Sunday, June 30, 2019

Test Run

Played some Caverns  & Cowboys last night with the guys on Hangouts/Roll20. There were a few minor issues, but mostly Dean, Jeremy and Ken had a positive reaction to the game.

There was a little bit of confusion with the different ability scores from D&D standard. I've based the system on the Star Frontiers d% system, so the ability scores and their abbreviations can get confusing. For example, in SF there is an ability abbreviated INT but it stands for Intuition, not Intelligence. LOG (Logic) is closer to D&D Int. Also, PER is Personality, but they kept assuming it was Perception.

Char gen is fairly easy as far as ability scores and skill selection, but buying equipment was the thing that slowed it down. Dean missed having "ready pack" options like in 4E and 5E D&D, so I may come up with some suggestions for that. Jeremy just copy/pasted my sample character's gear then added a few things he wanted, so that was fairly fast for him. Ken is a bit of an Old West history buff, so he was pleased to see the wide selection of gear available.

Anyway, Dean's suggestion of some sample starting packs would be a good idea to help people get into the game faster. Also, Ken (who played a doctor) noticed that I forgot to put medical kits and laudanum and other period medicines on the list. To be added. I should make sure other skill sets that need tools/equipment have them available as well.

The big departure from Star Frontiers is the magic system I cobbled together. I did some research on period mystical/magical belief systems (Jeremy appreciated this level of setting detail) and came up with some appropriate magical traditions. Using the SF skill system of one skill with discrete subskills as a package, each magical tradition is a skill and each spell is a subskill. They improve in potency as you level up the magical skill. Dean took Mesmerism as one of his starting skills, and put it to good use with a seance to gather information and later hypnotism to pacify a villain. So far, it didn't seem broken. The other traditions, and magic skills at medium to high level play still need to be tested, though.

The combat system worked well (I knew from Star Frontiers that it should). Chances to hit for beginning characters are low and there are more negative modifiers to attacks than positives, so there was a lot of missing by both sides. Dean was a bit put off by this at first, but since Ken and Jeremy were commenting on how this was more like a real firefight, where lots of bullets do miss unless you're really close to your target, Dean got on board with it. I know from experience that once those combat skills get up to around 3 or 4, combat gets a lot easier.

The scenario I ran them through was a simple one. Sheriff Bart of the town of Justice asked them to go to the smaller town of Liberty nearby and run off some bandits who had taken over the town. After a bit of haggling over the reward, they set out and on the way were ambushed by blink coyotes (blink dogs from D&D of course). They had trouble hitting the blink dogs, and took a lot of small bites. Finally, they wounded enough of the blink coyotes that the creatures decided to find easier prey and vanished. The party decided to head back to town to hire some extra guns to take on the bandits.

In town, Dean's character Schmitt performed his seance to contact a victim of the bandits and get some intel. They each also hired a rifleman to accompany them. When they got to Liberty, there were four bandits guarding a bridge over a creek south of town. They spotted the bandits, the bandits spotted them. Both sides took cover, and one bandit ran into town to alert the others. The firefight was fairly long, as I mentioned above, lots of missed shots (mostly due to range and cover penalties to hit). After five or six rounds the bandit leader, an ogre, appeared and charged across the bridge to attack with its spiked club. They did a good amount of damage to the ogre, but it nearly killed one of their hired guns before Schmitt could hypnotize it to sleep. Then, Sam (the hired gun of Jeremy's character Hezekiah) managed to roll a 01 and 02 to hit, which are knock-out rolls in the system. So two of the three bandits went down the same round as the ogre boss. The final bandit surrendered, and the other bandits carousing in town fled to the wilderness when they got the news.

When the ogre woke up, they questioned him (with a bit more hypnosis to make him talkative) and found their lair was a cave outside town. After securing the ogre with chains in a root cellar, they set out and found the lair, getting just over $1000 in silver coins, a potion, and a magic wand. On Hezekiah's orders, Sam drank the potion (the order was drink, not sip! Jeremy had maybe a little too much whiskey as we played!) and so had clairvoyance for an hour with nothing to view. :D Back in town, the sheriff of Justice arrived with a Justice of the Peace and they gave the ogre his trial, found him guilty, and hung him by his neck until he was dead.

So the scenario I sorta whipped up out of next to nothing worked well, and since the players were into the idea of D&D with Western trappings, it seemed to work out well. I think this little game has some promise.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Had a good session today

In my West Marches game today, the players really took control and directed the game. And I had more laughs during the session that I've had in a while.

