Last Rights

June 27, 2012

I was asked within the past couple of weeks when I thought V:TES was at its best.  I think the question had to do with when it was at its best designwise.  Regardless, that’s how I interpreted the question when I gave my answer.

Before getting to that answer, there are of course various ways to judge best.  Most fun is whenever someone likes the game the best, which, in a lot of cases with CCGs, is often in the first year of playing the game.  Best environment is more objective.  As many mistakes as I think have been made in managing V:TES under WW, there were still many good things to say about the environment.  The game did achieve a better balance over time and a lot of things that weren’t viable became so.

Having said that, my answer is prior to Final Nights.  Yes, that would be after WW had put out all of one set and not even a fully realized expansion set but a Sabbat redux with a minority of new cards.

Why so long ago?

Because FN began a pattern* that included a number of elements of really poor design.  In my usual way of interrupting my own narratives, let me say some good things about the set.

*  For full expansions.  Sabbat War’s new library cards were not the most brilliant things ever, either, and many of my comments about FN and later sets would apply to SW’s library cards.

There were questions as to the viability of the indie clans prior to FN.  Followers of Set?  Okay, not a huge argument for viability but still a big question of “Why not play Malks/!Malks?”  The other three were considered to have massive problems.  At the time, I recall believing that was the case for two out of three and continued to believe that for Assamites even after FN due to how bad the Quietus cards were out of that set.

The one indie clan that I seemed to hold a different opinion on was Giovanni.  I was all like, “Dominate plus Spectral Divination plus don’t play the terrible allies is not bad.”  Well, there was one more part to the puzzle – Jar the Soul.  Yes, Jar the Soul these days is fairly uninspiring.  So, why consider it relevant back then?  Okay, one more part to the puzzle – The Embrace.  Back when The Embrace could get a skill card, virtually anything could be turned into a weenie bleed deck.  In the Giovanni’s case, the weenie Necromancers could tap out my prey while my Dominaters Dominated people into oblivion.  Or, they could just swarm bleed.

I tried to prove the viability of this strategy in a tournament shortly before FN’s release.  I failed.  I got to the finals, I got a VP, I scared my next prey so much he Dramatic Upheavaled out of my way, I ousted my new prey (by accident, terrible mistake), and I lost to a tooled up Cailean based on seeding when his controller also got 2 VPs.  Of course, one could argue that winning one tournament with 10-12 people was hardly conclusive of the awesome power that is tap and bleed with Dominate.

Interestingly, doing the same sort of thing with Embraces with Assamites, where the Kennies got Obfuscate and maybe toss in some Dominate, would have made about as much sense for showing the viability of Assamites pre-FN.

Anyway, getting to the good things about FN, since I managed to get way sidetracked.  FN did massive work for helping Giovanni – Call of the Hungry Dead, Shambling Hordes, Isabel Giovanni and friends, etc. – and Ravnos – The Path of Paradox, Week of Nightmares, Gabrin, Gabrin, Gabrin, etc.  FoS didn’t get nearly as much of a boost and Assamites got shafted, even if the Assamites did start developing Dominate as all right-winning clans are apt to do.

Key midrange vampires, if nothing else, was huge.  As the first true expansion set, with Sabbat War being mostly reprints, FN also introduced a variety of new ideas, some cool, some good, some both.

So, why did FN begin a downfall in design?

There are multiple elements to good design, of course.  Cards that suck are typically poorly designed simply because they could have done much the same thing only better and not suck.  But, card strength is not the end all and be all of design by any stretch of the imagination.  Cards should be unambiguous.  Cards should feel right in thematic or pseudothematic ways that are easier to provide examples for then explain.  Cards should work the way people will expect them to work.  Cards should be elegant …

What makes for elegance?

Brevity, for one thing.

One can quibble about how to rate specific cards, but here are summaries for library card rares and library card commons where I first used a five star rating system, then grouped three star and above together to form “Good”:

Rarity Quality Quantity Percentage
R Good 10 20%
Okay 14 28%
Bad 26 52%

and

Rarity Quality Quantity Percentage
C Good 6 12%
Okay 14 28%
Bad 34 68%

These only address the quality of the cards for constructed play.  (I must admit that limited play does exist, but I really don’t care enough about it to rate cards for it.)  Get to a couple of other elements of design in a moment, but this should suggest a rather huge problem with publishing crap.

Whether you want to be more offended by bad rares or by bad commons, you can freely be offended by both with this set.  Keep in mind that “Bad” doesn’t mean below tournament level, “Bad” really means below mediocre in this case.  What criteria did I use for rating the cards?  I primarily used a combination of my own views with what I can recollect of prevalence in tournament winning decks; in a small number of cases, where I was iffy on how to rate something, I did a search of the TWDA.

It might be fun to argue over ratings of cards, it might not.  But, low card quality isn’t the only problem with the set.  Let me pull out a few cards.  Sniper Rifle makes my good group, but it has card interaction complexity … no … that’s not really the big problem with it.  It has card interaction issues more so because it doesn’t work “comfortably” more so than because of complexity.  It’s not actually that complex what trumps it and what it trumps so much as people keep asking.  Week of Nightmares is so very long.  I still see people misplay Mirror Image.

Some complexity in cards, some nonintuitiveness, some length, some awkwardness of interactions are all inevitable.  But, they should be the exceptions.  Many of the cards with long text or that don’t work as you first think don’t make for interesting combinations of effects; rather, they just needlessly complicate the game.  In other words, besides the power level issues with the set, I perceive a lack of elegance.

But, this was the first real expansion set, one might claim.  Aren’t most first expansions for CCGs underpowered and a mess of good ideas poorly executed and bad ideas dominating the few good ideas that are well executed?

Sure, then we got Bloodlines.  If I had to identify the time period when I was most excited by the game in the WW era, it would probably be between Bloodlines and Camarilla Edition.  But, Bloodlines was a mess.  I forgive it quite a bit since it was far more ambitious than anything put out for the game to that point, WotC or WW.  If it wasn’t surrounded by the other sets of the time, it wouldn’t really feel like part of the problem.  But, at the time, ignoring CE, which was almost all reprints of library cards and crypt cards are never as problematic for producing a bunch of coasters or for design issues outside of power level, Bloodlines was followed up by:  Anarchs – lot of junk, awkward mixing in of Gangrel/Protean, poor core mechanics; Black Hand – lot of junk, narrow mechanics, very bland set with few good cards; Gehenna – major shakeup in how the game worked due to Events resulting in highly uncomfortable moments**.

