Monday, June 27, 2011

Starmada, 26 June

We got together for more Starmada this afternoon / evening as a break from D&D.  Participants included me, Jared, Matt Britton (of the Royal Brittonic Navy), and Matt Glisson.  Glisson hadn't played before, and we were curious to try a 'vanilla' game with pre-built ships and a lack of craziness, so our first game used the OGRE Starmada conversion.  Matt ran an Ogre MkIII, with Jared, Glisson, and I trying to stop him from attacking our command post.  We gave Glisson howitzer command (looong range, but immobile and terrible accuracy), while Jared ran a trio of missile tanks (slow as infantry, but longish range and excellent accuracy) and I got stuck with GEVs (fast fast fast, but weak weapons and terrible durability).  Terrain was rolled as asteroid belt, so we ended up with a size 4 asteroid field, a size 5 asteroid field, and 11 asteroids.  I like to think of them as irradiated zones within the Ogre setting; they affect targeting by interfering with sensors, and deal damage to units by owning electronics and killing folks.  We placed the big asteroid field in a corner of our spawn area to keep Matt from using it, but he used the other to good effect as cover.  I engaged with the GEVs, but suffered pretty horrible losses.  One of Glisson's howitzers took a flight of seekers, as did one of Jared's tanks, but we dealt enough damage that the Ogre was rendered toothless about halfway across the map.  Matt played well, though; he used terrain properly to hide from the howitzers, got us to split our force, and generally did a decent job.  I think the large map combined with the low speeds was what did him in.  I'm curious to play more 'vanilla' games on a more standard scale; I think by playing vanilla, we could take the focus off of ship design and put it more heavily on tactics.  Remains to be seen.

The second game we decided to go all-out with personal ship designs, with Glisson using the Nations of Earth ships from the Grumm sourcebook.  We rolled Breakout, which we hadn't played before, with Matt and I attacking, Jared and Glisson defending.  Matt ran RBN carriers, I ran my most recent (and untried until today) version of Eldar, and Jared ran...  something?  He fielded a couple of 14-point ships, a small flotilla with some strikers, and a cruiser with repeating increased-hits weapons.  Terrain was a planet and three moons.  They hid behind the planet, but Matt's fighters likewise used the planet as cover to close and laid some hurt down on Turn 2 (as well as trading fighters for Jared's strikers).  Turn 3 they tried to move out around the planet, bur I decloaked and hit them from the side.  One of my cruisers took a pounding from their guns, but remained alive and recloaked and ran for it next turn, while my heavy cruiser (based off the Eldar Shadow Hunter line cruiser) obliterated one of Glisson's cruisers at long range, and my light cruiser took out Jared's carrier flotilla.  Turn 4, most of my stuff recloaked, and Matt's bombers finished off Jared's flotillas.  The only VP they scored was escaping Jared's cruiser off the map, while we destroyed everything else of theirs with no losses for us except for carried fighters.  A solid win (though there was a close moment with that cruiser of mine that got mauled - they dealt 10 damage to a hull 6, and we weren't sure it was going to make it.  Would've given them the win at end of Turn 3).

I left then, but apparently a third game was played with Matt and Jared vs. Glisson and Tim, who arrived late.  From what I've heard, Jared fielded his cruiser again, but this time decided to shoot with it rather than running off the map, and dealt something like 40 hits from a 250-point ship in very little time, causing Glisson and Tim to cede.  Regrettable...

