The Wheel Spins

September 29, 2015

So, recently, it’s been a period of nostalgia.  A period to look back at those things I was most fond of and see what I can do with them.

I also read the last book in the Wheel of Time series, finally.  I was entertained, even read all of the sections that involved female characters.  Wasn’t the greatest ending.  Some archery fun between Tam and Birgitte would have been something.  I could go on, but this is not “a beginning”.

Immortal: The Invisible War

This used to be my favorite RPG.  But, I never really understood the actual system.  I say actual because a primary reason this was my favorite RPG was I played it with Ran (the designer for those who can’t be bothered to know these things) running.  No, I didn’t play in his group.  I was introduced to it at Origins the year it was in San Jose.  We would roll a d10 and magic would happen.

I went back and looked to try to understand what the actual rules were.  Yup, they are awful.  They are far more horrendous than I remember, though why I would remember much of rules we never actually used in play is a question.  Multiple hostiles going off at the same time.  If I think 26 skills is poor design, let’s try like 60 skills.  Skills have varying costs.  Abilities exist that just negate hostiles (an interesting idea but painful design when you could have 20 different hostiles at work).

Mechanics were broken up in a way that it wasn’t clear how character abilities worked.  After getting through the mechanics sections, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to preserve.  I would just rewrite the system entirely to have my attribute + skill + d10 to hit a target number.  As I lost interest in the thematics of the game as well, no Himsati, no Serenades, no rainbow Immaculum.  However, Free Immaculum I would try to find a way to keep, as that’s one of the things that attracted me to the game in the first place when it was previewed/marketed in Dragon Magazine.

Rather than an overly convoluted mythology that not only had too many things going on but also based everything on an alien, I would just build a modern mythological game.  I already have the idea, though ideas are the easy part.  It’s having players not screw up your geniusness that’s the hard part.

Ultimate Combat!

I built a new deck.  Yes, seriously.  That’s how I am.  I playtested my decks against each other and am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the game would be better without the expansion.  Or, better with the rules that existed prior to the expansion, by which I mean a whole bunch of annoying psychic action cards were restricted.  While my Bewilder (you lose a turn) and Suppress (you lose all of your turn except playing a “land”) deck might be fair in that it loses a lot to at least one of my other decks, I can’t imagine anyone enjoying playing against it.  Somehow, I don’t think CCGs were intended to function where one player takes six straight turns.

The post Ancient Fighting Arts of China environment just seems one where every deck has to run four Psychic Delays to stop being shut out from playing the game.  Mix in how unbalanced starts can be based on how many artifacts and Mantras of Power you drew in your opening hand, and you realize that the game isn’t guaranteed fun, even if it is more fun than other CCGs.

Why is this of interest?

In many cases, I look at something old I have and either want to play it or can mine it for material.  In many cases, like the constant fail that is my reading my old AD&D/D&D modules, I don’t get inspired.  As much as I’d play more UC!, I don’t really come away from looking at either game as inspiring.

I actually had more ideas about RPG stuff just thinking about things in a general way, from reading A Memory of Light, and from reading gaming forums.  I certainly am not in the mood to create a new CCG.

It’s funny how many characters I can picture in my brainial region but how little effort I put into NPCs thematically.  Of course, a big problem with my plentiful ideas for scenes is that there are too many, that choosing to run with one instead of another is too difficult.

Even writing things down doesn’t work, as the act of writing down often drains my visions of their color.

Then, so many ideas don’t work as gaming ideas but, rather, are scenes out of short stories or novels.  Suggests maybe I should stop being so lazy and actually work on writing a complete short story (I have a hard time seeing writing a complete novel, I just don’t have that sort of endurance).

On a completely unrelated side note, should I report about playing V:TES recently?  I hadn’t played in a long time.  What of Shadowfist where we playtested Ray’s cards designed to smooth the game out?  Should I get into how it got me thinking of adapting B5 style agenda to Shadowfist?  Maybe when I actually do something about it and don’t just think about it.

The reality is that Shadowfist already has Edges which have similarities to agenda.  Not sure why I capitalized one and not the other.  There’s also doing a league/campaign where winning allows you to make up rules.  Our group is stable enough that we could do that.

I feel like the next major undertaking needs to be figured out.  I’m just not gaming enough.  BattleTech might start back up Sunday, which would mean something like three days out of the week when things are consistent.  Still leaves Tuesdays or Wednesdays free, and Saturdays are a big unknown at the moment.

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L5R Questions

September 27, 2015

I got some requests, one old and one new, that I want to get to.

The old request was to rate shugenja schools.  Why didn’t I do that long ago?  They don’t interest me that much, one.  Two, when any shugenja is far more capable than other samurai, does it really matter what you choose from a mechanical standpoint?

But, I do have preferences and do have some thoughts on what I would consider better.

Kuni
Asahina
Tamori
Kitsu
Moshi
Isawa
Agasha
Soshi
Iuchi

What’s my first consideration?  Affinity/Deficiency.  Not because I give a crap about an extra +1k0 on spellcasting, even though it actually has value.  It’s all because of what key spells I’ll be missing as an IR-1 character.

Now, shugenja have massive incentives to get to IR-2, as going from Ring+1k0 to Ring+2k0 is rather important but more important is having three additional spell options.  (In some people’s play, spell choice may not matter as much, but that’s some people I’ve never played with until our party got to around IR-4 and the GM allowed the shugenja to take any spells they wanted, which they promptly forgot to do.)  Also, raising Rings to cast better will propel you to IR-2 whether you want to go there or not.

Before getting into the key spells of each element, which comes before getting into how to look at the schools, let me just say that I find Earth and Water to have the bulk of important spells, with Air have some nice noncombat effects, and Void being cheese, I mean, “synergistic”.

Air

Tempest of Air may be the spell I mostly commonly see cast outside of post combat Path to Inner Peace.  By the Light of the Moon is often not taken because not only do shugenja get to do magic, they get to Importune.  But, if your GM makes Importuning annoying, then it’s one of the Air spells I consider.  Nature’s Touch is highly situational but, unlike a lot of spells, interesting because it’s not just another combat spell.  Legacy of Kaze-no-Kami has some use.

I have issues with Benten’s Touch, as I find it incredibly cheaty, but why single out any particular spell for shugenja as cheaty when it’s all they do?  Call Upon the Wind is odd in that it’s rather awful flight, but, hey, it’s flight.

Speaking of cheaty, Secrets on the Wind has dishonorable win.  Other stuff – illusions, defenses – are all too dependent upon circumstances.

Earth

I’ve played in a campaign where Jade Strike was useless.  Other than that, it’s one of three spells that must be memorized (unless you are Earth deficient and are IR-1).  It, Path to Inner Peace, and your go to combat spell against non-Tainted (Tempest, Fires, Touch, whatever).

I suggest and keep writing up characters that have Earth’s Stagnation because:  you are already going to have a good Earth to nuke stuff with Jade Strike and you might as well have something else to do in combat; it so easily hits multiple targets, which is why Jade Strike is more like Jade Barrage.  But, how good is it?  It’s much better against monsters that run around with goofy attacks like 4k4.  As, amazingly enough, 2k2 attack rolls don’t hit much of anyone in 4e.  The movement impact is quite interesting.  Is it Tempest of Air?  No.  But, maybe you will have a GM who actually doesn’t let you get away with hitting 3+ targets with Tempest of Air all of the time.

Jurojin’s Balm gets mentioned a lot.  Occasionally even gets cast.  Not essential but possible filler.

Be the Mountain is your first step to “Rock beats all”.  Once you have 15/20 Reduction (yes, you could have a much more fair 10), combat is rather jovial.  Earth Becomes Sky will eventually be your go to “I’ve got a rock” way of dealing with enemies still breathing.  Embrace of Kenro-ji-jin is pritnear necessary as it’s supercheaty.  Force of Will is my newest “You know, really, every shugenja has to have this spell as early as possible” spell.  Grasp of Earth always works out better in practice than it reads.