First, they debated following up an old rumor or just trying to explore some blank hexes. They decided to explore, but thought they should go back to town first (they had camped at an abandoned elven tree-fort which they reclaimed last session). Back in town, they got a new rumor which intrigued them. After more discussion, they decided to follow up the old rumor after all.

This brought them back to the Caves of Chaos. They cleared out the "Shunned Cave" (the gray oozes had already been destroyed by a previous party, so it was just the owlbear and some random giant rats to deal with). Because of some wounds, they decided to return to town AGAIN.

Then they returned to the Caves and explored the bugbear cave (which one of the players and his daughter, who didn't come today had partially explored before). They did a bit more exploration, managed to weaken the bugbear forces, and freed some prisoners. Thanks to a random comment from one of the players, the captured orcs in the bugbear prison turned out to be some of the orcs they had ransomed and released in the retaking of the elf stronghold in the last session.

They're hoping to sew division among the mysterious Horned Society. Warduke, first leader of the Caves of Chaos, was slain by a previous party, but a new leader is again trying to organize the caves. They also know there are two other Horned Society leaders, Kelek and Lareth. They're name dropping both to try and get the factions in-fighting.

I really like how this current group of players like to play. Makes running the game so much more entertaining for me.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fantasy Wimmelbilderbucher

Way back in April, Noisms was talking about wimmelbilderbucher, or books with lots of little details that you can pour over to find interesting things, like most Richard Scarry Busytown books, or the Where's Waldo (Wally) series of books. And he was wondering why there aren't fantasy themed books like this for adults.

I don't know. But today I picked up one for kids. Here are some pictures from it (taken with my phone, so not the best quality).
The Cover. Monsterland

The first few spreads introduce and name all of the monsters.

The rest of the book are spreads like these, with certain monsters to find on each page.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gateway by Frederik Pohl - Campaign Idea

I picked up Gateway, a short sci-fi novel by Frederik Pohl, at the local library. I'm almost finished with it, and I've been thinking of how well it would work as the framework of a sci-fi RPG campaign.

The 100% accurate but completely gives the wrong impression of the book synopsis is: An AI psychiatrist treats a patient's PTSD.

Doesn't sound like a fun campaign, does it? I'd rather not play some sort of PTSD story-game. Instead, I'd take the story framework for how the guy got his PTSD and use that.

So some time in the future, Earth is a wreck. Overpopulation and rampant capitalism have destroyed the environment. The ultra-rich live in domed cities and have "full medical" which includes all sorts of treatments, organ replacements, etc. The VAST majority of humans subsist. Our hero grows up in the Nebraska food mines. They mine the shale oil and use it as food to grow bio-film which is then processed into food. But luck strikes and he wins the lottery.

Some time ago (in the story), colonists on Venus found an alien spacecraft. The guy who finds it manages to fly it, and it takes him to an asteroid orbiting the sun perpendicular to the plane of the celestial equator, which has been hollowed out with tunnels half a million years ago by aliens called the Heechee. This asteroid also has a thousand or so of their ships docked there.

It's possible to get the Heechee craft to fly, and they go FTL. But it's impossible to know where you're going. It flies on auto-pilot, there and back. Prospectors roll the dice, select a random destination, and head out to the stars. If they get lucky, they find a Heechee ruin and can bring back artifacts. No one knows what they are or what they do, but the Corporation will pay thousands or even millions of dollars for discoveries. Our hero wins the lottery, becomes a prospector, things he witnesses warp his already warped brain (the hellish life in the food mines already sent him to a year of psychotherapy as a teen). And now, as a rich successful former prospector, he lives a luxurious life of wine, women, and psychotherapy in the dome of NYC.

Great concept for a campaign. Stars Without Number would be a great system for this. I've never played Traveller, but it might work well, too, from what I've read about it. Something heavy and crunchy like StarFinder or Palladium could work too, of course, but if the campaign went all out with destinations that could have been safe half a million years ago but now are inside a red giant star or whatever, PC replacements might often be necessary.

I'd also want to increase the chances of finding artifacts, but reduce the reward amounts for finding them. As a story, the rarity of the Heechee artifacts is needed for dramatic tension. The protagonist spends a lot of time on Gateway (the asteroid launching area) fretting over whether he should actually go out on a mission or not. For a game, having players make PCs, go on a mission or two and find nothing, then get a dangerous planet or hazardous system and they just die would not be very fun.

It's mainly the idea of setting out on an alien craft to a random unknown destination that I like. I can imagine a d% table of system types, and then let the players roll the dice to see where they end up. Once they get there, they'd need to examine the system, find any celestial bodies with ruins, then search them for artifacts. Or if there are planets with life, or systems with unusual stars (pulsars, black holes, former supernovas, etc.) they could go for "science bonus" money instead of or in addition to artifact bounties.

