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HAPPINESS IS MANDATORY; A review of Mongoose’s new take on the Paranoia RPG

May 29, 2017 1 comment

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Paranoia has been around for decades, and is a game I was in love with 20 years ago.  Recently, I picked up and read (cover to cover) Mongoose’s take on life in our beloved Alpha Complex, and found that not only was happiness mandatory, but it was pretty darn easy to comply.

If you’ve never seen the game before, Paranoia is a darkly humorous RPG where you play a citizen of Alpha Complex, a sealed vast complex of various sectors built to survive some great calamity.  Alpha Complex is controlled by The Computer, a semi-omnipotent semi-insane artificial intelligence that has, over hundreds of cycles of operation, turned Alpha Complex into an Orwellian witch hunt for commies, mutants, and members of secret societies.   Traditionally, you play a faithful troubleshooter just above the minimum security clearance level, who also happens to be a mutant and a member of a secret society.  You have six clones (because a computer knows something about backups), and death comes easily.  Most games typically involve hunting each other, incriminating yourself, hunting threats to the complex, and getting blown up in a variety of dramatic hilarious ways, from simple R&D product testing to actual threats.

Mongoose has done little to change this classic formula thematically, but has done a great job of sprucing up the rules and play of the game to match the character the game has always carried with it.  Here are the primary changes for long time players:

  • Cards have been added to make equipment and duties easier to keep track of, and have created action cards you can use add story elements or interrupt another players action to make things interesting.  Since screwing over the guy sitting next to you is half the fun, it makes for creative fast paced play.
  • Skills are tested by rolling dice and tracking 5’s or 6’s (with all rolls of 1-4 taking away a success if the player has a negative skill number, or being ignored with a positive skill number).  Players are encouraged to make creative combinations of their four Stats (Violence, Brains, Chutzpah and Mechanical) and a large list of skills.
  • Along with your skill dice, you roll a “Computer Dice” (they say Dice because the word ‘die’ is used too much already in the book).  Rolling a Computer on the Computer Dice forces a player to lose “Moxie” (your ability to cope) and represents either equipment malfunction or the Computer’s helpful interference pushing the player closer and closer to the breaking point. Run out of Moxie and you lose it in the way that is funniest at the time.
  • Commies are now termed the more generic “terrorists” (though you still can and do have commie terrorists, so that’s pretty much the same.
  • All characters are implanted at birth with a Cerebral Cortech and cyber-eyes which allow the computer to beam programs straight into the character’s brain, as well as video treason with the characters own eyes as witnesses for (or against) them.
  • Players now perceive in augmented reality, with name tags and “treason stars” floating above other players.  5 stars and you’re laser fodder.
  • Players are awarded “XP Points” by the Computer for positive actions and behavior, and are docked XP Points for negative or treasonous behavior.  XP Points can be used to buy skill and stat upgrades, software packages, and security clearance upgrades, complete with cake to celebrate with.

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I won’t get into some of the rules that the GM uses, as they are above your security clearance, but I’ll summarize by saying that they remain fast and loose, and easy for any GM to apply.  The players often times end up making things more interesting than the GM could ever manage through attempts at creative problem solving.

Overall, Mongoose’s take on the game emphasizes creativity and minimizes mechanics, which really has always matched the particular play style of this game.  You don’ win Paranoia, you survive it.

The main box comes with five dry erase character sheets, a players book, a GM book (which made me laugh out loud reading it several times), and book with three adventures in it that start off with the players at infrared status (minimum security status) and moving their way up, learning alpha complex as you go.  It’s a great series of adventures because it presumes no knowledge of the system and lets players learn.  It also is written in such a way that the GM can read that first and run the game before reading the rules.  It’s pretty amazing and a great way to jump right in.

Pick this game up if your friends can enjoy sabotaging each other with hilarious consequences and you’re a GM capable of thinking on your feet to make things fun. It’s a great change of pace from the same old fantasy game and makes for a great one shot in between campaign sessions.

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Categories: Mechanics, Reviews, RPGs

Review: Tales from the Yawning Portal

April 2, 2017 Comments off

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Alright, let’s jump right in….

What’s in it?

Tales from the Yawning Portal is Wizard’s latest release for 5th Edition, and is the same high production quality as their other releases.  Unlike previous releases, it is a series of unconnected older adventures that have been converted up to 5th edition from previous editions of the game (ranging from several OD&D mods to some early 3rd edition modules, and some playtest content).

The adventures featured are:

  • The Sunless Citadel
  • The Forge of Fury
  • Against the Giants Trilogy
  • The Tomb of Horrors
  • The Hidden Shrine of Tamaochan
  • White Plume Mountain
  • Dead in Thay

There is also a brief chapter for magic items (15 of these) and a chapter for monsters (39 of them).  Also, starting of the book is a brief flavor detail for, you guessed it, the Yawning Portal Tavern.

Those are the facts.  Now, the real question…

Should I Buy it?

