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Review: Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Box

August 28, 2018 Comments off

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First, a little history…

Legend of the Five Rings is role playing set in Rokugan, which is similar to Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate, but with fantasy elements.  The setting features noble samurai,  wise monks and mysterious shugenja (priests)  that wield swords, fists, and spiritual powers (respectively) to obtain honor and fame in the honor-bound feudal setting.  Each character derives from a powerful clan (Crane, Crab, Lion, Phoenix, Dragon, Scorpion, and Unicorn) each with  their own motivations and agendas.

The game got its start in 1995 with AEG, which released a role playing game along with a collectible card game that was fairly popular at the time (and which persisted until 2015).   Fantasy Flight has acquired the rights to this rich setting, and launched things last year at Gen Con with an oriental styled parade from the street through Gen Con itself, gathering quite a crowd.

Here’s a fleeting picture I snapped at the time:

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2017 Rokugan Parade

Fantasy Flight is doing some pretty impressive stuff with the property, including kicking off the new card game (which is about a year old, and I’ve heard good things, but haven’t played). But more importantly for Skyland Games readers, they have been working on a new version of the RPG rules which have been in beta testing for some time now.  You can download those beta test rules HERE.  However, smart money might just guide you to pick up the Beginner box which just came out.  I did, and I’d say on the whole it was worth it, unless you’re sure sure sure you want to play and can’t wait for the final rules to be released next year (TBD as of this article).

The Beginner Box: Contents

The L5R Beginner Box is an attractive set, coming with maps of the larger region, maps of a medium sized city / village, and a map of a large castle not actually featured in the boxed set itself (but available for some online content I’ll discuss later).

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It also features a full set of Legend of the Rings dice, which are unique to the system. As with FFG’s Star Wars beginner boxes, the dice are about a $13 dollar value, which begins to justify the total MSRP of $39.95

The game includes an adventure that presumes no knowledge of the rules or how to play, and teaches both game master and players how to play as the game continues.  While theoretically that would allow you to start playing almost immediately, in reality the GM is going to need to read through the entire booklet to grasp the concepts before sitting down to run.

Without giving anything away, the adventure “The Topaz Championship” is a coming-of-age ceremony for persons of the samurai caste, which includes in this case a Phoneix clan shugenja, a Dragon clan Monk, a Crane clan Courtier and a Lion clan warrior.  The adventurers find themselves travelling together and form an unlikely bond when strange events occur that unite them in a common purpose.

The adventure itself is not the strongest adventure out there, but does unfold the concepts nicely and provides a way to ease into more and more of the rules as you play.  It starts with introducing setting and role playing concepts, then evolves into skill challenges, then non-lethal combat, then lethal combat.  Each character booklet presented to each player gives a skeletal version of the rules, indications of what the symbols on the dice mean, and what various actions can be taken.  A small more detailed rules-lite version of the full rules is also in the box, which allows for more nuanced play outside of the extra-lite rules in the adventure itself.

The Rules

The Beginner box gives us a good idea, if not a perfect idea, of what the game will look like upon release.  First I should note that, though the system holds similarities to the Genesys game that is the framework for many future releases from FFG, it is not that system, which to me was a bit of a disappointment.  While I have no desire to return the the days of d20 where everything was a d20 system and rules became painfully bland, there is some lack of utility in being similar to but different than a new standard from the same company.  Presumably, the rules presented are tied deeply into the concepts of the whole setting in a way to will prove meaningful enough to justify a new play format.

First, players have stats that derive from the Five Rings, (as set out by Musashi in 1645).  Fire = Passion; Earth = Discipline; Water = Adaptability; Air = Precision; Void = Spirituality

These are your core abilities, rather than agility, strength, etc.  The characters also have skills, ranging from law, to martial arts, to courtesy.  Many of the skills are not what you would call your standard fantasy adventure game skills.

Making a check requires rolling black ring dice, in addition to white skill dice.  One for each point you have in the ring or in the skill.

