of RPGs that can fit everything into one volume. But any such game, even a version of D&D, is going to be something less mechanically rigorous than any iteration of D&D 3.x. Call of Cthulhu would be one well-respected example.

Some have called the announced product covers boring and unevocative. Me, I like the art but will agree with Fred Hicks’ commentary over on G+ that the trade dress seems flaccid. That kind of thing is Fred’s business, so I’d be inclined to take his word for it even if I didn’t see it myself.

Some have questioned “whether we need a new edition of D&D.” The answer is obviously that “we” don’t. “We” are by definition the existing audience, with a plethora of different incarnations of D&D rules to choose from already. Some of us have been happily playing a favored edition for years or even decades. There’s no reason for someone in such a position to buy into a new edition. There never has been.

But the world needs a new edition of D&D, and always does. It needed a new edition back in 2008, and it got one: it’s WotC’s misfortune (if you like) that it was published by somebody else. We need something that’s going to keep bringing new players into the hobby, something 4E probably didn’t end up being very good at. Although anecdotally it seems to me like it brought a lot of people who’d long sworn off D&D in favor of other RPGs back into the D&D fold, 3.0 also did that without poisoning the atmosphere quite so badly.

Now, one of the initial stated goals of D&D5 (then D&DNext) was to unify the editions by being totally modular. So you couild have a fighter with 4E-style combat powers co-existing in the same game as an AD&D1E-style Magic-User, for example. Absolutely nothing that I have seen or heard about the actual mechanics suggests that the designers succeeded at this, and indeed this particular talking point got walked back long ago. I suspect that any design attempting to make fans of 4E and previous editions equally happy is doomed to fail. But this doesn’t mean that D&D5 will be rotten. The most damning thing I have heard about it lately is simply that it’s uninteresting.

Which actually is pretty damning, when you think about it. But the time is ripe to step into a new edition and put the divisiveness that characterized the 4E era behind us. And WoTC has been taking some smart, positive steps of late. The owners of D&D not even trying to make all fans of D&D their customers is spectacularly dumb, but that’s just what they’d been doing for years. The decision to reprint classic core books and sell PDFs of all editions of D&D via D&DClassics/DriveThruRPG/RPGNow was therefore huge, and signals that WotC is at the very least taking fans of every edition seriously.

I have no particular horse in the D&D5 race. I saw some of the earlier playtest draft material and wasn’t terribly impressed by it, but a big part of that was the unenviable situation WotC had placed themselvs in with regard to any new D&D edition by departing so radically with precedent.

Personally, I think D&D4 is very well-designed and worth playing. What I and a lot of people took issue with was that the D&D brand carries with it a set of associations built up over the last 40 years. Some of these associations are thematic, some are mechanical and some of them have grown up in the culture that surrounds the game. D&D4 tried to make a clean mechanical break with the past, fixing some long-festering apparent issues and implementing a number of improvements (which it does,) but in the process it severed thematic and cultural ties to older editions. This left many oldsters like myself feeling left adrift, like the D&D that WotC was publishing wasn’t created for them anymore.

While the edition wars are nothing new (I’ve been seeing this kind of bile since the Usenet days,) the controversy of D&D4 helped the rifts between fans of the different editions become deeper and more venomous. I’ve seen a reasonable case made that this is an inevitable result of an aging hobby, and thus 4E was just the catalyst. Perhaps this is so. Or perhaps WotC just bungled the introduction and post-launch development of D&D4 that badly; there’s a reasonable case to be made there as well.

Even so, the partition of D&D’s audience has not lacked an upside. D&D3.x survives and indeed thrives in a new incarnation as Pathfinder. Fans of older editions can find retro-clones to suit any taste from straight White Box D&D to Rules Cyclopedia to AD&D 2nd Edition, with everything in between. Most of these rule sets are avaialble in some form for free online. The so-called “Old School Renaissance” is alive and kicking vigorously, with top-quality products like Castle of the Mad Archmage, Barrowmaze and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. At the same time, storygamers who felt alienated by the mechanically baroque 3.x found themselves enjoying 4E or its ill-gotten bastard, Dungeon World. And D&D reached new hights of exposure through appearances on mass-media phenomena like Community and Big Bang Theory. Forbes and the Wall Street Journal reported on the death of Gary Gygax, for heaven’s sake, and D&D5’s release announcement got picked up the the New York Times and CNN.

One could make a case, especially considering a booming Pathfinder a part of the umbrella “D&D hobby,” that we’re in, or are about to enter, a new golden age of D&D. It has visibility and social acceptance far in excess of any time in the past. It would be tough to sell that to the OSR crowd, it’s true. But D&D5, especially if the starter set is as strong as reports indicate, could catalyze a new generation of players getting away from the video games and sitting around a table amid piles of spent Mountain Dew cans and bags of Cheetos. Imagine that.

My prospects for actually playing D&D5 aren’t all that great. But I’ll buy the starter set in July, and I’ll surely own the other core books sooner rather than later. I’m upbeat about the whole thing.