This book is for grognards wanting to spare themselves the minimal trouble of converting a few old classic scenarios for their group, many of whom may not have played the mods.  Alternately, it’s for newer players that have heard about classic mods and want to take a crack at them in 5E and see what all the fuss is about.

Tales from the Yawning Portal takes the heavy lifting out of conversion, cleans up some weird oddities from older mods, and generally makes the older content much more approachable for a newer player, primarily because old originals are perhaps hard to find and the trouble of converting some of these classics may be a little daunting.

So, do you need to buy it?  No.  You definitely do not.

Should you?  Only if you want to revisit these classics.  I personally do, but that’s not going to describe everyone.

This is a collection of classic mods first and a general game supplement second, or perhaps even third.  In some ways I appreciate the fact that Wizards isn’t spamming their release schedule with Fiend Folios and Magic Item Compendiums in droves, forcing us to shell out for semi-mandatory releases.  On the other hand, I feel like getting 39 monsters at a time is a somewhat slower financial torture.  That, and now if I want to find a monster, I have to flip through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or now Yawning Portal to find what I’m looking for in addition to the Monster Manual.  It’s not really convenient or logical.

In a lot of ways, 5th Edition is a response (perhaps a kneejerk response) to the vitriol that arose as a result of the new ideas of 4th Edition.  4th Edition is commonly summarized as “a great game, just not dungeons and dragons”.  As a result, 5th edition has a much more old school feel, without all that horrible THAC0.  This is a slapshot right down the throats of all those geezers like myself that just want to play ancient modules until we die, and make other people play them too.

The great thing about this book is that you get a lot of content, and a lot of short usable play hours with it.  You can play pieces of it without having to feel married to it for a year (a complaint that some of us are feeling in our current Out of the Abyss campaign).  Being able to play a few sessions, then stop, can be very welcome when seeking published content.  Also, they snuck the ENTIRE GIANTS TRILOGY in here!  That is Fricking Awesome!  So there is good to be had.

The monsters, however, as well as the magic items, are there to support the rest of the published works and don’t really stand on their own as a supplement (nor do I believe they were held out to do so).  Overall, it’s great to have on the shelf, but the home campaigner or the long haul campaigner is going to scratch their heads at this release. This is nostalgic potpourri and historical esoterica.

So, proceed with the knowledge of what this book is, and see if it is worthy of your shelf.  It’s on mine, and I’m glad for it and look forward to sharing some old classic content with my group for a couple 3-shots.

A parting note:

One last thing I wanted to mention, and can’t seem to find a place to fit into this review, is the curious disappointment I have that the Yawning Portal, famous for it’s connection to Undermountain, is not at the head of a book for UNDERMOUNTAIN!  It’s a fun way to connect these modules as tales from tavern-goers but something I hope Wizards will attempt in the months and years to come.  That’s a classic that definitely belongs on the shelf.

 

 

Categories: 5e, Adventure, Books, DnD, Reviews, RPGs, WOTC

Review: Volo’s Guide to Monsters (5E)

November 6, 2016 2 comments

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TLDR: If you’re running 5E, you need to buy this book.

When I heard that the next book in the 5E lineup was Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I was a little disappointed.  I’ve never been much of a Forgotten Realms fan, and Volo’s Guide sounded like it was going to be a fluff piece with articles similar to the old Dragon Magazine “Ecology” pieces.  While that’s great for magazine content, I didn’t get too excited about the prospect of a $45 book with minimal new information.

Fortunately for me, Wizards really outdid themselves in packaging a variety of things in this book that make it a very valuable addition to my growing 5E collection.

Volo’s Guide starts with the following disclaimer in small, easily missed print, under the cover attribution:

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not vouch for, guarantee, or provide any promise regarding the validity of the information provided in this volume by Volothamp Geddarm.  Do not trust Volo. Do not go on quests offered by Volo. Do not listen to Volo. Avoid being seen with him for risk of guilt by association.  If Volo appears in your campaign, your DM is undoubtedly trying to kill your character in a manner that can be blamed on your own actions.  The DM is probably trying to do that anyway, but with Volo’s appearance, you know for sure. We’re not convinced that Elminster’s commentary is all that trustworthy either, but he turned us into flumphs last time we mentioned him in one of these disclaimers.

I enjoy the fact that wizards is having fun with this volume, and it made me enjoy getting into the book a bit more than if I hadn’t noticed it.  I also appreciate Wizards sold a special limited edition FLGS cover for only $5 more (pictured above) to help the local shops get a leg up.

The book is broken into three parts: Monster Lore, Character Races, and a Bestiary.

Monster Lore

Monster Lore, the first 100 pages of the book, is what I had expected, but some crunch where I otherwise expected fluff for lifestyles of Beholders, Giants, Gnolls, Goblinoids, Hags, Kobolds, Mindflayers, Orcs and Yuan-Ti.