Could be fun! But I'm still working on Caverns & Cowboys, so this idea will have to sit on the back burner for a while.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Caverns & Cowboys

This is an idea for a game I've had for a long time now. And apparently I discussed it mostly on G+ instead of here on the blog. I did a search of the posts here, and only found a few mentions of it.

So what is Caverns & Cowboys? Not hard to guess. It's a Western themed game, but also a fantasy dungeon crawling game. Or that was the original idea. I'd thought maybe run it with a combination of Go Fer Yer Gun (or later Tall Tales RPG) mixed with Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D.

I even made this map as a bit of a trial at a Wild West setting that isn't part of our real world. Did I share this map before? Maybe. I know I shared it on G+ a few years ago (the image file shows I made it in 2017).
Anyway, I let the idea go for along time. Now I'm back on it. Only not using a D&D style OSR game.

A few weeks ago, I started adapting the Star Frontiers rules for a fantasy Western.

Why Star Frontiers? Well, for one thing it's a skill/level based system rather than a class/level based one. The skill system allows more flexibility to create characters that cover lots of different archetypes.

In SF, and in C&C (this iteration of it anyway), you gain a handful of XP each game session, and a few more when you complete an adventure. Then you can spend them to improve your character's base ability scores and skill levels. You can add new skills easily just by spending a few XP if you want, or you can save up to level up your existing skills.

SF has Military, Technological, and Psycho-Social skill areas. I have Interaction, Combat, and Magic skill areas. Yes, instead of Vancian magic, I'm going with magic as a skill. The spells are your subskills, and you have a limited number of spell points to use to cast spells. Gaining levels in the magic skills increases the potency of the spells but not the cost. There aren't really many flashy spells like lightning bolt or fireball, though. I tried to go with 19th century thematic magic types.

Interaction skills run the gamut from cowboy to lawman to doctor to engineer to criminal. I've got the most skills here (although Combat skills have quite a few as well). And while SF makes Military skills the cheapest to learn/advance, I've made Interaction skills the cheapest.

I've also converted a lot of monsters. I took the list from Holmes Basic. I removed a few (for IP or thematic reasons), and added some more (for thematic reasons).

I just need to get the rules for awarding XP and for placing treasure/monetary rewards written up, and I'll be ready to start play testing it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Traps: Are We Thinking About Them Wrong?

Recent discussion on Alexis's Tao of D&D blog seemed to relate to my recent post defending the labyrinthine dungeon layout used in many RPGs and video games. Alexis was writing about the treasure. Why is the treasure guarded in the dungeon? In his experience, his players, when they acquire vast treasures themselves, don't start constructing a trap/monster filled labyrinth in order to keep their funds safe.

I'll quote my response to Alexis and his response to me in full:

Dennis Laffey said...
I'm not sure if you read my recent post on my blog where I criticize a YouTuber for saying dungeons are stupid or not, but this post seems similar to it. The YouTuber was of the opinion that most dungeons should be the place where the BBEG keeps all his stuff. I disagree. And with regards to your point here, so does history.

Most royal treasuries, from my limited historical knowledge of the subject, were not secreted away in underground vaults guarded by traps and soldiers day and night.

And most secreted underground treasure hoards were not "someone's stuff." At least, not the stuff of anyone still alive. The treasures were grave goods interred with some king or other dignitary. Or were lost or buried in some natural disaster.

For most dungeons, the monsters really shouldn't have been placed specifically as guardians. The treasure was there, and the monsters decided that was a good place to move in after the people who buried the treasure there (or lost it) moved on.

Of course, why all the traps? That's still only logical in tombs, as they would be installed to deter grave robbers. In a lost city that was buried by an earthquake or swallowed by the sea but later belched back out again, all the traps don't really make sense.
Alexis Smolensk said...
Yes, why all the traps?

I've had player characters set up lairs for themselves. They do not fill these lairs with traps. Why do the monsters?
Why do the monsters build so many traps in the dungeons?

My question is actually, do monsters build the traps?

In the real world, where are traps encountered? Tombs such as the Egyptian pyramids and other pharaonic tombs sometimes had them. The tomb of Chinese emperor Qin (where the terra cotta army is) is suspected to have more treasures in it protected by traps. These days, though, we don't usually bury people with grave goods, so there's not much need for traps.

