Leo II – Zodiac I

August 28, 2009

Almost September with the Leo time of the year having closed nearly a week ago, yet I can hardly short the sign of a second post.

It’s been my pattern to do two posts for each astrological sign.  One focuses on RPGs, which is where I think there’s the most benefit to thinking about astrology.  The other talks about V:TES.  It’s not surprising that I talk about the CCG I still play when talking about a CCG.  But, the question is:  why talk about CCGs at all when it comes to astrology?  How is astrology inspiring or aiding playing games like CCGs?

In past posts, I have tried to show how astrology can be an inspiration to look at the game, or at least the deckbuilding part of the game, differently.  In my mind, the Aries post was the best of these.  I have a certain style when it comes to V:TES, but I tire of doing the same thing all of the time.  The Aries inspired deck was completely against my usual style.  Now, I’ve built similar decks in the past to that deck, but they are rare, so it’s helpful to have some sort of inspiration to do the rare less rarely.

So, what of Leo and V:TES?  Where’s the intersection?

I don’t have a grand, brilliant essay on how Leo can inspire or otherwise aid me in building decks or playing the game.  I do have a couple of highly unrelated thoughts.

The first thought has to do with thinking about what clan is very Leoish.  The one that sticks in my mind is Ventrue.  Leo and “noble” are relatively synonymous.  But, do I really want to build a Ventrue deck or even really talk about how to build a Ventrue deck?  Nope.  Good Ventrue decks are ubiquitous.  It’s easy enough for someone to peruse the tournament winning deck archive by clan – http://thelasombra.com/decks/clan-twd.htm – to find a plethora of examples of quality decks.

So, if not Ventrue a deck, what about Ventrue?  Certainly, talking about the thematics of the clan is more of a RPG thing.

With so many successful Ventrue decks, including recent ones that are very old school in how they are built, I got to thinking about weaknesses.  As successful as the Ventrue have been, there are plenty of other clans and non-clan strategies that have been comparably successful.  So, the clan must have weaknesses.  What are they?

Within the clan’s disciplines, there are many, many powerful effects.  Dominate is the best bleed discipline and one of only two disciplines with bleed bounce and “won” my contest in https://iclee.wordpress.com/2009/06/19/gemini-i-zodiac-i/ for most versatile discipline out of the original 10.  Presence is “the” voting discipline and has Majesty.  Fortitude has Freak Drive and a bunch of other cards nowhere near as good as Freak Drive.  Obviously missing are stealth and intercept.

Intercept is routinely addressed with Second Tradition.  Stealth can be addressed by going with the fairly popular Ventrue w/ Obfuscate build(s).  But, is stealth even needed?  Ventrue Law Firm in its most iconic form doesn’t rely on stealth, maybe getting a bit from Bonding or whatever.  Between Majesty and Freak Drive, the Ventrue can just overwhelm block attempts with number of actions.  Non-stealth evasion (or punishment) comes in the form of Seduction, Perfect Paragon, The Kiss of Ra, etc.

So, it doesn’t sound like there are any massive weaknesses to exploit.  So, we look for smaller ones. 

Many Ventrue decks take advantage of multiaction ability, titled crypt options, Ventrue Headquarters, and synergy with cards that require Princes/Justicars by voting.  The magnitudes of effects from vote cards are much higher than most other plays, whether it’s Parity Shift, Anarchist Uprising, or whatever.  But, there are strong answers.  Delaying Tactics can junk up a turn immensely.  Scalpel Tongue, admittedly likely to only be played by another vote deck, is quite a vote killer.  Even casual intercept may block an important vote.  And, that’s something to keep in mind – while any vote coming out of the deck may be quite game changing, unlike playing against a weenie vote deck, there probably aren’t a lot of them.

I don’t want to get much into defending against bleed from a Ventrue deck as it can be much like defending against bleed from a Giovanni deck or just general bleed defense strategies.

What of the Ventrue’s defenses against its predator?  Presence, Fortitude, and Obedience can deal with nearly any offensive combat.  Dominate and Second Tradition do well to handle bleed.  Titles, Ventrue Headquarters, Second Tradition all do well to contain voting.  So many tools.  Any deck can be overwhelmed by sufficiently aggro decks.  Even a deck with 15 Deflections is not going to have one in hand all of the time to deal with a stealth bleed deck swinging for 3-6 with every bleed action.  Weenie decks are pretty good at ripping apart anything that isn’t itself a weenie deck.

Small weaknesses.  How about Obedience not being any sort of defense against allies?  There’s only so many combat ends and damage prevents to stop the Shambling Hordes, War Ghouls, or whatever.  Second Tradition is mighty but it’s not a guarantee, whether due to not being able to get above 2 intercept to block a stealthy deck or due to block fails or more esoteric plays.  Actions do often get through against Ventrue.  Bleeds aren’t the greatest threat as they run into bounce.  There are the “mess with you” actions of Sensory Deprivation, Derange, Charnas the Imp, Shadow Twin, et al that can disrupt the Ventrue deck’s flow.  There are the non-bleed, non-vote pool damage plays, as rare as they may often be, such as Choir (yes, it’s a joke of a strategy, but it qualifies) or Enticement.

In terms of where Ventrue decks can be exploited, there’s also the difficulties that naturally arise from trying to do various different things.  This is highly dependent upon the player of the Ventrue deck playing the deck optimally (and building it well in the first place).  Nevertheless, disrupting aspects of the deck can make the player’s life quite difficult.  Blocking votes may jam the player on vote push.  Delaying Tactics may jam the player on Voter Captivations.  The patient player can likely wait out short term troubles and explode with uberness when the coast is clear, but that’s no worse than having the deck be in uber mode all of the time.

Of course, not all Ventrue decks try to do many things.  “Vignes” (e.g. http://thelasombra.com/decks/twd.htm#2k9nycqualifier) is a straightforward Ventrue build.

