Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Foundations: A Free Refresher Course.

Let me begin by admitting that I am by no means a professional carpenter/contractor. I've never built a home nor do I have years of experience in the field. However my grandfather was a highly respected carpenter, one of the most sought after in our town in fact. It is from his wisdom that I know one simple truth - no matter how skilled or experienced a person is, no one can look upon a foundation and instantly predict every aspect of what is going to be built upon it. You simply cannot gaze on the laying of a foundation and presume to know all the issues awaiting construction. Neither can you assume merely from the foundation itself what the final structure will become. In short, not even the most experienced and veteran craftsman can anticipate everything that lays before a project on the foundation alone.

However, in contrast to what cannot be known the foundation itself is a very important part of any endeavor to craft something. Especially if the intent is to create something of lasting value and worth. For example consider the old parable of house built upon the sand vs. one built upon stone. The wise man who built upon a strong foundation of stone's house endured the weather and time to last. The foolish man by contrast had a home that quickly crumbled and faltered against the elements. My point here is an obvious one; getting your foundation is not just important, it's vital. Building upon something flawed or weak will only ensure a short lifespan not to mention inevitable failure.

Why are we even on the topic at all? Simply put, it lies at the crux of a larger topic that I have come to feel that so many are ignoring. From the very beginning, Wizards of the Coast has tried to make it abundantly clear that their intent is to not simply toss out another edition. Their goal is to break down what is at the core of all editions, unify the base elements and craft a new edition that can serve fans of all editions while enduring. A lofty goal to be sure, but one that hinges on establishing a strong foundation they can build on. But the key focus here is that they are trying to establish that  very foundation. Until they can get that base set into stone they can't build up or out, and that's where we come in. They need our help in getting it right, and they genuinely seem dedicated to doing this right the first time, because it's worth it. And if we can build this to last then there is no reason they can't give us the game/rules we want that ensure a long lifespan of our hobby. For that matter, there is nothing that says they can't get the rules established in such a way that then allows them to provide us with the rich content so many crave.

I have heard so many different complaints in the days since the playtest was first released, and I think quite a few of them are centered on the fact people are forgetting that we're laying the foundation. If you loved 4th edition and are lamenting seeing more of it in the materials, be patient. 4th is the newest part of the game's history and while it is still a very controversial subject we have to look at all the history of the game as a whole. Just like in building there have been so many different methods used over time and if we're to build something worth the effort we have to look at the bigger picture. We definitely don't want to find ourselves looking at a whole new edition in a few years because this attempt failed. Nor do any of us want to see the brand shelved only to never know if or when it could return.

To those who cry foul at seeing so much "old-school" material I'd like to remind you that this game has been around for a long time using just such elements. It isn't a weakness but a strength that lives in the very feel of the game. And to those who bemoan even a hint of any newer element or innovation; truth be told without Gygax or others around we don't know what they would of thought about such concepts. For the sake of our favored past time we have to at least give it a chance and try our best. If all we do is fall to stubborn pettiness over the project then we will completely betray the fate of the game and doom the potential of it's future.

And to those who take issue with a new edition solely on the fact that they'll be asked to buy all new material, I can honestly sympathize. However, even living below the poverty level I will be the first to say that if this is done right I would be more than happy to invest in the game's future. Yes, I have in the past felt slighted by the release of a new edition that warranted such an expense. But even so, if this whole thing works out like it might it would mean the beginning of a whole new era of the game. If that is the case then I actually don't mind investing in new books provided the quality merits the price.

You can live in a house most of your life, but if the chance comes along to invest in a better house, especially one in the shape to last it could be a great opportunity. Moving isn't always easy or without it's own myriad of issues but nevertheless it's a part of life. We could simply invest in another trailer-like edition, one that albeit nice would only last us a short time. Or we can dig in and pour ourselves a foundation to build on that can allow us to shape something great and lasting.