I don’t consider any R-3 spells necessary, but The Wolf’s Mercy pretty quickly ends a bunch of things.  Wall of Earth is very D&Desque in terms of just being crazy when used correctly.  The Kami’s Strength makes combat jovial^2.

Fire

Fires of Purity.  Mein Gott, is this busted.  It’s the one Fire spell that you have to know if you want to be cream cheese.  Extinguish is the only other Fire spell out of the corebook I care about.  Everything else is just too much “Okay, I burn something” or too high rank.  It’s not like Fury of Osano-Wo is bad.  Not even The Fires From Within is bad.  It’s just that they do things that your Reflexes 5 shugenja can do with fleshcutters (alternatively, you are Jade Striking liking crazy those things fleshcutters suck against).  Wall of Fire has Wall of Earth like uses.  The Mending Forge should be R-2.

Book of Fire has the best new spells.  Why?  Because I think it was realized that Fire spells just kind of claimed mediocreville out of the corebook.  I mean, even I, hater of casting spells, can get excited by a barrage of 6k4s or by dropping four spells in one round off of my R-6 spell.

Water

This is why you never want to start with Water deficiency – every party must have maximum Path Power.  Reversal of Fortunes is the next most crazy R-1 (water) spell.  I usually go Reflections of Pan Ku third, as Sympathetic Energies is for higher rank combos.  Rejuvenating Vapors is the only R-2 I care about.  Stand Against the Waves does have uses, when you have some combat monster in the party, but it’s an action for an action.

You take your Silent Waters as your first R-3.  Then, may or may not bother with another R-3.  Heart of the Water Dragon is supercommon in my play.  Everyone wants Peace of the Kami.  Nobody ever seems to cast it for obvious reasons.

Void

Touch the Emptiness is autowin against a whole bunch of stuff.  Drawing the Void is ridiculous to begin with, then you combo Kharmic Intent.  Sense Void has noncombat uses.

Altering the Course is why you are better than everyone else at everything.  This isn’t even limited to a skill roll …

Okay, let’s move on to the schools.  Void shuggies are the most broken form of god, so I’ll just ignore them from now on.

Kuni

What they do well is what I like to do, and they get Air deficiency, which is fine.  It’s just not a flexible technique.  While L5R spellcasters are really pushed towards combat in terms of what their spells often do (see how many spells are combat effects), pushing even more towards combat is shrugworthy.  Two of the most common Earth spells have the Jade tag.  Synergistic, yes, focuses too much on certain things, also yes.

Asahina

They clarified what sort of action it took to activate the ability.  I’ve always played with it being a free action, which I don’t really have a problem with no matter how godly that is because I like PCs surviving.  As a complex action, that’s a rather serious reconsider on tactics.  Now, what you do is take a more “don’t touch this” strategy early on in fights so that the Asahina doesn’t have to think about what to do on round one.

Fire deficiency is arguably the best deficiency, as it is possible to win combats without Fires of Purity.  It’s funny how you get a free raise on Be the Mountain.

Personally, I love helping my party not die, so this is a school I think about a lot, even though I have little desire to play a Crane and am less inclined to Different School than I used to.

Tamori

I like the Tamori.  I feel like it’s an area of playing Dragon that I could explore.  I despise this school.

Now, of course, it’s horribly overpowered.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  Two spells a round is such incredible abuse (or handing your potions out and having Simple-tons power up before unleashing no-dachiness).  I might hate it somewhat for that.  But, mostly, this is so incredibly D&D in nature, I just ignore it and hope it goes away.

Having the Tamori have the Agasha school would be so, so much better.  Or, something that wasn’t so, so not what I picture of Rokugan.

Kitsu

Weak Fire, good.  Quite an interesting ability, though also kind of limited unless your GM is open to the idea of spiritual abilities being spiritual advantages, in which case, wow, are you going to wreck some monsters.

As someone who is basically a Phoenix but feels like he can play a Lion okay (no longer thinks he can play a Dragon okay), I’m certainly a fan.  But, I’d say it’s not particularly strong, which also makes me a fan.  Battle is really something more for Earth, which leads to an interesting “mud” shugenja build (as opposed to the numerous mud shugenja ideas I normally think of).  Force of Will free raise into The Kami’s Strength, though that requires serious XP.

Moshi

Why not include Yoritomo Shugenja in the analysis?  Because lazy.

Weak Earth, bad, very bad.  Makes some sense why you would focus more on The Fires From Within as your nuke-Shadowlands prowess takes a big hit.  Not excited by the technique at all.  Thunder tag does help with key Earth spells, when you get around to taking them.

Moshi are one of my favorite families, but I’m still not that much of a fan of this school.  Flying may be fun, swimming under the earth is what owns your enemies.

Isawa

Far be it for me to question the wisdom of people who actually play shugenja.  Those who care more about Max, the overdog, keep coming back to this school as simply the best, better than a Wasp’s … Longbow.

I find it boring.  It has so little character.  I want interesting abilities, not just a free raise on half the spells I cast.  It’s the Tsuruchi Archer of shugenja schools.

Agasha

Terrible Affinity/Deficiency.  Rather uninspiring technique as Void Points are kind of precious for those who don’t Draw the Void.

There has to be a more interesting way to do the “wrong” element thing.  Still, I’m not a hater because it, at least, isn’t “hit me with one of your Be the Mountain potions, kami-sabe”.  Craft is not the tag I want.  Just soft pudding.

Soshi

Well, know that I’m never going to play one of these.  Sure, I actually like the Bayushi Bushi school.  But, even the chances of that are nearly nil.

Weak Earth, bad.  This school sure gets a lot of questions about its tech.  Not sure why.  I don’t really care if a PC whose school technique is all about sneaky spellcasting casts sneakily.  Illusions are also a potential source of grief.  At least we don’t have disbelieve mechanics to worry about.

Iuchi

The Ide/Iuchi is a rather expected build since we know how everyone loves double stacking traits.  Water/Fire is strong yet not so creative.  The supermove ability matters when on a horse.  Travel is not a good tag.

Lends itself to a mud build.  Could go shower build, if needed, I suppose.  But, then, everyone “needs” Reflexes 5 and Awareness 3+, so whatever.

Minors/Imps

Bonus section.  I like me my Bat Clan … right up until the tired Batman jokes.  I like secret communication across hundreds of miles.  Tonbo would interest me more if I didn’t dislike the Tonbo.  Reasonable school if you can put up with Lion hating you.  Kitsune Family is a fave.  I actually have Kitsune statblocks worked up as I can see doing this.  One of them was a megathematicfail, as a Fire 6 Kitsune just makes no sense, not even to me.  The school should have a Fire deficiency.  Snake is pretty much meaningless to me for thematic reasons.  Mud good, tech bad.  Seppun school gets a bunch of grief, and I’m like “But, you are still a god, so who cares?”  Terrible Affinity/Deficiency, but I would hope that I get to use the first part of the ability and the second part … well, you start with 10 koku, spend more time shopping Imp.

So … … …

The most recent request was to go over the ratings of school/path combos for certain builds.

Jade Legionnaire

Insane technique.  If you fight Crane and Lion all of the time, you are doing a poor job mister Legionnaire.  You will crush like tiny heads monsters and maho-tsukai and stuff.  Definitely a five star tech.

Crab Berserker

I really like the R-2 ability of Hida Bushi.  But, it’s fair.  This isn’t.  This is pure mangoes.  I was in a fight a month or so back when there was a big “whew” that we murdered a dude in the first round so that he wouldn’t Hulk out on us.  We fought a Hulk in one of the last sessions of the Princess Police.  That was a brutal reminder of how dangerous NPCs could be when someone actually bothered to make them more PClike.

You have to have one or two shuggie buddies to make you not die, of course.

