October 18, 2012

Ooo ... Scary!

October is a good time to talk about scary RPGs.

Perhaps it's a reflection of the maturing gamer population or societal trends as a whole, but I've noticed an increase in the amount of horror elements present in traditional "fantasy" RPG scenarios.

This fascinates me. I love the horror genre, particularly horror short stories (both the venerable Lovecraftian as well as the very new). I do think there are more than a few RPG designers that share my tastes, so horror probably filters into what they do. Paizo has shown more than a fair amount of horror or gothic elements in their adventures, particularly in their adventure paths. (The Runelords AP is brimming with it.) Certain respected designers, such as Richard Pett and Nicolas Logue (mostly Paizo) and Adrian Pommier (Goodman Games) display an obvious affection for the genre, so again, it probably seeps into their work and if they are aware of this—and I'm sure they are—I doubt they mind. More and more, I read newer adventures and see little gory bits or frightening details; it's truly a groundswell of horror vibes within fantasy roleplaying.

Yet for all this, traditional horror RPGs still flounder. Call of Cthulhu attracts a passionate, but still fairly small group of devotees in comparison with popular fantasy RPGs. Despite the huge resurgence in zombie-related movies, shows, and literature, games such as All Flesh Must Be Eaten still seemingly hold red-headed stepchild status in the industry. But why?

It's my pet theory that much of this is about expectations. Fantasy campaigns are very open-ended, and generally players can expect to "win" by completing adventures, punishing the bad guys, etc. When players think of a horror campaign, many probably envision a campaign in which their characters are more helpless or overwhelmed, and one where happy endings are not promised. Many regular players may be put off by this, and the powergaming crowd, now more numerous than ever (in part, IMHO,  because of a tacit encouragement of powergaming stemming from the emphasis on character customizing and stronger PCs in latter editions), may hate the idea. Recent editions have focused more on a player-has-more-control and a rules-heavy/DM-lite approach, which is usually the opposite of that in horror RPGs.

Horror RPGs and campaigns can also go flat if not run properly. A campaign centered around a singular "monster" such as zombies or vampires can get old quick if variety is not introduced. Other, more broad horror RPGs, such as World of Darkness or the venerable Chill, can fall into a sort of monster-of-the-week pattern which is likewise undesirable. I think these common pitfalls haven't done horror RPGs much service.

Lastly, running a "scary" campaign is tough. It's quite one thing to be scared alone in your basement late at night and quite another to be frightened or even have the proper mindset for horror when sitting around a table in a brightly lit room surrounded by joking friends woofing down Doritos.

So what to do? How can we rescue the poor horror campaign?
1. Mix elements. The Ravenloft setting does this well. Find a group that doesn't mind some horror in their fantasy campaign—a bit of peanut butter in their chocolate, if you will—and amp up the horror elements. Introduce short horror-adventures or settings based within the larger world. If nothing else, it's a good change of pace.

2. Encourage them to embrace the implied hopelessness. Playing PCs in a horror game doesn't mean losing, but the victories are more fleeting. Even in Call of Cthulhu, infamous for its lethality and PC insanity, characters can hold the forces of evil at bay for yet another day, even if the rise of the Old Ones seems inevitable.

3. Allow the more powergaming folks some good battles. Most zombie movies involve a lot of zombie-stomping, even if one bite from one of the sluggards can fell a hero. Let your games be no different, and make it clear that playing horror doesn't mean running away 24-7.

4. Be creative with your campaigns. If the RPG focuses heavily on one monster archtype, introduce variants, power groups and secret societies (the Vampire game always excelled at this, I feel) and other non-monster challenges. 
For example, although the walkers—zombies in all but name—are the only fictional threat in the Walking Dead universe, they are certainly not the only villain or "monster." Just ask a WD aficionado about the Governor sometime! A focus on one monster type should not mean a boring campaign.

Next time: What makes an adventure truly scary?

