Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pathfinder, 2nd Edition: Some Early Thoughts

I am excited about yesterday's announcement of Pathfinder, 2nd Edition. While I agree with Wizards of the Coast’s strategy of getting off the edition treadmill, Pathfinder is a different beast. Its roots are old -- almost 20 years old, now -- and deep in soil Paizo did not till. I hope that the 2nd Edition modernizes Pathfinder a bit and helps Paizo own a more concise and structured product that more closely mirrors their design philosophy.

Of course, I also hope they achieve this without fundamentally changing what makes Pathfinder Pathfinder. The purpose of the game at launch was to continue a 30-year legacy that the legacy’s stewards had seemingly decided to abandon. It would be a shame to undo that work now that it is a 40-year legacy, and now that Paizo are acknowledged stewards of that legacy. This could be a challenging tightrope to walk, but I have quite a bit of faith in Paizo’s creative talent.

There’s not a lot of detail in the announcement Paizo has released, but it’s still worth reviewing and assembling some early thoughts.

In the weeks and months leading up to that release, we are going give you an in-depth look at this game, previewing all 12 of the classes and examining many of the most fundamental changes to the game.

Alchemist is an interesting choice for a new core class, just like goblin is an interesting choice for a new core race. I’m not wild about technology-based classes in fantasy roleplaying -- conceptually I’m a big fan, but I’ve never seen an implementation I’ve enjoyed.

Goblins… I just hate Pathfinder goblins. They feel like a complete waste of a humanoid species, played entirely for comic relief, and they have no readily obvious links to hobgoblins or bugbears. The goblinoid races are one of my favorite pieces of Dungeons & Dragons metalore, and I’ve never liked Paizo’s implementation (or lack thereof).  Hopefully their introduction as a core player character race (excuse me, 'ancestry') will improve matters at least somewhat.

Each one of these choices is very important, modifying your starting ability scores, giving you starting proficiencies and class skills, and opening up entire feat chains tailored to your character.

I’m not wild about this strong suggestion of gating. I hope that there is enough flexibility baked into the process such that players can build the character they want and not the character Paizo has laid out. It’s important to remember that while more options gives players greater customizability, they actually restrict personalization, and I think the latter is what players really want. No one gets excited about playing the same character as someone else, no matter how detailed that build is.

Finally, after deciding on all of your choices, the only thing left to do is figure out all of your bonuses, which are now determined by one unified system of proficiency, based on your character's level.

I’m seeing a lot of folks read this as a similarity to D&D5, but it sounds to me more like a nod to D&D4’s system of flat bonuses by level. I really hope Paizo does not go that route. In all honesty I am not in love with either system, but the key differentiator is on which side of proficiency your flat bonus matters.

In D&D5, you apply your proficiency bonus to a few select skills, and as you level your proficiency bonus increases. In D&D4, you apply a proficiency bonus to a few select skills, and as you level, your bonus to all skills increases. It’s a subtle difference, and again, neither system is really personalized, but it is possible to at least feel some ownership over the former.

I think Pathfinder’s skill system is one of the game’s greatest strengths, and I would hate to see it simplified too greatly. D&D5 is good for a lot of things, but skill-focused character design is not one of them.

Encounter mode is what happens when you are in a fight, measuring time in seconds, each one of which can mean life or death. Exploration mode is measured in minutes and hours, representing travel and investigation, finding traps, decoding ancient runes, or even mingling at the queen's coronation ball. Of all the modes of play, exploration is the most flexible, allowing for easy storytelling and a quick moving narrative. Finally, the downtime mode happens when your characters are back in town, or relative safety, allowing them to retrain abilities, practice a trade, lead an organization, craft items, or recuperate from wounds. Downtime is measured in days, generally allowing time to flow by in an instant.

This is a fine nit to pick, but I’m a little disappointed by this characterization of the three pillars as defined in D&D5 (Combat, Exploration, and Roleplay). Some of these word choices: “easy storytelling;” “a quick-moving narrative;” “allowing time to flow by in an instant;” these are not necessarily what I am looking for when it comes to a system’s support for roleplaying.

I am a big believer that roleplaying games should not have rules for roleplaying, but they should require rules around which roleplaying can be built. Things like alignment, a robust selection of arms and armor, non-combat feats, crafting skills, and other elements create a framework that lets players envision their characters as more than a miniature figurine on a vinyl grid. Part and parcel to these rules is that they can’t be given short shrift. Storytelling should be satisfying, not easy. The narrative should take the time it needs to come full circle. Town life should never flow by in an instant.

Again, this is a lot to infer from a single paragraph. I’m interested to see the direction in which Paizo takes their own interpretation of the pillars, and I have positive expectations.

Most of the game happens in exploration or encounter mode, with the two types of play flowing easily from one to the other. In fact, exploration mode can have a big impact on how combat begins, determining what you roll for your initiative.

If you’ll excuse a moment taken to indulge a pet peeve, initiative is not a rule that needs to become more complex. It impacts a single round of combat. While I have great nostalgia for the days of weapon speed and individual monster initiative, there is a strong argument to be made that even the traditional methods of rolling initiative do not provide a good return on time invested.

