Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Converting your Mega-Dungeon to Pathfinder

The Mega-Dungeon is the Moby Dick of dungeons, an unseemly gobstopper of woe

Greyhawk Ruins... Castle Whiterock... Rappan Athuk... World's Largest Dungeon...

Their names are legendary and their numbers are NOT Legion. Mega-dungeons are a rare breed in the world of RPGs. Bridging the organizational gap between the "boxed campaign setting" and the "linked adventure series", the mega-dungeon is a beast unlike any other. Hordes of monsters, sprawling maps, excessively harsh pitfalls and often nearly incomprehensible plots... if any!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dungeon Siege III Review

While DS3 isn't really a true RPG, here's my 12 hour review (according to Steam I've spent that long playing DS III).

To give credit where credit is due, while the visuals in this game are not groundbreaking in any way, they are very pretty. There is no lack of eye candy as you toodle aimlessly along following little glowing balls of light. Oh and cleavage. Lots of cleavage. Where's the Hot Coffee Mod when you need it?

The game uses an over-the-shoulder parallax view similar to that in other games, like Neverwinter Nights or World of Warcraft. This is the only option available, and while it gives you the choice between zooming in and out, you are still locked into one camera angle, limiting your ability to see or interact with things that aren't directly in front of you.

This viewpoint also inhibits you. When your character is running along a narrow mountain path or a dungeon corridor, for example, you may spend a great deal of time looking in your character's ear as the camera can't pass through solid objects like mountain walls. This can make tight quarters combat extremely frustrating as you waste time trying to finagle the camera around to a point where you can at least see who's killing you.

Getting around is a pain. You have two ways of moving your character; AWSD keys (where W is forward or ahead of your character's front facing) or by right-clicking and holding a spot on the screen. There is no run or jump, so you are basically trotting along at the same speed throughout the game. Yawn...

Additionally, there is no macro-map that will allow you to traverse large areas which you have already explored or cleared. Instead there are Causeways; inter-dimensional gates that allow you to travel between two set locations and - as far as I can tell - only at specific times.

There is a mini-map, which I find nearly useless for navigation. It's tiny, it toggles between two miniscule zoom modes, and is populated only with a few symbols for your character, companion and the nearest save point.

The combat in this game is pretty off. It was definitely crafted with console systems in mind. you can't select anything on the screen with the mouse, you have to somehow magically get your character to "notice" a particular enemy (a compass displays beneath the model's feet) and hope that it doesn't back out of range before you get an attack off.

And the enemies do just that. They will jump in and then back out while your character whacks away at the empty air. On top of this the characters' combat moves are scripted, so you are sometimes stuck executing the same two moves even though you haven't hit the key twice (or so it seems to me).

Some of these monsters can outrun you as well. This kind of monster is particularly dangerous as they can not only "steal" your attacks and move out of range, they serve as distraction units so that your wasted attacks can't be directed to nearby enemies. 

There's another problem with monsters; some of the leaders can heal themselves. I've gone round and round with Palefang and even at 9th level I was unable to kill it: whack whack whack, run away and heal, then run back in and whack whack for over an hour while it's life total replenished itself. I am sorry, but this is stupid. This is a design flaw that effectively breaks the game for me. Infinitely recurring healing is a poor feature to put into a game villain.

Remember Deus Ex 2? Remember those long conversations that you couldn't break out of until you arrived at the end of the tedious dialog tree? Well if that's your cup of tea then you're in luck. The game cuts jarringly from it's over-the-shoulder perspective to a face-to-face perspective, usually with some bad-CGI female with an impossibly huge rack.

There appear to be some camera problems with this interface too, as there are the occassional bizarre angles where you seem to be peering at the conversation through someone's armpit, or a secret camera.

At this point you proceed down the well-worn path of picking frequently useless dialog options (rarely you are presented with a response that will garner you greater influence with whomever your companion of the moment might be) which all lead to the same place: another sub-quest.

I don't get the impression at all that my selections of dialog have any influence on the course of the game, except for the fact that winning influence with a companion lets them blab on about how difficult and complicated their lives are. There's nothing pivotal here, just another mini-game within the game that adds more lines to your list of chores.

Oh and you really are locked into these dialogs. You can't escape out of them or break away until whomever you were talking to exits your field of vision and you are kicked back out to the bird's eye view, whereupon whomever you were talking to... has mysteriously disappeared! "Gee Martha, who was that masked man?"

"A friend, Clyde, just a friend..."

Character Building and Leveling
DSIII has an unusal leveling process. After a combat in which your character leveled up you are taken - after an inexplicably long pause during which you will run around waiting for the character screen to open - to a series of windows where you select from a variety of abilities and traits.

These abilities and traits grow slowly, and it's not always easy to see what impact they have on your character. Since I purchased DSIII through Steam I didn't get the manual that (I hope) comes with the boxed game.

If you've played previous versions of Dungeon Siege, you know that this game is all about chaotic mob combats and dropped loot! It's what makes life good! That hasn't changed here; you will continue to run around mopping up little piles of gold coins and more magic items than you ever dreamed existed. 

