Encounter at the Mystic Pool

A scene featuring a medley of Dynamic Hills, Ghost Stones, and the Mystic Portal terrain pieces. Plus, an ettin painted in classic AD&D 2e skin tones.

 

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Some (brief) thoughts on 13th Age

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13th Age is a game I fell in love with from the start, after reading enough of the core rulebook to get a feel for the design philosophy that Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet were going for with their game. This is incredibly ironic, considering how much of 13th Age’s design borrows from 4e, which I really didn’t like as an RPG. It’s been aptly described as a hybrid of 3.5 and 4e with some new mechanics of its own added to the mix.

Although this may sound like a recipe for a jumbled, unplayable mess, it works surprisingly well, especially considering how vastly the mechanics for 3.5 and 4e differ from each other. I had gotten the core book for 13th Age less than a year after the 4-year D&D campaign that I ran wrapped up. I remember thinking at the time that this is the game that 4th Edition should have been and that I very likely would have run A Time of Dragons using this system had it been available then.

Sadly, I’ve only gotten to play an actual game of 13th Age a handful of times, when I ran a very short-lived campaign for two of my friends. The campaign got off to an exciting, memorable start, but life events and schedule changes soon after caused our tiny group and campaign to dissolve. But I happily can say that the experience of playing 13th Age lived up to the expectations that had formed in my mind after reading the core rulebook.

The system is for experienced players. Like 5e, the focus is on storytelling, and 13th Age lends itself more to theater of the mind style play, even more than 5e. The blend of 4e-style combat mechanics with this style of play is truly an impressive feat, considering how trying to play through a battle in 4e without miniatures and a battle map makes about as much sense as using Windows without a mouse — technically possible, but utterly impractical. The game leans heavily on the improv skills of the GM and players, and those with the ability and willingness to put in the effort to create a collaborative story will be rewarded with many memorable moments, as my players and I were despite being able to play only a few sessions.

Since getting the core book for 13th Age, I’ve added a few other items to my collection. A copy of 13 True Ways was something that’s been on my radar almost from the start, but I only recently acquired one. I didn’t participate in the Kickstarter for 13 True Ways because I hadn’t even heard of 13th Age until after it was over, but I almost certainly would have if I had been aware of this game at that time. Although I haven’t played 13th Age in several years, it’s definitely something I want to revisit again, and even just paging through 13 True Ways has reminded me of how much I like this game.

Rounding out the collection

Nearly 10 years ago, during the early stages of running what grew into an epic, 4-year D&D campaign that I ran for my friends, we faced a crucial decision. I had been running what I had envisioned as a narrative miniatures campaign using a very light set of rules (along with the setting) adapted from Reaper’s miniature game, Warlord. However, a few games in, because of the strong storytelling aspect of the games, as my players naturally started approaching the scenarios with more of an RPG mindset rather than one geared for a miniatures game, I realized it made more sense to transition to a bona-fide RPG rather than continuing to wing it using the rules-light system that I had cobbled together. The question was, which system to use?

Interestingly enough, the timing of this transition coincided with the end of 3.5, and the impending arrival of 4e. Pathfinder was also in its nascent, pre-published form, having recently been announced as well. Other than my wife and myself, everyone involved in that campaign had little experience with tabletop gaming, and none at all when it came to D&D, so I had the luxury and privilege of deciding essentially on my own which system our group would use. I decided relatively early on that it would be between 3.5 or 4e. Pathfinder looked interesting, but I wanted to go with something that was already (or about to be) published rather than waiting another year before being able to get my hands on printed versions of the core books (I did ultimately adopt a few of Pathfinder’s mechanics for sorcerers into the campaign, however).

Like many other gamers, some of the things I had seen in previews for 4e had me concerned, but overall, I thought it looked promising, so I kept an open mind before its release. I was eager to try it out and got to play in a demo game with my wife and one of our friends shortly after its release. My response at the time was that I thought it was ok. We had fun with the demo and had a couple of memorable story moments, but it felt like too much of the focus of gameplay was on the mechanics themselves rather than having the mechanics facilitate the gameplay experience that is unique to tabletop RPGs.

Another 4e demo game sometime later, plus some forays as an observer in the edition wars confirmed my initial thoughts. I’m not offering any new insights here, but for the record, my thoughts about 4e can be summed up this way: it was a radical departure from previous versions of D&D. This didn’t make it a bad game, but one could arguably say that this did make made it a bad D&D game. I think the description of it being essentially a tabletop version of an MMORPG, with its emphasis on powers, even for things like basic melee attacks, and the frequency at which they could be used, is a fair one. That being said, while it may have been a bad D&D game, it excelled at what it was designed for: gameplay that focused on small-scale, tactical combat.

