June 30, 2014

I still play V:TES, though it might be hard to tell with how little I talk about it.

I played twice in Virginia, when I was there on back to back business trips, just mentioning the first time I played in one of my posts.  I also played more mahjong than I’ve played in years, winning the first three hands of three-handed play before things evened out immensely after we went four-handed.  It might be notable that all of my opponents were my brothers, except the one who was traveling.

We played locally not that long ago, couple of weeks ago.  Funny stuff happened.  Funny stuff usually happens, which is kind of the main draw of a game to me*.  I stealthed by a Creation Rites by having my Tupdog play Veil the Legions, then having the Obfuscate skill card go into the ash heap to fuel another Creation Rites.  Couldn’t push through in that game with my 11(?) minions.  Second game saw my DoC deck Crescendo effectively, which was amusing due to how few Crescendoes it runs, take a VP but be on the ropes from my predator as my new prey just couldn’t oust fast enough.

*  Should I write about this now or save it for another post?  Maybe just get it over with …

… An observation I have when I am around games is that I am often just not into results.  Well, okay, that doesn’t sound like anything new if you’ve played a bunch of games with me for the last 20 years.  But, I think I may be getting further down the spectrum of seeing games as not really competitive ventures but as experiences of interactions/transactions.  Sure, my personal gaming isn’t likely changed that much as I always went for amusing in CCGs or different in boardgames.  But, I think it affects my interest in playing other sorts of games.  Wargames, for instance, have never particularly been my thing, but, where I might have eschewed them due to investment/complexity/level of effort/having other things to play, I am inclined to believe that I should avoid them at this point just because I don’t care what happens.  Get destroyed?  Um, whatever.  In a competitive game, it’s important to be trying to win.  I don’t know that I’d be inclined to try to win some of these games.

I may not have winning foremost in mind when I play CCGs or boardgames, but, at least, the effort is there.

We played three games of V:TES yesterday.

Brandon (Spell of Life horde) -> Ian (Gangrel bruise bleed) -> Eric (Serenna and Santaleous) -> Andy (Malk My Kin Against the World)

Brandon was the only one to get ousted quickly, having mininal defense against Rachel Brandywine and Lutz calling votes and stealth bleeding.  My Lord Ashton torped Lutz with the trite combination of Flesh of Marble, Lucky Blow, Target Head, Claws of the Dead, Taste.  That slowed Andy’s game as he hadn’t brought out Maris Streck, yet.  My two permacept on Antonino was problematic.  My other mundane and commonplace combat was Arthur Denholm blocking a bleed only to see Antonino Target Head, Shoulder Drop, Hidden Strength, press, Claws (still not burning).  Eric eventually ousted.

Eric conceded in the endgame as Serenna was torped, Santa was empty or something, and Arthur was torped.

Brandon (as above) -> Ian (Sunrise !Trem bleed) -> Andy (!Trem BH bleed)

Again, not a lot Spell of Life can do against repeated bleeds of 4+ at stealth.  I finally played Sunrise Service and Recure the Homeland, which might have cost me the game, as it meant one less minion bleeding in an endgame of throwing lots of Dominate back and forth.  I was also choking on bounce, as Brandon hadn’t bled me enough.

Jeff (borrowed Living Lolita Loca) -> Ian (Giovanni bruise bleed) -> Andy (DEM stealth bleed) -> Brandon (!Brujah intercept combat)

Oddly enough, !Brujah have a hard time defending against stealth bleed decks, even with a Sport Bike.  Jeff mostly played my original tournament winning deck the way it was intended to be played, given that the change in The Embrace makes it a vastly weaker deck.  I intimidated my prey to where I got some bleeds through, falling one pool short of ousting Andy before he got Jeff, as Jeff didn’t bleed me for enough to have bounce reduce Andy’s pool significantly, and I had to use Carlotta’s ability just to get a Govern to make it close.

The Call and stealth bleed swept the table.

