Thursday, March 29, 2012

Off for a little island adventure...

Man I wish I was going to places like this, just have to settle for another work trip. Be out and about with spotty internet for a week or so. Until then enjoy some thematic jungle ruins from Mike Franchina. He's got some amazingly inspirational stuff up on his blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Eaten by Zombies

Periodically I’ll be participating in the game night blog carnival, which gives me a chance to review some board games that might be a good break from your typical RPG session nights. Be sure to check out the other participants and their blogs.

This month I’ve got a fairly new entry into the deck-building themed games, Eaten by Zombies. Players are regular Joes and Janes trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse periodically running out of their safe house to scavenge supplies, all the while either avoiding or fighting their undead neighbors. What results is a fairly competitive, cutthroat card game with a slight cooperative twist.

Play is rather simple beginning by turning over a card from the zombie deck. At that point a player can decide to either fight or flee from the zombie horde in front of them. Their hand will comprise of swag cards that help them run, fight, or draw cards to potentially add to their fight/flee ability. To beat off the zombie horde, or valiantly run away, they simply must match the values on the zombie cards for fighting or fleeing. Players will find that very tough zombies are easier to run away from, while zombies easy to kill are harder to run away from.

If they successfully kill all the zombies, or run away from the horde, players can then gather up swag (cards from a common pool) equal to value of the cards played. Note that this means that players can play far more cards needed to kill off a lone zombie, simply to increase their played card value so they can pick up that expensive shotgun as swag. These swag cards are immediately placed in the player’s hand. This is a very subtle mechanic. Players will begin to see that they can tailor their hand to plan out their actions for the following turn, focusing on gaining flee or fight cards. Killed zombies are added to the players discard pile (ending up in the player’s draw deck on future turns).

If players fail to fight off or run away from the horde, they can lose a lot of cards. These cards must be from their hand, or their draw deck. When fighting zombies, fortunately you can always take out a few, reducing the number of cards needed to discard. All of the swag cards discarded this way are returned to the common pool to be picked up by everyone on later turns. Players cannot discard zombies in their hand, but can discard them from their draw deck (if they are lucky enough to draw them off the top).

Even when players successfully run away, they must discard some cards. However they also have the option of losing cards from their discard deck (except those pesky zombie cards). Again, this becomes a subtle mechanic where players might select weak swag cards to gain in their hand, only to use those newly gained cards as a discard (or even replace cards lost running from the horde).

If a player is ever required to discard more cards than the combined total in their hand or draw deck (including cards in their discard pile), they lose the game. It will also be increasingly difficult to get rid of zombies cards that the player kills, so if they ever draw a hand with all six cards being zombies, they also lose the game.

Zombie cards are fairly tough to get rid of, but they can be played to increase the size of a horde that other players face. This is something that will usually throw a wrench into their opponent’s plans, as they realize the lone zombie they could have easily run away from now has become a huge group. Again, another subtle mechanic is that players cannot draw up to their full hand of 6 cards until the end of their turn. While they might gleefully throw zombies into fights for other players, they’ll be faced with a limited hand size on their own turn. It makes for an interesting choice during play.

Lastly, if a player is eliminated, it doesn’t mean they are out of the game. They instead become a zombie player. They gain a smaller hand solely of zombie cards which they use to turn other players into zombies (by forcing opponents to hold 6 zombie cards). This is exceedingly difficult to pull off, but possible. Avoiding complete elimination and including another means of winning the game is a nice touch.

Of course not everything has to be so cutthroat. All the players could also pull off a cooperative win, by killing all the zombies in the game. Like the zombie win condition, this is difficult to pull off, but might be enticing enough to encourage a few players to work together near the end of the game.

Surprisingly even with the amount of control due to building up your hand prior to your next turn, things can be deceptive as the zombies you face could mushroom to a huge group due to other players. Additionally, on later turns, more and more zombies are revealed each time the zombie deck runs out and is reshuffled. As there are varying toughness and speeds of zombies, it can become increasingly difficult to predict if you have enough cards to successfully fight or flee.

The game has an interesting flow. Things progress fairly slowly as players build up their hands and deck. But with a twist of fate it all can come crashing down as players might have to discard a third of their deck or more. When things go bad, they usually go really bad, and it can be almost impossible to crawl away from a dust up with a growing zombie horde. It captures this impending dread of being overwhelmed by the undead rather well.

