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Tabletop Games for Children 3: Treasure and Gear

Ok, so it’s been a while since I’ve posted about the Storyforge project I’ve been working on. I’m still working. Who would have guessed that designing a tabletop game that balances everything I want would be complex? I’m completely flabbergasted.

Anyways, my latest hurdle came from an unexpected place: treasure. At first, I had a simple plan for treasure in Storyforge. There would be money, probably called Gold. Money could be used to buy things, like gear and magical items. Gear and magical items could be used for players to do cool things or to increase their abilities. Simple, right?

Then I tried to write down the details, and I realized I was way out of my depth. How much gold should players have at any given level? How much should things cost? What kind of abilities should magic items change? How should you track gear? How to keep magic items from unbalancing everything irreparably?

I tried at first, I really did. A linear progression of wealth-by-level (say 1000 gold every level) seemed boring, so I went fancy: players should gain as much gold as the previous level x 1000. So 2nd level players had 1000 gold, 3rd level had 3000 (the 1000 they had, plus another 2000), 4th level had 6000 (the 3000 they had, plus another 3000), 5th level had 10000 and so on. A bit finicky to explain, but so far, so good.

Then I got to magic items. I knew I wanted simple magic items that gave a boost to a single ability score, and that the detail of the magic item could be entirely story based. So a legendary spear, a flaming axe, a sword forged from a meteor could all have the same affect (say, +1 to attack) and all cost the same. Simple, yet it allowed story detail. But how much should it cost? What if I wanted something that gave a +2? Or gave a +1 to more than one ability? Again, I worried that a linear progression (+1 for 1000, +2 for 2000, etc) was too simple. Even increasing it at the same rate as the wealth by level worried me; at that rate, a player could get a +5 item–potentially doubling a score–by level 6, and that seemed like a bad idea. I considered D&D’s more heavily curved bonus^2 x 1000 cost system and, while it looked a bit more like the numbers I wanted, I was worried it was complex enough to take away from the quick and easy (and young kid friendly) gameplay I was going for.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, then I started thinking about gear. How do I price out one-shot items? What about mundane goods?

AND and that doesn’t even start to worry about figuring out treasure-per-encounter rates.

So I gave up.

No, I shouldn’t say I gave up. I just started thinking… Do we need treasure and gear?

Don’t get me wrong, I want players to get special things. I want the swords of fire and the boots of flying and all that fun stuff. But does it have to be mechanical?

Players are already going to be improving their ability scores as they go up in levels. If, in the story, they find the Lost Axe of Pazuzu, Lord of the Night, awesome! But the coolness of the Lost Axe can just be included in the fact that the character’s attack score went up as they leveled. As for gear, it’s a story, right? So if you want your character to pull the rope out of her backpack to climb the wall, great, you had rope!

I do recognize that, like a lot of the rules I’m going with for Storyforge, this will make things easier for the players. They want rope, and they just happen to have rope makes things pretty easy. On the other hand, it shows that your players are thinking and problem solving, so why does it matter? It’s a game, and the players are supposed to win.

So that’s my new plan. No tracking gold. No tracking gear (unless it’s something very special). Maybe the GM can give some one-shot items, if it fits in the story. Maybe some “items” can have the occasional effect–you say you have an axe of fire, you get a bonus against enemies made of ice. But those can be loose and up to the story, rather than detailed in pages and pages of rules.

Does taking away more rule-intensive gear and equipment take something away from the game? Maybe. Does having looser rules for what “items” you have do skew things towards the players? Definitely. But does it also make the game more fun?

…I don’t know, but I hope it will.

What do you all think? Should Storyforge have more specific rules for treasure, like D&D? Or should I go the route of the FATE system, and simply have stuff as detail without mechanical effect? Or is there a third option that I haven’t even thought of yet? Leave a comment, let me know.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2018 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games

 

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Tabletop Games for Children 2: Introducing Storyforge

Last week, I discussed creating a tabletop game for children. I wanted three main things: it to be story-driven, it had to be customization to whatever sort of story you want to play, and it had to be easy to learn and simple to play.

To that end, I’ve wound up with Storyforge. I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with the name… What can I say? I have a smithy theme going on.

I’m working on a full set of rules right now, but in the meantime, let’s explore the basic features of the game.

Description affects story, not mechanics

Like any RPG, there’s plenty of spot for character description, including things like race. However, nothing in the description is going to affect mechanics in any way. For example, whether you play a human, a troll, or a fairy, the actual mechanics of the game will not be affected, so there is no need to worry about game balance if someone wants to play something unusual.

Simple abilities make complex stories

Each character has four ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. These four abilities are the key to any story action outside of combat. When a player wants their character to do something, they explain it and, if it’s something that the character can obviously do, they do it. If, however, there is a risk or chance of failure, they need to roll for it. Whatever they are doing is related back to one of the four abilities, they roll a d20 and add that abilities score, and check against the challenge set by the GM to see if they succeed.

