Friday, July 30, 2010

All You Need is Love

Despite the fact that romance plays a key role in storytelling, it is one of the hardest things to incorporate into a role-playing game story scheme. A lot of that has to do with the nature of role-playing games as a hobby. Role-playing games are played with a group of people, and the story authorship belongs to everyone in that group (though, with GM-heavy systems, it could be argued that the brunt of the work in authorship belongs to the Game Master). We are, in a group, realizing our personal fantasies through the fiction we create, and when those fantasies remain largely in the realm of “If there’s a bad guy, I want to stab it with my sword and look awesome doing it,” they’re safe. When we start to work our own romantic fantasies into the mix, things can get a little awkward for a lot of reasons. Usually, this awkwardness is avoided by simply not involving romance in an ensemble game, or by handwaving and bluebooking whatever romantic stuff is happening into the background.

So I’m going to sit down and talk about this right up front. If someone in your group is uncomfortable adding romantic love to your game, don’t do it. We are not here to make people uncomfortable. We’re here to play a game and have fun. If one of your players isn’t having fun because you’ve mixed romantic love into your normal game-play (even when it’s as abstracted and crunch-tastic as I’m about to make it), stop using it.

What follows is a crack at a character theme. We haven’t actually seen these babies in action yet (as of this writing, Dark Sun is still a few weeks away), but it seemed like the best way to mechanically depict the complete devotion and powerful motivation of love in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. It gives you a solid reason to involve romantic relationships into your game, because the benefits of having a beloved in the party are pretty staggering. The idea of dealing 6[W] at level 9 is, to me at least, awesome. 

You’ll notice a few of my political and social leanings in this writing. I made no assumptions about the gender of the Lover or the beloved, and some of the feats below give you killer bonuses for having more than one beloved. Those things may not suit your game, so I would suggest changing them if you plan to use the theme.

Also, I allow for the possibility that your beloved does not love you back. You can take the Lover theme, designate one of your party members as your beloved, and if that player does not want his or her character to be in a relationship with yours, your love is unrequited. Storytelling tools ahoy!

And I know the power names and flavor are corny. That I did on purpose. ^_^

Lover - A Theme

Should I draw you the picture of my heart it would be what I hope you would still love though it contained nothing new.  The early possession you obtained there, and the absolute power you have obtained over it, leaves not the smallest space unoccupied.

Abigail Adams
In a letter to John Adams
December 23, 1782

Love is perhaps the most incredibly motivating force in the world. For it, people will lie, cheat, steal or kill. There are no laws as powerful, no religion that can withstand its tidal force. True love is so strong that it will withstand the pain of torture, the struggle of war, and even the ravages of death. Some say there is no stronger force in the world (those people are wrong, but they’re closer than you might think).

It is a universal concept. Even in the deepest pits of the darkest hells, there is love (perverted and twisted though it may be). Every creature on every plane of existence is capable of love to some degree or another. True love, the sort for which one might combat entire armies or martyr one’s self, that is rare indeed. Some of these lovers lead long, happy, uncomplicated lives. Others, though, face great hardship in being with their beloved. The stories of these lovers, overcoming the difficulties in their being together (or, sometimes, dying tragically in the attempt) are the sorts of tales that are told for centuries past the deaths of all involved.

True love appears at every caste, and no race is free from its ravages. Anyone can fall deeply, desperately, stupidly in love, and when it happens, it is a powerful, moving experience. Many lovers, facing adversity, will leave everything they know to be with their beloved; this has led many to a life of banditry, begging or adventure. Their devotion, intuition and empathy make them strong allies and terrifying enemies. They always have something to fight for, and when their beloved is threatened, will not hesitate to fight to the death.

The lives of true lovers are varied and often strange, the sorts that songs are written about. They are the heroes of romance tales and the trials they are willing to endure for their love are the stuff of legend.

Building a Lover

Sometimes, a person deep in the thrall of love decides to abandon the comforts of home to be with their beloved. Other times, a long-time adventurer discovers new love. Occasionally, a person will fall in love with the wrong person – the relative of a life-long enemy, a powerful (and married) noble, a pirate captain – and dedicate themselves to earning their beloved’s favor.

The lover theme is a common choice for bards, clerics, ardents and other leaders. The theme powers offer strong options for healing a particularly individual at a decent range, a useful skill if one of your party members is particularly squishy. Also, melee combatants (for example wardens and fighters) interested in helping keep the heat off of a particular character might benefit from these powers.

Lover Traits

Secondary Role: Leader
Power Source: Love (Divine)
Granted Power: You gain the meant to be power.

Lover Powers

Meant to Be

You Know Me

I Will Protect You

The Power of Love

Dont Let Go

Couples Intuition

Together We are Unstoppable.


Love Triangle
Prerequisite: Lover Theme
Benefit: Choose a second beloved. After initiative is rolled, choose a beloved character. Only that character is treated as your beloved for the rest of the encounter.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme, Love Triangle feat
Benefit: Choose a third beloved. When you use a Lover power, choose which beloved character will be treated as your beloved for the purposes of that power. You may take this feat multiple times. Each time, choose a new beloved.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, you and your beloved gain 5 temporary hit points.

Prerequisite: Lover Theme, Engaged feat
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, you and your beloved make a saving throw.

Prerequisites: Lover theme, polyamorous feat, marriage feat, level 26.
Benefit: Whenever you use a Lover power, all of your beloved characters benefit from the use of that power. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Warp One's Eisner Video

So we were nominated for an Eisner Spirit Award this year. To people in the know, that might not seem like a huge deal, because you can nominate yourself, but we think it's a pretty awesome accomplishment that we did nothing of the sort and still got short-listed for the award.

