A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Every style has a game master

Lowell Kempf
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I was interested to learn, when I read the first volume of Dungeons and Designers, that game masters in the earliest RPGs were flat out competing against the players. That wasn't a surprise since D&D did come out of miniatures games so we're just talking a team of one versus a team of many.

Obviously the role of the game master has broadened since then. Sometimes the game master is simply a referee, someone to make sure all the rules are followed by both the heroes and the monsters. Other times they narrators of the story which the players gets to participate in. Sometimes they are collaborators with the players. And sometimes the role and responsibilities are divided up among everyone.

Originally, I had been thinking about how the role of the game master has evolved but I realized that that wasn't the best word. I think that developed or expanded or broadened it a better term. Because while everyone has their favorite method of running a game, you can't really say one method is better than the other.

In fact, a very good argument can be made that the original idea that the game master was actively trying to kill the players' characters is still alive and well. And, no, I don't mean killer DMs who keep folders of all the characters that they've killed.

Games like Descent are both examples of a game master who is directly competing against the players and games that blur the line between board games and role playing games so much that I easily consider them both.

Back when Descent first came out, a friend of mine was extremely interested in it because he didn't have time to be in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign but he still wanted a D&D experience. At the time, I was in a weekly campaign and I couldn't see the appeal.

Now, since I don't have the time for a weekly game, I can see the appeal. More than that, since I first played Descent, my personal definition of RPGs has broadened with games like The Quiet Year and Microscope. To my mind, a Descent campaign is definitely an RPG.

Ahem. Back to my original point. Over the last few decades, the role of game master has broadened. There's a lot more philosophies out there. However, the old ways have not become obsolete.

What has changed is that we now have more and more games whose rules are tailored for specific kinds of game mastering.

There are some games that are broad enough to cover almost every style of GM. In my years of D&D, I've had GMs out to kill the party, GMs who had the whole game mapped out, GMs who created a sandbox for us to play in, wonderful GMs who actively wanted the players to help build the world and no GM just players just rotating who controlled the monsters.

However, choosing a game it's not just choosing a genre or a setting. Choosing a game it's choosing what kind of story you want to tell and how to tell it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Today 2:36 am
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Catchup: Classic abstract feel

Lowell Kempf
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When I read up about Catchup, I decided that I needed to try it out. As it turned out, my account at Little Golem is still active so I wen there for a short visit so I could get in a game of Catchup.

Catchup has a classic abstract feel. Perfect information, two players and no theme. Catchup is played on a hexagonal grid with players taking turns setting down stones. The goal is to have the single largest group of stones when you've filled up the board.

The twist is whoever has the largest group on the board (not total, just largest single group) can only place two stones. The other player can place three stones.

It's an interesting touch and definitely makes the game. Since I was playing online, Little Golem kindly kept track of that for us and I didn't think about keeping track. However, looking at Russ Williams review of the game, I realized that could be an issue in a face-to-face game. You'll need some kind of system to keep it from being a pain.

I had fun with Catchup. I like abstract placement games. Every move develops the board and keeps pushing the game forward. Catchup took that basic and effective formula and just added a couple tweaks. Between the short playing time in the quickly developing board, Catchup stays interesting through the whole game.

In my one play, I found myself focusing on making as many cutting moves as I could. It's definitely a very conflict centered game, quickly becoming a knife fight in a telephone booth. And I'm sure that further plays will reveal greater depth.

Catchup isn't my favorite new abstract. I wouldn't put it in the top tier of abstracts. It's good but it's not brilliant. That said, I have played some boring and broken and just plain bad abstracts. The fact that Catchup is dynamic and interesting is a major win for the designer.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 26, 2017 12:53 am
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Twin Stars: giving solitaire another spin

Lowell Kempf
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I'm a little late writing about the Twin Stars kickstarter since it's almost over. On the plus side, it is well past its funding goals so it is going to get made.

Twin Stars is a solitaire game system, one that Button Shy has slowly been releasing as bonus items. Each play consists of two characters and one scenario. However, you can mix and match the characters, as well as adjust the difficulty so there is a lot variety going on.