Some of them you can even use. 

The Verdict
Overall I'm not very impressed with Dungeon Siege 3. It doesn't compare favorably to it's predecessors. In fact I had more fun playing Dungeon Siege 1 in the run-up to this review than I did playing it's shinier, brand new cousin.

In a nutshell, this game gave me the impression that it was developed by 3 or 4 different groups of programmers without any form of contact between them. "OK we'll work on the console combat controls, group B will work on the leveling mechanics, group C will work on movement, and that guy in the back will handle dialog and story."

What I mean by this is there seems to be no correlation between the different elements of the game. While the whole thing works, it's far from seamless, and in RPGs the devil is always in the details. So the whole thing gives the impression at first of a series of mini-games all strung together.

There are too many problems with the game; it's jarring jumps from dialog to combat, it's inexplicable array of skills, abilities, traits and features which lack documentation, and it's fatally clumsy combat all serve to either limit your options or to make them incomprehensible. If the intention of Square Enix and Obsidian were to hit this one out of the park, they must have tried it using the directionless combat mechanic that hobbles gameplay in DS III.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Happy Birthday Gene Wolfe!

It has come to my attention that today, May 7th, 2011, is the 80th birthday of Mr. Gene Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe is one of the finest American writers of all time, from the four-part Book of the New Sun to The Knight and The Wizard, from his short story anthologies to his quirky and unsettling novellas.

Mr. Wolfe will tell you things you do not want to hear. He will tell them to you in a friendly voice, and he will tell them to you in such a way that you do not fully understand just what it is you have been told until he is done. By that time, of course, it is far too late, and you will find yourself thoroughly trapped. You were warned!

(Notice! No jump here! Why? Because this is the most important thing you will ever read in your life. Really!)

If you are not familiar with Mr. Wolfe's work, then let me offer at once my sincerest condolences and state my utter and total envy. My condolences because your life up to this point has been a dreary, bland and facile existence lacking in any redeeming quality whatsoever. My envy because you exist in a state of pristine ignorance, like a small child who has never tasted chocolate, and a wide world of awe now awaits you.

My first contact with Mr. Wolfe's work was The Shadow of the Torturer (the first volume of his signature work, the Book of the New Sun), which I picked up from a used bookstore when I was in high school. After lumbering through the story to its finish, I was confused. I was not sure just what I'd been reading up to that point. I knew that I liked it... sort of. The story was intriguing, disturbing and exhilarating all at once, yet still carried a weight of solemnity to it.

I purchased the remaining 3 volumes of the Book of the New Sun and tore through them all, and upon completing the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page in the last book... I was no less confused.

A year or so passed before I returned to the series for a re-reading (this is what we did in the era before TiVo and YouTube, we read things and then, when we ran out of things to read, we re-read them). Upon finishing the series a second time I felt somewhat wiser, but still confused.

In the ensuing two decades I have re-read the Book of the New Sun no less than 4 times, and each time I find something new, some new nuance or perspective, some cleverly revealed unspoken truth or hidden meaning buried within the chronicle of Severian's travels. The same is true of most of Mr. Wolfe's work; I find more value upon each re-reading. This is my testament and my promise.

Proceed therefore posthaste to your local library, bookstore or other vendor of literary thingamajigs - virtual or otherwise - and procure at once any or all of the marvelous tomes Mr. Wolfe has penned over the last six decades. They will change your life.

Remember, you were warned.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Villain Sourcing

Disclaimer: This is not a rant about overseas tech support.

Villains! Where do they come from? How do you handle them? It's easy to fall into the trap of throwing together a nameless, faceless NPC party that walks up to your players' characters and starts beating faces; Lord knows, I've done that plenty of times. It's not that satisfying, is it? No, what your players need are personalities to vent their hatred on.

But what about when your finely crafted - nay! - exquisitely crafted villain goes down in the first round? That's not good either. I've certainly experienced that, too.

How do you create memorable, recurrent villains that seem like they are a part of the world? How do you do it in a way that makes it seems like the players and villains are connected beyond their simplest tropes; "Hi! You must be Player Character. I'm Recurrent Villain! Nice to meet you, now DIE! MWAHAHAHAHA! O! I am slain, forsooth!" Juggling villains is more art than crunch; there are rules you should follow to do it effectively. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Obsidian Portal (Ascendant!)

Hi folks! I went Ascendant yesterday, I just thought you should know that.

If you are not familiar with Obsidian Portal and you are a detail-oriented game nerd like me, then you need to head over there right NOW. It's really a one-stop online shop for any DM trying to put together a fairly organized campaign.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

SORD PF: The Pathfinder rules in a nutshell (or at least a PDF)

I recently heard about the "SORD" from the Know Direction Pathfinder podcast; a single reference containing all the rules of Pathfinder, stripped of pretty pictures, flavor text and other crunchless data bits.

I immediately sped over to DrivethruRPG site and purchased it. Hving downloaded it and had a chance to peruse it, I am ready to submit my judgment...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dundracon 2011: T minus 3 days and counting!

