Monday, 18 August 2014

D&D: The Triumphant Return (Part 2)

When last I talked about this, I had only dug into the basic rules and such. Well, now I've gotten myself a copy of the "Beginner's Box" and I even did a live-tweet unboxing. You can still check all those tweets out over @colinjmarco on Twitter!

Anyway, I now have the first box and the Player's Handbook is on pre-order. I've managed to organize a group of players to get started on a new table-top game (in rural Saskatchewan, no less! Who would have thought?!). With all the other games on the market like Pathfinder, 13th Age, and Dungeon World, it's a great time to be a gamer. But anyway: let's talk about the granddaddy of them all...


First out, let me say I'm glad there's absolutely NO EMPHASIS on the edition with these books. It's more elegant to just call it "Dungeons & Dragons". It's nice to just have it called the classic title without bogging it down with an edition title as well. I have no doubt that the edition wars are going on about it, but WotC was smart to not emphasize it and draw attention to that aspect of the game. 

I have begun plotting my first D&D campaign with this new system and it definitely feels old-school. The player characters are probably going to have to hire some NPCs to come with, because they're not going to make it very far into that cave without some back-up/meat-shields. To paraphrase the slogan Necromancer Games always used to say in the heyday of 3e: "5th Edition Rules, 1st Edition Feel". And it really DOES feel old-school, embracing what D&D has always been like, but with a brisk, clean ruleset that lets the DM run a fast, fun game while the PCs are never stuck feeling like their dice rolls are irrelevant.

The players for my upcoming campaign fall into two camps: either they played in 2nd edition and are coming back to the hobby, or they've never played before but want to play. Luckily, this new edition is not nearly as "math-heavy" as previous editions, so new players should be able to pick it up and play fairly easily. By the same token, the old-school gamers will probably say that it feels familiar, but the math works better and is a little faster.

"But, what if I like 1e/2e/3.Xe/4e/Pathfinder/Dungeon World/13th Age/etc...?"

I'm not saying those games are bad. Far from it! I started playing in 2e, and since then I've played every edition of D&D and many of the retro-clones and spin-offs of it too. I just love the hobby, and I really want to evangelise about what I like. I am currently running a Pathfinder play-by-post game and it's going really well. I constantly refer to my old D&D books and would be totally willing to run games in every edition, if I had the time to do so.

Play whatever makes you happy. Keep playing games! It's what keeps the hobby alive. I'm just very open to different interpretations of this game system and I love all that stuff. All of it.

There's a lot of people who are willing to bag on other games and a lot of people online who want to tell others that they're having fun wrong. I really hate listening to that sort of stuff. I want to hear about what people enjoy, and hear why they enjoy it! If you ever meet me or feel like you want to do so, tell me about your favorite games, tell me about your character, favorite magical item, favorite setting, etc. I want to hear that stuff. I could just listen to that stuff all day long. Feel free to drop me a comment below with some of that stuff in it. I'd love to hear about it. 
</end rant>

So, if you want to enjoy a game that embraces the heart of all the previous editions of D&D and have fun rolling dice, I recommend the new D&D. It's a sleek system that really seems to capture what D&D is all about.

What are your impressions of 5th Edition so far? Have you played any of the new stuff? What do you like/dislike? Tell me about your game, regardless of whether or not it is the new edition. I love hearing that stuff.

Get some friends together. Roll some dice. Have fun. Keep playing games. Always play games.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Dragon, Aim, Fire! meets 13th Age

13th Age has been out for a little while now, and I'm finally going to talk about it.

Ready? You sure?


That's not hyperbole, that's fact. 

So what IS 13th Age?

13th Age is a roleplaying game in the same vein as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It runs on the d20 engine that fuels both those games, and the game is a definite love-letter to the genre in general, and D&D in particular. It was designed by Rob Heinsoo and Johnathan Tweet. Tweet is one of the original designers of D&D 3rd Edition, and Heinsoo is one of the designers behind D&D 4th edition, so this game has good genetics. It borrows a bit from each edition that preceded it, but make no mistake, it is its own animal.

Play is distributed across 10 levels. I know that sounds short, but it really is not. Since you level up after approximately 12-15 combat encounters, each level is very broad and allows for a lot of play-per-level before you move on. A level 10 character in 13th Age rivals a level 30 character in D&D 4e. 