We do have other sorts of traps, though. Modern security systems include alarms and cameras (which are trap adjacent) and things like auto-locking doors or gates that close upon an alarm being triggered (which I would consider as actual traps). But these sorts of traps aren't everywhere. You see them in banks, high end jewelry stores, wealthy peoples' houses, and other places where there are things of value. Cameras and alarms have become much more common, though. Electrified fencing could also be seen as a form of trap, I suppose, keeping people out of (or in) a certain area.

Also, in war, we use land mines, and sometimes guerilla forces use things like tiger traps (think Viet Cong) or the like. In general, we have decided that people don't deserve to be peppered with poison darts or threatened with decapitating sweeping blades for trying to knock off a jewelry store, so these sorts of traps that threaten death and injury seem to be limited to war zones.

According to the random dungeon placement algorithm in BX/BECMI D&D, one in six rooms not containing a planned encounter should be a trap. That's a lot of traps. I know, because I used that for my megadungeon.

I also have been using it for hexes in my West Marches game. But in a wilderness, a trap doesn't often make sense. Sure, there are a few locations that are basically a big trap. But for the most part, I interpret "trap" as a hazard. So pools of parasite infected water, lava flows, quicksand, rock fall hazards, and the like.

I think a lot of dungeons should be designed this way, too. We don't need to be limited in our imagination to pit traps and darts and the like (although that's fine, especially since these sorts of traps are pulpy fun). But "trap" can also mean just a hazard. The natural disaster that ruined the ancient city caused the walls, roof, or ceiling to be weak in this area, and may collapse. Crystals in the cave wall may reflect your lantern light back in your eyes and blind you. A room's acoustics may be such that monsters in another area will hear you and prepare an ambush.

Thinking outside the box, even a set of natural caves can easily have "traps" and yes, I'd allow a Thief or Dwarf to use their detect/disarm abilities to bypass the hazards, if they roll well.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Chanbara Paper Player Character minis

Right now, you can get a set of 44 Chanbara themed adventurers from my Fold-Up Paper Models series. It's available on DriveThruRPG at my Hidden Treasure Books store.

The ebook contains 4 each of the playable types in the game. And I don't just mean 4 for each class. No, it's 4 for each profile. You get Abarenbo, Kensei, Samurai, Onmyoji, Sohei, Kagemusha, Ninja, Soryo, , and Yamabushi.

And all for the low low price of $1.50.

Edit: ever have one of those nights when you're starting to doze off while writing and something nonsensical makes it out? Yeah, had one of those when writing this post last night. :D Trust me, the paper minis were completed before I started nodding off. They're fine! Sleepy me just thought it would be a good idea to write a post to promote them before going to bed.

To the Mountain's Heart

To the Mountain's Heart
Being an Excerpt from the Journal of Jack Summerisle, Paladin and Green Knight of the Eldeen Reaches, concerning his adventures with his companions various and sundry as they seek the Heart of the Mountain, moving from the Hollow World of Pellucidar back towards the Overworld of Eberron, in a quest to awaken the Heart of the Mountain and defeat the Ghoul King.

We pressed on into the bowels of the Temple, going down many flights of stairs, and passing under the surface. It boggles the mind to think that we are in truth headed up when we do so. We have been in the hidden world of Pellucidar for so long now seeking this very temple.

Within the temple, we first encountered a chamber with a large altar made of piled stone. Three guardian creatures, made of stone but resembling the creatures known as dinosaurs here in Pellucidar, greeted us. They asked us to pledge ourselves to always battle the demons. This was an easy pledge for all of us to make, as we have already aligned ourselves to that cause.

The next chamber contained two giant suits of armor and two strange masks. The masks spoke to us, asking us to leave behind all worldly possessions. We refused, and the masks and armor animated, then attacked. We battled hard, and destroyed the spirits animating the items. Unfortunately in the battle, my armor was disintegrated by the touch of one of the giant suits. Fortunately, after the battle, the very same suit of winged armor that I was battling changed its size down to fit my body, and I now wear it. I am struggling to learn how to operate the wings, but I get the feeling that I will have the hang of it soon.

The third chamber contained another alter and three stone bird creatures. They demanded that we each impart some of our vital life force and experiences, to become more like children in order to pass. Again, we refused, and battle took place. We were victorious.

The fourth chamber was ornate, with numerous artistic wall carvings and inscriptions. There were five strange vessels on or near the altar, making strange noises. While some companions were stunned by the sounds from the vases, Pelar the Blade-Singer poured sand in one to mute its insane mumblings. I inspected the altar and found that a second pledge, this time against the Far Realm, was needed. I of course quickly pledged, as the Greensinger sect is already dedicated to just that. Other companions followed suit, although it took much effort to get Jade to commit, as he was entranced by the mumblings.

