Friday, May 29, 2015

Consumerism, the Nerd, and Myself

Thanks for the chuckle, Fanboys Online!

I'm the sorta guy whose money comes flowing from his wallet lest it catch fire. Don't let me walk into a comic book shop, cause I'll empty that sucker if left to my own devices. "I only need $50 to eat this month, right?" Give me an income and watch what most of it goes to, just go ahead, watch! Now, I never really payed this much attention, even with my parents warning me that this was all a bad idea. I mean, what did they know? Their finances weren't mine! I do what I want!

Boy, did I get a rude wake-up call in marriage.

Enter my wife, Maria, who has a tighter wallet than Scrooge MacDuck (Love you honey! Don't kill me when you read this!). She was always somewhat amused by my spending habits, until my money became our money. It's not even that she hates it when I get stuff, but apparently you need a hell of a lot more than 50 bucks to eat in a month. And then there's other things... like baby clothes. And diapers. Y'know, small stuff. So my budget's shrunk a little bit.

The funny thing is that being on a more limited budget's forced me to sit out on the vast majority of releases. And it sorta occurred to me: how many of those games did I actually need? It's not like I have the time, especially now that we've got a son. Furthermore, why the heck do I need new games? A classic game, like any other classic, can be returned to, over and over again, and something new is added to your experience, because you're different and bring something new. I mean, how many times have I played Warrior Within? And loved it each and every time, flaws and all? Or Twilight Princess? Let's face it, great games are rare (and usually bear the mark Nintendo on them, but that's just me) but well worth it. And that usually means your library's pretty small to begin with.

The same can definitely be said of my table-top collection. I got what I really want: Burning Wheel and it's children games, 13th Age, and Fantasy Flight's Star Wars. Each scratches a distinctive itch that I've always had. Could I collect more? Yeah, and I will. Collecting's fun. But with those games I mentioned I have enough ideas that I like to keep me going for decades. I could probably play just those TTRPGs for the rest of my life and never run out of things to do with them. So why buy more?

Why indeed?

I mean, I could blame the culture. This ridiculous schizophrenic culture that can be so offensive and so endearing at the same time. It's really easy to do, most of my fellow Christians have done so. The problem is this: I am a part of the culture. The world. The universe. I am the problem. So what am I going to do about it? At the ripe young age of 27 I'm not sure. I'm still young and there's still much time before I face judgment for my aiding, fighting, or healing this madness we call "modern society".

At the moment the only real answer I have is that if something truly moves me I'll try and support the people who moved me so by buying it. And to make sure I really know the difference between shock and awe and an actual reaction.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Star Wars House Rules

Last week I wrote a review about Edge of the Empire. While I praised the game's dice mechanic I wasn't so gung-ho about it's other systems. These are the little tweaks that my group and I have made to the far.

Ditch the Obligation Rolls... at first. I love the concept of not knowing how the session is going to go. Yes, I'm one of those GMs. So the idea of rolling to see who's getting the spotlight this session appeals to me. But all stories need the set-up, where arcs are introduced. And I like getting that sorta thing outta the way. So my solution? Just have everyone go, one at a time, right out the gate. After everyone's Obligation's been introduced and played once then you can start rolling randomly to see what happens, because then you've got a base to build the randomness on. 

Destiny Points. Ugh. The idea's a good one, they just don't work! The player spends a Destiny point to upgrade a dice, and what's the GM going to do? Upgrade a dice right back. Nothing happens to the point totals and it all stay static. That's boring. To make things more dynamic my group and I have made the following modifications.
  1. Take the 1 Point per Roll Limit Off. This allows you to spend multiple points to get one big effect, if you really need to. Or for the GM to just bring on the pain when the arc calls for it.
  2. Points No Longer Immediately Switch Over. Instead they shift at the end of a scene, at the GM's discretion. So you actually have to watch what happens with your points, because if the players spend them all and the GM doesn't spend any the next scene is going to be painful. Essentially it turns the Destiny Points into an actual resource that the players watch very carefully as opposed to something they spend cause they know they'll get it back almost immediately. 
That's all we have the for the moment, but I'm really wanting to work on something to fix the XP issues I have with the game. More when I discover it!

Friday, May 15, 2015

The REAL Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Review

Wizards of the Coast had a long and very successful run with Star Wars. I owned a number of their books, but never found much of a reason to run the game. I didn't quite know it at the time, but the mechanical similarity to Dungeons and Dragons is what stopped me. Don't get me wrong, I played DnD for a numbers of years, 4th edition in particular, but somehow I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of using almost identical mechanics  for different stories. It just didn't make sense to me. Again, this is saying nothing was wrong with Saga (or any of the other things Wizards released), I just had a DnD itch already scratched. But what proper nerd doesn't want to run Star Wars in some way, shape, or form?