I don't know about you but like my grandfather I have to say if it's worth doing then it's worth doing right the first time. It could be argued that the same effort should of been applied to every other edition. But I think that each other edition that came before us, has allowed us to grow and refine the game. And if we don't take the time to really understand that or apply it then all we'll ever be doing is building ourselves houses we can't or won't really live in. We might stay for a bit but they'll never be a lasting home. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Scouting Ahead - Part 2: More Notes On DnDNext

Okay, let me be honest here; there was just too many things that I didn't mention in my last post that it bugged me. Yeah, I did mention some stuff but there is just too much that I feel deserves attention. So, I compiled some notes on a list of various things that stood out to me worthy of further commentary.

The core base mechanic for about as long as I can recall has always been a d20 check, whereby the player or DM rolls a d20, adds various modifiers/penalties and compares the result. This simple method has been employed to measure success or failure in a number of different ways. And for just as long you have been able to apply modifiers/penalties based on circumstances be they favorable or not. One elegant way this is now handled is a very simple mechanic now referred to as Advantage/Disadvantage. With it, when you roll a d20 to resolve a check or attack etc. you simply roll 2 dice. If you have the advantage you keep the higher of the two dice, and the lower if your the opposite. This may not seem very different from simply using a static value of +/- 2 but in truth it looks like it adds a more appropriate feel to things. Not to mention the math of dice probability alone are sure to differ.

Moving right along from one classic system to another, let's talk about stats for a moment. To be blunt; everything now seems to fall right back to stats. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing! Basically if you have an action now that your unsure of it is very easy to simply resolve it by going to the appropriate stat. Going a step further, even the math seems more intuitive and simplified. Wanna know how much you can carry without being encumbered? Easy, just multiply your strength by 10. Encumbered? Just double that last number.

Let's talk about hit point now, shall we? For many people it's been a touchy subject; some feel them overly inflated, others way too low. I have often been a fan of the dread a low level player has at impending death during each encounter and how it shapes the atmosphere of the game. Some of my favorite memories are of low level games in fact. However, I can also admit that in many of those games a bad choice from a new player can combine with low hit points to cripple their character and lead to a bad experience. To deal with this now a starting character begins with hit points based not just on their hit dice but on their constitution stat as well. For instance if your 1st level fighter has a con of 15 and rolls a 5 on his d12 hit dice he has 20 hp starting out.

Coupled with this new approach to hit points is a return to a more tradition healing system. Even with players starting off with slightly more elevated hit points(and feeling more heroic because of it) they still have to be careful. Currently the only way for a player to heal during combat is via potions or spells. However, in between those fights players can still take a short rest and if a skilled healer is present with a healers kit they can then expend a use of the kit to roll a hit dice and regain some hp. Even so this can only be done so many times because once the kit is exhausted or the player uses up all their hit dice then only time and natural healing will lead to their recovery. The whole mechanic is a classic one that I for one welcome as a return to a more realistic feeling in the game.

Only two major areas remain I'd like to address; gear and magic. I'll begin with the former. One major change I immediately took notice of was when I looked at weapons, not only were they grouped together differently but gone was the critical multiplier. Instead, when you do critical with your weapon you merely take the max damage the weapon is capable of and that value becomes the damage done. Before you start crying foul though just consider it, your not having to figure on different multipliers or stop combat long enough to tabulate some large figure. This little change now makes things a bit smoother and easier while still feeling like an impressive stroke of fortune. An optional rule module may surface later that changes this but so far I am curious to see how it will be received during play.

Now, I did mention weapons being grouped differently, but I must add it is done in a very intuitive way. Everything is boiled down to a very basic structure; you have basic, finesse, martial, heavy, simple missile, and complex missile weapon types now. A welcome little rule even now allows a player to spend a minute searching the battlefield and recover half of their expended ammunition. Another welcome sight is a comprehensive list of gear that even features items like ball bearings, hunting traps, tomes and even in an interesting ritual component pouch. The pouch itself costs simply whatever you choose to invest in it and in return any time you cast a spell with a material component you simply deduct that amount from your pouch. Once depleted the spellcaster is simply out of materials.

Which leads us to magic. I have to say I adore how they have handled the magic system. For years after I started playing I found magic to be a daunting element of the game and one that prevented me from trying more classes than I otherwise would have. Now, not only is magic presented in a way that is very easy to grasp but also makes spellcasters feel viable. One long standing problem with low level casters is that once they're limited spell roster is exhausted they often are seen as useless in combat. Their low armor class and limited weapons often pressure them into spending their actions defending themselves.