We had to make a video showcasing the store for the judges, and this is what we came up with. This is a comics-related award, so we focused on the comic side of things. When the ENnies start giving out awards to awesome retailers, we'll make another video for the games center (hint-hint, ENnie people... hint-hint).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One of Our Best Fights Yet

We played a single encounter in our Bones of a Dead God campaign today, as one of our players needed to go to work early in the night. That single encounter took just under three hours to finish up. Here’s the stats I was running off of:
Four of those. Also, two Two-Headed Trolls from Dungeon Magazine. Though, I actually eneded up using three of each for the encounter as played. I toned the Two-Headed Trolls down from Elite, though, making them a bit more easy to handle. Also, I kept forgetting they had two heads, so I was playing them as straight-up brutes.
The fun bit of the encounter was less the creatures and more the layout. The players began above ground-level, literally getting the drop on their opponents. There was a cliff some eight squares away from where the characters could just fall, necessitating that they swing in on ropes (some athletics checks). Some did so, while others hung around in the back. The paladin was immediately hit with two hits of Quotable, pushing him down to dazed. There was a power-round in which the trolls took it to poor Triptych, dazed and beaten and then, very quickly unconscious (from failed saves on Quotable). One of the two-headed trolls picked up Triptych’s body and started using him as a club, going after Memphis and slapping him upside the head.
Triptych makes his save, waking up and magically trading places with a slightly-pissed-off Memphis. Trip delivers the final blow on the troll, and the troll starts to fall… Still holding Memphis in his hand. Memphis dives for a rope, but falls a long way before he catches anything. He slams into the cliff, taking a HORRIFYING 10d10 damage from the fall, the catch, and the crash. He survived, wounded from the event, but not unconscious (a very real threat to life here…). And he lost his hat.
For those unaware, whenever Memphis’ hat becomes threatened, there is a chance the character will go completely batshit crazy, run up to people, and fire bullets into them with wild abandon. So, losing his himageat, he is super angry. He climbs up the cliff with a dislocated arm, frenzied, and starts shooting every bad guy that moves. Skull’s familiar, who is also her brother, who is also a dragon, dives for the hat, pulling him out of combat for the rest of the encounter, but he isn’t fast enough to get it right away.
Triptych gets back onto the ledge (having been brought by the troll, as a weapon, to beat on Memphis, who was not on the ledge), and starts laying down some smack, as well as healing his own broken self. He gets in a few good hits, takes down one of the trolls with the help of Kage (who made his first appearance in a while this session), and turns his attention on helping the injured (Memphis).
Skull, until this point, has been tossing bits of magic out from her safe position on the r opes. She can hit guys that are close to the edge of the cliff without having to move, and she’s more than happy to stay there until her space starts filling up with trolls. One gets close enough to attack her directly after she summons her new spider friend (from an item). The troll tries to swing back to the cliff, but the spider attacks the rope, cutting it with its jaws, and kills the troll attached to it. Skull is pretty impressed with this, until a troll knocks her ass off the cliff with its club. She flies off the cliff, falling out of reach of any of the ropes when, from below her, she’s hit by a little dragon wearing Memphis’ hat! Woot!
She crawls her way back up the cliff as a couple more trolls get picked off, and when there are two left, they start to spread out (much to her consternation). She blasts one full in the face, and kills it, but doesn’t like that she wasn’t able to kill the second in a huge blast attack. They clean up the last of the trolls, and camp out on the cliff for the next few hours before heading further down the cliffs.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Idea for a Book, Plus a Social Encounter

So, I had this idea for a book a long time ago, and I still think it’s a good idea, but I’m never going to write it. So I figured I’d put it out onto the interwebs and see if someone else would like to write it instead. I don’t want any money, or even as much as a free copy or anything; I just want to read it.

So Stephanie Meyer wrote a few books that were sort of popular. They made some movies or something. Now, the point of the books was apparently “Sex before marriage is bad,” and “Vampires are actually pretty cuddly, once you get past their asshole first impressions.” I can’t say as I’m really all that familiar with the material. I read the first three or four chapters of the book before literally throwing it across the store. It landed somewhere between my RPG indie shelf and the manga shelves. It’s not that I had an issue with the plot (or lack thereof). I’ve read books that took longer to get to the point. Robert Jordan’s books, for instance, can take upwards of seven hundred pages before something actually happens. I liked (most of) those books.

No, the problem was that Ms. Meyer doesn’t know how to put a sentence together. The quality of the writing itself was so amateurish and semi-literate that I couldn’t force myself to put any more of her words into my brain. So I threw the book in disgust, and it festered on our novel shelves for a while, and I tried to forget about the experience.

There was, however, something deeply insidious about her portrayal of vampires as objects of lust and love, about her exploration of a young girl’s obsession with an older (dead) man, and how she displayed the cuddlier, sweeter side of the whole bloodsucking thing. Her vampires kill the scary bears in the woods and protect their teenage sweethearts from harm. That’s really… tame of them.

Which makes me wonder why she would display these traditionally predatory creatures as fluffy bunny versions of themselves. From what I hear, she tries to leave a little of the danger in them, but it mostly fails because the protagonist is entirely blinded by her ridiculous, sexless love-plot. So why neuter your vampires? Why make them respect religiously-inspired pre-marital celibacy? Why leave your characters as blank, faceless avatars for self-implantation fantasies?

My theory, is Stephanie Meyer works for real vampires. Not the sort who sparkle in sunlight, but the kind that lurk in the shadows and prey on unsuspecting men and women. The sort of vampires who have replaced sexual predation with actual predation. Interview with a Vampire vampires. 30 Days of Night vampires. Those vampires. She was hired by them, maybe with money, maybe with promises of immortality and power.

The job was simple: give the vampire legend a facelift, make them friendlier, objects of romantic interest and sexual obsession. Make. Hunting. Easier. And she’s certainly accomplished that goal. Teenage girls are so desperate for some vampire attention they’re asking their boyfriends to rub ice on their lips to facilitate the fantasy they’re kissing vampire boys. And the boys are desperate enough for female attention they’re actually doing it.

So I’m thinking maybe a Dresden Files book (go ahead, Mr. Butcher; this one’s yours). Or maybe a solid Buffy the Vampire Slayer story, in which Stephanie Meyer is the Big Bad. When it’s published, let me know. I’ll go buy it.


This is, ostensibly, a blog about gaming. So I feel the need to throw in some game notes. Obviously, any plot that would make a good book would probably make a decent game (though for a book like Ulysses, this is obviously less true). Stephanie Meyer would make a solid mini-boss in a Hunter or Vampire game. Whoever hired her is the real evil, but she’d be a solid lieutenant.

