Star Wars: Far Horizons Review

September 15, 2014 3 comments

SWE10-Book-leftBefore we get to the review, Asheville Comic Expo is this Saturday! Your favorite local gaming bloggers (FLGB?!) will be organizing and running a lot of the RPG tables. If you haven’t reserved your seat for a game or two, check out the warhorn! Never signed up for any public games on warhorn before? Check out our handy guide from last week.

The most recent sourcebook for Star Wars Edge of the Empire is Far Horizons, which expounds upon the colonist career. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know if I would pick this one up. Out of all the careers colonist is probably the least exciting option, and having to follow the awesome Dangerous Covenants? Good luck.

After flipping through it I became a lot more interested. From the core book the colonist specializations are Doctor, Politico, and Scholar. This book adds Entrepreneur, Marshall, and Performer. It also goes into some really great detail for new obligations and backgrounds for the existing specializations, as well as the new ones. New species are Arcona, Gran and Chevin.

Entrepreneur is similar to the trader, but with some talents that actually depend on the flow of credits. Sound Investments gains you 100 credits per rank at the start of every session. Greased Palms allows you to spend 50 credits per rank to upgrade a social check (Charm, Deception etc.) and Throwing Credits allows you to ignore the strain penalty from a triggered obligation. Most of the other talents on the tree have to do with finding items, and getting a better price for what you sell.

Marshall is a very intriguing class, especially for those smaller parties that need PCs with a balance of combat and social skills. Essentially the sheriff of a colony, how you would come to be part of a band of adventures can pose some very interesting plot hooks and obligations! There are plenty of talents in the tree to make sure your character can do well in combat like durable, grit, point blank, and quick draw. The most intriguing new additions are Good Cop and Bad Cop. Good Cop allows you to spend two advantage from a Charm or Negotiation check to upgrade a single ally’s subsequent social check, per rank. Bad Cop is similar, but you spend the two advantage on a subsequent Deception or Coercion check per rank.

Last of the new specializations is Performer. I had thought this would be the least interesting of the three, but with nice mix of social and melee skills, you can create quite an intriguing and well-balanced character. Not to mention all the interesting narrative benefits and complications that can come with being even a small-time celebrity. One of the interesting new talents for the performer is Biggest Fan. Once a session, a performer can make a hard charm check and if successful, an NPC in the current encounter becomes that character’s biggest fan. This can drastically decrease difficulty checks for social encounters, or the NPC may be willing to do favors for the character at the GM’s discretion. There is a big caveat that GM’s may rule some NPCs ineligible to be targeted by this if they are central to the plot.

There are two new signature abilities, which haven’t come in to play at my Star Wars tables yet, but are somewhat interesting. Insightful revelation allows a PC to learn valuable information about the current situation they did not previously have. All it will cost you is two destiny points and a hard knowledge education check. I get the spirit of this power, but it doesn’t seem like it would come up very much and doesn’t seem to me to be an apex ability if you’re telling a good story. The other one in Unmatched Expertise, which allows a PC to reduce the difficulty of all career skill checks by one for the rest of the encounter, again for two destiny points. This could be cool, but by the time you unlock this you are going to be pretty amazing at most of what you can do, and may have the unintended consequence of making boss fights a cake walk, or starting a difficulty arms race between the players and the GM.

SWE10_8148_Chapterplate1_MattBradburyThe next section in the book is new equipment and vehicles. Once of the most intriguing weapons is the sonic rilfe, which has the unique quality not being subject to light-saber deflection. This could prove handy for GMs looking to challenge young Jedi in the upcoming Force and Destiny chapter of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. Also interesting is the Riot Shield which adds to melee characters defensive options as well as the alternate version that allows for a slot to support a rifle, albeit at the cost of a setback die. The gear section includes a forensics kit if you want some CSI in your Star Wars, as well as a Thunderhead Portable Entertainment System which is sound amplification and lights for performers that would make one heck of a distraction.