The answer to this whole issue was such a simple one most players I know have remarked for years about it. It is summed up in two glorious words: minor spells. Minor spells can be easily explained as those spells that for years have existed as cantrips and orisons(and still are referred to as such). These spells are etched into a students brain through such repetition in training that now they are effortless to cast. In short, all wizards and clerics now have spells that they can call on at will. Further elevating them is the fact that some combat spells are minor spells. A wizard can now fall back on his magic missile or another minor spell when his spells are exhausted. Not to be left out, clerics also have minor spells with which to blast radiant damage at their foes as well.

Another interesting element to the magic system is the inclusion of rituals. Some spells allow an option being cast as a ritual enabling it to be cast without being already prepared. In exchange the spell requires a slightly longer casting time and the use of additional materials. Already I could foresee some potential uses for this feature especially if some spells allowed for extended duration or range of effect if cast using the method. As is it is worth mentioning but we'll have to see if it grows in value as things develop.

So, that's a more comprehensive rundown of the DnDNext open playtest documents. What are your thoughts? I'm excited to try it out myself and really thrilled with the direction things seem to be going. However, it's worth noting this is just the first glimpse and a lot of stuff has yet to be seen or could change. In any event we'll just have to wait and see how the dice continue to fall. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Scouting Ahead: Some Initial Thoughts On The DnDNext Open Playtest

Like countless others I received a copy of the DnDNext open playtest documents yesterday. And like so many other eager gamers proceeded to devour my way through them. Now that I have had a day to let them digest I thought I might share my initial thoughts with, well - anyone.

For starters, let's be clear about a few things; I cut my teeth on 2nd edition, and then further grew and explored my way through 3/3.5. When 4th reared it's head I fought to remain impartial and give it a shot only to have to turn my back on it in favor of Pathfinder. So while I may not have been around as long as some I can honestly say I still cherish the time I spent playing the older editions. Now it is some of these older experiences that instantly caused me to appreciate and actually applaud the new mechanics. However it should also be noted that this material isn't a final product, nor is it a comprehensive thing. In fact, it is rather spartan in some regards but for what it is(a playtest) it shines with just how much it actually does contain.

The packet's contents included:
 - 5 pre-generated playable characters - An Elf Wizard, Dwarf Fighter, Halfling Rogue, as well as a Dwarf Cleric and a Human Cleric(this showed us 2 very different types of clerics).
 - A insightful primer for a DM to bring them up to speed.
 - A core system "How To Play" basic primer that proves to be both easy to grasp and skillfully compiled.
 - A detailed Bestiary that does a miraculous job of being comprised of no less than a bulk majority of some of the most memorable classic monsters any player has ever encountered. Actually, it is really impressive at the sheer variety and breadth of all that in contains. Especially for an introductory playtest packet.
 - And let's not forget the real gem, a classic module crafted by Gygax himself. One that quite literally is the very definition of flexibility and adaption.

Already you can color me impressed. In short everything seems built from the ground up not only with the feel of all the editions but also with subtle touch of customization. Every element lends itself to the player and the DM so that they can dictate who they are and just what they do. Most of the trademark staples are all there like wizards slinging magic missiles and fighters dominating combat.  And yet there are new elements that combine the old as well as the new.

For example; now there are 'Themes' and 'Backgrounds' that as their names suggest shape the theme and background of your character. It is these features that may seem vanilla and generic but in their implementation they add to the character of a character. The slayer theme alone adds a distinctive element to the fighter that marks an iconic type of fighter - that of the vicious horde parting kill machine. I could easily see playing a slayer fighter as a melee master or that of a skilled archer. Alternatively, one could even see slayer added to any of the other classes and making for a viable and enjoyable character choice.

It could be argued that some of the mechanical/game atmosphere could be misplaced by the adventure's open ended approach. But I don't think that's the case. Rather, I think the adventure is more of a sandbox provided to take advantage of the rules presented so that the players and DM's themselves have free reign to see just what all they can do. Granted we don't have rules for creating characters to test(yet), but with the material presented I think one could easily experiment. Themes and backgrounds could be swapped around, even a players gear or spells could be changed. This may not seem like a massive impact on gameplay but I think it is a fun option(not to mention something to applaud in the fact that there is enough material to allow such a notion).