**  For instance, Recalled to the Founder did, in fact, once upon a time, burn vampires.  It was rather unpleasant for Chicago Circle decks of the day.

V:TES is not an easy game to expand in that there are 30+ clans and 20+ disciplines – just far too many deckbuilding components, nevermind getting into things like sect, to fit coherently into expansions.  So, you get a form of expansion rotation.  Now, it’s indie time, now it’s Sabbat time, now it’s “we left this out of an earlier set and must play catch up time” (see !Trem and Protean).

No CCG is all that easy to expand after a certain point.  Increased complexity is inevitable.  It gets harder, if not as hard as companies seem to make it out to be, to find elegant cards.

So, why bitch about V:TES design?

Actually, kind of wasn’t.  Was just noting that the design of the game had peaked at a particular time long, long ago.  That’s not unexpected.  Babylon 5 was a better designed game pretty much before every expansion set, i.e. design likely peaked after the initial set and kept getting worse with every expansion.  That didn’t mean that it was optimized in enjoyment prior to the first expansion.

Now, FN could have been a lot better.  Bloodlines could have been more focused, creating less mechanics bloat on the game, while having more sensible rarities, more sensible outferiors, better balance, etc.  Anarchs could have been less a mix of bringing back the Gangrel while trying to introduce something new, something new that sucked powerwise but introduced the very interesting three-way mechanic.  Black Hand could have been less boring, less narrow, less weak.  Gehenna could have not saddled us with the more annoying events.  And, so on.

At the same time, those sets could have been worse.  FN could have failed the Giovanni and Ravnos as much as it did the Assamites.  Bloodlines could have been overpowered, more underpowered, duller.  Anarchs could have omitted Repo Man.  Black Hand could have excluded more clans from being BH to reflect source material biases.  Gehenna could have been more like the rules in the Prophecies League, which were far more brutal.

Is there any lesson to be drawn?  While there are always lessons if given the chance to start anew, such as with a new CCG, for V:TES the point of this was mostly just to comment upon the history of the game and to remind people that problems with long, complicated, crappy cards have been around for quite a while.

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Ultimate Techniques

June 25, 2012

A routine device in anime (and, presumably, manga) is that one never reveals one’s true power.  There are levels above levels for major characters to try to make fights as epic as possible as a protagonist and antagonist keep upping their power levels.

The most obvious example is the Dragonball franchise, with other examples including Naruto, Bleach, and YuYu Hakasho.  Actually, there tend to be two effects going on.  One is that characters hide their power level while the other is that they jump in power levels in the middle of fights.

Meanwhile, with RPGs, if a character has a reliable ability, then a player has every incentive to fire it off as often as possible.  More generally, there’s no reason to hold back.

But, I like the style in holding back.  It’s not terribly epic to start a fight off with a Spirit Bomb.  D&D 4e’s mechanics of limiting how often abilities can be used by session, scene, etc. is a way for a RPG to discourage people from resorting to the big guns at the beginning of a fight.  In a way, once per day spells also have some of that effect as wise adventurers conserve resources and fight efficiently, though my recollection on AD&D fights was to open with the biggest area of effect attack possible to massacre as many enemies as possible, leaving open the possibility of resting long enough to rememorize spells.  Such limits can also cause players to hold off too often, conserving needlessly and not being rewarded for conservation of resources.

Besides the limitations of per day or per session, there are ways games try to make ultimate abilities less reliable to discourage.  That, to me, is even worse.  As unreliable as abilities are in anime at finishing fights, they are still rather reliable for causing huge explosions.

It doesn’t have to just be anime style play, of course.  The most awesome sword duelist, pretty much any superhero, other things with powers like V:TM vampires, et al, have little reason to hold back in RPG play.  A villain can toy with opponents, but players like using their abilities.

And, I want them to have the option of using their abilities.  I just want to give them a reason to not use them ad nauseam.

One mechanic I got enthused about was to have PC powers that got bonuses for every session they weren’t used.  The more you Kamehameha, the more mundane its effects become to reflect how the more mundane it has become as a tactic.  If you are desperate, you can always tap into all of your powers, but if you save it, risking being less successful in the short term, it gets ridiculous.

A more convoluted way to do this but one that might fit better is to have PCs have unknown powers that they can define as needed.  The less often they tap into these secret powers, the more powerful they become.  Alternatively, once a power gets defined, it becomes a standard power, where the first use of a new power (or upgraded version of a power – Spirit Shotgun or whatever) is when it’s at its strongest.

While I haven’t put mechanics around it, my players’ Solomon Kane characters have powers along these lines.  The most commonly used is Tlacateotl’s (Joshua’s) One With God mystery Edge.  Because they are poorly defined, not gamist enough, I don’t think they are much appreciated by the players.  When I looked to port SK over to using Roll and Keep, I did a much better job of applying actual mechanics to these mystery abilities so that it didn’t come across as being so arbitrary.

I thought I had come up with another way to mechanize boosting powers, but I can’t recall what my thinking was off the top of my head.  Other ideas for this concept would be appreciated.  A realistic way, though way too much burden on the GM is to create challenges that counter PC abilities based on how often they use them.  So, if you Hollowify at the beginning of every fight, the enemy goes defensive to waste time until it wears off, for instance.  Not only does the accounting discourage me, but the balancing job is that much more painful.  Still, there is some element of this encouraged in Champions supplements, where supervillains develop far more effective counters to the superheroes standard tactics.

Meanwhile, there’s also rising to a new power level without the effort to conceal one’s full strength.  Many games have ways to manage this, from drama chips to Void Points to Fate Points to bonus dice to whatever.  However, it doesn’t have the same feel to me as someone who suddenly becomes far more capable because the situation demands it.

Now, there is a problem with individual PCs dramatically getting stronger because, as is the usual case, we aren’t writing a story, we are playing a game.  It may make for an epic story that anyone can suddenly go Super Saiyan 2, but it probably makes for crap play.  Even an epic situation where the party is down to its last member in a fight to the death, as what happened yesterday in our Conan play, if that member achieves a new power threshold, what happens afterwards?  Leave everyone else behind?

