June 29, 2009

I sent a snippet of this article – http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/44 – to the Jyhad newsgroup to comment on the issue of complexity in V:TES and CCGs in general.  Most of Mark Rosewater’s articles are interesting, but I especially enjoy these articles that discuss design principles as they are often just as valid to other CCGs and possibly to other games.

There are a number of different points he makes that I could comment on.  Some, I already have on the newsgroup.  I don’t hold out much hope for V:TES becoming a less complicated game, so the one exercise I find more interesting is the theoretical one of what mechanics I would remove from the game to keep its complexity in check.

Unfortunately, complexity is a significant problem with V:TES.  It was always a hard CCG to learn.  But, one of my groups is less enthusiastic now that they’ve seen a lot of newer sets that the core members never bought.  I just today talked to someone I used to play with who doesn’t think he and his wife would get back into the game because of all of the newness.

It’s easy to decide to remove Imbued from the game.  There are plenty who wish they could.  I’m more in the camp that believes that it wasn’t a good idea to introduce them to the game rather than the hater camp.  Still, that so many ally hosers have been printed since they were printed only aggravates the problems they caused.

I’d remove Red List and Trophy as mechanics.  One of the tests of whether to remove or change a mechanic is to play without it or with it changed and see what difference it makes.  Many of the changes coming with Magic 2010 proved to have virtually no impact in the grand scheme of things.  I feel this will be true with removing these mechanics from V:TES.  Not only are Trophy decks extremely rare everywhere except where Norm plays, but I hardly ever see Red List vampires get marked.

I could imagine removing the grouping rule.  I already think the basis for the rule – to stop dial-a-crypt – has had its legs cut from underneath it by Anarch Convert.  The weaker decks that try to do difficult discipline combinations are hurt considerably where the strong archetypes can mostly get the crypt they want.  However, while the game might function right now with no grouping rule, its existence does help in the long term with keeping the game in check and helps with playtesting.  As well, the grouping rule is not terribly complex.

Lots of mechanics aren’t complex by themselves.  But, taken together, the complexity in the game skyrockets.  Bloodlines are cool.  I wouldn’t remove any bloodlines even though the various bloodlines radically increase the complexity of the game. 

However, some of the mechanics just aren’t pulling their weight.  Cold iron vulnerability is ludicrous.  Scarce is excessively harsh and easily simulated by just not making many vampires of the scarce clans in particular groups.  The slave rule is complex, but it’s flavorful and interesting and can’t just be eliminated unless Tupdog is changed.  Sterile is fine.  Infernal being cut would be fine with me.  There are 19 infernal crypt cards by my count.  If infernal were simply removed from the game, only eight of those would, in my opinion, need some additional drawback to rebalance them.  Of course, one could argue that the likes of Cybele and Nergal aren’t currently balanced.  Circle and Flight aren’t mechanics, just traits that cards key off of.

There’s certainly room for reducing the number of traits in the game.  Chris Shorb is bothered by the fact that Government means nothing.  Skin does mean something, and I still don’t see the point.  But, anyway, these don’t involve rules.  While I’m fine with decluttering the game in other ways, I’m more interested in what rules can be eliminated to make the game more accessible to new players.

Blood Cursed is worth taking a look at.  There has been much discussion by Assamite lovers on its problems.  It does little, when it does matter, it matters too much.  It’s not even necessarily appropriate (the idea of wasting a slot on Tajdid to simulate the removal of the blood curse appears to not be one commonly embraced).  Nice flavor, but I can easily see cutting it.

Anarch vs. Black Hand.  Black Hand is just a trait.  Anarch is a bit more.  There are minor rules implications with vampires gaining anarchdom.  Still, these two mostly only make the game more complex by adding new cards just as adding any new cards make the game more complex.

Events.  I’ve said that I like the mechanic of using discard phase actions to pay for cards; it was a nice spin on master phase actions.  I don’t like the concept of events, though.  Global effects often work badly in CCGs.  While it’s fine to have cards where players can break the symmetry, global effects tend to randomly screw decks.  Looking at events from Gehenna, only Absilimiard’s Army and Dragonbound have effects I’d find valuable additions to the game.  The Unmasking is way too good for allies.  Most of the rest are just hosers.  Of the ones printed after Gehenna, only Inconnu Tutelage (interesting design) and NRA PAC seem justified to me.  Then, with how few cards interact with events, I find that the whole concept has problems integrating into the game.  While clearly different, it reminds me of how new victory conditions in CCGs rarely work well as they integrate poorly to the core of playing the game.

Burn option, Trifle.  I like them.  CCGs often have the problem that certain effects are appropriate but too weak or too difficult.  Burn option addresses the latter.  Trifle is a good mechanic for addressing the former.  Neither is elegant and I still find a lot of people don’t understand how burn option works since most decks don’t need to worry about it, but they are clever.

Draft text.  The concept of draft text is clever, though it does confuse people as to what requirements need to be met.  I find the execution to have been quite poor, though it seems like some of that had to do with a learning curve.  But, that’s not an argument for getting rid of it.  Unlike events, draft text doesn’t cause game play problems besides the trouble with reading certain text heavy cards.  Applied well, it’s a great boon to the game.

Old school time.  Out of turn masters – yea or nay?  The game has built itself around the ability to cancel cards, especially other master cards.  I don’t know that the game would be balanced at this point without Sudden Reversal and Wash as checks on master play.  I could much more easily see eliminating out of turns if the game was just reinvented.  Other than master counterspells, I don’t really care about any of the other out of turns existing.  Boons are flavorful but possibly could be done without the out of turn mechanic, something like put this card in play and if such and such happens you can do whatever.

Contestation.  I find constestation when it happens to be dumb.  Nothing screws up a game like early contestation of a key vampire.  More relevant to my subject, it’s also relatively complicated.  Yet, how do you get rid of it?  You can come up with a rule that prevents playing another copy of a unique card that you control, but how do you handle unique cards others control?  Is it okay for other players to control the same vampire?  That would give some players fits and doesn’t make any sense if they go into combat with each other.  In some CCGs, and with some cards in this CCG, unique things are broad enough and abstract enough to have multiple players control them, but that doesn’t work so well with an individual vampire or an Ivory Bow.  Some cards are balanced to a degree by their contestability, cards like The Barrens, Information Highway, Dreams of the Sphinx, The Parthenon, Heidelberg.  Do you let everyone have them?  Probably not.  What mechanic do you use to restrict to one in play at a time?  Magic uses destruction – incoming copy nukes the existing copy, which is hardly fair in the case of vampires and other cards that acquire permanents but may work for things like locations and equipment.  What about creating auctions?  Well, that just means trading one complex rule for another, which serves no constructive purpose.  I’d love to get rid of contestation, but I don’t know if the game becomes any easier with whatever would replace it.

How combat works.  Combat is often simple because many constructed decks have one basic strategy for combat, but it’s easily made complex when players get fancy or have less focused decks.  That, in itself, is reasonable.  I don’t actually have a lot of problem with how combat works conceptually so much as how poorly defined the timing windows in combat are. 

I could see dropping first strike from the game as it does very little and too often people want to argue that it should beat combat ends or dodge. 

Speaking of which, dropping combat ends from the game would be very interesting.  Combat ends isn’t nearly the problem it once was as the game has grown more interactive, but it’s still a bad mechanic that has a lot of card interaction issues.  New players often don’t intuitively understand that combat ends beats cards like Carrion Crows or that sometimes it’s worth dodging a combat ends that does something annoying – Catatonic Fear, Blissful Agony, etc.  Combat ends is a huge frustration for people who want to play combat but don’t have the right cards to beat it.  Then, people who rely on it get hugely frustrated when someone’s deck consistently beats it.  It’s just so swingy.  But, then, combat in general has the problem that you usually end up with extreme results where either nothing important happens, one minion blows up, or both minions blow up.  Without combat ends, decks should need to find less effective replacements that are more interactive and lead to more interesting fights.