Something innovative that fuels this game that I have also included into my current Pathfinder game is The Escalation Die. As combat progresses, the Game Master puts a six-sided dice (referred to as a "d6" for those of you who are new to gaming terminology) on the table, with the "1" facing up. This means every character in combat gets +1 to their attack rolls. The next round, it moves to the "2", and the players get the applicable +2 bonus. This continues up to a maximum of +6. It keeps combat clicking along at a quick pace, and the PCs are generally more focused on the game, even when it is not their turn.

However, the big money for the Game Master who wants to run a story-oriented game (read: guys and gals like me) is the One Unique Thing. The player tells you a really cool unique "something special" about their character that sets that character apart from everyone else in the world. This can set up all sorts of crazy adventure hooks and establishes, basically in a single sentence, who this character is and why they do what they do. They can be anything as simple as "I'm the only person to ever leave the cult of Tharizdun" to "I was born of alchemy, rather than natural birth".

Another feature that really attracted my attention was the fact that the default setting of 13th Age is populated by Icons. Icons are demigodlike movers-and-shakers in the campaign setting. Every player character has some sort of relation to at least of few of these characters. It can be really cool to have a positive relationship with the Great Gold Wyrm, but at the same time it puts you at odds with the demon-lord-like Diabolist.

13th Age does not require a big game mat on the table if you don't want it. It's not measured in squares or feet. Combat is measured via engaged, nearby, or far away. This is nice if you want to play but don't have a lot of money to shell out on things like minis and combat grids.

The thing that I feel was really a welcome change from 4e D&D is the fact that every class "feels" different. Don't get me wrong: I like 4e D&D, and it's a great game. I've liked it ever since I was a Writing Director for the Living Forgotten Realms RPGA campaign. My only quibble with 4e really is that all the classes feel vaguely the same. In 4th Edition D&D, a rogue is just a wizard with knives, really. The powers are all flavored this way and that with flavor text, but at the end of the day, they all run off the same mechanic. Not so in 13th Age. A rogue's powers run on a "momentum" mechanic, meaning the rogue does better as long as they keep moving and don't get hit. This is vastly different from the wizard class, which has a neat feature called "Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations". Wizards can get extra effects from their spells by changing their spell names to something alliterative and fun. To me, that's pretty cool. 

I recently managed to get in touch with Rob Heinsoo and got a chance to ask him five questions about 13th Age:

13th Age interview for "Dragon, Aim, Fire!" 

1) 13th Age Bestiary is coming up soon. What's your favourite monster in the upcoming book?

Rob: The monster that I’ve used most often and loved every time is the ogre mage knight. The monster I loved using most in a playtest against Jonathan was the redcap. The look on Jonathan’s face the second time he said the bad word, and knew it instantly: priceless. 

I’m going to take a stab at answering this question for Jonathan. He’s going to really like the lammasu, because he loves strictly legalistic monsters that manage to screw the PCs while precisely adhering to the boundaries of contracts the PCs should have paid more attention to. 

2) What do you see as the greatest strength of the 13th Age roleplaying game?

Rob: For me, the best feature is the one unique thing. The 13 icons help establish the world as the default fantasy roleplaying world, populated by familiar archetypes. The one unique thing is each player’s license to turn the story in a direction that excites them, to bring something to the game that they’re going to want to invest in. The one unique thing works for experienced gamers and it works for gaming newcomers. In fact, I’ll use something like the one unique thing whenever I run a game for beginning roleplayers, even if it’s not 13th Age. 

3) After "13 True Ways" and the aforementioned Bestiary, what's next for 13th Age? 

Rob: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is designing Eyes of the Stone Thief, an epic campaign where the characters chase and are chased by a living dungeon that periodically rises to the surface and swallows wizards' towers, villages and even whole cities. Cal Moore has a first level adventure set in a city near Horizon, populated by dueling wizard schools and shadowy intrigue. And we’ve also got a first level adventure from Robin Laws in the queue. 

4) If there were a 13th Age movie, which Icons would you really want to see, and who would play them?

Rob: You could probably tell a compelling story using the triangle of the Archmage, Lich King, and Priestess. Then throw in the Three as a three-part wild card, red devastator, black saboteur, blue sorceress. But I’m way too cinematically illiterate to cast this film. Yeah, I’m bowing out of this question. Because I’m always the person who has to say “Who?” when people tell me about an actor or actress, and then it turns out that I’ve never seen any of their movies. So it ain’t me you’re lookin’ for. 

5) What other games influence your own game writing? 

Rob: A full answer would be a dozen pages. So I’ll give a sketchy start-of-an-answer. 