In the time to come I am sure there will be more for me to discuss, especially since I have only scratched the surface. So what are your thoughts on DnDNext? And if you haven't already, go ahead and sign up to add your own voice to the growing chorus of fans shaping the game's future.

It is so nice to see rules that really add credence to a DM being able to ask players: "What do you do?" And those same rules support them being able to answer in ways other than default action number 3 on they're sheet.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Alright, Android, Let's Play A Game.

As inevitable as a porn-parody will be made of, well, let's face it - anything, one of the first things most people think of when presented with a new gadget like a tablet is; "What games does it play?" It is as natural as breathing to both geeks and non-geeks. You can't deny it, at some point the odds are your going to want to kill some time with your device or just relax a bit. Now everyone has their own choice apps that suit them, but I'd like to share what I have found so far that stand out as some of the best I have come across, and everyone of them is free.

1. Tower Defense: Lost Earth - First off, I have to thank Rocky Sunico for this little jewel! What starts off as a seemingly simple game proves to provide a wealth of enjoyable play. Every level is a slightly more difficult puzzle as you find yourself pressed to strategically place your automated defenses against waves of alien creatures. Each new map presents you with a different problem to think over as you decide which of your arsenal to deploy and where. And let me assure you there are plenty of maps in the campaign, coupled with some very interesting challenge/special missions as well that all prove to give you pause for though. If that wasn't enough the game allows you to replay any mission with varying degrees of difficulty to try and collect a variety of badges. This has to be one of the best games for an android device, period.

2. 3D Bowling - Yeah, I did quite a bit of bowling as a young man and loved every minute of it. Granted I wasn't the greatest of bowlers I did alright, or rather I like to think so. Now this particular app is almost as much fun as real bowling. Using your finger you flick your ball on it's way towards the pins and just like in reality you can affect the spin/curve of the ball. A little twist with your finger and you can hook your ball with the best of them. The pin physics are fairly accurate as well, not perfect mind you but fairly close. A load of fun all in all.

3. Zenonia 3 & 4 - Fantasy Rpg's done the way they ought to be. Both these games are full of engaging storyline and fun characters. Now they both have a tendency to lean towards some cute and whimsical elements but it's understandable considering the genre. The artwork is gorgeous, especially that of Zenonia 4 which is stunning for it's platform. Both games instantly brought back memories of the early Final Fantasy games as well as titles like Chrono Cross.

4. Blood and Glory - Need to channel your inner Spartacus? Does the roar of an arena crowd and spilt blood get your heart beating? This game is a blast, you take on gladiators in tournaments as you rise in an attempt to become champion. You can sweep with your finger to slash and preform combos making the whole experience very rewarding in a way most button masher fighting games aren't. A simple design it doesn't offer much variety instead encouraging you to purchase better gear and fight stronger opponents. One thing to take note of, this is a gorgeous app but also one that is geared towards the player purchasing in-game currency with real money. You can play without spending any real cash but clearly it's geared towards being easier on you if you open your wallet.

5. Lego 4+ - Created by the Lego company this little game is priceless for kids and enthusiastic adults as well. You start off with a handful of lego pieces to choose from to assemble little lego cars and the like. Then you can take them over a rudimentary side scrolling landscape with an onscreen button that lets you go forward. As you drive you can pick up a series of single peg round block pieces similar to coins, and if you get enough you can unlock new pieces. Each new piece provides you another option when making your vehicle such as being able to build a helicopter, truck, or even police car. Some of these even add a second button allowing you to fly, jump(there are lego legs you can use in place of wheels) honk a horn or even activate your siren. After each level you get a simple puzzle of a shadow shape you can drag sets of blocks into to try to make a little lego figure that will then show up in your background, All in all this is a fun little app that kids will enjoy, and can help them with some hand-eye issues. The only thing it needs is additional block pieces and some slightly more complex levels and it could be a top notch full blown game. As it is it's a little limited, great for a kid but with so much potential.