The Good - The mechanics for a deck-building game are rather tight. You focus on building up your hand primarily, and adding to your deck as a secondary goal. This allows you to focus on the immediate game, rather than tuning your deck of cards in hopes of good draws in future turns. I also like how everyone stays in the game, even if they get devoured (although being able to win as a zombie is difficult). Also, interaction with other players becomes a key part of the game as people begin to kill off zombies.

The artwork is rather good and the overall design of the cards is sharp. The game comes with a series of dividers with additional clarifications of their effects which is a nice touch. I like how you can get a random assortment of different swag cards before each game, adding to the replayability.

The Bad - Even with a solid hand, you can get a raw deal with the zombies you are faced with. A game can quickly degenerate down to ‘let’s pick on the little guy’ with folks just piling on a player to wipe them out quickly. Getting crushed in one deal, losing half your deck, is difficult to come back from. So the vicious game play can rub some people the wrong way. Be prepared to be brutal playing this game.

I like the overall card design, but the color scheme can be a bit of an eyesore. I get the idea of using different backgrounds to represent weapons from other items, but a more subtle color pallet would have been nice.

The Verdict - Eaten by Zombies is an odd game. On one hand you have these nifty hand building elements, allowing to hone your cards and plan out your next turn. When you successfully kill a zombie or deftly flee, you craftily pick up or discard the cards needed for your next turn. This is an elegant mechanic for deck building games. Only it’s saddled with random zombie card draws, and with players being able to unexpectedly pile on more zombies. The outcome of a fight (or flee) gone bad can be particularly harsh, where a player can suddenly find themselves crippled for the game.

And this is what makes Eaten by Zombies hard to pin down. You’ve got this portion that has a solid strategy element, only it seems marred by this huge random part of the game. Even worse, a completely unexpected draw of cards can wipe a player out for the remainder (mind you I am not talking about elimination, but not having any options such that it becomes impossible to have any other outcome than being a zombie on later turns). It’s odd that for something that has so much strategic play, you have this wildly unpredictable aspect.

In the end it is a strange mix. You’ve got a game having this potential to unfold crazy events due to other players (throwing an army of zombies at an opponent). If it kept that theme throughout, I think folks would enjoy it more. No one complains about Munchkin as the theme of the game is telegraphed to everyone at the start. Munchkin is about screwing your friends over. However Eaten by Zombies has this other strategic aspect to the game and in the end I feel it gives very mixed messages to the player. Even with playing smart and planning out your moves, you can still get wiped out, so why bother? Why have this portion of a player’s turn dedicated to thoughtful decisions, if it can be countered so easily by a random draw of the zombie deck.

As a cheap game, for those that love zombie themes, I can see some enjoying this. It really does seem to capture that hopelessness of being surrounded by zombies. It is not a bad game and with the right crowd of friends that enjoy thwarting the plans of their buddies, this is something they will get a kick out of. However is this game fun with a variety of player styles? Would it be worth picking up on a limited budget (or trying to keep a limited game library)? I’d say in that case folks might want to pass on this. I like Eaten by Zombies, but I can’t rave about this game being a must have.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making alpha mutation decks through a card draft

The alpha mutation cards in Gamma World are a pretty fun. After every encounter, or if a player rolls a 1 on a d20, the player draws a new mutation card to replace the one in his hand (or had used). Other environmental effects can also cause a player to draw a new card. It can be a lot of fun using this mechanic, however the player is totally at the whim of cards in the GM deck. To get around this, a player could assemble his own personal deck of cards. This might be desired if a character is going after a certain theme of mutations for RP reasons, or just prefers powers that would work off a specific stat.

I imagine WotC would then love the player to go out and purchase several booster card packs to create their own personal deck of cards. Good marketing there. An optional part of the game, but the diehard player may just decide to jump in an buy a ton of cards to get a little more control on his mutation draws. A workaround for this however is using a mechanic in many boardgames and other card games, a card draft.

Out of the box, Gamma World has 44 mutation cards (40 in the deck and 4 from an included booster pack). Staying with the 7 card minimum deck, you can have 6 players each having their own personal alpha mutation deck without having buy any additional booster packs. You generate these decks by dealing out all the cards, each player selects a card they want, passing the excess to another player.

As a step by step example:

1. Deal out all the cards - Some players will end up with extra cards, don’t worry about this. However you could always have all the players roll off, with the highest roll (resolving ties) being the first player dealt.