Examples of neat details that might constitute crunch include beholder charts detailing size, shape, texture, and a great random name generator, with tactics, variant eyestalk abilities, minions, treasure and a lair map.  History, mindset, and biological function is laid out in a depth previously unvisited in text as far as I’m aware, allowing the GM a deeper background on this favorite of monsters.

The Chapters going forth are what I’d call asymmetrical, being that they don’t follow a routine pattern.  Chapters on Giants have more details about origins, their habitat and personality traits. Gnolls have details on tactics, random traits and features, and tables to help build a gnollish warband.  Mind Flayers have some magic items listed that are specific to their culture.  Yuan-ti have a variety of charts detailing their variable physiology.

Each race detailed has a map of their typical lair, which gives some great examples where the trappings of the race might be otherwise somewhat mysterious (Mind-Flayers in particular).

Overall, these chapters are well written and flesh out the background of these common and popular monsters.  Is it essential? No.  Is it helpful? Yes.  My fear had been that for $45.00 I was going to get that, and that be it. Fortunately, it goes on.

Character Races

Now we start to hit things I can work with, and things that people invariably try to do on their own with varying degrees of success.  I happen to currently be playing a kobold priest of Kurtulmak in our Out of the Abyss game, and have been playing a kobold trapper race variant my GM got off the internet somewhere.  I yearned for canon guidance on what a kobold PC should look like.  Fortunately, Volo delivers.

Races detailed are Aasimar, Firbolgs, Goliaths, Kenku, Lizardfolk, Tabaxi, and Tritons with a separate section for “Monstrous Adventurers” giving blocks for the already detailed bugbear, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, orc and yuan-ti pureblood.

I’ve always been a guy that likes the idea of playing the monster as a PC, and this opens doors for me.

Bestiary

This, by far, seals the deal for this book being a must-have for the dedicated 5E player.  100 pages of new and classic monsters that were conspicuously absent from the Monster Manual.  A few personal favorites include:

  • Barghest
  • Bodak
  • Catoblepas
  • Darkling
  • Baubau
  • Devourer
  • Flail Snail!
  • Froghemoth!
  • Several new Variant classed giants, very cool
  • Girallion
  • Flind
  • Leucrotta
  • Quickling
  • Shadow mastiff
  • Spawn of Kyuss (Greyhawk?)
  • Trapper
  • Vargouille
  • Vegepygmy!
  • Xvarts (Eric Mona must have been involved in this)
  • Yeth Hound
  • Many more!

Also a number of “Beasts” (including a rot grub swarm) and 21 new stock NPCs which are sure to prove super useful on an ongoing basis (in particular, it appears a mage of each spell casting school, archers, archdruid, war priest and so on).  Not mentioned in my list are also special “classed” versions of various orcs, yuan-ti, hobgoblins, and so on, as well as some subcategories of other races like beholders that will prove useful in putting on games that utilize those species.  This is where the book proves out its crunchiness but give me stat blocks that I can use to have a more interesting game.

Overall

Wizards has done a good job of bringing a little more than just the basics to each book it has published.  Each adventure module has had a few spells and a few more general stat blocks that make each book tempting to pick up.  This book, as a sourcebook, doubles down on that principle making there elements that you just can’t afford to miss.  This book has extended value for the GM of your group, but remains optional for the player short of playing a racial variant.   That said, I think anyone who picks it up is going to find it’s a great addition to their collection.

All Praise Kurtulmak!

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The Value of Unplugging

October 10, 2016 Comments off

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So after observing that our kids fight constantly when exposed to a lot of TV and Video games, we decided (okay, my wife decided) there’d be no electronics during the week (with a few very specific exceptions) during the regular school year.

Harsh.

I was waiting for the kids to drive her nuts, and for everyone to then drive me nuts, and for that rule to be abolished and things to go back to normal.  To my surprise, after a day or two there were few complaints. The kids starting fighting less, and started actually “doing” more.  They slept better, got more exercise, and generally seemed less cranky. And best of all, we started spending more time together, with them taking an interest in RPG’s and Board games.

If you’re reading this and you’re a millennial tabletop gamer, I salute you.  The discretion to play role-playing games or board games when you’ve grown up with a plethora of media options was an unlikely one; streaming video, various video game platforms with multiplayer functionality, not to mention cell phone games and apps… it took a lot for you to even care enough to try to play a role-playing or board game where humans had to assemble in person around a table after learning rather complex rules.  If you’re older, you may understand that in the 80’s, when G.I. Joe went off the air for the day at 4:30, there was only the news and later Miami Vice or the A-Team to look forward to.  That downtime needed to be filled with something that wasn’t TV, and there was a limit to how much ATARI you could play before ragequitting.

Hence, in my day, tabletop role-playing games, board games , and war games were what we turned to.  And of course, books, sports, etc.  But on your basic rainy day or evening, we poured over the books and made characters or pulled out Talisman or O.G.R.E and had at it. Unwittingly, my wife has re-created that experience for my kids, and now they’re looking with renewed interest at my hobbies as a way to pass some enjoyable time.