So, what was funny about these games?  Shoulder Drop?  Target Head ownage?  Yeah, the last two games weren’t all that humorous.

So, why the name of this post?  I quite like World Cup, so I was trying some tenuous tie-in.  The tenuous tie-in is that we, local group, probably need some sort of goal when it comes to V:TES to keep enthusiasm up.  There are four tournaments coming up in August before I head out to Gen Con.  That’s something to work towards for the group.  Then, Labor Day Weekend could see us in SoCal, again.  But, what about the long stretches between tournaments?  I’m not building new decks that often, which is somewhat a function of having my mind in RPGs and BattleTech or, even, Shadowfist.  That I don’t expect to play against a variety of decks helps dampen my enthusiasm for building new stuff.

First thing is that we probably need to get on a more regular schedule.  Second thing is to get back into deckbuilding mode to have some enthusiasm for playing my decks – I don’t think I have a single deck I want to play.

While it never happens to the degree it should, publicly posted analysis out of the NAC might have gotten me more interested in playing.  I just don’t get why people don’t feel inclined to write about their experiences and offer their observations after major tournaments.  That should be the point of greatest interest in writing something.  Sure, WoN, conventions, whatever are exhausting, but, then, you just rest for a while before posting something.  While the World Cup analogy doesn’t hold, we just had one of our most notable international events, and I have virtually no takeaway from it.

Of course, a goal could be to plan next year so that we head to Origins as a group (which would pretty much be the only way I could generate sufficient motivation to go).

Cool Or Cold

June 26, 2014

RPG philosophy time.

Everyone wants to do cool things. But, cool things are the results from player actions within given situations and dice rolls (or whatever resolution system the game uses).

I look to engineer situations where my, often mechanically suboptimal, characters get to do the things I find cool, whether that’s help a NPC that others don’t care much about or use some unusual ability or whatever.  Dice rolls can be the bane of such, though there is such a thing as dramatic failure.  I tend to really hate failing at something I care about in the moment but learn to appreciate failure more, later.  But, that was a thought for another post.

Some want to have cool characters. Cool characters are within the context of what would be interesting within the game world/system.  A fairly stereotypical character can still be cool with just one interesting feature.  In other words, weirdness != coolness.

Cool characters are not the same things as effective characters, however. For some, effectiveness is importance. For some, lack of effectiveness is something to be avoided. The playgroup dynamics are important. In one group, being ineffective is humorous, in another, it pisses off the other players, who feel like they are losing out because the party isn’t optimized.

I was partially inspired for this post by the current thread on overpoweredness in L5R 4e on the forums.  My first responses are always to beat the dead horses of what I think are balance issues that I’m amazed that others don’t find as balance issues.  But, then, I used brain cells a bit more.

I came to a realization.  I realized why 3e/3r is a better game.  Sure, I’m probably just repeating something I said previously.

Not a better system.  4e is a much better system, being far more coherent, though a bit overstructured.  Not a better designed game, as that’s just system, again.  The previous edition, though, was a better game.  Better = more fun.

Brokenness can be fun.

When the Wheel of Time CCG was going through playtesting for the first expansion, I asked the game’s manager (might have been lead designer at that point) what power level we were aiming at.  The answer was being competitive with the best strategies in the base set.  That resulted in broken vs. broken.  And, it was good.  Aiming for some lower level would have meant being saddled with a bunch of suboptimal strategies.

Now, power levels in CCGs can spiral way out of control with this mentality, but this was the first expansion and the base set was largely full of junky cards with a few absurdly broken cards, a number of which got nerfed.

WoT didn’t have much in the way of expansions, so it’s not tricky as to when the game was the most fun.  After the first expansion and before ridiculous dice totals for Aiel decks came in was the most pleasing environment.