I've only played the first one, Escape from the Brig, which I am sure is also the simplest one. It's essentially a race against time. Can you get your pawn to end of its track before the guard pawn gets to the end of its track?

At the end of the day, the game is all about dice manipulation. Each character has a space for each pip, with either symbols or an effect. Roll the die and assign one to each character. If they form a combination of symbols listed on the scenario card, perform that action and start over. Otherwise, drop one die by one pip and reroll the other then check for combinations.

I'll be honest. The game system is more complex than you'd really expect for three cards, two dice and some tokens. The process of completing a turn can take several steps. I'm not actually saying Twin Stars is complex. Just that I was expecting a a very simple roll-and-react game and there's an actual procedure with choices, although bad rolls can still sink you.

I am going to continue to be honest. I'm really not one for solitaire games, although I realize I have played quite a few over the years. When I do play one, I wanted to be something that is easy to set up and that will play fairly quickly. Because, quite frankly, it tends to be an act of fidgeting for me.

So, three cards, some tokens and a couple of dice works for me. Heck, if I feel like it, I can randomly deal out the characters in the scenarios.

I will have to see the other scenarios in the other characters and see how truly flexible the system is, as well as how interesting it is in the long run. But, for three dollars to get the PDF files, it's an investment that I feel comfortable with.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 25, 2017 12:41 am
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Sadly, Las Vegas doesn't excite me

Lowell Kempf
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Okay. I have to admit that I don't find Rudiger Dorn's Las Vegas very interesting.

I've put off writing about it because it's the darling of so many gamers and was a Spiel de Jahres finalist and I've given it much plays to try and find the magic.

Which really seems kind of odd. I like dice games. I like dice placement games in particular. I like casual games and family weight games. Las Vegas ticks all of those boxes. And I think it is very well designed.

There are six casino tiles, one for every pip on the die. Players have color-coded dice pools. Money is dealt out to each casino each round. On your turn, you roll your pool and assign all the dice of one pip to the matching casino. When everyone is out of dice, you cash out the casinos with the money going to whoever has the most dice on each casino. If there's more one bill, someone gets to be second place. But if there on ties, those dice don't count.

Honestly, I don't think you could make a simpler dice placement game. And the theme is accessible to the wider audience.

And Las Vegas has actual choices. The different casinos are worth different points, er, money. Some might reward second or even third place. And since you have to go all in with every die of a pip, you can drain your dice pool quickly. And the rule about ties negating themselves, that adds a real twist.

Plus, there is a variant where everyone gets some neutral dice in their pool. It adds another layer of decisions and turns ties into a serious weapon.

At the end of the day, Las Vegas is a very simple game that is very balanced with real choices and heavy interaction. I understand why people like it. I understand why there is now a mass market version coming out.

And it just doesn't interest me. And I'm a guy who enjoys abstracts and has played plenty of dice game with no theme.

It may be because I've exclusively played it on Yucata. The game may get a lot more tension face-to-face.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jul 22, 2017 12:19 am
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Yeah, I enjoyed fourth edition

Lowell Kempf
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When reminiscing about Dungeons and Dragons and loophole abuse, I found myself musing about the red-headed stepchild of the system, fourth edition.

I'm not sure you can say which edition was the most radical overhaul of the system. Well, unless you count first edition as overhauling the Chainmail miniature game But fourth edition was a big change from 3 and 3.5.

I don't know how fair it is to say this but, speaking as someone who never played World of Warcraft or any other MMRPG, fourth edition felt like trying to create as close to a World of Warcraft experience as a pen-and-paper game without getting sued. Classes got broken down into specific roles in combat and special abilities were painstakingly precisely defined.

Now I'm willing to bet there is a community out there that loved and still loves and still plays fourth edition but, in my circles, feeling ranged from fair to outright hatred. Part of the problem was that it really didn't _feel_ like Dungeons and Dragons. Spell casting was completely different, the baseline concepts of the setting were different than Gygax quirky wheel-shaped cosmoverse, and combat actions were like pushing a button.

And from a gaming philosophy point of view, it seems silly to focus on what an MMRPG can do better rather than focus in what is special and unique about both table top role playing games and D&D specifically.

