Back!

March 26, 2011

This is a bit different for me.  It should be obvious to anyone who reads my blog that 2011 has been a low-V:TES year.  We had our NAC qualifier late in 2010 and promptly had zero momentum going into 2011.  I could have played last night, apparently, in Pleasanton but my interest in driving more this week, what with the rain, was nonexistent.  Of course, I also ended up skipping Las Vegas this year.

Anyway, I have no new deck dated this year.  That’s the paucity of play.  But, tomorrow, we are looking at session #2 at Legends, so it’s time to get back! in the game.

I’m building decks right now.  I just finished a deck.  This would not be terribly interesting news, in and of itself, since I’d guess I’ve built maybe 500 decks in my life.  What’s different this time around is whether I can put into words my thinking processes so far today (and yesterday) on what decks to build.

I always start with:  What haven’t I done recently or ever?

I don’t mind doing something I’ve done before if it’s sufficiently interesting or enough time has passed.  What is enough time?  Six months, year, maybe.

I actually started thinking about deck ideas yesterday.  Because of Pleasanton play, I have very different incentives than normal for me circa 5+ years ago, nevermind having seemingly different incentives from most folks.  Bringing too many new cards into Pleasanton is just not fun.  The interest in learning what unfamiliar disciplines and clans do just isn’t there, so the incentive is to go old school.  Nothing wrong with old school.  There’s always a new twist and I’d still think about old school even when playing in, say, a bloodlines heavy environment.  I ran through the list of original gangsters and settled on Ventrue.

But, what could I do differently with Ventrue?  Sure, combat is the way to go, but it’s not like people have never done combat with Ventrue before.  I underplay Weighted Walking Stick, so I started forming a concept.  Political Ally concealing a Saturday Night Special … sleep.

Today.  Today, I open FELDB and start thinking Ventrue again.  I look at clan cards.  I get bored.  I forget my train of thought from last night.  I recall that I was thinking about +1 Strength in general Friday and the idea of that and WWS being my random hitback while doing something that isn’t as boring as combat is.  Old school, of course, as I considered the possibility of going to P-town in the morning.

So, I do a search on +STR.  I sort by clan and my mind’s eye settles on Settites.  Three possibilities, even if not true beatage.  I look at Serpentis cards, I get bored.  Temptation is not a horrible thing to do, but I’ve done it fairly often and getting back! to regular play and starting off with a tedious deck is not likely to build funnage.  I start looking at group 2/3 with Serpentis to get away from monoclanism, then go back to FoS clan cards to reestablish the original concept.

What haven’t I done much of?  Fair amount, actually.  I’ve underplayed Waters of Duat, underplayed FoS vote with Ferraille, haven’t gotten into Mummy combat (finding Mummy toolbox being much more interesting), don’t even recall whether I bothered with Spell of Life having been turned off by it during playtesting and the many attempts when Lords of the Night was new.  No serious Cave of Apples or Mokole Blood decks.  But, as I started thinking about Waters, I shifted to thinking about Bima.  Bima is another case of underplayage.

Bima fits my +STR theme and gives some sort of angle that I haven’t used in ages while also not being moronic from the viewpoint of trying to build a deck that can win.  Is my build terrifically twisty?  Not so much, but the Bima Are Back!

Back.  When I put that into the title of this post, I knew that was my theme for my decks.  What else needs to come back?!?  Backflip, Backstab, Backstep, Devil-Channel: Back, etc.  Sure, all of these cards and others, even Praetorian Backer, could be thrown into a deck if I wanted to be enslaved by my theme in some sort of goofy way.  Goofy is good, though.  Maybe I do need to figure out a way to get all of these cards into one deck.

Or, not.  Backwards, as in playing backwards, is a concept I often eschew, but it’s not without any merit, and it is doing something different.  Rush is an obvious way.  Stupid trick decks like Mark of the Damned are always possible.  The problem with this line of thought is that our environment tends either towards great aggression (when people bring out stealth bleed), which is okay since games should resolve, or a total lack of progress, which is not really so much why we play the game.  Besides the inherent nonfun of intending to go backwards around the table, the lack of going forwards is just far too common.

If I preserve the idea only of returns, then the question becomes:  What should return?  What should be brought back?!?  Shadow Court Satyr, of course, since I keep not building a new SCS deck.  But, two ally decks in the same session?  Kind of narrow.

