Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Base = Touched

I haven't written in my blog in quite awhile, so I thought I'd just post some updates on stuff that's been going on:

About three weeks ago, I played my first game of the new edition of Call of Cthulhu. It was a massive, ten-player adventure. I ran my own adventure, "One Night in Innsmouth," a kinda-sorta homage to the Lovecraft short story "Shadow Over Innsmouth." The players each had to go to Innsmouth for different reasons: one group were family who were visiting a house bequeathed to them by a deceased relative; another group were searching for their lost sister, who was last known traveling to Innsmouth; and a third group was led by a bootlegger looking to start a speakeasy in Innsmouth.

I spent about half the session rolling with their various efforts, then, when night fell, I hit them with the Deep Ones. The rest of the adventure was classic survival horror: running from Deep Ones, gathering weapons and conserving ammo, and otherwise trying to escape this nightmare they fell into. In the end, almost every player died, whether in a boat that was overtaken with Deep Ones, or as a human sacrifice to Cthulhu. Only one player survived, by hiding in a garbage can literally the entire second half of the adventure.

Overall, it was one of my favorite sessions in a long time. It was great meeting new players, and the challenge of running a ten-player horror game was fun. The 7th edition of CoC is the best yet, combining decades of refinement with some new ideas harvested from current design sensibilities. On the improvement end, some of the plot hooks were lopsided; if I ever run this adventure again, I'll probably revisit the various plot threads and refine them to make them all equally-valid adventure options (until the fish-folk come after them, anyway). I'm going to post a link on G+ to the adventure as it was written, so if you, Dear Reader, would like to see more details (or possibly even run the adventure itself), please feel free to do so.

Two weeks later, I met with four of those ten players and played a first session of World Wide Wrestling, the latest Powered by the Apocalypse RPG. It was a bittersweet session, overall. The game itself was as fast, frantic, and as gloriously chaotic as I had hoped a PbtA RPG about professional wrestling would be. On the other hand, a lot of the new school philosophy (the players tell the story; the GM puts it together and makes it work) that's infused into any Apocalypse Engine game and required to function optimally was missing from my group. Two of the four players were pretty much playing it like a more traditional, tactical RPG, trying to inflict maximum damage and personal gain while sustaining minimum loss. It's not so much that they "didn't get it" so much as that's just not what they do. I can relate; I don't do it much, myself.

I'm not done with WWW; not by a wide shot. I definitely want to get this game to the table again, I think there's some real awesome potential here. But next time, I'm going to have to do some real thinking about how the game is going to go and what I'm going to have to do to make it work. Playing it in a literal fashion, off the page with little interpretation, had mixed results. We'll see what happens when I add my own take to the material, next time!

On the boardgaming front, I got in a couple of games of XCOM. I love it! It's probably my new favorite co-op. I'm not going to get into the general overview of it (Google XCOM: the Boardgame if you want to know the basics), but here's the bottom line for me: the real-time element adds tension and drama not normally seen in boardgames; the app is a bonafide game-changer that we'll probably see a lot more of in the future; and the combination of resource management and strategic-level thinking is an interesting blend not often seen, let alone done well, in other boardgames, particularly co-op games. My only complaint with the game is that the variety of content is just barely acceptable for the price point. It is painfully obvious that this is a game that will all but demand the purchase of its many inevitable expansions. Still, though, there is enough bang for the buck to make it an easy recommend, and if you're lucky enough to have a loose-pocketed friend pick it up on their own dime, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with it from your perspective!

Back to roleplaying...I am currently working on three different little projects. One is another Cthulhu adventure that is working up to being just as big and crazy as my previous one. Another is my reading of the fourth edition of Earthdawn, one of my favorite RPGs from high school and a total nostalgia trip to read; and some pre-production scouting for my next game. Right now, I'm bouncing around between The Strange or returning to WWW, but there's also a chance this weekend's CoC game will be a two-parter so there's that to consider, as well.

So that is the February recap. In addition to all this gaming, I'm still cranking out reviews for my side gig with Geek Native, so it's not so much that I'm not writing as I'm just not blogging. We'll see if that changes in the coming weeks...

The obsidimen, a playable race of rock people from Earthdawn.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Captain's Blog, Supplemental

Earlier today, +Jason Packer posed an interesting question: what RPGs out there are the least dependent on expansions/sourcebooks? What games can stand the strongest on just their core set?