As we take a quick break to rest up and catch our breath, Yuv, with his legendary lore, informed us that beyond the next door should be the final altar. Could it also be the home of the mountains? We shall see.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Another Defense of the Dungeon in D&D

Another video I watched from Shadiversity on Youtube is discussing why the standard, labyrinthine dungeon of gaming is unrealistic and impractical. Go ahead and watch it if you like.

Now, I don't disagree with any of the reasoning Shad puts forth for why a typical dungeon in RPGs and video games is unrealistic. Not necessarily in the order presented in the video, just the order I remembered them:

1. It's poor architectural design. Good design should make it easy to get from place to place. Dungeons are designed to force you to go through choke-points.
2. There's often a secret passage for the "boss" that you won't find until you've reached the inner sanctum, but if you could find it early would save you a lot of trouble.
3. It's poor defensive strategy to split your defenses among a lot of separate areas when the goal is to protect a centralized treasure vault.
4. Carving out an underground tunnel system is a lot of work, making it larger than necessary is wasted effort.

All very good points. If your goal is to make your game more "realistic" to improve suspension of disbelief, and these sorts of things are things that you can't suspend your disbelief of, then yes, super logically laid out fortresses with easy ways to get straight to the end, and concentrated defenses where they will do the most good are the way to go.

And Shad does mention several times that he understands that dungeons are this way in order to facilitate game play. Good for him. And his idea towards the end of designing a rational, realistic fortress and letting players design their own plan of attack like a heist or caper movie plot can be fun, but I wouldn't want this all the time.

I've already given a pretty good reason why an underground labyrinth might logically exist a few years ago, so I'll let that post stand as a rebuttal to #4. If you don't want to click the link, I compare a map of the Mark Twain Cave, created by nature, to a typical dungeon layout.

For the idea that it's a poor defensive strategy to spread out your defenders, well, yes, maybe. But in most fantasy worlds, there will be wizards casting fireballs and ice storms and whatnot. Put ALL the monsters in one big room, and that handful of area affect spells the wizard has are suddenly a LOT more powerful. It's much better to get the twenty orcs, three ogres, two owlbears AND the blue dragon in one fireball than to have to decide to use it on only one of these groups of monsters.

If you were a BBEG, would you really want to put all your monsters/soldiers in one area where more than half could be wiped out by one fireball? In the real world, would you station all of your soldiers where they could be targeted by one artillery shell or guided missile? Of course not. Grouping your forces may be a strong defense against a conventional attack with swords, bows and spears, but not against area-effect firepower.

When it comes to the secret passage that allows quick access to the end, I think it's actually a good thing. If players grumble because they didn't find it early on, well, that's either because they didn't look for it, looked in the wrong place, or the dice just weren't on their side this time. Finding and taking advantage of that secret passage is good game play. And he mentions computer games like Skyrim don't allow you to find it at all. That's on the game designers, not a fault of the dungeon itself.

Finally, we come to the first point on architectural design. Now, the occasional dungeon with a logical architectural design can be a good thing. A nice change of pace. I was thinking about making a dragon's lair dungeon with a long wide corridor from the entrance straight to the dragon's den for the foolhardy adventurers to rush to their doom. Side passages would be for servants, food storage, etc. I wouldn't want every dungeon to be this way, though.

I think Shad is missing out on a few key concepts besides just game-play factors. And yes, that is probably the main reason for the multi-room, labyrinthine dungeon layout. Finding the treasure is supposed to be the challenge of the game. But there are a few concepts that Shad seems to believe are important that may not be, or at least aren't always important. And I think he hints at one of the biggest reasons for a dungeon to be the way it usually is, but doesn't quite make the leap to realize its importance.

First of all, Shad puts a premium on realism. Understandable, as that's the whole point of his YouTube channel. Do research on historical arms and armor, then point out how fiction/film/games get it wrong. For me, anyway, I think that too much realism is just as shattering to the fiction of the RPG session as too little. Making everything realistic is impossible. We need game mechanics to elide features of reality that are just too difficult or unwieldy to use in a game.

I remember getting turned off of the PS2 game Metal Gear Solid 3 because of its attempts at "realism" that made things LESS realistic. In that game, when you were wounded, instead of the elegant but ridiculously unrealistic method of eating food to cure your wounds (tried and true in many games), you had to go into your equipment management screens and treat the wound the way a field medic would. Clean it, anesthetize the immediate area, use antiseptic, stitch the wound closed, more antiseptic, and bandaging. Realistic, right? But you could be in the middle of the boss fight, pause the action, perform minor field surgery on yourself, and then restart time and the boss is right where you left him. That threw me enough to ruin my suspension of disbelief, and then the hassle of needing to complete five or six steps when in previous games I had only one to solve the same problem made the game unfun and I never finished it. (Pretty sure I've posted about this before here on the blog, sorry for the repeat.)