The vehicles add a few options for parties that need a landspeeder, or one that is designed as more of a paddy wagon with six holding cells. There is also stats for a police interceptor landspeeder, as well as a few automated vehicles that include the stats for the vehicle in addition to the droid that drives it. There are a couple of light-freighter ships appropriate for PCs, most notably the HWK-290 from Dark Forces and flown by Kyle Katarn. The capital ships include a unarmed silhouette 6 freighter, and a silhouette 7 Luxury Starliner. A lot of awesome missions could happen on a star-cruise.

SWX12_5932_RoarkGarnet_TimothyBenZweifelThe third section of the book is geared toward the GM, but has a bunch of great advice for coming up with hooks and backgrounds for every colonist specialization. It also has some great advice about keeping social interactions interesting, and making medicine check more compelling for doctors by adding pressure based on location, time constraints, or triage. Towards the back of the section are Colonist Contracts, which are short 3-act synopses of adventures that include a twist or unexpected complication. This is a GM gold mine for ANY group, especially an episodic gathering at a friendly local gaming store. It also includes some longer campaign outlines with several episodes planned out.

Furthermore, there are rules and a system to setup a homestead or business as a base of operations. One of the most fun experiences I’ve had with a homebrew D&D campaign is when our party of Dwarves bought a tavern, and used it for a base of operations, and as a revenue stream. The same idea applies here and is really well laid out. It gives you prices in obligation or credits for upgrades and upkeep, as well as plenty of ideas for what the business could be about. Beyond that, there are colonist jobs, and what the typical pay would be if you have a day job, as well as suggestions at the very back for multiclassing in interesting combinations. Cybernetic Chop Doc? Start as a doctor, then add outlaw tech. Sector Ranger? Start as Marshall, then add Scout. Intelligence Agent? Start as a scholar then add thief.

Overall I’m way more impressed than I thought I would be with this book. It has excellent value for both PC and GM alike, and may be the best sourcebook yet. Fantasy Flight continues to hit homeruns!

Warhorn101

September 7, 2014 3 comments

Warhorn.net is a great site for convention organizers and Friendly Local Gaming Store event planning. For the uninitiated, it can be a bit confusing to sign up, and reserve your seat at the gaming table. Somewhat recently the site went through a significant overhaul, with one main feature being that once you sign up for your free user account, you can use that same account for recurring game days at a FLGS or a yearly convention, like Asheville Comic Expo.

This is going to be a screenshot-heavy article, as I would like to detail the process on how you sign up for an account, and register for tables. Once you sign up, keep your login credentials handy, and you can use them for any events organized through warhorn. You can even add your Pathfinder Society Number and DCI (WotC/D&D organized play) numbers that will follow your login from event to event, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.

First, go to warhorn.net and sign up for a login in the upper right corner of the site:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.03.19 AM

Fill out the form with your email, desired username, and password. You can use either your email or your username when you login to the site:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.05.24 AM

It will now ask you to verify your email address. Clicking on confirm will send another confirmation email (check SPAM filters!):

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In your email you should see a message much like this. Click the Confirm my Account link in the email:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 12.25.40 PMOnce your account is confirmed, we can use warhorn Event listings to search for events in the area. They are divided into recurring game days (frequently at FLGS) or Upcoming Conventions:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.09.48 AMUse the search field just above dates to search for events happening in your area, or an area where you will be traveling:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.10.18 AMClick on that event to get more info and register for tables by clicking on the Register for this event button in the upper right. If you have questions you can also email the organizer on the far left:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.10.36 AMOnce you are registered, check out the Event schedule and sign up for tables:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.11.02 AMFor both conventions and recurring game days, games are typically listed by start time, and title. Open tables will list a “Play” if you want to be a PC or “GM” button if you want to run that table. It also gives you the option to join a waitlist if the table is already full. If there is a no-show, you are in!

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After clicking “Play” the site will ask you to confirm, just to make sure you got in on the right game:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.12.28 AMOnce you click Save it will reserve your spot at the table, allowing organizers to plan for more GMs if necessary, and allows you a guaranteed seat at your favorite game! If something comes up, or you want to switch tables before the event, you can always click “Withdraw” and sign up for something else:

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.12.52 AMBe sure and check for recurring game days in your area as well, and support your FLGS!