What makes 4e L5R less fun isn’t the brokenness – it’s the lack of brokenness.  Sure, grapple is moronic, but grapple might have been good in 3e/3r.  Who knows?  That one-shotting enemies was so common with katana or whatever meant that grappling might have been underexamined.  All of those folks who find it frustrating that spearchuckers and polearmededs suck in 4e shouldn’t be complaining about how powerful heavy weapons and swords are but how weak everything else, which, admittedly, is what a lot of folks are doing.  My increasing annoyance with shugenja being gods compared to other characters really just has to do with how pathetic other characters are.  If 4e, R-2 bushi just one-shotted everything except big bads, then it wouldn’t be so noticeable that shugenja not only own noncombat but own combat as well.

Is it dumb to have something like 10k6+15 with three Free Raises on rolls, which would not be that shocking a roll in 3e/3r?  Maybe.  It’s certainly overwhelming to where there’s little mystery as to how contested rolls and such will play out.  But, contests of 7k4 against 8k5 or whatever are really just not all that mechanically interesting.  Just as I quite despise the blandness of +1k0, which is all of the rage in 4e, whether school techniques or advantages, I just don’t find the more fair battles of dice pools to be all that interesting.

With a strong reason to go to four in as many Traits as possible and invest little in skills or Void in 4e … added to dull techniques, dull kata, and whatnot, there’s just so much sameness.  Yes, there was still a reason to focus on Traits in 3e/3r, just not as much of one, and Void was very cheap (plus the three explosion rule), so there were plenty of Void Points to spend to unbalance PCs vs. NPCs.

In 3e/3r, any awful character, like an Omoidasu with War Fans 10, could do crazy mechanical things, e.g. 60+ wounds to a troll with a war fan at IR-1 or 100+ wounds to an oni with a war fan later on.  Dice still explode in 4e, but those crazy things were actually not that crazy in 3e/3r, where 60+ wounds in one shot in 4e is rather crazy and will be statistically improbable with any Xk1 weapon.

I can’t really speak to courtiers and artisans in any edition, as I don’t see their techniques virtually ever mattering.  I can’t speak to monks because nobody plays monks, except Tattooed Monks and Henshin, the latter being greater gods where the former were vastly more powerful in 3e/3r if not at the punchingness.  But, when it comes to bushi, bushi got to do cool things in combat in 3e/3r even if suboptimally equipped, suboptimally built, and suboptimally played.

Speaking of Tattooed Monks, I can speak to those.  4e is all about social, then you get into fists of death.  3e/3r, you actually got to do odd stuff that was actually powerful and not just subtlely so.  Hurricane Tattoo was the most absurd being far better than the 4e Asahina Shugenja ability.  But, how about Arrowroot?  Oh look, someone can heal besides a shugenja.

One of the other points I made on the forums, which I don’t get a sense that people take to heart, is that what is “wrong” about a game and what I care about being wrong are two different things.  I’m not bothered by schools being of different strength in L5R, like I’m offended by how classes are of different strength in Conan d20, something I’ve talked about before in terms of the discrepancy.

I think what my ultimate point in this ramblerrific post is that it’s not about being better, it’s about not being unregardable.  If the system makes something so vastly inferior to something else, the inferior thing might as well not exist at all, as it will only lead to frustration.  For those who care about weapon differences, I can see where reading about weapons no PC will ever use gets annoying.  While I’m not going to be consistent about this with regards to schools, for instance, there really is no reason to play anything other than a shugenja from a mechanical standpoint (unless the group allows Henshin, Lost, or some such), which is annoying.  While it’s also annoying when one bushi school doesn’t really do anything of note, like the Mirumoto School in my experience, it can be amusing to try to figure out what you would ever do with the (essentially) techniqueless schools – Omoidasu, Miya Herald, Seppun Guardsman.  (Note that Omoidasu and Seppun get techniques at SR-4, but you will have long since gotten yourself killed before you ever reach that rank.)