After initiative is sorted out and it's your turn to act, you get to take three actions on your turn, in any combination. Gone are different types of actions, which can slow down play and add confusion at the table. Instead, most things, like moving, attacking, or drawing a weapon, take just one action, meaning that you can attack more than once in a single turn! Each attack after the first takes a penalty, but you still have a chance to score a hit. In Pathfinder Second Edition, most spells take two actions to cast, but there are some that take only one. Magic missile, for example, can be cast using from one to three actions, giving you an additional missile for each action you spend on casting it!

I think this might be the most telling paragraph in this entire summary, and I wish I had more to say about it. With so little detail, however, it is impossible to really gauge. This is a huge change, and I think it looks great on paper. However, it feels like this should be more than sufficient to make 2nd Edition fundamentally incompatible with older material. I am very curious to see how Paizo handles this in the playtest. A handwave will not suffice.

Today’s blog update doesn’t really provide much in the way of greater clarity, beyond giving what appear to be two descriptions of possible rounds: “move once, draw your sword, and attack,” and, “move away, draw a potion, and drink it.” These examples do not inspire confidence. They sound pedantic and slow. Getting three actions per round instead of two goes some way toward mitigating that, but if we are tracking every little thing our characters do as an action, now, I’m not convinced that is an improvement over the old system. That feels like a throwback to 20th-century D&D.

Two 7th-level creatures might have different statistics, allowing them to play differently at the table, despite both being appropriate challenges for characters of that level.

I know what Paizo is trying to say here, but it still makes me want to respond with that, “You don’t say?” Nicholas Cage meme.

This also makes it easier for us to present monsters, giving us more space to include special abilities and actions that really make a monster unique. Take the fearsome tyrannosaurus, for example; if this terrifying dinosaur gets you in its jaws, it can take an action to fling you up to 20 feet through the air, dealing tremendous damage to you in the process!  

Hazards are now a more important part of the game, from rangers creating snares to traps that you have to actively fight against if you want to survive. Poisons, curses, and diseases are a far more serious problem to deal with, having varied effects that can cause serious penalties, or even death.

Monsters with unique mechanics and hazards as encounters in their own right were hands-down my favorite things about D&D4, and I absolutely encourage their implementation in any roleplaying game. I wish D&D5 had preserved more of them.

All in all, I see why this announcement is being met with mixed feelings. I think ten years is a respectable length of time between editions, and you could argue that Pathfinder has really been waiting for a substantial update for closer to 20 years. I agree that the game could use a fresh coat of paint. But this summary does not fill me with confidence.

I don’t see the mechanical similarities between this summary and D&D5 that others are decrying, but I do believe the simple approach to fantasy roleplaying is more than adequately covered by D&D5 at the moment. While I’m the last person to advocate gatekeeping through rules complexity, there is something to be said for the fact that greater complexity is Pathfinder’s niche. What I would love to see is more of an effort from Paizo to demystify that complexity and showcase its value, rather than stripping it back.

Nevertheless, it is still early days, and far too soon to be drawing conclusions from such a brief summary.  I look forward to seeing what we learn from Paizo about Pathfinder, 2nd Edition, in the coming days, weeks, and months, and I'll definitely be participating in August's playtest to the best of my ability.  Exciting times!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dungeons & Delicious Fudge

The concept of "fudging" die rolls as a dungeon master is a difficult thing to discuss without misrepresenting my position.  The dice absolutely have to be sacrosanct.  The random number generation aspect of the hobby, in conjunction with a robust set of rules, provides verisimilitude, and verisimilitude is what makes a roleplaying game a roleplaying game, and not a collaborative improvisational storytelling coffee klatch.  I hate the term "fudging;" in an attempt to make the act sound like it is not as serious as cheating, I think it trivializes a devastating responsibility.

The dungeon master cannot cheat.  I do not mean they should not cheat; I mean that for a dungeon master to cheat is an impossibility.  You might just as easily say that the Chance deck in Monopoly cheats, or the board text in the Game of Life.  The dungeon master is not a game player, they are the living execution of the rules.  To suggest otherwise calls into question the very core of the hobby: what makes it fundamentally superior to video gaming.

A dungeon master can make mistakes.  A dungeon master can be terrible.  In more contemporary parlance, the dungeon master is the CPU that runs the game's code, and they can be susceptible to glitches and overheating like any other processor.  But they have a substantial advantage over a computer -- they can think.

Ignoring the results of a die roll is not something that should ever be taken lightly.  It is not a betrayal of trust, it is the essence of trust.  It should only be invoked when the alternative is miserable, and a good dungeon master is trusted by their players to make that judgment, not to always be honest.  Honesty is a terrible trait for a storyteller to have.  No one wants honest stories.

In an honest story, the hero dies when he rolls a natural 1 on his Perception check and has his throat slit in the night by a kobold.  In an honest story, the climactic encounter against the villain is over in a round when he fails his Intelligence save and the Mystic mind-controls him off the balcony and onto the rocks ten stories below.