I previously blogged about how my son showed some enjoyment from playing Dungeons & Dragons, but since he’s not quite old enough to be literate, he’s not catapulted into it like I had hoped.  My older daughter is a voracious reader, however, and after finishing Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle books, she’s showing a lot more appreciation for the concepts in fantasy RPG gaming than she ever has previously.

Both, as it turns out, love painting miniatures.

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I’ve had to set some restrictions to make sure they don’t paint things I have plans for, and not everything is a gem, but some are actually quite good, from both the younger one and the older.

Moreover, they’ve both become eager players of board games.  We’ve finally been able to start working through my massive collection of board games, half of which have stayed in the shrink-wrap due to the difficulty finding time with other gamers when we’ve got an RPG schedule that doesn’t allow the time.  Exposure to some of the board games like Wizards of the Coast’s Temple of Elemental Evil has got her interested in a more RPG-like experience.  It’s helpful her friends have read the same books and also enjoy painting miniatures as well (enough to shop for their own figures on reapermini.com).  For better or worse, we may just have a tween girls gaming group in the making.  You can bet I’ll blog about that, should it happen.

The time we’ve spent together has been fun for all of us, and we’re talking and sharing and growing closer as a family when this is going on, which is contrary to the quietude of zoning out in a show or game that doesn’t invite the distraction of conversation.  Of course, you don’t have to unplug to share this time, but you may just find that there’s peace that comes with cutting out those unhealthy distractions and getting back to a simpler time before Netflix.

I got on today to write board game reviews from the new games we have been playing, but realized this was maybe the more important part of the story.  Next week and for hopefully weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more of what we’re playing and how it works with younger players as well.

Evaluating Evil – Revisiting Evil Campaigns

March 15, 2016 Comments off

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One of the greatest things about role-playing is that the choices are not limited.  You can elect to solve a problem different ways, act recklessly or thoughtlessly, and indeed can do something downright evil, and the GM has to adapt to that approach.  It’s the one thing that, to my mind, will always keep role-playing slightly ahead of video games, no matter how interactive they tend to get.  With the option of unfettered control, players can elect to play evil characters in RPG’s with some degree of success. However, evil campaigns are where the boundless possibilities of table-top gaming can become a two-edged sword.

ALIGNMENT ORIGINS

It has been widely suggested that Gary Gygax original developed alignments with significant inspiration from  Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which contributed the idea of Law versus Chaos and of forces aligning with that principle.  Basic Dungeons and Dragons had Law, Chaos and Neutrality depicted handily by this, one of my favorite sketches from those books:

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This, theoretically, should just about do it, but not to keep things too simple, our beloved Gary went and made this much more marvelously complex alignment chart, with Good and Evil, Law and Chaos on varying axes:

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This added shades of nuance, and later became colored with tendencies.  Lawful Neutral with Lawful Good tendencies etc. etc.   This allowed for a description of many different layers of alignment, and theoretically should permit a player to describe his character’s beliefs pretty closely.

WHY?

This level of detail originally existed to force characters to act in accord with their proscribed ethos, maybe as a story telling tool, maybe as a heavy-handed way of teaching players how to role-play. Some of it was simply a game mechanic or limiter on how players interacted with items and spells – numerous items would do damage to or be unusable by members of a certain alignment.  I believe it was to limit capricious behavior by players who, having different consequences in-game than in real life, find themselves looting and killing more quickly than they typically would in other situations.  It’s a clumsy tool for keeping the game on track.

THE ISSUES WITH EVILNESS

So what happens when you toss the limiting element of that out the window?  An Evil Campaign incorporates alignments that don’t tend to go past Chaotic Neutral, and are traditionally very difficult to get off the ground.  When alignment fails to work as a tool, all bets are off.  Characters can burn buildings and torture the innocent to get their results, and a party full of such characters has no limitation or recourse, making the story telling a very difficult proposition for the GM.

It’s very strange for me to articulate this idea, that alignment is still a tool we need to keep things on track.  But most stories that are written or created take the heroic point of view as a given, or at least the mercenary view as the farthest the players are likely to take it. While, Mercenary values should have some appeal to all parties, but there is an added consideration when Evil is at play… betrayal, backstabbing, and advancing the cause of the adversary are all on the table.  Accordingly, Evil is very hard to consistently motivate.

It’s more relevant than ever because Paizo has recently released its Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, where, for the first time, the adventure path centers around evil characters.  Serving the fiend-aligned throne of Cheliax, the heroes take part in a series of adventures to quell uprisings in the name of Iomade and so on.  It promises to be an interesting experiment to see if an adventure series can be constructed in such a way so as to not break down in to absolute chaos.

Paizo is aware of the danger of such an event.  In the introduction, they say that the key to not having everyone kill each other is for everyone not to be a jerk, and for the group to advance the mutual cause of fun.  This is the best answer one can give, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is very wishful thinking.