Archery and Sneak Attackless finesse fighting in Conan d20 offended me so much because I didn’t know they sucked.  I constantly regretted decisions I made with my main character.  But, you know what?  I got to do cool things.  I got to flesh out a character in occasionally cool ways.  I may have been a sidekick much of the time, but, when the uberbarbarian wasn’t being played, I wasn’t even sidekicking.

It’s easy to speak to philosophical issues with games.  They all have lots of problems and horrible imbalances.  But, just as I’ve mellowed on bitching about CCG balance issues, I think it’s more just a matter of play more and carp less.


June 12, 2014

Due to a player vacation and just because we’ve been doing a lot of L5R, we decided to temporarily have a different RPG experience.  With no one feeling strongly about running, I ended up volunteering.  The primary desire was some FRPG that was more generic than L5R.  While Conan d20 isn’t terribly generic, in my mind, it’s not at all like L5R (unless you wanted it to be and set a game entirely in Lemurian lands or, at least, Khitai).

I volunteered Conan because it’s a system and world I know very well from the seven years of on and off play we had.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t forget how much damage a broadsword does, but there’s a period of refreshing my memory of all of the things I hadn’t had to worry about for four(?) years.

As not everyone was familiar with d20, I should have just found and printed character sheets.  As much as I hate “official” character sheets (or pretty much anyone else’s character sheets as they don’t group data in the way that is intuitive to me), it would have been far, far easier to point to different things that were important rather than verbalize them.

I set the first session in Hyperborea because Hyperborea and Border Kingdom were two places we didn’t do anything in during our old campaign (and its offshoots).  In true Conan fashion, everybody was possessionless.  Besides that, it really is a huge difference from the standards in L5R.

For one thing, running away is a perfectly valid response to danger in the grittier world of the Hyborian Age.  For another, trying to talk the demon out of feasting upon your soul is also valid … and really funny when you roll a “1” with Diplomacy.

As much as I can give advice on how to max or min the min/maxing, it was notable that two of the players ignored Constitution when assigning points to attributes.  The closest thing to a dump stat in Conan is Charisma, to no surprise.  On the other hand, some builds really need Charisma, and my play experiences saw us largely socialize challenges away (especially with our mains).

Which brings up something.  Every FRPG or RPG probably has the same general ways to deal with challenges.

  1. Force
  2. Stealth
  3. Social
  4. “Magic”
  5. Other

“Magic” might be the same usage I had for my recent post about taking the “magic” out of players’ hands, but maybe not.  Am I missing a common strategy?

Well, regardless, this party is not going to use “magic”, as it’s sorceryless.  Stealth seems the primary way to go, though force also works.  A barbarian, pirate, and thief party is really well suited for sneaky ops.  Social got ignored by the group, though I found it interesting how many social rolls I called for in the first session.  I don’t know if that’s because Conan is largely a world of humans and humans don’t just start trying to kill each other all of the time or what.

I might be biased towards social resolution due to realizing that I actually like playing social characters, really like playing social characters.  It ties into my interest in NPCs.  Antisocial characters don’t engage NPCs, which would be a huge waste in my opinion.

Due to my running late and due to spending time on character creation, we didn’t play much.  I found it interesting, though, just how long one combat took.  I had expected more activity after fleeing the demon, but there actually wasn’t much time, which worked out fine but is concerning for when we have more regular sessions.  Combat is a key thing to do in sword and sorcery games, but I don’t want to spend three hours on one combat or the like, as there’s more to life than choppy choppy.

Not having to deal with a party sorcerer is interesting and makes life easier.  I can focus on just the areas of combat and skill usage deal with challenges.

I also found it interesting that, for maybe the first time, the players didn’t seem to want to eschew friendly NPCs.  Circumstances likely had a lot to do with that, which just means I’ve done poor setups in the past for introducing NPCs that the PCs could engage with.

I did, however, introduce the idea that the PCs would end up fighting wolves, if not normal wolves.  This could be a disaster as every other wolf fight I’ve ever set up has been.  Hey, how many times can I make the same mistake?