More, though, this is a tactic that can be applied to any Evil Thing that would prefer to have a bit friendlier an image. Viral marketing is a thing we’ve been doing for centuries. You write a book, someone loves it and lends it to a friend, then buys a copy of their own (or writes one, pre-printing press, or pirates one, post-interwebs). I mean, you want to find a master of viral marketing, you need look no further than the Bible. Yeshewa ben Yoseph (Jesus) was a fucking carpenter, and now he’s responsible for the salvation of some hundred bazillion souls.

Because this is also, primarily, a D&D4 blog, let’s look at a more Gygaxian example. Goblins have kind of a bum deal in most D&D worlds. Eberron made some allowances for them while it was making allowances for everyone else, but in most campaign worlds goblins are seen as vermin, pests or outright evil depending on who you talk to. Now, I have some issues about racism in D&D, so the idea that an entire species of intelligent creatures being lumped into a single stereotype kind of chafes. But let’s run with the idea that they are irrevocably evil creatures who want nothing but to torment and destroy the “good” species in the world.

But goblins are crafty little bastards, and King Krug is more crafty than most. He has been in contact with the most prominent minstrels and bards in the world, inviting them to come and partake of goblin hospitality. Over a fabulous dinner, he has insinuated that great riches await a bard who can raise the general public’s awareness of the goblins’ more genteel attributes. They are, after all, fine craftsmen and powerful warriors. They are dashing rogues, living on the outskirts of a society that has shunned them. There’s somewhat romantic in the notion, no? Should a minstrel happen to make this more… Accurate view of the goblin peoples’ character the more readily accepted, King Krug would certainly make it worth the bard’s while. And he or she would be praised as a hero to goblins everywhere. Surely this is a noble and worthy goal?

Diplomatic Encounter: King Krug

King Krug

Level 4 Solo Controller

Small natural humanoid

XP 875

HP 196; Bloodied 98

AC 18; Fortitude 16; Reflex 16; Will 17

Speed 6

Saving Throws +5; Action Points 2

Initiative +4

Perception +4



O Hospitality • Aura 5 (social encounter)

Creatures that begin their turn within the aura take 5 damage and 3 ongoing psychic damage (save ends).

Standard Actions

R Used Cart Salesman (charm) • At-Will

Effect: Ranged 10 (All social opponents in burst.); +12 vs. Passive Insight; 2d8 + 4 and the creature is .

C Soothing Voice of Deep Rumbly Doom (thunder) • Encounter

Effect: Close Blast 5 (all social opponents in burst); +8 vs Passive Insight; 1d6 + 5 and the target is weakened until the end of King Krug's next turn. .

M Attack • At-Will

Attack: +9 vs. AC

Hit: 1d10 + 5 damage.

Minor Actions

Summon Goblin Minion • At-Will

Effect: Summon a single Goblin Cutter into a square adjacent to King Krug. The Goblin Cutter's initiative is 1. .

Skills Bluff +11, Insight +9, Intimidate +11, Stealth +9

Str 14 (+4)

Dex 15 (+4)

Wis 14 (+4)

Con 9 (+1)

Int 13 (+3)

Cha 18 (+6)

Alignment      Languages

Equipment jeweled scepter, random crown, fresh-water fish

© 2010 Wizards of the Coast LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. This formatted statistics block has been generated using the D&D Adventure Tools.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


SlyFlourish wrote a short article about Status Effects over at his blog, and it’s good, so you should go read it. Status Effects are one of my favorite parts of the 4th Edition experience; they’re one-word, easily groked effects that happen to your character or to a bad guy. It’s a solid design element stolen from console and computer role-playing games (Final Fantasy, I’m looking at you!), and they provide a level of threat that straight-up damage simply doesn’t. Damage does not effect your character’s ability to perform. Being Dazed really does.

Part of what Mike is trying to do with his article is clean combat up, make it faster and remove some of the more frustrating aspects of Status Effects. Which is an admirable goal, no doubt. It inspired me to do something a little different with them, though, and find ways to spice combat up. Being Dazed is annoying, but mostly because it happens all the time. With a greater variety of status effects, GMs have the opportunity to throw new wrenches into the combat machine, lending some novelty to each battle.

At the beginning of your turn, choose an action.
You control that action this turn. The possessing creature controls your other actions this turn.

Obviously a variation on Dominated, Possessed simulates your character’s attempts at throwing off the shackles of the possessor. You get one action, move, minor or standard, and the rest of your turn is controlled by the possessing creature. If you run away from your comrades, you can’t attack them, but you might end up switching out your standard for a minor and running off a cliff. If you attack the bad guy, he might move you deeper into his hordes of minions. Or he might just make you drink all of your potions…

Your attacks deal zero damage.

Crippling for strikers, frustrating for defenders and inconvenient for leaders, this Weakened variant takes you out of the fight and into a support role until it goes away. Used too much, it could completely disable a party, but as an encounter power (save ends) or as a recharge (end of the monster’s next turn) pacifying enemies is a powerful survival technique.

You grant combat advantage.
Roll 1d4.
On a 3 or 4, make a melee basic or ranged basic attack against the nearest ally as a standard action.

This was one of my favorite Final Fantasy status effects. It would just automatically fight for you, and it would attack someone completely at random. Sometimes it was a friend, sometimes an enemy, and it always made fights more interesting.

You cannot use Encounter or Daily powers.

It always amazes me that the good folks at Wizards miss things like this. I have to assume that they decided against something like this on purpose, or they wanted to make it into a power or something. It’s a simple, elegant design that works well on an “until end of monster’s next turn,” or “save ends” ability, effectively conveys that a character has forgotten something important, and keeps the character involved in combat without hurting their ability to move or act in any way.

Also, go read Mike’s article for interesting ways to exchange Status Effects for stuff that sucks just as bad, but doesn’t fuck with your game.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yu-Gi-Oh! is a Bad Game (But Doesn’t Have to Be)

This is a really long post…

As a person who plays games for a living, I take them pretty seriously. And usually, I can check my emotions at the door about a game; the fact that I dislike a game does not make the game “bad.” Whether or not I like a game is a matter of personal aesthetic, and I’m willing to recognize that. To be fair, there are a bunch of games I like that aren’t good. I’m quite fond of Exalted, for instance, and for all that I laude the Game Master’s Guide, 7th Sea, as a game, kinda sucked.