2. Each player selects a single card - Each player goes through all the cards in their hand, and selects one card they want to keep. They set that card aside for their deck.

3. Pass the remaining cards - Each player then passes the remaining cards to the player on their left.

Repeat steps 2-3 until a deck of 7 cards is made for each player.

Each player will eventually have 7 cards they have set aside. This is their deck for the night’s game. The remaining cards are given to the GM as his mutation deck.

I like having the excess cards given to the GM to allow for alpha flux mutations from other weird sources. If a player runs out of alpha cards in his deck he can draw from the GM deck. If you want a little more structured game, when a player runs out of cards allow them to reshuffle their discard pile and place it face down to make a new draw deck.

You can do a card draft for omega tech cards, but I prefer keeping them as a single GM deck. Yet instead of handing out a specified card to each player individually, deal the cards in a single pile face up on the table. Allow the players to barter, argue, or agree (boooooorrrring) on which card they will take. This way there is a little control the players have in choosing what tech card they want, but it is still a random draw. I like this better than giving the players a chance to draw from their own stacked omega tech deck.

If you have players complaining about the wildness of alpha mutation cards, and want to give them a little more control with the types they get, consider using a card draft. You get a pretty good selection right out of the box and can accommodate quite a few players at the table.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Giving Savage Worlds a spin

So last month I wrapped up my one and a half year D&D campaign and was looking for some new worlds to adventure in. I was clamping at the bit to get into Dark Sun and was pretty excited about DMing it. My players ranged from don't-care-let's-play-something, to I'm-not-too-big-into-fantasy. Given that the old campaign was a little dark, the idea of jumping into another bleak setting like Dark Sun was also a minus for some folks. So I had to think of other options.

I floated out an idea of playing the new version of Gamma World, possibly a 30s supernatural game using Savage Worlds, or maybe jump into the new version of Traveller. All were well received but Traveller was at the top of the list. I like the newest version from Mongoose Publishing and the rule system is pretty easy mechanic-wise, but I kept looking over my Savage Worlds books.

Traveller would be an entirely new system for everyone (including myself as a GM). So I'd have to go through the ropes of getting everyone into the mechanics of the game. If we wanted to take a break and jump into another genre, likely they'd have to learn an entirely new system. Gamma World wasn't an issue for them on this point. As we had played it before and everyone knew 4E very well. So while I liked Traveller and was eager to give it a whirl, I didn't want to get my group into a tailored system for just that game. If we wanted to jump into a superhero game, or maybe try out the 30s supernatural campaign for a few games, it would cut into our play time having to get everyone up to speed with different RPG systems.

So I decided to put work into making a Savage World (SW) conversion for Traveller. There are all ready quite a few conversions out there. Not to mention that SW all ready is pretty generic to run just about anything right out of the book. I've also decided to focus on a few key bits within Traveller to work with SW. That way for a good chunk of the game, like spaceship combat, buying and selling goods, etc. I can use the values in Traveller, just quickly port it over to SW.

The biggest hurdle was trying to distill the various skills from Traveller down to a more truncated list for SW. A tad daunting, but something I was able to do. Likely there will be some more changes and not everything fits perfectly. However I think it's good enough and my players will likely not be too irked by some of the skill swapping.

I'm liking this as Savage Worlds is very modular. If we want to take a break from Sci-Fi opera and try something else out, both myself and the players can switch gears pretty easily and not have to worry about learning another completely new RPG system. I think with posts on the blog you can expect a few directed more to Savage Worlds in the future. Yet I'll still be plenty focused on dispensing my opinionated, bloated ego and ideas on D&D topics too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Using monster templates and themes

I’ve taken a stab at using the DDI monster builder and found it a little clunky but serviceable. However I still was looking for offline tools that would allow me to tinker with making custom monsters. Another resource out there, straight out of the DMG, were monster templates and themes.

I tend to think monster templates and themes never really got any ground with DMs. It’s a clever idea. You’ve got a few key characteristic powers and traits you can slap on just about any monster and end up with a custom creature. The DMG2 expanded on this and gave some more general powers based on the role of the monster. Even an article or two in Dungeon magazine had a few templates (#190). One hiccup however with using templates (or themes) was that some of the earlier ones didn’t scale too well in level.

There was a workaround to this as the math for setting damage, defenses, and to hit bonuses were readily available. So with a little work, you could tweak the powers to make a level appropriate creature. This is one great thing about 4E, a lot of the numbers behind the scenes in the design were freely accessible, allowing for tinkering that made it difficult to break the game.