Clearly, making power jumps temporary helps avoid this problem.  The question is how to do it in a way that seems dramatic rather than “I spend a Void Point.  Crap.  Luck/Honor Roll.” or “I have 8 chips left, I spend them all.”  Though, drama isn’t the only issue.  Taking the latter example, the other players were chipping in their chips to do cooler stuff/survive/whatever earlier, so why wasn’t this character doing the same?

One thing I always like is the idea that you can tap into your life force/soul/rage/whatever to achieve a higher level.  SK has Righteous Rage, which is the right thematic effect and a more substantial bonus than what I usually see in games mechanically, but it’s random when it occurs and, given how many Bennies I give out, it can happen way too often to be dramatic; in other words, it happens either too often, not often enough, or at the wrong time.  Maybe, with something like Righteous Rage, I can give the player the option of saving it for the next time the player spends a Bennie in combat, so that the player can time it for the most brutal of fights.

Anyway, if we mechanize burning off your own life force, say, with permanent attribute destruction, then you run into the problem that players are disinclined to make such sacrifices, as campaign play is about advancing characters to more powerful states.  Now, there might be some balance point where temporary attribute damage works as a mechanic.  I don’t think players are nearly as bothered by being weakened for a month than for being permanently pushed back from other PCs.

This is likely to be a huge pain in the ass, however, to balance.  In d20, lose 2 STR for a month does what?  What if you are superdesperate and scale to lose 10 STR?  Similar problems with turning down a die size in SK, sacrificing a Ring in L5R, etc.  How do you make it so that the PC can still lose, should win (since we are talking about climactic situations where PCs should, on balance, win), doesn’t get off to lightly but also doesn’t get punished too hard?  I guess that’s always a GM problem when coming up with suitable challenges.

I don’t notice my players or my fellow players thinking along the lines that I do about trying to generate epic situations (as opposed to epic situations just arising randomly), but player input might help immensely for coming up with mechanics.  Certainly, I’m much better with mechanics as a player than as a GM.

There’s a separate topic on making starting characters much more badass that does have some overlap with these ideas that I guess I’ll write about when I get around to writing up my thoughts for what mechanics to use for a L5R campaign.


Embracing

June 17, 2012

So, unsurprisingly, Mark Rosewater has done another article that can easily be adapted to talking about other CCGs like, yup, V:TES.

While a pitch piece for Duels of the Planeswalkers, the gist has to do with teaching newbs how to play Magic.  For quite some time, pretty much since I stopped regularly demoing games a decade or so ago, I’ve struggled with what approach to take when introducing the play of V:TES.

Of course, multiplayer play is far more difficult to teach than two-player play as folks rarely want to have a multiplayer teaching game.  Though, this is a problem with pritnear any multiplayer boardgame, so I may overrate the pain that is having a newb play with people trying to play a “real” game.

Magic is actually not a hard game to learn.  It’s hard to learn how to play in a varied environment, which is pretty much anything besides precon versus precon or Portal level Magic, due to the wide variety of card effects.  It’s hard to learn to be a good player and/or to be good at knowing the precise rules.

Unfortunately for V:TES, given that fresh blood is the most important thing to keeping play active, it’s a much more difficult game to learn the basics of.  On the other hand, the number of different effects is not that high and the game doesn’t become vastly more complex like Magic does in terms of rules knowledge.

It’s rather obvious that putting simpler cards in front of players is better for teaching.  What is notable in Mark’s advice is to put some exciting/flavorful cards in the mix.  That begs the question as to what cards in V:TES qualify as exciting/flavorful cards, which I’ll expand upon in a moment.

The point about not handing a newb a purely “Bland Bloodfeud” deck is because the point of pitching a game is to pitch the funness of it.  In theory, splashy cards show off fun elements of the game.

Before getting into the more interesting topic of what non-simple cards are worth including in newb decks, I will note that I have an extremely hard time not overexplaining things.  It really does help to have a script, even just a mental one, when teaching.

Okay, you build newb SB.  It’s either Dom/Obf with or without Auspex or Dem/Obf with or without Auspex.  Just filtering a bit, if I were to include a sexy, unsimple card for Dom/Obf, I’d go with Mind Rape.  Now, I wouldn’t include one in a newb deck because I only own so many and wouldn’t want to include anything that is difficult to replace, but for the purposes of our theoretical deck, it works.  A comparable card, in that it would be an action, for the Dem/Obf deck would be Lunatic Eruption.

An obvious non-action card for the Dem deck would be Coma.  Veteran players get excited by Coma, even though it’s often worse for the person who plays it than the intended victim, but whatever.  The concern is less about effectiveness, though crap cards should generally be avoided.  Thoughts Betrayed might be interesting for a Dom/Tha deck but useless for a simple stealth bleed deck.

V:TES is a game of mostly small effects.  It’s selling point aren’t Magic’s any more than Star Wars’, Star Trek’s, Lord of the Rings’, Babylon 5’s, etc. are.  V:TES, in my experience, sells itself on the multiplayer dynamic and the World of Darkness gothpunk genre.  Even if a RPG Launcher sucks, people are attracted to its name and effect, though, to be fair, a lot of players, myself included, get attracted to its suckiness.  So, when I go to look at master cards that might be sexy, other than Gird Minions, et al, I’m not feeling the excitement.  The Rack can be powerful and makes for dynamic play, in theory.  Papillon is notable if you can get into play reliably.  And, so forth, but so many powerful effect cards in the game are role-players, even the counterspells tend to be role-players and counterspells are never as interesting as splashy positive effects.

Deflection may be exciting to a newb, for instance, because it really is fun to bounce bleeds.  And, it does qualify as non-simple.  But, I would include bounce in newb decks because of the essential role bounce has in the game, rather than for these other reasons.  Though, one problem with teaching bounce is that a newb should quickly realize that not having bounce in a deck sucks.

Moving on to other newb oriented decks.  Let’s say an Aus/Cel guns deck.  While Blur might be exciting enough and is virtually always better, Lightning Reflexes is the sort of “sounds cool” card that would make sense to toss in.  Though, do run into the issue of explaining how you can’t use multiple cards to get additional strikes with this sort of deck, which would be more annoying with a mix of Lightning Reflexes and something else.  So, only Lightning Reflexes!!  It’s not like it’s a rare I care much about.  Sticking with this deck for the moment, could throw in big guns, but I wouldn’t bother.  Rather create some Flamethrower deck that could truly justify expensive weapons.

