Friday, June 29, 2012

The Warlock's Review: Hell on Earth Reloaded (First Impressions)

Boy, oh boy! 

I really wasn't expecting this to come out so quickly, or so stealthily for that matter.  While I'm a fairly frequent poster on the Pinnacle Entertainment message boards, I'm not sure anyone not on the inside really anticipated such a quick release for Hell on Earth Reloaded--the long-awaited "reloading" of the post-apocalyptic Deadlands sequel game.

As you might remember, I've been pretty psyched for this release for quite a while.  Since picking up the Hell on Earth original editions at Origins last year--and getting them signed by Shane Lacy Hensley!--I'd been looking forward to seeing a "Reloaded" style Savage Worlds edition.

This was only further confirmed in my mind after running my "Ravenous in Reno" scenario both for my home Friday night group and at WittCon IX.  While the sheer amount of background info on the Hell on Earth world is worth having and reading, the clunkiness of the original rule-set was a bit alarming, after enjoying the increased speed and clarity of the Savage Worlds rules.

Hell on Earth Reloaded
Now available at the Pinnacle Entertainment Store
Firstly, this book is gorgeous.  While maintaining the custom of using a combination of new art and art from prior "classic" supplements, the layout of HoER is immaculate.  It's easy to read, easy to follow, and comes with a gloriously voluminous index.  The book has numerous sidebars which are set off with grimy, jagged steel and yellow and black 'caution' tape.  The art simply oozes a feel of "after the bomb," which perfectly fits with the genre's idiom.

Content-wise, the book is pretty much what you'd expect:  mainly setting information, detailing power groups and locations in the Wasted West, compiling and condensing the numerous classic volumes into a single book.  While this seems to be an onerous task, HoER does a more than adequate job of trimming the fat, while still including some of the great encounters of the earlier game.  Some of my personal favorites--DempseyWorld and the Mall of America--were left intact, which definitely scored bonus points in my book!

Mechanically, many of the biggest changes came in terms of the Arcane Backgrounds.  HoER contains five rejuvenated backgrounds:  the Templar, Doomsayer, Syker, Toxic Shaman and Junkers.  I was pleased to see how these were handled--while all of the five operate on power points, each background has unique elements that reinforce their traits.  Templars, for example, automatically gain the "Improved Trademark Weapon" edge for their starting sword, but can only cast spells (aside from Healing) on themselves.  Junkers only start with a single device, but start the game with the Gadgeteer edge automatically, and can distill 'spook juice' (ghost-rock powered gasoline) with enough time and supplies.  Sykers and Doomsayers each get access to unique powers, accessible to no other arcane background.

A heretic Doomsayer, ready to nuke some
 unlucky waster in the Wasted West!
This wasn't to say that Hell on Earth Reloaded wasn't without its own surprises, though.  Firstly, I was a bit shocked to see the timeline advance, after the events of the classic adventure "The Unity".  That said, the timeline doesn't advance very far--only 6 months--though the setting does seem more hopeful, now that the Reckoners have been whisked away.  But, with numerous threats still waiting in the wings--Raven, the Combine, and numerous others--there's plenty for your survivors to do!

Another slightly shocking element that I found in HoER came in the fact that you could, in fact, begin the game as an undead Harrowed!  Yes, friends and neighbors, you can start the game as a walkin' dead, powered only by your very own manitou!  I rather like this option, though not as much as the "Operation Damocles Soldier" edge.  "ODS"provides a slightly more limited version of the "Veteran of the Weird West" edge, turning your player into a cryogencically frozen soldier devoted to restoring the United States to glory.  This makes for a great "Omega Man" archetype, which immediately got my character-creation juices flowing.

Two slightly odd changes that I was surprised to see included dealt with Fear checks and with Bennies/Fate Chips.  You see, in Deadlands Reloaded, Fear checks are made using the "Guts" skill, but modified by a rank-based bonus called Grit.  Grit often offset penalties for fighting particularly frightening monsters or by an area's Fear Level.  However, in HoER, Fear checks are made via Spirit roll, which is more in line with the current Savage Worlds rules.  While Fear Levels still exist, Grit and Guts became edges, allowing wasters to ignore the Fear Level in various increments.

