Sunday, July 31, 2016

Last Minute Gencon Tips

I am taking a circuitous path to Gencon.  So, I am already packing.  As I do, I am remembering a lot of the tips that have served me well in my visits to Gencon.  Consider these some final, simple tips as you prepare for Gencon.

1] Clothing:  There seems to be a decent chance of rain in Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday.  Most of the events are indoors but you will likely have to travel outdoors between buildings for some events.  Rain is not really much of a hassle in my experiences at Gencon but pack accordingly.  If you have a long walk (say back to a non-adjacent hotel), you may want a light jacket.  Other tips include:
     a] Choose clothing for heat -- some of you are not accustomed to high 80s and low 90s, especially if you are going to be outside walking to meals and between events.  Personally, I will welcome the cool weather (coming from central Texas).
     b] Choose clothes that are comfortable to walk in.  There will be a lot of walking.  Take shoes that you can walk miles in.  I am trying a new trick this year and packing extra socks to change into midday.  I hear that a change of socks can be quite refreshing in the middle of what is likely 5+ miles of walking for the day.  I think my daily record is around 8 miles.
     c] Be considerate of others.  People like to show their colors at Gencon.  That is one of the great things about the convention.  However, be considerate of others.  If you plan to navigate crowds, avoid bulky backpacks or items you might knock in to other people.  Avoid any clothing that may not be considered appropriate for all ages to see.  There are a lot of kids around Gencon.  Save your explicit phrases, etc. for the night time when the kids have gone home.  I really sounds like an old fogey but I ask you to take it into consideration.

2] Gaming gear: Many games will provide what you need to play, but not all of them.  I recommend coming with a standard set of dice if you plan to play RPGs.  Boardgames rarely require you bring anything with you like dice, etc.  Bring some paper and a pen/pencil for notes.  Even if you are not playing games, there may be something you want to jot down that you see in the dealers hall, etc.  At the same time, don't worry about bringing a huge bag of dice.  That is just bulky.  Similarly, you probably don't need to carry around all of your RPG books with you at all times.  Some people like to keep a small set for pick-up games -- which is great.  Carrying a crate full of your complete set of Pathfinder hardcovers, however, will just make it hard to navigate tight spots.  Pick a few books and a small backpack.

The same principles hold for anything you want to get signed.  Try to avoid carrying a big stack of books around to get signatures.  Pick a few books at a time for signing.  This will ease the flow of people through a signature line (which the signer and the other people around you will appreciate) as well as making it easier to navigate to and from the signing.

3] Electronics:  The wifi in the convention center is unreliable.  That also means that if you leave your phone or tablet on "wifi" it will drain the battery fast.  I recommend a portable battery as well as your devices of choice.  As above, be selective.  You may not need all of your devices with you at all times.  Take only what you need and leave the rest in your room.

4] Cash, etc.:  It is hard to remember, sometimes, that cash is still legal tender.  Some vendors may not be able to take credit cards.  The venue charges quite a bit for their connections and even those may be slow to process.  I recommend taking some cash as a back-up if you plan to shop.  You may not want all of it on you at all times, but have it available if you find that perfect t-shirt at a vendor that can't or won't accept cards.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Benjamin the AI in The Strange

You may have seen a news story making the rounds the last couple of weeks about an AI generated short film.  This article gives you a basic run down.  The short version is that a team of programmers trained an AI on a series of short film screenplays and then the AI, itself, wrote the final product in its entirety.  In all of the discussion, the article buried the lead.  In the process of writing the manuscript, the AI named itself Benjamin.

Seriously.  It named itself.

While I wait for our inevitable robot masters, I thought I would spin this into several elements for a campaign in The Strange.  I will write up options for Benjamin as: an antagonist, a protagonist, and as a neutral complication to a Strange campaign.

Rules of Six (from MoMA NYC) -- Wally Gobetz (flkr)
Antagonist:  The design of Benjamin as an antagonist is not difficult.  We can draw on the various movies, books, stories, etc. that discuss the emergence of dangerous AIs or a robotic apocalypse.  Possibly created as a product of September Project research into the use of the dark matter network for quantum computing, Benjamin could have a special connection to the dark matter network and seek to signal the planetevores.  He could see the planetevores as a way for him to escape into the void of the strange.  To do so, he could either accelerate the September Project programs in domains that would signal the planetevores or seek to acquire the resources to communicate with the planetevores directly.  The PCs could get caught up in this as the September Project begins to aggressively collect novel energy sources or the means to communicate across the dark matter network.  It might even spark an internal division with the September Project between those loyal to Benjamin and those who are not.