August 12, 2012

A good turn

I'm an iPad owner, and I've gotten hooked on the Ticket to Ride app, the app version of Days of Wonder's popular boardgame. If you haven't checked it out, you should—it's a perfect example of a boardgame port, done right. In fact, I enjoy it more than the boardgame because all the score-keeping is done for me and I can square off from opponents from all over the world.

I once played this train game onboard an actual train headed for Washington DC, my opponents being from Berlin, England, and Chicago! I still can't wrap my head completely around that. But I digress!

Recently I downloaded the Carcassonne app. I've been a meeple mover for some years, so I thought it was time to give that port a try. It's another well done app, though it wasn't completely intuitive in all respects.

My first opponent was patient as I blundered through the system, and I soon confessed it was my first online game. My opponent beat me soundly and fairly—not just a beating but a thrashing. And then, after a game of quick responses, after the last turn, when my fate was obvious, my opponent left the game even though that granted the victory to me by default (something my obviously experienced opponent had to know). My experience with these online games is that winning players rarely bail unless life intervenes, and never on the last turn. Was I so bad I drove him or her away? And then it struck me: My opponent, knowing it was my first game, handed me a victory rather than sour my first experience with a sound drubbing. 

I'm a big boy, and a drubbing (probably my first of many) wouldn't dissuade me from playing future online games. But this act of kindness touched me. So thank you, my anonymous opponent. I hope we meet again so I can thank you and perhaps give you more challenge the next time around.

July 21, 2012

Accepting the New

After reading countless posts by 4e fans complaining about D&D-Next (hereafter Next), I'm getting worn out. 

I hate to say it, but the majority of the "complaints" simply boil down to "Next isn't 4e." I've got news, folks, it ain't supposed to be. Now take a deep breath, 4e fans. I enjoy the game too. But if you want Next to be a very slightly modified 4e, a 4.5e or 4.25 if you will, it just isn't going to happen. Without having access to private sales data, I can say with some confidence that if 4e books were roaring off the shelves, WotC wouldn't even be discussing Next right now. We probably wouldn't have heard talk of a new edition for several more years. But they are, ergo 4e probably isn't doing as well as hoped and they're probably trying to do something about it.

 A huge portion of have abandoned 4e (or never tried it) in favor of Pathfinder. Other folks stuck with 3.5e. Another segment has gone old school with retroclones, the DCC-RPG, or simply returning to their old 1e and 2e books. This is a problem for Wizards. They're apparently trying to do something about it, via Next.

Let's accept the obvious: This is a new edition. It isn't supposed to be 4e, anymore than 4e was supposed to be 3.5e. If you expect it to be 4.5, you're going to be disappointed. I appreciate that 4e has many fans, many of which would probably rather see a 4.5e. Facing the fact that the official owner of your preferred game is no longer going to support your preferred game edition, well, sucks. I've been there. (Indeed, it's not without some cruel irony that I recall the many people telling 2e fans, "Well you still have your old books!" when 3e came out and took the game in a new direction. And then the 4e fans telling the 3e fans the same thing. It seems we all get our turn at bat.)
There seems to be an urgent attempt by the 4e players to push WotC into making Next as 4e-like as possible, which really diverts the whole purpose of a new edition. The danger is that the WotC boards are mainly full of 4e players, whereas players who abandoned 4e for PF are probably on the Paizo boards or elsewhere, etc., so the designers are hearing more criticism because their active posters in the company boards are happy with the current edition. It's like walking into a Star Wars convention and saying that you're adding Klingons to the official SW universe—the complaints will fly because of the forum you've chosen. I only hope WotC is paying as much attention to the voices outside their own forums as to those within, because otherwise they're getting a skewed sample.