While I removed the "Guts" skill from my own home Deadlands game, I was a bit stunned to see that become canon.  But, considering that this removal puts the game more in line with Savage Worlds Deluxe, I can understand the change.  The change I don't understand, however, came in terms of Fate Chips.  While Deadlands itself uses four separate types of Bennies, which have varying degrees of utility, HoER reduces this system back down to the generic system listed in Savage Worlds.  I can't say I really agree with this change, and I'll likely house-rule it back to the original Fate Chip system, if I run HoER anytime in the near future.

Due to page length, there are a few omissions that would have been great to see but didn't quite make it into the HoER final draft.  Information on cybernetics is sparse, instead referring back to the Smith and Robards Catalog from Deadlands.  Witches are nowhere to be seen, though they were poorly supported even in "classic" Hell on Earth.  I'd have loved to see a little more on Raven's machinations following the Battle of Worms, though there's both a companion in the works as well as a plot point campaign.  Given the superior quality of "The Flood" and the huge amount of material in "The Last Sons", I'll likely be picking it up as soon as it's released!

Truthfully though, these are slight nit-picks.  Hell on Earth Reloaded makes for a spectacularly savage and long-overdue entry into the market, just in time for GenCon.  I'm already planning on revamping my heroes from "Ravenous in Reno," and may just be planning on putting out a scenario for next year's "Savage Saturday" at Origins.  If you love Deadlands, Savage Worlds, or are looking for a new post-apocalyptic game, you won't be disappointed with Hell on Earth Reloaded!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

In Which The Warlock Reveals His Coming Project!

Sorry about the delay, but real life has taken its toll once more.  However, this time around, it's in a good way:  the PlatinumChick and I just bought our first ever new vehicle.  As in, not used...brand new!  Our new Kia Soul(+) had just 11 miles on it when we drove it off the lot earlier tonight!  Exciting, to say the least!

But, that's not what you want to hear about.  Rather, you want to hear about my latest project!

As I mentioned in my last entry, I've been retooling the mechanics and concepts behind my first attempts at a board game, Dungeon Slam!, into a new genre with some streamlined mechanics.  While I don't yet have a name for my concept, here's the elevator pitch:

As a budding super-scientist, you've been putting in 80+ hours at the top-secret Twin Valley Research Facility for the past month and a half.  It's Friday, and you've scheduled Monday off:  three days of nothing but sweet, sweet sleep.  That was before your superiors rang down, saying that you have to finish up that big project you've been tinkering with.  No one gets to go home until their project is done.
That was before the rift opened in the main reactor room, leaking in otherworldly energies and strange monsters.  Surely the security team can lock down that leak, right?  All you've got to do is find your three Prototypes and make your way to the time clock before the lab gets locked down entirely!

Much of the essence is the same:  avoid or kill monsters, kill or steal from other scientists, and assemble your "MacGuffins" before the others to win the game.  While I've eliminated much of the complicated advancement mechanics of Dungeon Slam!, I've kept elements of item upgrading, which is now framed as "mad science" advances:  your crowbar can now be Tesla-powered or Irradiated! 

Dungeon Slam's character sheets were originally incredibly complex, with six stats on slider scales, Health and Mana pools, and at least 4 abilities for each archetype.  As you can see below, I've trimmed that down massively!

Preview for my yet-as-unnamed Lab Tech board game!

Each scientist is down to four stats--Speed, Combat, Science! (yes, with an exclamation point!) and Health.  Rather than 4 laborious special abilities, each scientist gains one, focusing on their expertise. 

While I have yet to run a playtest--any takers out there, by the way?--I think this game really has some promise.  Idiomatically, it appeals to that mad-science/steampunk/Portal-loving crowd, with homages to games like Half-Life, Portal, and Bioshock.  I have yet to see a real board game cover this idiom/genre well, so it's untold territory that's waiting to be taken up!

Here's for hoping that it'll go over well!