The point is, trying to become more realistic in one area made the game even less realistic in another area.So there needs to be a proper balance between realism and elegance of mechanics.

Secondly, Shad seems to be around 30-ish, so I'd guess he probably started RPGs in the 3E era, or maybe 2E AD&D/White Wolf era. He seems to take a lot of things that were popular back then as a given for game design. He mentions several times that to him, a "dungeon" should be a villain's base and why would a villain want to have to go through the ogre's chamber and around the flaming flying dagger trap every time he wants to nip out for a coffee or a pizza?

My question for Shad is, why do you assume that every dungeon is some master villain's lair? Some dungeons are, yes. And they would be better off to at least conform somewhat to Shad's cries for realism in dungeon layout. But not every dungeon is a lair. Some are just caverns. Some are tombs. Some are treasure vaults. And some...well, we'll get to that in a moment. Not every dungeon should have a BBEG lurking at the end. Not every dungeon needs to be a livable space. That's not written anywhere in any D&D book I've ever read. In fact, several of them are explicit that most dungeons are NOT.

Finally, here's the part where Shad almost gets it, but not quite. He mentions, around the 12:15 mark, that illogical dungeons are almost set up as if it were designed as a challenge. That someone wants the adventurers to get the treasure, but only if they prove their worth. But why would someone do that? It's illogical! [Setting aside the fact that in the real world, that's exactly what DMs are doing!]

Enter the realm of the dungeon as mythic underground. Modern fantasy obviously had its roots in mythology. Tolkien, Anderson, Howard, Moorecock, Dunsany, Morris... Lots of early fantasy writers drew on mythology and transformed it. There are plenty of blogs out there about using the dungeon as a sort of otherworldly zone where mortals can challenge themselves and prove their heroic worth. And yes, it can be seen as a handwave to explain away things like why there are no orc babies or what do the dragons eat when there are no adventurers to snack on. But it also gives the game a sort of resonance and weight that can be very impressive and immersive for players.

If the dungeon is a mythical underworld, rather than part of the normal, real, rational world, then Shad's idea is exactly right. The dungeons exist, put there by the gods or the Cosmic Forces of Law and Chaos, or whatever explicitly as a challenge to would be heroes. Are you strong enough to overcome these monsters? Clever enough to avoid falling victim to the traps? Wise enough to navigate the maze of passages without depleting your resources? If so, then congratulations! You win the treasure!

As Shad mentions, any sane evil overlord would want to protect their wealth, not offer it up as a challenge for the worthy. But we've already established that Shad's preconception of a dungeon as primarily a BBEG lair is already clouding his judgment on this issue, and that's why he fails to make the cognitive leap to the mythic underworld concept.

If the dungeon is the setting for a Campbellian hero-journey, then of course it should be set out this way. Every choice of pathways is a lady-or-tiger dilemma. Every encounter is there to challenge one or more aspects of your character. And yes, it is purposefully created to be difficult but not impossible to succeed.

If, like Shad posits, all of your dungeons follow the strictures of good architecture, all are bases for some BBEG or another, and all are defended in the most logical way, you can never achieve this sort of mythic resonance in your sessions.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Movie Review - Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I went and saw this today. Here's what I thought about it.

First of all, was there cursing in the movie? Yes, a fair amount, including from the pre-teen daughter character. Parents be warned. [Because 'curse' is in my blog title, I get hits from parents wondering how much swearing is in the movie.]

I wasn't so impressed with Godzilla (2014). Kong: Skull Island (2017) was pretty fun, though. I was hoping this movie would be more in the vein of Kong, but instead it was more like Godzilla.

The plot revolving around the human characters was stupid, pointless, and terrible. Of course, you don't go to these kinds of movies for the human drama. But they wasted a lot of time on it for no payoff at the end. The main family's drama was cliche and the resolution was forced. Dr. Serizawa's plot was minimal. And they didn't give him an eye patch, again. What's up with that, Watanabe Ken? If Samuel L. Jackson can rock the eye patch in the MCU, you could do it too! Zhang Ziyi's character(s) are hinted at having a plot arc, maybe in the next movie. [And I didn't even recognize that it was her...I had such a crush on her 20 years ago circa Crouching Tiger/House of Flying Daggers.]

