Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Board Game Review: Terra Prime

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.

I’ve been on a bit of a kick of older games as of late. Terra Prime is a space exploration game for 2-5 players from Tasty Minstrel Games. Sadly it is out of print but you can still snag a copy from online retailers.

In Terra Prime you are a ship captain in a race to explore and colonize the galaxy from your home space station. Before you are a series of unexplored sectors that hide numerous systems ripe for colonization. As you get further away from Terra Prime the more dangerous uncharted space gets, with random encounters with hostile aliens and potential collisions of asteroids being threats. As you establish colonies, explore, and trade goods, you earn victory points. The player with the most victory points wins.

Each player will have a starship that can be retrofitted with different modules. Some allow for more cargo, shields, or weapons, while other modules allow you to make additional moves on your turn. In addition there are technologies that can also be added to your ship to improve its performance.

During a player’s turn they have 3 actions to decide on either moving, colonizing a system, transporting cargo, to fighting aliens (or bribing them with goods). Everything is limited by the capacity of your ship. You have space for only so much cargo, and only certain bays can hold certain goods. Haul around a colony module? It takes up precious cargo space. Cargo is very important as that is the primary means to earn credits needed for upgrading your ship, as well as potentially competing demands for goods by Terra Prime, earning you victory points.

Making cargo runs is one way of earning victory points, but players earn much more establishing colonies or exploring space. Typically the further you explore, the greater the points. Additionally, subduing aliens and colonizing sectors of space can also give you bonus random rewards. So heading out to explore a new sector might also score you an additional cargo module or goods if you can pacify any alien resistance.

Goods are produced from a player’s colony every turn. There is a nice twist too as players can pick up goods from an opponent's colony. Doing so means the colony owner gets a victory point, however a particular good might be needed to meet the demands of Terra Prime (earning additional victory points once turned in). All of this makes for some fun choices as players shuttle back and forth between colonies, trying to complete demands before other players.

Fighting aliens is a simple affair, rolling six-sided dice and defeating an alien on a 4+. However aliens get several opportunities to attack. A player really needs to invest in ship technology and modules to defend itself, and possibly beef up the number of guns it can carry. Each hit beyond a ship’s shields means installed modules are destroyed, making for a potentially painful experience. This can make for a particularly tense moment as a player slips into an uncharted system, and possibly run smack into a large hostile alien force. As fights can be costly, it might be more worthwhile to offer up cargo goods instead, pacifying hostile aliens for victory points and rewards.

Asteroids can also inflict a fair amount of damage on a ship, making travel through them disastrous. As players explore, they can decide how to arrange the various planets and systems on the hex (with some limitations). So placing a field of asteroids in the path of an opponent’s route to one of their colonies can make for some hampering of ideal trade routes, effectively making players take longer routes.

The game ends under varying conditions. As players colonize sectors or defeat/pacify aliens, they gain rewards. Once a certain amount of rewards are earned the game ends. Alternately, there are different demand tiles for goods. As players complete these demands, further tiles are drawn. Once this supply ends, the game is over.

What I like about this is that there are two forms of a time clock ticking to end the game. One is based on establishing colonies and exploring (fighting aliens), while another is on transporting goods to complete the demand tiles from Terra Prime. Coupled with choices for how you customize your starship, you have a variety of paths to take to victory. All the while, you are in a race with other players to gain the most points. There are a lot of choices, with a bit of a random setup, really capturing that feeling of excitement (and potential dread) in exploring unknown sectors of space.

The Good - There are a lot of beefy components to the game and enough shuffling of board tiles and rewards to add game-to-game variation. It really captures that feeling of tense excitement exploring space. Players have to carefully think out routes and make decisions where and when to place colonies, and the choices for upgrading ships with different modules and technologies are fun. There are different paths to victory which players may have to alter depending on the actions of other players.

The Bad - There are a lot of components. While I like the hexagon boards, it can get a little fiddly trying to cover other uncolonized sector planets, such that you have to use a special board section chit just to do so. The ship cards are somewhat lackluster and some of the cuts of the board pieces are a tad non-uniform.

Some of the play can get a little clunky. You explore a new sector of space, and potentially run into a one-shot asteroid field, which in turn has to be covered up with another component bit. Not to mention the idea that the perimeter of the board pieces are where a player travels and colonizes, with the interior of the hexagon being empty space. All of which can make the graphic design somewhat non-intuitive for new players. I’ll also add between turn downtime can be an issue when other players are taking a long time to resolve their turn (especially with a large group of players).

The Verdict - I really enjoy this game. It fits the theme of space exploration, development, and trading just right. It’s not a deep strategy game, and has relatively simple mechanics for combat, production, and transport of goods. However that light theme works wonders making the game much more approachable for new players over something like Twilight Imperium.