Defender of the Wall

I love me this school.  I want it so much I’d even consider the massive waste of XP that Strength 5 is.  I’m the sort to take this at IR-3, but, anyway.  Is it actually good?

Rank 2 is gorgeous.  Stack that Reduction and watch all of your fellow PCs die, um, I mean, watch your fellow PCs watch you charge all of their enemies while they sit back and shoot Fleshcutters with their 8ke5 attack rolls.  Easily a five star ability.

Rank 1?  I want that.  If my sessions see this as a relevant ability more often than not, well, it’s something you don’t just get for being in the Empress’s Guard, studying with the Emerald Champion, or the like.  Assuming it’s regular, it’s like a three star ability to me.  Maybe a four.  Admittedly, it matters somewhat less when you are berserk.  In a lot of campaigns, I’d say it’s probably two stars.

Swordmasters

Spending two VPs a round has uses, sure.  Though, it’s unlikely you are Void 6, so you might want to have a Phoenix buggie who Kharmic Intents.  I don’t know why VPs are limited to once per round, in the first place.  It’s not like you get one back when you explode three times on your dice.

I’m also going to take a strict view that this only applies in combat/duels, where you are “wielding” your daisho.  I’m just not that excited.  Advanced schools are such a pain to get in the first place in my play, that I like to see crazy stuff, like Lionesses get.

The R-2 is crap.  First of all, when are you ever going to lose a duel?  We aren’t talking about “my” Swordmaster, who would be like Awareness 2 with Weakness Awareness just to give someone a chance.  We are talking about a player who wants to crush the multitalented.  Second, this does nothing if you were going to win the Awareness roll, anyway.  It’s all dueling rock, paper, katana nonsense.  If someone wants to run simulations of thousands of duels … I guess they need a new forum to display the results.  I just don’t care.  I’m already an Iaijutsu 5/Void 4 dueling bully.  It’s just not a build I can ever see doing for a Mirumoto.  A Daigotsu?  Sure.  A Hida?  Of course.


RPG Yarn

September 19, 2015

So many good titles to use that I won’t remember, like Con-Fluence, which, of course, has to be used when I write something about a con.

Anyway, FFG bought L5R, which has primarily meant to me that I can’t read the RPG forums on a daily basis like I used to.  This, in turn, has caused me to read more rpg.net, since I’m interested in what people have to say about L5R, and I don’t use Facebook.

In reading rpg.net forums, I come across other things.  Add to that that our online group is talking about what to do next for online play, and I run into the question of the ages – what do I want out of a RPG?

Thematics

So many times, I, 100% storyteller, get bogged down in talking about mechanics.  So, let’s start with this, first.

No fake Tolkien.  I don’t hate elves and dwarves … completely.  Norse elves and dwarves are goodsome.  Fairy elves are okayum, I aguessum.  I despise Tolkien knock-offs.  D&D did that.  Videogames did that.

Humans.  Occasional variants.  Melniboneans are fine, though I think that world is not so good for gaming in, not that I have a great idea since I’ve run far more Stormbringer than I’ve ever played.  This is where Conan shines.  Human races are totally the way to go.  Hawkmoon has this, though I’m a bit leery of Hawkmoon as a setting for both thematic and mechanical reasons.

Limited technology.  I’m not very forthright about this with the people I game with because I care more about gaming than I care about specifics or care more about doing things with people than care about specifics, but I’m really not interested in high-tech.  Mech games are fine to me because you just don’t feel the tech.  But, I’d much rather play something with zero sci-fi component, including near future.  I still think of phones as something you dial, not as a chat machine you live off of for everything, even if I do have WeChat installed (to coordinate with people in China, of course).

The idea of a bronze age game is so much more appealing, something like Greek Mythology.

On the other hand, modern is fine.  And, supers high tech doesn’t bother me for the same reason mechs don’t – it’s not really high tech.  Sometime, consider how many superheroes have magical backgrounds or some sort of ludicrous “science” background that is really as explainable as magic is.  “I am an alien, from the planet that gives us the ability to be superstrong at night.”  Yeah, sure.  “When this lightning bolt hit while I was taking chemicals to deal with my health problems, I can now fly!”  Yes, yes you can.

A world that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities.  Wow is this vague.  Mythology?  I get it.  Historical with vampires, witches, and shapeshifters?  Sure.  Some bronze age, religion is everything, yet all we care about is money setting where you bribe monsters who are the monsterification of everything you seek to destroy and which has an afterlife so that dying in a vain attempt to deal with the more powerful is meaningless?  I just don’t get it.

There are plenty of worlds I just can’t engage with because they either don’t make sense to me or I don’t care about what sense they do make.  Star Wars actually hits this.  Not the Star Wars of theory but the Star Wars of practice, where the party is typically a bunch of mercenary scum on the edge of the galaxy, playing Han Solo before the movies.  That’s not Star Wars.  That’s a less depressing Traveller.  My sensibilities in this case are epic space opera.

So, yes, it’s all about context.  It always is.  Expectations affect desirability of presentation of setting.

I think the Young Kingdoms doesn’t work well as a setting for gaming because the books really aren’t about the Young Kingdoms, they are about a specific demigod fighting gods.  I can see one-shots with Rackhir style stories where a PC could actually fit in, but a campaign to me seems to miss out on “I’m Elric and this is my Stormbringer.”

7th Sea is something I don’t embrace more strongly because it just feels like something is off about the world.  There’s a lot of putting forth pirates, then you have adventures where the sea portion is “You arrive at port, what do you do?”  Dungeon crawl angle that I don’t recall ever being used in a session?  Okay.

Yet, L5R works well enough.  I’d rip out a number of things from the world that don’t make any sense to me, but, at some point, I got that the culture is what it is.  So, maybe it’s just getting used to something over time.  I was attracted to L5R by the image of PCs wandering through an Asian Fantasy world smiting ogres.  I’d still rather do that (in a very Inuyasha sort of way, only without Inuyasha and without swords being more important than abilities).

WoD no longer matches my sensibilities.  It did.  It can when it’s just humans fighting things that reside in the darkness.  But, the idea of a bunch of supernaturals all acting like high schoolers towards each other just seems so passé.  It’s overdone in TV, in books, in games.

It’s the halflingification of vampires.  I got to use halflingification more often.  What I mean is that hobbits are cool because the point of Tolkien’s use of hobbits is that the loserman wins.  Halflings are just insipid caricatures of Bilbo.  In 1e V:TM, you get a sense of the otherworldliness of a vampire, that it has all of this ancient power that it uses to own the night.  Then, you play, and you go “Uh, during the day?  I try not to be discovered in my three hours of preparation to be useless so that someone doesn’t just fry me.”  No, most sessions aren’t like that.  It’s that that sort of thing becomes unescapable once you start thinking about it or have to do it once where it becomes pain.

Does Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or whatever hurt my sensibilities?  Don’t know, never played sufficiently in them.

Exalted did.  I hear people talk a lot about broken mechanics.  I played Exalted a couple of times and was like “What is this world?”  Where Immortal throws so much jargon at you that you may just want to go himsati form and serenade into your … I don’t even remember the term off the top of my head … creche? as you give up on the stratagem of counting coup against the book’s authors, at least Immortal used the modern world as a backdrop.  Exalted was just “Wait, what am I?  What is that?  Where are we?  What is it we care about?  Who the hell is everyone else?”

There are numerous fantasy worlds that got created with some sort of conceit in order to set themselves apart form Tolkien.  I understand the thinking.  I don’t get the execution much of the time.

I just continuously come back to one of the following as a basis for a world:  real world (modern, historical); mythic version of our world; something I’ve read or watched.

The Land, out of the Thomas Covenant series, that sounds like a great fantasy world in certain ways, though I worry about the “I am not a leper who has a power greater than that of god.” situation with having PCs do stuff.  High fantasy based around parties rather than individuals requires a bit of thinking through the modeling.  Some of that is just modeling what it is the campaign is about as it’s probably not about the same things books in a series are about.