What’s the second thought?  Remnant of the Endless Storm, of course.  While a werewolf in the CCG, I’m pretty sure it’s a wereLeo, er, werelion.  Is it a Timmy/Johnny card or just a Timmy card (see http://www.wizards.com/magic/magazine/article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr11b for what these mean)?

If I ever get around to playing it in constructed (I drafted two in one event and never played either), I’ll probably play it for humor value.  But, what about trying to get real use out of it?  There are only so many Magaji in the game.  I don’t see it with Osebo, who already have combat covered and aren’t likely to get excited by the pool cost.  Ishtarri can bloat well enough to handle the pool cost.  Akunanse can use it to supplement an intercept combat strategy by having an enforcer to tactically pick off problems.  Guruhi have historically had a problem getting their cool stuff (Founders of the Ebony Kingdom, The Guruhi Are the Land) to pay off, and adding a 6 pool cost dude is not on focus except maybe as a supplement to an Ananasi Vampirephile deck (I really need to do a new version of one of these), but it does have that enforcer appeal to take out annoying blockers (other than the likes of Carlton) to help Guruhi get actions through.  Assamites would be interesting – stealth to get Remnant into play, mix of ally and vampire combat strategies to wreck minions.

I’m sure there are plenty of the same old boring combo things that can be done with fat allies, but for zaniness, I kind of like the idea of mixing Malks in with Magaji to do Malkavian Time Auction on Remnant (and having some way of stealing it back, such as Far Mastery).  That goes right into my thought of rebuilding an Assault Rifle (AK47, whatever) and Time Auction deck (hit people with Illegal Search and Seizure if they annoy you with your Auctioned off weapons).

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Leo I – Zodiac I

August 24, 2009

Do I get a pass for being sick?  I’ve been pushing the edge of getting these into the right time frames for months, but here I am late for this month’s installment and I even have a parent who is a Leo.

Leo
the teenager
“I will”
positive: warmth, generosity, nobility, strength, loyalty, leadership, and a soothing, gentle tenderness
negative: arrogance, false pride, vanity, tyranny, haughtiness, and romantic promiscuity
– from Linda Goodman’s “Love Signs”

Leadership.  Specifically, I’m thinking of party leadership.  It’s something lacking in every campaign I play in.  I haven’t played in some of them in months, but I’m theoretically in four:  Conan, Camelot of the West, Ward World, and Heroes of Rokugan.

Camelot of the West is this brilliant fusion of Camelot and the Wild West but really needs momentum and focus.  Ward World is a Fantasy Hero game that isn’t particularly weird.

Lack of leadership hurts.  In our Conan campaign, we are mostly bumbling troublemakers who accidentally unleash horrors upon the world.  In Camelot of the West we get easily sidetracked by individual character interests.  In Ward World, things are more forced upon the party to where it basically follows a sensible plot, but the sessions are taken mostly with combat to where plot isn’t hugely important.  In HoR, there are just times when direct action is called for and a lack of will to execute it; we usually get done what we need to, but it takes hours longer than it should.

On the flip side:  I just recently ran my second session of Solomon Kane, a “campaign” that was supposed to be something to do at local conventions to fill up the dead time that would also give my Conan GM a chance to be a player.  It’s funny how completely in charge his character is.  Take away warmth, tenderness, and promiscuity, and his character covers the other traits listed above.  There is a potential drawback to being so in command in terms of the other players getting overshadowed, but I don’t think the other players care.

Bumbling is funny, of course.  Some bumbling is nice comedic relief, even can end up as high farce.  But, as a predominant style, it runs contrary to heroic adventuring (I hadn’t thought about how all of my campaigns fall under fantasy) which is nominally what all of the campaigns are supposed to be.

As a third of the Zodiac is made up of cardinal signs – leadership signs – and Leo itself is not one of them, it seems odd how lacking in leadership parties seem to be.  I wonder if it has something to do with people not wanting responsibility when they play games, even when they naturally take it on in work or family or whatever, and not wanting to take away choices from other players in a belief that part of the fun of the game is being able to do what you want.

Getting back to Leo, I find it to be a sign that is relatively easy to grasp.  It also has the advantage of being very “noticeable”.  I have this habit of creating characters who are way too subtle to where you never get a clear sense of them.  If I did justice to a Leo, I shouldn’t run into that problem.  Better to be flavorful than not even if it means being over the top as one of the primary benefits of RPGs is living a larger than life life.

I wonder if I could actually do justice to a Leo.  Certainly, my Lion (HoR) is no Leo.  I even have trouble playing arrogance, which is about as easy a personality trait to role-play.  I’ll have to think more about Leo characters.  I could easily give a character I recently created a Leo profile, but saying something is something doesn’t make it it.


Gen Con 2009

August 19, 2009

From a gaming standpoint, Gen Con this year will likely blend into all of the other hazy memories I have of Gen Cons past.  From a nongaming standpoint, being ill throughout the convention was an unfortunate challenge.

Well, this is a blog about gaming, especially about analyzing gaming, so let’s get into zee gaming.