Enter the new Star Wars, managed by Fantasy Flight games. They came out the gate swinging with X-Wing, a first rate miniatures dogfighting game, and then announced Edge of the Empire, the first in a trilogy of role-playing games set between Episodes 4 and 5. Edge of the Empire is focused on the outer rim of the galaxy, far away from the bulk of the Empire.  That means that things are murky. You have responsibilities, obligations, problems. No one gets out clean.

Edge of the Empire has a unique dice system, as illustrated above.  Your six stats (Brawn, Agility, Cunning, Intelligence, Presence, and Willpower) generate green Ability Dice. Your skills let you swap out those green dice for yellow Skill dice, which have better symbols of success on them. The GM, in turn, has purple Difficulty Dice that can be upgraded to red Challenge Dice. Blue Boost Dice have a smaller amount of success symbols but might work in your favor. Black Setback Dice are the negative version of Boost Dice. You assemble your green dice and upgrade some of them to yellow dice. The GM then adds purple dice and might upgrade some of them to red dice, adding in blue and black dice at the GM's discretion. You then roll all of these dice and read the symbols on them to determine the result.

Using these results the GM and players determine what happens with every check. It's a bit time-consuming, but more than worth it when you consider the results. 

For instance, Jedi master Plo Koon is fighting young Boba Fett. After rolling  and cancelling out the results Plo Koon's left with a success and two threats. Plo Koon barely hits Boba but lost his footing for the next attack, giving Boba a boost die on his next attack.

This is not a dice system for those who simply want the rules to get out of the way. The dice mechanic is the entire reason to play this game and the authors make no attempts to say otherwise. I cannot stress it enough: the dice mechanic is the major hook of this game. Everything else revolves around it to the point where the game plays almost nothing like how it looks. And what it looks like is a traditional RPG.

Character creation is, again, pretty standard. You have your races  (which grant you your base stats and your starting XP), classes (which grant most of your skills) and your sub-classes (which grant you talent trees and a few more skills). You're given some cash to buy stuff and man, it's not enough. Neither's the XP they give you, especially when you realize that you can't raise your attributes/stats past character creation unless you buy super-expensive and hard to get to talents, and even then you can only raise one attribute/stat by one. And stats in character creation take the vast majority of your XP. Which is when the GM offers you the Devil's Deal: more cash and XP for Obligation. 

Obligation is your hook into the game. It's your character's bad past catching up with them now. Each Obligation is given a numerical value (usually 5-10 at the beginning of the game) and a chart is made combining everybody's Obligations. Here's my group's at the moment.
Jer'Ani (Bounty): 1-20
Kaneen (Family Curse): 21-30
Betsy (Betrayed into slavery): 31-40
Melody (Lost brother): 41-50
Zeke (Confirmed Jedi): 51-60
Jabba's Escaped slaves: 61-70
Wanted by the Empire for stealing Death Star plans and seeing the destruction of Alderaan: 71-90

As you can see you can also get Obligations from events you did in the game. At the beginning of the session the GM rolls a d100. If he rolls higher than the chart trouble doesn't come looking for the players. If he rolls any of the numbers on the chart, however, trouble finds the players, from whichever part of the chart that corresponds with the number. This stresses out everyone in the session, the person whose Obligation was triggered in particular. If doubles are rolled something really bad happens and the penalties are doubled.

For instance, at the beginning of the next session I roll a d100 and get a 22.  Kaneen's Obligation of his family curse has been triggered and, thanks to the fact that I rolled doubles, it's a particularly bad session for everyone. 

The GM can offer you more Obligation for more XP and cash. As you can see, Jer'Ani took me up on my kind offer. The Obligation system was a bit tough for me to use at first, but after realizing that that's the primary hook for the session (above and beyond anything else, regardless of what the book tells you), it got a lot easier to work with Obligation. 

Another meta-mechanic is Destiny points. There's Dark (for the GM) and Light (for the players) You can use these points to improve your own dice rolls, hurt another character's dice roll, or make up a small fact about the adventure that wasn't established before. You can only have 1 point spent per side on a single action. After playing it a few times my group and I found that this mechanic was great in theory, not so great in practice. Since you can only spend 1 point at a time it's really easy for both sides to spend a point and for nothing to change. Great idea in theory, not so great in practice.