This is a great question! I think it's a great question because there are a lot of people out there who are compelled to purchase an entire product line and don't consider the game "complete" without it. But there are some, such as myself, who tend to ONLY use the core books, and not only not use supplements, but more often than not I ban them from the table ("If I haven't studied it, you can't use it!" is a policy I normally carry at the table, particularly for supplement-heavy games like prior editions of D&D). My philosophy on it is this: the more books, the more shit I have to cram into my head, and consequently the more variables I have to account for when actually playing the game. There are a few games where this is so true it hurts (read below).

This extends to boardgames for me, as well. Though there are a couple that I deem essential (I really like Scoundrels of Skullport, for Lords of Waterdeep), I'd rather invest that money in a whole new game.

Come to think of it, I'm that way with DLC in videogames, too. Just the other day, I was pondering between the new expansion for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (super-soldier zombies!!!) or Evolve. Even though Evolve was more expensive, I choose that, because I wanted a different experience.

As you can see from the example above, money isn't often the issue with me. It's more about the experience. I can totally understand a cash-strapped gamer wanting expansions over new stuff because he wants a guaranteed good thing, but even in that scenario, I'd often rather buy a new cheap game than a comparably priced expansion for one I already have. I understand that's just me, though. Overall, I think it's pretty cool that the entire gaming hobby has this ability to grow vertically as well as horizontally.  

Anyways, I'm a tabletop roleplaying gamer, first and foremost, so here are my five picks for "most independent" RPGs:

1. Fate Core: I actually think this game is best when you try not to overthink it and just roll with it!
2. Dungeon World: Same as Fate Core.
3. Warhammer FRP: The majority of this game's product line is adventures, so a creative GM isn't missing much at all! A similar argument can be made for the Star Wars games, but less so as those games have sourcebooks for their various careers that probably drive a completist crazy.
4. 13th Age: "The anti-D&D," this game is practically built on the concept of needing as little extra crap as possible!
5. Numenera: Similar to 13th Age, this game is built on creativity, not comprehensive book collections. Ironically, though, there is a lot of stuff already available for this fairly-new RPG. 

And, yin to yang, here are my five picks for the least self-contained (most-sourcebook-dependent) RPGs I've ever played:

1. The One Ring: It's a relatively new system, so there aren't too many books for it, but I can't imagine extended play of this game without at least the setting books (Heart of the Wild, Rivendell). The special dice are a compelling purchase, too.

2. D&D 4th edition: Though all editions of D&D are pretty sourcebook-dependent, 4th took it to the next level with its paradign-shift to a more tactical game. Any RPG that has three Player's Handbooks and two Dungeon Master's Guides is a game made for deep pockets and wide bookshelves!

3. GURPS: In theory, the 4th edition corebooks have all the rules. In practice, however, a game group's going to want to have any and all supplements pertaining to their particular campaign world which, depending on that world, could extend to several different titles. I had a respectably-large collection of 3rd edition stuff back in the day...and I never used it once.

4. Rifts: This game practically invented the idea of "splatbooks." Same can be said for almost every game from Palladium books, as well.

5. Shadowrun: There's so much stuff crammed into the corebook it's practically a given that you're going to want sourcebooks to fully-explore all the game's myriad aspects.


I'd hesitate to call it "essential," but Scoundrels of Skullport adds so many more options to Lords of Waterdeep that it makes it a deeper, bigger game without becoming unwieldy.

Home Brewing

I have grown frustrated with my studying of "Masks of Nyarlathotep" for Call of Cthulhu. The brilliance of the adventure/campaign is clear to me, but there is just so much to know! As I slowly read its secrets and try to frame them in my brain, I find myself yearning for the comfort, familiarity, and creativity that goes into creating my own adventures.

The truth is, I don't think I'm a "book adventure" kinda guy. I wish I was. I see the appeal: a polished, perfected adventure, with all the materials you need in one book, and all I have to do is read it and present it to the players. But I think what I've come to discover about myself (especially in the process of getting my Masters degree), is that I am much more of a writer than a reader. More of a content producer than a content consumer. And so, it is looking less and less likely that I will be able to get myself through "Masks of Nyarlathotep." I'm not completely ready to throw in the towel just yet, but I'm close enough to say that it's probably going to happen.