Both Jonathan and I were influenced by Dave Hargrave’s Arduin trilogy when we were younger. Arduin wasn’t exactly playable but it was filled with over-the-top ideas and a sense that D&D could harness wild energies. 

Similarly, both Jonathan and I loved RuneQuest and the world of Glorantha created by Greg Stafford. The 13th Age icons are direct descendants of the Gloranthan cults. 

Keeping to early influences, I also learned a lot from Robin D. Law’s Feng Shui. Its cinematic flair and willingness to harness drama in the engine of a traditional rpg stuck with me. 

And to name one more game, it’s no accident that I got into the gaming industry after Richard Garfield invented Magic: the Gathering. The games that followed Richard’s invention flourish thanks to exceptions-based skills honed in a gaming world influenced by Magic

In short, 13th Age rocks, and I'm looking forward to getting my game on. I would like to thank Rob Heinsoo for taking the time to get back to me, and to the folks at Fire Opal Media and Pelgrane Press for being so open and friendly to this little blog. 

If you want more information on 13th Age, check out the official homepage here.

For other Pelgrane Press games, go here.

For more about Fire Opal Media, check it out here.

For constant updates about 13th Age, check them out on Twitter: @13thAge

Check out these great links for more about 13th Age:

Have you played 13th Age? Share your comments or questions below! In addition, if you have a game you want reviewed, let me know.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Lost Treasures: The Capcom Sword-and-Sorcery Beat 'em Ups

Capcom is a game company responsible for some of the best video game titles ever. Some, like their wildly popular "Street Fighter" series, have even been developed into movies and anime films. But back in the day, there was a group of games which got me hooked, then vanished into obscurity: their side-scrolling fantasy beat-em-up games.

Capcom, you've got something here. Source

It all started with a simple game called "Magic Sword". Magic Sword featured a shirtless, He-man wanna-be kind of character called The Brave One. The evil dark lord Drokmar has obtained an evil magical item called "The Black Orb". He lurks in a 50 story dungeon called "Dragon Keep". It's not particularly clear what this Black Orb is capable of doing, but it can't be good. As this was in 1990 and video games with plots were still fairly new, the plot never really developed beyond this. At the end, you get a single roleplaying option: destroy the orb, or take up the orb and become the new face of evil.

The Brave One is assisted by a bunch of imprisoned heroes hidden throughout the dungeon, including ninjas and wizards. There are hidden magic doors that will allow The Brave One to skip floors as well.

This game + lots of quarters = good times. Source
Well, the Magic Sword game must have gotten enough traction in arcades, because before you knew it, in 1991, Capcom released a game with similar sprites (but refined graphics) and a richer story: KING OF DRAGONS.

King of Dragons allowed multiple players to take on different characters. Being able to select between the Elf, the Wizard, The Fighter, the Cleric, and the Dwarf allowed for a richer experience as players could select based on play-style and gaming tastes.

A typical D&D party, now available to use in the arcade. Source

Now, this game really had me hooked. I remember specifically when I first played it, and I have not seen any arcade cabinets for it in almost two decades now. The story for the game was that the massive red dragon Gildiss had been preying on the kingdom for the better part of a century, and only creatures of darkness could live in the scorched ruins of what was left afterward. The people pleaded for someone to do something, and the king had his court wizard Guindon use his magic to put the dragon to sleep. However, something went wrong and the dragon woke up, beginning his reign of terror once more. Sounds pretty much like it has all the trappings of standard D&D game play. *SPOILER ALERT* Guindon had since become the Dark Wizard (one of the later bosses in the game), and was manipulating Gildiss to do his bidding. However, Gildiss threw off the wizard's enchantments and double crosses him, leaving him at the mercy of the heroes. Also, the dragon's forces captured Princess Mari, the military leader of the kingdom, so it really is just up to the heroes to fix it. 

The thing that really impressed me about this game beyond the story was the graphics and the scale of everything. The Hydra boss fight, for example, was HUGE. The dragon Gildiss was even bigger. The variety of monsters also struck a chord with me: there are gnolls, orcs, minotaurs, lizard-men, and a lot of others.

Dang, I'm huge! Gildiss, the King of Dragons. Source
1991 was a big year for this type of game. Knights of the Round, another Capcom beat 'em up game emerged in the same years as King of Dragons. The story was essentially the same as any story about King Arthur and his knights. Merlin sends Arthur (who pulls Excalibur from the stone in the opening credits), Lancelot, and Perceval to unite England and slay the evil king Garibaldi. 