Thursday

Bam!  First slot, right into Heroes of Rokugan.  Unable to get a pickup game in Wednesday night, I needed this slot and the Friday afternoon slot to get my 8 XP to rank up my backup character for the special event, Doom of the Crab.  Running through my printout of an Excel mod tracker (like lots of experienced HoRers have), we settled on Harsh Lessons.  I met one of the players I play a lot of online mods with and another player I’ve played once or so with who also GMed for us.  Another player was someone who actually remembered Ryota’s notable falling off a mountain episode.  Harsh Lessons was exceptional.  I wish more mods were like it rather than the tragedy or intrigue that suffuses the campaign.  It also gave my backup character a new goal, which I thought wasn’t likely to matter since I figured he’d die in Doom.  At one point, it wasn’t clear whether we were supposed to cross some water only later to find out that there was no way and that the place on the other side was the world’s version of Hell.  Since my Phoenix trained at a Dragon bushi school is as good at sailing as anything else, I now totally see retiring to become a Charon like character who facilitates travel of PCs between spirit realms.  There was also a Dragon (shugenja) character in the mod who is meant to provoke a duel with a Phoenix PC.  Besides notable for being my first duel whenever the obligation to duel to the death gets resolved, it was terribly ironic given that my Phoenix isn’t a shugenja, the expectation, and is Dragon trained and ended up becoming a guest instructor at a Dragon dojo.

Next up was Oz: Dark and Terrible.  Game is still being worked on, but they already have t-shirts.  I have the lion and the scarecrow ones.  I plan on talking to the designer as there are some things I think they need to work a lot more on.  One problem is the marketing plan.  What we played – woman having her head popped off, scarecrow snapping the neck of a PC – is not going to fly with the family market.  That may or may not be solvable.  The mature art, though, I can’t see being used with any sort of family version of the game.  There were also way too many wargamey mechanics.  I did enjoy it and I hope it turns out well as it’s one sort of genre I can get into.

Thursday night was one of those “good story” games.  It should come as no surprise that many of my best role-playing game stories come from the most horrendously awful games.  The system was meaningless, the GM forgot character sheets and so just ended up winging the mechanics.  It was essentially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs. movie monsters.  Our party consisted of Sherlock Holmes, Alan Quartermain, Nayland Smith (me, who is Nayland Smith? Fu Manchu’s nemesis), Harry Houdini (yes, out of his time period), Annie Oakley, and Mulder and Scully’s ancestors only switched around to where Mulder was a German scientist and Scully a druidess.

It was just painful.  The Mulder player was bored out of his mind and did next to nothing in the 5 hours (of the 4 hour game slot).  The Scully character was hugely useful to doing anything but her schtick of rubbing her acorns was the source of numerous juvenile jokes.  Houdini’s player made no effort to play a character and was far too loud, too craven, and too disruptive.  Quartermain’s “big gun” was the source of more infantile jokes than the acorns.  Characters like Sherlock Holmes, only the most famous detective in the history of the human race and one of the most famous characters of any sort, should not be played by people who don’t actually know anything about the character.  Things like the fact that he actually investigates mysteries.  The plot was tissue thin to where I knew exactly what was going on 10 minutes in.  The only obstacle was getting to where the monsters were, which we never actually accomplished.  The closest was finding Dracula’s lair and eliminating some of his brides and trying to genocide his rat army.  We never did run across him, the Wolfman, The Mummy, or the zombies (because why be so predictable as to have graverobbers be working for Frankenstein).  We did find the cultists!?!

With a better group of players, I might have fleshed out my character more.  I was thinking James Bond or, even more so, James West as inspirations.  But, it wasn’t until the climactic cultist battle that we really did anything that mattered.  Well, some of the party did get information from Fu Manchu so that we knew where the hell we were supposed to go, but I question the “mattering” of that.  With players into gunfun, I played up my spy’s tricksomeness instead and tried one incredibly cool thing.

I described my turn as:  I release the smoke grenade from my boot, I open the secret passage I know is right “there” (I established its existence at that moment), I grapple with a cultist and steal his clothes without going through the secret passage, so that the other cultists would chase “me” to wherever “I” was naturally supposed to go while I chased them to find out where I was supposed to go.

The GM didn’t let me pretend to be a cultist pretty much making the whole thing meaningless as we could have just taken the stairs down to the basement area where we knew where the artifact was somewhere.

Strong concept.  Needed reasonable players and a decent GM.

Friday

Native American, mythological style role-playing with a Dogs in the Vineyard like resolution mechanic.  Add in decent players and decent GMs and this is what I live for.  It wasn’t fantastic, but it was quite solid.  The interesting mechanical twists on Dogs are that there are multiple GMs to manage conflicts better and that the conflicts are more constrained than Dogs so you don’t run into the Dogs problem of spending two hours rolling all of your dice in a conflict.

The plot was that a water serpent came around every once in a while to steal a child from the village.  The relationships were:  I saw the hunter who failed to deal with the water serpent as a role model; my sister (PC) hated him for raping our mother; the ugly girl of the village was friendly with the other PC while contrary with me; the wandering shaman/necromancer was involved somehow; the other PC (our cousin) hated our dad because he killed his father; but sis got along well with dad (until she stole his bow to give to Failure).

So, the chieftess of the village is ill and declares that whoever deals with the water serpent will be the next chief.  Failure and I run across the shaman outside of the village and I cut a deal with him.  My spin on why Failure couldn’t take out the water serpent and why he raped my mom was that he was totally into hooking up with said serpent and frustrated.  So, I suggest to the shaman that he make the interspecies couple more compatible and he takes the easy way out and does his mojo to transform Failure into a water serpent (either way was fine with me).  I have to keep his secret that he’s hanging around to heal the chieftess.  Meanwhile, sis is annoying dad by taking his bow to give to Failure to encourage the wuss to go after the serpent, while cuz is fiddling with some clay pot device to fight the serpent with and humiliates our dad.  Sis comes across the transforming Failure and kills him, thus screwing up two-thirds of my character ambitions – helping Failure and hooking him and the serpent up.  Alls I gots left for ambitions is dealing with the serpent.  So, I gather together sis and cuz to go fight the serpent.  The fight is a struggle to get to go according to plan, but I do finally manage to get the serpent killed using cuz’s clay pot trap so that I can pass along all of the cred to cuz.  Doing that is important because it satisfies his glory ambition while it also satisfies sis’s ambition of being the next chief assuming sis and cuz hook up (criminal incest in this game is closer than first cousin) with cuz being the village champion and sis being the leader.  As a reward (of my choosing) for the serpent conflict, I start a new society of serpentmasters.  A reward for … the serpent? GM? punishment for me? … is that I leave the serpent’s egg alone.  Well, of course I do – you can’t have useful serpentmasters without serpents to master.  ;)

We get back and things are going okay with cuz explaining his marriage to sis and sis being the next leader when ugly girl pipes up out of jealousy and claims our chieftess is evil and in cahoots with the necromancer.  Which proves to be true.  Fighting stuff happens for a while until ugly girl turns into a serpent and flees with cuz chasing after his true love and my society having apparently a lot bigger serpent problem for us to deal with over the generations.  Sis takes over and everyone lives happily ever after … oh wait, that’s the name of a later game I played.