Related to sensibilities is that place names, character names, etc. aren’t silly.  If you set a game in some fantasy world that had nothing to do with Thailand and used all of the actual Thai city names, I might balk until I realized that they were real names of things (and begin to wonder why the game wasn’t set in a Mythic Thailand).  (I worked in an office where all of the conference rooms in the building were names of Thai cities.)

Sure, I’ve read stories with Bink in them a bunch of times.  Bink is frickin’ awesome as a character, with a kind of clever, kind of “this doesn’t really make any sense” nature to why he has a power greater than that of god.  But, I don’t want to game with characters named Bink.

No low.  No low fantasy.  No low anything.  If I want to live in a depressing world where I scrape by, I can look at my retirement savings.  This is where settings like Traveller are a fail to me.  Why would I want to be in that world?  Yes, I’m much more of a high fantasy sort, but Conan isn’t high fantasy nor is Hunters Hunted.  Feng Shui can be, but other martial arts settings … can be.

Related to low, is that I have no interest in money.  Wealth, to me, is a meaningless motivator.  I understand on some “intellectual” level that other people can get motivated by playing a game to pursue money, but I just can’t relate to that in any way.  Money in gaming, to me, is “You saved the Kingdom of Kool Kats, you get a palace made of Unobtainium and your garden grows Rubies.”  Otherwise, you just ignore money.  Now, again, this seems to fly in the face of how I like to shop in L5R, but that’s because I see shopping when it’s meaningless to your character to be ironic and about thumbing your nose at games where shopping actually matters.

The motivators in RPGs should be revenge, love, duty, overcoming weakness, building a better world, and the like.

Mechanics

I need to move on.  Probably a million more words on thematics in RPGs.

No accountanting.  One forum post from rpg.net I copied was ranting about character sheets looking like something on an accountant’s desk.  I’d take this a step farther.  I don’t want to spend my time doing accounting.  I’m an Excel expert, building reports is a core competency, I crunch deck win statistics.  I do not want to spend my time fiddling constantly with character numbers or their possessions’ numbers (i.e. money).

Why is a game like L5R so appealing mechanically?  Look at the character sheet.  Okay, don’t look at the character sheets that come with the books or whatever that are a mess of nonintuitive layout.  Look at my character sheets that nobody else can seem to read.  Traits/Rings, Skills & dice pools, technique descriptions, spell lists, about five combat stats.

As much as I get Hero in some weird way for character creation, just no.  The Speed chart I can sort of understand and oddly doesn’t feel broken when I play, but it has to be broken in some way.  Recovery stat to go with your Stun Pips, your Body Pips, your PD, your ED, then throw END on top?  Accountanting in play to go with the supercrunchish character creation.

When I say L5R 3e/4e hits my sweet spot on mechanics, that’s what I mean.  You don’t have too little information that describes your character, like not having any skills.  You aren’t a d20 character sheet, where you track irrelevant things like encumbrance or your AC varies three different ways depending upon which side you get attacked from.

Savage Worlds has a decent character sheet.  But, it falters in a different way.

Resolution mechanics should feel like you are doing something.  In other words, have a decent dice or card system.  But, what is decent?  I dislike d20, d100, 3d6.  I’m not fond of Savage Worlds’ system because it doesn’t feel like the dice are doing anything interesting.  I like d10, R&K.  For some reason, rolling a single d10 just feels reasonable, even though it’s rather simple.  I used to like the up die/down die mechanic more as well as FUDGE dice, but both have become a bit too focused on the middle to me.

But, what I love the most is playing cards.  I may find The Zero Movement’s high school students in a World of Dimness to be not thrilling in two ways, but play Tarot cards from hand to resolve things?  That’s just the best thing ever.

One chart … and it better be funny.  Savage Worlds does, on the other hand, have the amusing Terror Chart, where the normal result in my play is:  heart attack.  Other than specialized charts, like Conan’s out of control sorcery chart, no charts.  You roll your cards and you tick off your hit boxes.

No hit locations – screwjob.  No bleeding – screwjob.  No action loss (stun, knockdown, shaken) – antifun.  No AoO, no matter how unrealistic it is that someone can just run away.  No grappling.

Descriptors?  For one-shots, ‘k.  For campaign play?  I must admit that I haven’t played a host of descriptor based games in a campaign style, so maybe it works better than I think, but I just think it’s likely to exacerbate all of the problems that descriptor oriented systems have from a mechanical standpoint.  Namely, that descriptors are open to interpretation.

Funky dice?  Maybe.  If by funky, you mean things like having + on two sides, – on two sides, and nothing on two sides, that’s okayish, if kind of limited.  If you mean “Uh, so I spelled URAID10T, what does that mean?”, then take me home to my country road and my single d10.

Highly lethal?  Highly boring.  Unless the game handles PCs going from lifed to unlifed largely intact, it’s just too disruptive to be worrying about how any fight might require rewrites.

Hard times at Ravenloft High?  If my character just constantly fails, I can go back to creating solitaire games to play while watching TV.  I don’t know if it’s too high target numbers or that PCs are losers or what, but I’m shocked at how many games I’ve played where I just felt like my PC was less competent than I was.

Crits and fumbles?  Most of the time, these don’t work.  PCs build to do what they need to do without crits, so crits usually just screw them.  Fumbles can be funny, like that Mekton game I played where I twice shot my training sergeant in the back as I learned mech-jockeying.  But, mostly, they introduce a silly element into games that aren’t supposed to be silly.  Even having mooks stab each other in the brain gets tired pretty quick.

By this plate mail I shall rule!  Armor is not my glass of incredibly sweet tea.  I don’t always hate armor, just often hate it.  Conan was great for having reasons to not wear any armor and to have better reasons to not wear anything more than light armor.  L5R 4e makes armor too good, but 3e seemed okay.

While many a protagonist in a fantasy novel will wear armor, they often don’t and, when they do, it’s often not something emphasized.  I can live with the idea that people sometimes have protective clothing on or whatever, but I just picture play involving things other than warring (including “dungeon warring”).  Then, nothing is more annoying than “I spend this round putting on armor because we once again got attacked in the middle of the night.”  Okay, there are more annoying things, but that’s pritnear the top of the list of tedious gaminess.

Have reasonable character creation and experience systems.  This is another place where I get concerned about descriptor games.  But, there are so many ways this goes wrong.

If I have to spend two hours making a character, even my sweet, sweet Ars Magica characters, fail.  If I have one stat at one and another human max because it’s cheaper to do this at character creation than to advance to human max, fail.  If I have no clue how my character will function after I build it, given that I’ve only created thousands of characters for maybe half a dozen primary systems and miscellaneous other systems, fail.  If I randomly can’t be a farmer, fail.  If I have to take Enraged: When angered, 11 or less, recover 8 or less to have enough points to make a functional character, fail.  If skills matter, and some other class gets tons of skills/skill points, and I get only enough to Spot for the party, fail.  Advance in stuff I don’t care about?  Fail.  Buy up one stat because that’s all that really matters to character effectiveness?  Fail.

Again, this is where recent L5R works for me.  You buy up traits, Void, skills that cost the same as they would when advancing, and that’s almost everything a player will have to do, with some odd exceptions for kata, memorizing spells, kiho, emphases, most of which only apply to certain characters, all of which you could ignore.  Advantages don’t work “properly”, but that’s usually tolerable (but not always …).  When you get XP, you spend them on what you want to improve.  You aren’t having to save up for 10 sessions to add one dot to your highest discipline.  You can improve multiple things in a not outrageous amount of time.  New skills aren’t prohibitive.  You aren’t getting better at things that are either irrelevant or out of character.  You aren’t paying one cost for one type of skill and another for a different type (though, I kind of understand the concept that not all skills are the same value and how problematic that can be).