The monster plot? It's actually better. Dead simple, but better than what they came up with for the humans. But we don't get to see enough of it. And that's what we come to these movies for! Pacific Rim gave us lots of giant robots punching giant monsters. And monsters punching back. Here? We get lots of quick cuts to fights and long cuts away to the humans. I'd definitely have edited this thing differently. Or was the CGI too expensive? There's something to be said about guys in big rubber suits...

Anyway, the fact that it did have a big monster tag-team battle at the end made it better than Godzilla (2014), but a lot worse than Kong: Skull Island.

I'd advise you to wait for streaming/rental service to watch it. The critics are right, it's not quite a dud, but I left the movie theater not really feeling excited or satisfied by it.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Response to Esper the Bard's 5E Class Rankings

I mentioned a few posts ago that this YouTube video rating the 5E classes was worthy of a response. While I've moved away from 5E as a DM, I still enjoy it as a player, so I think it's worth my time to consider what Esper thinks, why he thinks it, and point out where I agree or disagree with him.

First of all, here's the link to his video. Feel free to watch it now and come back here, or read this first and then watch his video (or alternate between the two!) as you like.

My first impression of his video was one of mild annoyance. First off, he has his tiers of ranking based on Guns n Roses songs which is fair enough. But his decision of where each class goes on that tier system is vague. He has a rating system with five criteria for evaluation. But he NEVER explains what these are. The first sign of a weak taxonomy system or ranking system is a failure to explain HOW you're classifying or rating whatever it is.

Now, granted, anything like this sort of video will, 99% of the time, boil down to post hoc justifications for the presenter's subjective opinions. But a carefully defined rubric of evaluation gives justifications for the subjective judgments and helps the audience with their own evaluations of the material.

I had to go looking at some of Esper's other videos to find his criteria spelled out in his ranking undead video. I didn't watch the whole video, just long enough to get his criteria.

So before I dive into the meat of the Character Class ranking video, I want to discuss this rubric a bit.

Mechanics apparently means a variety of combat options. Note that the description gives the highly subjective descriptors "interesting" and "fun." The undead video gives a picture of a camel vs a beholder as examples of low and high mechanics. Ignoring the fact that camels, as real world animals, are a low level threat at best while beholders are among the most powerful creatures in the game, I get what he's saying here. He thinks a simple attack roll/damage roll is boring, while having a dozen options to choose from each round is interesting.

Style is completely subjective. There's no way around this. Appearance and tone? His example pictures are a giff (I think that's the name - a Napoleonic monocle wearing hippo man from Starjammer) as low style and a roaring balor demon as high style. So goofy and unusual is lame, "metal" is cool. Got it.

Roleplaying is one that makes sense for rating monsters -- how high is the potential that you could have social interaction with the monster? His pictures are an ochre jelly and a lammasu. Obviously, you're going to fail to convince the ochre jelly that 'you're actually the telephone man come to fix the line so please let us into the treasure vault' with a Persuasion check or any amount of role play at the table. As a rating for character classes, though, I'm still mystified about what this is actually supposed to measure.

Lore seems to be a rating of not just how much total description of the monster there is, but its precedents in real world myth and legend. His example pictures are a carrion crawler (low lore) and a medusa (high lore). Since 2E went all out on monster lore for just about everything, it's hard for me to figure out if he's comparing in-game lore or real-world lore for monsters, or if again it's just a smokescreen for "I like how this monster is described, but not that one." And again, for character classes, I'm not sure how it translates exactly or how it's different from Style or Roleplaying.

Flexibility would seem to be a mechanical evaluation of the monster/class and how different you can make them within the rules. He gives pictures of a poisonous snake as low flexibility, and two elves (one a mage, one a warrior) as high flexibility. But I'm still a bit baffled when it comes to character classes. How is this different from Mechanics? Personally, I think flexibility has a lot to do with player creativity and ingenuity. I've seen plenty of "flexible" spellcasters who just spam fireballs and magic missiles all day long. And we've all had to deal with the player who thinks a cleric should be a walking cure wounds dispenser. Anyway, Esper seems to equate "lots of options to choose from on the character sheet" with flexibility...which is pretty much the same as his Mechanics category above.

So, we really have two categories for rating the classes, according to Esper:
  • Do the game rules give this class lots of options to choose from? (Mechanics/Flexibility) 
  • Do I think it's cool to play this class? (Style, Roleplaying, Lore)
So, on to his ranking.