I play with a group that didn’t understand the premaneuver timing window until I started playing with them.  Reading the online rulebook on White Wolf’s site, I don’t see how I’d understand it, myself.  There are lots of little timing windows for when particular things are played that just seem like something is needlessly complex.

I’ve considered the possibility of removing combat from the game all together.  That would simplify it like mad as not only combat cards and combat timing could be eliminated but torpor, diablerie, et al might as well go too.  It’s not as different a game as many people would like to think it would be as we’ve seen that it’s quite easy to win without any concern for combat.  Would it dumb the game down too much?  Could, if all you did was take the existing game and remove combat from it.  But, by eliminating combat, expanding in other areas has plenty of room and new mechanics would arise that might make for an interesting game but one with less complexity.  I should suggest a variant tournament where combat doesn’t occur – it should be wild.

Blood hunts.  Quite involved and hard to understand perfectly, yet a central mechanic/theme to the game.  I’d never get rid of diablerie and blood hunts (though Carlton should have already have done that) without getting rid of combat, but it would be nice to simplify the blood hunt rules.

Withdrawing from the game.  Gone.  This was never, e-e-e-ver worth being a rule in the game.  Good riddance to Brinksmanship at the same time.

Prisci block voting.  Gone.  This mechanic just doesn’t pull its weight.

Reflex – I just don’t see it being necessary.

Play as announce timing window.  I find the play as announce timing window to be a pain that offers little.  Would it screw up the game if Seduction was played as a normal action modifier?  Of course, if Direct Intervention and similar counterspells were eliminated, it wouldn’t be as problematic.  Then, one could argue that the vague timing windows for normal action modifier and reaction play are the real problem and creating more distinct timing windows like the as announced window would be better.

Of course, there are other mechanics, many of which are central to the game, that I wouldn’t consider eliminating and very well wouldn’t consider changing to simplify the game.  My hope is not to change the game, I think that ship has sailed.  Magic may have the resources and customer base to survive substantial changes, but I doubt V:TES does.  My hope is to provoke some thought on what really is necessary and how that sort of thinking can be applied in the future whether it’s not creating unnecessary new mechanics or whether it’s creating a cleaner version of some other game that comes along.

Gemini II – Zodiac I

June 20, 2009

I can help my Conan GM out by creating more NPCs.  I’m going to throw out some Gemini inspired thoughts for how to do the character in Conan’s d20 system and then move on to doing someone similar in Legend of the Five Rings.

Conan, being a d20 system, doesn’t have much in the way of mechanics that directly tie to personality.  However, certain interests or inclinations can be shown through mechanics.

Attributes:  For most RPGs, I envision characters through attributes first.  I vastly prefer a system like Vampire: The Masquerade to d20 for envisioning human(ish) characters as the granularity is more intuitive.  For example, it’s much easier for me to grok the difference between 2 dots and 3 dots in V:TM than a 13 vs. a 16 in d20.  The former is better defined against the real world whereas the latter tends to depend upon what other characters’ (PCs or NPCs) stats are.

Strength, Constitution, and Wisdom are not what I think of with a Gemini.  Dexterity is the natural physical attribute fit for this mutable, air sign.  Intelligence can mean a lot of different things.  In d20, it’s the one attribute I feel like I can calculate cleanly – just take IQ and divide by 10.  I tried finding IQ data based on astrological signs and came up empty.  I don’t know if any sign is more intelligent or tests better in IQ tests (which measures only certain types of intelligence), but Gemini have a reputation for seeming intelligent.  There are various reasons for this, but one may very well be that the Gemini is a relatively personable sign (at least at first or when in an up mood).  This leads into Charisma, another attribute I associate with the quintessential Gemini.

So, Pedrono, a Zingaran (“Spaniard”) 5th level pirate, 2nd level soldier who is one of a PC’s mates could easily be quick, smart, and personable. 

Pedrono will get a good number of feats as both his classes are favored.  For a different sign, I could see focus and ruthless effectiveness.  For a Gemini, I can see esoteric, versatile, and shallow.  While I don’t see it for this character, Dabbler is just the sort of feat one could expect from a Gemini – a flair for exotic abilities but with only superficial understanding.

Skillwise, it’s clear:  breadth over depth.  Pedrono won’t be the consummate professional but a jack-of-all-trades.  Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, and Sense Motive are appropriate social skills.  Intimidate, less so.  It would be effective to put more ranks into Dexterity and Intelligence based skills, but it’s not hard to imagine this Gemini getting by on his natural talent and taking interest in other areas, Climb for instance, for diversity or just to confuse people.

Finally, there’s things like Reputation, Code of Honor, and religion.  Typically, Geminians aren’t into being the center of attention; they like claiming the spotlight only when they are performing.  Second edition Conan ties Reputation more closely to level and Charisma bonus, but I don’t see any particular reason this character would exceed those like I might with, say, a Leo.  Anyone can follow a code, some are just better suited to it.  Consistency, a key element to having a code of behavior, is not a Geminian’s strong point.  As a sign wired to think as opposed to feel, religion isn’t something I see coming easily.

Time to move on to L5R.  Now, I don’t need to make this pirate in L5R for anyone, but as an exercise, the obvious thing to do is to make this multiversal counterpart a Mantis.  Mantis, actually, isn’t too hard to see with Gemini as it’s a clan composed of a collection of other clans.  Crab, Lion, and Scorpion would be the harder ones to get a feeling for.  Moshi family gets +1 Intelligence.  Tsuruchi family gets +1 Reflexes.  As a pirate, the Yoritomo Bushi School is the obvious school, but if I were going to get away from occupation and go with interests in a very, very different world, I’d be unsurprised to see a Gemini favor the Moshi Shugenja School or – in typical Gemini fashion – take the Different School advantage and go into a courtier school of some other clan.

L5R’s attributes are nicely laid out by element – air, earth, fire, water plus Void.  Gemini is an air sign, seems like the Air Ring’s traits of Awareness and Reflexes are a natural place to start.  Earth’s Willpower and Stamina?  Nope.  Water’s Perception and Strength?  Perception, maybe.  Fire’s Intelligence and Agility?  Sure.  Void Ring?  Not as much because, again, Geminians don’t tend to be deep.  Now, more Void Points are great for a free wheelin’ Gemini and help any character be somewhat proficient in a lot of different areas, so I wouldn’t ignore Void as a way to help a Gemini be more Gemini-ish.

Honor and Glory:  Can view these much like how Codes of Honor and Reputation are viewed above.  But, these mechanics are much, much more important to playing L5R than those mechanics to playing Conan.  So, one should be careful not to make the character inappropriate for Rokugan.

Feats in d20 are mostly mechanical, lacking much flavor, and having little to do with personality.  Advantages and disadvantages in L5R, however, aren’t so limited.  Advantages I can easily see:  Absolute Direction, Ambidextrous, Benten’s Blessing, Clear Thinker (don’t try to confuse the confuser), Combat Reflexes, Crafty, Daredevil, Different School (a natural), Forbidden Knowledge, Jurojin’s Blessing (the perpetual teenager of the Zodiac), Languages, Luck, Multiple Schools (but, of course), Perceived Honor, Quick, Read Lips, Wary, Way of the Land.  Disadvantages:  Ascetic, Bad Health, Compulsion (only some), Contrary (O-M-G!), Fascination (many), Insensitive (maybe – thinker not feeler), Meddler, Rumormonger.

One thing I should iterate is that the intention with being inspired by astrology is not to be ruled by it, nevermind that people have lots of planets in their horoscopes which supposedly influence personality in different ways.  Two Geminians (there are always at least two in every Gemini’s body) should not be alike any more than an Aries and a Taurus would be alike.  The idea with using astrology is to inspire and to guide to achieve more realistic and coherent personalities/characters.