Enter the DM Cheat Sheet over at Sly Flourish, offering the most handy table any DM would ever need. This breaks down all the bonuses and average damage for any monster, level by level. Granted you could figure all of these values out, but looking it up on a chart makes the process tons easier. Not to mention the chart has been adjusted to the ‘new math’ for monsters, making them more on par with the PCs.

What is really great about this chart is that it makes some of the monster templates more flexible (especially many in the DMG2). The listed damage in these templates can be altered to reflect something more appropriate for that monster level. This also works wonders for creatures in the monster manuals. I can switch out the attack bonuses and damage with expected values for that monster level, and create a creature that can provide a sufficient challenge to the group.

Now, I’ve got a handy means to make some unique monsters on the fly. If I need to create some ice demon cultist group, I can switch out a few keywords and swap particular defences, HP, and damage output, making something that I am more confident will not TPK my players (or be a complete pushover).

Take Lolth’s Chosen from the DMG2 for this imaginary ice demon cultist group. You could drop out the poison keyword for many of the powers and use cold instead (imagine a biting, icy, cold spreading across the player’s body when they are hit). The cloud of darkness power could be described as a blast of hurling snow, which blinds the players. Scuttling escape could mean the ground is suddenly covered with a sheen of thin ice that the monsters could freely shift through. Not all the powers in the theme match, but with a little wrangling you could give your monsters a few custom powers making them stand out.

It’s too bad this hasn’t been explored more as articles in Dungeon. Having a greater variety of templates and themes offering different powers, particularly for certain monster roles and minions, would be a nice set of tools for that DM looking to spice up their game. Still, altering customizing monsters is a little less nebulous with 4E and a snap to do using themes and templates. I encourage folks to try it for their game.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hoping healing surges stick around

I’ve got a bit of a rant with the latest Legends and Lore up on WotC’s site about saving throws, but I’m going to stew on that a bit. However a portion of the article throws out the idea of tagging effects based on hit point status. It’s something that could work, but I wonder if healing surges might be more appropriate as a gauge of relative fitness. And the failure of mentioning them makes me wonder if healing surges might make the cut for DnDNext. If not, that is sort of a shame.

I love healing surges, something I’ve gushed about before. They offer a way to rethink about what hit points represent. They also reinforce the idea that HP loss can mean more than just physical damage drawing blood.

From just healing potential, I can see curbing the number of healing surges characters have. The more defender types can be brought to death’s door twice before having to worry if a healer is available, and that isn’t even counting the bonus healing from leader powers. So trimming the total number by 2-3 surges likely could give some fights a bit more threat. I’d even go to say that first fight or two in an adventure is primarily there to whittle away healing surges and give more threat to later fights by drying up those potential healing resources.

However I’d offer an alternative to trimming down the number of healing surges by expanding their effects. They offer a unique form of currency for game resources. I would approach healing surges more as the PC’s will, endurance, vitality, and desire to push on against adverse conditions. In that light, the role of healing surges might be expanded to other enhance other abilities besides just granting HP.

They could be used to supplement attacks. Rather than encounter powers, allow a PC to double their damage spending a healing surge. It could be possible to allow particular feats to expand the area of effect for spells, or improve healing output, all at the cost of a healing surge. The player is drawing on reserves to give that certain attack or spell their all. Most importantly, there is a hard limit to what they can possibly do each day before they have to rest and recharge. It also gives PCs an interesting choice, do they burn through healing surges to enhance abilities? Or do they try to keep some in reserve for restoring lost HP?

Another great characteristic about healing surges is that it gives more flexibility to the DM when dealing damage, and also for rewards. Think instead of having a level drain effect, healing surges are drained (and if healing surges have a role with abilities and powers this could definitely hinder the player).

I’d be lax in failing to mention Fourthcore too.Those folks have worked in some particularly nasty monster powers targeting healing surges for PCs, rather than simply docking chunks of HP. Having a kill encounter power that will drain a specified number of healing surges (and if the PC doesn’t they die outright) can be particularly vicious.

I hope healing surges are in DnDNext. They provide a lot of flexibility for the DM when considering ways to damage players over just whittling down HP. They could also provide a unique game resource if the functionality of surges expand beyond just granting HP. It’s a neat idea from 4E that could definitely be tweaked, but hopefully won’t be eliminated in the next edition.