So many college afternoons spent playing this game... Source
This game was a lot of fun. It moved away from the D&D creature types a little, but included an illusionist boss fight who also possessed an iron golem. There's also an inexplicably placed samurai who uses fire magic. I first found a cabinet for this game in the campus arcade at my university and spent a lot of time hacking away through this game. Playing as each of the three knights gave some variety to the gameplay, but not as rich a diversity as in King of Dragons. Arthur is the most balanced between offense, speed, and defensive power. Lancelot was fast, but weak and lightly armored. Perceval was the mighty tank, hugely strong and heavily armored, but he moved at snail pace. The three were not particularly diverse beyond these factors, there was no magical stuff for players to use to worry about, though, so it was much more like Final Fight than the other games in this particular vein.
Bottom to Top: Arthur, Lancelot, and Perceval... or Knight-in-shining-armor, Agile-for-a-guy-in-plate-armor, and Mighty Glacier. Source
These games finally culminated in the two best in the series, and my personal favorites: Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, and the sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara.

This guy's name is Deathwing. He's not even the Big Bad Evil Guy in this game. Source

These games were some of the best translation of the D&D rules to a game ever, and drew heavily upon D&D lore to make a good storyline. The first only allowed a party of four adventurers: The Fighter, The Cleric, The Dwarf, and the Elf. This party make up allowed for all the traditional fantasy roles to be filled, more or less. The sequel came packing two more characters: a full-on Magic-User (read: Wizard) and a thief. These games were loaded with hidden secret rooms, alternative paths based on player choices at key decision points, special treasures, and unique items. 

Choose from a full cast of heroes. Press start instead of attack when selecting your character to get a different version with different powers and clothes, too. Source
The storyline of the first was pretty well a straightforward D&D storyline: monsters are raiding towns, killing and enslaving people, and only a brave team of heroes can stop them. Eventually, it is learned that a black tower has appeared in the monster-haunted wilderness and the villain, a lich named Deimos, has been commanding the monstrous horde from there.

Deimos, the Arch-Lich. Toughest bad guy in Tower of Doom. He comes back in Shadow over Mystara, but he's a speed bump, because you're way higher level. Source

The sequel showed that the lich was only part of a grand scheme: a sorceress named Synn was manipulating the lich to do her will. The heroes hit higher levels in this game, with the "immortal" (read: God) speaking to them, revealing hidden mysteries, and hinting at powerful magics. 

Villainous monologuing. Source.

It is eventually revealed that Synn is not a hot blonde in red leather lingerie as she appears, but rather a massive red dragon hell-bent on bringing forth an even more powerful monster forth, simply referred to as "The Fiend". 

Synn, the big bad of Shadow Over Mystara. Toughest monster in the whole series. Use everything you've got, there's no fights after her. Source.
Casual gamers could have fun with these games because they were pretty easy to get the hang of. D&D players could get into it because of all the great D&D stuff in them. Owlbears, kobolds, gnolls, cursed swords, hidden treasures, lost magic, etc. It was all there. It is pretty much the closest thing arcade games ever had to properly replicating the D&D home game experience as it would be represented in real-time. I still like these games better than D&D Online, or even the Baldur's Gate series. Tower of Doom & Shadow over Mystara are both winners. I think that Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro and Capcom are sitting on a goldmine here - if they released the two as a downloadable content bundle for Playstation Network, I'd buy it. 

For whatever reason, Capcom kind of turned away from 2-D side-scrollers, and has since moved on to bigger, fancier fare. I still find these games more charming than 90% of anything I've seen from Capcom in years, though, and I find them incredibly re-playable. 

There is a glimmer of hope for this style of game in the future, however. A game called "Dragon's Crown" is currently being developed by Vanillaware/Atlus for the PS3, and it appears to capture the old-school side-scrolling beat-em-up fantasy vibe. Players can choose from six characters (Fighter, Wizard, Amazon, Sorceress, Elf, and Dwarf), each with their own strength. All are seeking a legendary MacGuffin, the Dragon's Crown, to keep it out of evil magic-wielder's hands. The art is beautiful and the style is bang on. See the trailer below:

Lots of gameplay previews and background for Dragon's Crown can be seen here.

Have you played any of these games? Are there any games you've seen that you recommend? Are you looking forward to Dragon's Crown as much as I am? What appeals to you in a game? Drop me a comment or tweet me on Twitter @colinjmarco.