Screen shot 2014-09-07 at 9.14.58 AMHope this helps, and remember, once you’ve created your account you can use it for any conventions or game days organized through warhorn. It’s also a great site to see events in your region you may want to travel for! In less than two weeks, the Skyland Games crew will be running the RPG tables for Asheville Comic Expo (ACE). Sign up at the warhorn, and we’ll see you around the table!

 

 

To Grid or Not to Grid

September 2, 2014 3 comments

Tactics.

‘Tactics’ has meant different things over the years in the context of fantasy RPG’s.  In first and second edition Dungeons and Dragons, tactics meant techniques and abilities, and were fairly rudimentary, getting a few bumps from various splatbooks and later with the Skills & Powers books.  In versions 3.0 to Pathfinder, however, tactics became more closely associated with tactical movement, movement on a grid, and it became fairly critical: flanking, five-foot-steps, attacks of opportunity, and templated spell effect areas could all mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

I remember starting to play 3.0 many years ago now and thinking, “Man, this combat is almost like playing an additional game or mini-game” which shows what a break it was from older editions.  It was thrilling at the time, but as time has gone on, the pros and cons of the grid weigh on me as a player, but even more so as a GM.

This came into sharper focus recently with our trial run of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  We played with very vague illustrations of the rooms we were in, didn’t count squares, and approximated distances.  The game flowed well, played quickly, and we didn’t run into any problems. Players continuously improvised and thought outside of the box, trying to obtain ‘advantage’, where two dice are rolled taking the higher result (a primary 5E mechanic).

By contrast, the following week we returned to our Reign of Winter game where we encountered creatures that could create a cage of bones over the players with a touch attack.  The grid lead to accurate depictions of positioning, but as a result, a horrible slog ensued where players couldn’t act effectively due to the specificity with which we were able to chart their positions, many of them being out of reach of their opponents and of other players.

Some of my players hate the grid.  Kevin, for instance, and increasingly, Michael, find it frustrating.  We’ve played a fair amount of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and reversion to the grid has always been a mistake in that. DCC plays fast and loose, with crazy things happening all the time, and counting squares runs afoul of it’s old school roots and free wheeling ‘sure, try it’ attitude. Accordingly, they don’t recommend it.

Really, any time you’re counting squares (especially Pathfinder’s diagonal movement rules) you’ve stopped the creative flow of the game and the action, and have approached minutia that is probably  not enhancing the actual play of the game.

That said, sometimes you want something technical.  Sometimes being a few inches outside of that explosive radius is a high-five inducing event.  The grid keeps things fair, for both GM and player, and that can be important with the right group (and even more important with the WRONG group).

THE EXPERIMENT

So I decided to try 5th edition with various gridded and non-gridded play areas to see how the party responded.  At the table, we had old and new players, and players that were both for and against gridded combat.  The results were interesting.

THEATER OF THE MIND

First, I ran a session with no map.  Just words.  This is commonly called “Theater of the Mind” and worked well enough.  Play was quick, but in the end fairly featureless.  For whatever reason, players didn’t seem to put much into the attacks or the environment that brought anything new to the game.  I think, in some games, like DCC, you might see Deed Dice rolled that create critical hit scenarios that add flavor, but for the vast majority of games, TOTM combats really reflect the skill and energy of both GM and player.  The more player’s or Game Masters drop the ball, the less engaging that combat is going to be.

DWARVEN FORGE

I wanted to use maps or illustrations in my games to supplement game play, and avoid a lot of repeated questions about positioning. So, for the next encounter, I used a grid in form of Dwarven Forge game tiles.

If you haven’t been fortunately enough to get in on Dwarven Forge’s Kickstarters , you can still pick them up at their company store.  They are beautiful.  Perhaps their biggest shortcoming in my mind is they have partial squares against the walls, which make spacing a little vague, upon occasion, but that worked for the experiment.

Players were pleased to see the high-detail mapping, but quickly became constrained by the nature of the gridding.  Bottlenecks occurred frequently, and play slowed down significantly.  Further, players stopped jockeying for advantage and improvising, and fell back into the rather stolid roles of ‘move and attack’. It drained something out of it, despite the verisimilitude of the map dungeon dressing.