Conan d20 is d20, which means it has way too many rules and way too much tactical math.  But, whatever.  Hero, which might be something else I’d run fantasy in, wouldn’t be any better.  I glossed over some things.  Also, we didn’t make real use of a battle map.  I don’t know if that’s the right call.  Positioning in Conan matters a lot, and I’m not sure I want to strip out AoO and the like to make it less important.  I was reading some on what people thought of AoO, and there are some really good points about battlefield control.  L5R is a good example of how you just run right past anyone you don’t care about.  While I may generally prefer that more fluid style of combat, there are situations when it’s kind of annoying, both for GMs and for players.

I have a lot to refresh my memory on.  I’m also kind of annoyed that some of the books I think I have are not in a place I can easily find them.

I may much rather play than GM, but I guess one thing I like about running Conan is how traveling the world is an expected thing.  At least for me, each nation has character, whether I end up passing that to my players or not.  They can basically go in any direction, at this point, which is around five different possible nations, three of which are very close and, theoretically, attainable.


June 4, 2014

Table management is an essential skill to heightened V:TES success.  It’s easy to exaggerate, but, to make a point, I try aphorisms like “Don’t play the cards, play the people.” and “Ignore your deck, it will only confuse you.” on folks.  … I’m lying.  I don’t think I’ve ever used either of those lines.  I have used lines like “Your deck doesn’t matter.” and “Oust the best player first.”, which Brandon seemed to get more grief for than I ever did.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that table management is just as much of a thing in Shadowfist.  Nor should it be surprising that many of the same things to look for are important.

Such as?

Player features.  Player skill is obviously one feature.  Player personality and player style could be grouped together, but I kind of think of two different things with these terms.  Personality would cover such things as “You attacked my Katie Kincaid.  I will make you lose forever.” or “You Sensory Depped my Jake Washington with Tasha Morgan.  I will make you lose forever.”  Aggression can be a personality trait, but it’s personal aggression.  Meanwhile, style would cover how aggressive someone is at trying to win.  Reckless player?  Style.  Flirty player?  Personality.  I know, this doesn’t help a lot.

Anyway, it’s not just that some player may be more of a threat because the player is better.  Some player may be more of a threat because the game is playing well to suit the player’s style.  I’m extremely non-aggressive these days with V:TES and I can already sense that I’m becoming more passive/patient/inoffensive the more I play Shadowfist.  When people are playing hyperaggressively and shortening a game, this sort of style can easily see getting run over.  Meanwhile, a game of “hand attrition” (a limited form of resource attrition based on cards from hand) may suit my style.

Of course, style gets reflected two ways – in deck construction and in play.  Though, I’ve borrowed aggressive decks and played them passively.

I’m still in the phase of Shadowfist of playing stuff to play stuff and recklessly trying to improve my position, hoping I won’t get messed with.  That’s very likely to change, to where I get tired of the massive amount of stoppage that goes towards the player who tries to win and I just do nothing until my inevitable victory, as per V:TES.

Not to say beating down the best player isn’t a good idea.  The number of important mistakes I make in Shadowfist are vast, even such idiotic things as not taking power for Gambling House until after I steal/remove a character … that prevents me from turning Gambling House.  If I’ve increasingly argued that a small number of mistakes are the ones that really matter in V:TES games, I’m not seeing how it’s hugely different with Shadowfist.  Though, I’m inclined to believe that Shadowfist mistakes tend to be more unforgiven.  After all, typically have one less player in Shadowfist to table balance things.  The number of times I’ve lost out on a power has been way too high, as one power is often huge, potentially large.  Or, to stop people from misusing enormity, we use the more better word:  enormical.

Shadowfist is a game almost entirely of lunges, except when you play some bad game where someone just blows everyone else away.  Better players have better lunge flexibility, getting in that much deeper for the kill.