Combat's pretty standard. You roll for initiative, trying to claim slots in the initiative order that you're allowed to swap with other players. There are two types of damage: wounds and strain. Wounds represent physical harm and strain mental harm. Wounds are harder to recover from than strain, which can just vanish after every encounter. Going down to 0 for either one will take you out of the fight. There's also a critical hit system triggered by Triumphs and enough Advantages, which makes you roll a d100 to determine what type of hit you just dealt/took. Even if the effects of the critical go away the actual status doesn't change until the critical hit is healed, thus adding a modifier to the next critical  hit roll. It adds up pretty fast and, coupled with the dice system, you get some really fun combats that are truly cinematic.

The final important thing is the XP system, which is frustratingly lacking. GMs are expected to hand out between 20-30 XP a session, for...well... whatever you want to reward them for. It's astoundingly loose and informal, which I don't personally count as a strength. You do get rewarded for following your Motivation, but that's all there is to it. It's not that the system's simple: it's simplistic and lazy. 

The bottom line is this: Edge of the Empire is an astoundingly fun system. The dice mechanic, the true core of the system, is a ton of fun and makes up for some well intentioned but flawed story mechanics. Definitely worth buying if you're into Star Wars or just like a narrative dice system.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Orthodox Method: The Jesus Prayer

One of the foremost prayers in Orthodoxy is the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. You're supposed to repeat this prayer as often as possible until it becomes a part of you and you just... pray. I learned this prayer around 13 or 14 and immediately attached to it. It's a beautifully simple yet profound prayer, one that changes with you. When I first started on this prayer I had  a pretty large amount of anxiety and the Jesus Prayer helped calm me. Repeating it over and over and over made me feel watched for, loved, and safe. God was watching over me.

Now, again, you're not supposed to stop saying these words. So when I started to doubt  my faith midway through college I just kept saying it over and over again. After awhile  my principles started changing and I found myself doubting the idea that God was love at all. But still I prayed. The Jesus Prayer became a prayer of desperation of a man who wanted to keep believing but didn't know how. Finally, at some point in the last few weeks, something clicked in my head. Christ was someone who wanted to save me and all that He wanted was for me to ask. The words didn't change, but I did.

And that's the brilliance of the Orthodox method. Unlike the Latin method, which uses differing words and topics to reach the person where they're at the Orthodox ask for the person to mold to the words, to the ethos that's behind the words, to the Spirit in the Word.. The Spirit and the Word call upon us to mold ourselves to them.

The words don't change. I do.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Spyder's Burner: Character Burning

Character burning for Burning Wheel is a very involved process. It's exhausting and takes a toll on the players, much like session game-play of Burning Wheel. After being in five games (ran four played in one) I found a weird trend: that first, exhausting session of gameplay was never really referenced for the rest of the game. And each time it's felt like such a waste, cause so much time was spent on making the character, so much effort went in to making this character's history, and how much do the players have to show for it?

Well, in my games? Nothing.

As I pondered the problem I looked at the way my group did character burning. We just put the lifepaths together after some talk about the characters and the situation, and that was it. It was a solely mechanical affair and I sure as hell never took notes. No wonder none of it mattered, we hadn't made it matter! A game about character progression and we never bothered to track their pasts, even a little bit. Now Burning Wheel says to not detail out the backstory too much, so I'm not talking about all of it, but the broad strokes can't hurt.

And then I thought about it another way. Alot of long novels, like the Count of Monte Cristo, Game of Thrones, and The Brothers Karamazov start with a short biography on what the character's been up to right until this point in the novel, explaining the psychology of the character so everyone knows what they're getting themselves into as they start the story. And that's exactly what the first session could be: the explanation of where everyone's been up to this point.

So here's what I want to do the next time we burn up characters:

  1. Ask questions! "Who was the knight who you were a squire for?" "How did you wind up becoming an assistant for the court?"
  2. WRITE THE ANSWERS DOWN, both of you! There's a notes section in the character portfolio, make ample use of it. Note important persons from the past, why you stopped being the town baker and joined the army, things of that nature. Don't make answers, make questions that can be resolved later. 
  3. Ask how big of an impact the character's decisions have had on those around him. Mandate reputations and affiliations to match.
  4. Ask even more questions. Consider different angles on the characters' actions. Could they be the villain in someone else's story already? A hero? Write down more.
The focus would be to develop a persona with the player, a person who lives, breathes, and has bled. The mechanics should back up the story and the story should generate mechanics. Here's hoping that during the next campaign I can fix the problem. The first session is the beginning of the characters' story. Everyone should know what's going on.