BACK IN MY DAY…

Several years ago, I ran an evil campaign, known only as “The Evil Campaign”.  People hungered for it, and for a few years, it was a favorite.  It coincided roughly with the publication of the Book of Vile Darkness, which gave us some rich material to work with.  The characters were nuanced, and the players some of the best I’ve played with.  Thinking that these details were enough of a check on their own, I introduced the characters to the world without any safeguards in place.

They literally all killed each other within 30 minutes.

The only survivor was, fortunately, the mild mannered and charismatic necromancer, who had gathered each body as it fell and dragged it back to his laboratory. Struggling to find a way to bring the game back into some sort of order, I extended an invitation to this necromancer from an agent of Iuz the Old, and decided then that some sort of guarantee needed to be made as to compliance, since player restraint did not appear to be trustworthy.  Acknowledging its cheesiness, I borrowed from SSI’s Curse of the Azure Bonds game, imprinting them with tattooed sigils that stay their hand’s when moving to kill an ally.

Through his clumsy but necessary mechanic, we were able to play for another year or two, though players worked to undo other characters in the game and constantly sought ways to kill one another, getting around the curse.  While much fun was had, and there were moments of peace, it was in the nature of the characters to be at odds.  It wasn’t bad role-playing, in fact it was quite good role-playing, but it was somewhat the nature of the beast. In the end, it was exhausting as a game master to keep the story moving in a predictable way allowing me to prepare, and we fell away from it. You could never tell what crazy thing the players were going to do next, but often it was to kill a major NPC because they looked at them funny.

REAL EVIL

That’s because often, as players, we hold Evil to a much higher standard than we do good. Players act as though evil aggressively seeks out mischief, chaos and death.  And while it sometimes does those things, it more often strikes randomly as granted by opportunity. The true face of evil is not the monster that wants to kill, burn and destroy.  It’s very seldom Rovagug or Tharizdun.  It’s typically more like Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It’s subtle, selfish, and sneaky.  In a fantasy game, the evil out there operates in the open by virtue of acknowledging the power of law and working around it, nibbling at its edges, and slipping back away into the night. Evil people work together all the time, and while there are disputes, the first move is not always to kill each other.  There are layers of frustration, and means of revenge that aren’t killing.

It’s a tough road to go down, but I look forward to hearing what players in Paizo’s Hell’s Vengeance AP experience.  It’s got potential, and if someone could pull it off, it would be them.  But I think more likely, we’ll see a pile of bodies by the end of the first book, and maybe another reskinning of the old Azure Bonds mechanic by a few GM’s.   Look forward to hearing how good ‘bad’ can really be from our readers who have played it, and what they’d change if they could.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Mysteries of Metagaming

January 31, 2016 1 comment

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As we approached the first troll of the campaign, I anticipated that were were going to have this discussion.

It’s 5th edition D&D and none of us, to my knowledge, have encountered a troll in the new system.  However, we all know by now that the regenerative abilities of the Troll are legendary and horrible and punishing for those who assume that dead is dead.  Unsurprisingly, the players imported out of game knowledge to ready against the rise of the troll, lighting torches and oil, and the debate started.

“I spend a ki point to trigger my defensive ability…I’m not trusting that shit,” the Monk said as the troll went down.

“Two things,” I said, “One, you know nothing of trolls, and two, you’re like 30 feet away, and you’re going to waste a ki point… so don’t for either of those two reasons.”

“Certainly,” the Wizard said, “We’ve heard something about trolls.  I’m a scholar if nothing else.”

“Maybe,” I allowed, “but there’s lots of horrible creatures out there, trolls included.  Make some rolls and I’ll give you some wives tales and things.

Party rolled with less than amazing results, but indeterminate.

“You’ve all heard a story about an old woman who captured a troll and cut off its head, then kept the head in a basket.  The troll would then tell her secrets, and she used it to get out of a variety of challenges and marry well and live happily ever after.”

“Good enough for me, light it up” someone said.  Burning starts.

Hmph, I thought.  “Isn’t anyone going to get the head?”

Blank stares.

“I am not taking this things head in a basket.” the paladin said.

And that was that.  I was a little disappointed, as an evil GM, that I couldn’t get the players on this old surprise, even if we were all fully aware of the trick.  Did it diminish their fun?  I don’t think so.  Did it diminish mine?  Only slightly.  But overall, it seemed bad form from what I consider to be a group of truly excellent gamers.  That said, I feel confident I would have done the same thing in their shoes.  So what do we do, as gamers, with the knowledge of metagaming and the desire to metagame, and perhaps even the need in some cases to metagame?


 

Wikipedia defines Metagaming as:

Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself..

Now before you think I’m living comfortably in my glass house, I do this too and am not trying to throw stones.  We ALL do this to some greater or lesser degree.  Whether it’s using tactics that your 1st level character wouldn’t use, or not running when attacked by goblins for the first time, or picking spells based on your experience as a gamer as to how useful they are.  If we didn’t metagame at all, most of our characters might end up returning to their farming and sheepherding responsibilities after the immediate crisis had passed, and tell the same story at the local inn every Godsday about the time they went down to the old Moathouse and tangled with a couple humanoids.