Gemini I – Zodiac I

June 19, 2009

Gemini positive qualities are versatility, mental alertness, quickness of perception, deductive reasoning and flexibility.  Expressed in their negative form they become restlessness, glibness, shallowness, double-talk, unreliability, and self-deception.  –  Linda Goodman’s “Love Signs”

And, so I move from the baby of the Zodiac – Taurus – to the teenager in my continuing series on using astrology as inspiration for gaming.  As with last month’s entry, I feel like starting with V:TES.

Versatility.  In CCGs, versatility and power aren’t the same thing, but versatility adds value to cards, strategies, and decks.  I tend to rate versatile cards higher than cards with great magnitude of power.  In particular, some tend to think of staple cards as just staple cards where I consider cards that rise to the level of staple as proving their value over most other cards.

But, I’m not going to go much into individual card values.  I want to talk about disciplines.  I’m going to separate out disciplines into some groups I find intuitive and comment on their versatility.

The “original 10”:

  • Animalism – So much a support discipline out of Jyhad, Animalism grew up quickly into a mainline discipline with Carrion Crows.  More recently, we see Flesh Bond adding to the list of disciplines that get combat ends (ignoring the multidiscipline Alpha Glint), Deep Song being a highly valuable addition due to its versatility, and the retainer discipline get its first ally.
  • Auspex – A great discipline that hasn’t changed much in nature.  The many Auspex versions of bloodline discipline cards and the many multidiscipline cards haven’t gotten Auspex away from being “the intercept discipline”.  Still one of the most common disciplines in the game – being a bounce discipline is huge, of course – but looking over what’s out there has changed my perception of the discipline; I can see the desirability of reserving it some more design space.
  • Celerity – For so long, just a mindnumbingly boring discipline with nothing going on but combat support.  I had hopes for Precision, a welcome change from maneuvers, presses, additional strikes, and dodges.  But, it’s Fleetness and Resist Earth’s Grasp that have had significantly more impact on my deckbuilding.  Looks like Celerity is finally becoming a fleshed out discipline.
  • Dominate – “The bleed discipline”, “the steal discipline”, the discipline of Deflection, Obedience, Govern, Seduction.  Why would it need anything new?  But, it got equipment steal, ally burn from a combat card, Murmur of the False Will.
  • Fortitude – I find it interesting just how much more versatile this was coming out of Jyhad than its RPG, physical discipline buddies Celerity and Potence.  One wonders why Celerity didn’t get a Freak Drive effect.  Much like Auspex, the nature of the discipline has been minimally affected by new cards.  It does appear that the discipline is getting more reactions and, in hard to grasp thematics, bleed reduction.
  • Obfuscate – Much like Auspex, what Obfuscate does well it does so well and, even more than Auspex, is so highly desirable.  Old Friends, No Trace are providing things entirely new to the discipline, but Obfuscate has so many good, versatile partners that it can support rather than branching out on its own.
  • Potence – Celerity’s equally boring sibling has gone from being the combat beatdown discipline to being a general damage discipline with the likes of Touch of Pain and Horseshoes.  Tangle Atropos’ Hand’s Potence outferior is a bizarre thing for the game to have, but it does give Potence something no other non-bloodline discipline has.
  • Presence – “The vote discipline”, the original “other bleed discipline”, the “combat ends discipline” has been getting complex rush actions and more evasion, especially for anarchs (Gear Up, Undue Influence, Power of One).  I think of Force of Personality as more of an anti-ally play than a versatile card, but Perfect Paragon is like, “whoa, was this necessary?”
  • Protean – I have always felt like Garfield, et al were trying to make this discipline more flexible since none of the other clans had it.  More recently, we see Protean expanding as an intercept discipline and getting some interesting anarch options.  There’s Dual Form* for a unique effect.  Then, there’s my favorite Keepers of Tradition card, Loki’s Gift for sheer, unadulterated “that’s a lot of different things going on, boyo”ness.
  • Thaumaturgy – One would think that a discipline that starts with Cryptic Mission and Magic of the Smith would have branched out a lot more sooner.  One would think that the, and I mean THE, most versatile discipline in the RPG (in that it only did pritnear everything) would have become the versa-discipline of the game.  But, it’s only with the Mirror Walks, the Visceratika outferiors, the Biothaumaturgic Experiements, and the Rego Motuses of the world that the discipline is finally beginning to live up to its potential.  On the other hand, it’s still getting the overly narrow and/or expensive  stuff that started with the likes of Seed Corruption and appears more frequently with the likes of The Name Forgotten and Blood of Sandman.  Is the intent for Thaumaturgy to be “the hoser discipline”?

A two horse race for most versatile original gangsta discipline.  For all that Presence has, Dominate is coming from more angles with viable strategies.

The game expands:

  • Chimerstry – A discipline which crammed in a lot of odd effects for having so few cards until The Final Nights made independents hot stuff.  While Chimerstry has gotten some sweet cards over the years – Occlusion, Mirror Image, Will-o’-the-Wisp – it’s interesting how some of the unique effects the discipline has to offer have been largely left behind.  I might see Mass Reality trotted out, but I don’t recall the last time I saw a Horrid Reality deck, and there are so many things that could be done with Illusions combat that aren’t.  Far too many of the newer Chimerstry cards are too similar to old.  For instance, how many Sensory Deprivation variants (all inferior to the original) do we really need in the game?
  • Necromancy – When I started playing V:EKN sanctioned tournaments, I quickly began to build decks to prove points.  One of the points I tried to prove was that Necromancy didn’t suck nearly as much as people thought.  Jar the Soul was playable.  Spiritual Intervention was adequate.  But, mostly Spectral Divination was highly flexible.  I failed.  I ousted a prey for the second straight tournament in the finals when my prey played a Game of Malkav (choosing 6 in both finals) which was too soon for the game and failed to be able to say, prior to The Final Nights being on the street, “Here, this is how you win with Necromancy.”  Times changed (a month or so later) and Call of the Hungry Dead came in and Shambling Hordes started beating people down and people were happy with Necromancy.  Times changed some more and what was once a stealth discipline with combat ends really stopped being a stealth discipline and combat ends that didn’t do something besides end combat stopped being all that.  Necromancy remains a discipline of wacky cards/effects, but it’s more that Giovanni have greatly expanded competitive diversity than Necromancy has.
  • Quietus – An irrelevant discipline for the longest time.  My vague recollection is that nothing about The Final Nights bothered me more than the lack of help that Quietus got.  Take a discipline that pretty much just smacked you at long range and give it a bunch of long range strikes.  Oh, but now you get Thin Blood and short range strikes, too.  Years later, Black Sunrise, Selective Silence, Loss helped make the discipline relevant, but it’s still saddled with a host of borderline unplayable cards.
  • Serpentis – Once upon a time the most top heavy discipline in the game with Form of Corruption and Temptation being yummy, a massive drop off to Form of the Serpent, and falling off the cliff to anything else.  Ecstasy and Enticement gave other things to do.  Nowadays, I find myself impressed by how effective nothing but Serpentis is.  That has more to do with how bleedy the discipline is with The Eternal Mask, Revelation of Desire, Truth of a Thousand Lies than with great versatility, though.  Still, I find Serpentis interesting and not top heavy at all these days even if it still gets unplayable cards.
  • Dementation – “Dominate lite” has always had one huge problem with being a more interesting discipline:  what it does well is so much better than other things it could do.  I’ve tried many a “I don’t just Kindred Spirits bleed” decks only to find very few of the actions worthwhile.  Lunatic Eruption has worked well as a sideline but not as a focus.  Two things have helped Dementation branch out.  The first is having the Auspex + Dementation cards, which are highly playable.  The second is that the discipline appears to be expanding upon its anti-ness seen early on in Blessing of Chaos with Touch of Clarity and, with a different spin, Wrong and Crosswise.
  • Obtenebration – At one time, my pick for most versatile discipline in the game (considering only cards that were worth playing).  That might have been overboard when you consider that it still doesn’t bounce, vote push, or even have a plus bleed card.  It could use more, but what it does have now are Nocturn and Hell-for-Leather to encourage some very different strategies.
  • Vicissitude – Sabbat War did so much for this discipline.  Chiropteran Marauder was the all star, but Inner Essence, Meld with the Land, et al fleshed the discipline out considerably.  While getting some new, weird stuff and the occasional playable, there’s not much to hang a hat on since White Wolf’s first set.