Had it been marketed as something other than the next edition of D&D (or possibly even as a spin-off game based on D&D), there would probably have been little controversy. Of course, the trade-off would’ve been not being able to lean on the D&D brand to help market the game and boost sales — not to mention the logistics and potential problems involved in supporting multiple product lines (which TSR had already experienced previously in its history). Then again, while WOTC/Hasbro were able to leverage the D&D brand to boost sales, it’s reasonable to question whether or not the resulting damage to the brand from the controversy surrounding 4th Edition was worth it.

I decided to go with 3.5 for the campaign. It had officially come to the end of its life cycle, but it was a new system for me and and my gaming group. My friends and I switched the campaign over to the new rules. It successfully ran its course over the next several years, with the PCs going from low-level fledglings to 15th-level heroes by the end. At the same time, I saw my collection of 3.5 books fill out from the three core books to taking up a decent amount of space on my shelf. Since that time, 4e also ran its course, and we’ve seen the advent of 5e. I’ve picked up many of the 5e books and even added a smattering of 4th edition books to my collection — but not the core books themselves.

A year or two ago, I decided that although I’m not terribly fond of 4th edition, given that D&D has been a part of my life for so long, I wanted have at least the core books as part of my collection. to own a copy of every edition of the game. I would occasionally search online and at Half Price Books, but I was never thrilled with the prices I saw for the condition that the books were in — for a relatively unpopular edition, the books still seem to be steadily climbing in price as time goes on.

I actually hadn’t thought much about them in a while, but as luck would have it, I recently came across someone selling a brand-new set online for a steal, and I jumped on it without any hesitation. The books have since arrived and found a new home on my shelf, and I now own a set of core books for every edition of the game.

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Anyone else just realize that the dragon on the cover of the DMG is scrying on the heroes on the cover of the Player’s Handbook?

 

 

Well, complete except for the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual that I lent out to some old friends over a decade ago… And everything starting from AD&D 1st Edition, anyway; I’ve never actually owned a Basic set – Red Box, White Box, original, reprint, or otherwise. Not yet, at least.

“THAC0” appears in the 5e PHB!

Came across this (admittedly extremely old-school gamer nerdy) Easter egg the other day while scouring the index in the back of the D&D 5th edition Player’s Handbook for something else entirely:

THAC0

I was already aware of the “couch gag”-style blurbs that appear at the front of each book because I’m just the type of person who looks at that part of the book; but I hadn’t heard about THAC0 being included as entry in the index. Sure, it just redirects you to the entry for “attack roll,” but the fact that it actually appears in printed form at all serves both as an inside joke for old-school gamers that’s sure to confound anyone who started playing D&D with 3rd Edition and later, and further indication of Wizard’s dedication to reaching out and reuniting D&D players under one banner.

Some Thoughts on Lords of Waterdeep

At just over five years old, Lords of Waterdeep is a modern classic — which is a polite way of saying that, in boardgame years, it’s kind of old. On the other hand, considering that it’s still being played five years later demonstrates that it’s withstood the test of time thus far; personally, I’ll rarely turn down an opportunity to play it.

We had six guys at our recent game night — slightly more than our usual four or five. Most of the games in our respective collections top out at five or less. Furthermore, Ty was joining us the first time, so we wanted to avoid jumping too far into the deep end right away. These parameters narrowed down our options pretty significantly. Fortunately he did have some prior gaming experience (including playing D&D), so Lords of Waterdeep fit the bill perfectly.

At its core, Lords of Waterdeep is a fairly straightforward worker-placement game. Each player, taking on the role of one of the hidden (as in, secret) lords of the City of Splendors, sends their agents out to various locations around the city to recruit adventurers to go out and complete quests. The rewards for completing quests normally come in the form of influence over the city, represented by victory points, but they can also take the form of gold or even additional adventurers. Taking a page from Ticket to Ride, each player is randomly assigned a lord at the start of the game which gives them bonus points at the end, typically based on types of quests completed, but there are a few exceptions.

There are five basic resources in the game: four types of adventurers (fighters, rogues, clerics, wizards) and gold coins. Each quest requires a specific group of adventurers, and frequently a sum of gold as well. Gold is also used to purchase buildings — other locations around the city where agents can be sent in order to recruit adventurers, earn gold, or gain other types of benefits, ranging from the relatively mundane to the quite powerful. Of course, this being a worker-placement game, there is also a sixth resource, the most precious one of all, hidden in plain sight: the number of actions available to you over the course of the game, represented by the number of agents under your control. Each player has the same number of agents throughout the game, but there are a few ways to do some “sequence breaking” and acquire additional actions.

Everything functions within a fairly tight set of parameters. Although not explicitly stated, there’s a firm exchange rate in place on the relative value of adventurers, which can be seen with a little effort by comparing the number of adventurers required to complete a quest with the rewards that it yields. Essentially, two coins equals one fighter or rogue, and two fighters or rogues (or one of each) is equal to one cleric or wizard. The starting locations also bear this out, as you can recruit fighters and rogues in pairs at their usual hangouts, but only a single cleric or wizard at their respective locations. There’s also a starting location that earns you four coins.

