Monday, July 28, 2008

Our first prize of the season

We won! We won!! We won! You beauty! We won!!

Yes, indeed, it is true. Yesterday we competed at the Callander Highland Games, where we came first in the Grade Four contest.

Join me for a resounding chorus of 'huzzah!'s.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Introducing the Jelly Baby Commandos

Many moons ago (indeed, in Days of Yore), back in those heady days of university, my friends and I once played a game called "Tales from the Floating Vagabond", a role-playing game with the simple concept of the "Floating Vagabond" being an inter-dimensional nexus where creatures from every reality gather, before heading off on odd adventures. One of the consequences of this concept is that one's character could be anything that could be imagined.

Anyway, this gave some free reign to create characters. One of the players chose to play a small sun that was employed in the adult entertainment industry (apparently, she was quite hot), while the other decided to play Captain Tangent!, a superhero who could never stay on-topic, on account of being distracted by other things. Like fish. Lovely, sleek and shiny fish. But don't eat them, because they'll gie you the boak. Fish.

And then it was my turn. What should I play?

And so was born Captain Tyche, leader of the heroic Jelly Baby Commandos. And so too were formed his evil nemeses, the Chocolate Button Empire. Two titanic forces, locked in a vicious battle for control over the confectionary aisles in your local Tesco. (Obviously, Opal Fruits are a cunning mercenary force, playing both sides against the middle. Indeed, so two-faced are they that they even changed their name in the thick of the fighting!)

But, who would win? On the one hand, the Chocolate Button Empire vastly outnumbers the Jelly Baby Commandos. But, Captain Tyche's forces had a key advantage: when shot, they would collapse, but then dissolve into a goo and reform, ready to get back into the fighting.

On the third hand, the Chocolate Buttons were equipped with truly wicked English accents, thus marking them as being in the elite of Hollywood villains. (Although, as a friend has recently and helpfully pointed out, Hollywood have now taken to casting all their villains as French. Perhaps for the sequel, the main villian will have to be Les Biscuits, a fiendish force of French foes for our heroes.)

Anyway, Captain Tyche and his allies (and enemies) went on to outlive the game itself, and starred in a sequence of wacky emails that preceded this blog by some years. Indeed, at one point he was even going to star in a motion picture, played by big Arnie* (these were in the days before he was the Governator).

* Not really, of course.

I never did quite write the script, or even start it, except for one iconic scene: near the end, the Jelly Baby Commandos would be captured, of course. And the villain would have devised an elaborate and deadly way to permanently slay our heroes: by dipping them in molten jelly, they would be rendered unable to reform.

So, Captain Tyche would be suspended upside down over these deadly vats of jelly, of all the colours of the rainbow, and our villain would ask of him, "So, my valiant foe, I shall do you this great honour: do you have a preference as to the flavour of your demise?"

Naturally, Captain Tyche would look him dead in the eye, and with a steely voice that betrayed no fear, he would reply, "I'll be black."

It is perhaps a good thing that the film was never made. Or even considered.

Anyway, should the day come that we should meet gentle reader, perhaps at a weeding or similar celebratory event, and I should ask you "who would win, the Jelly Baby Commandos or the Chocolate Button Empire?", do not be surprised. Indeed, you should now be armed with the knowledge to make an informed choice in this most difficult of debates.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A "Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" movie?

So, earlier today I was in the Best Buy in Minneapolis...

Actually, no, that's not right, is it? Just because I haven't been to bed yet doesn't mean it isn't a new day.

So, yesterday, I was in the Best Buy in Minneapolis, and found myself browsing the music section, whereupon I chanced to see the soundtrack for the "Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" movie. This surprised me somewhat, since I did not know that such a thing might exist.

Indeed, I'm not entirely sure how such a thing could exist. I mean, what would be the plot, if they don't actually do anything? And it can't be about that one time when they did do something, since that story has already been done.

Frankly, it all strikes me as a bit silly. Though arguably not as silly as a store selling "used guns" (true story).