Back to HoR.  I just need 4 XP out of this mod to rank up for the evening’s Doom.  We play A Day’s Sail, which is the one “shipping lanes” mod I missed.  Nothing terribly special happens.  I try to help the other PCs get the Thrane badass Daniel Hatcherman as an ally (I already have him as a true friend from the other mods), but we rush the ending and don’t meet the requirements for them to get him as an ally.

Doom.  It was a lot like the battle interactive from Gen Con 2008.  Tables simultaneously going through scenes.  We ended up with a table of six rank 2’s.  We had an awesome complement of character types, having three damage sponges, an archer, a fire tensai (infinite fireballs), and a water tensai (infinite healing).  We only had two Crabs; we had a Lion and three!!! Phoenix in this event that was limited to Crab Clan and their allies. 

The beginning is way more social than expected and it is shown that our biggest failing is lack of etiquette as we fail to get some guards out of our way and lose .3 Glory while trying to evacuate the Crab Champion’s sister.  First combat scene, the fire tensai basically solos as he master casts Heart of the Inferno to blow up groups of archers.  Second combat scene we face a Dark Moto and his oni horse.  Round one, he reduces the water tensai to down and does 53 damage to me with his second attack.  I Void for damage but the horse hits me for 17, reducing me to out (76 wounds kills me).  Second round, he downs or outs the fire tensai with one attack and does around 50 damage to the Akodo with the other.  The water tensai heals himself enough to make the utterly insane tactical decision of healing me so that I can futilely try knockdown attempts on the Dark Moto (jiujutsu or disarms would have been even harder).  See, he was invulnerable to normal weapons, which was all we had.  He had enough magic resistance that every spell against him failed.  Yet, the fire tensai was the only who could hope to do any damage.  The cavalry showed up – it wasn’t necessary to kill him, just survive long enough – and he took off.  I heard one table killed him and two other tables *almost* got him.  As a bunch of rank 2’s in an event designed for rank 4’s and with no weird items/magic items, we had pretty much zero chance.  But, we did win by all surviving.  Fight three was just a bore fighting some goblin berserkers led by someone with invulnerability who got smoked by lamely crushing a finger of jade on one of the Crabs’ tetsubo.

The Crab allies are removed and the Crab players are consolidated down to Crab only tables to go fight the tough part of the event.  Total rewards for my playing in Doom of the Crab, a mid/high rank special event intended to be deadly dangerous and being Crabcentric?  3 XP, lose .3 Glory for first scene, get .3 Glory at the end.  I successfully brag for one of the few times ever (3k2 for a TN of 20 is sketchy) to get another .1 Glory, so I net 3 XP and .1 Glory.  Favor Crab Clan?  Nope.  Ally Hiruma Tsuken (guy ordering us around)?  Nope.  Anything remotely to do with the Crab who I just helped evacuate thousands of people for in the face of a Shadowlands invasion of pretty much all of Crab Lands?  Nope.  I realize almost everyone, maybe everyone, who played in the event is knowledgeable enough about the campaign to write fiction to get these things, but I’ve now played in two special events that were Crabcentric and have nothing that relates to Crabbiness for this character, not even crabs from … never mind.

The only special rewards were for getting killed as a Crab in the Crab only portion of the event.  Speaking of getting killed, the Sacrifices of the Crab table (the rank 1’s who were all grouped together to avoid having them screw up things for the rest of us) were quickly slaughtered, two other Lions apparently got slaughtered, one who had the Crow Tattoo (all Shadowlands notice you and try to kill you, always good when being run down by thousands of Shadowlands creatures).  Four? Crab died in the Crab only portion.

Saturday

Houses of the Bloodied is a game about a sorcerer-king servant race that the GM envisions a lot like Melniboneans plotting against each other.  The mechanics are competitive storytelling ones:  you establish a fact about the world, whoever opposed you establishes an “and, but, except” type condition on that fact and you keep going until you run out of “wagers”.  Sometimes, you are the only one with wagers and just start rattling off stuff.  It could be played without a GM, which is what one player really wanted to do stylewise.  The problem with games that require intelligent players is that you don’t always get intelligent players.  For instance, the diplomat was negotiating with a village chief and, when the chief said “you owe us tribute for passing through our lands”, her response was “okay”.  When another character established that it was snowing, she decided to make snow angels.  Now, the world was poorly defined (out of necessity for only a 4 hour time slot) and not everyone knows what Melniboneans are like, but distinguishing silly fantasy from other fantasy isn’t that hard.

I had some fun playing a cunning bastard.  And, I am okay enough at making up plot twists on the fly that I fixed our plot problems by having the sorcerer-queen eat her daughter, the naughty Suaven (don’t worry about it), which freed other Ven (our people) from the mirror so that they could testify against our liege lord, all as part of some deal to close the well that was going to swallow all of our souls.

