Posted on : 29-09-2009 | By : Brian | In : News



Thoughts on some Video Games

Posted on : 23-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : Links, News, Reviews, Video Games


I’ve played a few video games lately that I thought were worth mentioning in one regard or another. Some of these games have been out for a while; I got them through Goozex, a game-trading website that gives you much better deals on your old games than Gamestop does.

Hitman: Blood Money: This is actually the first Hitman game that I’ve actually completed, and I liked it quite a lot. Some of the missions were very difficult for me to complete gracefully, but you can jump into any mission you want to at any time once you’ve beaten it, so I may go back and remedy that at some point. Like its predecessors, it’s less an action game and more a game of patience and problem-solving. You have a target (or, in many cases, multiple targets) that you have to eliminate. You’re rewarded for not killing other people, for not being seen killing people, for not blowing your cover, and for not leaving any trace that you were there (including bullets in your targets’ heads). The best kills look like accidents, and it’s entirely possible in most (if not all) missions to go in with no guns and complete the mission. Again, I liked it a lot.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: I may wind up giving this one back. I liked it at first; I’ve always been a fan of these action/puzzle-solving games, and I like spatial puzzles like those presented in the game, and in the most recent Tomb Raider games. I must say, though, that this game is frustrating despite its time-rewinding feature, largely because I feel like I’m fighting the controls and the camera every step of the way. The camera is obstinate and uncooperative, frequently becoming lodged in places that give me no useful vantage point. The controls are floaty and imprecise, making it difficult to accomplish the precision that the puzzles require of you. All of this may have been better on the Xbox, its original system; I’m playing it on PC, and I’m not having much fun.

Gun: Guess what? I’ve decided I like western games. At least, I like this one. I’m having a lot of fun shooting bandits, riding around on horseback, and layin’ down the law, Eastwood style. It’s great fun.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition: since you can swap between the original graphics and the new graphics on the fly, I can tell you that the new graphics are a huge improvement, though the animation looks strange at times. The voice work is good for the most part, though the game has its fair share of delays between lines. The hint system is great, and it saved me from frustration many times, particularly toward the end where there’s a lot of pointless and annoying backtracking over fast stretches of Monkey Island. Worth the $10; not sure I would have felt okay about it if I’d paid more.

Plants vs. Zombies: Yeah. The title says it all, really. This is a fantastically fun and addictive little game. It gets difficult (especially in the unlockable mini-games), but it ramps up pretty gradually, allowing you to get a handle on what all of your plants can do, and on what all of the zombies can do. Definitely worth the money.

The Sims 3: As many have said, it’s The Sims, with a “3″ after it. Is it more of the same? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. It is more of the same, but they’ve managed to update enough so that it remains fresh and fun. If you like Sims games, you’ll probably like this one; if you don’t, I doubt this one will change your mind. If you’ve been curious about this crazy Sims thing that everyone’s been talking about since you got out from under that rock, this one’s a good entry point into the series.

Batman: Arkham Asylum: I just got done playing the demo, twice. I like the game. The brawling is pretty simplistic, but is very cinematic and makes you fell like a badass. The stealth portions are good and, again, make you feel like a badass. In short, this game makes you feel like Batman, a badass. I liked the demo. I’d like to play the full game when it comes out. Do I want to spend $50 on it? Well, that’s a bit thornier. $50 seems steep for this game; I’d pay $20 or even $30. Maybe I’ll wait for it to come down in price a bit. Or try to get it on Goozex.

Charity D&D Day again

Posted on : 22-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, News


So I attended the D&D Canned Food Drive at Days of Knights in Newark, DE, and it was a blast. We played a super-abridged version of the Lovecraftian Last Breath of Ashenport adventure released on D&D Insider with five players. My friend Mike played a dragonborn fighter with an executioner’s axe, while I played the changeling psion. There was also a dragonborn paladin, a pacifist healer cleric (can’t remember the cleric’s race), and an elven two-blade ranger. We played through some role-playing and investigation at first, and I got to make use of some abilities (namely, a +19 Bluff and the ability to communicate telepathically) to good effect. Then we fought some fish-men out in the rain.

I must say, I like the psion’s powers a lot. The power point mechanic works pretty well, and with three at-wills that can each be augmented into three different versions, plus some dailies and utilities, I only felt like I had run out of interesting things to do once, during the second encounter. The second encounter was pretty sloggy, against a tough solo that seemed to have never-ending hit points and high defenses; we were whiffing quite a lot.

The first encounter, though, was very satisfying. I got a chance to inflict someone with lots of psychic vulnerability, then whack them with psychic damage and a big attack penalty. I also got to command someone to jump off of his rooftop perch and attack his ally, which is always fun. Unfortunately, I only got to use that particular at-will twice in the game, since it requires some setup and isn’t much use against solos with no minions.