But, to tell you the truth, I have a lot of found memories of my time playing fourth edition. It didn't really feel like Dungeons and Dragons and, in many ways, it had as much in common with a board game as a role playing game. But I still had fun.

A lot of that had to do with the group I played with. We would could have played (fill in the blank with whatever game you think stinks) and had a good time. Okay, those of you who chose F.A.T.A.L., you're right. We wouldn't enjoy that.

HOWEVER, fourth edition was also very user friendly with a very easy learning curve. You couldn't, simply couldn't, get as creative as you could with every earlier and later version of Dungeons and Dragons. The actions were spelled out so exactly that there wasn't any wiggle room. Which was both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, not being able to be creative is not a plus. On the other hand, that did make it easy to teach and play.

But where that really sang was for our game master. After years of running 3.5 and dealing with all of us turning into rules students who dreamed up clever character builds, running fourth edition was a breath of fresh air and relaxing. Fourth edition biggest plus as a sword and sorcery role playing game was how easy it was to run.

In fact, if someone were to ask me to run a fantasy RPG, fourth edition is one I'd consider. Dungeon World would probably win but fourth edition would be in the running.

Look, it is good when a game gives you a lot of flexibility and the ability to get clever and creative. That's awesome. But it's also good when a game is simple to play. Those two ideals don't cancel each other out. It just means that they have different goals and different audiences or situations. The real question is if they do what they set out to do well. On of fourth editions goals was to be D&D and it didn't do that well. Another goal was to be a balanced, playable, fun game and it did achieve that.

Fourth edition didn't feel like Dungeons and Dragons and I am very glad to finally be in a fifth edition game, which I like as a system much more and feels like Dungeons and Dragons again. However, fourth edition wasn't a bad game.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jul 20, 2017 11:45 pm
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How about degenerate play in RPGs? With an obsession with D&D

Lowell Kempf
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While I have already thought about the concept of degenerate play in boardgames, I actually think that it can be more prevalent in role-playing games.

I honestly think that most examples of degenerate play in board games are either examples of broken games or player and experience. It takes games like Magic the Gathering that have a lot of intricate interactions with rules that can sometimes contradict each other to really create

Roleplaying Games, designed to cover a much broader variety of situations than a given board game, have a lot more rules and, consequently, a lot more potential loopholes to abuse. You know, things that are technically legal but shouldn't be.

And it's clearly been a problem for a long time. Gary Gygax created the demon lord Fraz-Urb'luu for the specific purpose of dealing with two problem players. I remember that since the name is pronounced Frazer Blue, which sounds like a sour candy.

Personally, I knew a guy who, back in first or second edition, combined tower shield with cestus (which is an ancient Greek boxing glove) to try and minimize weapon speed and maximize armor class. Yeah, I know that works for Captain America but it still doesn't make a lot of sense.

And, yes, I also know that that is barely a ripple on the kind of rule abuse that took place back in the day. It's just one that stands out in my brain because of the absurd image and the fact that it doesn't involve any magic or rules from different supplements.

And, as much as I loved and still love Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5, third edition has some of the worst degenerate play. Personally, I think the Open Gaming License had a lot to do with it. An avalanche of third party supplements that were all 'legal' created an unbalanced environment. The classic example was Pun Pun the Kobold who was a thought experiment to create a low level kobold that had infinite stats, access to all spells and a divine rank (which actually just used official Wizards of the Coast rules, if I'm not mistaken)

Of course, that did involve stretching some rules to allow players to use an NPC-class and assume both divine and diabolic entities are just going to let it happen. Any game master who is actually awake should make sure that it never happens.

And let's face it, judicial use of Rule Zero, the GM gets the final word, is actually why most of these issues usually get taken care of. Of course, that opens up the other side of the table, the subject of either overly permissive or vicious GMs. Mind you, a lot of that can get filed under we were all 14 once.

I had originally been thinking that degenerate play is more common in old-school style games. However, while I don't actually have any proof of this, after some thought I changed my opinion. Old-school games are much better at surviving degenerate play. It is beyond easy to use loopholes to abuse narrative games but then those games are going to fall apart.