There might be something cool with this game.  And, I respect competitive storytelling and those who do it well.  But, it’s not my thing.  I don’t like competing with players, I want to cooperate with them.  Dogs and How We Came To This Land (above) don’t have quite the same competitive feel, though they could easily be played that way.  More Native American mythology and more Christian enforcers in the New World and less “… but the smoke is toxic …” style creating your own screwjobs is a good thing.

I had an open slot in the afternoon that was intended for exhibit hall stuff and whatever.  One goal was to network as much as possible with industry insiders.  I was too sick to do anything but nap.  I could have done the HoR political interactive, but everything I hear makes them sound irritating.  As I’ve been explaining to people, I think HoR already has too much politics and intrigue and not enough heroic fantasy as it is, why play events that are nothing but that?  Give me unwinnable wars.

Saturday night was my last HoR slot and I finally got to play my main character.  I got to play with one of my roommates, finally.  The party’s efforts were weak.  Everyone figured out what was going on within 10 minutes, but it took forever for “Scorpion Time” to kick in and the dishonorable scum in the party to solve the mod.  We bruteforced our way through some of it and I kept expecting to get hammered with honor losses, infamy, penalties for being a Lion in Lion Lands who couldn’t deal with things elegantly, and whatnot.  But, it was a low rank mod, and those sorts of punishments tend to be reserved for higher rank stuff where players aren’t likely to be newbs.  So, I got my XP and even a pip of honor and said fairwells to the HoR crowd I met.

Sunday

I tried to sleep in a lot since I didn’t have a game until noon.  But, I had to hit the exhibit hall and I never leave enough time for that.  I did the minimum amount of stuff in the hall, bought way more weight of stuff than I expected, and went to my last GC game.

QAGS stands for quick ass gaming system.  The genre was fairy tale noir.  You start with a film noir archetype.  We had a detective, muscle, gun moll, magician, magician’s assistant, and I was the agency researcher/marketer/archivist.  Then, you choose a fairy tale character.  The detective was Sleeping Beauty, muscle Big, Bad Wolf, gun moll Goldilocks, magician Kate Crackernuts (no frickin’ clue), assistant Sister Rabbit (Brer Rabbit as a chick), and I was Rumpelstiltskin.  Then, you choose an actor who would play you in the movie.  This I didn’t pay as much attention to with the PCs, but I was played by Danny DeVito (of course).

Someone was sabotaging the new act, the Queen of Hearts (Celine Dion), according to Alice (of Alice’s Restaur- … I mean Alice’s Talent Agency, played by Rhea Perlman).  Suspects included Rapunzel (Mae West, previous headliner, now the hostest with the mostest), Knave of Hearts (see below), Papa Bear (John Goodman), Mama Bear (Goldie Hawn), Prince Charming (Kurt Russell), and others.

I should mention that the Big, Bad Wolf was also an Elvis impersonator.  The player did awesome drawings, including a wolf in Elvis outfit (giant flared collars, open down the chest).  He also did a good Elvis impersonation.  Yet, he was quite modest.  I so wish there were more gamers like that in the world.

The police were the Three Little Pigs.  Yeah, that was awesome.  When someone asked who was playing the Knave of Hearts, the writer/producer for the Queen, I had to restrain myself from offering Jim Steinman.  GM’s choice?  Jim “greatest writer/producer of melodramatic piano rock with 50’s biker fantasy themes ever” Steinman.  Because that’s the way this world rolls.

In the end, we confront Alice, the police burst in, take a look at the grenade Alice is holding and start firing at the Wolf whose giant belt buckle deflects the bullets to Alice who falls through the window as the grenade goes off.

I suppose I should mention my giant (for me) old school typewriter that I would lug around the office.  When leaving the office?  Pull out the iPhone and bring up the typewriter app.

The final scenes that interested me included the Wolf singing Jailhouse Rock on a stage that pans out to be in a jail and my typing away in bed while smoking a cig while a woman under the covers with a huge head of hair sleeps.  I got to have Danny DeVito off Rhea Perlman in the movie for +2 fun.

After the convention, it was V:TES time.  The locals drove me over to Ankur’s new house for a 12 person tournament that included Jay Kristoff.  It wasn’t terribly interesting except for some wild antics by someone I played both rounds and a pickup with.  Jay schooled the rest of us with a sketchy deck, getting game wins in every round.  I failed to manage a single VP.

Monday

Came home.


Bleeding, at stealth

August 12, 2009

Stealth bleed.  (There are numerous other terms for it, but I like this one.)  V:TES’s most iconic deck archetype.

Playing five games spread between two different play groups last Saturday got me thinking about something I have often expressed.  Contrary to the many snide comments I see, there is such a thing as playing stealth bleed well.

It’s fairly common for people to claim that stealth bleed decks are easy to play, that they are “dumb” decks.  I’m not going to dispute that they are the easiest decks to play, but what seems lost is that one’s results are still highly dependent upon how you play them.

Sure, if you play a reasonable stealth bleed decks against bad decks, you may not have to use much skill to win.  But.  But, it pains me to watch players play stealth bleed badly when it matters.

How?  How about people leading with a bleed of three only to see it get bounced and then continuing with a smaller bleed that gets through?  While that might be necessary when lunging, it’s frequently just wasting resources.  And, of course, one always wonders at the mentality of doing a bunch of damage to someone besides one’s prey without any thought as to how it helps the bleeder win.

Stealth vs. Intercept

The challenge of getting past intercept doesn’t excite me anywhere near as much as the challenge of working around bleed bounce, but I’m often amazed when someone gets a big bleed blocked and either bleeds small otherwise or stops bleeding all together.  It’s almost as bad to watch someone bleed small, get blocked tapping out the defending player, and then stop.

The primary lesson that should be learned by playing against decks that can successfully block is to not go half way.  Commit to a line of action.  Only adjust when there’s a reason to.  For example, nothing boggles my mind more than someone who leads in with a significant bleed against someone who is tapped out, has it fail, and then stops attacking.  Sure, there is such a thing as probing someone’s defenses.  That’s what bleeds of one are for.  That’s what tapping someone out who isn’t already tapped out by allowing yourself to be blocked is for.