So what do you do about it?  First, you have to know what form of metagaming you have, and then identify whether its a problem that you need to remedy, or if you even want to.  Metagaming has a certain utility that might just have a place in some games.  This is me playing devil’s advocate with myself to some extent, but let’s play this out for a minute.

I’ve identified the most common types of metagaming that I encounter on a day to day basis:

Floating Head

  • FLOATING HEADS – This is where you offer friendly advice to another player on how to run their character or communicate your in-game desires to them out of game. Your head floats off its shoulders, whispers in their ear, and floats back, so to speak.
    • PRO’s: This keeps the action on point, makes the play most effective, avoids general murder, clarifies miscommunication due to the abstraction of the setting, and occasionally reminds a player to act more in line with the way their character might actually respond, rather than what a less skilled or confused player might do under the circumstances.
    • CON’s: Leads to kibitzing and breaks the game.  You have to have some faith that a player knows how to run their character, and the imperfection of communication on a battlefield is a core issue in general for those involved in combat.  Further, spells like Rary’s Telepathic Bond allow for players to communicate in their heads with little other benefit, and this is a 5th LEVEL SPELL.  To do it with impunity without the benefit of the spell essentially negates its usefulness.
    • FINAL VERDICT: Should be kept to a minimum, to address player confusion rather than to advise, instruct, or exhort.

meta-gaming

REVISIONIST HISTORY – As illustrated above, a plan or course of action is reversed after one or more active steps are taken to complete the initial task, only for the action to be withdrawn or reversed one or more steps to apply the corrective action

  • PRO’s – Often in a game, the order of actions is unclear, and polite society frowns on interrupting or shouting over other people talking.  Often, the loudest, most quick witted, or most ridiculous player leaps into action while other players who may be playing quicker, smarter, or more clever characters might not articulate their actions first, and the GM rule that they are too late to stop Mr. Dwarf Smash from axing the door.  That’s not fair, is it?
  • CONS – People do dumb things, and so do their characters.  Half the fun is watching players and characters make mistakes with deadly or hilarious consequences.  Sometimes its allowable, or initiative needs to be rolled, but players often want to rewind events back too far, and gain out of game knowledge of the consequences by doing so. It slows down the game and confuses everthing.
  • FINAL VERDICT: We use a rule at our table that you can back up most actions until a die is rolled.  Then, the action locks in.  I would say too that if the players discovered something, like a trap, that they would not have known, it’s too late as well.  You have to be careful in looking at this, however, as the crazy barbarian shouting “I smash in the door” should be interpreted as saying, “I want to smash in the door” and a few seconds pass before it happens.  Louder does not mean faster.

magic

OUT OF GAME KNOWLEDGE – Using personal knowledge of the rules, books, and statistics out of game to affect the actions of a character in game.

  • PROS: It’s unavoidable to some extent, but sometimes allows the players to have more fun.  It keeps the game master in check when the rules are bent or broken.  Can create some appreciation for the nuance of a clever build/trap/spell combination.  It’s also very hard to relearn everything in game in every campaign you ever play in.
  • CONS: Changes the flow of the storytelling and arguably breaks the game.  Creates situations where player characters act in discord with their experience. Especially dangerous, however, for Game Masters who use strengths and weaknesses of characters against them when monsters may have not subjective knowledge of those weaknesses. This would also encapsulate excellent GM tactics where monsters may not be operating at that level.
  • FINAL VERDICT – This is the toughest to avoid and also perhaps the most onerous at the same time.  It is perhaps the worst, however, on the GM side, where stupid monsters fight with tactics and knowledge that is not properly afforded them.  I have felt the urge to avoid targeting a player with a spell that he is warded against, but feel good about myself when I do it anyway.  Typically a nod to this sort of learning curve can help bring the game into technical compliance with the spirit of the game itself. (i.e. He takes a swing, and his best blow clatters off your armor. He knows he’ll never penetrate it and moves on to an easier target, etc. etc.)

Does Metagaming have a place at your table?  It’s already there, I can almost guarantee it.  There are a few pointers I can offer as I’ve seen them used in the past:

  • Change Things– Book knowledge is useless when a monster’s appearance changes slightly.  A friend terrified us by making kobolds appear to be tiny red-skinned devils.  We actually fled.  A little twist can keep things interesting, and is used to great effect in Dungeon Crawl Classics.  You never know what’s going to happen there.
  • 6 Word Maximum – Players get six words each round of combat to communicate, even off their turn.  Kind of fun to limit yourself, and keeps it brief.  Limitations of sound travelling through stone still applies.
  • Attribute Checks – If a player is about to botch it, like not check for traps when a talented theif is in the party, a roll may be suggested or required as long as not too much has happened in reliance on that action.  Intelligence or Wisdom Checks, or Charisma checks by other players to get the acting player to stop and listen.  Initiative in worst case scenarios. Let the dice then fall where they may, and always freeze the action once a roll has determined success or failure.
  • Caller – Grognards will remember that the game originally had a position called the “Caller” who would take the assembled players (usually about 10 in those days) and once the plan was digested, would call out to the GM what they would do.  When things get confusing, I still use this, and it is amazingly helpful.  Try it when things get crazy.  Old Gary knew a thing or two about what he was doing, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt.