That's not to say that I find no value in published adventures. Far from it. My intention, moving forward, is to mine published adventures for ideas and stuff that I can jury-rig into my own adventures. Also, when I say I'm a producer instead of a consumer, that's not to say that I don't enjoy a good story at all. Of course I do! But when it comes to presenting material, I feel like that material has to come from my own brain. Because original material gives me an advantage in being an instant subject matter expert on it.

Take, for example, the Call of Cthulhu adventure I did last Sunday for a group of ten players, "One Night in Innsmouth." I spent almost a whole week before that adventure writing down notes and ideas, narrative bits to describe to the players, stuff like that. I was ready for almost anything those players threw at me. Compare that to Masks, where I can't see myself going more than 30 or so minutes before having to dig into the book for more info to present to the players. In my Innsmouth game, I knew what the players needed to do to get certain pieces of information, and I had a timeline with which I could pace the entire adventure. Masks has that too, but the difference is I have to learn it, rather than create it.

I think the compromise I've come up with is that I will create my own adventures, but I won't try so hard to reinvent the wheel everytime I commit words to page. That aforementioned Cthulhu adventure was an almost page-perfect rip on Lovecraft's own short story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." I didn't even really try to hide it. And it still went really well, and my own spin on it allowed me to be creative without being derivative.

And, with that, I will get back to working on my next Cthulhu adventure!
The process in my head for making adventures doesn't quite look like this, but maybe a little bit...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

To Finity, and Beyond!

Looking back over the past year or so of blog entries (I crossed the 200 mark a few blogs ago and didn't even notice!) one theme that emerges is my constant struggle between committing to a game long-term versus flitting from one game to the next, one-shot after one-shot. I spent a lot of 2014 wanting to get a full campaign under my belt. I did (kindof) with Firefly...and I came to realize I don't care much for that kind of experience. I think I'm pretty comfortable and happy being a one-shot/short-game GM.

The problem I ran into with Firefly is that week after week I found myself in a battle against stagnation. Towards the end, I went to some ludicrous extremes to keep the game fresh and unique. I also found myself constantly in conflict with clashing plotlines...did I want to tell some kind of epic story with my players, or did I just want to follow them and see what happens? I could never make up my mind, and as a result, I ended up doing a disappointing job at both. I'm not saying I regret Firefly...it was definitely one of my favorite RPG experiences...but when I think about all the things I thought I was missing by not playing a long-form game, I see that it's not without its own costs and problems.

Still, I'm glad I tried, and I'm definitely not saying I'm done with the long games. In fact I'm prepping for two on the horizon: "Masks of Nyarlathotep" for Call of Cthulhu and "Jewel of Yavin" for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. The difference with those, of course, is that they're long-form adventures designed to span a whole campaign. I won't be just winging it or world-building or any of that shit; I'll have a fully-prepared storyline/adventure ready to follow (or not follow), as the game demands.

Looking back at my own experiences, I daresay that's the real way to go: a good campaign should be built on a structural narrative. Whether that narrative is loosely-defined or every plot point plotted, I think an ideal RPG campaign has a definite beginning, middle, and end. I love a good sandbox as much as the next guy, but I can't imagine running a game for months...let alone years...on end where we're all just showing up and "playing to see what happens." I mean, after awhile, we all know what's going to happen, right? Now, I'll go ahead and temper that previous statement with the caveat that a sandbox game can have a definite end, and when they do, they tend to work. If you wanted to set up a game of Apocalypse World and decide that it's going to end after a dozen or so sessions, that, to me, works. Even if you don't exactly know how the game will end; just knowing there's a finite amount of game, I think, allows everyone at the table to sharpen up their senses and really get things going. It's a meta way of controlling tempo over the course of a long campaign.

I've done a lot of "shop talk" with other GMs over the years, and, inevitably, I get a story that goes like this: "Yeah, we had this game that went on for, like, years! And it was awesome...until <insert real-life problems, interpersonal drama, or other form of falling out/disconnection> and then it just kinda fell apart."