The 4e fans (and not all of them, mind you, some are very open-minded) aren't the only ones demonstrating this style of "I want Next to be the edition I already enjoy" behavior. I purposely went to some of the more popular old-school boards to get the reaction to Next, given it's 2e flavor, and I was both surprised and somewhat disappointed. A number of folks there, the ones that didn't simply refuse to talk about it at all, made comments akin to, "Well next has Rule A, which isn't exactly the same as Rule B in 2e, so I'll never try it." Again, insert a big sigh here, it's a new edition, folks! It isn't supposed to be 2e.
A lot of great, common sense innovations came about in the last twenty years—replacing THAC0 with a target's AC as the target roll needed to hit, for instance?—and it would be foolhardy to abandon those. If Next was supposed to be 2e in every way, shape, and form, WotC would simply reprint the 2e books and save themselves the effort. (Although there's a lot of 2e "feel" to the Next playtest rules, the majority of the rules actually seem 3e-inspired.)

At this point, for better or worse, the D&D market is dreadfully splintered. Getting everyone under one tent is impossible, methinks. It's my own personal belief that WotC should, despite the splintering of R&D staff resources and ad budgets, try to support two editions. And by that I mean actively support them via regular new adventures and supplements (though I loudly applaud their reprinting the 1e books this month). They should make a true 4.5e, to keep the hardcore 4e fans happy, because ultimately that's all a good portion of those folks will accept. And they should make a real old-school D&D, a 2e with some important (but not flavor changing) innovations culled from the newer editions.

Alas, that is a very doubtful scenario. So instead we must accept that Next is a new edition. What we get from it and how we shape it depends on us.

July 01, 2012

Player Knows Best? - Part 1

One of the more interesting things that has emerged, IMHO, from the recent D&D-Next playtests are the opinions about DM power—that is, the amount of “say” a DM has over the game and the players’ actions.

I’ve been playing D&D in one form or another for a long time, since 1977 in fact, so it’d be foolish to think that my experience with older editions hasn’t had an effect. It has. Some things in the recent playtest, like getting back all hit points after an overnight rest, seem ridiculous to me because I was “raised” on a system in which you got back one hit point per day (which now strikes me as equally ridiculous). But I digress. (More comments about ‘Next to come soon, perhaps after the next playtest packet later this summer.)

The complaints of a return to “Mother, may I?” are a frequent one. The attitude seems to be: I don’t want much unknown. I want to know how fast I can run, how far I can jump, whether I can leap from the balcony and grab that chandelier before I do it. I want to have a good sense of the odds.
These folks also seem to be of the opinion that the DM is there strictly as an atmosphere provider and bad-guy die roller, but little else. The DM is not only neutral, but his job is to be the road the players drag race on. Not much more.

I agree in spirit at least with the idea that a character should have some idea of their own capabilities and the odds. In real life, even if I’ve never jumped from the rooftop of one city building to another, Walking Dead style—and I certainly haven’t—I could probably stand near the edge and have a decent sense of whether attempting the jump was crazy or a decent risk. I know roughly how far I can jump. In RPGs the referee is describing the scene, a scene the players can rarely see first-hand unless illustrations are provided. And the players are playing characters that are probably a departure from their real life form, and guessing the ability of an imaginary person can be hard. This would seem to make a good argument for a DM objectively calling the shots, yet shouldn’t those players, if they are expected to play their characters well, know what the characters themselves would know? The character would have a good sense of their ability, just as I do standing near the edge of that rooftop, so a good player should share in that character’s knowledge.

This is a solid argument. But like many points of view, I fear it is often presented simply as a means to an end. If a DM is consistent with their DC or skill-type rulings, assigning similar levels of success for similar actions, the players swiftly learn the capabilities of their characters. No, I fear many players are using this as a means to an end, the end being overpowerful characters that fail at little. 

I don’t blame newer players for this, because game editions have moved in this direction. Characters now have more hit points, they have more abilities (especially at-will type abilities), and they heal much faster than in earlier editions. In addition, dying is much harder. In 1e, a failed save versus poison meant you were dead, kaput, pushing up daisies. Whereas in 4e a PC with 50 hp might actually have to be reduced to negative 25 just to drop. The advent of monster CRs in 3e also led to more balanced encounters, and the idea of characters running from an encounter to save their hides is more a rarity these days. It’s a big difference from games of old, and it leads to a different player mindset.