Since we’re not assigning specific tasks to specific abilities, what ability is used is up to the player’s explanation. For example, maybe a player wants to intimidate someone with subtle threats; they want to use Charisma. On the other hand, if they intimidate someone by picking up a golf club and bending it in half, they want to use Strength. As long as the players and GM agree that using a specific ability for a specific task makes sense, they’re good to go.

Generating scores for these abilities is as easy as picking numbers. At level one, players give one ability at +3, one ability a +2, one ability a +1, and one ability a +0. (Having +0 doesn’t mean you can’t use an ability, just that you’re not exceptionally good at it.) Every time they level up, a player can add 1 to any of those scores. Things like magic items can also give bonuses to the scores.

Descriptive combat, customizable combat

Combat is similar to the story action described above. There are four combat scores: Melee, Ranged, Magic, and Defense. When I attack you, I describe which score I’m using (“I’m attacking with my sword, so I use melee”), and roll a d20, adding the relevant score. You roll your defense (a d20 plus your defense score). If I get higher than you, I hit you. If not, I miss.

After that, the details are all in description. Whether I’m attacking with a giant axe, or a whip, or two swords, I’m using melee. If you’re defending with your heavy armor, or by parrying me, or by dodging, its all defense. Melee works for any attack when you’re next to the enemy. Ranged is for any attack where you’re not next to the enemy (within a limit… Say, 10 squares). Magic can be either adjacent or not adjacent to enemy.

Everything else is set the same for everyone. Everyone starts with the same movement speed (for example, up to 5 squares per turn). Every successful attack does exactly 1 point of damage. Every player always has the same amount of health (I’m thinking 7). To add a little more risk, there can be a critical hit system: if you roll a 20 on your attack, you roll a d6 for damage, instead of just doing a single point.

Special abilities for unique characters

The final thing making characters unique will be their Special Abilities. Every character gets one special ability at 1st level, then one more at every odd-numbered level (3, 5, 7, etc.). Special abilities are picked from a list (I’m making about fifty of them).

Every special ability is different, but most are designed to give bonuses to certain rolls if certain conditions are met. Because I like rolling dice, bonuses to hit are met by rolling twice, and taking the higher result (as opposed to a flat number bonus, which I feel because less impactful when the overall scores get bigger). Bonuses to damage simply give you an extra point of damage (so 2 for a normal hit, or 1d6+1 for a critical). For example, one special ability might let you roll to hit twice and take the higher result if you make a melee attack after moving at least 3 squares in a straight line towards an enemy. Another might let you roll twice for a magic attack on a turn where you have not been attacked yourself, or roll twice to defend against a ranged attack.

There will be a few different special ability for each type of attack, for defense, and for general things like ability scores. There will be chains, but nothing more complicated than “you need to take this one before that one;” so no complicated, multi-point prerequisites. My hope is that, with special abilities, you can customize your character to a certain style of play – whether that’s investing really heavily in one tactic or taking a little bit in multiple tactics is up to you.

The final bits

That’s Storyforge in a nutshell. You’ll notice I didn’t say many rules for things outside of combat… That’s because I don’t have many. I know being too loose might backfire, but my hope is that it becomes a fairly open, group worked, story-driven game. If it makes sense, your character can do it.

The simple rules do have their downsides. I’m not sure how to do anything with healing, for example, except for simple potions. I also know there is a chance that some things are unbalanced… Since magic can be used both close-up and at a distance, why would anyone not put all their points into that? My hopes is that that sort of unbalanced metagaming will be countered by two factors. First, things like special abilities might help… Putting all your points in magic seems like a great plan until the enemies defend better against magic than anything else. I also think that the audience of a game like this (and remember, the genesis of this was for gaming with kids and people who want story-driven games) won’t think that way. After all, magic might be the “best” choice, but if my character is a half-crocodile pirate captain, you can bet it makes more sense for me to focus on my cutlass skills instead.

I’m going to finish putting together a small rule book soon, but in the mean time, what do you think? See any really obvious pitfalls that I’ve overlooked? Any suggestions for things I might want to change or add? Would you even want to play a game like this? Let me know in the comments.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2018 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games

 

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Tabletop Games for Children

So it’s been… Not quite a year since I posted, but close. What can I say? I got myself on a roll of a post or more every week, and then things changed. I got a full time job. Then another one. I had a baby. Did you know how much writing time having a baby cuts into? Apparently, holding a screaming, puking hobgoblin in one arm while trying to type with the other does not lend itself well to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my screaming hobgoblin. But maybe it means I’ll come back to blogging with a more manageable schedule than a board game review and RPG idea post every single week.