Essential to my experience when playing a RPG is feeling like my PC is unique.  Mechanical distinctiveness goes a long way to assisting that.  If my only distinction is that my 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger has one more point of Intuition than Haifa Wehbe’s 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger, I’m not going to feel that there’s any difference between the two of us.

Then, I’m in the “My starting PC should be a badass as well as being an expert in pewter watch chains” camp.  So many times, when a game has a loserville phase, people want to start as losers, even when they’ve done the goat to G.O.A.T thing before.  I like character advancement, I just like it to be from major league all star to major league hall of famer, not single A to major league middle reliever.

Character features are either obvious or cool.  Feng Shui may have “feats” just as d20 has “schticks”.  But, FS (1e, 2e maybe not …) won.  Because Carnival of Carnage and Both Guns Blazing and Willow Step and Armor of Life are not Power Attack, Improved Unarmed Strike, or Exotic Weapon Proficiency.

Not everything needs to have a cool name.  Having a skill called stealth is fine.  This is where looking at a character sheet and going “I understand, understand, understand, whoa, what’s One With God do?” is better than “Does this Advanced Knack do the same thing as this Basic Knack?”

Everything on the character sheet matters.  While a preference, this will never happen, so this is more like some Kantian Ideal.  Well, as much as possible matters.  Don’t have more than 20 skills (sadly, the only game I can think of that I play that limits skills sufficiently doesn’t give you skills I think characters should have).

Don’t have combat be inconclusive up until you die.  This is where I find systems with parrying to often cause pain.  While an epic one-on-one duel should have “Btw, I’m underhanded.”, party combat just grinds in a hellish grind of grindiness when you don’t reduce something’s hit boxes every round.

Have something going on besides combat.  Well, by something, I mean something interesting, not just lockpicking or “you detect an ambush” rolls.  I like skills.  I like horizontal diplomacy.  I like brain stuff.  Harp strumming should be a thing.  Things that the system considers important and not just “secondary skills”.

Enemies should not be so complicated that I ignore the rules.  Actually, this is a place that L5R doesn’t work for me.  I routinely overlook or ignore NPC techniques or mastery abilities because tracking on all of them exceeds my interest level.  This *is* a place where Solomon Kane has worked for me, as monster abilities might involve many more lines than PCs, but there’s not much more going on besides their specials to have to think about.  I actually don’t mind systems having one set of rules for PCs and another for other, as long as there’s still enough mechanical clarity to balance encounters.

Gah, I’m sure I’m missing tons of other things, but I have failed my Endurance + P: Blogging check.

So …

From a mechanical standpoint, there’s a reason I keep mentioning L5R.  Other systems just end up bugging me from a little – Conan’s imbalances, grappling – to a lot – my 366 year old Ventrue cannot possibly survive combat with an angry teenager wielding a brick – to “I have no idea how anyone plays this”.

From a thematic standpoint, obviously, generic systems – Hero, GURPS, d20 – have as much theme as the supplement someone wrote provides.  So, it’s not so much about system.  And, I’ll tend to buy only those games where I like the thematics when the system isn’t generic.

So, it’s more about what groups decide to do in the game, which really isn’t the publisher’s fault.

However, there are a few things that will get me to not Kickstart your RPG.  Fake Tolkien, low fantasy, sci-fi, worlds that mean nothing to me.  Meanwhile, I will totally consider buying a hard copy of Against the Dark Yogi.  I will totally sign up for your beta Babylon (not 5) RPG, your “a man or a multi-layered archetype?” game, your fantasy pseudo-Nigeria game, though I’d only look to campaign one of these if I thought it would have the mechanics to support campaign play.


Babylon 5 Request

September 12, 2015

I got a request to do some analysis of the Babylon 5 CCG.

When I think of the game, I mostly think of the things I didn’t like about it.  Whether that says more about how I think of things ***.

Might as well start there.  What bothered me the most about the game?

1. Techno-mages

Really?  Not the ultimate hoser?  Not Drakh?  Not the lack of Walker Smith?

At many points, the CCG would move away from the core elements of the show.  I would include the Psi Corps set, the Non-Aligned faction, and numerous other things.  To varying degrees, they were problematic.  The NA got the best and/or coolest fleets – Combined Fleet, Vree Scouts; they were broken as initially created; rather than encouraging a hodgepodge, encouraged brutal Pak’ma’ra beatdown; threw off how many players are playing at a time.  Psi Corps not only introduced tons of characters for Support of the Mighty but who were contending with each other in some side game, while adding yet more marks to the game (as much as I like marks), and resurrected unrest as something to pay any attention to.

Nightwatch was weird.  Drakh and the ultimate hoser [ISA] caused me to start hating the game, but it is techno-mages where I just felt like the game had no resemblance to anything I watched.

Speaking of watching, one of the things I caught while having some dead time in China was Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.  Maybe it was just catching the end, but it was so shockingly awful that it was hard not to keep watching.  As much as ruminating on exorcising demons is totally what one watches B5 for, it was the extraordinarily stiff … everything … of the final half an hour or whatever that made me feel like I was watching something special.

Crusade Piles are moronic.  Sure, they could be abused.  Sure, they made Gambling Londo less of a gamble.  But, it’s just the idea of adding additional decks to games that should never come to pass.  Either you didn’t have enough decks in your game to begin with or, far more likely, you are just making your game a mechanical disaster.

But, there were some cool things you could do with Crusade Piles, like further abuse Conscription because all right-thinking people love first turn Conscription into 20 minute victories.  Putting techno-mages into play, then using them for anything technomancic was just Drakh levels of pain without having the benefit of Drakh being vaguely something I can see a CCG needing to introduce just to have more things to introduce.

2. The Ultimate Hoser and what it was trying to hose

As horrendous as I thought introducing the Drakh was, they still related to doing things in the game that decks did.  ISA was just “I think that player is winning, let’s form the ISA, Expelled that guy so that he can never win because he’s playing a normal deck, then one of us (three) will win up until the point that we Expelled whoever is next most likely to win.”  Someone dare play military?  Search outside the game for fleets, assuming you don’t just shut them out of the game because they are still running military conflicts that target other players.

Oh, sure, you could be playing Drakh.  You could be playing grossly overpowered individual cards that don’t do anything to help you win against anyone who understands how Drakh decks work (well, they “win” on timeouts because they are ahead on power).

You could also play Alliance of Races because you either have ungodly amounts of power and don’t care that you need an extra amount or you were hosed by something, anyway.  You know, because AoR was such an amazingly fun strategy.

You know what, I was wrong about techno-mages being the worst thing about B5.  The worst thing started from day one:  the hoser mentality.  B5 was just an endless series of trying to hose specific strategies or cards.  Rather than give up on this thinking and move on to trying to enable rather than disable, the game just kept coming up with more hosers until it printed the “we don’t like your deck and, therefore, you lose” card.

3. Unrest??  [Negativity]

Probably not unrest.  Unrest was sort of interesting in the early days, when it pretty much was never going to hurt you and where it enabled one or two plays.  Then, Mass Rioting.  See, it’s not Mass Rioting, just like it’s not lots of other individual cards in every CCG.  It’s what these sorts of cards lead to.  Because of Mass Rioting, people built Mass Rioting decks, which meant that you had to start caring about usually irrelevant stuff except when you didn’t.  Then, even if you did care about terrible mechanics, you still couldn’t stop someone from screwing you over.  In other words, you just randomly lost.

In reality, it was really an incredibly negative attitude B5 had towards things that distracted from enjoying the game.  Not just the hoser mentality.  But, take war.  War wasn’t a legit way to win.  It was only ever a legit way to cause someone to lose, that could produce a win in a very specific situation that I don’t specifically recall ever occurring.

Strife Marks were fun up until the point that someone bombed your characters into hospital come.  The number of times I had to play against Tu’Pari decks was absurd.

The worst thing about Vorlons?  You Are Not Ready.  Little investment – any Delenn deck could do it without caring about Vorlonness.  Absurdly undercosted.  Undermined the core mechanic of the game.