I don’t want to wield the wide brush and say newer/younger players are all videogame-influenced, but I think that is also a factor. A proliferation of RPG-style and FPS videogames has led to many players being used to a gaming experience that often involves running and shooting things with impunity (at least until you discover online multiplayer for the first time and are swiftly humbled) and quick resets when things go wrong. Many RPG players are also videogamers, so it’s foolish to disregard the influence one style of play might have over the other. This isn’t denigrating the player, merely acknowledging the way they were “raised.” If you grow up in a 40-room mansion, a Cape Cod style house will feel small, whereas if you’re raised in a one-room shack the reverse will no doubt be felt.

For me, much of the fun and fantasy aspect comes from the unknown. This can certainly be taken too far, as in DMs or games that throw a constant stream of “weirdies” or needlessly modified monsters at the PCs for sake or surprise alone, ruining any chance to establish a more natural, known setting. But some unknown is absolutely needed. If the players can beat everything and know everything, where is the challenge? Whether most players realize it or not, the pleasure comes from those difficult challenges. It’s fun to mow down lackeys with your +5 sword, but that gets old faster than you’d think. The memorable encounters are when you take risks with your characters and manage to beat difficult enemies by the narrowest of margins. Those are the times my players remember years later, always.

May 25, 2012

Planning Versus Reality

As I've mentioned in this column, years ago I used to jock a blues radio show. Being a disk jockey is a type of performance art, like being a DM, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised when I see similarities between the two.

One of the things I used to experience as an on-air jock was the oft-disappointing difference between planning and reality—that is, what I hoped for my show versus how the show actually went. Because the station was small, I used to do my own engineering—cue up music, set levels, run sound beds, talk with listeners, record calls, etc.—and it made for a crazy show. I used to arrive with a grand idea in my head of a perfect show: perfect song transitions, no dead air, good recordings, yada yada, but as you might expect, things rarely went according to plan. The reality was that I might have 7 minutes and 43 seconds before the top of the hour ID and needed to find two songs to perfectly fill that time slot, that went together, the first from the 80s and the second one current, picked from the limited rotation list, and I needed to do this while taking a listener request call and making hand gestures to the news talent through a window. My ratings were good and the listeners seemed happy, but I often left a touch disappointed that things didn't go exactly as planned.

Well and good, you say, but what does this have to do with RPGs, Rick? Well, you can probably see were this is going. My DMing has turned out similar in practice to the radio show. Feverishly written notes, scribbled directions, drawn maps, Post-It reminders ... but in the end it comes down to what direction the players go, what they do, and how well I go with the flow. A part of good DMing is ad-lib and performance in the face of the unexpected. Sometimes I'm good, and can even make lemons from lemonade, but other times... In a recent session, a dreaded city session, the players asked about some folks in town and I needed a name and simply came up blank. That naming part off my brain, after spinning out a lot of names already that session, now had a BACK IN 10 MINUTES sign hanging where a nifty NPC name should have been. Most embarrassing, to say the least. I want every session to be killer, and it's damned hard to settle for less, especially when the responsibility is 95% mine.

I'm now finally coming to terms with the reality of game performance. Those NPCs probably won't be voiced perfectly. I may not have a great name or new townsperson waiting in the wings for every occasion (though now I keep a list of names at the ready). But I've learned to be happy with my best effort, even if it doesn't live up to those pre-game aspirations. Keep your aspirations, honor them in play if you can, but if at the end of the day your players are raring for more and you had a good time, that's reward enough.

April 30, 2012

The In-betweeners

My biggest problem these days with my gaming is not lack of good players or lack of a good system, it's a lack of time. As a 40-something parent, squeezing in even a monthly campaign session is tough. There's so many great games and adventures to be experienced (from both sides of the screen) that I simply can't work it all in.

One recent tactic I've employed to battle this time deficiency is the use of chat sessions. Although there is some great software out there for holding games completely online, I'm still a big fan of face-to-face gaming. But recently I ran a group chat session with my players to cover a discussion with an NPC. It was an important, info-laden discussion, but it didn't involve much in the way of dice rolling or combat. We chatted for approximately 2 hours and it worked so well, we're doing it again this week to handle some town chores (more NPC talk, equipping PC and buying goods, selling unwanted magic items, arranging for transportation, etc.).