All said, it was a really fun way to spend the day, and I got to donate some canned food to charity, too. Not bad.

D&D for Charity

Posted on : 21-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


So, tomorrow I’m going to Newark, Delaware to play D&D for charity, and I’m super excited! Here’s how it works: you go to Days of Knights with some canned food during one of the available time slots. For every can you bring, you get to re-roll one die roll during the game. For every five cans you bring, you get an extra standard action to use during the game. It’s a great idea, and I can’t wait.

First Adventure Done

Posted on : 17-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


Well, we wrapped up Keep on the Shadowfell last night. It went really well, I thought. It was a fun night, all of the PCs survived, and the villain escaped, which is basically a win-win for a DM.

You can see pictures from last night’s game, if you want to. Toward the end, you’ll see two things that I picked up recently. One is a very nice storage solution for my Dungeon Tiles and minis: a 9-drawer rolling storage unit that I picked up from JoAnn Fabrics. Also, at a back-to-school sale at Target, I picked up a magnetic whiteboard and some magnetic index cards for it, all of it dry-erasable. The nice thing about these items is that they’re perfect for tracking initiative and conditions. One card per combatant or group of combatants, and plenty of space to write things like ‘weakened’ or ‘dazed’. I just need to find a good way to prop it up for all to see; it was a little unstable last night.

I also ran a skill challenge last night that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. The skill challenge represented the PCs trying to navigate their way through the darkness after the ritual came to fruition. The PCs failed the skill challenge during the first round of checks, but everyone was into the mystique of what was going on, so I extended it a little, calling for a few more checks and such, and adding in more description and requiring more description for how they were to escape. It went really well, I thought.

Skill Challenges: Token Systems and Drinking Contests

Posted on : 21-07-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


For a little while now, I’ve been thinking about different ways to use skill challenges in D&D, different ways to tweak the system to make it do what I want it to do. I think that the system within the DM’s Guide is fine, and does the job, but I think it gets really interesting when you start monkeying around with it. One idea that I’ve toyed with is the idea of the players accruing ‘points’ or ‘tokens’ of some sort during a skill challenge that have effects during, after, or both during and after the challenge. I think the best way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to give you an example, and since a friend of mine wants to see a drinking contest done in skill challenge format for his campaign, I’m going to go ahead and whip that up. I’ll annotate the skill challenge, too, to show you what I’m thinking.

Drinking Contest (Complexity 1 [4 successes before 3 failures], Level equal to the character/party level)
Note: the idea here is that this skill challenge represents a drinking contest with a single individual. For multiple individuals, add additional skill challenges or increase the complextiy.

Primary Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight
Other Skills: Endurance, Thievery, History, others
Note: you might be wondering why the primary skills are all social skills. The idea behind this skill challenge is that the contest is a way for the participants to prove that they’re men. Drinking is the medium, but the challenge is won or lost through boasting, bullying, and insulting until the other man sits there sputtering in frustration.

Bluff (1 success, maximum 2, DC varies*): You boast of your achievements, inflating them to make yourself seem super-heroic.

Diplomacy (1 success, maximum 2, DC varies*): You relate your actual accomplishments, use clever words to make the other guy seem foolish, or otherwise use your skill with language and social situations to come out on top.

Intimidate (1 success, maximum 2, DC varies*): You bully, cajole, or insult the other guy, trying to incite his ire or make him lose his wits.

*The DCs of these checks will vary by individual. For example, one opponent might be easy to insult or bully, but very good at seeing through false bravado. Another, on the other hand, might respect eloquence rather than coarse language.

History (0 successes, maximum 1, moderate DC): You recall some fact about your opponent’s exploits, and you use it to your advantage.
You gain a +2 bonus on the next Bluff, Diplomacy, or Insight check you make during this skill challenge.

Endurance (0 successes, no maximum, DC somewhere between easy and moderate): You take a long pull from your flagon and slam it down, showing everyone just how manly you are.
Succeeding on this check grants you a +5 bonus on your next Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate check during this skill challenge. However, whether you succeed or fail, you gain 6 drunkenness tokens. For every 5 points by which you exceeded the DC of this check, you may reduce the number of drunkenness tokens you gain by 1. For every 2 points by which you failed the DC of this check, increase the number of drunkenness tokens by 1. See drunkenness tokens, below.

Special: You may make a single Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate check during this skill challenge without making an Endurance check to take a drink. After the first such check, each additional check incurs a cumulative -2 penalty to all Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate made in this skill challenge, as real men have no respect for weaklings who nurse their drinks. This penalty is reduced by 2 for each Endurance check you make to take a drink, whether you succeed or fail (to a minimum of 0).