There is a clear effort in the design to balance all of the moving parts and for the benefits of each action to be incremental and sometimes even beneficial for multiple parties. For example, when a player sends an agent to building, that player receives the reward for placing their agent there, but the owner also receives a small bonus as well. Likewise, Intrigue Cards will frequently provide a bonus to multiple players, not just the one who plays it. Even Intrigue Cards that attack other players aren’t terribly punishing.

The board is reasonably sized, but you’ll never have too much space available to play this game.

 

For those steeped in D&D lore (specifically, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting), the game takes on extra flavor and immersion. The quests themselves are fairly thematic. For example, a mission to break into an ancient crypt is primarily rogues’ work, but a wizard or two may be necessary in order to assist with any magical dangers that may be present.

On the other hand, a common criticism of game is that the theme feels tacked-on. This is a fair assessment, and something that will be felt most acutely by those who are not familiar with the setting. Extrapolating from the name of a quest why a particular group of adventurers is needed requires a little imagination on the parts of the players, and being familiar well-versed with D&D, or fantasy tropes in general at the very least, is definitely helpful in this regard. Making the extra effort to refer to the cubes as the type of adventurers that they represent (not simply by their color) along with reading the little bits of flavor text that are present on the Quest and Intrigue cards will also go a long way for creating a sense of immersion.

The tight design of Lord’s of Waterdeep, whileone of its greatest strengths, is also an easy target for criticism. For all of the flavor present in the quests, there really is no differentiating one type of quest from another. Sure, Piety quests will typically require clerics and Skullduggery will require rogues, but they’re all simply worth points in the end based on a fairly straightforward calculation and they are mechanically identical; the only reason to choose one over another is based on the particular lord you’ve drawn and the types of quests they earn bonus points for.

The burdens that accompany the role of being one of the hidden lords of Waterdeep proved to be too much for Spike.

 

Expansions
Lords of Waterdeep has two expansions available (or “modules” as they are referred to within the game, a nod to classic D&D lingo): Undermountain and Skullport. Both come in a single expansion set called Scoundrels of Skullport (a questionable marketing move since by focusing on “Skullport,” the name downplays the fact that there are two expansions present in the package).

Undermountain is basically what Prosperity is to Dominion: no changes to core mechanics or gameplay, just more of it, bigger and better. It adds a new section to the board with several powerful areas where lords can send their agents, along with bigger quests that require larger groups of adventurers going for bigger payoffs, and more expensive buildings that provide greater benefits to their patrons. It adds a new layer of decision-making: is it better to complete several lower-point quests, or go for more difficult but higher-value ones? Worker-placement games are fundamentally about action economy and determining optimal moves. It takes fewer actions to complete a single higher-value quest, but it requires more actions to recruit the requisite number of adventurers, so it’s not always clear which is the better decision.

I’m not sure if there’s a direct Dominion analog for Skullport. Alchemy would probably be the closest because, as with Alchemy, Skullport also adds a new resource type and with it, new mechanics: corruption. “Resource” is actually a misnomer because, while it must be carefully managed, it’s a negative side effect that comes frim sending agents down into Skullport, the seedy (literal) underbelly of Waterdeep, represented by another separate board with new starting locations, or by participating in particularly unsavory actions (new quests and Intrigue Cards). The payoffs for sending your agents to these places is significantly greater than for sending them to the more reputable parts of the city, but they come at a steep price — represented by subtracting victory points for every corruption token that you possess (or does they possess you?) at the end of the game. In a really clever example of game design, the tokens start out on a corruption track and are removed as players earn them, revealing a progressively worse negative value for each token. A small taste of corruption can help an ambitious lord get ahead; too much will easily bury him or her in the end. As with Undermountain, Skullport introduces its own set of new buildings, quests, and Intrigue Cards.

Each expansion adds three new lords to the game, with benefits that are more interesting than the standard “earn 4 victory points for these two types of quests” from the base game. In our gaming group, we have a house rule where we divide the lords according to whether they come from the base game or the expansions. Each player is randomly given one from each group and chooses the one that they wish to play as. My personal favorite is the beholder crime lord of Skullport known as the Xanathar.

In a nearly complete inversion of the corruption mechanic, and one of the rare instances where the mechanics and theme of using a particular lord converge, the Xanathar actually scores 4 VP for each corruption token at the end of the game. The catch is that he still takes the penalty as well. Effective play with the Xanathar comes down to making the most of locations and quests that confer corruption, carving out enough of a lead over the other players during the game in order to still be in the lead even after lords are revealed and bonus points for quest type are awarded. This is decidedly not how it turned out for me during my group’s last game.