If you'll excuse the rhetoric, it blows my everloving mind that anyone could ever trust their dice, or authors whom they've never even met, to run their games for their players better than they could.  The system is not worthy of trust.  It is not sapient; it is not conscious of the events at the table; it is a poorly playtested and edited set of rules in a book written long before the campaign even began, which relies on shoddily manufactured plastic polygons to generate simple numbers for the abstraction of the incredibly complex interface of aptitude, skill, and chance.

You need a system to adjudicate all the crap that doesn't matter, for a sense of realism, and that realism is important.  But if you let realism decide even the most critical elements of your story, everyone is in for a dull ride.  If you're a good dungeon master, when the chips are down the system doesn't matter.  If you're a bad dungeon master, no system will save you.

For the love of Gygax, if it was as simple as books and dice, players wouldn't need dungeon masters.  I'm not saying 'don't roll' -- I am definitely not saying 'don't roll' -- but if you roll and the result doesn't make good sense, don't 'domo arigato Mr. Roboto' it, step up and KICK ASS.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Caller Role in Dungeons & Dragons

Do any of you fellow children of the mid-20th century (whether actual or spiritual) remember the role of Caller? Do any of you still use it in play?

For those of you who don't remember or are unfamiliar, the Caller was a player job in the same vein as Mapper. Instead of being the player with good spatial sense, a pencil, and a pad of graph paper, they were the player with good organizational skills, a projecting voice, and a knack for reaching compromise.

It was the Caller's job to listen to the party when the Dungeon Master had presented them with a choice, get a sense of the group's opinions and reasoning, suggest a unified course of action, and then report that action to the Dungeon Master once something resembling consensus had been reached. 

The Caller was also originally responsible for tracking player-character actions in combat, at a time when players were expected to commit to an action before initiative was rolled, and lose that action if it became irrelevant or impossible during the course of the round! (That rule really sped up combat, but at a pretty severe cost in fun.) 

For some reason the concept of the Caller seems to have fallen out of contemporary D&D. I hear a lot of Dungeon Masters talking about co-DMs, or assistant DMs, or even just players monitoring the party's initiative track, but generally these roles seem to be about assisting with combat or narrative flow, when I think the Caller's greatest advantage was the impact they had on session-to-session party choices. The Caller also had no Dungeon Master knowledge of the campaign, which was a major consideration.

Investigate the mines or the sewers? Torture the prisoner? Trust the NPC? Right or left at a T intersection? Every Dungeon Master knows that these questions can stop a group cold for valuable minutes. They can try to guide the party through the decision, but it can be a tightrope. On the one side, the party is reading every word for hints about what lies ahead. On the other, there is inherent bias toward directing the PCs at the more interesting choice. 

Combined, these two risks virtually guarantee that some decisions will be impacted by metaknowledge of the campaign. Having a player mediate these decisions is valuable not only to a Dungeon Master's peace of mind but to a party's organic enjoyment of the campaign.

I bring this up because I was recently lamenting to one of my players that our current group could use a Caller, and I was surprised to learn that he was unfamiliar with the concept. He is not much younger than me but entered the hobby later in life and through Palladium rather than TSR products.

Upon explaining the idea behind the Caller, he reacted with a revulsion that genuinely surprised me. At first I had a wrong sense of why he was upset, and tried to explain that 'Calling' isn't an in-character task. While it is certainly possible that the Caller's character is also the party leader, this isn't a requirement, so naming a Caller is not equivalent to making one PC dictator for life.

But my friend corrected me, saying that he understood the concept but that he couldn't imagine trusting a fellow player with that kind of control. This floored me, as I'd never considered that someone might perceive the Caller as being "in control." I had stated that the Caller was occasionally responsible for forcing the party minority into a choice when there was no agreement on a path forward, but doesn't that happen anyway, only much more slowly, without a Caller?

What worried my friend was that a Caller with a bias could exclude individual players from participating in the campaign. I see the risk, but feel like such behavior would be transparent, and would lead to censure of the offending Caller, if not removal from the group! It would be a simple enough matter to rotate Caller responsibilities, to avoid even sensible players developing an undesirable ego about their role in the group. 

Of course, the flip side of that compromise is that just like most parties have a born Mapper, most parties also have a born Caller, and by not utilizing them a Dungeon Master is not taking best advantage of his resources.

All in all, I think my opinion on the value of a Caller still stands, despite this new perspective on the risks of assigning one. They provide a valuable service not only to the Dungeon Master but also to their fellow players, by keeping play moving through decision points rather than bogging down in minutia and disagreement. Not every group needs a Caller, of course, but I imagine there are quite a few struggling along without one.

But perhaps I spend too little time playing to see why the Caller might rub the other players the wrong way. I'd be interested in hearing feedback from other Dungeon Masters and players about whether they are currently utilizing a Caller in their games and how beneficial or detrimental they feel the role is to play.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gen Con 2014 Very Important Gamer Program Impressions

I was a VIG attendee at Gen Con 2014, and the one question I got asked more than any other at the show, more often even than “Where’d you get that awesome fez?” (Fez-O-Rama, of course), was “Is it worth it?”  I promised myself I’d make this post when badge preregistration was about to reopen again so I could share my impressions of the program.