Ironically, I should note, that the bottlenecking served to help the party tactically.  Tactics sometimes help the character but detract from the player’s experience, which arguably is a lot more important.

PRINTED – NOT TO SCALE

Third, I used a printed map, but not to scale:

I found a few interesting things in this scenario.  My map had a grid, but I told the players it was not to scale (being 10 foot squares) and to disregard it.  Despite that, players still tried to force themselves to the grid.  Combats began to feel tight, despite there being plenty of room, and other distances got confused as players tried to leap over 20 foot chasms before remembering the distances involved.

Perhaps the worst part of this was a final confrontation with a dragon.  Players became lazy with positioning their miniatures.  When the dragon turned to use its breath weapon, revisionist history began to play a role:

“I wasn’t standing there, I was behind it”

“I would have been around the corner”

“I’m too far away”

I had to play evil GM (the “Dog” as we call it) and explain that based on their descriptions of their actions, these players were within the deadly area of this blast.  Some players took it in stride, others grumbled a bit.  I appreciated their frustration, as things got murky on this particular battlefield.

QUICK SKETCH ON TACT-TILES

Lastly, combat took place on set of Tact-tiles, with crappy hand drawn maps by me:

These expensive little guys have been in my collection for about a decade, and despite the upfront costs, they’re the best thing going.  You’ve just missed the kickstarter, but hopefully they will have fixed their supply issues and be back on the market soon.

Strangely, this hand drawn map did the trick. Noting that everything was only approximately to scale, we quickly worked to move miniatures without counting squares but being fair and mindful of the speed limitations of the character.  As GM, I attempted to err on the side that permitted the character to make the most of their turn, within reason, and sometimes adding complications along the way.

5E’s greatest strength will likely prove to be the advantage/disadvantage mechanic replacing a lot of detailed hand-wringing rules that discourage improvisation in the interest of fairness.  If the halfling wants to dash over the slick cobblestones to dive into range to throw his dagger, 5E lets that dramatic scene happen, and as GM all I have to do to comb in the complexity of that is to have them roll with disadvantage.  It’s a signficant penalty, but not insurmountable, and a hell of a lot better than saying, “No.  You double move and that’s it”.

There was enough accountability with my crappy hand drawn map that if there was an area of effect ability in play, the square counting got a lot more precise, with ties going to the player where a close call was concerned.  No one had difficulty with the rulings, and the game continued quickly.

THE TAKEAWAY

Your mileage may vary, but I saw merit in both systems at their appointed times.  A lot of this depends on your group: A Good or fair GM might be trusted by his players to do everything in the theater of the mind, with not even so much as a map or sketch to give players an idea of what was going on.  This can be excellent in more routine or featureless situations where players don’t need to know ranges, tactics are simple, and game play more fast and loose, but falls short where terrain features a large role in combat, or where positioning and visualization of the flow of combat is highly relevant to the outcome.

Off-scale maps seemed to create more of a problem than they solved.  Unless the map is to such a scale that players can’t try to position themselves on it with any relevance, I think it’s to be avoided.  Best to show a small scale map and then ‘explode’ the scene into something tactical when necessary.

My vague map seemed to work the best for this group, but I think probably with other groups or more technical situations, this could be problematic as well.  If it really comes down to a game of inches, GM and player alike are going to feel either guilty or cheated if a fireball catches the character and roasts them to ashes based on a flimsy or hypothetical map or position.

My solution is this: Map as little as necessary, but with precision for critical combats. Positions where combats are melee only and non spell effects or powers that relate to range are good for loose maps where position isn’t key.  You may still run into problems now and again, but the time you save and flexibility you pick up from that fast and dirty map is going to be worth it 9 times out of 10.

If instead you’ve got a boss-fight, a fight where terrain plays an interesting role, or where flanking and areas of effect are going to be repeatedly relevant, draw it to scale and play it to scale.  This requires a little foresight, but speed of play is key to keeping people entertained, and precision and tactics become highly relevant and add to the game where the single combat or combatant are the focus and potential endgame.