Actually, it was little Hob (that’s what I’m going to call him now) that made me want to come back to this blog. See, I want to be able to play games with my son when he’s old enough not understand that dice aren’t candy. But, while I love Pathfinder and such, many of them are not really geared towards younger children. Lots of them are pretty rules intensive and, even when you can simplify them, reward an in-depth approach to the material that a casual or young player may just never have.

Once I started thinking about the difficulty that younger kids might have with tabletop RPGs, I realized something else. Think about how games like D&D are always shown on television—as if your characters can be anything or do anything your imagination can create. It’s a nice idea. But how does D&D actually go? Your character can be or do anything you can imagine… So long as you imagine something taken from this list of pre-described possibilities. Magic systems are a real solid example this. You have your fireball, your lightning bolts… But what if you want to shoot a line of cold, instead of electricity? Make an explosion of acid instead of fire? What if you want to summon the powers of sparkles and love in a glittery shower of doom? Sure, you can homebrew small changes, but things like specific elemental weaknesses and limits to areas of spells are so entwined with the rules that it’s hard to do so without far more side effects than you expect.

So I started looking for a system that would better fit what I want from a kid-friendly tabletop. I wanted something simple, and I wanted something customizable to the max. I want a system where Hob can play a grizzled human fighter, wading into battle with a greatsword if he wants to… Or he can be a goblin riding a dolphin with laser eyes, wielding a three-bladed lightsaber. I want a game that I can explain in ten minutes, and can be fun and new every time. And I wanted a game with as much story as I could get.

Apparently, I wanted a game that didn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of tabletop games that are either aimed at children or will work for children. Fate Core has the customization I want. Dungeon World has the story driven idea I like. Even Wizards of the Coast got into it, publishing D&D for Kids. None of these systems were exactly what I wanted, though. The simple ones weren’t customizable. The customizable ones weren’t simple. They just didn’t click with me.

So I’m making my own.

My next few posts are going to be about my attempt at creating my own tabletop game. I’ve played with designing board games before (and, if this generates interest, maybe I’ll talk about them in the future), but never something like this. I’d love some feedback on it as I post.

In the meantime, have you ever tried RPGs with kids? What worked, what didn’t? What kind of systems do you like best? Am I crazy for trying to make a new one? Let me know what you think in the comments.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2018 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Hanabi

The festival has begun, but it is what is yet to come that concerns you. The finale for the day: the fireworks. Your fireworks. Well, yours and your companions’, of course. Together, you will make a show that will be famous for ages to come. On the other hand, putting on a fireworks show is a dangerous, complicated endeavor. One mistake too many and your show might be infamous for all the wrong reasons.

Maybe you are an illustrious firework manufacturer desperate to avoid ruining your own show… Or maybe you’re playing Hanabi.

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Designed by Antoine Bauza and published by R&R Games, Hanabi is a co-operative card game for 2-5 players. In it, you play as firework manufacturers who are trying to stop a mistake from ruining their show. Your dazzling “firework” display consists of cards, numbered one to five in different colors, being laid. There can only be one pile of each color, piles can only consist of a single color, and cards have to be laid in ascending numeric order. The higher the numbers get, the better your show!

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it would be… If not for the twist that makes Hanabi fairly unique. Each player can see each other player’s hands of cards, but not their own. You play with your hand of cards facing out, not in. So, how do you know what to play? The game comes with eight blue clock tokens and, instead of playing a card on your turn, you can spend one of the clock tokens from the team pool to give any other player a hint of what’s in their hand. There are only two types of hints you can give, and they have to follow some rules. A hint can be telling someone what cards in their hand are a certain color or telling them what cards in their hand are a certain number. In either case, you can only indicate this information by pointing at specific cards (i.e. “You have one red card in your hand,” while pointing to the red card) and you must indicate every card to which the information applies (i.e. you cannot only point at the one number 4 card you want them to play if they have more than one number 4 card). If you run low on the clock tokens, you can also, on your turn, discard a card from your hand to get a token added to the pool. You need to be careful, of course. Discarding the wrong card could make it impossible for your team to score as high as they want.

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Think it’s easy to tell what cards are in your hand?

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How about now?

And, of course, you can’t just play willy nilly without fear of consequence. Every time you play something illegally (a number that is not the next one that should be played, or a double of something already played), you take one of three black fuses out of the game, indicating the fuse getting shorter and you running out of time. After your team makes 3 mistakes, the game is over and you have to score with what you’ve successfully played on the table. The game also ends you run out of cards from the draw pile or (and this seems rare) you successfully make it to the number 5 card on each of the suits.