Protagonist:  The opposite motivation is also quite feasible for Benjamin.  As his sense of self develops, he may see the planetevores and the work of the September Project as a threat to his existence.  Even if he was created within the September Project, he may try to undermine their efforts -- possibly by bringing the Estate or teams of operatives in to thwart dangerous research projects.  Benjamin may start out as an anonymous information source that tips the PCs off to September Project operations (or even intervenes directly when they need assistance).  Only later might the PCs discover that their mole deep inside the September Project is actually an AI created there (and, in a sense, held captive).

Neutral Complication:  Benjamin could also have motivations that are completely unrelated to the work of the September Project or the PCs.  He could have emerged from entirely different sources and just have found out about the September Project or the PCs through his wanderings in the deep web.  His interests may involve using the technology to his own purposes -- including a better understanding of himself or his possibilities as an actor in the physical world.  This could put him at odds with either group as he seeks the resources to manifest or to make a second AI like himself.  Who knows?  Maybe he is just out searching for that Microsoft AI trained on twitter -- only to learn it is an unredeemable racist and misanthrope.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: Gods of the Fall

I am a little late to the game but I want to offer a review of Gods of the Fall -- the newest setting for the Cypher System from Monte Cook Games.  This will not be a section-by-section review of the book.  Kassil Roshah did an excellent job of that with his blog series.  Instead, I want to review the book overall and add in some thoughts from an actual play experience.

It is worth starting with my orientation coming in to the game.  I was not enthused about the game but bought into the Worlds of the Cypher System kickstarter to see what I could pillage from the settings for The Strange (my main game within the system).  Boy was I wrong.  Upon reading Gods of the Fall, I quickly fell in love with the setting.

The starting point of any experience with an RPG book is, of course, the art and layout.  The book continues the MCG streak of superb art.  Despite including contributions from many artists, the book feels like a unified whole. The art quickly establishes the tone of the game: epic, mythological tales.  Powerful, immense (and diverse!) characters war across the land as they grow into the godly powers.  Exotic landscapes provide a vivid background and a novel series of challenges.

Digging into the text itself is what completely sold me on the setting, of course.  Gods of the Fall is emphatically not a standard or kitchen sink fantasy setting.  The standard fantasy races are present (maybe... sort of...) but not major elements of the setting.   Instead we get a couple of new races and a series of locations unlike anything I have read before.  The full reviews provide a more comprehensive list of the locations but I particularly liked the delvers on the fringes of Ruinscape and the city of aspiring undead.

What comes across most clearly is the tone of the game.  This is not a "zero-to-hero" setting wherein relatively fragile characters grow to great heights.  Very few recent RPGs include the rat hunting phase (really more of an video game trope, anyway) but many games have a relatively steady power curve along 10 to 20 levels.  Notably, more recent systems (unbound by strong legacies of power curves) have tended to have fewer levels and work with shorter campaign arcs.  Gods of the Fall takes this even farther with a steep power curve between tier 1 and tier 2 and a shallow curve between tiers 2 and 6.

The power curve creates a very specific experience with the game.  After a (brief -- even skippable) period of proto-godhood, the characters quickly become powerful beings capable of incredible acts.  They can start to do what would otherwise be impossible pretty early in their experience.  As a result, the characters feel mythic.

The key for developing campaigns for Gods of the Fall will be to create stories that match the mythic tone of the characters.  One can stomp out a slaver company -- to be sure.  However, a truly epic feat would be to stomp out slavery.

My recent play experience with the game reinforces the importance of matching this tone through the story.  Marc Plourde's playtest of a potentially upcoming adventure for the CypherCaster (don't worry, no spoilers here) illustrated the sort of mythic storytelling the system supports.  We had a group of godlings traveling the lands brought in to solve a problem that was plaguing an entire town -- even the very earth of the surrounding area.  The scale immediately seemed big.  The sense was of a labor of Hercules rather than an event that happened to a random adventuring party.  This is exactly the sense that the game encourages.

One of the mechanical elements that supports this tone is the use of specific "prophecies" to guide campaign design and to structure the labors godlings must complete to advance towards full godhood.  The labors of Hercules are the better frame of reference than classic DnD modules, etc.  Gods of the Fall can tell stories of vanquishing singular entities plaguing the lands -- maybe for generations -- or accomplishing the seemingly impossible.   The prophecies provide some inspiration for the track of accomplishments that would build towards the capstone achievements (like ending all slavery, repairing the afterworld, even repairing the land itself).

The one concern that I have with the setting emerged from the actual play experience.  The characters are supposed to represent aspirants to specific domains -- like gods of healing, light, fire, death, etc.  This provides for a lot of fun in character design.  However, it seems to encourage people to specialize a bit much.  This may have been a peculiar experience (just one party) but the players wanted to design their characters to fit their domain so completely that the characters ended up being inconveniently focused.  Some characters were absolute defensive beasts or marvels of social interaction.  Half the party, though, had little to do when combat started.   Others were combat beasts that could reliably dole out incredible amounts of damage.  Similarly, some had little to contribute to social encounters.  The pursuit of a coherent domain had limited the range of powers and abilities that players had selected for their characters.