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to tell me (or anyone else) all about how awesome your game was, without having to have that anti-climactic bit at the end? Obviously I don't know you, Mr. Straw Man GM, but I actually wonder if, had the campaign not been a meandering good time and instead had a definite end point, if all the Whatever Happened would have even possibly not happened if that ending were in sight? I know, craziness, can't predict life, blah blah blah...but if you know something is coming to an end, I really believe we work our damndest to get there. I think everything...including and espeically our stories...need endings. There were a few occasions where I wanted to throw in the towel on Firefly, but I kept thinking "We've only got this many sessions left!" and doggonit, I stuck to it! For once in my GMing "career" I stuck to it! Of course it was only seven sessions, but baby steps, right?

Anyways, those are the thoughts going through my head this Wednesday afternoon. This Sunday, I'm going to host a big session of World Wide Wrestling, the latest Apocalypse-powered sensation to hit the virtual bookshelves. I'm only planning on one session, but if interest is strong and we come up with some cool stories, I'll push it to two, or four, or maybe even six separate sessions. And I'm looking forward to every part of it, including and especially the end.




Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Stars Are Aligning...

After all the intensive reading and prepping and planning, my review of Call of Cthulhu, 7th edition has gone live, as well as a spinoff feature on running large groups that happened in the process of playing CoC. Altogether, I've spent...what, two weeks?...of straight study on a single RPG. Now, finally, it's over.

And yet I don't want to move on.

In the...holy shit...three years I've been running role-playing games, my favorite games, hands-down, have been Cthulhu games, either CoC or its Apocalypse Engine homage, tremulus. I've run games of Lovecraftian horror with as few as two players and as many as (now) ten. Every time, it's gone extremely well, my players have been happy, and I was happy with how it went. There hasn't been a single game...not Firefly, not Dungeons & Dragons, nothing...that has run as smoothly and as consistently well for me as a Cthulhu game. I think it's now safe to say that Lovecraftian horror is officially and completely My Thing. It is my signature genre. I can dip my toes into fantasy games and science fiction games, but I will always, inevitably, return to Lovecraftian horror. It is the one genre, the one style of game, I can go back to again and again and again, and never get sick of, never say "Time to change it up a little," never switch gears. If I wanted to, I could probably play Call of Cthulhu and/or its predessor games for the rest of my RPGing life.

And something like that may very well happen. With the success of my 7th edition game last Sunday, I look to the future and think about where I'd like to go with this game. And, beckoning like a dream in one of Lovecraft's stories, is Masks of Nyarlathotep. It's been said that, even with weekly sessions, playing this adventure at its fullest could take over a year. It's complex and loaded with details. It's an adventure of a massive undertaking, requiring a dedicated group and an equally-dedicated Keeper. That is the very epitome of a game I don't want to run right now.

And yet, here I am, with the pdf open, and me taking notes. 

I'm definitely not going to start Masks just yet. But I feel like I will start it very, very soon... 
Nyarlathotep. Devourer of investigators.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Territory Control

"Trigger=pulled!" I proudly proclaimed on my Facebook page, regarding my latest boardgame acquisition: XCOM: The Board Game.

That night, after my wife came home with the groceries, she said, "Ed, there are still a few of your board games in the car. Can you take them out and put them back on the shelf?"

"Sure," I said. I went to the car, grabbed Robinson Crusoe and Arctic Scavengers, and brought them into the walk-in closet where my bookshelf of tabletop stuff is stored.

I looked at the shelf...and discovered there was no space. Every shelf was crammed with every roleplaying game and boardgame I've purchased in the past several years. Imperial Assault. Rex. Battlestar Galactica. Panic On Wall Street. Freedom: The Underground Railroad. To name a few. Looks like I'm going to have to make another run to storage, where there's another collection of board games almost as big as this one. Legendary. Thunderstone. Conquest of Nerath. Space Alert. etc....

I am running out of space. I have boardgames literally stuffed into almost every corner of my home. Tales of Arabian Nights is discreetly tucked away under an end table in the living room. Those two games mentioned above are now overtaking the computer on my computer desk, along with all three D&D corebooks. Even my workspace is affected. In the drawers of my cubicle, one can find copies of Pandemic, Libertalia, and Hanabi. And just as I write this now, I remembered about the "emergency" copy of Coup in the side compartment on the rear driver's side door of my car. I literally cannot turn around in my work or home without bumping into tabletop games.
This is not my tabletop shelf, but it's a fair approximation. Minus Carcasonne, of course. Because that game SUCKS.