Going back! in time … [du-du-du-du-du] … there was this thing, this thing that involved bleeding for more than one and stealthing by blockers.  It was totally a concept I invented.

But, what now brown cow?  How to not just do another “Ozmo never bleeds for 8 since you are dead long before that ever gets built” deck or a Malk deck with no Obfuscate cards?  What combination of stealth and bleed has not been beaten toward a deceased equine?

Can Dominate + stealth ever be made interesting?  Dementation?  Sure, can always come up with some awful combination, like Dem/Pot, or Dom/Vis, but that’s not so much coming back! as it is just being different (even if I have done Dom/Vis a couple of different ways).  Is there some way to make the old school bleed strategies interesting?

Not so much.  Guess I’m back! to Backstep and Backflip, two cards I’m not even sure I’ve ever used in constructed play.

Well, that’s kind of how my mind works when I go to build decks, though usually it ends up in a couple of new decklists in half an hour because I latch onto something more solidly than when I’m musing without the deckbuilder in front of me like I am in this post.

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Level (more than) 1

March 16, 2011

In your entertainment, do you prefer cool characters or not cool characters?  (Of course, we all prefer hot characters, but that’s a whole unrelated thought process.)  I’m perfectly willing to concede that a lot of books, TV shows, or … well, I don’t watch movies … I like aren’t of the highest quality when you look at writing, plot, message, texture, whatever.  I tend to be attracted mostly to cool scenes.  After that, and sometimes because of that, I get attracted to cool characters even if the characters’ stories really aren’t the best.

I’ve grown weary of the World of Darkness.  From a thematic point of view, I believe it has something to do with how the world is presented.  Not so much by the material itself, perhaps, but by the interpretation of those I’ve played with of that material.  Somewhere, the idea of dark and fantastic is more often replaced with dark and mundane.  The “oh, we need a second car to make sure all of the PCs can get to the fight scene” or “how do I pay for things when I have no job” or whatever types of concerns suck out anything actually appealing about the nature of the world.  But, there is also a mechanical aspect of my decreased interest that has pretty much been present since I actually started playing RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade rather than simply thinking about what characters I could create.

Vampires suck.  Starting character vampires are just incredible wimps.  But, that’s not the key point that feeds into where I’m going with all of this.  What was recognized but not absorbed when six dot and higher discipline powers were printed and what was absorbed after playing characters who couldn’t even get to four dot powers was that characters just couldn’t do the cool stuff.  Now, I will say that my experiences with Werewolf and Mage weren’t like this, but then, I was never comfortable with Werewolf because it’s just not a creature that interests me nor did I care about Mage which was just too cosmic-powered for the WoD.

White Wolf games were not unusual in this regard.  A common theme throughout RPGs is that powers that get “unlocked” at higher levels or at significantly higher XP points are far more interesting than the powers that characters begin with.  This is pretty much the opposite of the way it should be.

My model, whether it’s a good one or not, for what I expect in RPGs is what I expect out of fantasy fiction (whether the fantasy is superhero comic books, fantasy, science fiction, or whatever).  The protagonists must be interesting to begin with.  They may not be that powerful, so it’s not power in and of itself that I’m looking for out of starting RPG characters, it’s a specialness.

Maybe someone feels like Dread Gaze is special … the first time or the second time.  At some point, will run across others with Presence or the narrowness of the power will make the player realize it’s just not special.  Sure, specialness can come from power – I’ve watched a decent amount of anime.  The paradigm of “level one – blow up a mountain, level two – blow up the planet, level three – blow up the solar system, level 4 – nuke the galaxy, level 5 – collapse the universe” is incredibly common even if those specific levels of power aren’t achieved.  This power-based paradigm, which is what RPGs often seem to have in mind when it comes to advancement, is certainly something to be concerned by in that it is kind of dumb to plan on playing a multiyear campaign when characters can start off by reshaping all of time and space.  The mistake isn’t in modulating power, it’s in designing the game in such a way that that is all advancement is about.