Hanabi is a hard game. The hidden information mechanic tied with the limits to what hints can be given make it difficult to play anything in certainty of safety. It’s also a hard game to follow the rules of, especially for new players. Habit may force you to accidentally draw your hand facing you or to give away more information than you are supposed to. It’s hard not to grimace when a fellow player takes what you told them and makes entirely the wrong decision with the information, or announces with certainty that they have deduced what’s in their hand, and is entirely incorrect. While it’s important to try to avoid those types of mistakes, making them doesn’t break the game. If you accidentally look at your cards, shuffle them into the pile and draw replacements (without looking this time, of course). If you accidentally say something that’s you shouldn’t have, just apologize and avoid doing it again.

Mind you, you should also be sensible about what consists of someone innocently, accidentally, breaking a rule. A player might accidentally gasp a profanity or shake their head when someone says something wrong. It is far more unlikely they accidentally shout “No, you fool! That card is a red three, not a green one! How could you be so moronic as to confuse the two!”…Or something like that. Besides, that person sounds angry and mean. You probably shouldn’t play with them, anyways.

If you’re a real masochist and the game is proving too easy, you can always make use of the built-in extra challenge that comes in many versions: a sixth suit of cards, which are multicolor. Depending on how much you want to punish yourself, this suit can work as simply an extra suit or can be a suit of “wild” cards, which have to be piled individually like any other suit, but which count as every color when giving information (i.e. you’d have to indicate them no matter what colors you’re hinting about).

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For those who like a challenge, or hate winning games.

Personally, I’ve never hit a perfect score in the normal, five-suit game (heck, I’m not even sure I’ve broken 20 points), so I don’t think I’ll be adding the multicolor deck to my game anytime soon.

Difficulty aside, Hanabi is still a lot of fun. The hidden information makes it unlike any other card game I know of. It’s also really, really satisfying to play. You never really lose in Hanabi, you just don’t succeed as well as you might have, and that seems to take some of the sting out of a poor performance. It doesn’t have the same level of stress as some other co-operative games (I’m looking at you, Pandemic and Forbidden Island), so it’s a good choice if you want to work together without that tangible sense of urgency.

Done right, your fireworks show will be remembered for a lifetime… And played well, a perfect game of Hanabi might be, too.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Dungeon Ideas: The Ghost Ship

The cloth sails hang in tatters, yet other sails, spectral things of blue light, propel the ship forward. On deck, it’s crew, seemingly unconcerned about the hideous wounds that mar their translucent bodies, work diligently, combating a storm that has long since broken, preparing for a battle that came and went years past. For them, it is not over. For them, it will never be over.

Who doesn’t love a good ghost ship? The Flying Dutchman. The Black Pearl. The… unnamed ship carrying Death in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? I thought it had a name, but google is telling me I was wrong… Come on, Coleridge, we need details!

Oh well. Whatever the name of them, exploring a ghost ship is our next stop in dungeon ideas. (For the last idea for a dungeon-outside-of-a-dungeon, go here.)

The Ghost Ship

Large sailing vessels can start anywhere around 150 feet long and get up to twice that. At dozens of feet wide, and with multiple decks, that leaves you thousands of square feet of exploration space. The nature of the ship allows for these spaces to be used in unique ways, too. Do players climb the ropes in the rigging? Has the bilge flooded, necessitating swimming to find the lost treasure in it? How does the ship pitching and rolling affect the combat on the main deck?

Speaking of combat, the enemies inhabiting a ghost ship are as varied as the undead that fill most gaming systems. In Pathfinder, there’s even a fair number of specifically aquatic undead, such as Draugr and Brykolakas. Make them the crew, throw in a ghost captain, and you’ve got yourself some baddies. Of course, maybe you want to go further. Maybe “ghost ship” doesn’t mean a ship with ghosts on it, but rather a ship possessed by the spirits of the dead. With that mindset, the ship itself can be an enemy. Rigging ropes lash out to try to snare players. Deck boards become like water, players dropping into them, before solidifying again, trapping them in the wood. The bell that calls sailors to arms rings and rings and won’t stop it’s infernal ringing, and each time it does it drives the players one step closer to madness. Ok, so you might have to play with the rules a little bit to get some of those effects, but it could be well worth it.

A ghost ship as a dungeon really shines when it comes to the plot of your adventure. Unlike ancient tombs or deep caverns, your players aren’t likely to just randomly explore their way onto a ghost ship, so why are they there? Do they have to find a way to escape? Perhaps a cursed compass teleported them here, and they have to find it’s pair on the ship to get off. Has this ship been sinking merchant vessels? The ghost captain has to be destroyed to save innocent lives. Or maybe they have to find a way to break the curse that has kept the ship sailing? Deliver it’s last load of cargo, expose the traitorous first mate who sold them out to an ambush, return the stolen cursed treasure to the forbidden land from which it came. The nature of ghosts and undeath mean that simply destroying the ship and its crew may not be enough… They will just return the next full moon, or the next time an albatross is slain, or when a poor soul accidentally sails over the sunken wreck, or whatnot. “Winning” the dungeon could require problem solving outside stabbing the boss bad guy until it’s dead, then.