Short version: the program is fun, but vastly overpriced and overvalued.  I won't be renewing my badge, and it will be returning to this year's pool.  (You're welcome.)  But I recommend reading on.

I’m glad I participated in the VIG program once – I don’t make it to Gen Con often and it was kind of enjoyable to be elite for a weekend.  Overall, I think the program has some things going for it, but there are two major caveats.  One, for $575 the program should be an overwhelmingly positive addition to the Gen Con experience, and when all is said and done it’s more what you make of it.  If you're not focused on it, it can be kind of a mixed bag.  Two, despite being targeted at the hardcore Gen Con attendee, I feel like they are the least likely to get the most benefit out of the badge, because they are likely too busy doing Gen Con things to take advantage of the benefits of the program.

My advice to anyone considering joining the program this year is this: only do it if you’ve got $575 to lose, and only if you’re willing to schedule your Gen Con experience around the VIG perks.  Otherwise, no, it’s not worth it.

I want to be clear that this is my impression.  I definitely met other VIGs at the con who would disagree with me.  I met one VIG in particular who was traveling from Calgary, Alberta, with his wife, two kids, and a trailer full of goods for auction.  He thought of the program as a virtual necessity, and I completely understand why!  But for me, someone who gets out to Gen Con maybe once a decade, and packs the experience as full of events as possible, I felt like the VIG badge was sadly surplus to my requirements.

I’ll go down the list:

Hotel Registration
The housing draw was still stressful, and I know some VIGs didn’t end up with downtown housing, although it is my understanding that the Gen Con folks bent over backward to fix that error.  I personally got a fantastic room, so close to the action it was practically in the convention center.  That said, it was not the nicest room any of my friends got.

Verdict: Point in favor, if barely.  I think I got pretty lucky.  I am sure housing draw is better for VIGs than it is for everyone else but it is still no fun at all.  Still, I know guaranteed (?) downtown housing is the biggest draw to the fellow from Calgary.

4-Day Access + Benefits
I don’t recall getting a badge holder, but there is a nice brass pin.

Verdict: Neutral; I wouldn’t have missed the brass pin (or badge holder).

VIG Lounge
Some of my VIG Companions reported getting real use out of the Lounge, and agree that it is a nice perk.  Personally I was on my feet the entire convention, running from event to event, and barely managed to stop in to pick up my swag bag.  When I was stopped, I was showering or sleeping.  If I had not had my entire convention planned out in advance, I think I would have been very grateful for the registration tables in the Lounge but as it was I did not spend much time there at all.  I did make use of the bag check on one occasion and was grateful for it, and the people working there were extremely helpful and pleasant.

Verdict: Point in favor, but be aware that the use you get out of the Lounge is inversely proportional to how busy you are.  If you’re participating in an event, you are by definition not sitting on a bean bag, surfing free wifi, and enjoying a complimentary beverage.

Exclusive VIG Pack (Swag Bag)
I think this is probably the most coveted thing about the VIG program, but I think for a lot of people that desirability will turn out to be an illusion.  The thing to remember here is that Gen Con is a multi-purpose convention.  You have TCG players, board gamers, roleplayers, wargamers – there’s a lot of overlap but there is also a lot of diversity.  The swag bag reflects that diversity.  I am all of the above to a greater or lesser degree, and even so 80% of the swag bag was nothing I was interested in.  This is completely understandable, but simultaneously pretty disappointing.  The best thing about the swag bag was the bag itself – the Gen Con canvas messenger bags are awesome.

Verdict: Neutral.  Free stuff is good, but when it ends up left in your hotel room to save luggage space or traded on Board Game Geek as soon as you get home it’s not a big positive.

Early Exhibit Hall Access
One hour on one day is no kind of early access to a space the size of the Gen Con exhibit hall.  I will admit that it allowed me to snag a copy of Dead of Winter, because I knew exactly what I was looking for and where it was, but you should expect to spend a good sized chunk of the early access hour in a queue that wraps around half the convention center.  The Gen Con staff did a great job at expediting this process, but we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of people.  Every VIG wants to take advantage of this perk.  There aren’t enough doors in the world.

Verdict: Point against.  I’m not saying that one hour wasn’t nice, but I’m also not saying it was anywhere near enough.

VIG Reserved Event Seating
Who are these people who can show up 30 minutes early to a slot at Gen Con?

Verdict: Neutral.  Better seating is better seating, no doubt, but I don’t know if it’s worth a half slot of sitting around.

VIG Mixer
I planned to go but was too busy to make it!  You should be sensing a theme, here.

Verdict: Can’t say, but it’s worth reiterating that getting the most out of your VIG badge means making time to do so.

$10 System Credit
I am trying to be evenhanded, here, but I have to declare that I thought this was a little insulting even before I paid for the badge.  I mean, what’s $10 into $575?  Less than 2%?  And in store credit?  I make it to Gen Con about once a decade, so this ten bucks is going to be sitting in my account for a long time.