And it's a GREAT PROBLEM TO HAVE! However, it is a problem, nevertheless. An extreme one, calling for an extreme solution. Yesterday evening, I went to the bank and got pre-approved for a mortgage. Time to buy a home!

Though, if anyone asks, it's because I'm 36 years old and I'm an adult and equity and buyer's market and blah blah blah. Definitely has nothing to do with how I need more space for my tabletop games. Nothing at all.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mass Hysteria

Yesterday morning, I went public with this Sunday's game, Call of Cthulhu. Specifically, I went to www.meetup.com and created a meetup for CoC. I was not expecting a big turnout...four, maybe five if I'm lucky. 

This morning, I checked the meetup page and discovered to my delight...and horror...that I have NINE players. For many of them, it will be their first time playing CoC. For all of them, it will be their first time playing the new edition.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head:

1. Call of Cthulhu is even more popular than I realized.
2. The adventure in the book, "Amidst the Ancient Trees," is designed for three to five investigators. I'm going to need to either make heavy changes to the adventure, or come up with something else entirely.

As I said before, I am excited and horrified. Five of the nine are new people...fresh blood! But how the HELL am I going to handle a nine-player game? There are only two other times I've gamed with this many people. The first time, ironically, was the very first adventure I ran when I returned to role-playing. That was a Dungeon World game that I hosted at a local public library. The second time was last year; a 12-player D&D 4th edition game. The session was only supposed to be character creation, so I didn't sweat the cap, but then everybody started looking at me with hungry eyes. I wanted to give everyone a little taste of the game, so I whipped out my Dungeon Tiles, created a dungeon on the fly, split the group in half, and had them battle each other in a skirmish. It was EPIC. But, unfortunately, that's not going to fly in a game of Call of Cthulhu. So what are my options?

The key to success in games this large is to work with what you have. Never use an NPC if you can avoid it; instead, pull a player aside, give him/her the information, and then have him/her roleplay out the scene with the others where that information comes out. Pre-structured plots tend to fall apart fairly quickly in groups of this size, as well; instead, try and work with what the players come up with. Use their backstories, their occupations, to create a story, then start weaving it into the other players' ideas. 

Finally, knowing myself, I know that my favorite adventures are the ones where a large problem needs to be solved. I'll need to create something accomodating a group this large; a problem that the investigators have to break into smaller groups to work through. 

Now, I'm going to start brainstorming ideas, gimmicks, and mechanics that might work for this group. The only other criteria is I don't want to go too far outside the lines, here; people signed up to play Call of Cthulhu, not some weird Ed Gibbs house-blend. Let's see what we come up with:

-Some situation where a vote needs to be made, and there's a clear divide between at least two investigators on what needs to be done.
-A situation/scenario where players can narrate to me what happens.
-The situation/scenario should be very lethal; this is a one-shot, afterall, and there are plenty of viable targets to take out...
-Despite the inevitable chaos of the situation, I'm going to want to at least attempt to stick to the classic CoC playbook: gather evidence, conduct research, solve the mystery.


Hmm...by Jove, I think I've got something. I'll have to keep quiet here, as at least a few of the players read this blog, but tune in Monday to see if this works out!





Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Game of Dicks

In addition to the thrilling debut of D&D 5E, I played a couple of boardgames over the past few days. Friday night, I played a four-player game of A Game of Thrones: the Living Card Game. This afternoon, at lunch, I played half of a game of Libertalia, before I lost the conference room to a unit meeting and had to pack it up early.

What's interesting about both of these games is they are what some have called "conflict games." Being ice-cold to each other is not a choice; it's the game's design. In A Game of Thrones, you are encouraged to pick on the weak. There are situations in play where you can clearly attack, exploit, or screw over your opponent(s), and not taking those opportunities when they present themselves could easily cost you the game. In Libertalia, your gain will almost always be at someone else's loss. There's just no way around it.

I have kind of complicated feelings around these so-called "conflict games." I can be a pretty sore loser, sometimes. For whatever reason, I tend to end up being the "leader" or "organizer" or "Dude Who Knows How to Play," and as a result I often spend more time making sure everyone's having fun and understanding the game rather than playing to win. This usually results in me doing very, very poorly in competitive games. And I'm okay with that, if it's close. But getting blown out just sucks.

