Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Huh, wonder why?

No idea why, but my 'get off my lawn' post from a two weeks ago is already the 10th most viewed post on this blog (not counting the Flying Swordsmen page).

Sure, it generated some good comments, but about half were from my players and me!

But then the post in number 9 is my lackluster review of the third Abrams Star Trek film from four years ago, so maybe it's bots?

Oh, and sometime earlier this year (I don't check the stats that often) I passed 1 million total page views. Hurray for me!

Actual game related content coming soon! I'm reading another book on gamification for a paper I want to write, so expect a return to some game theory posting in the near future.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Using my noggin

Nate, who has been playing Tusken Tumble, the Half-Orc Acrobat in my West Marches game, started a 5E game using the free content WotC has been putting out during the coronavirus lockdown. He started us as 1st level PCs in the Lost Mines of Phandelver module, which is I guess the 5E equivalent of Keep on the Borderlands.

I rolled up a Wizard (Conjurer specialist now that he's 2nd level). And among his spells, only one cantrip does direct hit point damage. It's called infestation, and it summons up fleas, mites, etc. to bite and annoy the target. All of his other cantrips and spells are 'utility' magic.

Out of four sessions Nate has run, I've only played in two (the most recent last Friday night). So I just hit level 2 after this past session while everyone else is level 2 or 3 already. But that didn't really matter. I've been a pretty effective character when I've been there.

Minor Spoilers for Lost Mines of Phandelver below:

In my first session (second of the campaign), we were exploring a goblin cave to rescue some prisoners and stolen goods. The goblins had wolves (dire? worgs? not sure) as guards. Dean's Gnomish Bard and I combined our minor illusion cantrips to get the sound and image of a cat, to lure them out, which worked. We were able to take them on more easily as some were chained and some were not. Later, inside the cavern, my familiar (a Raven, not the most optimal familiar, but stylish!) scouted out a chamber that was up a hill of bones and rubble, and found several goblins, a bugbear, stolen goods, and a prisoner. Some of the party climbed up, but then retreated when they saw how tough the opposition was. I cast my second spell (the first being mage armor) to grease the slope, and the goblins that pursued slid down into our waiting warriors' axes/swords/pummeling fists. Then we all went up the slope, rescued the prisoner (Jeff's character, as he joined the session late), and when reinforcements arrived, I was back to using infestation and minor illusion to distract.

Last night, I felt like I was a bit more creative with my spells. We started out in town, seeking information on the Red Brand bandits who the party had tussled with in the third session which I missed. We ended up impressing a farm boy who knew the secret location into the lair by my mending cantrip and Bumblesnick's minor illusion cantrip. Once we got in the lair, we encountered a creature called a nothic (one-eyed twisted former mage with mental powers) and decided to fight it. The Ranger and Monk did most of the work there.

But after we killed it, we found a room with some red cloaks. They were filthy, maybe diseased, but a prestidigitation cleaned them. But since they wouldn't be much good as disguises shiny clean, more prestidigitation gave them cosmetic soiling.

The final room we investigated had three sarcophagi with armed skeletons leaning on them. With the help of both my and Bumblesnick's unseen servant rituals, we had the servants thread ropes gently through the bones of the skeletons to tie them up. When Denis' Tortle Monk entered the room, they animated of course, but the ropes kept them from mobbing Chell the Monk while we battled them.

Finally, we had a cache of weapons, beaver pelts, and the treasure from the nothic. It was a lot to carry. So I cast Tenser's Floating Disk to carry the loot out.

Dustie, playing a Half Orc Ranger, was wondering why I wasn't blasting away at things. I just laughed and in character wondered why any spell-caster worth his salt would be so crude.

Considering that a very high percentage of spells in 5E are damage dealing spells, I don't think Dustie was overreacting. I just found it amusing that I was getting by without much in the way of direct damage spells, and definitely making things easier for the party.

Story Two!

In my West Marches game this afternoon, the party was asked by the local king of the Fair Folk to wipe out a lair of river sahuagin (piranha people instead of shark people), in exchange for help transporting their large piles of treasure taken from the fledgling dragons last session. Justin's character, Queeg, is an antiquarian (MU/Thief).