Verdict: Point against.  If you can make the badge cheaper, make it cheaper.  Don’t do whatever this is.

VIG Exclusive Events
I had hoped to do the True Dungeon this year, and appreciated the VIG-only slots, but ultimately it didn’t make the cut.

Verdict: Point in favor; access to hard to get tickets is definitely the biggest selling point of the VIG badge.

“Members Only” VIG Forum
A lot like the regular forum, only with less people complaining about how hard it is to get a VIG badge. *rimshot*

Verdict: Neutral.

First Chance at a VIG Package for 2015!
I feel very strongly that this is bad policy.  I’m sure Gen Con has its reasons, but I don’t feel like creating an elite class is the right move for our community.  I'd rather see as many people as possible get the opportunity to have this experience and decide for themselves if it is something they want to pursue year-to-year.

Verdict: Point against, although it’s not really a problem with the program so much as a bad feel about the administration of the program.

VIG Companion Packages
My VIG Companions all agreed that their perks were a good deal for the $100+ they paid for the privilege.  I am glad.

Verdict: Point in favor, although you should note that $100 is a lot less to pay than $575.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Market Effect II

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like I had anything worthwhile to say about video games, but here we are again. Thanks for reading.

When talking about Mass Effect 3 I think it’s important to first address the elephant in the room – the ending. In case you haven’t heard, it is apparently very unpopular, and a movement has sprung up to convince BioWare to change it.

Without spoiling it for anyone I can safely say this: the real problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3 is not that it is narratively poor – it logically follows the story. It is that it is inherently unsatisfying. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, but I dislike the ending. I can appreciate the novel on its artistic merit, even agree with the way the story went, without enjoying it.

I think the real, compelling question that Mass Effect 3 and the subsequent fan frenzy over the ending ask is, “is it enough for the ending of a video game to stand on artistic merit?” Novels and movies represent a few hours of investment and require no real effort to reach the ending.

By the time you close up shop in Mass Effect 3, you’ve probably logged 150 or so hours of active playtime into the game’s universe, and that only accounts for a single complete playthrough. That is more than six full days, or almost four 40-hour work weeks. Is it worth investing that kind of time in a story that ends on a gut punch?

I can’t answer that question for anyone else, but for my part, I will think hard before getting invested in another of BioWare’s game franchises, or, at the very least, I will enter into the next devil’s contract with a better understanding of what to expect from the designers.

These are not men with an interest in amusing you – these are men with an unexpectedly grim philosophy regarding the sanctity of narrative. As a writer I can respect that, but when I spend the kind of time and energy I’ve spent on Mass Effect I expect a pat on the back. I like happy endings – so sue me. Or, you know, donate to Child’s Play with a note attached saying I should change my attitude. It could work.

As for the complaint that the ending does not reflect the choices you have made throughout the story, I think that is a more difficult judgment call. BioWare could have limited the ending options for anyone who hadn’t played the original Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, but doing so would have offended my sensibilities – I believe that when you pay for a thing you should get the whole thing.

It’s part and parcel to why I am opposed to EULAs, “online activation codes,” and to a lesser extent DLC on the whole. Not supporting BioWare in this would be hypocritical.

In the end, Mass Effect 3 does involve the choices you made in the first and second games to a great degree, and it engages them in a quantitative way that does ultimately influence how the end of the game plays out. I did successfully complete the game, but my understanding is that it is absolutely possible to fail, and for that reason I have to dismiss this particular grievance as spurious.

Your choices from all three games do affect the ending of Mass Effect 3 – just not the actual events of the successful ending, which one could argue have been narratively set in stone since long before the main character was even born.

With the matter of the ending dealt with, I have to say that overall, Mass Effect 3 kind of disappointed me. The game has none of the elegance of its immediate predecessor, replaced by rampant sentiment and unrepentant gut punches so frequent that they almost (almost, mind you) become ineffective.

On top of this, the game engine itself is a disaster, with a quest log that's almost as unusable as the inventory system from the original Mass Effect, and frequent freezes (and one legitimate crash to the main menu!) on the Xbox. I’ve never seen that happen before, and installing doesn’t seem to help. I’m told these things are less of an issue in the PC version of the game.

Ultimately, Mass Effect is another great trilogy that will go down in history with a second chapter that is the best out of three. But Mass Effect 3 is still playable and fun and engaging, and worth some bucks, particularly for the multiplayer, which almost feels like the main purpose of the software, it's so well implemented. It's just not a five-star game like Mass Effect 2.

My biggest complaints are that while missions in Mass Effect 2 ended at the perfect length, just as they were getting obnoxious, Mass Effect 3 throws this design concept right out the window in favor of Deep Meaningful Combat – long, confusing battles against powerful foes and challenging environments, meant to evoke hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds but that are ultimately just frustrating.

The game also uses slow-motion to turn pivotal and dramatic combat moments into thinly veiled reflex minigames. Coupled with get-up-and-make-a-sandwich load times when you fail, the game’s overall approach to combat makes for an annoying disappointment.

Note: I am not “into” Mass Effect’s combat engine – it is possible that these sort of things might entertain more tactically minded players. As a casual gamer who generally plays this trilogy on Normal difficulty, I found it very difficult to stomach.