Paradoxically, that's a fairly common trait amongst boardgamers. I think it's why co-op games and "multiplayer solitaire" Euro-games are so incredibly popular. And not only are some people poor losers...some are poor winners. Either they are loud-mouthed and obnoxious about it, or they are uncomfortable with the idea of being "cruel" to people just to win. I can certainly relate...even on the rare occasion that I win a game, my first concern is that everyone who didn't win still had a good time.

But, on the other hand, there are few tabletop experiences more exciting, more riveting, and more satisfying than playing a spirited, competitive game. Last year, I played a ton of games, but my favorite one? Conquest of Nerath. I only ever played it once. I may never play it again. It's a war-game. Try getting that to the table some Friday night, and watch how quickly it gets drowned out by people wanting to play more 7 Wonders or, nowadays, Splendor.

Don't get me wrong...there's nothing wrong with either of those games...but, as I just said, a competitive game has an air of excitement and intrigue about it that cannot be matched. It's too bad we tend to get caught up on our own shit sometimes, to the point that gaming experiences like Conquest of Nerath get ignored. I actually think this is one of the bigger barriers to entry in the tabletop boardgaming hobby. You can whip out Settlers of Catan or Pandemic and hook anyone for an evening, but it's an all-nighter of Civilization or Imperium Galactica that is going to create memories that keep people coming back. It's the meta-stories of power and betrayal that get told in a game of Rex, or Battlestar Galactica. It's snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in A Game of Thrones. 

I wonder if there's any way we can alleviate "the human factor" in these games, and allow ourselves to just focus on the great spirit of competition. I've thought up a few ideas, and I wonder if there might be any merit to them:

1. Method Gaming: Something that took a little of the edge off the Game of Thrones cardgame was that at one point we started kinda-sorta roleplaying our respective houses as events within the game unfolded. Then it didn't become "let's gang up on Ed," it was "House Baratheon has become a threat that must be dealt with!" That little switch can make a lot of difference, potentially. The next conflict game I play, perhaps I'll try roleplaying the whole way through. Not only will that take the edge off competition; it'll probably make the entire game more fun!

2. (House) Rules of Engagement: Getting a big lead in a game of Cosmic Encounter can be an ugly thing, as every other player throws everything they've got at you to hold you back and steal victory from your hand. One of that game's brilliant and simple mechanics to prevent it from getting too ugly is the "Deck of Fate." At the beginning of your turn, you draw from the deck, and the color of card you draw is the opponent you face that turn. Voila! Nothing personal; just fate. Such "rules of engagement" like this could easily be adapted to other games to take the personal edge off. After Friday's Game of Thrones game,  I thought about a multiplayer variant where you attacked to the right and defended to the left. I thought, not only would that make things less personal, it would create a whole new level of strategy/politics (if you can't directly affect a player who's in the lead, you'll have to lend aid any way you can to the player who can affect him).

3. Monologuing. A favorite technique of mine, this is a simple declaration of intent whenever you do something that could be perceived as dickish. You don't have to take an apologetic tone; you just straight up say "I backstabbed you because you're about to win," or "This is a move of respect, because I'm afraid of what you'll do to me if I don't stop you first." Stuff like that. This allows you to keep the competitive spirit but remove the personal aspect (it's just business, nothing personal). The disadvantage here, of course, is in accidentially showing your hand when it comes to long term strategies. But in those cases, even a simple "it's not personal, it'll make sense later" could go a long way. That may sound redundant ("Of COURSE it's not personal, we're playing a game!") but reminding someone of that fact...especially in a particularly intense scenario...may be worth doing.

Anyways, if any of you have suggestions on how to influence competitive behavior so that it's not as daunting to those who have issues around it, please let me know!

I will say, it was pretty annoying when the kid playing next to me kept obnoxiously grinning at me whenever he plopped a dragon down on the board near our contested border...but that made victory all the sweeter when I broke out my Dragonslayer Arrows!



Monday, February 2, 2015

The Return of the King: Recap of D&D, Saturday Jan 31

On Saturday, January 31st, I DM'd my first game of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition. I had six players, none of whom had played the latest edition of the game, three of whom were new players to me. This was the first game open to the public I've run in a year, excluding my brief Star Wars one-shot last month.