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You may keep as many dice as you have values in the ring you are using.  The versatility of the system is that it allows you to often parlay the way you are approaching something to make it something you are good at. For instance, if you want to knock someone down, you needn’t use Fire + Unarmed Combat (charging at them), you could instead nimbly dodge their blows, striking only with precision (Air+Unarmed Combat) or use their own momentum to throw them off balance (Water+Unarmed Combat).  Some approaches are more effective than others.

Dice have four results:

  • Success:  You need enough of these to reach your target number set by the GM
  • Exploding Successes: You count this as a success and then roll the die again, opting to keep this next roll as part of the first, or dropping it.  These subsequent rolls can go on into infinity and aren’t counted against you as part of your ring limit.
  • Opportunity: This works, as far as I can tell, like advantage in Genesys or FFG Star Wars, but perhaps with more restrictions depending on the type of ring you were using.  Rules are skeletal here, and may be expanded on in the main book.
  • Strife: This is emotion or stress that causes you to lose your cool.

Unlike those other systems, there are no difficulty, challenge or setback dice.  Also, strife appears along with positive dice results (like success, exploding success, and opportunity) thereby baiting the player to take those results.

Strife isn’t the end of the world, but if it surpasses your Discipline result, you can become compromised, which precludes the character from using results that have strife on them (which really cuts your opportunities).  That character can try to handle their situation until they regain composure, or they can become “unmasked” and clear their strife, usually with some loss of honor from their unseemly behavior.

Pros & Cons:

The game seems to have some potential, but as a new player to this version of the game, getting used to the idea of justifying your ring choice presented a little bit of a stumbling block.  With some more play, I’m confident that the game will feel more natural. In some ways it encourages roleplaying the type of character you are to fit your actions, and rewards creativity.

Dice in these games are always an issue.  Many of my players immediately splurged on the dice app available on Google Play and Apple.  These apps help to solve the problem of keeping track of what you previously rolled when you get a good run of exploding successes and start to run out of dice.  With a game at this point in development, everyone would have to own a beginner box to have dice of their own, and that’s not going to happen.  So it’s either pass those dice or get an app (for now).

The setting itself is unique, and as a student of Asian culture, I love a lot of the details, though these might be a little cumbersome for the unintitiated.  I’m unaware if any fantasy history has carried forward over the past 23 years.  People have loved this setting for decades and might not want to let that history go… like this guy:

The game is more serious than a lot of other fantasy settings, as it deals primarily with the conflict between desire and duty.  As such, L5R is likely to be a subtle game, and is really going to be the best fit with experienced gamers, or players that are naturally more serious and have a flair for the dramatic and the setting itself.  Beer and pretzel gamers are probably less likely to enjoy the subtlety of the concepts and the balance required in the game play.

In the past, I’ve always found the game a little tricky to prepare.  The characters are almost by definition at odds where their houses are concerned, vying for influence in Rokugan, and that’s going to make things a little tense and maybe a little uncooperative.  For that reason, it’s not going to be the game for everyone and it may be hard to prepare an adventure yourself with a party so divided.  Fortunately, one can usually fall back on duty to guide the party to a common goal, even if they can’t agree on how to get there.

Fantasy flight has released a free downloadable adventure and additional characters, which I have heard good things about.  The map of the castle in the beginner box is for that adventure, and the characters are set to proceed with unifying purpose which originates in the beginner box, making it worth the quick playthrough.

Total beginner box playthrough time is going to take from 4 to 8 hours.  No word on how long the expansion material will take. This play time will be greatly enhanced by the GM reading the optional expansive rules book in the box and understanding those concepts before sitting down to play.

TLDR:  The Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Box teaches a subtle nuanced game to fans of the genre with minimal impact on players and GM alike, and is worth the price of admission for players who can’t wait for the full rules coming out in the months to come.

 

 

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History Check: Gary Gygax High School Yearbook

December 17, 2017 Comments off

A facebook group I frequent auctions numerous gaming items, sometimes common and sometimes very rare.  Several of the members are known gaming industry talents, and others are just collectors like myself.   At the end of November, Garrett Ratini put up an item that was a rare gem from his collection. It wasn’t a game book, but books containing a surprisingly rare set of photos that made up a part of gaming history. And how the auction ended is where the real surprise happened.