If your prey is tapped out and wakes and blocks and untaps with Majesty, Earth Meld, Cat’s Guidance or whatever, then, sure, it may be necessary to reassess what you do this turn.  But, a lack of commitment on offense breaks a basic strategic rule – concentrate on attack.  What a lot of players seem to have trouble with is the idea that a stealth bleed deck’s goal is not to stealth by a blocker and pump a bleed.  It’s to exhaust the prey’s defenses with minimal resources/actions and follow up with annihilation.

Lunging

Lunging works.  Not lunging is often a tremendous waste of resources.  For those who don’t know, lunging is the term for trying to oust someone in one turn rather than (my term) grinding someone’s pool down turn after turn.  The problem with not lunging is that players adapt to their situations.  Having one’s pool consistently depleted often causes players to allocate more resources to defense and/or spend less pool bringing out minions or playing cards.  That means having to use up more resources eliminating the player which means less for the next player …

… so often seems like people forget that the goal is not to get a VP but to win the game, which means multiple ousts (or one oust and playing in Northern California).

It’s especially bad to hit someone hard early.  There are exceptions, like when your prey’s deck can trump yours once it gets set up or when you are playing a weenie deck that’s trying to end the game as quickly as possible (a lot of stealth bleed decks aren’t weenie decks, but some are).  But, the main result of that early bleed for 6 or 5 or 4 or even 3 is usually to cause one’s prey to transfer less, spend less, and defend more.  The most efficient way to reduce one’s prey of pool in the game is when one’s prey transfers out more minions or plays more pool costing cards.  Nevermind that a defensive prey is a prey who isn’t helping me oust my next prey.

Also, it’s easy to defend against unfocused attacks.  Bleed once each turn for 3 and I just need to play one Deflection each turn.  Bleed for 1 each turn and then bleed three times for 3 each and I need three Deflections in hand at a given time to avoid being bloodied.

Which brings me to another concept.  One that is relevant to being on the receiving end of bleed decks.  Being bled is not a problem.  Losing pool is how the game is supposed to work.  I find it hilarious how someone expends effort to stop a bleed of 1 only to suck down a bleed of 5 later because wakes, bounce, or whatever were wasted on an action that just didn’t matter.  I don’t know if it’s accurate, but I consider losing 2 pool a turn normal pressure.  A predator doing less than that is a good predator.  A predator hitting me for 3 or more a turn needs to be … dealt with.

Bounce

Lots of folks claim stealth bleed isn’t fun to play or play against.  I actually enjoy it more than any other archetype.  But, it all depends upon one’s prey having bleed bounce.  Without the challenge of working around bounce, it is rather unexciting.  Fortunately, most serious decks have bounce.

The single greatest mistake that players of stealth bleed make is, sadly, being stupid.  No, really.  Anyone who has played the game half a dozen or more times should know that bounce exists.  Yet, time after time, I have to suffer through someone mindlessly helping the player’s prey win by bleeding irresponsibly.

Responsible bleed.  It’s a term that has been used for quite a while now.  It just tends to annoy me.  I don’t have a problem with people putting good cards in their decks like Spying Mission, but there’s really no need for people to go out of their way to prevent themselves from having big bleeds land on players besides their preys.  Bleeding responsibly is just a matter of not bleeding stupidly.

The single greatest mistake that players should make is using stealth.  A stealth bleed deck’s job is not to stealth past any and all defenders.  That just feeds into bounce.  The goal is to oust multiple players.  Stealth is just a tool to enable that.  It’s a tool that is overused.  The ideal situation when playing stealth bleed is to actually start hammering away after tapping out one’s prey.  Then, instead of needing a bounce card, the player needs a wake and a bounce.

So, how to tap out one’s prey?  There are cards that can do it, of course.  Faceless Night, Misdirection, Anarch Troublemaker, whatever.  Nothing wrong with those.  But, it’s not what I’m getting at.  How about getting blocked?  Yes, simply not throwing out stealth just because you can.

How many decks truly punish you in combat?  Yeah, letting Meshenka block you may be bad.  But, Arika?  Jost?  Morel?

And, then, there’s the bleed portion of stealth bleed.  It’s really not necessary to pump every bleed.  The stealth bleed deck’s stealthed bleeds should be for 1, maybe 2 if one’s grandprey is in good shape.  The bleeds for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or more should be at 0 stealth as often as possible.  Of course, people get ousts by stealthing bleeds of 6 by untapped or awakened blockers.  But, that’s tactics, not strategy.  The strategy is not to grind someone’s pool but to grind away someone’s defenses by doing as little as possible until the pool is an easy lunge away from being evaporated.

It’s late.  This isn’t a terribly focused post.  I’m sure I forgot something I really wanted to state.  Probably should come back to this topic again as it is one near and dear to my heart.


RPG Balance

August 4, 2009

So, I’m currently in a fairly ironic situation.  I’ve ranted far too much on the Conan forums about how out of balance the classes are (among other things).  Yet, there’s a thread on the L5R forum where a longtime poster is going on and on and on about how a particular build is broken with a recent errata to the rules that makes me just want to say, “Dude, it’s a RPG, all you have to do to fix the problem as the GM is say I don’t allow it.

Terrible inconsistency?  Possible hypocrisy?  How can I be so obsessed with balance in one RPG and so nonchalant in another?

I think I’ll come back to this later.  Before then, what is the context of RPG balance?  As I argued in college philosophy, stuff doesn’t have meaning without context.