Let me provide some examples.  My mind is much more into L5R right now than most things.  The rank 5 techniques of the schools have, historically, had either awesome names, awesome descriptions, or really cool mechanics.  “The Final Lesson – There Is No Failure” doesn’t need cool mechanics, but the rank 5 Akodo school gets it with the “you don’t fail” power.  I had a non-starting vampire in a V:TM campaign who had three dots in Presence and I couldn’t wait to get to four so that a lot of cool stuff would be opened up.  In our Conan campaign, no one’s main character is single classed, so even though we plan on playing through 20th level, something virtually nobody will do, ever, the 20th level class abilities will never appear to a PC.  What got me thinking strongly about this topic is a current thread on the AEG forums about playing a rank 2 Kenshinzen; many posters thought it was unrealistic for someone to get into an advanced school at only rank 2, but the person who wanted to do it made this point:  when will you ever see a player get to use the school’s techniques?  I’ve never gotten a character to rank 5, yet the expectation is that you wouldn’t max out the school until rank 8, something that’s not plausible in anything I will ever play.

The thing is that many powers at higher levels/XP totals aren’t actually any better than powers at lower.  The 17th level barbarian ability of Unconquerable only functions when you are in negative hit points, that’s not nearly as good as the 4th level power of Uncanny Dodge; but, hot damn!, don’t you want to be able to say, “Down?  I don’t even lose hit points for attacking.  I’m Unconquerable!” The Kenshinzen discussion has gotten into whether a 1/1 Kakita Bushi/Kenshinzen is even a better duelist (the whole point of the advanced school) than a rank 2 Kakita Bushi.  My frustration is that many powers that require “unlocking” are just too cool to never see the light of day.  No PC V:TM character of mine will ever have seven dots in a discipline, so I just find it annoying that they even exist.  Yes, even though they are intended for NPCs.  PCs should always be cooler than NPCs, if not more powerful.  In some respects, the discipline levels should have been reversed, especially with the higher levels allowing for choice of powers being moved to beginning levels providing choice, to generate greater variety.

I want to talk about this more in a separate post, so I’ll avoid getting too far into it, but another thread that got me thinking about these sorts of things was one about using CCG cards in RPG play.  Properties with both CCGs and RPGs aren’t superrare, however the CCG will typically play at a much less personal level than a RPG, so the translations don’t often work well.  In V:TES, where you have individual minions doing things, one would think it would work better than, say, L5R.  I got to thinking about how disciplines are represented in the CCG, and I actually started thinking about how it’s a more sensible system than how the RPG does them.  In reality, having a two-level split in discipline power generates a lot more variety and, even, plausibility to me than the “one more dot and I unlock XYZ”.

I have a thought on how to address my frustration.  Give the character every power.  Well, not every power.  In fact, some powers just can’t be given to a starting character without being at the nuke the galaxy level of power (unless the intent is to run a high power game, which, interestingly enough, is not at all what I want most of the time).

Even given the many holes in this idea, here is what an example might look like:

L5R 3e Hida Bushi, rank 1

Way of the Crab – Add Earth Ring to attack rolls and damage in melee.  Ignore TN penalties for heavy armor for all skills except Stealth.

The Mountain Does Not Move – Spend a Void Point, roll raw Earth Ring vs. TN equal to wounds suffered to ignore the damage.  Earth is increased by School Rank to resist Knockdown.

The Mountain Does Not Fall – Spend a Void Point to ignore all wound penalties until next turn.  Double your number of wound boxes per rank.  Gain a Void Point for TMDNM or TMDNF only.

Sure, I skip giving a second attack, though I’m not sure it’s a bad idea to give a second attack to a starting bushi to differentiate the bushi schools from the courtier and shugenja schools.  As with most house rules, it requires way too much thought to figure out whether something like this will work.

Naysayers will complain about how broken doing things like this are in RPGs.  “Come on, Majesty as a fledgling?”  And, so forth.  But, an essential thing to keep in mind is that I’m looking to give powers (perhaps it will seem less powerful to call them “abilities” instead) only and not all of the other things – attributes, skills – that would come with being a higher level character.  So, just for instance, the Hida may very well only have an Earth of 3, so TMDNM is only a 3k3 roll to try to ignore damage (if it didn’t cost a VP, it would be sick, but it does) and the doubling of wounds is the equivalent of what an Earth 6 character would have for wounds not an Earth 10 character, like a typical Earth 5, rank 5 Hida Bushi would possess.