The items auctioned were the 1953 and 1954 years of the Geneva Log, the Lake Geneva High School yearbook.  It was during these years that Gary Gygax, Don Kaye and Mary Powell were all in attendance.  A treasure for the gamer who wants to own a piece of history, but especially for the rarity of the photos inside.  To appreciate just how rare, you have to know a little something about the history of these three individuals.

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Gary Gygax, for one, did not finish high school, though did finish his degree years later.  A few months after his father passed, he dropped out of high school in his junior year.  These volumes then contained rare pictures of him as a student.

Secondly, Don Kaye is depicted in the book as well.  Don Kaye, a close childhood friend of Gygax from age 6, co-founded Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) with Gygax and made one of the first Dungeons & Dragons characters, the infamous Murlynd.  While the depiction of these two legends in one book might not appear to be noteworthy in itself, it is one of the few rare pictures of Don Kaye.

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TSR was founded in 1973 by Gygax and Kaye.  Later, Brian Blume bought in and supplied the capital to allow the publication of Dungeons and Dragons.  However, Kaye suffered from a heart condition and needed surgery.  He never disclosed this to his partners, and died of a heart attack before the scheduled surgery could take place, dying at age 36 just as Dungeons and Dragons was beginning to gain momentum.  As a result, few public pictures of Don Kaye exist.

Mary Jo Powell was a friend of Kaye and Gygax, and was wooed by Kaye for some time.  However, Gygax was also smitten, and proposed marriage at 19 years old.  Kaye was upset enough to not attend the wedding, though they later reconciled. Ernie Gygax recently posted a picture of Mary Jo the day after the proposal, shown below:

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Mary Jo once suspected Gary of having an affair while she was pregnant with her second child, but going to confront him in a friend’s basement, found him sitting with friends around a map covered table.  She may have been the first of what my wife calls “Gaming Widows” (being spouses left by the wayside for the husband that games too much).


Garrett Ratini put these items up for auction, and the true collectors of gaming history began to come out to bid.  The buyout price for the books was $1,200.00 and likely that number would have been met, I suspect, knowing the habits of this community of bidders.  But an unexpected bidder placed a bid at somewhere around the $400 mark, and that was Luke Gygax himself, founder of Gary Con and Gary Gygax’s son.

With the permission of all involved, Garrett terminated the auction and gifted the books to Luke.  Now, these books and images of his mother and father are with him, where they truly belong.

Pre-digital history like this is easily lost, and is not on the radar of many historians, with the exception of Michael Witwer and Shannon Appelcline. Hopefully books like this will make it into the archives like the one held at GenCon 50 this past year.  Fortunately, I believe we can anticipate  these books being treasured by the Gygax family, both for themselves and for posterity.

DCC 94 – Neon Knights Review

August 27, 2017 Comments off

Neon Knights, Dungeon Crawl Classics #94 was released at Gen Con 50. This adventure is pretty difficult to discuss without some major spoilers, so if you don’t plan on judging this one, I would suggest not reading any further.

For those judges who remain: Brendan LaSalle has created an excellent 3rd level adventure that works well as a one-shot con game, or as a bridge from a typical core DCC fantasy world to the Purple Planet for an existing campaign. It could fairly easily be adapted to be a bridge from Lankhmar or any other world to the Purple Planet as well. The Purple Planet boxed-set is not required in any way to run this adventure, but for those who own it, there is a sidebar that provides suggestions on how to incorporate those materials if the PCs remain on the planet.

Brendan outlines a clear four part plot that experienced judges could time well for a convention slot. It isn’t exactly a sandbox, but isn’t a typical dungeon crawl either. This allows the judge to allow PCs to explore, or move on to the next plot point as time allows. The PCs are charged with figuring out a strategy to break a siege surrounding the city they are in (specifics for a city are suggested at the back, but details in the beginning are left intentionally vague so judges can adapt to the city in an existing campaign) when they are whisked away to a mysterious tower and commanded to defend an old wizard from creatures attacking his tower. PCs notice pink trails as they move and their eyes glow with a pink neon light that remains visible only to each other once they return to their home plane.