Rather than fix things in a reasonable way, aka banning a bunch of opprobrious cards, just create more hosers.  Vorlons too “good”?  Make Shadows better.  Make power worse.  Make more things that end the Shadow War.  Make Vorlon hosers.  How about just make Vorlons less unfun?  How about You Are Not Ready being once a game (as terrible as once a game is as a mechanic, this card was that bad) and making it cost a reasonable amount, like 7 influence?

4. The race

No, not any of the races.  I loved playing Non-Aligned decks, though didn’t as much love playing against them.  B5 started with a fundamental problem, which such heinous cards as Mass Rioting tried to address.  You didn’t need to interact.

B5, unlike other multiplayer CCGs of the sort that I have played more often, was purely a race game.  Look back, sometime, if you can find old B5 decks, pre-Deluxe decks.  Note how often Defense in Depth showed up.  Why?  Because you sat there and played cards that moved you closer to winning, then you switched to some other card to cause you to win, trying your best to not have anyone else be faster at their multiplayer solitaire (or solitaire plus one targeted conflict).

Before Deluxe, the game was bizarre.  There was the “I accumulate a lot of Doom Marks and win by converting them all to Destiny after one successful conflict” Human strategy, the “I have my homeworld and my racial cheese and factionless cheese, like Commerce Raiding, so I will play one conflict and win off of my 5 power agenda” Centauri or Narn strategy, the “I will play huge characters who will win me a couple of conflicts before the turn I don’t turn them” Minbari strategy, the “I will play lots of Shadow Marks” Centauri strategy, AoR, Vorlon Influence for the win (aka, the predominant strategy of the first worlds championship), Shadow Influence for the win (not so good in an environment heavily oriented towards Vorlon Influence).

Yes, there was tech.  There was Power Politics to win through influence in a game where the power decks all neutralized each other.  There was going to war against cheese decks to bomb them into oblivion (possibly).

But, the tournament game was all about the fastest or most metagame favorable way to cheese to victory.

The “I don’t really interact with you, I just pretend I do with my plays” mentality was so pervasive, I used to use the Destined to Be + Disarray combo (later clarified/ruled bombo) to stop players from winning, so that I could delay the cheese one turn.

This was something I would bring up over and over again.  The game reacted … by printing We Are Not Impressed to hose power out of the game, only the thing that threw off people’s math (for those who didn’t bother learning what the cards in the game did) for determining who would win.  When WANI got printed, someone noticed Conscription.  I noticed that someone’s deck.  After various variations on how to try to win a four-player game in 20 minutes in a game where power was meaningless, we … actually, we eventually got a reasonable game when Severed Dreams was the latest published set.  Power was feasible through Secret Strike.  Influence was doable in a number of ways.  People got away from Psi Corps nonsense to a degree.  Interaction happened, though there was still a lot of mechanically undesirable plays like the Trade cheese war.

So, one might be wondering why I ever kept playing this game (or why I was designing for it).  Let’s get somewhat more positive.

1. Theme

As many cards that existed that went against what the show promoted or that fixated on one, annoying aspect of the show (say, Psi Corps), there were so many plays that had some thematic feel.  I don’t just mean Vorlon Rescue on Sheridan.  I mean Vorlon Rescue on Mr. Morden.  I mean Centauri peace and Non-Aligned/Vorlon B5 vote decks.  I mean preying upon Minbari military weakness with your Centauri or Human deck.

There was thematic resonance to many a play.  I may not get that into a lot of games for their intended thematics – V:TES, to me, for instance, doesn’t really have any sort of theme besides Well-Aimed Cars being tossed by those who hunt.  But, there are times that I spoof hard on the IP.

Londo Vorlon deck?  Sure.

As problematic as Order Above All, Forced Evolution, and Alliance of Races were, that was the show.  As outrageously overpowered as it was to have Non-Aligned Captains recurse Combined Fleets, Brakiri were part of the show.

The reason why the post-Severed Dreams, pre-Wheel of Fire environment was the best ever was because it returned the game to being about Londo, Sheridan, G’Kar, Delenn, Vir, Lennier, Sinclair, Londo’s Wives, Refa, Na’Far, Mister Allan.

Let me call out Londo’s Wives.  This.  This is what makes a B5 CCG cool.  I’m not talking about the group by that name, I mean the three characters, though the group … amusingly … creates a non-Londo deck.

It sucked that we had so few images to work with of aliens so that a lot of Narns were just G’Kar in some shot where it wasn’t obvious that it was G’Kar.  But, somehow, I felt the Centauri and Narns as a thing, in the game.  Human faction suffered from too many humans.  Minbari suffered from a bunch of cards that were just some giant character that was too similar to another character.  Non-Aligned were sometimes a thing I could spoof on, like my (Chosen of) Gaim deck.

If you got away from tournament thinking and just played characters you liked from the show and gave them PPG Rifles so that they could nuke other characters, you could feel something.  When you Shadow Marked Garibaldi, you felt something.

Even such mechanics as Babylon 4, as weird as they were for producing game states and victory possibilities, felt like something show related.

2. Marks

I love me marks.  Destiny Marks, Doom Marks, Shadow/Vorlon Marks, Strife Marks, just so cute.  Besides cute little symbols/chits, why were marks cool?  Because they showed a change in the character that aftermaths tried but failed to do and that was so much what the show was about – character arcs.

Aftermaths were really, really a colossal miss on getting the mechanics to meet thematics, where the best aftermath stuff was that goofy lost aftermath deck.  Marks made you, often, better.  Doom Marks usually came from doing productive things and were original cheese of the highest cheesiness, until Martyr got fixed.  Strife Marks were good stuff, where the others interacted with so many cards.

The factions in B5 were not just Centauri, Narn, Minbari, and the ubiquitous.  They were Shadow, Vorlon, “I’m going to wreck/ignore you both”, and marks went a long way to enforcing that.

3. Agenda

Agenda were a huge problem, in that everyone would know exactly what every relevant agenda did that helped someone win.  But, the idea of agenda, the starting agenda that got added in Shadows, the fight over agenda, and the ability of agenda was an axis the game made use of.

I kept trying to think of ways to expand agenda so that players couldn’t just say “that cheesemeister is one conflict and an agenda drop from winning”.  I don’t think it’s possible.  Any competitive player will memorize.  Instead, what I came up with that the game never made use of even though I was designing for the game was temporary influence/power based on aftermaths.  That would have not only thrown off winmath but would have given aftermath play a bit more interest, not that it would have saved many a coaster.

Starting agenda, especially, changed the game for the better.  One tends to forget how tedious the early B5 game was pre-Shadows.  “Hold on, when turn 5 comes around, I’ll do something someone cares about.  Meanwhile, I build.”

As banal as certain agenda were, you still felt like agenda added personality to what your faction was doing.  I loved me my Centauri B5 Influence decks, just as I loved me all B5 Influence decks, except when I played against AoR cheese.  The first tournament I ever won was off of Centauri Peace In Our Time/The Hope of Peace.  Yeah, I started playing tier 3 decks in tournaments a long time ago in a galaxy far, far … wait, I never played Star Wars, Young Jedi, or their ilk competitively.

4. Opening Hands, 3CL, 3 Influence = a card

I love the game within a game of choosing opening hands.  As much as I spent time and effort doing so for Wheel of Time and Tomb Raider (yes, Tomb Raider), I played way, way more B5.  I built a Gambling Londo deck right away because my love of choosing opening hands includes choosing no cards for my opening hand.

Card limits are great.  Really, they are.  And, what’s better than a 4cl?  Yup, 3cl.  3CL is the optimal card limit for deck construction, being wallet friendly, trade friendly, and still giving a choice between 0, 1, 2, and 3 copies in a deck.

Magic players would walk by our B5 games and be flabbergasted at how many cards were in play.  Um, that wasn’t difficult to process.  What was difficult was holding 30 cards in hand.  Still, the idea that I can pay my money to play stuff or pay my money to draw more cards was fly-attracting.