Was the chat session the same as "being there"? Nope. But it did feel immediate in a way that simply exchanging e-mails never would. They were asking questions and getting answers in real time, and they knew their "question time" for this NPC was finite. The chat program in question (Talker) also allowed for graphic uploads and we were able to store the whole chat for later perusal—which was not only useful for the players but their DM as well!

We'll see how the second chat session goes, but "meeting" online for a 1-2 hour chat late on a weekday evening has so far been easier than meeting in person, and it allows for more combat and dice rolling when we do meet in person. One more weapon in the fight against dwindling time.

April 12, 2012

How deep is too deep?

Recently my mind has turned to the subject of plots. I'm current running a 4e campaign with a long overall plot and backstory. All the adventures are connected to the main plot, and the PCs are picking up clues as they go along and are slowly piecing things together.

So far things are going well, but my plot is a deep one. Red herrings and traitors and grey allegiances abound, and I wonder if the whole is a bit too complicated. It's been work for me, as DM, keeping everything straight as far as what the various bad guys are doing, so I naturally worry about the players. Can they figure it all out in the end? I should note that this particular group in composed of long-time roleplayers and more than one RPG industry professional, so I think they are up to the challenge (as do they). But how deep is too deep?

Deep background often makes fun reading for the DM, but is it really needed if the players often never penetrate beyond that first layer? I recall reading Dungeon back in the day and skipping past adventures that had a page and a half of background. Those always got looked at later—I wanted to get into the room descriptions and "good stuff" quickly. I simply didn't have the patience for all that led-in material. As a player, I often have a "Where's the beef?" style of play too.

I'd say my initial anti-deep-background attitude came from the fact that I learned the game in the 1e days, but I doubt that accounts for all of it. And not all early adventures were simple, with regard to background material. Remember the Temple of Elemental Evil? Good luck to any players that could piece together that infernal tapestry of demonic alliances pulling the Temple strings!

Recently I've scaled back my campaign from an end goal of 20th level to 10th level, so this also has me reconsidering the overall plot complexity. (I won't talk about that plot here, not yet anyway, lest my players be clued in.) I'm not planning any big changes, but a refinement is the order of the day because we'll have a good 20 fewer play sessions to work with. That's a lot less NPCs to meet! (My initial plan would have been great back in the days before most of my players were parents! Now, not so much. I tend to dream big before reality sets in.)

I'm not sure what the perfect balance of backstory to encounters is; I guess, as with most things, it comes down to what you and your players want from the experience. I was careful to repeatedly ask my players about their feelings toward an overall plot versus isolated adventures, so I recommend talking to your players too. In the meantime, I'll see how it goes for me and release actual campaign examples here when possible.

March 11, 2012

What is "Old School" anyway?

The Old School or OSR movement started around the time when 3rd Edition arrived and has continued strongly since. This has led to a lot of discussions and articles bout exactly what "old school" flavor is, and what (aside from the nostalgia factor and it being unique at the time) made 1st Edition so appealing. Whatever edition or offshoot you prefer to play, the fact that 1st Edition took root so strongly helped make it possible.

So what exactly is "Old School" tone? What makes a newer game "Old School"? I often see posters or companies barking up what I consider the wrong tree and calling it Old School, but the subject is very subjective to be sure.

I've opined at length over the differences between 1st and later editions, and what I like and dislike about the various editions. At times this discussion threatens to veer into some similar territory—so in those instances I'll try to keep to the point and not repeat myself.

In my opinion, "old school" is defined by a few principles:

1. DM caveat
The DM is boss. That doesn't mean unfair or boss-y, but the DM does call the shots. If a rule needs to be made, the DM lays it down with a minimum of page flipping. Player info is kept to a reasonable minimum. For example: players don't have magic item wish lists, instead they find unusual items, determine if they are magical, and figure out their properties.