On the way to the dungeon, they met hostile satyrs, but Queeg's phantasmal force spell (or was it the wand of illusion?) of frolicking nymphs distracted most of them.

Queeg has a stone of earth elemental control which he used to summon an elemental to battle the sahuagin (until it was dispelled by the sahuagin priestess of Blibdoolpoolp). That weeded out a fair number of sahuagin guards.

Then the party waded in. The remaining front room guards were reinforced by the priestess and her retinue, plus they had a giant crab. While battling, Queeg made good use of continual light to blind the priestess, his wand of paralyzation, and his mirror image spell to even the odds a bit (very necessary, as the priestess had used hold person and paralyzed Abernathy the Dragonborn Fighter/Magic-User, and Calvin the Half Orc Cavalier) [Yes, home brew Classic D&D!]. He also used a staff of dispelling to remove the paralysis of the hold person spell.

Later, fighting the Sahuagin Baron and his bodyguards, Abernathy finally got to shine, with sleep spells (Queeg also used sleep) and magic missiles.

Two things are clear from this: One, Justin is also using utility magic well to solve problems. Two, Queeg has a lot of magical gear (being the only MU in the party for some time, he got a lot by default).

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

One of those "Get off my lawn!" posts

Oh, YouTube algorithm, why do you mock me? As suggested to me, I watched a video on agency vs railroading by the DM Lair, and it was nothing too special. Agency good, railroad bad. The next title had me intrigued, though, Milestone vs XP Leveling in D&D.

So I watched it. Obviously this guy has an opinion that he's expressing, and that's fine. He's welcome to do that. But I find it funny that he looks like he's maybe 5 to 10 years younger than me, so while he brags about being a DM since his high school days, I can brag about being a DM since his kindergarten days. Maybe even his diaper days. :D

Dick-measuring aside, he says he played some 2E in high school but mainly played 3E and 5E in his bio. I'm guessing so, from the way he talks of XP accumulation as only something that happened for combat or story awards, and "keeping players all at the same level" to make play easier. He has the BECMI boxes on his shelf behind him, but from the way he discusses XP, it seems pretty obvious that if he ever played them, he never DMed them.

Anyway, he mentions that there is one single benefit of calculating and accumulating XP, that being that it works as a metric for players to gauge their success each session, and that it gives players a feeling of satisfaction. [Arguably that's two benefits.]

For drawbacks, he mentions a tendency to encourage murderhobo style play, the tedious nature of calculations for non-combat XP from "appropriate roleplay," awarding XP for "good play" is the same as milestone XP anyway, and that awarding XP for "good play" favors players who are better at role play which is unfair.

So his criticisms of calculating and awarding XP so far are really only valid for versions of the game that only award XP for combat plus recommend "story" awards. So WotC versions of the game/Pathfinder. Any system that suggests awarding XP for treasure bypasses all of these complaints except maybe that doing the calculations can be tedious.

He has a few more complaints. One, if you don't "budget" XP, players won't be at the right level for the next adventure. Um, that's only a problem if you're running a railroad (something he said was bad in the other video I'd watched from him).

The last problem is that sometimes players forget to add the XP to their sheet. Um, again, if you're running old school D&D, that's the player's problem, not a DM problem. And not every character needs to be the same level. Oh, but if you're playing WotC D&D, I guess you need to match CRs with party levels and design adventures for a party of 4 PCs of level X, not a party of X to Y players of levels A to B. But I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, aren't I?

OK, so moving on to his discussion of milestone leveling.

The only disadvantage he mentions is that some players don't find it fun.

Advantages? Prevents murderhobo play. Awarding progress in the campaign (AKA the same as story awards just without the math). By telegraphing the action that will gain them their next level, players know what their goal is and can measure progress towards it. [Yes, action is highlighted to show that it's in singular not plural form...again coming right off his 'railroading is bad' video, this was interesting to say the least.] Players will not "goof around" exploring the world, they'll just head on their mission to complete the milestone.

Finally, he claims that it's just easier. And yes, he admits that he is basically running a railroad campaign and doesn't care.

Well, basically, with treasure as XP, it's the measure of success. We've all been talking about this for years, but there are a few other blog posts by others I've read the past week or so talking about it, then I saw this video. Gotta jump on the bandwagon, right?