Oh, one more thing, friends and neighbors!  The PlatinumChick and I are heading out to go camping in Ohio's glorious Hocking Hills this weekend.  So, with no internet out there, there's no weekend entry this week!  I'll catch up with you guys on Wednesday!  Cheers!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

In Which The Warlock Makes a Major Alteration...

So, let's talk about something that I haven't brought up in quite a while:  Dungeon Slam!

I've occasionally broken out DS! now and again in the last year or so, but I haven't exactly been doing a whole lot of substantial revision on it.  The biggest issue keeping DS! from being a "real game" is the run-time:  I can't seem to get it under two hours without making major changes to the game mechanics and the way that chance is involved with the game itself.

Risk--has anyone finished that game?
That's a major problem, because few games run longer than two hours while maintaining an element of fun.  Ask yourself, when was the last time that you played a game of Risk for more than two hours, before the novelty of Risk wore off and a clear winner was evident, and everyone else worked to stave off that winner for an extra hour or so.  Don't get me wrong:  Risk can be fun, but it often takes so long to play that few manage to ever complete that game.

A session of Dungeon Slam!
from Origins 2008.
Similarly, Dungeon Slam! also suffered from a pretty major issue that many rpgs also suffer from:  Contested Roll Syndrome.  Contested rolls--also called opposed rolls or contests--have a propensity to slow games down immensely, as they make every chanced encounter (which are fairly common, natch!) into a minimum of two dice rolls, rather than one.

Imagine, if you will, a "static" system like Savage Worlds or even d20.  Each dice roll is compared against a number, which varies based on the difficulty of a task.  Modifiers are then made based on the circumstances facing the situation and the person acting within it.  However, in a system based on contested rolls--such as Dungeon Slam! as well as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and several other games--that static modifier is replaced by another roll, on the act-ee's part.

While you'd figure that this wouldn't slow down the game too much, once you start adding in modifiers, re-rolls, and other chance-altering mechanics common to most games, the game slows down to a crawl, which brings us back to the core problems with Dungeon Slam!.  It simply takes too freaking long.

But, with its numerous problems and several competitors on the market--Super Dungeon Explore, Munchkin Quest, and Dungeon Run come immediately to mind--I've decided to put Dungeon Slam! on the shelf indefinitely.

That said, writing Dungeon Slam! hasn't been a waste in any sense of the word.  In fact, I learned a lot from the act of writing it--particularly in how to structure a game and how to format a prototype for Publisher and Adobe.  And, there's a lot I can take from the best elements of Dungeon Slam!...
  • The PvP race structure.
  • The item upgrades mechanic.
  • The open-board motion.
  • The ability to actively screw your neighbor without specifically engaging them.
  • The fundamental stats and mechanics (minus the opposed rolls).
And, friends and neighbors, that's just what I've been doing for the past two weeks.  I've been reformatting the best bits and piecees of Dungeon Slam! into a new game with a new genre and idiom...

...but to see the fruits of my labors, you'll have to tune in for the next entry!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Which The Warlock Prepares an Answer on Preparation...

Just after returning from Origins, DigitalKat posed a question to me.  She's been up to her eyeballs with "real life" obligations recently--a full-time job, an internship on her days off, plus family and friend obligations.  Prepping game for one group, let alone two or more, has been a huge challenge for her.  She's written up some of her trials and tribulations here, where she describes how she manages to fit in her game-prep in the midst of her busy schedule. 

Just don't look up!
Then again, don't look down!
She asked me, "How do you manage to do it?"  Naturally, this is a question that I get asked quite a bit, considering all that I have on my plate.  Between freelance writing, working on my own projects and writings, and the struggles of grading and teaching, it almost appears like I'm working miracles!  Truth be told, I often make the analogy of a juggler:  as long as I don't look up, I can stay in rhythm and keep juggling indefinitely.  But, it's when I sit back and "look up" at the massive amount of projects I have on deck that I get overwhelmed!

While the summer affords me quite a bit of time to get caught up--I average about 4,000-5,000 words a day, if I spend a fully day writing--the school year often "interferes" with my ability to write.  But, during the school year, this time is curtailed significantly, due to my obligations in the classroom!  That said, I do manage to find times during the day where I can actually get some game-based work done!