Likewise, DMs are expected to carry their weight. Modules provide an adventure framework or skeleton and some details, but the DM must fill in the rest. The DM expects that the DMG will have a lot of good suggestions and examples, but that they will have to make up a lot of house rules to fill in the blanks.

2. Encounters need not be balanced.
Some encounters are easy. Some are not. Some require running. Players should have no expectation that all encounters are CR-approved. This doesn't mean the DM has license to kill off players willy-nilly—I've had passionate arguments with fellow DMs because of my dislike of that DM-vs-Player mentality that some DMs wear like a badge of honor (although I acknowledge that Gygax himself advocated that attitude at times). Playing "Old School" means is there is no safety net, and the players know this. If their DM is fair, they trust her not to drop them into no-win situations, but they also understand that dumb decisions—like not turning tail when faced with overwhelming odds—could mean destruction.

A good example of this came up in my 4e campaign, which I try to run with a more Old School feel. The PCs—3rd level at the time—were visited by a beholder. (Well, two actually.) Clearly presented with a much stronger enemy, the PCs stood down, except for a strong-willing minotaur that, well played, refused to lower his weapon. This meant consequences, yet it was not right for me as DM to punish the player for playing his PC true to form. And he didn't attack or do anything that stupidly put the party in peril. The player took just the right approach. So the beholder fired a warning shot, knocking the minotaur to the ground essentially unharmed except for his pride. (The minotaur then left his weapon on the ground, which was wise, as the next "disarming" would have probably taken the his arm off at the shoulder...)

3. Rules-light play
There isn't a rule for everything. As mentioned previously, the DM often must "wing it" and the players trust their DM to treat similar new situations in a consistent manner.

4. PCs can die. PCs can also be replaced.
Old School play can be far more dangerous (see #2 above). Save or die situations are expected. Living to reach 10th level isn't a given, but instead celebrated when it occurs. But if a should PC die, a new one can be created quickly. Which leads us to...

5. Fast character creation
PC options are limited and the character creation process for a 1st-level character should take less than 30 minutes and not require any specialized programs or spreadsheets. In fact, a calculator shouldn't be needed.

6. Hybrid characters and critters are rare
Multiclassing is a rarity and often not advantageous. Most PCs are single-classed. Likewise, there aren't many "leveled-up" or "classed" monsters, though they may have raised stats or use special items. Thinking on it, the Drow were one of the only races that seemed to display a lot of multi-classing in the old days. Pre-made multi-classed PCs did appear in many venerable modules, including the Tomb of Horrors, but they never came to the forefront (in 1e a 5th/5th magic-user/fighter facing off against either a 10th-level fighter or 10th-level mage could expect to be pulverized in a fair fight).

Likewise, players should embrace the personality of their character. In the old days, a player would hand a new character sheet to the Dm and say, "Here my new PC, Durlo" or perhaps "my new dwarf warrior Durlo" but now I often hear "I'm making a firedancer/ranger combo!" In latter editions, many players have come to think of their characters are bundles of skills & powers with a personality sheen, rather like bundles of cordwood tied with twine.

7. Randomness can be good.
Random tables for players and DMs ruled. Wandering monsters, baby! Everybody likes to roll dice and see the result on a chart, and the rules encouraged it. Having to create a high-level encounter on the fly because of a WM roll kept DMs sharp.

8. Narrative over checks
Want to search a room? Tell me exactly where you are looking, what you are touching (pin trap!), etc. None of this "take 10" or passive Perception check stuff. Old School is about a reliance on player description of actions and player-to-DM interaction, not skill checks.

9. Turn on the charm (and toss in some illusion too)
Charmed servitors and PCs enthralled by monsters was key. Charm spells could play a big role in encounters, as could illusion. An elf being charm-resistant actually meant something in the old days.