There are a few games, though, that are both Games I Dislike and Bad Games. They’re pretty few and far between, honestly. FATAL. Racial Holy War. That role-playing game about the bishonen boys with sea anemones for penises. All three of these show up on any Worst Role-playing Games Ever Published list. The Star Wars collectible card game is on my list. Steve Jackson’s non-collectible Burn in Hell was atrocious. Most of these games, though, don’t have a huge fan following, either because they are bad, or because whatever cross-market synergy the designers were trying to build never really got off the ground. (For example, I love Star Wars, and I love collectible card games, so a collectible card game about Star Wars has to be the next best thing to perfect, ne?)

Yu-Gi-Oh! is the beneficiary of one of the most successful cross-market synergy campaigns ever created. There is an animated series based on the already-successful manga, there are video games and toys. There is really no better way to tap into their target market than to toss a cartoon at it. Chaotic tried the same thing, and for a while the game was wildly popular (the game was kinda meh, and the production schedule mishaps kept it from attaining any real popularity).

So Yu-Gi-Oh! is wildly popular. In the mass market, it’s the most popular collectible card game in the world. Sadly, being popular does not make the game good.

Understand that my issues with Yu-Gi-Oh! have nothing to do with the game’s rules. Honestly, if the game were played as it was originally designed, it would be pretty solid. The rules are simple and elegant, and the strategy has the possibility of real depth. I remember being pretty impressed with the game when it first came out (back when there were a lot of creatures with no abilities, and trap and spell cards were the tits). There are some things that strike me as entirely arbitrary (monster levels, for instance; you could simply separate monsters into three different levels: normal, tribute, double-tribute, and be done with it), but none of those things are enough to break the game in horrible ways.

No, the issues I have with Yu-Gi-Oh!, the reasons I think it is a bad game, are these:

1) Card and Set Irrelevance
2) The Banned List
3) Game Speed
4) Solitaire

1) Card and Set Irrelevance

In any given pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, there is a miniscule chance that you will open a card that is good. This isn’t to say that the card you open is amazing or jaw-dropping, just good. I sell packs of Yu-Gi-Oh! in my store, and I cannot count the number of times I have found entire packs of cards just sitting opened on tables or counters, nothing having been taken from them because even the rare card in the pack isn’t worth anything. This is a problem frequently encountered in eternal-format card games. Only two or three cards released in an entire set of Yu-Gi-Oh! are any good. Out of over a hundred cards per set. And sets are released every three months or so.

Imagine how many trees have died to produce cards people aren’t even using in their decks.

And it’s never the commons that are any good. It’s always the rarer-than-rare cards, the so-called Secret Rare or Ghost Rare. You might find one of these cards per box. Which means that twenty three other packs of cards are a complete waste of paper, foilwrap and money. When each booster pack costs $5, that turns into a lot of cash, fast.

And older sets are completely irrelevant now. There are boxes of the earliest sets that have one or two cards that used to be good but aren’t anymore that will sit on a shelf forever. Legend of Blue Eyes White Dragon packs are worth almost nothing save the nostalgia value of opening a pack and seeing a bunch of monster cards with no effects and trap and spell cards that simply aren’t very good. Entire sets of cards have been obsoleted, making the eternal aspect of the game completely ridiculous.

2) The Banned List

When I play Magic: The Gathering, I play Limited formats or Type 2 (Standard). I like having a smaller, more stable card pool, and there hasn’t been a time in recent memory that they’ve had to ban a card from Standard (skullclamp being the example I can think of). Having a limit on the number of sets allowed in a format means that there are fewer ridiculous synergies to look out for when publishing new cards, so the development team can focus on rooting those synergies out, and then worry about longer-winded formats later. You can work on balancing a set against itself and the most recent iterations of the game.

Yu-Gi-Oh! solves synergy problems by banning them. When a particular card or deck becomes too powerful, the players who have invested in those cards and decks no longer get to play them. Sorry, Monster Reborn, you’re just too good. Bye bye, Judgement Dragon, you’ve appeared in too many decks. Oh look, Lightsworn is getting too powerful, let’s ban half the cards on the list. I don’t even play Yu-Gi-Oh!, and this pisses me off. People pay for those cards, people search for them for months, just to have them torn from their fingers because the card is too good. At least with a rotation, you can plan for it; you can see that a set is going to be leaving the format soon and sell the cards that will no longer be legal for that format. Or retire them to a casual-deck pile. Or set them aside for a different format that you play.

3) Game Speed

Last year, there were three or four decks that could kill you on turn one in the Yu-Gi-Oh! metagame. That is terrifying. That isn’t a game of strategy, that’s a game of chance. A couple of weeks ago, one of my customers went to the Canadian Nationals. He finished third, and told me that the deck that had beaten him did so on the first turn of games one and three. This was after a huge banned-list update that had gotten rid of all the previously discovered first-turn-win decks in the game.

A first-turn win is the first indicator of a broken meta-game, in my opinion. Even at its slowest, Yu-Gi-Oh! sports a consistent turn-three win strategy. It’s too fast. There’s no time to strategize, it really comes down to whether or not you’ve drawn the cards that will allow you to “go off” on the earliest possible turn. I don’t need to worry about attack or block positions, what traps or spells you’ve set, or what you have in hand. If my deck goes off, I win. If yours goes off first, I lose. Which brings me to point four, and my biggest issue with Yu-Gi-Oh! as a game.

4) Solitaire

One of the biggest reasons I think Burn in Hell is a bad game is that it rarely effects your opponent’s side of the game. You collect your bits, you make the best sets you can, and your opponent does the same. You strategize and plot and plan, sure, but you do it independent of your opponent’s actions. A good game needs to be interactive on all sides. I need to be able to effect what my opponent is doing in a meaningful way, set them back, make them lose the board advantage, make them ditch cards from hand, or from the top of the deck. And they should be able to do the same sorts of things to me. In a game like A Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of that; the whole game is about interaction with other players, from the job I take at the beginning of the new round (“Oh, sorry, you needed to be the Hand this turn? Oh, and look at that, you’re supporting me…”) to stealing Power from an opponent’s House card and then beefing it up with Renown. Every part of the game involve some level of player interaction, and that is what makes A Game of Thrones so incredibly deep as a game.