After a hard weekend of moving all my family's worldly belongings, I'm really looking forward to the con! This is a convention I go to every year along with a rampaging horde of friends.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pathfinder Bestiary 2 Review

I mean, come on! The name of this blog is "Send More Monsters!" How could I look at myself in the mirror if I didn't review the latest monster book from my favorite RPG product?

My Expectations: I'll admit, I wasn't that excited about this book when it popped up in my Amazon suggestions list. I believe my firs thoughts were "Oh gee, just what I need, a Pathfinder version of the Umpleby." My experience with Wizards of the Coast's  Monster Manuals was uh not impressive, to say the least. In general, most monster collections are sub-par; either the monster CRs were too high, the concept was stupid, or too similar to existing creatures elsewhere. There may be one or two monsters from each of Monster Manuals I through V that I would consider using, but the balance of the creatures presented were unusable.

Sigh... I'm being unduly kind. For the Fiend Folio and MM II thru V, 95% of the content was F-----G GARBAGE. Yes, I just used profanity, and no it wasn't gratuitous.

So how does Bestiary 2 rate? Let's see...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

History of a DM, part 3

I was thoroughly disheartened by the way the Betland campaign ended. It was several years before another campaign idea took firm root in my mind. By this time 3rd edition D&D was out and I had run across yet another crowd of new players interested in learning about the game.

I now considered myself warned. In previous games I'd failed to balance my new creations with the overall rules and content, overestimated the party's belief in the lethality of the world and underestimated their capriciousness. If they were going to get themselves captured or killed, I'd at least be able to tell myself the warning signs were there.

I decided to use a mix of custom and canned content for adventures. I like building my own adventures (though it's a big time commitment, particularly if you have kids of your own). I started with some ideas that had first formed in my head during a trip to Japan. I wanted to use some of my impressions of Shinto and the localization of beliefs found in Japan without it being fully Japanese or Asian in flavor. It's not that I don't like the Asian theme, but I wanted to make something different, to challenge players to find a niche in what was a strange new world. I didn't want to give them an easy out; "Oh I get it! This is Japan. I'll play a ninja." That leads to assumptions, to boredom, inattention and ultimately the death of the game.

After working on the basic concept of the campaign for a good six months, I was ready. This world was a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ravaged by the forces of Chaos long ago (I decided that the failure of the party in the Betland campaign allowed the Cthoi plan to succeed, inundating the planet with raging tides of chaotic energy). Small sanctuaries of stability allowed civilization - and religion - to rebuild and rediscover itself. Gods were now localized entities, present and active in the lives of their worshippers, supported and in some cases guided by the actions of the faithful, and vital to the preservation of life. Travel between these zones of stability was possible and lucrative for those with the ability to forge a path through the rapidly evolving landscape (thank you Horizon Walker!), but the term exploration took on a new meaning.

I had a big group, and a nice mix of new players and veteran gamers. The first few games were a lot of fun, and the group shifted and expanded to include around 10 semi-regular players. As individual players dropped out due to relocations, personal differences (I am a mean DM and rules are rules!) and other unalterable facts of life. The campaign is still active, though we play only once a month (and less during the summer and holidays). After 7 years the current players have achieved a respectably high level and have finally bought into the main plot line of the campaign!

I should mention at this point that most of the players that I've had the pleasure of running games for are either new to RPGs or new to D&D/Pathfinder. Noobs are the lifeblood of these games. Veteran players and DMs spend their entire lives trying to rediscover the excitement that they felt when they first started learning how to play. The learning is part of the hook.

When you sit down to create a new campaign, one of the things you have to ask yourself is "How does this campaign/design cause the players - and myself - to learn?" Learning is interesting, exciting, and sometimes quite painful. It's all fine and good to sit down and play a boxed campaign setting - these boxed campaigns provide a good lingua franca upon which players from diverse groups can get together and still have a reasonable understanding what's going on with the game and with each other- but my experience tells me that the richest games are those where the players participate in the creation of that world and its history in some way.

History of a DM part 2

Several years after the Banning of the Cat People, I moved to California. It took a few more years before the call of the DM Screen became strong enough to lure me back. This time around I tried to keep it epic but open-ended; there were no balance-ruining PC races to select from, and the good guys and bad guys were clear-cut. I took a dash of Arduin, a pinch of Cthulhu and sprinkled Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying liberally throughout. Thus began the ill-fated Betland campaign.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

History of a DM, part 1

In order to determine what makes a DM, one must first consider what makes a player INTO a DM. Does the drive to run games come from an innate, frustrated, power-hungry desire to manipulate and crush other players, or does it come from a combination of the urge to create, plus the urge to entertain the storytelling possibilities of RPGs and foster them in the minds of others?

If you are of the former category, well... at the very least you will serve to season your players for tough times, and those whose curiosity survives your malevolent attentions will forge on to become truly magnificent players in their own right (albeit likely not as members of your group)! If you are of the latter school, then you have found fertile ground in which to plant your creative uh, er, seed.

For myself I hang between the two worlds. I like story, but I like gripping, edge-of-your-seat action as well.