As always, we love to hear what your suggestions might be.  Look forward to your comments.

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Unearthed Arcana’s 5th Edition “Battle System” review

January 3, 2016 2 comments

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Last March, Mike Mearls released a mass combat system for 5th Edition games Dungeons and Dragons, “When Armies Clash”, that has been dubbed “Battle System” due in part to the file name.  Grognards will also remember Battlesystem for 2nd edition, a system for mass combat.  This was released through Unearthed Arcana, the name for Wizard’s monthly newsletter with new and optional content for 5th edition games.

I’ve always been a fan of at least the idea of mass combat for D&D, as the movement of armies seemed to be the end game for many campaign events, especially for your first edition fighters who commanded large numbers of men as a  9th level ability.  A current and former player from my high school days reminded me a of a large scale combat scenario I had put together back in the 90’s that involved mass combat and hand drawn hexes to complete our 4 year campaign. It was, as he recalled, one of the coolest ways to end a campaign he had ever experienced, and hadn’t re-experienced it since.

That’s flattering, but plenty of game designers and players have attempted to incorporate such a system into their current games, and indeed Gary Gygax was playing Chainmail and like games as mass-combat first before Dave Arneson brought the adventure indoors to Castle Blackmoor and later Castle Greyhawk.  I regret to say that I haven’t sat down to play the original rules, and maybe should. But I have explored various subsequent iterations, and have even taken a stab at my own through Skyland Games’ Fog of War. While somewhat fun to play, it’s not a masterpiece, but check it out and remember it was written with 4th edition in mind, if that even matters.

Really, no mass battle system game has really hit the nail on the head and also been easily adapted for tabletop play.  Mearls attempts to accomplish this with the recent Unearthed Arcana release.  It succeeds in some areas and fails in others.  We’ll go into that in a second.

ORGANIZATION

The New Battlesystem Mearls presents is a short document, just over 8 pages.  In it, groups of 10 combatants form up into a single figure on the battlefield, called a “Stand“.  Stands join together to form one of two types of Unit.  These units are Skirmish Units, which can Hide, move in a non-adjacent (but close) formation, and take the higher of their component initiative bonuses in rolling initiative.  The other primary unit, Regimental Units, must remain adjacent to one another and cannot hide, but may take different configuration that allow advantages (such as advantage on attacks, bonuses to defense, and so on).  Lastly, a special unit exists, the Solo Unit, which represents a sine player, capable of joining a unit.

Stands separated from their units and Solo Units take double damage and are attacked with advantage.

MECHANICS

What Mearls does is smart, and almost necessary.  It incorporates the existing rules, and changes the scale down to 20′ squares.  It eliminates diagonal movement to avoid  what we call “F#%k You, Pythagoras” rules inequities in diagonal movement under the current rules set, but most other rules continue to exist as written and take place on a representative scale.  Ergo a spell that has a range of 20′ strike else square away. Specific rules set out what happens when your ability doesn’t affect an entire square and other gray areas.

Standard movement of a stand  is divided by 5 to determine their speed for battlefield movement.  Monster abilities that include a distance effect, such as a Minotaur’s knockback  ability, are divided by 5.  Other ranged attacks are divided by 20.  This inconsistency is problematic, as we’ll discuss below.

MORALE

Units begin Morale checks after losing half the number of their unit (which, coupled with the penalties for becoming detached,create the primary justifications for acting in a unit).  Leaderless units that fail run with abandon towards the safety of the table edge, which Solo Units attached to a unit may force rerolls until escape makes the retreat permanent.  Units are removed at the END of the round, allowing the simultaneous nature of the combat to occur.

WHAT WORKS?

Simple brief rules are a must.  Mearls accomplishes this for the most part by keeping them short and incorporating the primary rulebooks by reference, without elaboration.  In our playtest, one player threw up her hands at the rules-set, but adopted it easily when play started after a round or two.

Movement is gridded, and uses a representative scale of 10, making it playable with what you’ve been using in regards to miniatures, maps, and so on.

The need for a solo unit is adopted but also penalized for working alone against an army. Allows the players to be somewhat effective on their own, and to take ownership of another unit and command.

Character death is avoidable if the unit is destroyed, but solo units stand to be killed if they get out on their own.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

Reading the document itself, it’s brevity is a blessing and a curse.  It isn’t comprehensive (it IS FREE, after all) and while it makes it easy to read and digest, it doesn’t address the idiosyncrasies of D&D as it relates to mass combat.  Accordingly, a lot is placed on the GM to manage calls.  This is a mild complaint, but errata and FAQ’s would be helpful.   Overall, however, this has a feel of a pet project or weekend effort, rather than an organized release. In all likelihood, that’s just what it is; a home-game house-ruled experiment.  It would benefit for revision, extrapolation, and review.