Magic is actually a pretty poor example for this, because combo decks don’t really rely on interaction at all, and combo decks are a long, proud history in Magic. When your deck goes off, you sit on one side of the table playing it through, doing whatever it is that wins you the game, and your opponent just sits there and takes it for a while. One of the most gracious thing I’ve seen a Magic player do is start running their combo, look across the table to their opponent, show the opponent their hand, and then ask: “Do you need me to play this through?” It wasn’t asked as a snotty remark, it was a concession that watching a combo deck explode in your face fucking sucks. There’s nothing fun about watching someone play solitaire while there’s nothing you can do about it.

Every good deck in Yu-Gi-Oh! is a combo deck. It is designed to kill you regardless of your own actions. It has answers to all of your actions, so that you don’t even get to make them. I watched a guy recently throw down a combination of cards that removed everything his opponent had on the table and then swung in for lethal damage. Just to make sure his opponent had no answer. On turn three. If that were a Magic game, his opponent would be pissed, and rightfully so. When a Dragonstorm deck goes off, and a million things happen on one side of the board on turn three, and someone loses, it’s a piss-off. But what makes these two decks different is that the Magic deck was legal for a couple of weeks before the key cards rotated out of the format. And as soon as the deck was in the meta-game, for those few weeks people developed answers for it. Dragonstorm didn’t take the Worlds because it was amazing; it took the worlds because no one saw it coming. It was a masterful metagame call. In Yu-Gi-Oh! it’s just the state of the game.

So how do you make Yu-Gi-Oh! good?

Anyone who frequents my store and plays a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! has already heard me rant about this, and it’s nothing I haven’t been saying for months. The first and most important fix is that the organized Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments need to branch into multiple formats that focus on different releases for the game. The organized play that is currently standard should stay; there will always be people who love playing in eternal formats, and there’s nothing wrong with them. But for those players who are new to the game, or those who are looking for strategy that goes deeper than “My deck goes off, you lose,” having a smaller card pool makes the game a lot more entertaining. It slows the game down, as well, because the crazy one-turn-kill synergies exist spread out across a bunch of different sets from all over the Yu-Gi-Oh! timeline. My personal suggestion has been “Go two years back.” The cards that have been released in the past two years, those cards are legal in the narrower format; this includes all of the new booster sets, the new starter decks, the new premium packs, what have you. If it’s been printed and sent out in the past two years, you can use it. For a slightly broader format, go back five years.

Where the organized play goes, the casual play will follow. Though, to be honest, casual players will play whatever the fuck they want anyway, with no thought wasted on what’s going on in the tournament scene (past: this is a good deck, so I will thief it).

Konami needs to rethink the way their sets are released, as well. Each set needs to have something to offer to whatever decks they want to support from now on. If Gadgets are going to be a thing, every set is going to need to see some Gadgets. If Lightsworn is the new hotness, having some Lightsworn cards in each set doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. But it’s more than deck archetypes, too. The Magic guys have figured out what players want from their game, and they try to provide those things in spades. There are cards for guys who love smashing face, and cards that need some creative thought to break into something good. There are cards for people who love to lock their opponents down, and cards for people who want to stop that from happening. When you know what your players want, and you design your game’s expansions around those things, the sets you produce become a lot more cohesive. Also, understanding the new formats is important so that you can design cards for each of them; giving the eternal formats a bomb (for the sake of funny, let’s say there’s a new Toonworld printed that is strictly better than the current Toonworld), the narrower formats aren’t going to be able to use it effectively, which is fine, but you need to provide the narrow format guys some love, too.

And having a healthy testing/development team together to make sure that the cards aren’t broken before you release them is a much better strategy than simply banning the cards that are too powerful. When a card like Judgement Dragon is able to take over the game because it is simply that good you probably shouldn’t have released the card in the first place. This happens occasionally in every large-format card game (Bitterblossom, I’m looking at you…), but the chances of it happening are far reduced when you limit the synergies available in most organized play events. Fully testing your cards before you send them out to the public is a good way to trim down an already glutted banned list, reducing the number of cards that cost $700 two days ago and are now just a chunk of foiled cardboard.

Mixing a narrower format with better set design increases card relevance, too. When I open a pack of Legend of the Five Rings cards, there is something relevant in that pack for nearly everyone. Honestly, though, L5R is a bad example of card relevance; a lot of people only play in a single clan, and if you don’t get any good cards for your clan in that pack, it was a useless pack for you. It’s still more likely to be good than a Yu-Gi-Oh! pack! This is because commons and uncommons are relevant in L5R in ways that they are not in Yu-Gi-Oh!. The number of good common cards in Yu-Gi-Oh! in the whole history of the game is drastically close to zero. The few that are “good” are often barely playable, and will more likely than not be replaced by a Ghost Rare that does a better job of whatever it was the common did. Making each card relevant is important in a collectible card game, because it increases the chances that the metagame will need to account for it. If every card in even a single set is relevant to the most common format, then the number of deck archetypes will explode.

Honestly, people should be able to play a game directly out of two packs of cards. I should be able to sit down with two packs and play a game of Yu-Gi-Oh! against an opponent who has done the same thing, and have a good time doing it. This is the narrowest of all possible formats (barring playing out of a single pack, which in Yu-Gi-Oh! would be impossible because of the size of a pack). When you can have fun playing out of fresh packs of cards, your game will probably be good.

*For the record, I don’t own the copyright to anything except what I’ve written on this post. Every game I’ve mentioned belongs to someone else, and I am making no threat to their copyright at all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hat Trick

One of my all-time favorite low-level spells in D&D3.5 was rope-trick. The idea was basically “You occasionally need to run away, and sometimes that can be hard. So here, have a thing that will let you run away once per day, should the shit hit the fan.” It would create an extra-dimensional space that would house up to six creatures comfortably (though it was pretty unspecific as to the size of those creatures (an important point), and would last long enough that the wizard could recharge his or her dailies and everyone could heal a bit before heading back into the fray.