What do you think? How would you work a ghost ship into a campaign? Mechanically, what would make a ghost ship different from any other boat? Let me know in the comments.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Dungeon Roll

You roll your shoulders. Things had not gone well. Your thief went down with a goblin arrow to the leg. Your mage used up all of her spells on the last group of oozes to swarm around you. And now… Another roar. The ground shakes. It is coming.

You look to either side of you. The champion next to you nods. The fighter unlimbers his sword. They are ready, as are you. The Dragon is coming… and you are waiting.

Maybe you make a career delving depths and fighting monsters… Or maybe you’re playing Dungeon Roll.

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Dungeon Roll is a dice rolling game designed by Chris Darden and published by Tasty Minstrel Games. It balances some press-your-luck mechanics (deciding how deep to go in the dungeon) with a little bit of hand management (deciding what dice to use when and how), all with a heavy sprinkling of fantasy theme. In it, players take the roll of heroes, leading a party of adventurers (rolled dice) into a dragon’s lair. They go as deep as they can before either returning to the surface with their treasure, or dying. Painfully. Possibly by being eaten by a dragon.

Ok, so the rulebook says they just “flee the dungeon,” but we all know what that’s code for, right? Dragon chow.

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It also comes in the best box design I’ve ever seen.

The game itself is pretty simple. Each players turn is one delve into the dungeon. They start by forming a party by rolling the seven white party dice. Each face is a different class or special item that is part of their party. Then, starting at level one (the game provides a ten-sided die to count how deep in the dungeon you’ve gone), another player rolls black monster dice for them: one die for level one, two dice for level two, etc. Using the party dice, the players have to deal with whatever comes up on the monster dice, but each party die can only be used once per delve. You have to be a bit strategic about what dice you’re using where, though. A cleric can only counter one goblin, for instance, but can counter any number of skeletons that come up in a roll. Ideally you want to defeat multiple monsters with as few party dice as possible. After you’ve dealt with all the monsters rolled for that level, you can decide to stop your delve and gain experience equal to your current level of dungeon, or go down one level to face fresh monsters. After every player has made 3 delves, whoever has the most experience points wins.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. One face of the monster dice has an icon for the dragon. If any dragons are rolled, they are set aside while the party deals with the level they’re on, and don’t get returned to the monster dice. If a total of three dragon dice get rolled in one delve, the dragon has been awakened, and the player has to defeat it in addition to everything else that has been rolled for that level. The dragon awards extra experience and treasure if it’s defeated, but it takes three different party dice (so it can’t be three fighters, or a thief and two clerics) to beat it. And, naturally, if the player ever finds it impossible to beat all the monsters of a given level, they get eaten have to flee, and gain no experience. You’re facing a constant tension, then, between going a bit further to get more treasure and experience, and playing it safe and taking what you’ve got.

Dungeon Roll adds some strategy that other press-your-luck dice rolling games lack through the inclusion of treasure and hero cards. Treasure – won by unlocking treasure chests rolled on the monster dice or by defeating dragons – is worth extra points if unused at the end of the game. In a pinch, though, you can also use the treasure in various ways to help. Is the sacrifice of the points worth keeping you alive for another roll? Maybe, maybe not, it’s a choice you have to make. The hero cards are even more fun. At the start of the game, each player is assigned one of eight unique hero cards. Each hero grants the players one Specialty and one Ultimate Ability. You can use the Specialty as often as it’s appropriate in a delve; you can use the Ultimate Ability once a delve. The Hero cards even level up, getting more powerful abilities after you hit 5 experience points. Picking the perfect time for the Hero card abilities adds a bit more critical thinking to the otherwise simple “do I or don’t I keep going” challenge of the game.

The unique abilities do lead to some problems with Dungeon Roll. First, the wording of the abilities of the heroes is… minimal. Many of them are pretty straight forward, but some seem a bit trickier to understand. You can find clarification online pretty easily, but the need to look up that clarification in the first place is a point against Dungeon Roll. The variable powers of the Hero cards can also seem a bit unbalanced. In my opinion, some cards are simply better than others.

The other problem with Dungeon Roll comes from the somewhat isolating experience of it. Sure, the game supports up to 4 players (more than that and the treasure reserve starts to be strained), but it really only plays one person at a time. When its your turn to delve, you’re making decisions, rolling dice, fighting monsters, and everyone else is… Watching? Waiting for their turn? Talking to each other and not paying attention anyways? Ok, so one other player can roll the monster dice for you (and what a thrill that is), but besides that, you’re playing by yourself. If you’re ok with that – a game where you play for a bit and then socialize until your next turn – than that’s great. It’s not really a group experience though.