I have to go with the versatility of Chimerstry out of this batch.  As long as you aren’t paying full cost for it, a lot of different things that aren’t worthless can be done.

Bloodlines, say hello to variety (and shallowness – how appropriate to Gemini month):

  • Daimoinon – Without Sense the Sin, this discipline would just be absurdly limited.
  • Melpominee – One of the few voting relevant disciplines helps tremendously for its versatility.  Speaking of versatility, Echo of Harmonies encourages vote card diversity.
  • Mytherceria – Take flexability to the next level by adding Fae Contortion on top of ultrarare weapon hosers, et al.
  • Obeah – More notable for the power of its better effects than for the desirability of playing a wide range of its cards.
  • Sanguinus – The effects are diverse; the use of them is not.  So constrained by the circle requirements, which makes sense but it’s unfortunate that Blood Brothers or random sanguinators don’t have more viable options.
  • Spiritus – Never a sexy discipline, there’s really not a lot of different things to do here.  No wonder I can’t get enthused by making more Ahrimanes decks.
  • Temporis – Can a discipline be too versatile for its clan?  Mix this discipline with something besides Potence and Presence and it could just get nuts beyond nuts.  As is, True Brujah struggle mightily even with Temporis’s numerous effects.
  • Thanatosis – Suffers from how many of the cards just aren’t worth playing.
  • Valeren – Has gotten significantly better.  Melee weapon combat decks remain insipid, which takes away much of what the discipline was intended to do.
  • Visceratika – The Bloodlines cards just smacked of being for the wrong clan.  Combat ends, continue the action?  Stealth?  Wow!  Hot, but not so hot for dudes with Fortitude and Potence.  New cards have helped primarily with combat, which could be said to be an interesting decision.

Temporis has all kinds of craziness, but Mytherceria’s flexiness has shown to be so much more playable.  Of course, having two of the more versatile disciplines in the game as discipline partners solves a lot of problems.

And, then, there was one:

Abombwe just hasn’t gotten the sort of help it could use from Ebony Kingdoms.  Akunanse came into the game like if you played Gangrel straight up – no out of clan disciplines, no weird Justicar voting strategy, etc.  But, Protean came in with power cards and solid role-players:  Earth Meld, Form of Mist, Earth Control, Claws of the Dead.  Abombwe has some second line effects; Predator’s Communion is decent due to its versatility.  It had unique effects like Predator’s Transformation.  But, it isn’t even as fleshed out as some of the bloodlines disciplines.

So, great, what does this have to do with being inspired by astrology?  Actually, not much.  Double-talk?  Think so.  Self-deception?  Maybe not the “self” part so much.

Yet, there’s value for me to study the area of versatility.  I get bored extremely easily.  As someone who frequently builds decks with disciplines in mind, I’m naturally attracted to versatile disciplines to be constantly churning out new and different decks. 

For the more competitively minded, it should be interesting to consider how more versatile disciplines can improve flexibility in tournament decks.

*  I could talk more about cards like Dual Form.  What’s more Geminian than creating a clone (twin)?  By the way, this card is woefully underplayed.  Well, maybe I’ll write something about having decks that have two parts that do two very different things.

Ebony Kingdoms Ratings – Library

June 14, 2009

For background on this exercise, see my post earlier today about ratings for vampires.

My system is to rate a card from 1 to 5 (number or stars).  I always liked InQuest Magazine’s system where 2 was an average card, 1 sucked, 3 was strong, 4 was “tournament”, and 5 was best-in-game level.  As long as one keeps in mind that these ratings center around 2 and not 3, then it should intuitively make sense. 

Where I had two ratings for many vampires because of how bland it would be to have a lot of 2’s, since many of the library cards are only relevant to specific decks, I’m only going to bother with a second rating when there seems to be a good reason.  There are a lot of 2’s, but another thing I run across often, again frequently on forums, is people who don’t seem to understand that most CCG cards are average in quality/power.  Most that see play are above the curve, of course.  But, I can’t see the value in labeling every card as either good or bad with nothing in between.

Also, this is just a first pass.

Library Bitmap

Rarity Stars
419 Operation   C *
Bamba   C ****
Brutal Influence   C **
Despiral   C **
Devil-Channel: Feet   C **
Dusk Work   C **
Exile   C ***/**
Familial Bond   C **
Invoke Poison Glands   C **
Jua Vema   C *
Kuta   C *
Mundane   C *
My Kin Against the World   C ***
Neebi   C *
Pallid   C **
Reliquary: Trinket   C *
Supernatural Resistance   C *
Taming the Beast   C **
Tunnel Runner   C ***
Unholy Radiance   C **
Aye   **
Orun   **
Bestial Vengeance   R *
Blood Shield   R **
Edge of the World   R *
Guinea-Bissau Carnival   R *
Hiding in the Open   R **
Ilomba   R **
Impundulu   R ***
Ishtarri Warlord   R *
Make an Example   R *
Mapatano Utando   R **
Nkishi   R **
Powerbase: Luanda   R **
Remnant of the Endless Storm   R *
Savannah Runner   R *
Sense Vibrations   R **
Taking the Skin: Minion   R *
Taking the Skin: Vulture   R **
The Bitter and Sweet Story   R *
Transcendent Laibon   R **
Well-Marked   R **

419 – One of those cards that excites players, even people like me, with how you can get it to work.  Also, one of those cards that requires way too much effort.  I’d compare with Choir.  I’ve built a lot of Choir decks.  I very quickly realized that I’d be far better off in every instance taking all of them out and just bleeding instead.

Bamba – My view that this is the one power card in the set.  Breed cards are superstrong, strong enough to generate hosers like Scourge of the Enochians.  I’ve only played it with a non-Magaji so far, but then, I wasn’t building around it.

Brutal Influence – See my tournament report for how disillusioned I’ve become with what seemed like such a boon to Potence.

Despiral – Arguing over the merits of cards like these is what burns me out on CCGs.  I love good analysis.  I don’t love less than good analysis.  Anyway, I see no reason for this card’s existence.  Bleed is easy.  J.S. Simmons, Tasha Morgan, and Camera Phone are not only free but can be moved around with Heidelberg.  Nevermind that Ishtarri have Presence which is only vying with Dementation as the second best bleed discipline in the game.  I don’t see where Despiral has any impact on Ishtarri or the game.  Still, it’s far from unplayable, so I can’t say it sucks.

Feet – I’ve seen it played.  It was unspectacular.  Lot of effort to put into a combat card.  I’m sure Abombwe would be a lot happier with an Earth Meld or a Majesty than with this.

Dusk Work – It’s not easy piling Aye and/or Orun on minions, even now.

Exile – It may not be easy to get 3, 4, or more Orun on a minion, but sometimes banishing a 4 cap is sexy, and the inferior is reasonable.

Familial Bond – Is it as complicated as it reads?  No.  Is it complicated to pay off?  Yes.

Jua Vema – Why does this exist?  I guess because there was a name in the RPG background that the CCG uses.  But, this is absurdly redundant, which just pains me when EK is only a 60 card set and Laibon deserve so much more.