Journaling and Silent Reading

As part of my daily teaching procedures, I begin almost every day with either a 7 minute journaling time or a 15 minute session of silent reading.  While the benefits of reading and writing each day are well-documented, this has a multi-faceted benefit for the teacher.  First, it establishes a gravitas and attitude in the classroom, allowing students to calm down and focus on something literary or philosophical, rather than their own items.  Secondly, it gives me a time in which I can take attendance and take care of any outstanding issues, like make-up work or conferencing with individual students.  However, while I keep my attendence software on one tab in my browser, I arrange it so that it only takes up half the screen, leaving the other half free for Word, Excel, or Publisher.

Writing during this period--under a massive deadline and in short spurts--usually doesn't net me much at each session, though tallied over a full day of 5 class periods, that's about an hour's worth of writing, usually totalling around 500 words by itself.

Hall Supervision and Prep

What the Warlock's schedule
is usually like...
This past year, I was afforded a boon:  my supervision period (hall duty for half the year and study hall for the second half) and my personal prep period were back to back.  My duties during these times were particularly small:  sign passes, keep track of attendance, and ensure that no one's really messing around. 

Mondays, most days, I spend formalizing and submitting my lesson plans, then sending them on to my department head.  Tuesday through Thursday, under normal circumstances, I spend my time either organizing my thoughts, taking care of e-mail correspondence, or actually writing.  Fridays, though, is where the real "prep" takes place, as that's game night.

This time span affords me almost two full hours--with a glorious little break right in between, wherein I can get coffee--to focus on writing and the like.

Prepping for Game

Oftentimes, the amount of prep that I do directly relates to the type of system that I'm running.  For a game like Savage Worlds or ICONS, I find that my prep is almost negligible.  I'll come up with a few plot elements or ideas that I'd like to introduce, or spend my time focusing on elements actively sought after by my PCs.  Oftentimes, if I have information that's privy to only one or two, I'll drop them a private e-mail during this time, providing them whatever info they've happened to stumble across.  Unless it's something I'm likely to forget or if I'm juggling a whole pile of plot hooks, I often don't even have to write these down.

For a game like 4e D&D, however, I need a little more time and effort put in.  Most times, this occurs through the (offline, of course!) Monster Builder.  I start by filtering monsters by level and type, then see what kind of monsters might fit for the adventure hook I'd been planning.  If there are some pre-built, or at least close in terms of level, I'll simply adjust the monster level, print and go from there.  If not, I often take a pre-existing monster, re-flavor it (by changing names, adding or subtracting an attack or two, and adding in thematic items) and then print away.

Behind the Curtain

Instant Gunslinger!  Just add dice!
One of the biggest secrets I can pass on, though?  Cheat!  Once you have a degree of system mastery in the game you're running, it becomes easy to fudge NPCs for a session or two, then fully flesh them out when you have a little bit of extra time.  Let's say, for example, an bounty hunter is pursuing your PCs in a Deadlands game.  You know he wields a shotgun, and he makes a living pursuing criminals (or, in this case, your players!).  If you know Savage Worlds reasonably well, you could assume that he has a d10 in Shooting, a d10 in Tracking, and probably a reasonably high (d8) Notice.  He'd probably be pretty quick (maybe a d8 or d10 in Agility) and fairly tough (d8 in Vigor).  Anything else?  Call it a d6, unless it really fits into his "bounty hunter" schtick!  Want to give him some more personality?  Give him access to a skill that he wouldn't normally have--maybe this guy has a d10 in Taunt, and he always opens combat by taunting the group.  As for Edges, go thematic--Woodsman would make sense, as would Quick Draw or Marksman. 