10. Off the grid
Forget that map of 5-foot squares. No sliding or pushing. Instead of moving with the precision of chess pieces, things are more loose and often subject to the DM's judgement. Scale is probably 10 feet to the square. A rough graph paper map (often wildly inaccurate) might serve for the session, and the minis may not be used every fight. On the good side, you'll be on the receiving end of far less of those pesky attacks of opportunity.

Of course, in the end, Old School is what
you make of it. It's a style of play or adventure writing that brings to mind the elements that you wax nostalgic about and make you feel less jaded. And we could all use that from time to time.

February 23, 2012

Conquest in a Box 2

Okay, I can now give a play report of Conquest of Nerath, having tried it firsthand.

Play was much as I expected, with a few surprises.
–Dungeons are hard to take. Venturing into one with a single hero is a risky proposition; I found it much safer to cross the threshold with two, preferably wizards because of their first strike capability. (As in MAGIC, First Strike is pretty powerful in this game.)
–Dragons, as expected, are fierce opponents, but (unless I'm missing something) using a dragon to attack an area with a single enemy counter is an instant win because of the dragon's toughness.

So how did the actual game go, you ask? Pretty good. I got the Iron Circle (goblins), in random draw, which are very balanced and would have been my first choice. Play was very even until a mistake by the Elf player opened up his flank to his nearest neighbor ... then it was quickly over.

I only have two criticisms:

1) Play seems a bit simple.
Somehow RISK 2210 seems to have more varied ways to win, Despite the racial differences and card differences, our gameplay was very similar. There were also many repeat cards. Larger card decks with more variety would have been welcome.

2) What I affectionately call Four Corner Syndrome.
Certain games, such as Nerath or Age of Mythology, make it easier to attack those players sitting on either side of you. In our game the Elf player made an all-out attack early on that failed badly, and he lost many troops. The result was a wide open field for the Karkoth player. because the medium-length game rewards taking undefended spaces the same as defended spaces, the Karkoth player just plowed through miles of near-empty territory and won the game. I was doing fine on the other side of the board, and army for army I'm confident I could have beaten the Dark Empire in a head-on conflict, but because I was all the way across the board I didn't have time to prevent his victory. This left a our taste in my mouth, which had nothing to do with sour grapes. I played well, and I'd play that way largely again, yet I lost.
There are probably similar situations in RISK 2210, yet that game only rewards taking opposed countries, and I think that's the important difference. If Nerath only rewarded taking occupied enemy areas, it would make for a fairer (albeit longer) game.

I also found myself wishing that heroes could "level up" in some fashion, like the leaders in Shogun/Samurai Swords. Winning a certain number of battles and/or surviving a dungeon should count toward a slow leader progression of some sort.

Overall, Conquest of Nerath is a solid game and I'd recommend it, giving it a B+ score. If you like RISK and similar "men on the board games" you will like Nerath,

February 05, 2012

Conquest in a Box

Wizards of the Coast has really been churning out the board games recently, and most of them have been pretty good. The Castle Ravenloft series does a good job of bridging the boardgame-to-RPG gap (something that's in Wizards' interest from a marketing perspective, to be sure) but Conquest of Nerath is a different animal entirely.

I love "men on the board" games. Love 'em. Although I write RPG supplements and such, my primary love has always been board games. I was raised on all the classics, and later in the 1990s I discovered Eurogames and things wweren't really the same after that. Setters of Catan, Carcassonne, and Puerto Rico—I think of them as the big trio—taught me to view board games in a whole new way.

But even so, I delight in board games of conquest (no pun intended) and Milton Bradley's Gamemaster series was great. I was raised on RISK after all, and enjoyed it for all its faults. I found an unopened Samurai Swords (a Shogun reprint) on ebay for about $30 about 10 years ago and nearly thought I'd gone to heaven. Although much of my time is spent punching cardboard after opening the latest Fantasy Flight release (do they own a cardboard factory?) I still long for new "men-on-the-board" games. My holy grail is to find something to replace some of my "flawed" favorites:
Axis & Allies - too bloody complicated
Godstorm RISK - nice but too luck and card driven
RISK 2210 - a modern classic, but strategies become repetitive

These games are about enjoying some controlled aggression with friends. No cooperative stuff here! Players will win and other players will lose. Alliances are fickle and fleeting. And the game will take most of your evening. But strategically and emotionally, they ask the most from me and deliver the best pay-off.