Kuta – Yet another thing a lot of less analytical CCG players have trouble grasping is that every card has an opportunity cost.  A card may do something just fine until you realize that you could have played a vastly stronger card instead.  There are vastly stronger cards than Kuta, many of which don’t see much play.

Mundane – I despise cards like this.  I believe hosers (I won’t go into how I define hosers) make CCGs less fun to play.  If something is a problem – Laibon are clearly not, then deal with it with bannings or errata or by having the metagame shift “organically” to mitigate/remove the problem.

My Kin Against the World – I feel like this is overrated as I think all untap-on-my-turn effects are overrated, but we will see.  Openended effects tend to be abusable.

Pallid – See Mundane for what I think of this.  Where Mundane’s alternative effect is questionable due to the existence of cards like Direct Intervention, I can see transient master intercept being used to supplement other intercept in questionable decks.

Supernatural Resistance – Just too random with too much setup.

Tunnel Runner – As I said on White Wolf’s forum, this is my kind of card, but I can’t get too excited due to playing around with Ananansi Vampirephiles a fair amount.  I do think it’s better than AV.

Aye & Orun – Prior to this set, it would be a nobrainer to give each of these one star.  I almost never played them in my Laibon decks, having to go way out of my way to build around them and still not seeing any point.  Individually, they still don’t do hardly anything, being pretty much just enablers.  With too many of the cards that use them being of less than high quality, it’s questionable how much value they are adding.

Blood Shield – The question here is why I rated it above one star.  It’s a fairly annoying permanent once it gets into play.  That could be said for a lot of bad cards in this game and other CCGs, but I don’t think it’s too much effort to throw into a decent number of Osebo decks.

Edge of the World – “Win more” cards – cards that don’t help you get into a winning position but help when you are already winning – tend to be awful in CCGs.  Now, I’d say this is less true in V:TES, where frequently needing to recover after getting a victory point occurs.  Still, too narrow for this clan.  For Malks or some such it would be far scarier.

Guinea-Bissau – Way too much setup.  Master slots are so precious.

Ishtarri Warlord – I was hoping for help for Ishtarri combat decks in this set.  So, what’s the problem?  The problem is that the reason I’ve never seen an Ishtarri combat deck is because they have no good way of avoiding being ousted.  This card doesn’t address real weaknesses, it just adds marginally to a strength.  It’s also overcosted.  Should be free and a trifle.  Much rather have seen a decent Ishtarri ally to help Jibade and the clan.  As for its defensive uses, it’s ridiculous to be wasting master slots on this.

Make an Example – Where Warlord does nothing to address the Ishtarri’s weakness of survivability in the absence of vote bloat, this card actually does address the Guruhi problem of how to get actions through.  I’m curious as to whether it will work.  I doubt it will.  For all that Perfectionist and The Guruhi Are the Land exist, playing a bunch of cards to discourage blocking without hurting oneself strikes me as far too much effort.

Remnant – Splashy, to be sure.  Easily restealable for three of the Laibon clans after someone steals it from its owner.  But, what hole does it address?  Two of the Laibon clans can bloat well assuming their actions aren’t blocked.  The other two can defend well enough to retain their pool assuming enough cards are put into defense.  So, this isn’t unplayable.  But, other than being cool, how is it helping you win?

Savannah Runner – A card that combines the effects of intercept and untap would seem less junky than I rate this.  Of course, people often overlook with cards like Diversion that you only get one of the effects on the card at a time.  This is overcosted intercept *or* a complicated wake.  I’m not seeing this make Ishtarri intercept combat a worthwhile deck.

The Bitter and Sweet Story – I’m no fan of hand size.  I mostly just don’t care.  I think there are two reasons other people care far more than I do.  The first is that I think people don’t really do the math on hand size and grossly overrate the value of having a larger hand size.  The second is that some other people build decks differently to where hand size has more of an impact. 

The value of a larger hand size or not having a smaller hand size is in starting a chain of card play – in comboing cards.  I don’t tend to build complicated card chains in my decks.  My usual plays, especially in serious decks, are things like:  wake + bounce; stealth + bleed pump; vote + Voter Captivation; combat ends or dodge; maneuver to long with my .44.  My better decks also run Dreams of the Sphinx, The Barrens, Heart of Nizchetus, and/or other ways of moving cards to tune my hand as necessary. 

While I have a hard time imagining putting this card in any deck, I do think it has some amusing psychological effects.  Those people who value hand size will on the one hand want to get VPs to get the larger hand but will also fear opponents more who get VPs.  It’s almost funny enough to play just to see if I can get people to punish anyone who is close to getting a VP or who gets one while I play my usual slow, inoffensive game.

I left out comments on some of the other cards that would have been entirely predictable.  Who wants to read 2000 word blog posts?

Ebony Kingdoms Ratings – Vampires

June 14, 2009

Something I used to do consistently was rate every card in new CCG sets.  I did it in preparation for writing articles for Scrye Magazine.  I did it when I was a playtester to identify cards that needed more attention.  I did it for the fun of analysis and for the fun of arguing with people later.

Cards I rated above the norm, besides the obvious need to playtest strong cards, might be interesting if others didn’t think they were that good.  Then, playtesters don’t tend to gravitate towards testing cards that suck, so it’s important to identify them and hope for improvements.

I don’t playtest for companies like I used to – I don’t have CCG companies asking me to help them design expansions or have them putting me in a game’s credits anymore.  But, I love me some ratings, so here I am.

My system is to rate a card from 1 to 5 (number or stars).  I always liked InQuest Magazine’s system where 2 was an average card, 1 sucked, 3 was strong, 4 was “tournament”, and 5 was best-in-game level.  As long as one keeps in mind that these ratings center around 2 and not 3, then it should intuitively make sense. 

Unfortunately, so many cards for Laibon decks aren’t going to have a significant impact on the game, so there would be lots and lots of 2’s.  To avoid such boring ratings, I have two ratings for some cards.  The first is how the card helps Laibon decks and the second the impact overall.

Also, this is just a first pass.

Crypt Bitmap

Clan Stars
Aisata Swanou   Akunanse ***/**
Kamiri wa Itherero (ADV)   Akunanse **
Nestor Kaba   Akunanse **
Socrate Cidibe   Akunanse ***/**
Umdava   Akunanse ***/**
Batsheva (ADV)   Guruhi ***/**
Fode Kourouma   Guruhi */**
Lucian, the Perfect   Guruhi ***
Nana Buruku   Guruhi ****/***
Ngozi Ekwensu   Guruhi ***/**
Abu Nuwasi   Ishtarri **
Elizabeth Conde   Ishtarri ***/**
Jibade el-Bahrawi (ADV)   Ishtarri **/*
Luanda Magere   Ishtarri *
Undele   Ishtarri ***/**
Abiku   Osebo **/*
Arriette Sylla   Osebo **
Cesewayo (ADV)   Osebo ****/***
Mamadou Keita   Osebo **/*
Titi Camara   Osebo ***

Aisata – Great special, it’s a built in The Barrens.  Inferior Abombwe isn’t that bad when there are other Akunanse who have it to where the deckbuilder has enough reason to include skill cards.  So, why not higher on both ratings?  Outside of the special, Aisata is filler.  Another Akunanse with Presence would have been more interesting.  While not that bad, inferior Abombwe is still meaningful on a vampire with such a high capacity.  The average rating for general play is because, really, Akunanse are mediocre, and Aisata isn’t elevating them to another level, just adding marginal value.

Kamiri (adv) – Doesn’t do much for me.  High caps with no bounce discipline and no Presence are highly suspect.  But, when merged, Kamiri should be killing the Carltons and Nephandi of the world left and right which isn’t entirely dumb.  Even without the base version’s ability, one assumes Kamiri will be dropping Carrion Crows or have Murder of Crows/Duma Rafiki/whatever to blow up allies when blocked.