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The emergency piper

Just before I reached the car park in Glasgow, my phone rang. I consequently ignored it, thinking that if it was important then they'd either phone back or leave a message. And, indeed, they did. The message was from the wife of our former pipe major, asking if I was available to play a wedding today.


As if completely by chance, my game was cancelled today, due to one of my friends thinking I was in the States (long story), and so it turned out that I was available. So, I went, played, got paid, and it was good.

Still, it's a bit odd being asked to play on the day of the performance. (What I think happened is that the PM took the gig some time ago. His job has taken him away for a while, and I suspect he forgot until this morning that he was supposed to play. And so, the call went out, "Help!")

It has been a strange day.


And speaking of the finale of "Doctor Who"... It Was Awesome!

After last year's disaster, and given the situation at the end of last week's episode, I fully expected them to do a "Reset Button" ending, where they throw a magic switch and set everything back as it was (and it was all a dream...). But they didn't! And no airy-fairy "let's all think about the Doctor at precisely the same time" glowy magic mince.

My faith has been restored.

It has been a strange day.

Richard, sit down, you're not going to believe this one...

After being rattled by the deadly Gazebo threat, I headed towards town, intent on purchasing a number of new books suitable for travelling. En route, I stopped at my parents' house, to wish them well on their holidays, to check up on how my gran is doing, and just because.

Anyway, in the course of the discussions, the topic of "Doctor Who" came up, because obviously both my parents are avid viewers (and how wierd is that?). Anyway, we discussed last week's cliffhanger, and the possibility that David Tennant might be leaving.

At this point, my Mum drifted away to do something else (I forget what - had I known what was to come, I would have burned that into my memory forever). I commented that David Tennant was taking quite a lot of time out next year for various projects, including doing Hamlet (I think with Patrick Stewart).

"I think he'll be playing Hamlet," said I, "with Stewart playing Hamlet's uncle... whose name eludes me for the moment. Claudius?" Now, obviously, this is a near unforgivable lapse, but I will note that I was guessing the right name.

Dad didn't know off the top of his head, so went looking for the "Works of Shakespeare" they keep on their bookshelf.

And then he said, "It's unfortunate {Mum} went off like that, because she would know." !!!

In case you were too stunned to realise what just happened, I'll just spell it out: my father, the font of all knowledge, not only admitted to not knowing something (!), but also commented that my Mum would be a greater authority than he on the subject (!!).

It has been a strange day.

Words to chill the soul of any gamer

The second sentence spoken by my neighbour to me this morning:

"There's a problem with our gazebo..."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

3e for me

Just under a month ago, the fourth edition of the "Dungeons & Dragons" game was released with an almost complete lack of fanfare. Despite my misgivings and doubts, I promptly invested in a set of the new rulebooks, spent two weeks valiantly reading though the 832 pages of rules for this new, simpler version of the game, and have since spent some considerable time pondering the new edition, whether to switch over to it, or whether not to bother.

I'm thinking I'll not bother.

My initial impression of the new game was that the books were very big, very heavy, and really quite intimidating. Quite frankly, 832 pages of rules is just too many for a game of this sort, by a factor of about 3. My overriding emotion on first cracking open the new PHB was one of fear, rather than the excitement that has greeted each new edition I have read in the last twenty years.

However, I consciously put aside my misgivings and prejudices about the game (as far as one can do, anyway), and tried to read with an open mind. And found that the game is much, much better than I had feared. In fact, it is a good game. No, it's a very good game. But it falls short of being a great game.

Key improvements:

  • Each class has an explicitly stated role in the party. We have defenders (Fighter, Paladin), who stand at the front, take lots of damage, and protect weaker characters. We have strikers (Ranger, Rogue, Warlock), who move around a lot, deal lots of damage, but are quite fragile themselves. We have leaders (bad name, but never mind; Cleric, Warlord) who inspire the rest of their party to do better, and have powerful healing abilities. And we have controllers (Wizard), who cast big area-effect spells. By explicitly stating the class roles, they make it clear just what each class is meant to do, and eliminate some of the 'junk-classes' from the previous edition (where the Bard and Monk were decent characters, but didn't really fit most parties).
  • They've gone some considerable distance towards equalising the maths, so that high-level play works rather better. In third edition, the cumulative effect of massive specialisation and all the modifiers was that a task one character would succeed on with a 2, another would fail on except with a 20. This caused some considerable problems above level 13 or so.
  • The encounter design rules in the DMG are considerably improved, and should lead to far more interesting and more balanced encounters.
  • The DMG also includes a concept called "Skill Challenges", which handle things like negotiating with nobles, interrogating prisoners, chases, and so forth. The concept behind these is really strong. (But see below.)
  • The Monster Manual includes many different versions of common monsters at different power levels. Previously, the Orc that was presented was the weakest of his kind, and if you wanted a more powerful Orc you had to build him yourself, taking considerable time.

Key weaknesses:

  • They have adopted an 'exception-based' rules approach, where everything is a special case. This means that the game is easier to learn - you only need to know what you need to know. However, it also gives rise to 'duelling exceptions', where one character has a power that does one thing, another has a power that does something mutually exclusive, and there is no indication of how the two should interact.
  • Additionally, where special cases are given, they cannot be applied in the general case. You can close your eyes to protect yourself against the Medusa's petrifying gaze... but what about the gaze attack of the Basilisk?
  • The new DMG has been hailed as being the best ever. It isn't, although it's easy to make that mistake. The new DMG is full of really good general advice for new DMs. It also covers all of the important topics required. However, where it falls down really badly is in the area of specifics. It talks about designing encounters in the 'natural' and 'staged' ways, as well as the 'best' way ('natural' encounters start from "what creatures should be here?", 'staged' encounters start from "what would be cool to have here?", and 'best' encounters blend the two). This is a good thing; but it doesn't actually tell you how to design any of these things. Oops.
  • They've thrown out almost all of the accumulated baggage of the last thirty years. This might be a good thing, except that that baggage was a whole lot of the charm of the game. Without it, the whole thing seems oddly soulless.
  • Remember that oh-so-great 'Skill Challenge' concept, and the wonderful news that they've 'fixed the maths'? Well, it turns out they didn't run the probabilities on the system, because the odds of actually succeeding at a Skill Challenge are miniscule.
  • Perhaps most damning of all, those 832 pages of rules give rise to a game that feels... incomplete. It's like a Starter Set for a good game, a game that they'll no doubt build on over the next few years, at a cost of $30 a month. While the third edition rules could be played out of the box for years without becoming stale, the fourth edition looks like it will run out of novelty in about a year... coincidentally just as they're planning on releasing "Player's Handbook 2". In fact, even trying to build a single first level adventure that doesn't include either Kobolds or Goblins is a daunting task - there just isn't anyone to fight!

And then there are the inanities:

  • The new alignment system removes several of the existing alignments. Apparently, the concept of a character being 'Chaotic Good' was difficult and confusing, so it's now simply 'Good'. But that's not the silliest part of it. The new alignment system represents which cosmic team a character belongs to, and is otherwise neither restrictive nor descriptive. Consequently, your Lawful Good Paladin can quite happily go around burning down orphanages, and remain both Lawful Good and a Paladin, just so long as he stands ready to inflict genocide on random Orcs at the slightest provocation.
  • The mounted combat rules allow a character's mount to use his own Stealth bonus in place of that of his mount. So, a sneaky Elf on a rhino can infiltrate the enemy camp under cover of darkness, and then rampage away to his heart's content. Huzzah for Stealth Rhinos!
  • Remember that Medusa's petrifying gaze? Well, it turns out you don't need to worry about it. See, the gaze requires an action on the part of the Medusa, and closing your eyes protects you. Since it's absurd to suggest that opening or closing your eyes is anything other than a free action, there's nothing to stop you acting thus: open eyes - act - act - act - close eyes. (Fortunately, the Basilisk will still be able to get you.)

Still, the truth is that this game has always had numerous silly rules. It has always had significant weaknesses, and it has always been for the DM to bring sense to this mess.

So, 4e is a good game, but one that could and should have been much better. On reflection, though, I don't think it is sufficiently better to persuade me to switch.