The narrative of Mass Effect 3 is ultimately its greatest strength, as it has been throughout the trilogy – while it suffers from some of the same opening cognitive dissonance present in the beginning of Mass Effect 2, this is forgivable considering the interactive nature of the story. The writers undertook a tremendous challenge in bringing the variable events in the games to life, and overall I think they did a quality job. The game’s story, while excessively sentimental, is a worthwhile capstone to a living universe.

Bottom line: I give Mass Effect 3.5 stars – the game is worth playing, but it requires a lot of patience with both the technology and the game balance. It just doesn’t quite deserve that fourth star.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

PS3 Backwards Compatibility Update

Oddly enough, this Sony update comes to us from SEGA. The prominent third-party game publisher's press site leaked rough minutes from a meeting with Sony that were promptly downloaded by the good folks at Objectif-SEGA.

The memo includes a lot of information that was probably supposed to stay secret, but the important bit is that it sounds like the rumors of Playstation 2 games for premium download on the Playstation Network are true, and that Sony will be rolling out their newly patented software emulation to support the initiative.

Of course, the trouble is that this is no kind of news at all for anyone who likes money. The useful information is still being omitted: will this Playstation 3 software emulation support playing PS2 games on disc? If it won't, it is still crippled functionality being marketed as a feature.

Demand more, people.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mass Market Effect

This is going to be brief.

Mass Effect has what is probably the best combat system ever developed for a console/computer roleplaying game.

This does not mean it warranted a premium-downloadable-content bot-match arena.

BioWare, I love you guys, and I realize you're neck-deep in bringing us Mass Effect 2, right now, but could you at least warn a die-hard fan that his $5 won't net him any storyline content?

Caveat emptor, I suppose.

Speaking of Mass Effect 2, I'm a bit nervous that the new plot seems to involve an entirely new crew, and that the plot seems to diverge from the Reaper threat established in the first game. I have no doubt that the game will be excellent -- BioWare has a nearly spotless track record -- but I am disappointed that many mysteries that went unsolved in the first game will continue to be unsolved at least until the third game in the trilogy, and that relationships forged in the first Mass Effect will only have passing impact on Mass Effect 2.

Still, much remains to be seen. Mass Effect 2 is still largely an unknown quantity. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. Some of them are good. Most are not. Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Keller, claims that backwards compatibility is “not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing,” which is ridiculous, considering that the currently marketed PS3 units are not backwards compatible, so it is actually impossible for backwards compatibility to be a purchase intent driver. Good show, Mr. Keller.

Some fans claim that the need for backwards compatibility just isn’t there. That it is only relevant at the beginning of a console’s life, when there is not a sufficient catalog of next-gen titles to support the console. Others argue that no one wants to play last-gen games anymore, or that they just don’t even if they have the capacity. This is obviously not true, or Keller wouldn’t casually remark that “it’s all people ever talk about.” Frankly, that’d be a red flag for me if I worked in marketing. But then, I don’t. I’m not going to get into the quality or breadth of the PS3’s game library here – that’s too much a matter of opinion.

Here’s my take: a lack of backwards compatibility in a popular mainstream gaming console is dangerous. It’s obviously not going to bring about the end of days or anything, but from a consumer’s perspective we should all be concerned about it. It is functionality that should be included in next-gen consoles. We paid the money for the last-gen games; we should not lazily accept the loss of the ability to play them. Video games are not like books or movies or music. Books require no operating system to use, and paper is almost a universal medium. Movies and music can be copied from last-gen media onto next-gen media with a minimal loss of quality and no loss in utility. But a video game depends not only on the media it is printed on but also the operating system of the console or computer it was designed for. When that operating system becomes defunct, so does the game.

Yes, Playstation 2 systems cost $100 brand new, today. But what about tomorrow? When the consoles disappear, the Playstation 2 library is gone. There will be future attempts to resurrect it for the sake of nostalgia, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, but these downloadable content libraries are slow to grow, incomplete, and still dependent on yet another operating system – not to mention the fact that they require a second purchase of the game! Every time a console is made obsolete and its successor is not backwards compatible, hundreds of creative works are lost to the playing public, and their return is entirely dependent on the vagaries of manufacturer foresight. Video game console manufacturers are historically not the most foresighted organizations, as evidenced by Sony’s seemingly willful ignorance of their consumer base’s interest in backwards compatibility.

This concerns me. Video games are the books and movies of the next century. It is too easy to imagine a world where, say, the Lord of the Rings came out for George Allen & Unwin’s UnwinBox in 1954, but was never ported to Houghton Mifflin’s PlayMifflin 3 in the 1960s, and therefore failed to become the cultural phenomenon that inspired an entire genre of fiction as well as fantasy roleplaying. This is not an acceptable vision of the future of creative expression. This sort of thinking on the part of hardware manufacturers needs to stop.

Of course, John Keller is something of a denial expert, who passionately refuted the existence of the PSP Go! and PS3 Slim prior to the release of those two system revisions. Sony has a wonderfully self-aware commercial out now that captures the resultant hilarity far better than I ever could here. The only way to know for sure what the future holds is to wait and see.