Batsheva (adv) – Why three stars in Laibon decks when her special is virtually useless and her merged ability isn’t worth going to the effort of merging?  I have found base Batsheva to be one of the Laibon I have played the most.  The out of clan Obtenebration is significant.

Fode – The only one I think is worse for Laibon decks than in general play.  5 cap with one superior discipline and no special is asking to never be played, even in a clan with few options, but a 5 cap with POT in group 4 will slot in Potence combat decks.

Lucian – Bleeding is easy.  Bleeding with Dominate is like watching TV – it will make you fat with how little effort it takes.  No title is significant.  Sure, nowadays, that has the advantage that going anarch is easy, but with his disciplines, there’s not a lot of need for that.  Having said all of that, I do find his special to be valuable and while you don’t need all of his disciplines at the same time, a lot of those disciplines rank among the best in the game and certainly cover the most commonly played.

Nana – Poor Nana, saddled with the terrible Guruhi discipline spread.  Even with the best special the game has come up with for a vampire, she’s no Anson.  Well, to be fair, Anson is ridiculous, she’s not close enough to Anson for me to be kinder.

Ngozi – Major problem with Guruhi is difficulty getting actions through.  Can load up on combat but that takes space away from useful stuff.  Special is a major deterrent.

Elizabeth – I know that people like to salivate over Forced March at double superior and Diversion, but besides the former (and I don’t care about the latter), what?

Jibade – So waiting for a strong Ishtarri ally.

Luanda – I come across lots of people who play CCGs, mostly on forums, who don’t seem to think bad cards exist.  I’m probably being too generous with many of these ratings depending upon where one thinks the average in the game resides.  Plus strength and CEL, plus strength and any level of Protean – both intimidating, but where’s the effective deck?  PRE + Orun = voting, which is okay, and being a threat in combat has some deterrent level, but it’s just not synergistic like plus bleed on a vampire with PRE, a title on an 8 cap with PRE, etc.

Undele – I am of the belief that people overrate the special.  It’s strong but not absurd.  Inferior Presence and being a 9 cap forestall my worship.

Abiku – If I ever become known for something with this game, it’s likely to be my love for hunting, yet what’s the incentive to block this vampire in the first place?  Where’s the payoff for hunting?  Sure, you could load Abiku up with cards that give plus blood to hunts, but that’s better done with others.  I keep trying to find a reason to like Aus/Pot.  I keep failing.  I’ve won a tournament with Matthew Romans – the natural BFF for Abiku – that makes one person in the Tournament Winning Deck Archive.  Filler for Osebo at best.

Arriette – Ah, a weenie Potence lover’s … uh … sweetie.  There is a weenieish Laibon Potence deck that seems plausible now, Fode, I’m sure, is excited.  She’s okay.  Minus bleed is harsh; putting effort into removing it is less so but still meaningful.

Cesewayo (adv) – I’m no fan of superstar decks, but I can respect the discipline spread in combination with really solid specials on both versions and a title to help with silly stuff like bloodhunts and not taking random vote bleed damage.  Merged means taking even less of that crap.

Mamadou – Horrid discipline spread.  Easy to overrate special.

Titi – For all that Aus/Pot leaves me cold, Aus/Cel is entirely reasonable since there are so many crypt options to build a tight deck.  Obviously slots into such a deck while being filler for Osebo, filler that can bounce without Lost in Translation.

June 13th V:TES Tournament

June 14, 2009

It was all about the swag.  Some of us want to have all of the cards, so when Gator Games www.gatorgames.com  told me that they had ordered one of the new V:TES tournament kits, we had to have an event.

I tried coming up with crazy formats to experiment with, but in the end, because agreeing on what nuttiness to try rarely works, we went with standard constructed play with Ebony Kingdoms being allowed.  As new sets aren’t legal for sanctioned constructed tournaments until 30 days after release date, it was unsanctioned.

I built two decks that ran EK cards.  One was a dull Akunanse deck to try out new Abombwe cards.  The other was a new version of “Laibon with Dominate” – irony being at the top of my hits parade.  I lent the Akunanse deck to Jeff.

We only got 5 people, but then, Gator holds no more than 9, one.  Two, it meant more promos for everyone.  Three, 5 is way better if you just want to play than 6 or 7.  With a lot of the regulars being unable or not sufficiently interested in coming, 8 (the sweet spot at Gator) was implausible.

Game 1:

Jeff, Akunanse (borrowed) -> Brad, Osebo (Cesewayo featured, 419 Operation) -> Eric, Akunanse -> Geoff, RPG Launcher -> Ian, Laibon w/ Dominate

Yes, though the event was open to everything, the few motivated individuals were hot for Laibon action due to EK just having come out.  The only deck that really did anything was Eric’s.  I got Lucian, The Perfect in play, who proved way more combat capable than I thought.  I got Cesewayo (merged even), but Brad thought he had to have him, so diablerized when I ran into my other deck when it finally drew offensive combat cards and got him torped.  I only vaguely cared.  It didn’t do him a lot of good, trading a capable midcap with a Sniper Rifle in for the 10 cap and certainly didn’t do me any good.  Geoff got ousted, unsurprisingly, as Eric had no pressure and could deal with Geoff’s combat well enough.  I got ousted when Brad failed to rescue my untapped Bamba when I was tapped out and at 5 pool.

Which brings me to an aside.  I find that far too often in multiplayer CCGs players play their decks and not the situation.  That is, they do whatever their decks were built to do rather than what’s in one’s best interests.  I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel like I hardly ever play my decks anymore.  I’ve become so caught up in table management that what I’m playing hardly matters.

Game 2:

Brad -> Ian -> Eric -> Jeff -> Geoff

Though I never put any pressure on Eric, this was the only game in which he had problems.  That he and Jeff traded in combat and Jeff played almost the whole game defensively stalled him.  But, then, besides Geoff ousting Brad, the whole game was stalled.  That tends to happen with 2 intercept combat, 1 intercept, and 2 bruise bleed decks at a table.  I was regretting not advertising the event as multideck.  I was completely shutdown by Eric getting No Secrets From the Magaji and Well-Marked as my deck didn’t have a boatload of combat and couldn’t tool up with anything with intercept around.

Does that mean my deck sucks?  Not necessarily.  I wouldn’t argue with someone saying it sucks, but both my decks weren’t built for a heavy combat metagame.  They were unpolished in an attempt to try some new stuff out for the first time, but my thinking was more towards how to survive good decks, not combat decks.


Jeff -> Eric -> Ian -> Geoff

Brad had to leave early.  I had a stupidly good start with Info Highway, Cesewayo on turn two, turn three double Orun and Epiphany.  With two Stunt Cycles and a Thrown Gate in hand and some sort of blind spot to which vampire Geoff had in play, I bled into Victor Tolliver and Cesewayo went from 10 blood to empty in torpor.  I was thinking his dude had inferior Celerity, which I should have been able to deal with, but nope, I did something idiotic as part of my master plan of appearing weak and burning out most of my prey’s library right away (he went through by my estimate 40% of it in that one combat).  Not really, but it did run through my mind while I was getting pummeled.

I transferred low on pool to have some minions in play.  Eric, oddly, didn’t use the complete lack of pressure to build up quickly and took forever to get a third minion online.  Geoff went forward and trashed Jeff’s guys while his library shrank to nothingness.  With Geoff out of deck, I ousted him with a 5 bleed.  For the first time in three games, my Brutal Influence deck actually lost an Orun off one of its dudes.  This is more remarkable when one considers that I had Lucian, The Perfect in games 1 and 2.  Okay, my deck sucks – that Lucian could never successfully bleed displayed some sort of fundamental flaw.

I thought I could get Jeff who had one ready minion and one pool, but Eric could block any undirected actions I’d take and I had no blood and hardly any pool to work with and my hand was jammed on bounce.  I digged long and hard to try to get to Giant’s Blood, which Eric played right before me in every game … except this one, where he played it way before I drew mine yet over 1.5 hours into the game and with around 20 cards left in my library.  My next hope was to time out with 1.5 VPs, which happened as Jeff started propping my empty torpored guys (aka all of my guys) up.