When we were running the Savage Tide adventure path, Jason Scott (who is lovely) invented a wondrous item for me that was a permanent Rope Trick spell cast in my hat. Placed against a surface, it would create a portal to an already-created rope trick dimensional pocket, one that was the size of six colossal creatures, and could thus house an entire apartment. I wore my whole house on my head, and could duck into it if things got really hairy. Also, it worked as a super-bag-of-holding, letting me carry as much stuff as could fit in a large apartment while weighing no more than a pound. It was pretty great.

Over at This is My D&D Game, the rope trick has been resurrected as a ritual. It’s a pretty sweet ritual, one that I will probably be giving my players access to when they hit level twelve (which should be in about four weeks). Also, for nostalgia’s sake, I’ve written up the Hat Trick as a Wondrous Item for those wishing to use it in a 4th Edition campaign.

Hat Trick

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Phylactery Lich

I don’t really talk about Magic: The Gathering much on this blog. One of the big reasons for that is that I don’t really play much Magic anymore. I play a lot more D&D, specifically 4th Edition, and I write about what I’m playing. If all I was playing was Settlers of Catan, you’d be seeing a lot more about Thief Placement in my blog.

But part of my job is selling Magic, and part of selling Magic is selling singles. So I was working on putting my binder together for Magic 2011 today, and I came across this:


I would have seen it in the spoilers had I been paying any attention, but to be honest, the core set spoilers are always a bit of a disappointment for me. I was so excited at seeing this card, that I actually brought it up to show my co-worker, Matt. It is a beautiful card, one of the most flavorful designs I’ve seen on a Magic card. It evokes all of the right emotions for a lich; it’s indestructible, but if you destroy the thing that houses its soul, it will die like anything else. It’s powerful, and it’s a cheap road to power, but that power comes with  an intense vulnerability.

I think one of the things that’s missing from most depictions of liches is the connection the lich has to the phylactery. I mean, there’s the obvious “If this thing is destroyed, then my life is over” connection, but I mean the more emotional connection the lich must feel for the receptacle of its soul. One of the things that caught me about this card was the almost tender way the lich holds  the scepter, the sense of real, personal attachment. It isn’t gripped like a thing that will bring you power, it isn’t held aloft like some prize. It’s cradled, gently, in the creature’s undead hands, like he might start whispering to it.

It’s for this reason that I think liches can’t be without their phylactery. It makes so much sense to build a phylactery, dig the deepest hole imaginable and then bury the fucking thing in the earth. Or seal it in some pocket dimension to which only you know the secret of opening. But liches never do that. They make finding their phylacteries a big deal. They hide them, but in a place they can get to if they want to go see it. Some of them, I’m sure, keep their phylactery on their person; there’s no reason not to, really.

I imagine having your soul stuck in a jar feels like every good thing in the world has just disappeared. All that is left is dull, grey eternity. And there’s a way to get the good things back. The good things in the world live in the jar. All you have to do is let them out, except that if you do, you’ll be destroyed. And you’re afraid of being destroyed more than you miss having joy. So you carry the good things around with you, wanting them to be close to you, even if you can’t let them be a part of you anymore.

Also, I’m sure the card will find a home in a couple of good decks.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Session Review

So I’m actually writing some of this session review before the session happens. I’ve got some pretty intense stuff happening this time around, and I figured it would be best if I could just get some of it down before the session goes live, and fill in the blanks when it’s done. Obviously, I’m going to erase this introduction before I publish the post, but it’s nice to have a draft to come back to when the session’s done.

The first thing to take a good look at is the Social Combat system. I’ve designed the Headmaster at the Extreme Library around this sort of encounter as a solo who will give up when he’s bloodied. With completely average damage rolls, it will take 19 hits to finish him off; not a ton, just enough to see how the system works and where it needs to be tweaked a bit. Here, have the whole encounter!

This is how things usually go at the Extreme Library:


1. You go to the front desk and request a book.
2. The bookaneers go and get that book for you. This can take weeks.
3. Depending on the level of difficulty getting the book, you pay a fee.
4. You get your book.


The player characters are on something of a time-budget, though, and can try and convince the woman a the front office to let them go after the book themselves. That will, of course, cost something, as the Extreme Library makes all of it's money from it's book delves. Determining whether or not the players will be able to get the books for themselves (and at what cost) will be a Diplomatic Encounter.


Roll Initiative: d20 + (half level + charisma modifier + misc. initiative mods)


On your Turn: Choose Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate as a Fight, Defend or Manouever action. Roll that skill vs. the opponent's Passive Insight. If the check is successful:


Fight: Deal 2d6 + Charisma Modifier damage.
Defend: Choose a creature. That creature may spend a healing surge.
Manouver: Opponent suffers a -2 skill penalty to Insight (save ends).




So looking at his stats, he’s got a social AC of 22, and a +14 to hit on most of his attacks. That’s pretty much in line with level 10 rolls, though he was hit a little too often, and didn’t do enough damage to be a real threat.

The player characters actually knocked this guy around pretty easily, and it was slowly turning into a slog at about the point he was bloodied. They were going on all-out attack, which is fine against a guy like this, but he simply wasn’t dishing out damage on a level to be a decent threat. I think the next social combat encounter is going to be a lot higher on the damage dealt, with a higher Insight check; I want to see people using Maneuver and Defense rolls as well as just straight-up attacking.

The second thing I’ve done today is fuck with movement a bit. I incorporated a bunch of notes that constitute something of a miniature skill challenge; success on the skill challenge means you don’t take boatloads of damage.

The Extreme Library is built into the side of a huge ocean-facing cliff. It falls thousands of feat, hangs miles over the ocean (held up by the Cage Spires), and some say that the bottom is some sort of dimensional rift to where every book ever made in every language, written on every possible material has come to rest. It is an insanely dangerous place, due to the huge number of dangerous creatures that guard the various tomes of incredible value here and the certain doom that awaits anyone who falls.


The "broomsticks" that the party has are basically useless here; you can only fly a number of squares above the ground equal to your speed, and the number of squares between the ground and the Library are "infinite."