Future expansions of 5E have been rumored to contain additional tactical combat rules.  If so, you’ll be able to choose how that game, at least, gets played. We’d love to hear your thoughts about whether you prefer the grid or not, and why.   Let us know, and maybe I’ll try that out with my poor poison-cloud-choked adventuring group in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Onslaught at Arda I Review

August 25, 2014 1 comment

SWA04-bookA quick note before the review, Asheville Comic Expo draws nigh! Due to popular demand yet another DCC Funnel table has been added: Nebin’s Perilous Pantry! Back to the review:

Once again, Fantasy Flight has taken the Star Wars ball and run with it! The first module set in the Age of Rebellion chapter of the most recent Star Wars RPG is very well balanced between railroad and sandbox, combat and exploration/investigation, and foot and ship encounters.

I’ll try and avoid spoilers for those who plan on playing this. While it is meant for a band of fresh rebel recruits, it can easily be adapted for rebels with a few missions under their belt, or fringer converts from Edge of the Empire. The book (like Edge predecessors Beyond the Rim and Jewel of Yavin) is divided into three acts.

From just the module’s description and art that accompanies it, things will not go well for the base at Arda I in the first act. Unlike individual adventures released for this system, but identical to previous longer modules, the action does not start in media res. The party is given some time to explore the base and the terrain surrounding the base before the battle.

The battle itself is almost a picture perfect example of a railroad, but necessarily so. It also introduces the mass combat rules featured in the book, which provide a great system to estimate large scale battles happening around the PCs based on troop numbers, experience or skill (i.e. regular rebel infantry or elite rebel commandos), vehicle assets present, and skill of the leaders of each force.

Also provided is a handy chart for using advantage/triumph and threat/despair that result from the mass combat check. It looks like a pretty handy way to simulate a huge battle without rolling a crazy amount of individual checks, and captures the cinematic feel this system strives for.

SWA04-Art01The second act is all about establishing a new rebel base on the swampy planet of Jagomir. This act offers an interesting balance of exploration in scouting the local fauna and points of interest, interspersed with investigating increasing disturbing evidence of a traitor in your midst back at base. I really like this approach, in that in a single session you could do a little of each, allowing both you combat PCs and your more social PCs a time to shine.

The third act is on yet another planet, allowing the PCs to cover more galactic ground than in previous adventure modules, and has a much more sandbox-like feel, allowing the party to explore different districts of a city in their efforts to thwart the traitor from reporting back to his imperial handlers. It offers a lot of different approaches for success to try and anticipate what the party will come up with, or nudge them along if they get stuck.

Throughout the adventure there are several sidebars for rewarding 2 or 3 duty points for especially heroic actions, and there is a suggested 5-10 duty award in addition to the regular XP rewards at the end of every act. Some of the sidebars are pretty vague about the success conditions, not setting a specific difficulty to convince a smuggler to aid in the evacuation for instance. I still need to read up and duty again before we play more than the beginner box so I can get a clearer understanding of the mechanic.

A lot of the scenes, especially the investigation, will require significant GM prep. I would suggest at least running the beginner box to become familiar with the system before running this. Not for novices. My only other gripe is that the big area maps of locations are way too small in the book. You can just barely make out they would be gorgeous in higher resolution, blown up. Hopefully FF will release high-res images on the support page. Those are pretty minor in the scheme of things. Overall, this will provide many sessions of varied, exciting adventure! I would recommend picking it up.

Categories: Adventure, Books, Reviews, Star Wars

Asheville Comic Expo (A.C.E.) 2014 Preview

August 19, 2014 Comments off

ace-14-poster-webJust one month until the 3rd Annual Asheville Comic Expo! Once again, the Skyland Games crew is organizing the RPG gaming, and just like the rest of the show, tabletop RPGs will be bigger and more diverse than previous years! We’ve got a warhorn going so you can reserve your spot at the table. This year we’ll have Star Wars Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, as well as several Dungeon Crawl Classics tables, a 5E starter set table for those eager to try the newest edition of D&D, and of course the ever popular Pathfinder tables.

In addition to the awesome artwork on display in artist alley, a lot of special guests are attending this year. It’s a great opportunity to meet writers and artists from Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW, DC, and some really great indie work!

Of course it wouldn’t be ACE without comics and a lot of awesome cosplay. Get some more use out of that awesome get up you made for DragonCon or GenCon and enter the costume contest! It has been a really impressive showing in previous years.