Thievery (0 successes, maximum 1, hard DC): through slight of hand or clever distractions, you fool your opponent into thinking that you’ve just downed your entire flagon.
You gain the +5 bonus as if you had succeeded on an Endurance check, but you do not gain any drunkenness tokens. If you fail, you take a -2 penalty to all Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate checks for the rest of the skill challenge (and possibly any other drinking contest skill challenges running concurrently), because everyone now knows you for the coward and trickster that you are.

Note: depending on the nature of the drinking contest and the nature of the opponent, other secondary skills may be appropriate.

Success: You are clearly the victor, and you gain renown in some way (to be decided by the DM). In addition, the confidence boost you gain allows you to shake off some of your stupor; reduce your total number of drunkenness points by half (round up).

Failure: Everyone knows that you are clearly the loser here; you lose renown in some way (to be decided by the DM). In addition, you drown your failure in more drink; increase your total number of drunkenness points by half (round up).

Drunkenness Points
Depending on how much you’ve been drinking, you’ll suffer different effects. Consult the table below to determine just how drunk you really are. All drunkenness points are removed after an extended rest.

Drunkenness Points Effect
20+ You lapse into a drunken stupor, falling unconscious. If you are in the middle of the skill challenge, you automatically lose. In addition, you suffer the effects of a hangover (see below).
16-19 Extremely drunk. -4 to all defenses, -3 to all attack rolls, -5 to all skill checks. In addition, you suffer the effects of a hangover (see below)
11-15 Drunk. -2 to all defenses, -2 to ranged and area attacks, -1 to close and melee attacks, +2 to damage rolls with melee attacks, -2 penalty to all skill checks. In addition, you suffer the effects of a hangover (see below)
6-10 Tipsy. -1 to all defenses, -1 to ranged and area attacks, -2 to Perception and Insight checks, +2 to Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate checks.
0-5 Unaffected; no mechanical effect at all.

You take a -1 penalty to Perception and Insight checks. In addition, in areas of bright light, or in the presence of loud noise (such as a thunder power being used within 5 squares, or a dragon roaring), you become dazed until the end of your next turn. This effect persists until you reach one milestone.

Role-Playing Made Difficult?

Posted on : 12-07-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


Over on the At-Will blog there’s a post about D&D being a tactical game first and foremost. I think that this is generally true for the most part, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but that’s not really what I’m posting about today.

There’s a section at the end of the post entitled ‘Role-Playing Made Difficult’ that talks about the idea that all of the crunchy tactical rules in D&D make it more difficult to role-play because the rules focus on tactical advantage rather than flavor or character development. Specifically, an example is given that posits the notion that, given a choice between Skill Focus: Intimidate (+3 to Intimidate) and a feat that grants you a +1 to Intimidate but makes your eyes glow when you’re angry, most people would choose the former.

I agree. And they should. The main reason being that the second feat is almost wholly unnecessary. Why do I need a feat to say that my eyes glow? Why can’t I just say that my eyes glow? Any halfway-decent DM would allow a cool special effect that has no impact on the mechanics of the game. And if your DM insists that you need to take a feat to make your eyes glow, take Skill Focus: Intimidate, and say that you get the +3 Intimidate bonus because your eyes glow when you’re mad. Done.

Wizards has actually been very good in 4th Edition about making a distinction between mechanics and things like flavor or special effects. Many of the feats in D&D have no particular flavor to them, allowing you to skin them any way you want to. The powers, rituals, and other things all have flavor text associated with them, but it’s pretty easy to divorce that from the rules and re-skin any discrete mechanical element to your liking. I think that this fact makes role-playing easier, not harder.

To illustrate my point a little bit, I’m going to do something very taboo in the gaming world: I’m going to tell you about my character. A friend of mine is in the process of starting up a campaign, and I’ve already gone ahead and created my character for that campaign. The short version is that he’s a genasi storm mage sorcerer. The long version is that he’s the child of two human parents. When he was an infant he was held up to the sky to be blessed by the primal spirits, in accordance with the traditions of his tribe. He was struck by lightning, but instead of killing him, it changed him on a fundamental level. He became the physical embodiment of the storm (represented by the fact that he’s a windsoul genasi, mechanically speaking, a storm mage sorcerer, and also has the Mark of Storm feat).

You’ll notice a couple of things about that if you’re looking hard enough. One, there’s a clear concept. That concept came before I chose the mechanics for it, and I made sure that all of the mechanics supported my concept. I also re-skinned the genasi race a little bit, making my character a human who was transformed into something unique. The second thing is that I didn’t go for optimization. The sorcerer focuses on Charisma and, in the case of the storm mage, Dexterity. The genasi gets a bonus to Strength and Intelligence, two ability scores which are almost entirely useless to me. They also happen to be some of my lowest ability scores. Why did I choose the genasi, then? Because it fit the concept for him to be an elemental creature, and also for him to be able to fly every now and again (the windsoul racial power). If I had been going for optimization, I would have made him a halfling and gotten a boost to both of the ability scores that I wanted high. But that wouldn’t have fitted the concept.