The only bottom tier (E) option according to Esper, is the Fighter/Champion. And basically it's there because he sees this class option as a "long, long road filled with basic attacks" and nothing else. Well, if as a player of a Fighter/Champion you don't get creative, sure, that's possible. But a creative player will be looking at the rules (there are more things to do in combat in 5E, I mentioned the whole long list of allowed actions in my post the other day), not to mention equipment that could be used to make encounters more interesting. Sure, any other class could do those things, too, but since they have all these built in options to choose from, how often will they take advantage of them? When it comes to style, Esper sees this class as a blank slate...which is bad somehow. I guess being able to style the class any way you want is too much work for a 5E player these days? I shouldn't be snide. But really, he says there's no lore attached. I'm looking at just about all of human mythology/legendry/history and seeing all sorts of inspirations. I guess if it didn't come from Gygax as filtered through 3E and then 5E, it doesn't count.

Now, granted, the Champion is fairly plain and simple. It's not "sexy" but that's kind of the point. The Fighter throughout D&D history has not been a "sexy" class. But it's still one of the most common because it's effective and fun.

The next tier up (D) again has one subclass, the Barbarian/Berserker. His evaluation is that mechanically it has a few more options than the Fighter/Champion, but will still just be looking to make lots of normal attacks each round. He gives it high points for style (because bulging muscles are cool, I guess?) but says there's no lore or built in RP hooks for the class. So again, apparently we have our difference of Style with Roleplay/Lore. Style means "I think the art looks cool" while RP/Lore means WotC gave me my character concept for me (and I like what they gave me, but this part is in parenthesis because it only becomes obvious later).

Moving up to the next tier (C) we get a few: Fighter/Battlemaster, Barbarian/Totem Warrior, Fighter/Eldritch Knight, and Ranger/Hunter

The Battlemaster is as lame as the Champion, but gets more mechanical tricks. It apparently is visually more appealing (one step higher than Champion on Style) I guess because the art is more dynamic than the motionless 3E Fighter pictures used with the Champion section? And having the ability to define your character with mechanics to back it up is apparently what Roleplay/Lore is about in this case, instead of just role playing to define your character.

The Totem Warrior is better than the Berserker because...the rules for the totems are better than the rules for berserking? And apparently having these semi-magical abilities gives you more to base your RP on than being a warrior who goes crazy in battle.

The Eldritch Knight, he says, could have been in B tier because 1/3 wizard, but being 2/3 fighter is lame. Because all it does is fight. (Um, if that's the case, why are 2 of 5 criteria based solely on your ability to fight?)

To be clear, he's talking about the "revised Ranger" variant which he praises, so by the book Rangers are probably down with the Berserker in D tier. He gives the Hunter good points for combat and exploration mechanics, but says the RP/Lore is limited. How? I'm still not sure.

Anyway, Esper says that all of the above classes/subclasses lack for mechanical flexibility and/or RP hooks hard coded into the class.

Moving up to B tier, we get the Monk (all subclasses), Ranger/Beastmaster, Paladin (all subclasses), Rogue (Assassin & Thief).

Monks have lots of unique mechanics that he likes. Loves, even. But unfortunately, they are low on RP potential. Because he's never seen anyone create a more interesting Monk background than the default given by the book. So here's one of my biggest criticisms of this video. Monks are apparently sucky roleplay options because of how the book suggests they are played. But moving forward, classes like the Paladin or Bard get high marks for being played the way the books says you should play them.

Beastmasters are sucky Rangers, but having an animal is cool and metal. So bonus points.

Paladins are cool because they have a hard-coded RP story in the class (which is why Monks suck).

Rogue, at least the Assassin and Thief subclasses, get high ranks for style (cool dark edgy art), and real world lore is cool (from Han Solo to Jack Sparrow)...although real world lore for lower ranked classes was ignored. Apparently not having spells is enough to limit these edgy scoundrels to B tier because...

Tier A, the top, the best of the best! Here we have the Rogue/Arcane Trickster, Warlock, Druid, Wizard, Sorcerer, Cleric, and at the top the BARD!

This is getting long, and you can basically boil this down to A tier (aside from Rogue/Arcane Trickster who are at the bottom of the tier) are full spellcaster classes. That's it, folks. According to this video, spellcasters are where it's at! Even though he seems to again waffle on the "real world lore/game lore" thing. And is inconsistent about what constitutes good hard-coded RP hooks and what doesn't.

Probably no surprise that a guy who calls himself Esper the Bard puts the Bard class at the top of the chart.

So what can we learn from this? If you want to actually rate classes, come up with some sort of well-defined criteria for the ratings and explain your ranking system in detail. Offer up arguments to defend your rating with specific examples or some sort of data, rather than "I just like this."

OR, from the beginning, just tell us straight up, these are the classes ranked by my personal preference of what/how to play and what seems cool to me, and give up the pretense of some sort of objective ranking system.

Trying to mush the two together leads to disappointment in your audience.