Of course, Ivory Bow goes in every newb deck.  Powerful, easy to play, combat effect, unusual in a world full of vamps with guns, only complicated aspect is aggravated damage, which is worth knowing about.  May want to avoid Amaranth for a while, on the other hand, as bloodhunt mechanics are among the most difficult mechanics in the game to understand.

At some point, get around to a vote deck.  Nothing simple about voting to begin with, but a steady diet of KRCs and Conservative Agitations is not hard to grasp once you understand how political actions work.  For more chaos, though requiring decks built to enable them, Anathema or Reckless Agitation come to mind as more exciting plays.

Coming back to the idea of flavor over explosions, can of course focus on cards that are more evocative of the setting and whatnot.  Of course, V:TES has a built in deck-building factor for enticing players by focusing on individual clans.  Just need to find out what clans someone prefers, though, if they don’t really care about the world of V:TM, may end up liking some clan just because of its perceived effectiveness.

The bottom line is that teaching newbs is about grokability and fun.  Fun varies so much that I see difficulty in putting too many guidelines around it beyond trying to figure out what is fun for the newb and going with it, which is something Mark mentions multiple times.  Grokability, on the other hand, is much easier to consider.

I’ve built newb decks where I’ve aimed to reduce text, eliminate complicated concepts, and the like.  I do strongly recommend building teaching decks rather than trying to use precons as precons are far too weak, have a bunch of weird cards, and omit a lot of important cards.  Can use the official demo decks to give the most basic of mechanics, but I don’t see them showing off much in the way of fun.  They lack clan identity and interesting cards – I find Magic Portal demo decks far more interesting.


Skill Mastery

June 12, 2012

I’ve skimmed through the tournament winning decks from Origins.  Perhaps, I’ll take a deeper dive on them; perhaps someone else will get there first.  One deck I thought was interesting but didn’t think I would care virtually at all about was Matt Morgan’s draft deck.  Sure, it’s amazing how different that deck looks from draft decks I’m used to, speaking to what sort of environment a Jyhad/V:TES draft is.

But, I got to thinking about something.  I got to thinking about what one of the greatest difficulties with building a variety of decks out of my experiment is.  There’s hardly any skill cards, er, for those who haven’t played since that’s what those were called, Master: Discipline cards.  In fact, at various times, I’ve thought about how scarce skill cards have become.  I thought about it with Lords of the Night.  I thought about it with Keepers of Tradition.

Now, KoT does a fair job of at least having most of the ones that would be important to the set, only missing Animalism, Protean, and Thaumaturgy from the original ten disciplines in the game.  Only Animalism, of those three, is a common discipline.

Third Edition, meanwhile, only has 8 of the 13 disciplines it supports.  It’s missing Animalism, Fortitude, Obtenebration, Presence, and Protean.  Some of these really hurt.

Why?

One of the things about V:TES base sets that I’m not all that fond of, even though it’s hard to complain about since other CCGs have done it as well, is that they make the assumption that you’ve bought cards from other sets.  Sure, you don’t have to have vampires from other sets, but absolutely fundamental cards to the play experience are missing in each base set.  Sabbat War had no Telepathic Misdirections.  Third Edition went the Sabbat path and didn’t provide Deflection or Minion Tap.  And, so on and so forth when it comes to staples of the game.

While the absence of Deflections for quite some time was much more notable, it’s quite amusing just how relevant skill cards are, especially to someone just getting into the game.  Obtenebration in three sets ever, one of which is a bloodlines set?  Wowww.

Just a quick note about the differences between V:TES and certain other CCGs that do base sets.  V:TES doesn’t have a format to limit what sets people can play like, say, Magic does.  So, basic cards are always basic cards (until they get obsoleted by strictly better cards later).

My problem with playing Obtenebration in Experiment #1 isn’t due to lack of vampires with Obtenebration to where I would need to graft it with skill cards.  No, that’s my problem with playing Presence out of “my collection”.  One of the precons is even for a clan with Presence, and I’m still not given the ability to upgrade my !Brujah and !Toreador into leaders of Kindred.  Then, I have a bunch of Forces of Will that I don’t have much intention to play as I’d rather not risk a fattie and can’t upgrade some dork.

People with lots of Jyhad, hell, people with a small amount of Jyhad (or V:TES) likely get quite annoyed about all of the wasted slots taken up with the skill cards.  I understand the reluctance to taking up common slots on such dull, weak cards.  Except, these dull, weak cards are not always dull and weak – Lilith’s Blessing has helped justify taking up precious master slots with them and babymaker decks have often run them.  And, they are not nearly so dull and weak when your collection is limited in crypt options.

Can people get them easily enough?  Sure, just like people can easily get Deflections …  Oh, wait, people have been complaining about how scarce those are.  Okay, I think people can easily get these cards because I’ve always been around people who had absurd amounts of Jyhad, et al.  Though, actually, I try to avoid playing Jyhad copies due to the backs, Sabbat copies due to more substantial differences in card structure, Third Edition copies due to … yup, the backs, as well as the crap quality of the cards.  So, for aestheticians, it’s a bit more work.  Then, what if you want a substantial number of copies of a skill card for a deck and look around to see that it’s only been printed as a one-of in a precon for many years?

Yeah, I get that it sucks to print a lot of oft-printed cards.  Of course, it also sucks to see garbage cards like Bang Nakh printed so many times.  But, it is interesting to me just how much it can matter to have a good base of skill cards for someone with a tiny/small collection.  And, I’ve never been all that happy with how base sets are done where they tend to really be more like one third the base cards in both sets, one third in one set, one third in the other set that comes out two years later.  May not be fixable unless you limit sets for a primary constructed format, but it’s argh to both be getting tons of cards you don’t need because the card shows up in both or get tiny quantities of a card you need a ton of, even in those cases when precons might help out with staples.

Or, maybe, if just that precons hadn’t been so awful with respect to putting needed cards in newbs hands, the problem wouldn’t have been so bad.