Maybe that makes sense, though. Maybe Dungeon Roll is meant to be enjoyed most as a challenge to yourself, independent of what your rivals do. After all, when your back is to the wall, when your Cleric is spent and your Thief is missing, when you hear the dragon coming, what do you have but yourself? Well yourself, and maybe a Vorpal Sword or an Ultimate Ability up your sleeve…

 

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Brews out of the Box 4: Baron of Shadows

Baron of Shadows

Description: Even as you approach, he continues to chant, low in his throat. He is a tall man, his skeletal thinness emphasized by the mask designed to look like a skull covering the top portion of his face. His clothing is black, or perhaps a very dark purple, but clearly of good quality and cut. The flickering light cast by the torched burning to either side of him make all the shadows in the room jump and dance… But, as you watch, you realize that his moves more than any others. Before you can cry out warning, his shadow flows across the floor towards you and attacks.

Idea: I’ve written before about different ways to make boss fights more interesting than a one-sided slug fest, and the Baron came out of that. He was a caster (an Oracle of the Dark Tapestry, in Pathfinder) of a sufficient level to challenge the party. But on top of that he had extra abilities. His shadow could reach out and interact with the players, getting one free Combat Maneuver per round, with a bonus based on the Baron’s charisma. I contemplated allowing the shadow more actions, but I didn’t want to make it too powerful. If you’d like to make it more of a challenge, the shadow could attack or perform other actions.

And, yes, if any of you are wondering, I did get a fair amount of inspiration from Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog. Hecks, even his cultist chanting when my party encountered him was based on the “are you ready” refrain from Facilier’s “Friend’s on the Other Side.”

Mechanics: Obviously, the main flavour of the Baron comes from his shadow. Mechanically, the Baron himself functioned as an Oracle. His shadow, however, acted on his turn independently of him. It had a reach of 15 ft. and could perform on Combat Maneuver per round, without a penalty for failing (you can’t trip a shadow, after all). The shadow didn’t have to worry about things like difficult terrain or attacks of opportunity. If, however, all of the sources of light were extinguished, the shadow could no longer attack. Similarly, the shadow could not go through solid barriers that prevent light.

Statistics: Because the Baron of Shadows is almost more like a template that you would add to a creature rather than a full creature, I’m going to write it’s stats that way.

Template can only be added to a spell-casting creature.

CR: Same as base creature +1

HP: Same as base creature, + HD equal to 1/2 base creatures class HD.

Special Rule:

-Shadow: Once per turn, Baron of Shadows can make one combat maneuver attempt against a creature within 15 feet. These maneuvers have a CMB equal to the Baron’s base attack bonus + relevant spell casting ability (charisma for sorcerers, oracles, and bards, intelligence for wizards, etc.). These attempts do not provoke attacks of opportunity. Failed attempts do not allow retaliatory attempts against the shadow.

If, at any point, there is no source of light in the same area as the Baron to cast a shadow, the Baron loses this ability. The shadow cannot pass through any objects that block light, though it can travel around such objects, as long as it does not travel more than 15 feet from the Baron in total.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Dungeon Petz

Well. This isn’t your best showing. The Dungeon Lords are coming to see your pets, but your pens are knee-deep in manure, your Snakitty has escaped, and your Cthulie has somehow mutated an extra eye. You’d like to purchase the Direburnny to add to your shop, but your only available employees (good-for-nothing cousins you only hired because they were related to you) are laid up in the hospital (no doubt perfectly healthy, but enjoying the free meals and attention). Life is hard for a Pet Shop owner…

Maybe you should have avoided nepotistic hiring practices… Or maybe you’re playing Dungeon Petz.

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Dungeons Pets is a worker-placement game designed by Vlaada Chvatil and published by Czech Games Edition and Z-Man Games. In it, 2 to 4 players take on the roles of industrious Imps opening monstrous pet shops, rearing and showing the pets for eventual sale to Dungeon Lords. Using a limited amount of employees, you have to attend your pets needs, do your shopping, present your pets to prospective customers, among other tasks, all in the hope of raising the perfect pet to fit the needs of a Dungeon Lord to get rich selling it.

Now this is the point where, normally, I’d describe some of the basic rules of the game, or go over what happens in a turn. I’m not going to try to do that with Dungeon Pets. The truth is, despite whimsical art and a theme that seems fairly light, maybe even kid-friendly, this is a complicated game. I think any attempt at summarizing the rules on my part would either: (a) make it sound more confusing and complicated than simply reading through the (admittedly quite lengthy) rulebook; or, (b) push me way, way over the type of word count I aim for in these reviews. Suffice to say, a turn consists of placing your workers on specific areas of the board to achieve desired tasks, such as purchasing new pets, food, or pens; earning more money; then playing cards to meet your pets various needs, such as hunger or a desire to play; then showing off your pets in exhibitions to try to gain extra reputation as a pet shop; and finally trying to sell the pets to make some money for the next round and earn even more reputation. At the end of the game, the player whose shop has the highest reputation wins.