Overall, the game went fantastic. All three of the new players were lapsed tabletop RPGers, so it was awesome to bring them back into the fold, using the flagship game of the hobby. And that flagship? As the title of this blog post implies, D&D is back and better than it's ever been. Let me elaborate:

Character creation. Making new characters took a little over an hour, about par for a group of this size playing a new game of moderate crunch. The first great improvement to D&D's new edition is how much more streamlined character generation is. The starting choices are few, but they're important, and the options expand at a steady rate through the level cap. This makes character creation quick but not too simplistic, and it gives you a lot to look forward to right away in a longer game. The first three levels are basically "tutorial" levels, as you don't really get access to the full capabilities of your characters until level 3 or 4. This is great, though; new players get eased in, and old players will level up quickly enough to avoid boredom.

The influence of newer, indie RPGs like Dungeon World is a recurring theme in the revisions of the new edition, and character creation is no exception. At the end of chargen, I tasked the group with making connections to each other (like you would with bonds in DW) and everyone jumped into it enthusiastically. Backgrounds, ideals, and bonds were fleshing out and tying into each other in a meaningful way, and right off the bat, this group had something more substantial than the classic "we all met in a bar" cliche. With a little coaxing, the opening hooks for the adventure wove seamlessly into their collective story, and suddenly the game had depth.

The Adventure. I played the first chapter of "Hoard of the Dragon Queen", the first official published adventure for 5th edition. Overall, it went well. The adventure has a lot going on, most of it optional, so a flexible DM can adjust it on the fly to suit the mood and tone of the group. My group, in classic form, defied meta-game wisdom and divided into three different groups to do three different tasks. These different tasks were designed with full groups in mind. One of the splintered groups was a single character! Rather than having the first session end in a feel-bad bloodbath, I adjusted some of the encounters to accomdatate the smaller numbers. The result was a lot of fun, with each character getting chances to be heroes while there was still an air of danger about the session. "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" is a very easy adventure to run right off the page, and I recommend any DM have it in their library as a low-prep option for the Biggest RPG Out There.

The System. It cannot be stressed enough how much of a breath of fresh air 5th edition is over both 4th and 3/3.5. It has a much smoother, looser structure that makes the game so much more flexible, approachable, and fun. The much-hyped advantage/disadvantage mechanic is indeed all its cracked up to be; versatile yet meaningful, simple yet still significant. The new revamped magic system provides spellcasters with the best of all worlds; the strategic nature of the more Vancian-style magic, combined with the power and fun of 4th edition's spammable spells. That design philosophy follows to combat, as well: I ran several 5th edition combat encounters in the time it would have taken me to run one straight-forward fight in 4th edition, and yet those 5e fights felt just as satisfying, if not more so.

Is D&D a perfect all-around system? Not really, no. Doing non-combat stuff is still a little undercooked, as it was in 4th edition, but that is by design. The much-vaunted three pillars of a D&D game...combat, interaction, and exploration...are all done very well, but the stuff that falls into the cracks between those three pillars...strategy, problem-solving, dynamic skill usage...remain a little unfocused in the latest edition of the game. Thankfully, there is a brand-new edition of Call of Cthulhu that is far better at those subtleties, making CoC a fantastic "down-time" alternative to a regular D&D group. Outside of that, however, if you're looking for a do-anything game, D&D isn't it. Unlike 3/3.5, 5th tries to focus on what D&D is known best for, but unlike 4th, it doesn't do it to the exclusion of all other playing styles. In that, one could say 5th edition is perfect in its imperfection.

For these reasons, 5E is also a great jumping-off point for new players of the hobby. After a few games of D&D, if new players want more problem-solving and interaction and roleplaying, you can head to Fate Core or 13th Age, Numenera/The Strange or even the Apocalypse Engine. If your new players like cramming numbers and tactical fighting, you can instead step into Pathfinder or Shadowrun, or more simulationist games like GURPS and The Hero System. D&D sits right between either of those two extremes, and as of such, is a great place for gamers across the spectrum (including new ones) to meet. 

So overall, I had a blast. After spending nearly a year with the same group playing the same short list of games, it was incredibly refreshing for me to return to a group of new faces, playing a new game. I look forward to future sessions, whatever they may be!
I was certain this blue dragon was going to fry at least a few adventurers, but they handled the ol' wyrm like gangsters!