This year the convention will be upstairs in a larger space! Previous years it was held in what can generally be described as the basement of the Civic Center, but no longer! 2014 we are moving out of the basement! Check out the awesome comics, elaborate costumes, gorgeous art, and play some games! Come out and support this awesome endeavor to make ACE 2014 the best yet! See you there!

5E & Me

August 11, 2014 1 comment

HERO_StartBoxLast week, Scott D wrote his ARTICLE about the pleasant surprise he experienced with the D&D 5TH EDITION STARTER SET. Well, I was there! He was the Dungeon Master and I was actually playing; enjoying it all. (Having been unable to consistantly play RPGs for a little while, it was refreshing to be able to play.)

I will say that I purposefully did not partake in the playtest of 5th edition in the last year or so. First off, I was playing other stuff like Pathfinder and Edge of the Empire and Dungeon Crawl Classics. Secondly, I did not want to be one of those guys to be sitting at the table and say, “Oh, that changed from the second revision? Well, that totally screwed up my strategy.” And finally, I just did not know if I believed in Dungeons & Dragons anymore.

While playing the Starter Set I came to the conclusion that I liked the new edition. It fits right in the middle of everything that is out there right now. You do not have to be a calculus professor to crunch the numbers and you do not have to rely on the dice for every single decision that is made about your character. It fits in between all of that, with, from what I could see, the potential to swing in either direction, depending on your group’s play style. It has easy to understand mechanics and more story-telling opportunities over the long term that could easily entice new players to join the fold.

I jumped at the chance to play because it was so new to me. I had only downloaded the BASIC RULES that day to familiarize myself so I would not slow play down and became hooked (Especially when I got to character creation; more on that later.). See when I play Pathfinder and see the problems that so many have with keeping the rules straight from 3.0 to 3.5 to Pathfinder, it is sometimes a turn off. Especially if it takes 10 minutes to find the correct rule. And then there are the arguments about which edition is better. I was not looking for that; I wanted that fresh RPG feeling. And I think I got it.

Honestly, I was not sure that I believed in Dungeons & Dragons any more. My personal RPG journey did not start like most did in Dungeons & Dragons (I actually started with TMNT), so even when I played it, it was always reluctantly. I went through a tiny bit of AD&D, 3.0 quite heavily and then onto 4th Edition. Now do not get me wrong, I enjoyed the vast majority of my experiences with D&D, but I always felt like there was something out there that had to be better and more fulfilling than the current edition. I know I just played one session of 5th Edition, but it has something about it. I just cannot put my finger on it… yet.

phb5eWell, enough of all that sappy, critical thinking mumbo-jumbo. Let us get to the fun stuff! I thought the pre-generated characters in the Starter Set were interesting, but they lacked oomph. They lacked complexity. They lacked… my touch. So I took the bare-bones character creation rules in the free rules set (Those are the only rules available right now; payday cannot come quickly enough for the PLAYER’S HANDBOOK.) and turned them upside down. My first creation attempt was lacking until I decided that there just had to be an entire party created.

I only provided blurbs about each character because I wanted you to get a general sense of who they were but not totally define who they are and how they came together. Every DM and every group would play them differently. And that is why I am liking this 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons; definition without definitions.

For your enjoyment:

  • Sgt. Carse Youngblood is a young, upstart officer in the king’s army charged with investigating arcane threats to the crown.
  • Azure is a somber elf obsessed with exacting revenge on the dark elves; all in the name of Shevarash.
  • Bilgar Hilrock is a studious dwarf bent on reviving a university dedicated to dwarven warfare.
  • Gilygan Hairyfoot is a tender-hearted Yondalla-loving halfling cobbler who once stood up to a greedy tax collector.

Download their character sheets HERE!

Categories: 5e, Adventure, DnD, DnDnext, Pregens, Reviews, RPGs

D&D 5th Edition Beginner Box: A grognard’s surprising review

August 4, 2014 5 comments

There are probably more than a few reviews of the 5th Edition D&D Starter Set out there by now, and the last thing I thought I’d be doing is writing one.  But as I sat in the Wyvern’s Tale last week, someone mentioned that the books in the set were valuable as handouts to other players getting started with the full game, and this marginal additional value was enough to tip me over into buying the set to examine.