I got the Xanathar! Oh, happy day.

 

We played the full version of the game, using both expansions, and I was thrilled that I drew the Xanathar as one of my lords. However, I ended up struggling to score many points during the game, due to a combination of some sub-optimal choices I made early on, as well as the vissicitudes of the game, particularly which quests came up. There was a relatively low number of the big 40-point quests that showed up, which meant that they were even more valuable when someone was able to score one. Despite having a fairly high number of completed quests none of them were of the coveted 40-point variety, and I finished in fourth place.

My resources and completed quests at the end of the game. Needs more points.

 

For almost the entire game, it appeared that Nick was going to finish closer to the bottom than the top. Nick has earned the reputation of being our resident game shark, so no matter who wins, it’s always at least a minor victory for everyone else as long as it’s not him. [Just kidding, Nick, you’re awesome! Please don’t take umbrage and destroy me even worse in whatever game we play next!] However, in the last round, he pulled off an impressive combo involving a couple of different Intrigue cards and Quests, rocketing past several other players on the score track, and finishing tied with Joe at a respectable 124 points after bonus points were tallied. Of course, being Nick, he ended the game with more coins in his tavern than Joe, winning the tie-breaker and the game.

Although it wasn’t a very good showing for me, I got to make some fun plays over the course of the game. I drew an “Open Lord” Intrigue Card early on. Playing it meant that I revealed to everyone that I was, in fact, the Xanathar, but it also made me immune to Mandatory Quests and other attacks from the other players for the remainder of the game. I was also able to complete the “Unleash Crime Spree” quest during my final turn, true to form for the Xanathar and a (im)moral victory at least. I may not have won, but I got to tell a fun story with the quests that I completed.

It was an enjoyable game with an exciting and unbelievable ending, and I’m happy to have logged another play with this classic.

 

#100: Sir Conlan

For my 100th post I thought I’d wax nostalgic for a bit about one of my all-time favorite miniatures: Sir Conlan, from Reaper’s tabletop miniatures game, Warlord. The game itself has been dead for some time now, but they still sell the miniatures. Most of the sculpts are fairly high quality, and there are some standouts, but to be honest, most of it is the standard stuff that you’d expect to find in a range of fantasy minis. All of that aside, Sir Conlan holds a special place in my gaming history.

In the fall of 2004, I found myself at a Hobbytown USA in Pittsburgh, PA. At that point, I had been away from any serious tabletop gaming for several years. I was staring at a display wall of metal minis, many of which were part of something called “Warlord.” The blister packs contained not only the minis, but colorful cards with an image of a painted version of each miniature as well, and on the back was a a list of the figure’s stats and abilities. While I had painted plenty, I had only dabbled in miniatures games before, but I was genuinely intrigued by the Warlord minis, and I chose Sir Conlan as my first purchase.

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Sir Conlan 2004 (metal version)

I painted Sir Conlan over the course of the next week or two, at the same time trying to find out more about Warlord. I was already familiar with Reaper, but I didn’t know that they were making a fantasy miniatures game. I soon acquired the core rulebook for Warlord and, over the next several months, got a few games in with my wife and some of our friends. Sir Conlan was from the Crusaders faction, so that’s what I started collecting and painting. I didn’t have many official Warlord minis yet, so we proxied about 90% of our armies.

I also got back into playing D&D with a short-lived campaign that one of my friends ran during this time, and I liked the Sir Conlan miniature so much that I used him to represent my character, a half-elf fighter/mage. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it was close enough to work.

Today, while I still have a good portion of my collection of Warlord minis, it’s considerably smaller than it once was, and I haven’t actually played Warlord in several years. It’s a fine game, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it if I played it again; but the reality is that gaming is a social hobby, and it’s much easier to play games that already have an existing player base and not one that you have to build yourself.

Although it’s in my past now, I owe a debt of gratitude to WarlordLooking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment of my serious return to gaming; it took me several years to get as deep into tabletop gaming as I am now, but getting into Warlord, beginning with Sir Conlan, is where it started.

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The plastic Bones version, painted in 2016

Bones Iron Golem

A quick paintjob on the new Iron Golem, one of my favorite miniatures from the Bones 3 Kickstarter, and one of my favorite D&D monsters. Sometimes, you just want the satisfaction of finishing a project in a short amount of time, and minis with simple paint schemes are great for this. I’m fairly certain that I spent more time prepping it and finishing the base than I did actually painting it. I opted for a darker metal color to make him more imposing.

Reaper produced a complete set of the four basic golems types in the first Bones Kickstarter, but I always felt that that iron golem was kind of puny. This time around, they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction, and this one positively towers over adventurers and even the other golems. As I commented before, this mini actually seems a little too big at first, but it actually fits the description from the Monster Manual (whichever edition you choose).

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