Thursday, March 26, 2020

Lone Wolf Adventure Game - Alternatives to D&D

Though D&D may be the 800 pound gorilla in the table top RPG space, there are dozens and dozens of other wonderful fantasy and science fiction games out there.

In this video I discuss the Lone Wolf Adventure Game, based upon the adventure booklets by Joe Dever from the late 1980's. This is a fantastic, rules light fantasy RPG with very deep setting lore. The game uses a simple d10-based combat and skill resolutions mechanic. The illustrations are wonderful and the basic box set is a great value at $30.

Lone Wolf Adventure Game:

At the end I also note another alternative from Cubicle 7, Adventures in Middle Earth. I plan to talk more extensively about AiME in an upcoming episode.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Stop trying to win D&D

AD&D Player's Option: Skills & Powers
AD&D's power gamer wet dream
Over the last few editions, there has been a trend toward "winning" at D&D. The seed was planted with the AD&D Player's Options: Skills & Powers, which came out late in the product cycle of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition... but the tree of this trend really grew from the soil of D&D 3rd Edition (and also Pathfinder).

I'm not simply talking about power gaming here, but a change in the way the power gamer approached character generation due to the internet. Power gamers across the world now could converse and compare optimizations, which have lead to forums meant for just one topic... "character builds".

Character Builds

Perhaps it's the grognard in me, but the whole idea of a "build" raises my hackles. I can already hear the critique of this post. This post will likely be labeled as a "Your fun is wrong!" rant without actually considering my words, so bear with me a moment and read on before you judge.

Here's the thing. Role-playing games are form of improvisation. Your PC acts within the story and the story changes. And the story will also (ideally) change your PC. I don't just mean levels and hit points, but hopefully non-mechanical personality growth will occur. Goals will change. Motivations will change.

Perhaps a PC who is a bit churlish and grumpy will experience something that softens his heart. Or, conversely, a faithful paladin might experience something that hardens her and she eschews her deity for a demonic warlock patron... or the wizard, having experienced a divine intervention of some kind, decides to become a devotee of Pelor.

The whole point is that when you start out with that new character, you don't know what will happen at the table over the course of the next several months. Consider not planning all your feats and multi-class options at first level. By focusing on a "build" you may be missing out on opportunities for your PC to grow organically within the campaign. The "optimal" wizard build doesn't take into account that you might want to change to a cleric or paladin for story reasons for a couple levels.

If you are so fixated on the pre-destination for your character (as outlines in some build guide), you are closing yourself to changes that could occur during the actual play at the table. You don't know what will happen in the game to your PC at level 5, or 8, or 12... so consider not planning every single mechanical leveling up detail at level 1. Let what is going to happen be determined by play. If you are locked into a single character strategy, you have shut out the in-play possibilities.

D&D Ultimate Warlock Build
Skip the game guides. Build a personality.
This is my biggest issue with the focus on builds. They have nothing to do with character growth through role-playing during the game. They are completely about playing D&D as if it were a video or strategy board game. Not only that, but excessive optimization often leads to one character hogging the spotlight over other PCs in the game due to having the highest... everything.

Stop worrying about every little +1 bonus, feat, or ability score improvement from level 1 through 20. Play the character, not the mechanics. Then, when you actually achieve those levels, perhaps make a choice that makes sense for the character's story arc instead of trying to gain the highest possible DPS. I'm not talking about making a "gimp" character here. I'm just talking about not focusing so much on every minor bonus and think a little more about what makes sense within the fiction of the game, rather than the mechanics.

Character growth within the fiction of the campaign is one of the primary reasons we play in-person RPGs instead of games like World of Warcraft. Stop trying to make the perfect monk that can move 400 feet and stunning strike every enemy on the field in 1 round. This is D&D, not League of Legends.

Embrace the non-optimization.

I'm getting a lot of "Stop telling me your fun is wrong" replies, and that's NOT what I'm saying.
1) To be clear, I never said you should purposely build an ineffectively gimpy character.
2) I never said you shouldn't pick a combat-effective option or think about what's coming up level-wise.

One of the comments from Peter Olsen on Facebook put it best:
"... extreme focus on progression and builds lends itself to removing attention from where the character is right now."

This. So much this. I'm just trying to advise players (especially newbies) to not think about what's happening 8 levels from now. Think about what is happening in the game right now. Make character choices based on those events. Don't be a slave to the cookie-cutter "optimal build" if something happens in game that might lead your character to multi-class into something slightly less optimal (or pick a different feat, or whatever) because it makes more sense within the story.