I’m also less interested in this idea for games that have numerous levels, like D&D.  Giving 20 levels of abilities is a lot different, just from a bookkeeping perspective, than giving 5 levels of abilities, even if the 5 levels of abilities is more powerful.

So, if you can do all of these cool things as a beginning character, what’s the point of advancement?  What’s the reason to play more than a few times?  Well, there’s still lots of room for power.  You may get two attacks as a rank 1 bushi, but going from Agility 3 to Agility 4 and Kenjutsu 3 to Kenjutsu 5 (3e, 7 in 4e) upgrades those two attacks from blow up the planet to nuke the galaxy.  Then, there’s simulating a lot of material where heroes don’t become significantly more powerful so much as they become significantly more diverse.  It’s always a bad example to use comic book characters as they often do get power upgrades, but let’s take Wolverine.  Wolverine’s attacks get better, but he doesn’t start blowing up nearby mountains to intimidate his enemies – his XP are mostly going into “oh, you didn’t know I was totally a ninja-slaying, military special forces, been everywhere, speak whatever language I need, blah, blah, blah” dude – in other words, he’s buffing his skills to become absurdly well-rounded rather than absurdly powerful.

As a more personal example, I spent a lot of XP on my HoR2 characters on things that didn’t make them stronger.  I got into Artisan: Cooking to impress chicks.  I had a character in the most badass bushi school in 3e with worse fighting/dueling ability (Kenjutsu 2) than a lot of courtiers, who had 5 ranks in Lore: Spirit Realms and was working on 5 ranks in Craft: Sailing.  I, of course, eschew power and seek unusual abilities to achieve that specialness/uniqueness/distinctiveness in my characters I so often talk about as a desire for all PCs.  I guess I’m just trying to force everyone else to be more like me because the alternative is that my characters will tend to be ineffectual losers as I pursue interesting powers where everyone else will tend to focus on effectiveness, even if I think the effective builds are boring.  Or, maybe not.  Maybe I just don’t really like the concept of starting characters.

Oh, one more way to try to make this concept work:  give every power but limit the number of uses per session to one for powers above one’s level.  For example, the Hida would only be able to use The Mountain Does Not Fall once during a session, which is messy with doubling wound boxes but can be figured out – doubled until end of day or something, until he actually gets to rank 5.  A cleaner example would be the Akodo who gets to succeed on a die roll even if he didn’t make a higher TN from raises once a session until the character gets to rank 5.  Or, the fledgling vampire who uses Majesty once in a session or Form of Mist once in a session or Pulse of the Canaille once in a session.  Each time that the level/rank/dot/mechanic advances, the power goes from a one-shot to a consistent one.  This is actually extremely appropriate when you think about characters advancing in entertainment – the stunt becomes the norm or the largely forgotten because something new (but unreliable) is better.


Legends

March 13, 2011

So, for the first time in quite some time, I played V:TES.  We have had issues regaining the local group through the holiday season and this year.  Having found a pleasant store to play at, Legends in Cupertino, we decided to look at reinstating the every other week schedule at the store and find something else to do if we didn’t have a good number for V:TES.

We didn’t have a good number today, but we still played a couple of three-player games.  I was amused, especially by the first game.

Game 1:
Andy (Samedi + Enticement) -> Ian (Ahrimanes) -> Brandon (Group 1/2 Toreador & friends)

I had a great crypt draw with Darlene Killian (heretofore known as Kill-Ian), Effie, Gentha, Muricia.  Going second, my first thought was to bring out Gentha, but I had High Top in hand and thought it would be hilarious to have Kill-Ian recruit an ally.  Brandon brings out Isabel de Leon behind me and I pass on High Top for a turn as I expect that IdL can intercept me, reducing the value if maybe not the amusement.  Brandon calls Toreador Justicar with IdL, letting me know that it isn’t a weenie Auspex deck, and I get High Top which is not great for Andy and just bad for Brandon.