Convention Civilian

June 11, 2012

Someday, I should put in words what elements of GMing I enjoy and which I don’t.  In the meantime, I was reading this article on rpg.net about the do’s and don’t’s of running a con RPG and thought to share how I end up doing in each category.

1.  Preparation

I don’t do enough preparation for games I run, convention or not.  I get bored doing certain types of prep.  And, actually, that’s the greater problem I have:  I don’t do a trivial amount of prep, I spend too much time on the wrong things.  I might statblock tons of NPCs and antagonists when having full sets of stats aren’t really that important for something/someone who is going to only be around for a scene.  I might delve into the subtleties of a culture while either not bothering to use those aspects of the culture in an evocative way or not using them at all and keeping the info to myself.

I should be flow-charting the adventure for plot and connections between locations.  I should constantly be figuring out why a NPC, locale, challenge matters to the party and/or plot.  I should be considering how any scene will not go according to expectations and be prepared to adjust things to make the adventure more enjoyable.  I should be thinking of how my pregens are really going to work and what happens when different ones get played.  And, at the same time, I should be comfortable with my material to where I’m not rigidly slaved to my notes but also not just making everything up on the fly.

Then, there’s maps and other visuals.  I’m not a visual person.  I may have gotten caught up on L5R’s 4e mechanics for tactical movement because it’s such a contrast to 3e and/or because it’s important to a number of combat tactics, but I’m perfectly happy to not have tactical movement.  I rarely have a problem visualizing what is going on and, when I do, I just ask the GM if my understanding is correct.  But, other people really like maps and visual representations of positions.  I should have the ability to give them what they want since the point of running a game is to entertain players (while also being entertained).

2.  Timing

I’m much better at tracking time than I used to be.  Yet, I still don’t do it well.  I’m always worried about not providing enough story, but the reality is that playing a RPG is really slow and, as Tom Idleman says, conventions are even more problematic as people need food breaks, breaks to register for games, screw around with their hotel rooms or roommates’ needs, etc.

My games always run long.  Even when they don’t.  I’ve had to stop an adventure halfway in for a non-con game before because … it was only halfway in and we had been “playing” for 5-8 hours.

I also routinely forget just how long combat can run.  Even as a player, I just get amazed at how long a combat goes.  I think I’m better about allowing time for combat now that I’ve run so many HoR mods, but I still forget to include that time in my scene planning.  And, I’m not even sure whether there will be combats in certain scenes or not – I should just always assume a combat for a major scene since it’s likely either going to be a fight or a long drawn out conversation with NPCs.

3.  Pregens

I always do pregens for con games.  I have seen how brutal character creation can be timewise.  Still, I always forget that I need to explain basic rules to people as not everyone who plays is a veteran of the system.  Sure, some things can be learned as you go, but players will miss out on using abilities if they don’t realize certain mechanics to begin with.

4.  Useful pregens

I do put thought into how to make every pregen useful to the party/adventure.  I think this, though, is the hardest part of character creation for a con game.  In a home game, can just adjust abilities on the fly.  Also, it’s even harder when you know the system well enough to know how awesome someone is at something but the character sheet doesn’t convey that to where the players have unequal interpretations of their characters’ abilities.

5.  Early tone

I’m usually so flustered by getting everybody together and focused that I don’t start with a strong lead in.  I’m too concerned with making the lead in make sense where flavor would be better.

Also, tying in with timing, I have tried to start adventures off with an opening sequence, a la James Bond movies, but it never works.  Somehow, it invariably involves wolves, a combat with the wolves, a combat that goes on hours longer than I had planned.  I might try one more time to do a wolf fight to see if I can break out of the mode of having 2-4 hour fights that aren’t intended to be major fights.  But, instead, I need to come up with more ideas for how to put the PCs into the action right away.  And, then, not letting up.  I like breakneck adventuring.  There doesn’t need to be any quiet time to reflect, just a bit of time to heal wounds.

6.  Summarize mechanics

As I said, may forget about this.  Actually, I’ve done cheat sheets for mechanics before, not that people look at them, which is odd as people look at them when I play con games.  What I’m far worse about is making sure that everyone knows what their characters are supposed to be good at.  I have taken people aside to point things out, but it hasn’t worked that well, and I don’t always remember.

If I were more industrious with character sheets, I would have a cover sheet (or first sheet after a color picture cover) that summarized the character’s abilities.

7.  Rulings

I think I do fine with rulings.  I hate rules as a GM and I hate arguing about rules as a player.  I don’t recall ever running into even more minor issues with rules while GMing at a con.  In a home game, I might spend more time on rules.  Also, I will let players look things up, like the precise wordings on spells and such, as I can’t be bothered to memorize every possible mechanic in a game.

8.  Splitting the party

As a player of con games, I have often enjoyed split parties, as long as people have something to do when the GM is with the other PCs or the people not doing anything gamewise can handle other things, like food, or just observe something interesting going on.  Unfortunately, it’s tricky to have separate groups be busy.  I take my hat off to the various GMs I’ve had who have had adventures where I was busy while the GM was working with another group.

If you can make sure that everyone gets to be busy, then this isn’t an issue to me.  If you can quickly handle a party split, then it should be fine.  How do I do?  I’m not sure.  I think I do okay with split parties as I try to bounce back and forth quickly, resolve one group’s side activity quickly, or even try to run simultaneous combats.  However, it’s hard for a GM to judge these things as the GM is always busy, so maybe it’s not as good as I think.  I don’t try to split parties, so I don’t think it comes up a ton, either.

9.  Outrageous results

I like extreme results.  However, I’m not into slapstick and making a joke out of what’s going on.  Fumbles in my games aren’t generally punitive unless the game has punitive results, like Savage Worlds’ rather brutal Fright Table.  Even if they are, I try to make it serious.  I might joke while playing a RPG, but I don’t want the adventure to be a joke.

10.  Perverted Genie

While use the term “Perverted Genie” rather than “nitpicking” or the like?  Because, I’ve run into this often enough, if not so much at con games, that I can’t get the idea of a wish-granting genie who tries to pervert every wish out of my mind.

I’m really not into mundane things.  I don’t care how much ammo I have.  I don’t care about how many feet of rope I have.  I don’t care about light sources when underground.  I don’t care how much money I carry, how much things weigh, whether a bow’s strings will get wet, and so on and so forth.  Occasionally, realistic problems might make for a contrast with high adventure or might be an integral part of a challenge, no light source for instance.  But, usually, it’s just tedious to worry about such things.