Jumping around, one can see personality and style in deck construction and not just in play.  As an aside, much like V:TES, I don’t see that deck strength is all that important in Shadowfist.  My personality comes through with such things as playing Syndicate (my most common thinking about Shadowfist is what to do next with Syndicate) as I like their shade of green and their faction layout for other reasons than color.  My style comes through with moving towards more event-heavy decks, as I’m fond of transient effects.  That and such things as being more defensive in builds by running punishment FSS, Avenging _, etc.

A “I play this cool combo” deck is never to be concerned about as much as “I play Underworld Trackers” deck or “I guess it’s time to stop playing Govern at superior” deck.  The “I kill everything in play but have no fighting/ousting power” deck is something to play differently against.

Card knowledge is enormical.  My Shadowfist Modern knowledge is probably not bad, but, as so many cards are reprints, even those who eschew the format (veterans, I’m looking at you), still probably know more.  My Classic knowledge is weak, potentially mild.

A factor of player skill is card knowledge.  I walk into all sorts of “my characters die” plays because I don’t know how to play around stuff, also because I just expect all of my characters to die, anyway, so might as well get it over with and claim the mantle of weakness.  That whole messing with the better player thing mitigates how the better player will take advantage of knowledge discrepancies.

Not to say that it’s cut and dried on how to attack anyone in Shadowfist.  The sheer number of possibilities for what to do overwhelms my tiny mind.  There must be some sort of way to categorize strategy/tactics better that will come with experience.  Do you jump some 1 Fighting dude or not?  Does it matter if it has a special or is it a threat to be part of some combo involving cards you don’t know?

In particular, I haven’t figured out when not to attack.  I still don’t have the feel down for setting up lunges turns in advance or for when jumping in someone else’s way with a character rather than an event is called for.

So, cards.  They sometimes do things.  Knowing what they can do is … something I’ve already started talking about, but I want to get to how it produces wins.  I have been thinking of a separate post on the power of helpful effects – point being that cards with less powerful effects can be more important to winning because they provide what’s needed situationally.

In V:TES, Dodge is often no worse than S:CE and sometimes better, whether because getting an untap at the cost of a blood is worse than not paying any blood or because you can play Dodge with an ally or all sorts of specific scenarios.  Monkey Wrench may get a kill Conditioning doesn’t because your anarch with no Dominate is your last, best hope for victory.

A free +2 Fighting event might be the possum that dropping another CHAR isn’t.  So, it behooves to know what sort of lunge plays someone might be able to pull off given resources, power, designators, and whatnot.  Sure, knowing that 8 power is the difference between one hitter of 12F versus two hitters of 6F is also a thing to be conscious of and knowing the precise mechanics and uses of every FSS ability that might get revealed during a bid for victory is some yum.

But, my tiny mind can only hold so much card knowledge.  So, forget the minor stuff, like characters and sites, imprint upon my brain cells the tricks (because characters and sites never have tricks, nope, never).

I’m just polluting my post with stuff that isn’t multiplayer specific.  Where was I?

Multiplayer.  Multiplayer is not just about kingmaking and manipulating people into doing your work for you.  It’s about reading how the other players are going to play a game where every play is not a “Good for me, bad for you” play.  Will they hold on to stoppage even if it lets someone win just to force other people to use resources?  Will they make a mess of a bid for victory, so you can pretty much expect them to stop themselves?  Will they cripple you only to hand the game to someone else because they fear you, your deck, and/or your cards in play?

Right now, Shadowfist is playing differently for me than V:TES for a variety of reasons:  game knowledge in terms of cards and rules knowledge; strategic understanding; my personal style of play varying between the two.  But, I’m getting the sense that I may move towards playing the game more akin to my V:TES play as I learn more and I decide that I do care if Final Brawl is six for one card advantage against my Ascended deck.

On the other hand, you lose in Shadowfist when someone else wins, not just when you decide to let your predator oust you.  So, maybe it won’t be the same.