 

I was skeptical. Extremely skeptical.  I’ve been playing the game for coming on 30 years now, and I’ve seen editions and changes come and go, but 4th edition really made me sick to my stomach.  We played it, but it hurt, and it didn’t ever take the place in my heart that other editions had.  Further, it made me realize that something I love is in the hands of dubious custodians.  I think others felt that way, hence 4E’s short life. Despite two years of playtesting by the general public, I still doubted the efficacy of a process that may have Hasbro / WotC’s dark masters rubbing their hands and scheming changes that focused more on money than a good product.  I had participated in the playtest, and knew that the game I had played seemed a little goofy, reminding me of 1st edition, or perhaps Basic D&D, and locking gears with my 3.5 / Pathfinder knowledge.

 

So it was with this dubious reluctance I slapped down a $20 and got the beginner box, and scheduled a game with a mix of gamers (it being a bit of an off week). So, what’s the dope from a dubious grognard?  Your mileage may vary, but I was pleasantly surprised, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

 

THE DIFFERENCES In a nutshell:

  • Less emphasis on tactical combat to speed play.
    • Fewer Opportunity attack events
    • Greater mobility (move, attack, move though you could threaten an OppAttack if your target’s still alive)
    • Less articulated modifiers, but GM has flex to give advantage / disadvantage
    • Rogues get sneak attack if ally is engaged with same target, flanking not required
  • Every Stat has its own saving through – So you could make a Strength save, for example.
  • Less general modifiers – you get a progressive general ‘proficiency’ bonus which goes towards most things and changes with level
  • Numbers are all lower – AC, bonus to hit / damage, saving throws and DC’s, all are very low – think 10 being average, 15 being hard and a 20 being incredible.
  • Spells are different – Select a limited number of spells, then pick from that refined list on the fly to fill a caster level slot.  Lower spells used in higher slots are modified to be more powerful.
  • Less Skills – with much more emphasis on Stat based checks
  • Simplified Mechanics – Most modifiers, weird rules, and so on are replaced by Advantage / Disadvantage where you roll two dice and either take the higher (when you have ‘advantage’) or the lower (when you have ‘disadvantage’).
  • All characters can heal up to their hit dice with a short rest, but don’t get those back until a long rest.  Clerics do cast regular healing spells, however, instead of the ‘healing surge’ system that pissed everyone off in 4E. It’s similar, but more tolerable.

While that all seems like a lot, that’s more or less it for the time being.  Armed with that knowledge, you could sit down and play.  Feats appear to have less of a role, but classes do have abilities they unlock with leveling which seems to make some pretty impactful change to the character.  There are a variety of nuances which the beginner box doesn’t fully explore, and the rules themselves (downloadable here) will take some exploring before I could report on them.

So those are the changes, but what’s in this box anyway?

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

Set of dice, Starter rules, and an adventure, plus a lot of cardboard to give the set some girth.  That’s a bit of a cheap trick, but it expected it based on weight. 5 Pregenerated charcters (two fighters, rogue, mage, cleric).  Rules are just enough to play, though we accessed the SRD as we went along for this and that.  The rulebook should remain somewhat useful for reference to a new player who doesn’t want to hunt through the SRD.

PLAYING THE GAME

There are a lot of folks who argue the pro’s and cons of a simplified game.  I like Pathfinder and other more technical games because 1) I know the rules pretty well and 2) it gives me a complex and nuanced simulation level game that sometimes results in a few surprises plus 3) I feel the technical nature of the game brings nuances in character development to the surface and lets those characters/mechanics/players shine.

That said, another argument, perhaps equally valid, is that those mechanics and distinctions are a distraction that can be replaced with good roleplaying.  Further, that when those complexities are stripped away, you can focus on character development, role-playing and story, with GM having more free reign to tell an interesting story rather than be forced to say, “No, that can’t happen” etc.