Winning was meaningless.  Playing was not.  I learned a number of things and having people get more familiar with new cards, just having people play who don’t regularly, was highly valuable.

Deck Name:   090612  EK Dominate
Created By:  Lucian, The Perfect

Crypt: (12 cards, Min: 4, Max: 42, Avg: 6.5)
  2  Cesewayo                         ani THA POT DOM CEL AUS10 Osebo
  1  Cesewayo (ADV)                   ani AUS CEL DOM POT THA10 Osebo
  2  Lucian                           ANI AUS DOM OBF POT PRE 11 Guruhi
  1  Onaedo                           aus pot DOM OBT  6  Lasombra
  1  Otieno                           ani dom OBT POT  6  Lasombra
  4  Tupdog                           POT VIS          1  Gargoyle
  1  Ugadja                           dom for ABO ANI POT PRE10 Guruhi

Library: (90 cards)
Master (23 cards)
  3  Blood Doll
  1  Dominate
  1  Dreams of the Sphinx
  1  Giant`s Blood
  2  Information Highway
  10 Orun
  1  Potence
  4  Villein

Action (17 cards)
  2  Bamba
  5  Brutal Influence
  3  Epiphany
  3  Govern the Unaligned
  1  Heroic Might
  1  Mesmerize
  2  Preternatural Strength

Reaction (20 cards)
  7  Deflection
  3  Eyes of Argus
  4  Obedience
  3  On the Qui Vive
  3  Wake with Evening`s Freshness

Combat (18 cards)
  2  Disarm
  4  Immortal Grapple
  1  Mighty Grapple
  3  Stunt Cycle
  4  Taste of Vitae
  2  Thrown Gate
  1  Torn Signpost
  1  Undead Strength

Retainer (1 cards)
  1  Shaman

Equipment (5 cards)
  1  Bowl of Convergence
  1  Kduva`s Mask
  2  Leather Jacket
  1  Seal of Veddartha

Combo (6 cards)
  2  High Orun
  2  Murmur of the False Will
  2  Supernatural Resistance

There are some obvious problems with this deck.  Why no Mbare Market, Harare?  Strange Day might have let me oust people in games 1 and 2.  But, the important thing was I learned some things.

Lucian, The Perfect makes some people wet because of how absurd his bleeds can be.  What I discovered was what an annoyance he is in combat.  We didn’t play his ability quite right – he shouldn’t increase the cost of dodges, for instance – but I vastly preferred fighting with him than any of my other vamps.  His special and Disarm is a natural combo.

Brutal Influence may enable brutal bleeds, especially with an 11 cap with +3 bleed, but the superior is horrible.  What you want to do with Enchant Kindred, Govern the Unaligned, and Scouting Mission is use them for acceleration early and bleed late.  Needing a lot of Orun just to be worth the blood cost, BI is hardly ever worth playing at superior.  I thought it would be an X+1 situation, not a pay a blood for an X situation.  Then, the bleed part is inherently nonsynergistic as any good use of the card causes you to lose the Orun that made the card worth playing.  Fortunately, I always had the “win-win” situation of either getting a 5-7 bleed through or keeping all of my Orun.  Sarcasm also tops my charts.

High Orun was a waste of slots, but then, I hadn’t built the deck to really exploit it.  Supernatural Resistance was terrible, usually unplayable.  Jeff did play one usefully in game 2.

In the end, I thought it was a really good experience.  It wasn’t high level play, but it was competitive-minded enough to be a learning experience.  Not only did we see new cards played, we saw them tested.  And, we ended up with vast amounts of promos for $3.

Thanks Jean, Gator for letting us take up the store all day for a modest entry fee, for a wealth of prizes, and for dragging us out of our comfort zone to see some multisubregional action.

Review – The Warrior’s Companion

June 8, 2009

One of the newer supplements for the Conan RPG published by Mongoose Publishing is The Warrior’s Companion.  Quote the author:

The Warrior’s Companion is a sourcebook designed to add new elements of martial prowess and skill to the more militant or pugilistic classes of Conan the Roleplaying Game, giving them new depth and ability.

Section 1:  The Way of the Warrior

This section talks about warriors from a thematic perspective.  First up is a new code of honor.  I can’t help but point out that I’m tired of new codes of honor, besides that I despise the mechanics for the original codes of honor.  Codes in Conan are money for nothing and chicks for free.  But, isn’t your behavior constrained?  Judgment call; I’ve yet to see anyone lose one.  But, whether you lose one or not in the first 5 minutes of play isn’t important.  It cost nothing to start with a code and you lose nothing except the bonuses for having one from losing one, so you got 5 minutes of a free character feature stronger by far than highly playable feats like Iron Will.

Anyway, the proliferation of codes is absurd.  With Hyboria’s Fallen’s “Honour Among Thieves” and the like, I can just imagine that someday there will be (as I said to my GM):  Code of Honor – Beggar; Code of Honor – Villain; Code of Honor – Demon-pacted Sorcerer.  Why is there not just rules for developing one’s own code, like exist in many RPGs?

Moving on, there’s explanations of how different warrior’s live.  The concept of saying something on such fluff topics is fine with me; I like getting a better sense of the world.  But, I don’t get any sense of the world from a lot of these sorts of sections.  It’s just so obvious, bland, and/or nonspecific.  There’s also a comment in the barbarian part that my GM and I find offensive.  The author talks about how more experienced barbarians switch from high damage weapons to two-weapon fighting with jank.  That is contradictory to the well-established problem in the game that the two-handed fighting style is vastly superior to other fighting styles for anything besides thieves.  It reminds me of advice in Hyboria’s Fiercest about how to assign skill ranks that would be suicidal in our campaigns.  Look, not playing the same way we do is fine, but enough with the bad advice.  Possibly the thing I find most bothersome in the splat books is the lack of advice on how to make an effective character, and here we get more advice on how to make an ineffective one.

Section 2:  Warrior Nations

After fluff about warriors of different classes comes fluff about warriors of different nations.  Again, too generic and obvious to offer anything of value.  Why can’t we get something like a unique character created from each race with analysis of how to assign attributes, what feats to take, what role the character will serve in a party?

Section 3:  The Art of Bloodshed

Finally into something crunchy, we get permanent wound rules.  I have two problems with this.  Before that, though, I’ll say that different RPG players are into different things and mechanics-related stuff seems to sell books better than fluff.  The first problem is that impairing and/or permanent damage rules just screw player characters.  Who cares if you take out some monsters eye, it’s just going to be slaughtered anyway?  Meanwhile, who wants to play a cripple?  People who play fantasy RPGs (and most other RPGs) are engaging in escapist behavior where they can pretend to be something greater than themselves.  I play poorly designed characters all of the time and have virtually a sidekick mentality, but I can totally understand someone creating a new character rather than playing a cripple.

What’s the second problem?  For me and quite a few others, the d20 system that Conan uses has plenty of mechanics, very possibly too many.  Why add more mechanics that don’t address a problem or weakness in the game?  Oh, right, to sell books.  Silly me.

Narrative combat rules, on the other hand, in my opinion, address a need.  We’ve used them twice in two sessions, already.  Combat is slow in most RPGs and Conan is no exception.  Combat with lots of units and a clear outcome should not be played out like meaningful combats should, but I do see the point in there being some cost to engaging in combat.  Are the rules good?  Eh, they seem strange, but I’d much rather use them than play out a lot of the trivial encounters.