You can do the same thing for nearly any system, once you have a handle on the math.  For 4e D&D, it all starts with the base of 1/2 Level + Ability mod.  If you had to build an archmage on the fly, start with his Intelligence score, perhaps something around a 22.  Ability mod for a 22 is +6, to which you add half of his level.  Is he trained in a given skill?  Probably, if it's academic--give him that +5 bonus pretty indiscriminately.  Now, how about some personality--let's make him a dwarf!  He'll have slightly higher hit points and a slightly lower movement speed, as well as the rest of the dwarven traits--don't worry about those unless they come up.  As for spells, pick a theme!  Maybe this mage is all about manipulating fire or earth.  You could give him a bog-standard "Flaming Sphere" and just reflavor it as a half-sentient earth elemental rampaging through the battlefield.

Obviously, these stats aren't concrete.  They're meant to be "just enough" to get you through a single session or two.  If you need more, that's when you can devote the time to putting forward a full NPC writeup.  If this character is meant to be recurring, it's time to give him the full business.

A Major Mistake

I didn't always take the minimal prep route, truth be told.  In fact, I used to obsess over game prep, particularly when I was in college.  While working in an amusement park gift shop over the summer, I'd craft epic campaigns filling whole notebooks....only to have most of that material go either unused or underused.  Plus, when I'd plot out the entire plot of the adventure, I'd end up denying my players the opportunity to go "off book" and improvise on their own. 

It wasn't until I had almost graduated from Wittenberg did I finally realize this phenomenon.  Actually, it was in one of my infamous "Blackfall" games--the epic Blackfall II, which spanned over 48 hours--that I finally divorced myself from my over-preparatory tendencies.  With over 15 players and a co-GM at my back, we had to be ready to improvise at a moment's notice!  Combat had to be fast and furious, to allow everyone an opportunity to shine--getting bogged down in minutia simply wasn't an option! 

Everyone, however, has their own balance of preparation against improvisation.  For me, I fall much further on the side of improv than I did even a few years ago, and my choices in games indicate that shift in philosophy as well.  It's all a matter of what works best for you or for your table, as always.

Friday, June 08, 2012

In Which The Warlock Wraps Up Origins 2012!

Whew!  I'm really running behind on this one!  The PlatinumChick and I scurried back from Columbus on Sunday evening, and I have yet to say a thing about our Origins weekend.  Man...I'm slacking!

The entrance for Origins 2012!
As I've said many times earlier, our trip to Origins was significantly abbreviated from its prior years.  Under normal circumstances, we'd drive out Tuesday night, get settled in, run games Wednesday through Saturday, then leave Sunday after the dealer hall closes.  This year, as I've been up to my eyeballs with students' finals and closing down my classroom--thanks to the date change, primarily--we were only able to attend half of the time, arriving on Friday afternoon and staying through Sunday.

However, this did afford us one luxury that we hadn't been able to enjoy prior to:  our own hotel room!  Yes, cats and kittens, the PlatinumChick and I actually managed to stay in a place to ourselves this time around.  Mind you, not that we did much, seriously:  we were up each night till around 3:00am or 3:30, either raising a glass with El Willy and the WEGSHogz or grabbing a bite to eat with the Journeyman GM!

The Events!

Friday evening started for me with another session of the D&D Next playtest.  Yes, I know what you're doing to say:  "But Warlock, you hated D&D Next!  You wrote this scathing review of it when you ran it, not three weeks ago!"  And, yes, you'd be right.  But, I figured that I'd give the game another chance, this time as a player--more particularly, as a player of the one character that wasn't represented at our home table, the human "laser" cleric. 

And, truth be told?  I'm still not impressed.  My cleric, with an 18 Wisdom, had all of two spells for the entire day.  Rather than heal, I focused on combat utility, eschewing the mediocre Cure Light Wounds for Spiritual Hammer, which more than doubled my potential damage output.  However, it was to little avail.  Our characters nearly suffered a TPK from a sliding stair trap, and our fighters--while admirable at damage output (but little else)--spent most of their time in single digit hp, falling in and out of unconsciousness constantly.  D&D Next has a long way to go before I'll be putting down money on a new edition.