Friday, February 21, 2020

GM 101: Adversarial Dungeon Mastering

GM 101, Episode 7 - Adversarial Dungeon Mastering

Using the power of the Dungeon Master, there are many obvious ways one could screw the players in a game. But there are also way you may be unintentionally hindering the players or passive-aggressively acting in an adversarial manner. Don't be the "Gotcha!" DM.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Brace yourselves. Car Wars is coming!

In my prior post about Car Wars and Gaslands, I noted the Car Wars Sixth Edition Kickstarter was coming "any day now"... and here it is!

On Black Friday, Steve Jackson Games will launch their Car Wars Kickstarter with bonus equipment cards for Day One backers. As announced on their website, "Uncle Al and his crew have been working overtime to prepare a special deal for those who join the Kickstarter campaign on that first day – November 29th." There are also several pre-campaign stretch goals that can be unlocked even before the first day.

Car War Deluxe Edition (1985) cover and Car War Sixth Edition cover preview
Car War Deluxe Edition (1985) cover and Car War Sixth Edition sneak preview (source: Steve Jackson Games)

Over the summer, I got the chance to play several games of the CW6e prototype at game conventions. You can read my initial play impressions in my article here. Spoiler alert: I love the new version of Car Wars.

Car Wars 6e vehicle dashboard
The dashboard shows your current
vehicle speed, handling, and damage.
On the @sjgames web site, Twitter, Facebook, and Board Game Geek blogs, Steve Jackson Games has been showing sneak previews of game components and other in-development ideas they are working on.

The new game will include unpainted vehicle miniatures, cards for vehicles and upgrade/components (ala X-Wing), a vehicle "dashboard" showing the vehicle's current speed, armor, and handling status, a maneuver stick, play mat(s), road section tiles (a stretch goal), and specialized combat dice.

Car Wars 6e custom dice
The different colored dice alter the odds of
getting star (hit) or shield (dodge) results.
While the vehicle design rules have not been teased, one can see the basics from the prototypes.  Like with X-Wing or other squad-building minature games, vehicles have a point cost. Weapon systems and skilled drivers or gunners are detailed on small cards and will cost additional points to upgrade a vehicle. Building a vehicle will be as simple as choosing a base model and adding several points worth of weapon and equipment cards to the build.

Image showing Car Wars 6e miniatures on a play mat
The new miniatures (which come unpainted) are displayed on a prototype play mat. (source: @SJGames)

Previews of the vehicles have shown some amazing paint jobs by SJG artist Ben Williams. Hopefully, those of us with not-quite-as-mad painting skillz can make them look half as good. The scale is going to be 1/64, or roughly the same as Hot Wheels and Matchbox die cast vehicles. This will potentially allow players to kit-bash their own cars, assuming Steve Jackson decides to sell additional bases.

Image showing Car Wars miniatures on a road tile
New miniature on a road tile (source: @SJGames)
SJG has also teased card stock road tiles with an art style that matches the play mat(s). The tiles are planned to be interlocking and double-sided.

At this time, it appears the base rules will only include cars. Motorcycles and trucks may show up in future expansions.

I'm hoping for a stretch goal or two to include additional rules for cycles and trucks, or the option of an expansion released concurrently, but I'm also being realistic.

After all, it took 7 years from the Ogre Designer Edition stretch goal to finally get a Car Wars Kickstarter. Holding one's breath for a Truck Stop expansion is probably not advised at this time.

Image showing Autoduel video game from 1985
8-bit highway combat in Autoduel
On a final tangential note, Steve Jackson also announced that the classic Autoduel computer game from 1985 will be re-released in March 2020. You'll be able to make cargo runs on post-apocalyptic highways in all their 8-bit glory. So keep a look out for that.

If you're curious for more about Car Wars Sixth Edition, check out the Steve Jackson Games Facebook and Twitter accounts and be sure to read my play preview.

You might also like:
Car Wars 6e and Gaslands: First Impressions

Monday, October 21, 2019

Munchkin Treasure Hunt - Owlbear Cubs Review

Episode 1 - Munchkin Treasure Hunt

This is a first in a (hopefully) semi-regular series called Owlbear Kids. In it, my kids and myself review some of our family favorite board games and RPGs intended for a younger audience.

Name: Munchkin Treasure Hunt
Also with an Alice in Wonderland theme: Munchkin Wonderland
Ages: 6+
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Artist: John Kovalic

Game Summary: This is a roll and move dungeon crawler intended for a younger audience. Defeat the monsters with the treasure cards in your hand, in order to gain more treasure cards. Player with the most "gold" (treasure points) at the end wins. Both parents and kids alike enjoy the silly jokes for which Munchkin games are well known.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Car Wars 6e and Gaslands: First Impressions

Car Wars Classic cover
Caveat: This post is based on a couple of plays of each Gaslands and Car Wars 6th edition at Origins 2019. This article isn't a review or about which game is better... It is more of a first impression of the new games from a long time Car Wars buff. Honestly, if miniature car combat is your thing, you'll want both of these games. Gaslands Refuelled is the new, cleaned up hardback revision coming mid September and Car Wars 6e will be on Kickstarter any day now (literally 7 years in the waiting...).