There are a lot of meaningful choices, as players can scoop up goods, complete rewards, and explore sectors of space before their opponents. I particularly enjoy that there are multiple paths to victory. A captain can refit their ship to combat aliens and explore, work on trying to colonize explored sectors of space, haul cargo goods to complete resource demands, or do a bit of all three. There is a surprising amount to do and all of it runs on fairly light mechanics doing so. It’s a shame the game is out of print. Hopefully it’ll see a second print run sometime in the future.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Who is DnDNext for?

There is a nice post up on A Walk in the Dark that has some thoughts on prioritizing concepts and rules for DnDnext. They look at the challenges of deciding what would go in (and stay out) of a RPG, and how that list of features might be drafted up. However I look at it through a different perspective. Who is the target audience for DnDnext and could you list those groups of players in priority?

Off the top of my head I'd list them as:

1. Pathfinder players
2. New players
3. Players of older D&D editions

You could lump 4E players in with the third bunch, personally I don't think they are a target group. 4E is too recent and the play test rules seem a pretty far departure from those books. Someone has quipped that the edition wars are dead, and the old-school D&D guys have won. I tend to agree. 4E could use some refinement, but the play test rules pretty much indicate that DnDnext won't be 4.5E (actually that already came out as D&D Essentials). Some 4E lovers will stick with their books, while others will gladly play the new edition. I'm not expecting DnDnext to be saddled down with mechanics to keep 4E players happy though.

So if folks from older editions and Pathfinder are a big chunk of potential players, what is going to draw them into playing DnDnext? What types of rules and degree of complexity will get them interested in playing this newest version? What are the key characteristics of this new game that are going to make them stop playing an older version of D&D (Pathfinder included)? Folks at WotC have put a lot of time into this. The concept of modular rules have been floated around, likely upping the complexity and realism if a group wanted that. All fine and good.

However I wonder how compatible those ideas, that are near and dear to fans of older D&D, will fly with new players. How many concepts of past editions, like saving throws, fire and forget spells, and negative hit points (hell, even hit points in general) are game mechanics that make for a fun game to the new player. Are we locked into ideas because that is the way it's always been done? Or are they being used to make a fun game? More importantly, could these rules be used by a brand new DM to run a fair, and fun, game.

With so many folks that have a ton of experience both playing and running D&D, I think we tend to forget about the group of school kids that are playing it for their first time. Hell, maybe I'm totally off the mark and new players are not even part of the target audience for DnDnext. It'd be a shame if they aren't.

This is a point where I likely diverge from others regarding DnDnext. I think it's great to have all sorts of players of different editions and RPGs all under the banner of Dungeons and Dragons. However if it comes to keeping an older audience happy, and something that would really draw new players into the game, I'd go with the fresh blood every time.

It's the new players that will keep the hobby alive. While some may have stopped, or moved onto other games, a player saying they cut their teeth on RPGs first by playing Dungeons and Dragons should be a major goal for DnDnext. That it becomes THE RPG that new players to the hobby are exposed to. It's the fantasy adventure game that older folks will look fondly back on. Hopefully as rules and systems are tinkered with, and the game is further developed, new players creep up on that list of people that DnDnext is being made for. Having older fans of past editions will be great, but a priority should be towards making rules new players will love.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Big combats in 4E

For my game I wanted to try and have a pitched battle and struggled a bit to think about how I could run something like that on the tabletop. Some ideas were a combination of a skill challenge in tandem with a few fights. Successful (or failed) rounds for the skill challenge would result in advantages (or disadvantages) in the following fights of the battle. Although it still was a bit longer than I wanted, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in a massive combat with tons of participants on each side.

A long while back I touched on handling fights through an abstract way. Another past post of mine looked at randomizing attacks of opportunity. So looking at these ideas I whipped up some quick and dirty rules how I would handle a mass combat.

Players fight the leaders - Recreating a massive battle where players hacked through nameless throngs of minions would be boring. I wanted the PCs trading blows with the main villain as something heroic. The goal was simple, either they kill the lead baddies, or end up worm food themselves, or potentially so beaten and battered they surrendered and end up as captives.

In my game I had the players fighting against a wizard that had a huge golem in toe. These guys were the big threat. If the group took them out, the remaining forces would likely break and run. I think that is key to having this kind of engagement. Don’t just throw bodies at the players, give them a few personalities on the field. Maybe a general and a few commanders scattered about. If the players drop enough of them, morale for the opposing army will wane and eventually make them rout.