In the real world, I worry about logistics all of the time, mostly how to get people to and from gaming events now that I no longer do inventory planning.  So doesn’t interest me to be an organizer or manager.

Not to say that this topic is all about whether you remembered to bring gear to your expedition and the like.  There’s also things like making assumptions that people aren’t idiots.  If there’s a mysterious gas, you can have people roll to see if they hold their breath in time or long enough, but you should assume someone is going to hold their breath.  More commonly, what players say to NPCs is often not what their characters would say.  Whether it’s letting a secret slip, offending someone’s culture (when the PC would know better), articulating almost the opposite of what the player intends, or whatever, I see players say the wrong thing all of the time because they don’t know better or because the player is suddenly in the spotlight when the character was there all along, so the player is more stressed than the character would be.  The situation might not be clear to the player.  The world may be unknown to too much a degree.  Whatever.

I think I’m virtually never nitpicky.  I will be a bit with HoR mods since the mods are written by others and intended to be relatively objective, and there are numerous instances where the whole point of a scene is to say the right thing.  However, even then, I will try to give the party enough opportunity to hit on the right thing to say.  I also don’t sweat mundane stuff people would logically have or stuff they would grab while running out the door.

In fact, I will even paraphrase what PCs say in conversation to see if I understand what they are trying to convey.  Or, summarize plans they come up with.  Or, whatever.  Just so that the party can move on to doing dramatic stuff.

11.  Dialogue

I’m not an explanation kind of guy.  I find long explanations of what things/people look like in books to be stuff I skim over.  In fact, my favorite parts of books are dialogue, so when I write stuff, it tends to be heavy on dialogue.

That being said, I’ve probably made the mistake of overdescribing.  And, while I like box text in HoR mods, people I run for don’t seem to care much for it.

As to “game dialogue”, having PCs be the ones who determine what happens, I’m sure I’ve made the mistake of having PC actions not be as important as they should be.  I try hard to not have NPCs step on the toes of PC awesomeness, but I also enjoy creating NPCs and like some of mine a bit too much.  I’ve been in enough situations where the GM’s characters were far more important than the PCs and hope to never make the same mistake.  Yet, I expect that my inclination towards story first and to trying to paint dramatic scenes means taking too much influence out of the players’ hands.  HoR mods can be bad about this, as well; actually, I notice this far too often in HoR3 to where I’m getting annoyed by it.

I have considered that I should not run the way I am inclined to play.  That I should let things be more open when it comes to player actions and where the story arises more out of what players do than there being a story that the PCs find themselves in.

12.  Bad Apple

I haven’t noticed this in my few convention GMing experiences and never in home games.  I’m not sure what I would do.  As a player, I’ve run into this on a number of occasions.  I tend to just ignore it as it doesn’t happen that often, and usually, if a player is that big of a problem, there’s a greater problem with the session.


Review – The Book of Air

June 5, 2012

To a degree, I’m not really sure about the basis for reviewing every L5R 4e product that comes out.  While I’m a huge fan of reviews – I love reading movie reviews for movies I’ll never see, for instance – I’m not obsessive about going into detail then editing my remarks for improved readability.  Plus, at some point with a RPG, you either tend to buy everything or nothing, with the exceptions being easy to call out with a simple sentence along the lines of either “great line, but this book sucks, skip” or “not a great game, but this book rocks the Casbah and can be used for better games” and everyone can move on.

I suppose the value for me is that I get practice in for when I may need to do an important review.

Way to sell this post.  I’ve already essentially said that this review isn’t important.  Why isn’t it?  L5R is very strongly about its world.  So are a lot of other game lines, but then, a lot of game lines aren’t.  The Book of Air exists deeply within a context of the L5R world.  That’s true of Emerald Empire and The Great Clans, as well.  Where Enemies of the Empire and Imperial Histories are both products I can see someone stealing ideas for for other games.

The question is whether The Book of Air is an outlier.  Is it so awesome that you can’t afford to skip it, even if you are broke?  Is it sucky?  The product line for 4e is very strong, assuming you are into L5R or fantasy Japan to where you use L5R for assistance.

… maybe I should actually say something about … The Book of Air.

Bottom line:  If Emerald Empire interests you, then The Book of Air is essential.  TBoA has more mechanics and, as many have said, by putting them all in one place makes them vastly easier to find than earlier supplements, but it comes across more to me like a deep dive on the nature of Rokugan, obviously focused on one fifth of the total material that will be covered by the entire series of The Book of …  I wouldn’t buy it just for the mechanics, most of which aren’t relevant to characters I’m interested in playing; even someone who cared far more about the mechanics could probably find out what they are from someone else.

Cover

The cover has the same pop that the other books in the series have.  No, that’s not quite right.  It has a hot Crane chick with one green eye and one blue eye, so it has even more pop.

General

The book looks short.  At 200 pages, it’s over a 100 pages shorter than Emerald Empire, The Great Clans, and Imperial Histories.  It’s 88 pages shorter than Enemies of the Empire.  I read another review where not only this was mentioned, but that the book felt like it was reaching to just hit this page count.  I’ll comment on that.

As said, the mechanics were all moved to a single section in the back.  While that may be the best way to go, the real problem with earlier books is that the table of contents would give the pages for new mechanics but not say what they were.  The index would give a name but you wouldn’t necessarily know the section.  If you didn’t know the first letter of the mechanic you were looking for, for instance, you might have to jump around.  At least when mechanics are all in the same section, it’s fast to find things and the chance of missing something is greatly lessened.

While we all say that all of the mechanics are in one section, that isn’t precisely true.  All of the character design mechanics are in one section.  How to handle things like a kite fight(!) are in the related section.

Introduction

The most notable thing about the introduction chapter is where it talks about using Air as a theme for play style.  While kind of hokey, I really like the idea of having a theme that cuts across the panoply of elements to the game.  The gist is that the “Air style” of playing L5R is to be flexible, should be interesting to see whether The Book of Earth talks about a rigid style of play.