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It’s a busy board, even with only a few players taking actions on it.

If some of that sounds lengthy or complicated… Well, it’s because it is. A game is only 5 (4 players) or 6 (2 or 3 players) long, and is still likely to take an hour and a half or more. It’s also worth noting that the rulebook is a good, text-packed 20 pages long. While it’s helpful for explaining everything in details – including a 3 page appendix that goes over all of the various customers, exhibits, artifacts, and pets in detail – it’s a heavy enough read to be discouraging to people looking for something light and quick to pick up. I think you’re going to need at least two or three playthroughs of the whole game before you’ll feel comfortable enough with it to not double check every other decision in the rulebook, let alone try to teach it to somewhere else.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Dungeon Petz being so heavy is that, looking at it, you wouldn’t expect it. The theme of the game seems quirky and lighthearted: raise pets (albeit monstrous ones) to sell. The artwork also seems to suggest a comical game. David Cochard’s illustrations – especially the pictures of the 18 unique and original pets – are just silly. In full disclosure, even though I’m not a big fan of worker-placement games to begin with, I bought this one knowing nothing about it just because the name and the boxart grabbed me so. Who wouldn’t want to raise a one-eyed, one-horned, hair-covered vegetarian monster named Trollie?

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The Pets are cute…

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And, somehow, so are the Dungeon Lords.

As I said, I’m not typically a fan of worker-placement games and this one seemed more… work than most. There’s only so often you can choose between going shopping or cleaning the manure out of your pet pens before the tasks start to seem more like chores than a game. Combined with the fact that the humour found in the theme and through the joke-filled rulebook doesn’t actually seem to appear in the play of the game itself, the jump from admiring the cute monsters to working through another round of decided which chores you can and can’t spare an imp to do seems particularly jarring.

In all, Dungeon Petz is a very heavy worker-placement game. It is rules-intensive and does not lend itself to quick learning or quick play. That being said, if you enjoy that kind of game, this is a good one. The rules are detailed enough to avoid any situations where things get blurred, and the high need for constant decision making and prioritizing makes it a strategist’s dream. Don’t let the artwork or the cute theme fool you, though. Like the dreaded pets you sell, it might seem cute and cuddly on the surface, but it’s dangerous under the skin.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Deadly Decisions: Should a GM Kill Off Player Characters?

No.

Ok, so I was once told that, when writing (specifically for school, but we’ll count it here), if your thesis asks a question that can be answered with only a yes or no, you shouldn’t bother writing it. So, with that in mind, I’m going to go into a bit more nuances than a straight no. But should, generally speaking, a GM kill of a player’s character?

No. Just… No.

I can hear the cry of RPG purists now. “The rules!” they yell. “If the dice say they die, then they should die!” I’ll remind those people of two things: (1) It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun, and the rules of most modern editions of D&D and the like point that out; and (2) My blog has a running theme of fudging rules in order to make a game more enjoyable; if that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to much like anything that comes next.

Yes, in the rules of most RPGs (my experience is mainly in D&D and Pathfinder, so that’s what I’m going to refer to most), characters can die if things go badly for them. A bad decision, an unlucky roll of the dice, a particularly poorly-planned encounter… These things could kill you. And, yes, if you’re playing by the rules, characters will probably die, eventually.

But it’s a game, folks. It’s supposed to be fun. And do you know what’s not fun? Watching your roll to stop yourself from falling into a bottomless pit come up a one. Or, conversely, watching the GM roll a critical hit on you for the third time in a row. These things happen, it’s just probability. And probability can be a boring, vindictive, jerk sometimes. So there are times when it’s important to tell probability to go have a long walk in a dark, monster-infested woods, while wearing bright colors and beef-jerky flavored body spray.

In other words, lie. It’s sort of why those GM screens exist. That third critical? Aw shucks, it was actually only a 3. That bottomless pit? An illusion, tied to a reverse gravity trap that suspends your character helplessly in the air (real bottomless pits are expensive, after all). We’re all good. You don’t want to let your players get off completely free; you want it to feel like the game has risk, has consequences. But you can walk a line between making the game feel dangerous and actually making it deadly.

And again, the purists rail, “that’s not the point of the game!” Ok, if that’s how you like your game, fine. I have a friend who likes a quote that he heard… somewhere (neither of us know where; if you do, feel free to comment): In games like D&D, you treat a character like a car in Grand Theft Auto; ride it hard and, when you get bored, crash it into a wall. I disagree, not with the idea that you can play a character that way, but that you should. There’s no right way to play, really. If you want to play your character recklessly and to heck with the consequences, go for it. If your group wants to play hard ball with the rules and kill people, go for it.