All sides suffer attacks of opportunity - I figured out the appropriate bonus for attack and typical minion damage for the player’s level and used this as a battle attack of opportunity. Then each turn, including for the villain NPC’s I employed the following rules:

1. At the beginning of the turn, they provoked a battle attack of opportunity.
2. If the players (or creatures) moved up to ½ their speed, each square of movement, ignoring shifts, would provoke a battle attack of opportunity on a 1 in 8 (using a d8).
3. If they moved greater than ½ their speed, they provoke a battle attack of opportunity for each square of movement on a 1 in 4 (using a d4).
4. Players make their move as normal, and then the battle attacks of opportunity are resolved.

All sides can suffer combat advantage - At the end of their turn players (or monsters) may be in a poor tactical position. On a 1 in 4 all opponents have combat advantage against them. If they moved less than half their speed (including shifts), they suffer combat advantage on a 1 in 8. Players offer combat advantage until the beginning of their turn.

Narration, Narration, Narration - The most important part of the fight is describing the scene. Players are going to see very few tokens and monsters on the map. Effectively, they are going to pair off against a handful of monsters at most representing the main villains and command elements of the enemy army. However it’s important to stress that there are others all around them. Every one of them are in a pitched battle, parrying attacks and making several attacks themselves, but all of these actions are never rolled.

It’s important to paint a picture that the players have fellow soldiers flanking them, and if they are lucky, find their opponents distracted by unnamed foot soldier giving them an opportunity to effectively land a powerful attack. Be graphic and try to paint a scene. If a player runs across the battlefield to engage an orc commander, quickly count the squares, roll all the dice and describe the action.

If a player gets suffers a few attacks and takes a bit of damage, describing how a brutish orc hurled a spear at them, catching them in the side as they bolted across the ground to face the orc leader, is engaging. Just telling the player they opened up three attacks of opportunity, with two hitting for 12 points of damage just doesn’t cut it. Frequently remind the players they are darting and weaving, parrying attacks and aiding fellow comrades, even if there is nothing on the map to show these other participants in the battle.

What comes out of this is that players are under constant threat of attack. It’s assumed that surrounding them are allies and enemies alike. If they are moving slowly, they maintain some form of rank with allies and suffer less attacks of opportunity. If they break ranks and whirl around the battlefield, they have less companions watching their back.

Finally, throughout the battle they could be dodging missile fire, or having their attention split among several attackers. The greater the movement their turn, the more likely they will allow opponents to have combat advantage against them. If they stand firm, or move little during their turn, it’s less likely that someone can flank them.

For my group it worked well. Constantly having an attack against them, right at the start of their turn, having the potential of offering combat advantage, all the while trying to take out the main villains made for an exciting fight. It takes a lot of handwaving and describing the action, but in the end I think my players had a memorable fight of a large battle that worked using a few additional rules and a lot of narrative action.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sorylian fleet...done

Got my Sorylians wrapped up finally. Overall I am pretty pleased with the models. I have to say I think I did not give the battleship justice though. It really is a lovely model.

It's been a learning experience with vallejo acrylics. I've gotten down maintaining a good consistency for base coats. However, I'm still not working out the washes quite the way I like. Bit too much pigment adhering to the elevated parts of the model and a tad too much pooling. Trying to get the excess off just right. However the highlights from drybrushing manage to make for a good touch up.

I'm excited to get this on the table. Will have to try and get a game in sometime, but my regular wargame partner is off for a long holiday in the next few weeks. Till then, I'll likely have to sit down and get around to writing up my thoughts on Firestorm Armada (short version, some kinks in the game but a lot to like). Looks like a second edition will be out soon, so I'll have to make that a priority.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tweaking 4E - Advantages and Disadvantages

I’ve yet to get a game of DnDNext in. I’m chugging along with my Savage World’s treatment of Traveller. A few folks will be out of town for a while. I might try to run the playtest with a smaller group. However, I’ve been wanting to get back into a 4E game again.

I’ve really been thinking about tweaking with 4E to streamline some parts of it. I’m also thinking on going gridless. So there have been some things rolling around in my head as of late that I might try out for a few sessions.

One thing I definitely like about DnDNext is the concept of advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell, a player rolls two d20s and either takes the higher or lower roll, depending on their state. 4E has a lot of temporary modifiers floating around during combat. So rather than fiddling with temporary bonuses to hit and defences, I like the idea of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in DnDNext.

I’ve got a set of beads for baduk (Go) that I’ve used as markers to keep track of successes and failures in skill challenges. My plan is to use these beads as a simple way to keep track of bonuses for having an advantage (or suffering from a disadvantage).

As players use powers that give them a temporary bonus to hit, they place white beads near their targets. If the target has a bonus to their defenses, they use the other color beads. If either side has a higher total of beads, then that would translate to either an advantage (more white) or disadvantage (more black) to the player. In case of a tie, the player rolls to hit as normal.

Additional temporary bonuses to hit, or for defenses, would just be another bead added to the total. This is going to result in huge bonuses and penalties, even for a minor +1 to hit. However I am liking the idea of the big swings to allow more attacks (or possibly really hamper the player).