Brandon sees a lack of voting, so discards Dread Gaze.  Andy bleeds/Entices me to where I’m not poolriffic as I’ve brought out Muricia and Effie.  I get an Underbridge Stray (Sprinkles), Path of Harmony, New Moon Sigil on Effie, Visionquest, but never get around to playing Blessing of the Beast.  I start choking on masters, so I Direct Intervention Ogwon playing a Lost in Crowds while Sprinkles is blocking.  Sprinkles blocks.  I discard another DI.  Brandon is calling Con Ags for 2 to Andy and 1 to himself due to my sad pool situation.  I put out The Hungry Coyote while at 6 pool, Muricia Vulture’s Buffets for 3 blood, 1 pool off of a deceased Sprinkles.  Andy gets ousted because he didn’t oust me nor play enough Off Kilters nor have enough defense against 0 stealth bleeds.

High Top keeps going after IdL, taking her down.  Tatiana Romanov follows.  IdL comes back, calls a KRC I don’t block, I play Dread Gaze to fail it and Brandon scoops.  So, New Moon Sigil, Visionquest, and the final nail in the coffin of Dread Gaze carry me to overwhelming victory.

Game 2:
Brandon (Hannibal & clan) -> Ian (Thin Step) -> Andy (BH Assamites)

Stuff that happened that meant nothing to my game:  Lost in Translation Reza’s Guarded Rubrics bleed with Parnassus back to Brandon; put The Black Throne in play while at 4 pool; put Alamut in play and gained 0 counters; got ousted by Neonate Breach with zero combat cards (ignoring Swallowed by the Night) in my ash heap.

As for the other two, they kept bleeding at stealth, though the !Malks did a pretty good job of blocking the Assamites bleeding with nothing happening in combat, while the Assamites occasionally Ministryed enough intercept to block something.  The closest any minion got to torpor was Hannibal pressing against Nails to reduce him to 0 blood.  Andy didn’t put a lot of pressure on Brandon in the endgame, so Brandon eventually killed him with Reins of Power.

We went to the food court and got gourmet burritos.  The Thai burrito actually was fine.  It had an interesting taste, it wasn’t absurdly heavy like burritos of similar/smaller size tend to be, and the low quality steak was palatable.

We returned to the store to play Talisman.  I was the only one who had played before and largely kept any of my derision for the game hidden until after we played.  Playing only with the base set and playing with only three players was an incredibly different experience – people actually progressed rather than just screw each other over for 6 hours.  I was amazed at how many adventure cards were positive since I’m so used to people loading them with their personal cards or expansion cards.  As we were several hours into the game and all in pretty good shape but not feeling the awesomeness of trying to kill the others off, we decided to use the sudden death rules of whoever gets to the Crown of Command first.  Brandon got hit with a Random to take away massive amounts of built up Strength and Andy got hit with Cursed by a Hag followed by the unwise move of visiting the Witch, who toaded him.  I made it up to the top level, rolled an 18 in the Crypt (1 in 216 chance, for the win!) to get sent back to the City but had the immensely useful Poltergeist around to enable me to move efficiently back.  I eventually got past the Crypt and the rest was easy.  Prophetess is so broken.

I’m just amazed at how popular Talisman is, but then, I don’t get any of the “let’s randomly screw ourselves and the other players for hours on end” games like Wiz-War or the less obviously so games like Munchkin, Chez Geek, Grave Robbers From Outerspace, etc.  Not that the concept is any way new, as many old kid’s games are structured around the idea of randomness mixed with crippling opponents.  Perhaps, that’s why people continue to play such games – it’s an ingrained concept.  Perhaps, it’s part of the reason I despise such games – been there, done that, want some actual strategy and meaningful interaction in a game.  Of course, there’s always the fact that some people enjoy being mean in games.  Compare any of these sorts of game with a good game like Kill Dr. Lucky, which prima facie seems very similar but is either a reasonably strategic/tactical game with small numbers of players or a non-painful, psychological game with large numbers.

Legends has a decent variety of gaming stuff and, apparently, plans on bringing in more.  I read an indie RPG book on sword and sorcery that was almost tempting enough to buy and realized that the Pirates of the Spanish Main RPG mainbook would be hugely appropriate to my SK campaign where things are at.  It was just a pleasant environment and the rest of the mall was better than it had been in the recent past.  We still need to try to build the local playerbase again for V:TES and figure out what we enjoy as backup games, but I look forward to getting on a regular, every other week, schedule of heading over there.

As for backup games, my more inspired ideas were for HeroQuest (the boardgame) and Dragon Dice.  Other prominent ideas included short RPG sessions and Euroboardgames.