Strange inconsistencies exist in the document.  Monster abilities and movement both are divided by 5, while ranged attacks and spells are divided by 20. There’s no explanation for why the difference in those measurements, but it makes a significant difference in the way the events play out. It diminishes the benefits of range, and gives a vague advantage to monsters that feels like a typo or unedited revision. I recall 1st edition calculated outdoor movement differently than indoor movement.  A throwback, perhaps?

The difference between skirmish units and regimental units are somewhat difficult to distinguish.  Certainly their regiment benefits and initiative calculations make for some differences, but skirmish units need to remain within 1 inch of each other, making their movement flexibility questionable.

Overall, the system takes more time than you would expect it to.  A relatively simple combat ended up taking us about three hours to play, though that would potentially improve with repetition, puzzling over the inconsistencies slowed us down.  (“Does this monk ability fall into the divided by 5 or divided by 20 measure?:) Most spells maintained a range that made them useless on the battlefield absent a more generous interpretation of their measurement restrictions.

WHAT IS NEEDED?

A great question, but not one that is easily answered.  We can assume that every mass combat system needs a few common components:

  1. EASY TO LEARN – If you really want to play mass combat with some degree of dedication, a wide variety of games specialize in the mass combat experience as complete systems.  We don’t want a completely different system, we want something we can blend in with our Dungeons & Dragons.  Getting your 5 players to learn something new for a single game is going to be hard, so the system has to use the existing rules and shake up as little as possible.
  2. APPROPRIATE SCALES – Mass combat is entirely a matter of scale.  Arguably, you could play D&D normally and say everything was representative, but we break into inconsistencies where scale is concerned. Your ‘Burning Hands’ spell barely fills a corridor – why does it now explode across the ball-field sized area?
  3. MORALE – A key component of most war-games and battles is the importance of Morale.  A mechanic must exist that addresses what happens when allies break and run, and also to give a role for the great leaders (the players) that drive the action. Else, you diminish the role of the heroes, which is poor story telling if nothing else.
  4. PLAYER ROLES – Players have to have a way to be themselves on the battlefield.  It is unfair for the wizard’s fireballs to be under wraps when they would be most effectively used in a battlefield scenario, and pairing them with 10 additional wizards to cast one fireball makes little sense as well.
  5. TACTICAL RELEVANCY – Massive battles should reward tactics, and have, ostensibly, advantages for positioning, flanking, charging and higher ground.

Mearl’s system his a lot of these but needs polish. Primarily, scales seem out of wack.  Also, when playing with mixed stands, play becomes confusing and irregular.  Largely, for playability, concessions probably need to be made.  Items or spells that amplify abilities, powers, and magic that allow a game to be played in a more consistent way. Without these concessions, you have to play everything straight and by the book.

And that’s probably the underlying problem.  While D&D was designed originally as a mass war game, D&D as it exists today wasn’t designed with that in mind, and doesn’t translate well on a direct basis.

While I might continue to use the system with slight modifications, Mearls suggests using objectives to accrue victory points, which adds a dimension of various goals other than annihilation that permits even a small force to prevail.

This Victory Point arrangement, sadly, is probably best applied without the ‘board game mini-game’ element. Mass combat is best represented in a game as a backdrop, with characters taking important action to secure victory points which are calculated to analyze respective success or failure.  This is well illustrated in the underrated 3.5 Edition supplement “Heroes of Battle” as well as in Paizo’s Reign of Winter Adventure Path module #70 “The Frozen Stars” as well as Pathfinder Society module Quest for Perfection: The Defenders of Nesting Swallow.   Heroes of Battle is all about running a game entirely centered around massive battle as a backdrop for the action, while The Frozen Stars portrays key events requiring the party  to complete key actions to earn victory points towards partial or total success. Defenders of Nesting Swallow addresses Defense Points, which reward players for strategic planning versus effective combat-action.   All have a lot to add to this conversation, and none involve combat grids and tactical movement.

Somewhere on the horizon, I am contemplating what to do with my now complete collection of Bloodstone Pass modules, which use the clunky 2nd Edition Battlesystem rules.  Are these modules, which incorporate necessarily the Battlesystem elements as a core component, really playable for a modern gamer not usually disposed to the time-suck of a mass combat system?  Are Mearls’ rules usable or adaptable in a helpful way for that series?  Can either that system or the traditional Battlesystem adaptable to be fun, quick, and accurate without leading to frustration? I’ll continue to seek the answer, as I have these past decades, until something truly fits the bill.

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Surely others have pondered these mysteries before.  What systems do you use, or what steps have you taken to bring the power of that final epic battlefield confrontation to your players?  Let us know.

 

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