Some mechanics didn’t work so great.  The supporting row versus the inner circle had some issues.  Fleets never felt like more than numbers.  Leadership was weird and problematic.  Psi didn’t really fit the game.  Events that undid stuff (uh, Not Meant to Be) was just really bad for a game that didn’t have a lot of timing issues.  Conflicts weren’t important enough and aftermaths were almost entirely irrelevant.  But, the game had some strong mechanics.

After all, besides the Precedence CCGs, A Game of Thrones and some later CCGs (Cthulhu LCG?) had incredibly similar structures.

5. Events

Some permanents tickled my fancy.  But, mostly, what I liked to do was play lots of events.  There were so many good events in B5, too many after a certain point, but events were all about the play from hand effects that I enjoy most about CCGs.

What would I change/keep?

1. Characters

The game needs to be character driven.

2. Conflicts

Conflicts can work.

3. Marks

Marks are cute.  Aftermaths need some serious rehabilitation, though, to be strong enough to affect who wins to where someone will actually evolve their characters.

4. Shadow/Vorlon/B5

This is the best part of the show.  I so hated the human internal crap, the psi crap.  The racial animosity was good, so that could be pushed a bit more, where tensions should have been something you did more with.  While the Shadow War mechanic has a lot of problems in the game, once you have the benefit of hindsight, you can maybe get it to work better.  And, Beyond the Rim is funny to pull off no matter how ridiculous it is.

5. War

War cannot function like it functioned (I consider the game dead, so past tense).  Military actually had lots of problems, from either wildly unbalanced forces to such massive fleets in play that everyone was afraid.

6. Unrest

I like the idea.  I didn’t like the cards.  I can see internal animosity being more important than it was because that was a big thing on the show.  That Nightwatch was a strong mechanic and unrest was just misery was not optimal.

7. Drakh

Just go away.  Shadow servants that are far more powerful than any other characters?  Please.  I also hated Londo’s fate because it smacked of character stupidity just to create a nonsensical plot.

8. Techno-mages

Elric, Galen, no way there’s an actual techno-mage deck.

9. Alternate Mains

So, this.  This and more this.  Keep doing alternate versions of the main characters.  Navy Mollari.  Half-Gaim Delenn.  Walker effin’ Smith.

10. Fleet Enhancements

These need to be better.  I don’t know if it’s because they were green or because I embraced military so strongly, but I just loved me my coasterish fleet enhancements.

11. Winning

Winning needs to be more interactive, more surprising, and more fun.  I think the key to this is combo plays.  Rise to Power is an awesome card.  Yeah, it’s clunky.  But, clunky in a thematic driven game can be okay.  Rise to Power is exactly the sort of aftermath that the game needs variations on to cause decks to do multiple different things while also being unpredictable in where they live for winning.

The conflicts that cause one player to get closer to victory at the cost of another player, those largely suck in a multiplayer game.  Even ones that did work as intended some of the time, like Prey on the Weak, often didn’t work.  There needs to be something either tied to conflicts or related to conflicts that affects winning more than just the acquisition of influence/power.

12. Influence

Influence is a big problem in that what makes you stronger makes you win.  Power being distinct from influence is huge, but maybe they need even further separation to where power doesn’t even key off of influence.  So, you start at 10 power and your power rises and falls based on card play/resolution.  Influence, then, becomes just money.

Also, the early game in B5 was crap and still pretty crappy even with starting agenda.  Sure, there were amusing Great Machine openings and numbers manipulations you could do, but those existed because you were so insanely constrained in what you could do in the early game.  I don’t like starting with a bunch of stuff in play, but maybe the costing system needs to be reworked so that you can quickly drop cheap fleets and build some sort of character infrastructure that doesn’t get out of hand.

13. Stealing Characters

A major unfun thing that could happen is someone playing your faction’s characters.  Uniqueness is a constant problem in CCGs, though B5 had less of a problem with it because it was often prohibitively expensive to bother with other factions’ characters.  Much of the flavor in B5 was felt through playing cards on specific named characters.  That kind of doesn’t work if someone can snatch, though your ambassador and assistant were safe, so it wasn’t like there were a ton of characters you were going to build around that you couldn’t have.

14. Hosers

Get rid of them.  Just get rid of them.  If the game is broken, then fix the game.  Make Shadow/Vorlon decks less powerful.  Don’t print Conscription.  Don’t lose your mind and start hosing ambassador assistants because you think they are undercosted when:  1, they are major characters in the show; 2, so I’m safer playing a Centauri Captain than I am Vir??; 3, they weren’t actually that strong and often weren’t played at all.  The amount of stupidity you had to jump into to keep your Ivanova deck safe from “you killed Ivanova, I can’t play a bunch of cards” in terms of timing your actions was unreal.

15. Draal

Don’t give Draal first strike.  If you want to have an enhancement or conflict or aftermath(!) that gives a character some first strike ability, that’s interesting.  Having Draal tool up with a PPG Rifle and start gunning down diplomats because that’s supereasy to do is not the thematic spoofing I’m looking for.

16. Psi

Okay, it can exist, I guess.  Maybe, it’s just a tag.  Maybe you have three levels of the tag to differentiate Bester from random Non-Aligned interpreter.  But, the more it becomes part of the game, the less meaningful ambassadors become.

17. Tags

Use them more.  Warleader.  Senator.  These are interesting, in theory.  Way too few cards key off of them.  B5 could really be a fleetless, all character game, as fleets are pretty flavorless and unrelated to characters in so many ways.  Military action could be handled with some other mechanic.  But, I’m also okay with fleets existing as B5 did actually work.  Mechanically, not an “A” game, but it was a functional game.  But, take advantage of the personality characters have by having their tags actually matter.

After all, we all want Ranger Mollari to team up with Ranger Refa to beat down some Shadow Marked Neroon.

While I could probably go on, I think that’s enough for the moment.

Babylon 5 was probably the CCG I was most invested in!!  Seriously.  Ultimate Combat! is my favorite because it’s the most fun.  V:TES is the one I have played the most and the longest.  Shadowfist is the one I spend the most time thinking about, now, because I’m in a learning mode.  Wheel of Time was the one I did the most designer stuff for.  But, there’s a reason I eventually was doing design for B5.  I complain about it a lot because it had tons of problems.  But, it was a very respectable use of the IP and a completely reasonable CCG.  A lot of terrible cards got made, but there were a bunch of very appealing cards, as well.


Fu-lish Games

September 9, 2015

Why say anything about a game no one plays and that I make next to zero effort to get anyone to play?

Because I feel like it.

Good stuff.  I mention good stuff in commentary about CCGs all of the time.  Good stuff is simply any cards that have no particular connection to your deck’s theme or synergies that you play anyway because you are better off playing them than not.

Ultimate Combat! is a CCG where I build much tighter decks, something I’ll get into in a moment.  Speed/Strength (1, at least, maybe 2, as well) are good stuff cards, but I got to thinking about how poor my deckbuilding skills have gotten for the game with that decklist I posted.

For one thing, there’s no reason not to play both of the 2/2 for 1 techniques at the brown belt level the way that deck does its foundation configuration.  But, it’s a black belt card that I started thinking about.

Combination X.  Combinations are hideously powerful in the game, being a way to throw off combat math but also just being a way to attack more often.  But, for a lot of decks, it’s quite moot as to how many slots to use on Combinations.  Then, if you do take up slots on them, which ones?

Unless you have a full boat of black belt cards or you are going techniqueless or doing some Earthquake/Favorite Technique prison deck (I thought it was fun because it’s so not how UC! normally plays), Combination X is a goodest stuff.

Sometimes you just don’t have any power left but want to combokill.  CX does that.  Sometimes, you need to upgrade your killing math.  Sometimes you have power sitting around not killing.  CX fixes all of those problems, assuming you have two technique to beat with (and your opponent doesn’t overdefend to make your combo attack suck).