Treasure for XP discourages murderhobo play. Why fight (and possibly die) if you can get the treasure another way?
Treasure shows progress in the campaign, and PCs always know what the objective is -- get more treasure! Sure, there are other objectives too, but loot accumulation is always part of it. And players can easily measure their progress by the amount of loot they're collecting.

Finally, I'll suggest that treasure for XP is easier than his super simple milestone system for the fact that you don't need to jump through hoops figuring out what the series of milestones are that will take the players up through the levels, or how many adventures they should have at each level, or any of that. Let the players pick their battles, and level up when they earn enough XP.

So he spent a lot of time in his video talking about it. I've spent plenty of time writing about it (and watched the video twice). And his argument really boils down to one thing:

He thinks it's easier to use milestones than to calculate XP. I'm sure he's right about that, but really, all the problems he lists aren't problems with an XP accumulation system, they're problems with the systems this guy has played.

Monday, June 8, 2020

When it stops being a game

This is a bitching and moaning post, but it does have a point to make about gaming in general, I hope, so please bear with me.

Recently, one of the players in the big AD&D game I take part in on RPOL.net wanted to start a new game of cowboys vs zombies using the Star Frontiers rules for the game. Since this is basically what I did with Caverns & Cowboys, I was definitely on board to see what he'd done with the rules.

And I wasn't disappointed there. He doesn't have magic as a player option, but a few of his ideas for skill choices seem potentially better and simpler than what I'd come up with.

So in the game, all the players are in the cavalry. No option to be anything else, that's the premise of the game. Fine. I knew that going in, I signed up for it. And I also realize this is a playtest for the rules mods. So things change every now and then as issues arise or questions are asked that he can't answer. Fine again.

But my first red flag was when before we'd even really gotten the game off the ground, he was trying to entice him into his "real" game of cowboys vs Lost World. That raised my suspicions that this game I'd already signed up for would maybe not be the best game, but I liked my character and decided to soldier on (yes, pun intended).

Now, the situation is we arrive in a town that no one has returned from for a few weeks and no telegraph either. As soon as we ride into town, zombies attack. My character is Native American and another is half Native, and as soon as they appeared, we agreed IC that they were wendigo. The GM went along with that, and has been calling them that ever since. Hooray for player input being accepted into world building!

But as soon as players started acting like players in an RPG, trying to tactically problem solve like good RPG players, he through both the NPC sergeant and GM dictate ruled that all characters except mine and another (who had been asked to investigate a house on the edge of town) were to line up Civil War style and blast away. No riding around to distract or lead off some of the zombies, no taking cover, nothing allowed by what he told us. Second red flag appears.

Luckily for me and the other player, since we were in the house when the firing line was formed, we were free to run across the street to the saloon where civilians were calling for help from the upstairs window. Inside, we found a couple of zombies. My partner attacked while I checked on the safety of the civilians then returned to help him fight.

This morning, when I logged on, the GM had made a big long post where he just arbitrarily moved everything ahead two combat rounds -- although that was far from clear from the post. Everyone on the firing line was arbitrarily moved back on the sergeant's orders, and my partner and I had just unloaded our guns on the two zombies in the saloon to minimal effect -- my partner missed with everything and I only hit once (although when I checked the die roller, actually he'd rolled that I hit with three of my five remaining shots in my six-shooter).

And only now, AFTER he decided to do this, is he asking for us to post our actions two or three moves in advance. Apparently, he'd forgotten how crappily beginning characters fight in Star Frontiers, and how little damage 2d10 or 3d10 bullets do to zombies that have on average around 45 Stamina points. And there are a crap ton of zombies moving in. And he's not letting most of the players do anything other than fire and reload. So, third red flag on the field.

I think it might be telling that since this morning, the only person to post besides myself complaining about this is a new guy who just rolled up a character. I think the other players might also have sensed this is not going to be the cool game we hoped it would be.

I'm usually one for letting novice game masters have some slack, and having run play tests, I realize the rules can and should change to reflect issues that crop up. But the lack of agency he's allowing most of the players makes me think that this isn't a game so much as a novel he wishes he was writing. And that makes me consider quitting the game. Because at that point, it isn't a game anymore.

I'll give it a few more days. See what he says, and what the other players do. But I think this brief interesting idea for a game may have just gone off to Boot Hill.