But this gamer won't be buying a PS3 until backwards compatibility is confirmed.

Price Pointing

A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What’s another $16?

We Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the US around the inception of this latest generation of console gaming hardware in 2005 and 2006 when the price point for a new video game jumped from $49.99 to $59.99. I don’t remember a particular fuss being made about it at the time, although debate still rages in the community as to whether games were worth $50 in the first place. It’s this ‘price point’ mentality – this idea that no matter what the content of a video game (or, for that matter, a roleplaying sourcebook), it is worth a certain amount of money simply because it belongs to a certain class of commodity.

It is difficult to argue this point about video games because of the multiple genres involved, all of which have very different standards of quality. For instance, I may find it ridiculous that Halo 3, a ten-hour game, retails for the same price as Lost Odyssey, a 50-hour game, but that is largely because I am a roleplaying gamer, unlikely to get much enjoyment from Halo 3’s robust multiplayer system. But on the other hand, it is a often a challenge to find two games in the same genre that are wildly disparate in content, largely because the games with lesser content often suffer from other failings that cause them to be panned by the community.

Fortunately this generation of games has at least one example I am very familiar with. Take Shadowrun, another contemporary of Halo 3 that shares both the ‘shooter’ genre and Halo’s publisher, Microsoft. Shadowrun has no single-player content, which suggests a lower price point, but its matchmaking is also vastly inferior to Halo 3’s, and its bot AI is considered to be so bad that Halo 3’s complete lack of bot AI is preferable. These latter elements mandated a lower price point, and one was eventually reached – through market pressures. The game was retailing new at $29.99 only a few months following its release.

But the point is that both games started out at the same place, in terms of cost to the consumer: $59.99. Why was a game so clearly inferior to its contemporaries priced so highly?

Admittedly, in recent years we have seen game publishers set lower prices for ‘second-string’ video game titles, between $25 and $40, but this typically has nothing to do with quality or quantity of content and everything to do with brand. The big releases are all still right up there at $60, not including ‘special editions’ that can run anywhere from $70 to $120 or more. Now, I’m not saying that video games on average are not worth $60. That’s an argument for a different post, and probably a different blog. What I’m asking is, “Why is EVERY game worth $60?” It seems to me that gamers need to use some of that consumer market pressure that drove the price of Shadowrun down so quickly to convince game publishers that we are smart enough to notice that not all video games are equal. Maybe this means some of them will become more expensive than $60. But it sure as heck should mean that many of them become significantly less expensive.

This same phenomenon is visible in the roleplaying game industry. Wizards of the Coast raised the cost of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition, from $20 to $30, and we all grumbled but didn’t argue. Their press releases were right, after all – the price point on the books had not risen for twenty years. It was time. I do not begrudge companies responding to the forces of inflation. Now, books a fraction of the size of those core rulebooks retail for $35, and major sourcebooks can retail for as much as $50. But the real issue is that again, these numbers are irrespective of content! Page count for a $35 sourcebook can range anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. So I’m forced to ask, “Why?”

Why is a 100-page book worth the same amount of my money as a 300-page book? Why hasn’t the community used its collective consumer power to do something about this? Why are we so content to throw our money away on these hobbies?

It’s certainly not that we aren’t aware. People notice these things; I know they do. I’ve heard them complain. But no one ever seriously eschews making a purchase as a result. Video gamers might wait until a game hits the shelves used to pick up the occasional title, but if it is something we really want, we’ll buy it new – or as soon as it shows up used, in which case we’re essentially paying full price anyway, and for a lower-quality product.

Perhaps we ignore these ludicrous price-point strategies because we recognize that spending money on these things is a waste to begin with, and we acknowledge this at such a basic level that we are not enraged by the blatant discrepancies. Personally, I think it’s time we all got a bit more active and conscientious about the value of our dollars. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly we owe it to the hobby.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

D&D4: One Year On

It’s been a little more than a year since Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition, launched, and after six months of playing it regularly and six more of watching it evolve I think I have finally defined what it is I don’t like about it.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy D&D4. I’ve come to terms with it in a way that allows me to enjoy it a great deal as a sort of beer-and-pretzels, fantasy-combat board game, in the same vein as the old DUNGEON! game or the more recent Descent and Runebound. I’m not being flippant – I really do enjoy these games and I consider D&D4 to be one of the best. In a lot of ways, I’ve been waiting for a game like D&D4 my entire life. But I don’t consider D&D4 to be a roleplaying game.

I have to define ‘roleplaying game,’ because I’ve come to realize that the term means something different for everyone, and that my definition is somewhat more strict than most. First and foremost, I consider a roleplaying game to be a system of rules in which I feel comfortable telling an interactive story for the benefit of a group of players. It has been said that a good roleplayer doesn’t need rules to roleplay, and I agree with this sentiment – I spent much of my youth ‘roleplaying’ adventures with my friends in the woods behind my parents’ house – but roleplaying without rules is just improvisational acting, not a game. Likewise, a game like Dungeons & Dragons without rules for roleplaying is just a fantasy combat simulation.