(I realize that all my examples are from D&D. That's really because I played so much of it over most of my RPG experiences)

There is also this about degenerate play in RPGs. It does not seem to leave as many hurt feelings as it does in boardgames. Often, there is a more rewarding sense that someone was really clever and the experiences end up being anecdotes that you bore people with over the years.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 19, 2017 10:21 pm
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This is getting to be a regular thing

Lowell Kempf
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We had our seventh session in my first Roll20 campaign. It's hard to believe that we have actually played that many sessions. Despite playing twice a month at best, it feels like the game is just flying along.

Part of that is because the DM, Bart, has had decades of experience running games so he's able to streamline things. For instance, I've noticed that he follows the Order of the Stick's rule for random encounters. You only have one per journey because it gets repetitive otherwise Not that Bart's encounters are actually random.

He also frames the game like a movie, going from important scene to important scene and skipping the transitions in between. While I love the Fellowship of the Ring, I think that Tolkien's detailed, step-by-step description of leaving the Shire has done a world of damage to DMs.

We determined the best person to consult for a cure for our druid's lycanthropy was a dwarven wizard in a city under the mountains south of our jarl's land. We fought a giant spider and some centipedes on the way there.

While our time in the dwarven city included overhearing a heist getting planned and getting set on a fetch quest by the wizard, the real highlight was Shad really getting into character. And by character, I mean being hysterically obnoxious to all the NPCs by acting clueless about all social norms. In his own society.

To cure Ilva's lycanthropy, we would need the jawbone of a horse killed in battle, the corpse of a giant rat and a hundred gold. The wizard was a little vague about the gold being a component or a fee.

On our way to a battlefield to find that jawbone, we were ambushed by four corrupted human thugs and a rabid blink dog. I honestly think that Bart underestimated how deadly the fight would be. Our bard wasn't there that night and the thugs had two attacks and pack tactics that gave them bonuses to hit. It came surprisingly close to a total part kill.

For me, I had gone over some of my specific powers as a fighter, the nuances of playing fifth edition. In particular, I realized I had misunderstood the Protect fighting style. So, I went into this session prepared to handle the fights like they were board games.

In this fight, I used every trick I could pull, including heavy use of terrain to hold our right flank. I eventually got dropped to zero (so did the Druid) but by then, it was enough to for the two standing party members to win the fight and save us.

So, for me at least, the sessions was less about developing some game skills as opposed to Roll20 skills. On the other hand, we (particularly Bart) are getting used to Roll20 enough that we can have a smooth fight without thinking about it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 19, 2017 5:40 am
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My two cents on degenerate play

Lowell Kempf
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The subject of degenerate play has reared its ugly head again. To be fair, I'm not sure if it ever actually puts its head down.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/713590/what-degenerate-play

As usual, no one really seems able to agree on exactly what degenerate play is. For me, it generally means playing against the spirit of the game or good sportsmanship. If I want to smack you, it might mean that you are engaging in degenerate play. Or, it might mean you are just playing better than me

If it's an intrinsic flaw in the game, that falls under a game being broken or solved. I don't think many people would call putting an X in the middle of the Tic Tac Tor board degenerate play.

I'll be honest, many examples of degenerate play, like only buying silver in Dominion, really seems like a learning curve. As players gain more experience, they learn overcome the low plateau strategies.

In all honesty, the games with actual degenerate play that doesn't either involve people needing more experience or the game actually being genuinely broken are games like Magic the Gathering. When every card adds or changes rules and there are literally thousands of cards, there end up being combinations and loopholes beyond what the designers anticipated.

Often, I think the goal of degenerate play is to 'prove' you are smarter than everyone else at the table, including the designer who is there by proxy. Oh, and to rub everyone's face in it.

Really, the bad sportsmanship part feels important to me. If someone's gets upset or their feelings get hurt, I think that's significant. Particularly when someone is doing it for their own entertainment.

For me, that is the real problem with degenerate play. When someone's intentionally subverting someone else's fun. If a group of friends want to sit down and have fun with loopholes, I'm not going to find fault with that.

Although all that gets turned on its head when there's money involved.