Given that every campaign I’ve ever played in, including living campaigns, has had house rules and that GMs have carte blanche to disallow or change anything they don’t like and GMs (typically) create challenges not for some abstract and objective party power level but for actual parties, in what way does balance at the publisher’s level even come into the discussion.  After all, unlike other games that have objective environments, RPGs are subjective and just tools for the play group to have make believe adventures.

Of course, there’s an obvious fallacy there.  If balance didn’t matter at all, then the mechanics wouldn’t matter at all.  There must be something about the mechanics that causes them to justify themselves.  To steal some verbiage from someone I met with today, few things are binary.  It’s not that RPGs will ever have perfect balance and they obviously don’t function as rules sets for games when there is no balance.  There’s some spectrum where some points are acceptable and some aren’t.

Why does balance (fairness) even matter to me?  Doesn’t it matter to everyone?  Sure doesn’t seem like it when you read other people’s comments, but I just think it’s a matter of them having a greater tolerance for unfairness than I do as opposed to a complete disinterest in the issue.

It seems even more odd that I should care so much about balance/fairness when I’m so willing to play sidekicks, when I’m so willing to intentionally design weak characters.

It’s not actually weakness that I crave.  It’s uniqueness.  As with optimal strategies in boardgames and tier 1 decks in CCGs, well designed characters in RPGs are usually nothing different, nothing special.  Oh, look at my high Strength barbarian in Conan or my Mirumoto blender in L5R – whatever.  In my attempts to create uniqueness, whether it’s characters or decks, I frequently mine suboptimal territory.  Then, with RPGs where competition shouldn’t exist, I have no real incentive to create powerful characters, just useful ones.

Referencing my last post, I don’t care nearly as much for boardgames because there’s really nothing unique you can do.  In my mind, every character and every deck should be unique and that’s only possible when you have variety.

But, variety is a function of balance.  There’s no point in playing a deck that can’t win or a character who adds nothing to the party.  To be value add to the party means not being completely overshadowed by other player characters who have better builds.  Now, it’s true that loser PCs can add value just by taking up space, just providing more hands or more chucked spears or more hit points.  But, NPCs can do the same thing, so why bother playing nothing but a spearchucker?

My ranting about how pointless the borderer and nomad classes are and how awful the noble and soldier classes are in Conan stems from having a character who was essentially a spearchucker.  After being fairly useless most of the time, I started crunching the numbers in the game and realized that you can very easily make strictly superior characters.  Ironic within the context of comparing and contrasting with L5R is that the classes in Conan aren’t that imbalanced in comparison.  Borderer is strictly inferior to barbarian, but it’s not an unplayable difference, just an idiotic one.

Idiocy.  This is getting to the crux of the matter.  Conan d20 is a very rigid game, a relatively flavorless game because d20 mechanics are flavorless.  There’s just no comparing d20’s Improved Two-Weapon Fighting to Feng Shui’s Both Guns Blazing.  Because Conan d20 is so mechanical, mechanical imbalances should not only be easier to pick out but mean more in defining what your character is about.

It’s not just that L5R is less crunchy than Conan, it’s that it’s so much more flavorful.  While one can ignore that L5R’s ethos lends itself to brokenness far more than Conan’s by noting that any brokenness is problematic, imbalances are more acceptable when they come with cool flavor and, getting back to the importance of uniqueness, unique identity.  In Conan, there’s no real flavor difference between a barbarian and a borderer for all that people want to pretend there is.  In L5R, a Hida Bushi occupies entirely different design/play space from a character in another bushi school.

That the Hida Bushi/Elite Guard combo the person is complaining about is broken is within the context that lots of other builds are broken in other ways.  Actually, the game is highly broken to where someone complaining about this or that rank 5 build is fairly laughable to me as I consider playing the game above rank 2 to be an exercise in excess.

There certainly is an element to why someone should care about one broken thing in a game rife with brokenness.  Would I feel the same way even without the superior flavor and vastly more options that L5R provides just because it’s idiotic to complain about smoke when the house is on fire?

A lot of the argument against the person’s complaints involves pointing out how you can deal with such a character easily enough.  There is a strong rock-papor-scissors element to L5R that I just haven’t seen in any other RPG.  I’m never in favor of games becoming RPSish as it, again, means a lack of variety.  What’s the point of playing a game if only three (true) options exist?

But, then again, this RPS nature to L5R is one that becomes more obvious when you have broken fight broken, when characters are far more powerful than I think is playable.  So, just the lack of caring about high rank builds is a difference to my analysis of Conan where I can clearly see how I’d build a far more effective character than my main by switching which classes he took, which attribute assignments he made, etc.

To be consistent, which is important to me, I can’t argue against the whiner’s arguments that are rooted in the idea of improved balance.  Lots of obviously broken stuff has been dealt with by the AEG folks, even underpowered stuff has been addressed, something that CCG companies so often ignore.  So, it’s entirely reasonable to have the company look at a possible new problem caused by the rule errata.  By the way, the new errata changes the game back to how it used to be played; the rule that has been overturned was instituted to address problems such as the one the person has brought up.  Now, whether this build is any more broken than a lot of other stuff appears not to be the case.

RPGs are flexible in ways that more objective games aren’t.  Yet, they still are games that provide mechanics for resolution.  Those mechanics should strive for balance.  Perfect balance is never achieved but not striving for it produces far more imbalance than what would be achieved otherwise.

GMs/play groups can fix anything they don’t like for their home campaigns.  Challenges can be tailored to provide worthy challenges to actual parties rather than be generated out of theoretical exercises.  Yet, the better the tools given to play groups, the better the experience.  Less work needs to be done fixing things.  Less energy can be spent on the idea of fixing things.

And, yes, as a final comment, RPGs aren’t really supposed to be about mechanics but about telling good stories.  Worrying about how strong something on a character sheet is comes after worrying about who your character is (personality, appearance, etc.), what your character is doing, what your character is trying to do, and what has happened to your character.  At least, ideally.