I could feel the pull of that later argument in playing the Starter Set. The game plays pretty quickly, though I did have to completely improvise as the first thing that happened in combat (a player jabbed a horse to have it run over some adversaries, and there sure as hell were no rules to dictate that).  Still, it was fine, I made up some stuff and the game played on.  Players didn’t have to pour over character sheets or rules, and play continued with people getting more into their characters (pregens, none the less) than I would sometimes see in other games.  Adversaries remained quite dangerous, but death was largely manageable (but present as well with a particular bugbear doing some lovely crit damage to the mage along the way).

The adventure itself, is set in Forgotten Realms.  I’ve never been a fan of the Realms, really (Greyhawk being my cup of tea) but it was familar, and didn’t have the oddities that 4E embraced.  It had a very solid, basic fundamental Tolkenian base, and that was good for what it was.  The first part of the adventure itself is a standard mini-crawl with a brief outdoor encounter.  While nothing special, I was pleased with it, and it hit the fundamentals in a way that spoke to me as a long time player.  Further sections of the story (which we have not played) promise a series of urban non-combat encounters and an overarching story line that plays in the NPC backstories nicely.  It’s a non-fussy non-fancy strong but basic mini-adventure path that most players should enjoy.

The play of the game itself made me remember those years of playing 1st edition and having to make things up, but playing and playing fast.  As with any good group, a lot of fun was had, people threw themselves into their characters, and a great time was had by all.   The reduced tactical nature of the game definitely created a sort of oddness about play, but tactics still remained relevant, and players maneuvered for advantage to to avoid disadvantage, which gave it some teeth it might have lacked without those distinctions.  Players would think outside of the box and add a little gusto their usual play, fishing for advantage.  Sometimes I would give it but most of the time I would not, as the bastard in me dictated.  No one seemed ruffled by that development.

 

AFTERMATH AND ASSESSMENT

Wrapping up, everyone clearly had a good time.  Many of these were old time players, but some were newer, but the reaction was largely the same.  I found myself oddly enthralled by the play of the game, and eager for more.  This, I did not expect.  Not at all.  We’re 4 1/2 modules into Reign of Winter, and I started to feel a little guilty about my pull towards this new system.  New things are often exciting, but the sense I had was really a yearning to revisit in and feel out more of these changes and how effective they could be.

Grognards, I know.  What is wrong with this guy?  Well, it comes down to, at least at this stage, this is a fun game.  The only thing I would say is, it doesn’t necessarily feel like D&D.  Or if it does, it doesn’t feel to me like my primary game.  Time will tell its potential, and it’s going to have a lot to prove when it comes to high level play and warding off power creep. The game is easy going, lite, and fast.  It doesn’t dwell in detail, and is streamlined for a more casual gaming experience.  And I think that’s what it comes down to.  This may be just a game that you play sometimes; a game you play when you want to drink a beer and kick back, rather than crunch numbers.  You could play with a larger group, jump in and have a great time with it.  You could play at a drop of a hat, and not have to weigh spell selections or use a program to put a character or NPC together.

That said, there are a number of cons to keep in mind.  I don’t feel like it is going to have the same ability to sustain interest as higher levels are obtained.  I think that the simplicities may begin to show wear at the higher levels, but to be honest, t’s too early to tell just yet.  It doesn’t feel like it has the gravitas to support a major campaign.  That said, we played bigger campaigns in the old days in a system not too dissimilar from this, so really it comes down to the player and the GM.

And perhaps that’s the major thrust of all of this:  You can simplify or complicate any game to any degree, but the quality of the game and the experience is going to rely on the GM more than any other factor.  You could have a great complex game that ran smoothly, or may be a confusing mess depending on your GM.  D&D 5E is more simple, but the quality of your experience is going to rely on who is running your game, and their ability to react to the more rules-free environment.

In the age of the internet, there is going to be some nerd rage out there.  I would temper that.  The Starter box is totally optional, but good for dipping your toes in the water early on with minimal investment of time and resources. Give it a shot, and don’t get wound up as to whether it’s going to replace anything or not… the system is different, and should be treated like a different fantasy game than your 3.5 / Pathfinder game (just like Tunnels & Trolls, GURPS, and DCC).  Take it at face value, and who knows, you may be just as surprised as I was.

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