Another concept that has merit is the Duel of Fates mechanic.  As the author says, having the epic one-on-one battle in the middle of a larger battle is problematic with the standard rules.  But, I have a number of problems with the execution of this idea.  Why would there be “No Tricks” when tricks are frequently used by villains and outclassed heroes in epic one-on-one clashes?  The mechanics may work, but I doubt it.  The Constitution damage sounds unlikely to be fair and the simplified attack/defense rules eliminate all of the interesting maneuvers and subtle differences in ability/equipment that would seem to be the point of running a duel in the middle of a combat.  Then, the victory rules are inconsistent with all kinds of epic showdowns in fiction.

New class benefits is more shrug-worthy stuff.  Sure, I’ll take Terrain Tactics over Guide because Guide is useless, except borderer is useless as a class in the first place since barbarian is pretty much strictly superior.  It’s the usual mix of “Why does this minor variant of something need to exist?”, “This sounds cheesy.”, and “OMG, not more borderer styles!!”

Ah, new feats, the lifeblood of d20 sales methinks.  I noticed Deadly, I think, in the preview.  My group thinks it’s abusively good.  I think it’s a win more effect where the feat slot spent on something else would be more valuable whether due to better flexibility, addressing a weakness rather than adding a small benefit to a strength, or whatever.  As usual, most of the feats are crap.  I just can’t imagine the thinking that goes behind wasting people’s time with feats that are only usable when sundering a shield (how about cutting the enemy in half instead, which is easier?) or when an enemy is trying to feint you (how about cutting the enemy in half instead, which is easy when you spend feat slots on useful feats and not this sort of junk?).  As one of our players said recently, it’s like you should get three of the awful feats when you spend a feat slot.  Actually, we did have a mechanic for getting feats we’d never spend a feat slot on, but it was being abused, and it still wouldn’t justify the absurdly narrow crap.  I could almost see taking War Cry.

More maneuvers, of course.  Much like feats, there seems to be no effort to balance maneuvers.  Get esoteric maneuvers that involve all sorts of obscure prerequisites mixed with an unlikely combat situation on the one hand and “Wouldn’t I always do this?” on the other.  The concept of combat maneuvers is nice, but the increased complexity is just painful.  We used called shot rules (and impairing/”permanent” damage rules) for a while, and it was just more overhead for little benefit.

The monastic scholar rules are too involved to analyze without playing.  It seems like various powers are overcosted, but then, Power Point costs are weird in that the right character in the right group could end up with vast amounts of PPs while our sorcerers typically run out of PPs in a few rounds of combat.  At the flavor level, I just don’t care.  If people want to play warrior monks, my vision of the Conan world allows for some of that.

Section 4:  Skills of the Warrior

The more I think about this section, the more it will irritate me.  Conan has too many skills already.  For some reason, supplement authors like to create new skills in addition to coming up with new uses for existing skills.  I’m actually quite happy to get new uses of existing skills, though why there isn’t a lot more effort put into making suck skills better escapes me.  But, new skills?  Come on.  Only high Intelligence, 8 skill rank class builds ever seem to have enough skill ranks to be good enough skillwise, and we are expected to spread skill ranks out even thinner?  Particularly galling in this book is how the Tactics skill is thematically the same thing as Knowledge: Warfare.  It’s just laughable to think that there’s some player out there thinking, “Knowledge: Warfare helps with my character concept, but, boy, I wish I could really spend these extra skill ranks I don’t have on another skill that does what it should have done.”  Considering that I consider soldiers unplayable due to their paucity of skill ranks and considering that the obvious character concept to have skills like Tactics would be a soldier, I wonder if there’s some sort of author’s joke.  It’s just sad that what Tactics actually does is what K: Warfare should have done, so we will likely merge the two skills.

Challenge and Sharpen are both just dumb.  The former is easily handled with one of the existing social skills and is broken as written, the latter with a craft skill (you know, all of those craft skills besides Alchemy and Herbalism PCs never bother putting skill ranks in because they never get used).  And, the idea of having a skill to cover such minutia … argh.

As for the new uses of skills, I do want to use Subtle Threats and the concept of personalizing weapons is good, though why it needs a mechanic escapes me.  I could imagine using Temporary Aid, but it seems like, with many things, there’s not enough explanation of how something works.

Section 5:  Wood, Stone, Steel

Equipment.  Some people are fascinated by shopping.  I’m not one of them.  I don’t think different stuff should have different stats as it just causes players to min/max with nonthematic arms and armor, as we clearly see with the common use of bardiches in Conan games.  Maybe there’s some optimal weapon or armor in this batch, but with the existing brokenness of two-handed weapons, my give a damn is busted.

The other new equipment and the arms/armor modifications are just way too much detail to interest me.  I should mention that I’m a big believer in internal power, that having a character’s value be based on gadgets and things just annoys me.  Conan is relatively good about characters being powered off of their attributes, feats, specials, skills.  It’s another reason that the imbalances in equipment out of the main book irritates.

Section 6:  Many Paths, All Warriors

Ah, prestige classes.  In some people’s minds, the reason why D&D 3.5 was unplayable.  In other people’s, the reason to buy a lot of the supplements for that game.  Conan has been interesting with prestige classes.  There are a number, but you need certain supplements to find most of them, and they are mostly very narrow and very terrible (for PCs).  These don’t seem so terrible.

Axeman has crappy skill ranks, but they are better than soldier.  Weapon Focus (prerequisite) is an awful feat, but the Axeman’s saves are surprisingly good, especially getting decent Will save bonuses at higher levels, and the class sounds very beatstickish, which is like, um, good, in this game.

Duellist just doesn’t sound like a PC class.  The whole supplement may be trying to encourage one-on-one battles, but I just don’t see it coming up often enough to be so specialized.  But, a significant amount of the material in Conan is only relevant to NPCs, including IMO half the base classes.

Pit Fighter is better, good base attack bonus, yet again with the classes in this book, better than expected save bonuses.  But, still, it’s not PC material – low skill ranks and too much focus on combat, where’s it’s easy to have a strong build, dooms it.

Savage also has the skill rank problem, but I can see someone wanting to be a savage beastie.  Tenacity is the hotness.  Greater Acuity is good for a Thief/Savage build.  Felling Blow doesn’t hurt.  Saves besides Tenacity are solid.  No weak prerequisites.

My main problem with Warlord is, of course, that I don’t consider Soldier a viable class in the game due to the horrid number of skill ranks it gets.  Never Surrender sounds good, though it’s probably trivial.  Embodiment of Victory sounds like it has a lot of strange potential.

Wrestler … oh grapple rules, how I hate thee.  Seriously, the grapple rules are painful.  Sometimes, they are painful for what a hose job they are on PCs.  Sometimes, they are just confusing and timewasting.  I don’t think people realize how complicated multiple grapples by multiple parties all using special animal/monster abilities that follow different rules can get.  Anyway, I see value in a PC “countergrappler”, a party member who is highly effective at keeping other party members from being grappled by being awesome at grappling him/herself.  We have a wrestly character in our party right now.  The 2 skill ranks per level is typically awful.

Section 7:  Famous Warriors

Two thing come to mind:   Can my character take these guys?  Mostly … no.  Are they good examples of reasonable builds?  Power Attack + high Strength is the bomb, so they can fight, but I don’t find combat builds difficult to stat up.  And, what, can’t make a female combat monster?

Section 8:  Martial Disciple

Seems like a far, far better combat character than the Pirate, a class that kind of isn’t so good at much (I’d always rather play a thief/barbarian).  The damage reduction path is cute.  I wonder how I’d multiclass.  Thief for Sneak Attack damage and better skill ranks might be the way to go.

Do I like the concept?  Not really.  I can tolerate some monk action in my Conan, but I dread having a party turn into one of those parodies of fantasy role-playing where player characters make no sense adventuring together or even being in the same world.  Here’s my pirate, here’s my ninja, here’s my dwarf, here’s my druid … just say no to silly genres.  I kind of like the monastic scholar more because it has more diverse abilities.