To get around on the walls here, they will need climbing and rappelling gear. The DC to climb down, using appropriate equipment, is 5 (just with half their level, every PC makes it); the shelves make for easy climbing, as there are plenty of hand and foot holds, but it is exhausting work (DC 22 Endurance check every hour, or lose a healing surge).


The combat map will be flipped on it's side, today, with one side being "Up," the other "Down." You can move up to your speed Up with a DC 25 athletics check or half your speed Up with a DC 15 athletics check. You can move an extra two squares Down with no climb check.


With a DC 20 athletics check, you can also "swing," which allows you to "fly" up to half your speed side-to-side (and diagonally down), but you need to begin and end your move action on the "ground."  While swinging you can make a melee basic attack as a minor action once any time during movement, without provoking an opportunity attack. You may swash your buckle at any time during this movement or attack.


Attacks that require two hands CAN be done, but provoke an Immediate Interrupt from Gravity that slides the character two squares.


If you fall prone, fall ten squares and take 2d10 damage. Your rope will save you from most of the damage, but not all of it.

The party made it through the first encounter using these rules, and while they didn’t look any different on the map, the shift in perspective from top-down to side-scroller resulted in a few moments that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Things like “falling as a charge” or “jumping on the gargoyle’s back” that would be completely ridiculous in a top-down map orientation.

We fought some bookend gargoyles, and a bookworm (just normal gargoyles, and a scythejaws that had its speed reduced to zero). Good times were had.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Tools of the Trade

Once upon a time, all I needed to create a decent session of D&D were some pencils, paper, graph paper and some books. I remember spending weeks in my bedroom cooking up whatever it was my friends were going to have to face down, writing notes, copying them out on new paper when they started to get scuffed from eraser marks, changing stats and editing tactics. A lot of the enjoyment that I got out of the hobby was what my co-worker Matt likes to call “Lonely fun.” It’s the stuff that happens between the sessions, plotting and planning your way through the next few encounters and plot arcs.

Oh how the times have changed. I do all of my planning by computer now. For one thing, I type faster than I can handwrite, and that has nearly enabled me to get my thoughts down as I’m thinking them. It’s also a TON easier to edit something if I don’t like it. And basically any piece of information I could possibly want to research is sitting at my fingertips the whole time I’m planning. With the D&D Adventure tools available to me, I have access to every monster yet printed for the game. The compendium sets me up with every feat, ability, race, magic item, power, trap, ritual, and even a full glossary just in case I forget what grapple does. The character builder is, to be perfectly honest, the best way to build characters for D&D 4th Edition. While it doesn’t always have every option from every book right away, it catches up fast, and if you build a lot of characters (like I do), the ability to craft a decent sheet in five minutes (as opposed to an hour) can be desperately important.

But the stuff the Wizards of the Coast has put out still isn’t as strong as a third-party piece of awesome called Masterplan. I have no idea how I thought I could plan sessions without this thing. It takes all of my session notes and arranges them by plot point; each plot point can be given an encounter or a skill challenge if I so will it, and the encounter notes will stay keyed to that event. The stat blocks can be input directly from Adventure Tools xml exports, so that you can keep one set of stats for multiple bad guys and just increase how many there are. I haven’t had a chance to play with the tileset feature much, yet, but I’m looking forward to also being able to set up my maps on the computer and reference them whenever I like.

Technology has made my planning a lot easier over the years. And while some people may decry the fact that D&D 4th is uniquely set up for long-distance, Skype-style play, I think that this is one of the most powerful things about the new edition. In 2008, the good folks at Wizards of the Coast showed us this:

Now, I know enough about how people read blogs to know that you either didn’t watch the videos (because they’re really boring) or that’s all you’ve done and I’m now talking to myself.

When D&D 4th was announced, I was as concerned as anyone else about the future of the game. I mean, any time a new edition is brought out, people rail against it, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know that, as long as the New Hotness is actually pretty cool, people will come to accept it. I hadn’t seen much that I was impressed with in Star Wars Saga (the playground in which Wizards showcased a few of D&D4’s new mechanical bits), but when I saw these videos I started to get really excited. I’m not the type of person who has difficulty finding a group of people to sling dice with, but I know a lot of people who, for whatever reason, can’t find a group. I talk to one or two of them every week, people coming in to lament about how they keep buying books even though they haven’t been in a group for years. The ability to play online would be amazing.

Hell, the ability to play with the gametable just for dungeon design would be a godsend. Having a suite of tools that would make me able to play D&D entirely from my laptop would eliminate the need for a DM screen. This is what I would need:

  1. Put the Monster Builder and the Character Builder in the same place, D&D Adventure Tools.
  2. Toss in  Masterplan, with Familiar-style encounter management.
  3. Throw in a dice roller.
  4. Give me a tool for map-editing that uses the D&D map tiles.
  5. Tie it all in with D&D Insider, so that I have access to the compendium FROM ADVENTURE TOOLS.
  6. And create a way/place for player-created adventures and content to be published online.

We have most of these things available to us already. There are a million dice rollers on the internet. Instead of getting the guy who wrote Masterplan to take out the functionality that accessed the D&D Insider compendium, offer him some money. As much money as you’re paying the guy who is supposed to be making something just like it. Then integrate the program into your own tools. Do the same thing with Familiar. And with all the free time you’ve just given your in-house programmers, have them work on a program that will snap the images of Dungeon Tiles to a grid, and send out your prototype Game Table.

A lot of the things in that video were promised to us in 2008, and they looked almost done. With all of quality the tools third-party guys are making for D&D4, and with almost nothing coming out of the folks in Renton, you have to wonder what’s going on here…

Some New Links

There are some new links over on that thingy on the right.

Kok'ed Dice is the blog of the ridiculously talented JP Kok. He's the Game Master of one of the games I play in, a thing he calls "Paper Legends." He hand-crafted paper miniatures with his own super-deformed drawings for all of the player characters and the creatures we've fought. He also hand-built 3d terrain using nothing but some paint and some insulating foam. This guy's like the McGuyver of D&D. He's also an awesome guy to hang out with and has some solid insights into Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. 