Winds of War

Just going to list the chapter names.  This chapter starts with how the clans represent Airness.  It’s kind of weird.  Crane and Scorpion are obviously the most Airy (great) clans, but somehow, the Crab get talked about rather than, say, the Phoenix or Unicorn.  Still not seeing how the Hiruma are terribly Airy compared to a Shiba or a Battle Maiden.

Anyway, after the strange section, we get articles on Iaijutsu, archery, spears, and the Air style of unarmed combat.  I actually find it hard to wade through how spears get used; this is something I’d be more inclined to care about on a mechanical level.  But, I was just amazed at what I didn’t know about Iaijutsu in L5R.  I had never thought about Kakita being some barbarian tribesman before Rokugan came into existence.  It’s nice to have a lot of commentary about dueling all be in one place even for those who have heard much of the material.

Another reviewer commented about not needing to know the eight steps of loosing an arrow.  But, you know what?  When I go to write fictions, it’s precisely the excruciating detail of a common action that I can use to give my fictions gravitas.

The chapter finishes with another section on how to play in an Air style, in this case when it comes to having combat seem more fluid.  While I sympathize with efforts to get away from “I attack.”, “I dodge.”, “I move 5′ and attack.”, and the like, when a combat system is interesting and fast, it’s not a big deal to be only concerned with mechanics; plus, getting too deep into description, has problems and can get really annoying.

Winds of the Courts

I don’t have much to comment upon here.  I like the descriptions of certain locations most.  It feels like it should be longer.  Especially the GM toolbox section at the end!!  Why this is so short I have no idea.  Advice to create long lists of NPCs and a single paragraph on “Scheming and Indirect Goals” just seems bizarre to me.  If I had to pick the greatest annoyance to my players when I was running HoR2 mods, it was mods with long lists of NPCs they had no interest in interacting with.  Far better to go into a lot more examples of how to get PCs to give a damn about NPCs.

Winds of Magic

The reality is that I care about mechanics, at least when I’m a player.  I may care way more about story when it comes to playing than anything else, but during the time outside of playing, I do what most people do and think about how to build characters and the like.

I am quite a fan of how this chapter points out uses for spells that may be overlooked.  I wish it did more of that.  On the other hand, while I understand the importance of describing every variant character type that could be made, I’m really not as interested in a half dozen new character concepts.

One thing that I think RPGs consistently fail at is how to build PCs.  Sure, they stat block tons of NPCs, but NPCs aren’t PCs.  While a bit strange to do in this chapter given a chapter on mechanics, I would have liked to have seen several examples of how to build shugenja PCs – what spells to choose, what skills to care about, what mix of advantages works well/poorly, what impact certain disads would have.  I usually build lots of characters.  I usually learn pretty quickly how to make more or less effective characters.  But, I can always see the value in providing examples of character creation – note, not example, examples.  Plus, some people aren’t as mathematically inclined and could use help even with systems that aren’t overly complex.

Winds of Enlightenment

I don’t really get this section.  It’s very short and rather narrow.  My posts on Air signs of the Zodiac probably are more enlightening … by that I mean I’d rather see something said about what an Air personality is like.  How does an Airy person view an Earthy person, and so forth?  Sure, the clans touch on that with how they represent different archetypes, but they don’t really even scratch the surface of the connection between rings and personality.

The World of Air

“Air in the Natural World” is kind of odd.  Even when getting into weather, it’s odd, where I’m not really sure why heat gets talked about, except that I suppose you have to cover environmental conditions all in one book (it will be messy if it also gets covered in the other books).

“Air as a Tool of Man” is way more interesting and cool.  Maybe too brief.  There’s likely more that could be said on sailing.  I’m not terribly happy that kite-flying is encouraged with both the Games macroskill and with Reflexes rather than it being squarely a Perform skill and it being Agility.  My view, rightly or wrongly, is that Agility isn’t that great in 4e.  It’s almost entirely about attack rolls, which is obviously valuable, but it’s just rather narrow.  Perform skills listed in the mainbook that are physical are all Agility based.  Why make kite-flying Reflexes, instead?  Sure, Reflexes isn’t a bad choice, I just see Agility being a better choice, if only on mechanical grounds.

Similarly, it’s discordant to go into musical instruments when the game has playing instruments as an Agility thing.  I know, flavorwise, Air makes tons more sense than Fire, so this is easier to give a pass to.

Another reviewer pointed out that listing Fortunes and supernatural creatures that weren’t really Airy showed how much the book was stretching.  I just find the jumps in topics strange.  Why aren’t Fortunes listed in the Enlightenment chapter?  Why aren’t the magic items listed later in this chapter listed in the Magic chapter?

Winds of Adventure

The entire chapter is about a setting for courtly adventures.  I think it’s a great idea to have something like this that ties things together in an example format.  I haven’t read it through in detail, but it doesn’t seem like as much of the other material gets used, thematically or mechanically, as might have made sense, but there’s quite a bit of info on this setting and the characters.

Speaking of the characters, while those who haven’t played HoR2 may note the likes of Toku Irui, I find it amusing that there are other HoR2 characters present, as well.

New Mechanics

Just note a few things.  A lot of the mechanics don’t mean much to me because of how high rank they require, and I don’t mean just school rank.  The kata, for instance, require Air 4, which makes sense for The Book of Air, but I’m a known Air Ring hater (ironic for someone with an Air Sun Sign).  The called shots section for archery is a great help since called shots in the game are so vague and rarely used.  The spells I read didn’t excite me, but I haven’t read most of them.  Unfortunately for me, I think I’ll have to wait until The Book of Void to see a grand expansion on Tattooed Monk tattoos, though since two per book is not a trivial amount, something that catches my eye may certainly arise before the last book in this series.  There’s errata for the creature section up on the AEG forum.

Conclusion

I already gave my bottom line, in the middle, where it belongs.  In conclusion, I think there’s some really strong conceptual thinking in this book, but that the book doesn’t always deliver.

I rate this as *** – a product I’ll reference, if not necessarily regularly.

More than anything else, I think its value is in stimulating how to think about themes in L5R (or, in general for RPGs).  Too often, it seems like supplements get caught up in mechanical themes and don’t roll together thematic themes (yes, that sounds dumb) and mechanical themes.