Game Costs

August 2, 2009

I was thinking about the different sorts of gaming that I do and their costs.

I have three measurements in mind:  $$’s; physical time; mental commitment.

$$’s is obviously the dollar dollar bills to play a game.  Physical time and mental commitment are two facets of the time commitment of gaming – physical time includes things like the time spent playing (I know, shocking), actively working on something (writing up adventures, actively researching, etc.) and other logistics like traveling to gaming events, while mental commitment is time spent thinking, planning, passively researching.  Obviously, different people pump different amounts into these categories depending upon their interests, income, free time, and whatever.

So, it’s more of a personal measurement.  But, there’s a reason I’ve been thinking about this.

Boardgames

I do three types of gaming on a regular basis – boardgames, CCGs, RPGs.  Based on what I write about in this blog, it should be obvious that I care much less about boardgames.  But, the hobby gaming industry doesn’t.  While the CCG market has been in various states of oversaturation for the 21st Century and where the RPG industry looks to be heading to primarily electronic downloads, .pdfs currently but maybe something else in the future, boardgames look to be chugging along, gaining game store space at the expense of the other two.

Boardgames are relatively inexpensive.  Sure, $40 or $50 for a game doesn’t enthrall me, but most of the boardgamers I know, including myself, play the same game many, many times.  And, that investment is really shared across all of the players even if, in practice, one person does most of the buying.  Boardgames are also low on the play time metric.  There are the ridiculous Axis and Allies style boardgames and whatnot, but I see the industry being driven by 1-2 hour games.

But, what really sets apart boardgaming is the mental commitment.  I’ve approached it from the other direction, explaining how I so much vastly preferred RPGs and CCGs to boardgames because you can bring your personality into the game, because you aren’t limited in your style of play.  I’ve obsessed over how to play a boardgame optimally in the past, it’s the nature of my personality to analyze things to death.  But, it wouldn’t take long to lose interest since there’s only so much a boardgame can offer in terms of variety of play.

Boardgames are “inside the box”.  Admittedly, we make up house rules for boardgames that we find flawed in some way for our level of play, but the game lives in its box.  You learn the rules, you learn the strategies, you can play it whenever you feel like playing or not.  For all that I find this limiting – I rarely write about boardgaming even though I do it weekly, as a gaming activity, it’s just straightforward, not time-consuming, and not much of an investment unless you buy a bunch of games out of boredom.

CCGs

In my mind, the ultimate form of competitive gaming because of essentially infinite variety that enables someone to bring their strategic style into the game.

The costs, though, are vast.  It’s possible to not sink money into CCGs, but I don’t find it ever to be the case.  There are tricks to game the system to keep costs down.  A strong Magic player can, for example, draft and sell off the cards drafted, buy for a particular tournament and sell afterwards, borrow for events.  But, I find that everyone who plays CCGs regularly puts in a good amount of money relative to what they could put in just to play.

Physical time varies.  But, those who don’t spend much time playing probably aren’t getting their money’s worth out of the game.  Same goes for mental commitment.  I consider CCGs to be vast investments, not so much of money, but of thought.  Deck construction from inception to sleeving and shuffling should be a time-intensive activity.  It’s what CCGs are good for – thinking about how to do things the way you want to achieve whatever goals you may have.  The sleeving part, of course, is just tedious.

Pretty much what got me to thinking so much about this topic at this moment was hearing someone yet again complain about lack of time to build decks.  It’s why I’m stressing the difference between physical time, which can be long, very long when you are a V:TES player, versus mental commitment.  I don’t think a lot of people realize that the biggest investment in CCGs should be mental commitment.  If that’s not the sort of thing that floats your boat, maybe it isn’t the type of gaming you are best suited for.

RPGs

It’s easy to say that RPGs have much less of a financial investment, unless you are more into collecting every book for some genre/system than you are just having the necessary tools to play with, and have an even greater time commitment in comparison to CCGing.

But, is that true?

I seem to play a lot of 3-4 hour sessions of RPGs when you factor out time spent eating, waiting for people to show up, and the like.  Factor in that I play CCGs about weekly and each of my RPG campaigns more like monthly and that V:TES sessions tend to involve multiple 2 hour games and I spend far more time playing CCGs.

Well, okay, physical time seems more a matter of what you play; I actually don’t find that a lot of gamers play a balance of CCGs and RPGs, so for most, their schedules should be taken up by whichever they predominantly play.  But, what about mental commitment?  Certainly, for the GM where adventures aren’t written for you (as they are in Heroes of Rokugan), there’s no mental commitment quite like running a RPG campaign.  Of course, there’s also no requirement to run a campaign – one-shots are possible.  But, I find the standard to be campaigning.  I know that nothing feels like more work to me than trying to run a campaign.  As a player, it can be quite different.  It depends upon the engagement level.  Some campaigns, I’m hardly engaged at all to where I don’t really do anything outside of when we play.  In other cases, I spend much more time outside of actual play with discussions with the GM, with works of fiction, etc.

I’m quite sure I put a lot more mental commitment into CCGing just because there’s a challenge to knowing as much as one can about a CCG.  With RPGs, I do like being engaged and I do find doing research interesting, but I don’t need to know everything like I do with CCGs.  For one thing, it isn’t possible to know everything, even in a game based off of the real world, nevermind games where you just make stuff up.

The Point

I pretty much got to the point in the CCG section.  Hobby gaming is costly.  I don’t consider it monetarily costly in the grand scheme of things – someone who goes to a movie every week certainly spends far more than I do on gaming.  Nor does it need to be much of a physical time commitment.  But, I’m surprised by how little mental commitment people seem to think gaming, in particular CCGing, entails.  For all that it acts as a cost to gaming, in my view, the thinking about gaming part of gaming is the best value gaming offers.