The Bonus Ghost Hauntarchy is the blog of another friend of mine, Mr. Zak Selman-Palmer. Zak is a guy who has been playing a long time, knows a lot about a lot, and happens to live in a Soviet satellite state right now. His blog is entertaining and informative, and while we don't always see eye-t0-eye on how things should be done in role-playing games (see: Social Combat), I respect his opinion deeply, and feel that all of my readers should as well. 

Sarah Darkmagic barely needs an introduction at this point; her blog is one of the more prominent in the 4th Edition sphere. About the only thing I can say that doesn't do her blog a disservice is "I like the way she puts words together, go read her blog." 

Minions You Learn to Hate

We fought a fellow called Angus von Lazerstein in our last session, and he was a douchebag. The session was actually much less about Angus himself, though, and much more about the hordes of minions he’d created in service to Babagya. I’ve rather changed my idea of what a minion is supposed to be since the first of those encounters. Minions are not cannon-fodder so much as they are suicide bombers.
We’ve had a recurring theme with the minions in this game. The players had been making cracks about Babagya’s flying around in a cauldron, suggesting that the image she evoked was much like a Koopa, dropping troopas from her bowl. So I started dropping in turtle minions, and after a few appearances, Awakened Iron Skull revamped them for her little escapade as Exalted Iron Skull.
In our first session, we faced a man called Scalpel who was healing Babagya’s undead gnolls. She has been busy trying to replace Scalpel and has finally found her man in the form of Angus von Lazerstein, a genius of lightshows and a powerful bard capable of, quite literally, melting faces with his solos. Having learned lessons from Skull (spontaneous minion production, minions made from elements, really good hair), Lazerstein set to work creating the perfect minion army.
I think the thing that is most ingenious about minions is “when they die” effects. To use minions effectively, you need to either create situations in which the minions are going to be mostly out of harm’s way, or you need to ensure that when they die, something crazy happens. The first wave of Lazerstein’s minion army created a blast of blinding light when they died, and left a smaller aura of blindness behind them. They had originally been flavored as turtles crafted from smoke, but when I rebuilt Lazerstein to focus on radiant damage, I shifted them over to flash-bangs.
The second set were a lot more deadly; they exploded in a burst of lasers and light and pyrotechnics. When they died, they had a burst two attack that did the minion’s normal damage, and an additional 1d6 radiant damage. This fight, built entirely out of minions and a single stronger creature a few levels below the party, was one of the most tactically entertaining matches of the night. The players were constantly trying to find ways to kill some that wouldn’t hurt the front-line fighters, and maneuver themselves into positions that would cause the least harm. They were pretty pissed when the single non-minion baddie was able to summon more minions into the middle of the battle, but managed to handle them in good stride.
The last battle was a mixture of the two previous types, with ranged minions on little platforms away from and raised above the main fight platform. Angus von Lazerstein was a solo a few levels below the level of the party, with HORDES of minions surrounding him. He was blessed with an aura that made his minions indestructible as long as they were adjacent to him, and had some powers that would allow him to spawn new minions as the turns progressed. Some quick thinking on the part of the players got Lazerstein away from the minions and then dropped him off of the main battlefield into the dark caverns below. While he was saved by his turtle companions, it would be a while before he could come back to harass the player characters again. With him out of the way, the players had no trouble getting up the rest of the stairs and into the city of Sternum.
I really enjoyed playing around with various kinds of minions, and I will probably be bringing them back for at least one battle before we reach Paragon. We’re already at level nine (I’ve been awarding double experience and setting up some very difficult challenges), and we only have a little while to go before we get into the meat of the campaign. As a change of pace, the next couple of sessions will involve a minimum minion count; it would be nice for some of the controller’s daily powers to actually matter in the future.
Next session: The City of Sternum and the Extreme Library.
Also, Glitterdust has a new look. I won’t be changing any of my old posts to look better in the new format, though I may go back and change the font size in the template. There are a few adjustments I need to make before I’ll be completely happy with it (like getting rid of the sponsored link spot at the bottom), but for the most part I like the new look.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Magic Should be a Role-playing Game

So I’m writing this at the Magic: The Gathering 2011 pre-release tournament.  I do one of these every three months or so, with a Launch Party tournament the week after. For those very few nerds unfamiliar with the game, Magic: The Gathering is what happens when you take a D&D-style fantasy game and turn it into a card game. The same people who make Dungeons & Dragons make Magic: The Gathering.

This is a pretty important point to me. The same people who make Dungeons & Dragons make Magic: The Gathering. This might not seem like a big deal, but in an age of cross-marketing, it seems completely ludicrous to me that Magic: The Gathering is not yet a role-playing game. I’m not saying that it should be a campaign setting for D&D, necessarily. But Wizards of the Coast has one of the most powerful research and development teams in the role-playing game sector. And they’ve been fitting Magic into other sectors with some success: there’s already an online version of the game, and an X-box game that includes much of the card game’s functionality and characters.

And for a card game, Magic has a rich world, full of interesting locations, (relatively) interesting characters, multiple planes of existence, powerful magic, over-the-top monsters, intrigue, betrayal, romance, war, allies, enemies (and people whose loyalties are… questionable), politics, religion, paranoia, world-destroying threats and plane-shifting action scenes. The card game manages to express a surprising amount of these things, given the medium, but fails to adequately explore any of the more intricate themes. That isn’t a failing of the game, but more a failing of card games in general. They simply cannot delve into complex narrative themes in the same way that role-playing games (or, y’know, books) can.

And there are books. Oh so many books. Most of them are poorly written, but the people who like them like them a lot. A quick look at Wizards of the Coast’s forum on the topic shows some 28,000 posts on the flavor and storylines of the game. And there are other places to find storyline and flavor elements, as well. And while not all of the storylines have been gold, there is more than enough information in these threads alone to create a setting for a damned fine role-playing game.

And there are systems that can handle the sort of ridiculous power without breaking. A good example would be Nobilis, which was capable of mediating godlike powers as it’s premise. Ars Magica had one of the most incredible magic systems ever created, and could handle world-shattering spells of devastating power. Plane-jumping has been a time-honored tradition, and even has games based on the concept (Spelljammer, for instance).

I honestly can’t think of a good reason that this intellectual property shouldn’t be a role-playing game…