My Saturday started much better, with a session of El Willy's newest release:  Pittsburgh 68:  a quick and dirty card game (edited by yours truly) emulating the old grindhouse horror classics, particularly Romero's quintessential Night of the Living Dead, which was set--you guessed it!--in Monroeville, PA, right along Pennsylvania Route 68.  I actually ran two sessions of this on Saturday, and a third on Sunday, to help take some of the strain off of El Willy and his crew as they pushed both WEGS and P68

Saturday was also seminar day for me, as I sat in on three separate seminars on game design, game development and genre emulation.  While listening to the gaming industry's self-styled "sublebrities" (as in, sub-celebrities) is always enlightening, the actual utility of these seminars has been...well, I'm not exactly sure.  Going to these gives me the chance to hobnob with some of the industry luminaries--I think Kenneth Hite may get sick of seeing me after all of this!--but their advice is only useful if I can actually put it into action!  That comes this summer, as I focus on finishing up oh-so-many projects. 

Unfortunately, I wish I could say that my third seminar, featuring Lou Zocchi, would have been more useful.  Zocchi's "insider" information brought several useful tidbits, but most of these were minutia, not applicable to most current situations.  Further, Zocchi's source information was woefully out of date, attempting to tell the audience about Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG, as if they had just come about and were some experimental force in publication!  I'm not sure whether it's a matter of his tendency to avoid computers or a genuine unknowingness, but Zocchi's information probably wasn't worth my time.

Sunday, the PlatinumChick and I spent most of our time trolling the dealer hall, but also spent a good bit of time with a Myrmidon's "Zombie Containment Rally"--a fun little zombie-killing romp, using heavily modified OGL rules for quick, streamlined mechanics.  Teaming up on the far side of the map, we managed to seal one of the four rifts in the complex and come in, guns a-blazin', to save the rest of our team.  It made for a fun game, in all, and a great way for us to wind down our convention.

The Swag!

The Origins 2012 Swag Shot
Not much this year...maybe next?
Not too much in the way of swag this time around, all told.  I was hoping to pick up a copy of All for One:  Regime Diablolique while there, but no retailer actually had a copy!  I did manage to pick up a copy of Unspeakable Words for $10 as well as winter-themed set of Dungeon Tiles for $6--can't beat those for prices!  The biggest bit of swag, though, is the mace I purchased from Edhellen Armory.  Yes, friends and neighbors, the first piece of my Man-at-Arms cosplay is in place.  I'm hoping to pick up the helmet and the blaster next in July, then the armor (football pads) and Wonderflex in August.  If all goes well, I should be able to have a costume in time for Halloween!

The Observations!

As predicted, this year's Origins was a ghost town in comparison to years prior.  While GAMA has yet to release the official numbers, you only had to walk around for a few minutes to note the sheer lack of attendees.  The convention center food court, which normally would be jam-packed at dinner hour on Saturday, was deserted:  many restaurants had no lines whatsoever, and seats were plentiful.  The Hyatt Grand Ballroom, which was reserved for RPGA games and D&D playtests, was barely one third full during a prime gaming hour:  Friday, at 7pm. 

Speaking to several dealers, sales were down at this year's show as well.  El Willy noted several times that the weekend "felt like a Thursday" from prior years, with a significantly lessened gamer density.  Luckily, Origins will be moving back to June next year--well after the vast majority of schools have let out, allowing educators and families with children to come back.  With any luck, they will. 

You know, it's weird.  While still running demos of P68, I find myself missing the act of running RPG sessions for the convention crowd.  The only issue I'm going to run into next year, though, is what to run?  I could easily continue running the games I love:  Deadlands (especially with Hell on Earth coming out at GenCon!), ICONS, and many others.  I could easily also run sessions of the games I've helped to write or edit for, like The Laundry or WEGS.  But, I'm also trying to keep a weather eye to Cold Steel Wardens...which means running demo sessions and showing off what I have.  And that's to say nothing of my board games!  So many decisions, and only a year to do it in!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

In Which The Warlock is Worn Out!

Hey, gang--sorry for the lack of updates this week.  This week was finals week at my school, after which the PlatinumChick and I left immediately for the Origins Game Fair!

I'll fill you in on all the gory details of our slightly-abbreviated Origins experience this Wednesday!

Until then, fellow gamers!