Enough about that. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit off-track anyway. My point is, there’s room for both those who optimize and those who role-play, and I think that the game supports both methods of play equally well. I think that the mechanics are so easy to separate from the flavor and role-playing that it makes it incredibly easy to come up with a really cool character with lots of role-playing potential, even if you’re optimizing. And I think that offering feats that grant a diminished mechanical benefit for a cool role-playing effect is a silly idea, because role-playing effects can and should be free. And I feel like the game supports me in that assertion.

Wiki: updated

Posted on : 15-05-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


The wiki that my group uses as a campaign journal has been migrated to a new wiki software, and can be found here. Also, the two most recent session reports are finally ready for public consumption:

Into the Keep
An Unexpected Ally


Arcane Power

Posted on : 07-05-2009 | By : Brian | In : News


I just got done reading Arcane Power, WotC’s most recent class expansion book, and I thought I’d give my thoughts. In no particular order:

I love the new warlock pact. The vestige pact allows you to choose one of two “sub-pacts” after each short or extended rest, each with its own pact boon and its own augment to your at-will power, eyes of the vestige (which is a very cool power in and of itself). In addition, a lot of the new daily warlock powers give vestige pact warlocks access to additional vestiges that they can switch out for immediately upon using said power, and these vestiges last until the end of the encounter. The daily power vestiges tend to be a bit better than the basic ones you get access to, which is why they don’t stick around too long. The infernal pact warlock in my D&D campaign, Silus, is actually switching to vestige pact now that the option is available, which I’m all for.

Wizards get lots of cool new powers. Some classics return, and there’s a whole slew of summoning spells and illusion spells. What has me really excited about this is that Sredni, the party’s warlord, is multiclassed into wizard, and a lot of these new powers are right up his alley. Summoning servitors to do your bidding? Check. Using illusions to force enemies to do things against their will? Check.

The new sorcerer stuff is very cool. I particularly like the idea of a half-orc storm mage who zips around the battlefield as a bolt of lightning and tosses people around with thunderous magic. Very cool and evocative.

The swordmage now has an aegis that can teleport an enemy to him, and a lot of new powers that go along with that. Cool stuff, though I think I like being able to teleport and attack, personally.

The new prescient bard is thematically odd, but mechanically gets a lot of great stuff. The most interesting thing is that the lion’s share of the powers designed for the new build are ranged weapon powers, meaning that you can be an archer-bard now. Not quite an arcane archer, but pretty close.

The paragon paths and epic destines are all very cool. I like the arch-lich.

Lots of great feats. Some of the metamagic feats from 3rd Edition make a return, and there’s lots of new stuff, too.

Familiars. Oh, yeah. 4th Edition familiars are so cool that two of my players want one. The warlock is getting a familiar as part of his retcon; he had a feat that was only viable for infernal pact warlocks, so he’s swapping it out for a familiar. Sredni also plans on picking one up at the next opportunity, I think. I love the way they work; they’re simple and minimalist, but with tons of roleplaying potential.

Anyway, that’s all for now.

Game Trading on Goozex

Posted on : 07-05-2009 | By : Brian | In : Links, News, Video Games


A little while back, I heard about Goozex from the PC Gamer Podcast. It sounded interesting and I had some games that I no longer really wanted, so I thought I’d try it out. It seems pretty intuitive and, if it works, it’ll be a great way for me to continue to get value out of games that I no longer play or plan on playing. It works for all three of the systems I own (PC, DS, and Wii), which is nice. I like the fact that that I can do something with those old games other than eBaying them or (shudder) trading them in to GameStop for a tenth of a percent of their retail value. I also like that I can put together a list of games I want, Netflix-esque, and wait for them to arrive once I have some points built up. I feel I can be a little bit riskier in my gaming ventures, since if I don’t like a game I can immediately trade it back and get the full value that I “paid” for it in return.

This all comes with one caveat, though: while I have traded games to Goozex, I have not yet received a game from Goozex. The issue arises from the fact that you’re relying on other gamers, who may or may not be at their computers for a few days. I was slated to receive a copy of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, pending the seller’s acceptance of the trade. However, because he never accepted, I never got the game. I was refunded my points and my trade token and put back in the queue, but it’s still irritating to be looking forward to something and not get it. I’m now slated to get Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and the seller has 25 hours to make a decision on that. Hopefully I’ll get a game this time.

Update: I’ve now received Puzzle Quest and Assassin’s Creed for the DS and Mass Effect for the PC through Goozex. I’ve also got Final Fantasy III for the DS, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time for the PC, and Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for the GameCube all on the way. Not bad.