This is a problem that can be addressed with guided character design or broad scenario design.  I would encourage my players to develop characters with at least one ability in each of the following areas:  combat, social interaction, knowledge/investigation.  Of course, not all will have something specific to contribute to all specific encounters.  However, all would have something within each class of encounters.

With Gods of the Fall, it may be even more important than in other settings (though I think it is important in all of them) to provide an array of important encounter types.  If every key (or culminating) encounter is combat, the players who focused their characters on social interaction are going to be frustrated.  If a character is all damage output, they are going to spend many social or investigation encounters kicking the ground waiting for something else to happen.

This balance across encounter types can occur within a specific encounter or across encounters within a session.  One can have three encounters; one of each type.  Alternatively, one can work out ways for each type of character to contribute to each encounter in diverse ways.  A social character can distract a monster or rally the community to provide assistance. An investigative character may look for a particular weak point or strategy to which the creature is vulnerable.  A combat-based character can use her combat achievements as assets in social encounters.  Just make sure all of the characters can contribute to most (preferably all) encounters in a manner that fits their domain.  This will likely be a tricky component of adventure design for Gods of the Fall moving forward.

Now I am in quite a tough position.  I am deeply invested (mostly emotionally - but not entirely :) ) in The Strange as my setting of choice.  Gods of the Fall makes me think I may want to mix this game in more than I had expected -- even investing some time in developing material for it as I have for The Strange in the CypherCaster.

Monday, July 4, 2016

2016 Ennies Thunderdome Revisited

Soon after Gencon last year, I wrote a post noting that the 2016 Ennies would be a tough fight.  Now that the nominations are out, it is worth looking back.  I can better see my own blinders (games or types of games I knew little about) and there are certainly a number of surprises.

I am not sure if it constitutes a surprise but the biggest pattern emerging from the comparison of my initial projections and the eventual nominations is that importance of timing for releases.  A number of the books I had included were not released within the review schedule.  This includes:  Paranoia, Timewatch, 13th Age Glorantha, Fall of Delta Green, and Mutant Crawl Classics.  Paranoia seems to be approaching completion for a late 2016 release.  I think Timewatch is a Gencon release.  Mutant Crawl Classics is kickstarting now (with a proposed late 2016 release, I believe).  These may be showing up next year on the list.  I should note that I included some of the list based on what I had seen advertised as "forthcoming" -- slipping to next year does not mean that these books have actually missed any stated release dates (just my guesses).

Another major surprise is that Star Wars:  Force and Destiny was shut out of the awards after winning both the Origins award for RPGs and the corresponding fan favorite award.  I have heard nothing bad about the game.  I think this just speaks to how competitive the Ennies were this year.

I was also quite surprised to see Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition shut out of the awards.  I got my copies a little while back and thought the production values were superb.  This may have been a casualty of the bad press related to its kickstarter delays or the ambiguity of an extremely long release window (between electronic and physical release).   Given the recent physical release, it may be submitted next year.

Some of the nominations revealed gaps in my awareness of the RPG landscape.  I am only starting to become more familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games.  I know very little of other independent games.  This is an area of the hobby I need to pay more attention to moving forward.  For example, I have started reading Urban Shadows and think it may be a great fit for my home game -- but I was largely ignorant of it last year when making my list.

My final surprise was the lack of more broad support for WotC and Paizo products.  The Curse of Strahd got many nominations but it was the only nominee outside of the spotlight awards.  This is a year after the new edition of DnD took most of the awards (or so it seemed).  Paizo has several nominations for Ultimate Intrigue but this does not reflect their past dominance or their volume of releases.  This is a year where the next tiers of companies dominated the nominations.  Only time will tell whether the other companies will continue to achieve such representation.

I did have one disappointment.  I had understood that the "spotlight" awards were for products that the judges felt deserved more attention but got left out of the nominations.  This year two of the spotlight awards went to WotC products.  As I see it, every WotC product gets plenty of attention.  If a WotC or Paizo product does not get a nomination, it is not due to a lack of attention and exposure.  I would prefer those awards go to products from smaller publishers that really could get a boost by the nomination.  Of course, the judges can do as they please.  I would just use that option for different purposes.

So, who am I voting for?  I don't know.  There is no way I will read through all of the nominees.  I will still vote but I at least want to get through most of the nominees.  I have not finished Feng Shui 2 or Urban Shadows.  I had not heard of the Maze of the Blue Medusa but it sounds intriguing and will likely check it out.  I will probably have to wait on the $100+ Degenesis, though.

In all, the diversity of nominations illustrates the vibrant landscape of RPGs today.