6. Shadow Era - One of the best Magic-like card games I have ever come across. You start off with a basic starter deck and your choice of a hero card to begin playing with. As you play you earn funds to purchase cards to add to your deck that you can play against AI opponents or if you choose other players. This is one game that is cross platform being available to Apple devices, Android and even browsers. However without using lands the game uses the cards in your deck as a resource allowing you to discard any card once every turn to use to pay for your other cards. This makes for a interesting change in thought as you play.

7. Cyberlords: Arcology - Remember the old Shadowrun game for Sega and SNES? Cyberlords is a fun little game very reminiscent of it. Little more to say...

8. RiskIt - This has to be one of the best Risk games for an Android device period, it is on par with WinRisk. As such, I don't think much more needs said about it.

9. Legendary Heroes - Ever hear of League of Legends? Yep, you guessed it, this is as close as you can get on an android device. It's a enjoyable midget version of LoL, but I must confess it does suffer slightly with regards to the platform/implementation. 

If your looking for a fun game give one of these a try, and if you have recommendations of your own - I am all ears!

How To Go From Aquaman To Batman.

Alright, remember me saying that with relative ease you can unlock a multitude of features in your Nook Color? Well, whether you believed me or not - here is just how simple it can be.

First, your gonna need a few things; namely a microSD card that is Class 4 or better and preferably around 8 GB or so. Why do I say a specific class of card or size? Well, the short answer is that a standard Nook Color uses 8 GB of internal flash memory and as for the class of the card - well, let's just leave it at that's the best compatible class of card for read/write speeds. Now, for my own purposes I picked up a SanDisk 16 GB at my local Wal-Mart for just under $20.00, and it has proven to be a great investment. Oh, and for the record, statistically SanDisk has proven to be one of the most reliable brands for this sort of project.

So, we have our media, now all we need is something to put on it and a method to do so. Easy enough to take care of, all you need to do is get your hands on a microSD card reader(I was fortunate enough to have one built in to my netbook). As for the former, you will need to obtain a copy of WinImage, if memory serves it was freeware and simple to use. You will also need a generic disk image and the CM7 Rom file. You can choose any Rom file you want from the list but I'd recommend you go with the most recent release candidate(Look for ones with RC), they tend to be more stable versions.

With me so far? We have a microSD card, a reader, WinImage, a compressed disc image file and one compressed CM7 Rom file. For the disc image file, it will initially be about 9 MB or so, but you'll want to decompress it to a folder where it should end up being somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 MB. Once you have that bit done you get to fire up your WinImage and click on options, then "Restore Virtual Hard Disk Image On Physical Drive." Make sure when you do that you select the "All Files" option to ensure you can see everything. For the record, might take a few minutes to burn the image to your card, but we're not talking anything intensive.

Now, once it says it's complete you can copy your CM7 Rom file over. You don't have to uncompress it or anything, just copy it over. Then you just safely eject your card and insert it into your powered off Nook Color. Once you power it on you should notice a difference as Tux the penguin sets in a corner of the screen and command line text scrolls by to notify you of what all is going on as everything is unpacked and made ready for you. When it finishes it will power the Nook Color back down so don't panic.

At this stage, if you want to install any of the Google Apps you can simply by adding the Google Apps Package (Scroll to the bottom of the page and it'll be under CyanogenMod 7) to your card and then placing it right back into your Nook. This time when you boot up you should be greeted with some typical set up stuff like setting up your Wifi etc. Do it. Once you have run through your set up stuff just hit your power button and hold it a few seconds. A menu should pop up with the option to "Reboot & Recovery," click it and this time it should unpack your Google apps and then you can go through your account sync stuff.

The whole process doesn't take long, and leaves your internal install intact. In fact when you boot up you can always choose to load your stock configuration if you want.

So, for review; you take a microSD, plug it into a reader, burn a image to it, copy over a rom file and then place it into your Nook Color and let it power up. About as easy a task as Batman putting on his utility belt, huh?

I must point out though, as awesome as this is I have noticed a few small things I should mention so your prepared. This is not complete nor is it perfect, there are still some issues that might irritate you. They have only been minor inconveniences to me but your mileage may vary.