I’ve put it into decks as the only combination.  I should probably put it into more decks, like the UberStrength deck I posted.  There’s probably more tech I’m forgetting about for building optimized decks …

Speaking of which, one might wonder why I’m talking about optimizing decks.  I’ve played bad cards in two-player CCGs, but, to my recollection, that was intentional.  I wasn’t just throwing in bad cards because I could get away with it and thought it was funny, like I do with multiplayer CCGs.  I was building around bad cards because I thought it was funny.

While multiplayer dynamics allow for getting away from optimization, I do think there’s a bit more to it than just that I haven’t tried to compete at a two-player CCG since Wheel of Time died.  Maybe, it was reading about Magic results or maybe that was only one of a number of factors.  But, the idea of trying to build a better deck than my opponent has gotten away from me.

Ironically, that drive to build better decks is what fuels the CCG archetype.  Just somewhere along the lines, I stopped thinking in terms of objectively better and started thinking only in terms of metagame plays.  Could be why there’s such a disconnect when you read other people’s V:TES blogs.  Could be why I care so much less about commenting upon other people’s decks.

Yet, if I were back to playing UC! (to win), WoT (to win), or Hyborian Gates, how much would I shift back into a mental mode of “Suppress is just absurdly undercosted … or all of the other psychic screwjobs are overcosted.”?

Since I’m in a postcompetitive mode, I can imagine picking up UC! again and just building more thematic decks.  That spinning deck was pretty amusing the first time around; should it come around, again?  Maybe some sort of throat/choke deck.  Maybe an all “right” deck – Right Hook, Right Jab (am I just making up card names? ha ha, have to learn something about UC! to know the answer).

Keeping with my Fu theme, I got to thinking about whether I should or would build Shadowfist decks with more of a competitive advantage in mind.  Shadowfist is a perfect example of my just playing with cards I largely want to play with (in many cases try out for the first time before deciding I’m not interested).  But, what of power generation calculations, effect to cost ratios, cripple plays, tutoring abuse, and other winthoughting?

Would it be fun?  It might be just because it would be interesting to see how gang ups fail optimization efforts.  In our regular group, the one player who seems to put the most effort into building decks more effective at what they do has mixed success, often being targeted for rein in but sometimes being too far advanced to be stopped.

The theory is that everyone tries to achieve deck strength maximization so that the mighty doth battle.  Obviously, the more opponents, the less relevant this becomes.  This is where three-player Shadowfist and four-player V:TES are more challenging in my mind, as deck puissance becomes more relevant.

I think I should build some UC! decks just to get back to thinking about how to build the most streamlined kill given whatever theme I have.  That could carry over into producing multiplayer CCG decks very differently from what I’ve been going for.  Might be entertaining.


Laborious Day 2015

September 6, 2015

So, here it is, Labor Day Weekend.  I am boycotting both local game conventions, again.  Just had lunch with a friend who is going to one of them.  Played boardgames – Stone Age Expansion, Lords of Waterdeep, San Juan – yesterday.  May or may not do something tomorrow.

But, why the long stretch of no new posts?  China, again.  This time, I got gaming in.  No mahjong, but I found the local expatty types through meetup.com and played Cyclades’ Titan Expansion (had played base a couple of times).

Not sure where two of my opponents were from, but they both spoke German and were leaving Shanghai pretty soon.  Also played with the local meetup organizer.  One comment was that Cyclades is what Risk should be.  That’s an interesting comment, in that I am very bad at Risk type games as I am at any sort of game that requires confrontation with opponents.  In three games of Cyclades, I’ve never felt like I had a chance of winning.  It’s just too violent.

Flying back in the middle of a week is not a great idea, nevermind the throat/chest issues from pollution(?) or the food poisoning from having raw vegetables on the trip.  Yet, one must carry on and get Shadowfist done on Thursday.

We only had four players, so we did normal Shadowfist (well, with choosing two cards for opening hand and Sacred Ground/Mook rules).

Joren (Lotus horde w/ Fractured Soul) -> Don (Project Apocalypse w/ Site swarm) -> Ray (Dragon vehicle) -> Ian (Syndicate assassins)

I play lots of Salarymans and Catching Bullets.  For a time, towards the end of the game, I’m in pretty good shape, never make a bid for victory.  Joren gets to three burned for victory sites but can’t turn a bunch of power into hitters.  Don gets a bunch of sites in play and Project Apocalypse to three counters before Ray debates whether to smoke it or seize it.  Silverback proves an annoyance.  Ba-BOOM! always makes my decisions difficult.  Ray does some vehicle stuff, loses a Maverick Trucker with Hover Tank to Silverback, keeps unturning Dirk Wisely, et al, and eventually wins.

I was running both Arctic Fortress(!) and Hot Springs.  The former not only stopped Ray’s guys, but Steel Woolley was Haunted for a bit.  The latter stopped Temple of Angry Spirits, which I seized.

The game dragged some, but it also had a lot of back and forth, without an anticlimactic win.  Played differently, it could have ended much earlier.  I not only killed a bunch of dudes with Salaryman, I played Echo and Silence and Xu Mei, so I basically did what I was supposed to.

Would I try to get people in China to play Shadowfist?  V:TES?  I don’t know.  I’m unreliably there, such that trying to build anything seems unproductive.  I’ve played Magic in Shanghai and talked to a coworker on this most recent trip a bit about Magic.  Both of the CCGs I’d rather play are hard sells.  I wonder how hard Ultimate Combat! would be as a sell.

Maybe not so hard just because it’s an easy game that requires virtually no investment.  I was actually thinking about UC! decks while on the trip.  I got to thinking about very focused decks and/or more thematic decks.

Because of Shadowfist’s no deck size restrictions, I’m on a kick of really tiny decks.  I have a Shadowfist deck that is, like, 25 cards.  Not the turbo Monarch decks that I’ve played against.  I just go for minimal expenditure of resources, like I do in V:TES.  While UC! has a 50 card minimum, there are ways to burn through decks quickly.  Mantra of Power is essentially a deckthinner as well as being the best card in the game.  Oxygen Burst was something I identified as useful in theory but hard to justify based on low power to … card slot ratio (as opposed to low power:cost ratio).  That can move cards.

Off the top of my head, for the deck I was thinking:

Gold
x2 Dragon’s Fire

Black
x1 Focus
x1 Yamashita’s Belt
x2 Technique?? (1-cost)

Brown
x4 Strength 2
x4 Instep Stomp (or is it the other one)

White
x2 Gi Patch: Horse
x1 Gi Patch: Falcon
x4 Mantra of Power
x4 Strength 1
x4 Speed 1
x1 Adrenaline
x4 Oxygen Burst
x4 Move Right
x1 Technique (2-cost)
x6 Conditioning
x5 Fighting Spirit

Kind of a boring deck when written out.  Though, maybe boring deck has nothing to do with boring play.  I guess I’m just so used to hyperaggressive UC! decks (relative to the sort of decks I often build in multiplayer games, well, okay, that isn’t true of Babylon 5, where I built plenty of aggressive decks), that I think more about quick, violent play than about how to build something different.  Could easily go third foundation type to get in something like Suppress, well, easily being somewhat of a question as getting foundation/Gi Patch ratios correct for decks may be one of the most difficult things for me to eyeball.

That’s an interesting thought.  Did I somewhere along the line focus more on clever/obscure/esoteric deckbuilding at the expense of effective play?  Well, that’s obvious.  But, is that just an artifact of multiplayer play?  Is that why I miss two-player CCGs?  I built some dumb decks for two-player CCGs, like the Ax Kick deck or the creatureless Essence Drain deck, but those were still thinking about doing things to opponents rather than building decks to not have things done to me.

Still haven’t done a RPG in China, I joined a site just to try to find that and nobody got back to me.  I wonder if I should try to run a game …