UPDATE: This Friday, November 29!

Game Design and Aesthetic

Gaslands is very much a Do-It-Yourself game. Author Mike Hutchinson recently wrote on his blog about the nature (and joys) of kitbashing Hot Wheels and other toys for a post-apocalyptic wasteland. He provides only the rules. It is up to the players (or community) to paint cars, create the play aids, build terrain, and customize their set up... OR to just dump their kid's toy box on the table, pick out some cars and random obstacles, and go to town! You can see some of the amazing community creations with a simple Google search.

Gaslands Refuelled
Gaslands will take a small amount of pre-preparation by someone in the group. At minimum, you will need to print out the movement and weapon templates on card stock paper. You don't technically need special dice; a standard set of d6's will do. However, you will have to look up the results on a chart rather than quickly scan the dice for the special icons. Custom dice and movement templates are available on Etsy for reasonable prices.

Car Wars, on the other hand, is being produced by Steve Jackson Games which has a long and storied history producing quality board games and RPGs. Their design goal is to provide a slick, out-of-the-box board game experience for the retail consumer. From their standpoint, if Car Wars can make it onto the shelf next to Munchkin and Star Wars X-Wing at a Barnes & Noble or Target, that's a huge win. As such, their box will include a small selection of unpainted cars, rules that will fit in a relatively small number of pages, a maneuver stick, specialized dice, and possibly an arena board or play mat of some variety.

The exact contents are not fully known, but they want to make it as retail friendly as possible. Recognizing that the existing Car Wars community would also like to kitbash cars, they recently made the decision to move from HO scale to 1/64 (Hot Wheel) scale and they will be providing empty vehicle bases for customization. There is little doubt in my mind the growing Gaslands community has had an impact on these decision.

Gaslands arena with oil slick
Lore wise, Gaslands portrays the grim, dirty Mad Max style post apocalypse. Car Wars is portraying the more slick arena racing and death sport side of the game, rather than the gritty apocalyptic highways (at least at first). The Car Wars Kickstarter will only include car rules. Trucks, motorcycles, and other vehicles will likely have to wait for expansions or potential stretch goals, but the SJ team has been somewhat tight-lipped.

What surprised me most may be how quickly the new Car Wars plays. As much as I like the simulation aspect of phased movement, the new system puts you right into the action immediately. The rules are also simple enough to be quickly taught. The learning curve was much smaller than I anticipated. Gaslands rules are also fairly light, but need a little bit of polish here and there (which I expect to see in the new revision coming this month).

Thursday, August 29, 2019

D&D: The Legacy of Gygax and Arneson

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson
A recent article on a gaming site has been stirring up quite a bit of controversy on the origins of Dungeons & Dragons. Following off the release of Secrets of Blackmoor, the article challenges the accepted history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. In the article, there is a strongly implied theme that Gary Gygax rode the coattails of Dave Arneson's idea of a role-playing game and took all of the credit.

The truth is a lot more nuanced.

In the article, there are several historical events that are presented in such a way that to make it sound like Gary stole Dave's ideas and then didn't give him any credit. This bends the truth significantly and there are multiple literary sources and original TSR employees around that can corroborate actual events.

Original "wood grain" D&D white box
Original "wood grain" D&D white box
The biggest problem with the article is that it is written in a very biased manner meant to tear down Gary Gygax instead of uplift Dave Arneson. Author Cecilia D'Anastasio herself directly stated, "I am a diehard D&D fan who seriously dislikes Gygax and his legacy." It is unfortunate that is not written at the top of the article, because that tells you most of what you need to know.

The original (white box) Dungeons & Dragons was a true collaboration between Gary and Dave. However, Dave left TSR (was not forced out) prior to the development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the other Basic D&D sets released from 1977 onward. It is a shame that these two amazingly creative men fell out due to business issues, but that can (and often does) happen with any creative endeavor.

So, absolutely lift a glass in memory of Dave Arneson and his early contributions to the game and genre. There is no doubt his ideas were a significant factor in the development of D&D as a table top RPG. However, Gary carried those ideas onward making a viable product for years to come. There is no need to attempt to tear down Gary Gygax in order to properly salute Dave. Dungeons & Dragons as a game could not have existed without both of these men.

For more information on the history of Dungeons & Dragons, I recommend the following:
Playing at the World by Jon Peterson
Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline
Art & Arcana: A Visual History
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