When D&D was originally released back in 1974, that’s all it was – a fantasy mod for a squad-level medieval wargame. Even the concept of setting beyond a hole in the ground with a city nearby wouldn’t be published for another year. I bring up original D&D to illustrate that I’m not trying to make a value judgement or a comparison to the ‘good old days,’ here – just because a particular game is not roleplaying, or a spate of roleplaying is not a game, doesn’t imply that they are somehow diminished. They’re just in a different genre, by my definition.

I have a deep and abiding respect for Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace), and I shared many of his opinions, but this is one topic on which we differed. He was of the opinion that roleplaying was something that happened outside the rules. To me, that’s not a roleplaying game; that’s acting while wargaming. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is exactly how I tend to play the fantasy board games I love so much. But to me, a roleplaying game is a game that unifies roleplaying and combat under a single rule system, or at least with related rules systems. There need to be out-of-combat rules strict enough to provide challenge when performing tasks outside the dungeon, and in-combat rules relaxed enough to provide opportunity for character personality to emerge in battle. This is where D&D4 falls short for me, on both counts: its vestigial skill system and its exhaustive power list.

I’ve been mocked, in the past, for wanting to expend character resources on a skill like ‘pottery,’ because doing so limits the dungeon-crawling efficiency of my character. But for me, creating a character is not about creating a single-purpose tool. My favorite campaigns are the ones where characters purchase homes, open businesses, and marry townsfolk (or other adventurers), and in so doing become relevant not only to the success of the campaign but to the success of the setting. In short, my favorite campaigns are the ones that encapsulate an entire life rather than individual dungeon escapades. I have trouble explaining this to other D&D players, I think because they consider activities like these to be external to the game, or at best a secondary game. But for me, spending hard-earned gold on a permanent home or business is just as viable an investment as purchasing a new weapon or suit of armor. I believe, therefore, that the same rules should govern both.

Most D&D4 gamers I speak to seem to agree that the skill system is crippled, but many of them don’t seem to mind it as its impact on traditional 4th Edition play is minimal. For me, the lack of a flexible, diverse skill system is damning – it robs me of even the most basic system of adjudication for non-combat actions. This is apparently not a common concern, but it is mine. If I want my character to make some money on the side shoeing horses, there should be a difficulty associated with the required tasks just as there is a difficulty associated with dungeon crawling. It’s all part of the same game.

My complaint with D&D4’s power list is more esoteric, and harder to explain. Players railing against D&D4 often claim that there is less choice involved in creating a D&D4 character than there was in previous editions of the game, and this is pretty patently untrue, as fans of the system are quick to point out. Wizards and clerics have lost a lot of options, but everyone else has definitely gained in the variety department. I think what my fellow discontents are trying to say, rather, is that in D&D4 all choices are laid out for the player, even hard coded, and there is no creativity involved in their selection.

In previous editions of D&D, players had fewer choices to make in the rules, but there was a lot of empty space in character generation as a result. Room to extrapolate on things. A character became a person not because he was extensively customized with established rules, but because he was so similar to every other member of his class and race that you had to look between the rules to personalize him. In D&D4, between powers and feats, characters are watertight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great game design. I just don’t think spamming ‘Twin Strike’ encourages creativity, and I consider creativity to be a very important part of roleplaying. Can you rename Twin Strike? Can you reflavor it? Sure, but at the end of the day, every power has its own established, unique rules for execution and result. There’s only so much modification you can do without changing the mechanics. The mechanics of a power are definitive.

I think the best way to illustrate this particular point is to suggest an alternative. Even if a player likes the power list as written, I doubt they would argue that it would not be even better to have the capacity to design custom powers for their characters. And that is the “choice” that my fellow discontents are missing in D&D4. When all attacks were a d20 roll against THAC0 followed by rolling weapon damage – or to put it another way, when there was only one rule for attacking – there was a lot more room for personal embellishment. Every attack was different because every attack could be – the d20 roll governed only its success or failure. The power list removes that wiggle room by rigidly defining a character’s options during combat, and discourages embellishment by providing an effortless and universally recognized alternative.

And that about sums it up. By my definition, D&D4 is not a roleplaying game. It seems to me that D&D4 cripples roleplaying coming and going, as its combat rules are too detailed and its out-of-combat rules not detailed enough. Now, plenty of people are roleplaying using the D&D4 rules and enjoying it, and I don’t mean this piece to suggest that they are somehow doing it wrong. As long as they are enjoying themselves, that’s the ultimate goal, and I am glad to see them achieving it. The above are just the reasons why the new system doesn’t work for me personally. I had hoped for a long time that an increased number of supplements would ‘rescue’ D&D4 for me, but these issues are fairly substantive, and present in the core of the system. It seems unlikely they will ever be “fixed” in this iteration of the game, so I continue to look elsewhere for a roleplaying game with a system that will support the kind of long-running immersive campaign I prefer to dungeon master. I will, however, continue to enjoy playing D&D4 modules for enjoyment’s sake.