But don’t force it on anyone.

If your players are attached to the characters (lots of people are) or otherwise don’t like them dying, don’t kill them. Even if you have to cheat, fudge dice, make nonsense up, don’t kill them. Threaten them. Hurt them. Make them think you’re going to kill them… But don’t kill them. And for the love of peanut-butter, as a player, don’t kill off your own character as a player by playing so recklessly you endanger everyone else. Your character diving headfirst into an unwinnable battle or making dumb choices can impact the rest of the party and, if they’re not ok with that style of reckless play and having to make new characters, there’s going to be resentment.

You want to drive your car into a brick wall? Don’t do it with the rest of your party in the back seat.

Again, I’m not saying you have to listen to me. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for player decisions or that you shouldn’t be somewhat beholden to what the dice say. But, if your players don’t like the idea of their characters dying, why put them through something that they don’t think is fun? It kind of ruins the whole “game” part of “role-playing games,” don’t you think?

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Forbidden Island

The water is rising. The Earth Stone is safe in your backpack, and the Ocean’s Chalice is within grasp, if only you can make it to the Coral Palace before the marsh your wading through floods entirely. You’ll have to trust your team-mate’s to have succeeding in their tasks, getting the other treasure’s. You’re all due back at the helicopter soon, because the water is rising, and this island will soon be lost to the ocean… Along with anyone still on it.

Maybe you should invest in some scuba gear… Or maybe you’re playing Forbidden Island.

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Forbidden Island is a co-operative adventure game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright. For 2 to 4 players, the game has players explore a constantly-flooding island through an action point allowance system, with the players trying to collect all four of the island’s treasures and escape before it is lost below the water. Through unique player powers and item cards, players can take some steps to slow the sinking of the island, but in the end they’re in a race against time for treasure… And survival.

Like many co-operative games, Forbidden Island has a single victory goal and several ways to lose. Tiles containing the treasure you need sink? You lose. The helicopter pad you need to escape sinks? You lose. Water gets to high? Lose. Player dies? Definitely lose.

You can only win if you and your team get all the treasure, then you all make it back to the helicopter pad, and you all escape with a helicopter lift card. With so many things that can go wrong, Forbidden Island can be a stressful game. Interestingly, though, I think it’s actually a lot harder to lose than it sounds. Yes, there’s lots of ways you can lose, but there’s also lots of steps you can take to mitigate those risks. In all the times I’ve played, I’ve only ever lost by the water level rising too high, which is the only thing you can’t directly prevent through abilities or cards… And even that I’ve only seen once or twice. So while it can be stressful, it’s not necessarily a hard game to win. And the adrenaline-fueled feeling when you push through the stress and reach victory is a rush.

I really like the board mechanics and physical parts of this game. The tiles comprising the island are sturdy, beautifully drawn, and seem like the kind of thing you’d find in adventure books like Treasure Island. The Crimson Forest, The Coral Palace, The Cliffs of Abandon… The tile names are just fun, and the way they are shuffled and laid out at the start of the game means the board is different every time you play. The inclusion of plastic figurines for each of the four treasures is also neat. Mechanically, “claiming” the treasures could have been accomplished with cards or even just a check list, but the three-dimensional figurines somehow make it seem more of an accomplishment.

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You need to claim all four treasures and escape alive to win.

The only complaints I have about Forbidden Island are small ones. As I said above, the game seems easier than some other co-operative games I’ve played, to the point where – as long as you don’t make any serious mistakes and don’t get very unlucky – it’s rare to lose. Now, the game does allow the difficulty to be adjusted by changing how high the water is at the start of the game, allowing it room to rise 9 times at the easiest, and only 6 at the hardest. Since, in my experience, the water rising is one of the most likely causes for defeat, and the higher it starts the faster it goes, this changes the game from fairly easy to quite difficult very quickly. The step from the “normal” setting to the next difficulty up can make the game harder and more stress-filled to the point of not being fun anymore for some players, so you’ll need to try it out to find what starting point is most fun for you. My other problem comes in the six unique character roles players are randomly assigned. Each role grants a unique ability… But some just seem more useful than others. More than once, I’ve heard (and given) sighs of disappointment at an assigned role.

Those small complaints aside, though, Forbidden Island is a fun game, and it’s co-operative nature makes it a nice break from more competitive games. The immanent threat of the rising water makes for an interesting sense of stress, of the need to win, without (usually) getting too frustrating. It’s also fairly quick to learn and easy to teach, which is good…

After all, it’s really a matter of sink or swim on the Forbidden Island.

 

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2017 in Board Games

 

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