1. Statusbar crashes; Occasionally the statusbar will crash and vanish. When this happens it doesn't cripple you, you can still navigate and manage just fine but it does remove some of the ease and convenience. Holding the power button will give the option to pull up the menu if you need and a quick press of the 'N' Nook button can always return you to your home screen. However, if the bar does flee from you one quick fix you can try is to tilt/rotate your Nook, sometimes the screen change will reload your prodigal statusbar. If not you can always do a quick reboot.

2. Wireless-less; Another issue is that of your wireless simply turning off. I have noticed myself how it can just flick off at times and often it could be as simple as a power regulation issue. For the most part two simple clicks of your power switch will flash your screen off and back on to find your wifi return within seconds. Typically your device will shut off the wifi when it goes to sleep to conserve power and then reactivate it upon waking.

3. YouTube; Can't load videos you say? Think you made a horrible mistake? Not so, just make sure you have Adobe Flash installed and try to remember to turn of HQ - it's a little red logo on some videos. As long as you have HQ turned off most videos play just fine.

Even with these little issues I still find my Nook Color to be a remarkable and versatile device with far more value than it gets credit for. Give it a try, it is so simple to do as you can see, and maybe you will find you agree.

Friday, May 4, 2012

If You're Going To Be In The Justice League, You Don't Want To Be Aquaman.

Think about it, if your a member of a prestigious group like the Justice League you don't want to be Aquaman - you wanna be Batman. The same holds true for those in the e-reader/tablet community. Wanna know why that is? Look at the differences between Batman and Aquaman; one is overly specialized and handicapped when anywhere but under the sea. In contrast the former is not only unbeholden to limitations but known for his trademark ingenuity and utility(belt).

Now, when I first received my Nook Color, I was already in love with it's functionality. As an e-reader it is excellent, and a more than capable budget tablet. However much like Aquaman it is chained to a single realm, that being Barnes & Noble. While this doesn't constitute any real issue for most, there is an untapped potential waiting within the Nook Color.

Just last night I equipped my Nook Color with a micro SD card loaded with Cyanogenmod 7 and giggled with glee at the utility belt like transformation. Countless features and apps are now at my fingertips, the least of which being full access to the B&N, Amazon, and Android app stores.

I'll be posting step by step instructions soon for anyone interested, and just to show precisely how easy it is. In fact this post is being written in blogger's app for android. So stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Games We Play

Growing up, as I now look back, I can fondly remember a small stack of board games that sat nestled in the top of a closet. I can also recall with delight where my father kept his decks of playing cards(and poker chips). In fact it was a major triumph when we located my aunt and uncles penny jar and were able to use them in games. Why does any of this matter at all now that I am grown and have children of my own? The answer lies within the question, naturally.

As a child there always was for me, and let's be honest here - for anyone there is a innate magic in cards, dice, even tokens and other little tidbits found in our games. I was captivated by such things, I treasured learning how to play black jack sitting cross legged in the floor with my father just as I do the memory of being primed on how to play Spades for the first time with my family. Even if your immediate family doesn't have a game night where you sat down with your parents and siblings to crack open monopoly or life, I would wager all my risk armies that odds are you can recall playing some kind of game with some of your family and enjoying the experience.

Now, sadly as we get older we sometimes find our time restricted, or that our family has other interests to pursue. But no matter the age anyone can sat down at a table and engage in good clean fun. Playing any game can help us to learn about ourselves, about how to interact, but most importantly they let us connect. Games shape us, and our choices of them are shaped by who we are.

My cousins used to introduce me to amazing games that even now I desperately crave the chance to play again. We spent untold hours playing countless board and card games, I miss those days. Watching TableTop on the Geek and Sundry channel has reminded me of this as well as how I have precious few games in my own closet now to play with my children. I would adore the chance to introduce my family and friends to games like Small World, Settlers of Catan, even classics like Risk and Scrabble(confession - I am ashamed to concede I don't recall ever actually playing scrabble but always wanted to).

I want my children to know the joy to be had as I did, I want to share in that fun with them. Shouldn't we all want to spend time with our loved ones and enjoy it? Why not break out a game and let the fun come to you?