Conquest of Nerath looks to be a good, middle-weight fantasy "men-on-the-board" affair. I say looks to be, because I haven't played it yet, but I've got enough board game experience under my belt that I feel I can give a decent preview.

The game cost me a hefty $80 (I frequent brick and mortar stores when possible), but production is nice. Lots of minis? Check. Gorgeous board? Check. The minis have the added benefit of being, in part, different for each player. Every player get a different dragon mold, etc., which is awesome. (The minis are closer to 15 mm scale, so they can't really serve double duty as D&D minis.) The rule book is also nicely laid out and furnished with illustrations. Rulebooks can look nice and still be confusing—the Fantasy Flight rule books fit squarely into this category I feel—but it's clear here that WotC put care into the instructions.

The game itself pits four fantasy races against each other: undead, elves, goblins, and humans. In a particularly nice touch, each race feels different. Some races start with better board positions and/or greater initial forces, whereas other forces, such as Nerath, start weak but can call in powerful reinforcements via card play. Playing this game will be different every time if you choose different races.

Gameplay looks to be right down the middle, complexity-wise. More complex than the original RISK but less than, say, Axis & Allies. Basic play involves expansion of armies into adjacent areas, but other factors come into play. Dungeons, spread across the board and lovingly named after classic D&D dungeons of legend, can be raided for magic items that grant the player benefits. A player can choose which troops to buy. Dragon or ship? Monster or heroes? Like the latter RISK variants, aggressive play is encouraged and rewarded here—no sitting back and reinforcing Australia for 5 turns in this game. Initial, non-random army placement also guarantees that you begin with at least one enemy right in your backyard, so battles will come sooner rather than later.

I'm looking forward to this one. Stay tuned for a post-play account soon!

January 02, 2012

Back From a Break

Sorry I was absent for a bit. Life's little responsibilities have a way of intruding, and between career and family duties, gaming (and game blogging) must sometimes unavoidably take a backseat.

I recall reading E. Gary Gygax's "excuse" for not finishing the Temple of Elemental Evil, something along the lines of "running the mundane matters of the company [TSR] doesn't always allow a lot of time for the fun chores of module [substitute adventure there, youngsters] writing," or some such. My reaction: "Bah! Get back into your office and finish that sucker!" And we all know how long we waited for T1-4 to arrive. (So I guess I'm gulty in similar fashion, though this is not to say this blog is something folks wait for with similarly baited breath!)

In 2012 I'll be restarting, or warming back to life, a 4e campaign I was running some months ago. Our group rotates DMs, so things run for a limited time to allow the next guy a chance. Now it been quite a few months, so I'm eager to light a fire under the players (and their characters, figuratively at least). I've taken the opportunity to allow them to make a few tweaks to their powers and such.

So how do you handle such campaign breaks? Do things (re)start exactly where you left off? You you provide an informational recap or leave your players to go it alone?

As time moves on, I've mellowed about these things. My goal is to have fun and for my players to have a great ride. If recapping things or reminding them of past clues helps keep the group on track, I personally see nothing wrong with that. I've also gone soft on new character introduction. If a PC dies, I try to allow the replacement character to appear fairly quickly—perhaps not mid-dungeon, but soon—none of that journey to the next city and meet them in a tavern business. I'm getting older, and my players are in their 30s and 40s and 50s, and most barely can fit in a monthly session. We really don't have the time to waste half a session on the obligatory and predictable introductions. I'd rather just say let them meet the new character on the road (perhaps during a battle, such as a classic goblins attack the caravan set piece) and let the players decide the connections. For me, it works better and saves precious play time, but I realize for many DMs this would be heresy. How do you treat such matters of new character introduction?

In any case, it's good to be back. I hope all are enjoying the holidays, and I'll try to post more often going into 2012! Thanks for sticking with me.

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