Tournaments, when there's a purse involved, aren't about fun. Is degenerate play ruining the environment or is it educating the developers or is it just playing smart so you can win? Is there a line where it counts as cheating?

There's definitely a line but I don't know where it is. I don't fault playing smart. I don't fault playing vicious. I don't fault playing to win. But somewhere beyond all of those, there is playing to hurt. Maybe that can be degenerate play. Maybe that's just being a jerk.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 17, 2017 8:59 pm
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A belated good bye to Out of the Box

Lowell Kempf
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I just learned that Out of the Box went out of business back in 2015. Man, am I behind the times.

I'm sad to see that they're gone. When I first started collecting and playing designer games, they were a company that I paid attention to. Along with Playroom and Gamewright, Out of the Box seemed to approach family games and kids games with a designer touch. (To the best of my knowledge, both of those companies are alive and well)

Part of their mission statement was that their games would take five minutes or less to learn and a half an hour at most to play. Which certainly doesn't work for a lot of games but it isn't a bad rule of thumb for casual family games. And there's no denying that, even compared to Playroom or Gamewright, that was their intended audience.

While I think that the best thing they did was publish the 10 Days lines of games, which combine good game design with high educational value, I don't think I can get around their most significant contribution to gaming was Apples to Apples.

It's not my favorite party game and I know folks who utterly despise it but there's no denying it changed the face of party games. Admittedly, by being so accessible/accessible that you don't have to be creative to play. No need to know trivia or be able to improv or draw. For better or for worse, it was an ideal family reunion game. And it went to influence other game designs, Cards Against Humanity being the most obvious.

Heck, when they sold it to Mattel, I seriously had doubts for Out of the Box's future. And they did hang out for another seven years but they never had another hit like that. Still, twenty years from now, Out of the Box is going to be remembered for letting Apples to Apples loose on the world.

Looking over their catalog, they actually released fewer games than I remembered. And many of them frankly never interested me. But there were some gems in addition to 10 Days. Basari bridged the line between casual family and euro pretty well while I have had a lot of fun with Cloud 9 and Easy Come, Easy Go.

Yeah, the fact they've been out of business for close to two years and I didn't notice means Out of the Box stopped being important to me. And the games from them that have stayed in my collection are some of their older ones. But they did put out some fun games.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 14, 2017 7:24 pm
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Okay, I don't like the term RPG filler

Lowell Kempf
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Looking back at Tau, a short form RPG that I played a couple years ago, I came across the term RPG filler. It's an idea I'd never heard of and I'm not sure what I think of it.

While I'll use the term filler for convenience sake, I'm not found of the term. I play shorter games when that's what I have time for, not just to fill time. And I think shorter games should not get held to lower standards just because they're shorter.

I have looked at role-playing games that are designed to be played in a very short time, like game poems that are meant to be played in only fifteen minutes. However, they are designed to provoke very strong emotional responses. To my mind, that is the opposite of what a filler means.

More than that, if we accept the idea of an RPG filler, where do we draw the line? Some folks I know prefer multi-year campaigns. For them, a one-shot might be a filler. However, that seems extreme. What is the time limit? Two hours? An hour? And what about weight? If a game is emotionally heavy or distressing, is it still a filler?

When I actually think of the word filler for a game and mean it, I mean something like a game I'd pull out while waiting at a restaurant. The Looney Pyramid game Treehouse is a good example of just such a game, with the added bonus that is waterproof.

For me, even a one-shot or short form RPG is something you plan out ahead of time. Someone suggested the Parsely system as an RPG filler. And I can see why. Heck, it is a game I've thought of having at the ready if the GM is late. But for me, it is really a party game, and experience to be judged on its own merits.

RPGs already use the term short form. Filler just seem unnecessary on several levels. Since apparently Tau's use of it didn't catch on, I am not alone in thinking that.

What I do think is a concept that I have seen and is worth exploring is pick-up-and-play RPGs, games that don't require preparation. It's an idea that's been around since the 80s with games like Sandman and Ghostbusters. I've seen designs for rules light one-shots and ones for campaign play. But I can't say I think of any of them as fillers.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 14, 2017 6:04 pm
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