I have a lot of hopes for the others in this series being as good or better.  I’m sure there are mechanics that will be more relevant to me, which makes them coming out later less fortunate, but what can you do?  People into Airy characters are going to get more value out of this than later books, while I’m still getting mechanical value out of it.  Should be interesting to see what non-mechanical themes get developed.  When all five books are out, I wonder if it will seem like they were brilliant when taken together as a collection of ideas covering the entirety of the L5R experience.


Crimson-colored Glasses

June 4, 2012

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
― Marcus Aurelius

Does that quote fit?  We’ll see.

Perception is reality.  Reality is overrated – more importantly, perception affects decisions at the V:TES table.  This may seem like a “well, duh!” concept, but it should really be discussed more.

The concept of the table threat is a pervasive one in multiplayer play.  In most multiplayer games, there’s an ability to gang up on “the clear leader”, and V:TES is no exception.  But, the table threat is a subjective thing, prone to shifting not just through mechanical changes in the game but through the perceptions of the players.

What is the most important skill to possess to improve one’s results at V:TES?

I have on a number of occasions said threat assessment.  That’s likely just out of frustration at how oblivious people can sometimes be.  Does it really matter to know precisely how much of a threat every opponent is if that doesn’t affect how one’s opponents play?  Isn’t it better to be able to manipulate someone into doing what you want, regardless as to who happens to be the greatest threat?  After all, at some point, it’s generally useful to be the greatest threat.

Then, haven’t even taken into account that threat level perceptions vary.  I don’t mean that the prey of the winnie deck sees its predator as a much greater threat because the player is about to be ousted.  I mean that match-ups matter.  The rush combat deck wrecking the other side of the table might be great in the short term but has to die before it gets next to you because you are squishy.  The stealth bleed deck about to be behind you only feeds your 20 bounce card strategy.

Though, we can’t just pull out one element of the situation like match-ups, all of the other elements, such as how someone is doing right now or what someone could potentially pull off in a turn or how fragile a player’s dominant position is, go into assessing how to adjust one’s play.

Why bring up perception and how it affects play now?

Maybe it’s the sort of V:TES experience I had yesterday.  Unexpectedly, we only had three players.  We did play four games and they were quicker affairs where one doesn’t get as lost in the minutia of any particular game to where the game’s “transactions” (moments) are the main takeaways.  I had also talked to a retired player Saturday, while at a friend’s wedding, about manipulation in V:TES.  So, a confluence, apparently.

Speaking of manipulation, is there really any form of manipulation that isn’t about changing perceptions?  Intimidation, seduction, etc. all change perceptions in a way that is far too general to be of much use.  Instead, my experiences have mostly been about trying to get someone to realize that someone else is a greater threat, to pass the onus of being “clear leader” (actually, clear leader applies better to Babylon 5, where the game is a race, so I’ll switch to table threat).  It’s typically an argument based on logic, biased logic, but logic.

In no way is this an attempt to make me sound more virtuous, but I try hard to avoid being manipulative and have been trying for a number of years, whether it seems so or not.  I’m really not one for political games and I perceived at some point that I thought the game had become too political and not based enough on interesting card interactions.  I gain more satisfaction from superior technical play and crafty deck construction than I do manipulating others into doing my bidding.

And, my game has suffered for it, if results are any indication.  Superior technical play is helpful, but it’s nothing compared to what you can achieve by getting people to do what you want.  I think a great example of this was from a post-Gen Con tournament I played in in Indianapolis.  Ankur had arranged the event at his place and Jay Kristoff was among those present.  In the first round, I was playing a weird Kiasyd deck, he was my prey playing Nosferatu Trophy, my predator was playing Ventrue of the Law Firmish variety, and I forget Jay’s prey’s deck.  My predator was suffering beatings at the hand of his predator, even though I got ousted.  A vampire of the unremembered deck went to torpor and my erstwhile predator looked to diablerize.  Some discussion with Jay was had about surviving the bloodhunt.  A Prince or something went to chew, succeeded, and Jay voted the nontrivial minion dead.  The coup was decisive and, unsurprisingly, Jay went on to win yet another tournament, schooling all of us losers.

All that was required was achieving the perception that the wicked diablerist wouldn’t go poof.  It wasn’t a matter of convincing someone to do something that he didn’t want to do; he very much wanted to chew.  It wasn’t a matter of forgetting a mechanic or misplaying cards or whatever; it was making a bad decision based on perceiving the situation differently than it turned out to be.

There may be other factors, e.g. opponents got better, but back when I made an effort to alter other players’ perceptions of the game state, I was far more successful.  Now, it could be argued that no matter what you do, including what you don’t do, you affect how people perceive you.  My attempts to not get as involved politically may give me benefit of the doubt at times when it comes to expected reactions to plays.  It’s just that those times aren’t likely to be that important.

Different people have different styles.  An example out here of wildly differing styles by highly successful players was playing with Ira and Ruben.  But, the end goal is the same.  No V:TES player is an island, not even the player of the turbo deck or the Reversal of Fortunes deck or whatever.

Every player influences the game constantly and, often, profoundly.  Decision-making in V:TES is crucial to results (and crucial to enjoying games).  Decisions are going to be made based on how one perceives the game.

A much more valuable article would be one that addresses how to change perceptions and/or how to adapt one’s play by “reading” other players based on how they perceive the situation.  Does a Ventrue deck seem overly cautious next to a Tzimisce deck?  Could be a lack of Majesty in hand (or fear of ‘shreck or Telepathic Tracking) and an intense fear of being dunked.  Maybe can make a friend of the Ventrue by preemptively offering to rescue someone who goes down, then be awesome and totally not rescue, bwa-ha-ha.  Anyway, it should be obvious that such musings are not my sort of thing (I’ll have to think about why, maybe just laziness); other bloggers come to mind for such.

Some players even overreact to other players.  I’ve found myself in situations where my prey was deathly afraid of my ferocious pool-draining powers, likely because I’ve had some success lunging in the past even though my decks tend to be anemic on offense, to where my prey didn’t have enough minions out to do anything forward and the two of us waited for someone else to win.  On the other hand, I often see underreaction as well.  I’m actually a proponent of everyone ganging up to take out the best player at a table when the best player is significantly better.  “Share the wealth!”  “Share the wealth!”

So, what’s the takeaway from this post?  Probably just remind oneself that the game largely comes down to decisions made based on subjective perceptions and that those perceptions are quite mutable.