For marking conditions, monsters would have a disadvantage hitting other targets, but an advantage against the player that marked them. Something that will definitely add a nice bonus to other players, but be a meaningful hindrance to that defender. Granting combat advantage will also become a larger issue, really granting the enemy a tactical advantage doing so.

I’ve already altered how I handle critical hits in my game. Players do max damage on a natural 20. If they crit on any other number, they do at least ½ damage. It does curb the output on extended crits, but at least they are guaranteed not to do a trivial amount of damage. I’ve been toying with the idea of maybe allowing a reroll of damage and taking the highest total for extended crits, but I think that’s something that might slow down the game.

I’ll see how this works. It’s a major shift from straight up bonuses to trying to stack different temporary conditions. I like the idea of players and monsters going back and forth with temporary bonuses using simple markers, and it’s the side that works together as a team which will likely get the greatest benefit. Combat advantage, having an additional cover bonus, all these little +1’s could add up to a big effect. It’s something that will take a few games to play out, but I’m liking the idea.

EDIT: Sly Flourish has also visited the concept of advantages and disadvantages in 4E. He of course adheres to a regular schedule of posts, methodically setting up weeks of content that rolls out every week in a timely fashion, so you are offered a great post every Monday with your morning coffee. While I am a spaz that is all over the place when I post. He had the idea first. Check out his blog. It offers some great thoughts on advantages in 4E I think are really good, and are far more robust than the simple idea I have here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Expeditions of Amazing Adventure: The lone, obliterated tower of Ulaam of the One Eye

Few sorcerers of legend carry a name that both inspires awe and incites dread than that of Ulaam of the One Eye. The human spell practitioner is claimed to have hailed from the icy north, an outcast of the nomad tribes. Not much is known of his past. Some claim that he was a medicine man of prominence with his people, but vied for power and attempted to wrest it from the warrior chieftains of his tribe. Others state that his power and insight into the magics of the world set him at odds with the simple nomad warriors that revered the power of muscle and steel. Fewer still state that his lust for power caused him to look to gods of other beings. That it was his dabbling in the powers of Gruumsh which resulted in the loss of his eye, and his resulting banishment from his lands.

Rumors of his calling towards the darker arcane arts had always haunted Ulaam of the One Eye. His manner was always recorded as detached, distant, and sought little in the company of others. Even the more benevolent acts he had committed ridding strange beasts and vile monsters from the civilized lands were marred with whispers of him obtaining odd trophies from the slain creatures. His most revered act of defeating the evil wizard, Al'Khameed, still to this day have some claiming it was primarily jealousy and a desire of obtaining similar dark powers that drove Ulaam to battle him.

In his last years, Ulaam of the One Eye became more reclusive. He constructed a simple tower and created a force of golems to protect him and act as servants. He refused all that sought his counsel, and took to having his powerful golems ever patrol the fields that surrounded the tower to ward off visitors.

Some claim that these last years were when the sorcerer delved deeper into the mysteries of the black magics. Fewer even speak that powerful artifacts of the god, Vecna, were in his possession, that his final efforts were to decipher the arcane powers within these vile instruments of the evil god in an attempt to prolong his life. Such claims are supported by the rumors of cemeteries from neighboring villages being raided by golems of flesh and earth.

None really knew the direction of his arcane research, save that one black night under the new moon a tremendous explosion was heard. The lone tower where the reclusive sorcerer resided burst into a bright green configuration. Flaming chunks of stone and mortar were seen hurtling through the night sky in high, trailing arcs of embers and smoke.

The next day, a handful of brave souls had travelled to the remote tower to see what had happened. In the distance, they could see the sundered tower. The top shorn off and one side completely missing, with the remaining stonework a gutted, blackened, scaffold of the structure. Some wanted to inspect further, however the lumbering creatures Ulaam had created to secure his isolation were still seen patrolling the grounds, seemingly oblivious to what had become of their master.

The tower to this day draws adventurers. Many rival wizards have financed large companies of sellswords to breach the defenses of automatons and seek what became of Ulaam of the One Eye. Despite efforts to destroy the arcane constructs, their forms seemingly reassemble the following day, and begin their tireless duty walking around the tower.

The few that have managed to investigate the tower found nothing within the destroyed remains. Although some claim that beneath the tower’s foundations, some secret chambers are still intact. Within might be some powerful artifacts acting as a source of magical energy that seems to continually restore the golem guards. To obtain such a power, and study its secrets, is something that many spellcasters covet deeply.

But there are still greater mysteries of the tower. What happened that night long ago? What great calamity befell Ulaam? And what happened to the remains of the great sorcerer? Questions to this day remain unanswered, and what some scholars claim are key to unlocking the great mystery of the magics that remain in play around the tower ruins.