It is up to the PCs to discover how these events are related and discover a way to end the siege. The ending of this adventure can go a lot of different ways depending on how the party handles the wizard, the artifact used to summon them, and what they do with knowledge discovered in the wizard’s tower in the sea of dust. This is a great adventure for experienced judges that are used to rolling with what the players come up with, and improvising based on those choices. Vazhalo’s tower is an interesting locale that would make the most traditional type of dungeon exploration portion of the adventure. Once the PCs are back in their home city, a few NPCs are detailed that will help the party research both the artifact and experience of being summoned by this far off wizard, allowing characters to role-play with these NPCs and perhaps form a plan should they be whisked away again. This provides a great balance between different play styles, and attempts to account for most possible solutions for the end. I imagine when I get a chance to run this, the PCs will come up with something entirely unexpected. That is all part of the fun!

There are extensive details provided about the artifact itself, and its use in summoning heroes. Appropriately, one of the features in this adventure is a massive gong, which played a prominent role in the Gen Con 50 DCC tournament.

Overall, if you are new to judging DCC, or aren’t comfortable with something that diverges from a more traditional dungeon crawl like Sailors on the Starless Sea, Portal under the Stars or Doom of the Savage Kings this may not be the one for you. However, if you’ve embraced the chaos and amazing potential this system brings, this adventure may serve as a very memorable convention game, or the gateway to the incredible adventures that await the party on the Purple Planet!

Bob Ross: The Unexpected Hero of Gen Con 50

August 22, 2017 5 comments

Gen Con 50 was my first Gen Con, so I was prepared to be overwhelmed by the experience. What I was not prepared for was a Bob Ross board game to steal the show. The publishers of the game, Big G Creative, had a tiny booth. In fact, it was about a quarter of booth 431 rented from Arc Dream publishing. No one said you had to have a lot of floor space to have a hit!

The main idea of this game is to paint different elements of actual licensed Bob Ross paintings, mixing colors on your palette and using various brushes and techniques to gain the most chill points. Happy little trees? Absolutely. The components of this game are fairly simple, thematic, and well designed. The game is easy to learn and plays in about 30-45 minutes depending on how many of the 2-4 players you have gathered around the table.

Each turn involves rolling the custom die which generally provides the player a bonus card or action. If you roll Bob, you flip a chill card which may provide some additional point bonus for painting a feature using a certain color or brush when you complete a feature, and usually advances his token along the painting. This represents Bob’s progress on the current painting. Bonus chill points are also awarded for completing feature before Bob reaches them on the Bob track along the bottom of each painting. In our initial two-player play through we painted about two and a half paintings before my wife reached the end of the chill meter, ending the game. It was very close the entire time, and was a pleasure to play. The paintings sit on a little plastic easel which looks really cool, but may be difficult to position so everyone can see it for a four player game. You could just lay the painting on the table, but where is the fun in that?

The true genius in marketing this game was in some clever guerilla marketing via Bob Ross cosplay, a conspicuous little banner outside the entrance to the exhibitor hall, and only releasing 125 copies a day. This prevented a Thursday sell-out, and created quite a bit of buzz and discussion from attendees. I checked out the game in the board game geek Hot Games room in the Hyatt. I went to the booth on Friday, and was told they were sold out for today, but would have more on Saturday. You can imagine I was among several forming a line waving money for a chance to own this one early. This game is a Target exclusive, and won’t be widely available until October 1st.

Overall, this game is an excellent balance of strategy and randomness for my taste. If you are a cutthroat hardcore strategy gamer, a game with Chill in the title is likely not the game for you. Despite that, it does have plenty of opportunities to form a strategy, and compete against your fellow painters to become more chill than Bob Ross. Quite a lofty goal indeed.

Categories: Board, Gen Con 50, News, Reviews