It's been a while since I updated the standings...  sadly, I've missed too many games to keep an accurate count, and the ones played without me haven't necessarily been properly reported (names, sides, scenario, terrain, results).  Campaign games with terribly unbalanced forces only muck things up further.  Meh.  If it becomes a regular thing, might start keeping track again, possibly restarting the counts.  As it stands, it seems like who wins depends mostly on amount of time spent out-of-game designing fleets, as well as how much cheese (be it small craft, flotillas, G-arc only weapons, super-repeaters, turbo engines, &c) one is willing to use.  Kind of a sad state of the metagame.  Calls for banning Rules Annex material are currently being fielded...  I approve, actually.  The shield-breaking traits in Annex (Piercing +2 and +3, Halves and Ignores Shields) have made high shields quite inviable as a defense; Alex and I both tried fielding Shields 5 ships for a game or two, and extremely effective anti-shield weapons were just too common for them to be even close to cost-effective.  Likewise, the group is divided on flotillas...  I think at this point only Jared uses them.  They were kinda fun for a while, and I think an all-flotilla game would greatly simplify things by removing the 'rolling and applying damage' step (and removing damage ratings from weapons), but as far as the rest of the game goes, being able to pack an arbitrary number of guns in a small arc into a very fast package is quite deadly, and speed and defenses don't deteriorate with damage like on a normal ship.  Such a ban would mean a serious re-design for Jared...  and given the success of his repeater, I'm not sure we want to force such a re-design, lest he find more Things of Intense Effectiveness in Core.  I'd also like to ban strikers, but leave seekers in, as seekers produce significantly more interesting gameplay.  They can be countered more readily than strikers by terrain or interposing disposable ships, and require more forethought in target selection than strikers (you can't just dump 20 flights of seekers on the table and expect to win; you have to choose your targets carefully to make sure you get it right).  Meaningful choices and planning, basically.

Basically, there is dissatisfaction with the current state of the metagame, and I'm not sure how to fix it.  Until we figure that out, it will continue to be less fun than it could be for all involved.

Monday, June 20, 2011

State of the Game

Man, it's been a while since I did an out-of-character / rules post.  Tim's been running a fun Trailblazer test campaign (which was to be a one shot, but then ran long).  So, some thoughts on what we've seen so far from Trailblazer, in no particular order:

Fighters: nobody's gotten to use Punishing Strike yet, which adds attack and damage on AoOs :(.  Tim fielded a pile of NPC fighters during the first session, and I've been running a fighter / ranger the entire time, and AoOs just don't get provoked for movement like they used to.  Another consequence of the change to AoO rules is that combatants can now circle each other, rather than standing in place.  A point for realism!  Expert Weapon Proficiency, though, has been wonderful; I used it to make Dwarven Waraxe a light weapon, which means I can two-weapon fight with them without penalty, which is awesome (plus Weapon Finesse, being able to use it in grapple, and being able to use it to cut my way out of Swallow Whole attempts.  Not that those last two have come up yet).  Tim's fighters used it to boost damage, I believe, and their attacks stung quite a bit.  So: fighters aren't complete chumps anymore.  And Combat Reflexes is an awesome bonus feat, because it get you more...

Combat Reactions: Also awesome.  These let you do other things with your "Attacks of opportunity per turn" pool.  DR from Blocking saved my hide from the black dragon in session 2 (as did a potion of bear's endurance; lacking either, I'd've been toast), and Dodge, Aid Attack, and Aid Defense have all been used to good effect as well.  AoO has been used the least frequently of any of them, really, which is a nice change.  Having Dodge and Block scale with BaB also helps out the fighty-classes, which I appreciate a lot (and the extra Block DR from shield bonuses also makes Sword and Board a much more viable loadout).

Bard: Tim tasked me with building and running Adam, the party bard, in combat.  I was a little saddened by this, since I'm usually not a fan of bards at all, but man...  bard buffs are good stuff.  I enjoyed being able to time Haste and Inspire Courage when it was most useful for Fjolkir, and really miss the damage bonus from Inspire Courage.  On the plus side, the fact that Inspire Courage largely overrides Heroism in combat meant that I was able to claim all the Heroism potions, which is paying off now that Adam's gone.  Also, Power Chord is a really nice ability; being able to swift-cast Cat's Grace and Glitterdust was useful several times.  Overall, my respect for bards has improved significantly, though I don't think I would want to play one as my only character.

Ranger: About the only things they changed here that have mattered so far were opening up bonus feat selection (I used it to get Two-Weapon Defense since I already had TWF; wouldn't've been able to do that normally), Improved Reaction (+1 Init; since I also have Improved Init and 18 Dex, I usually go first.  Nice.), and spellcasting.  Getting low-level spells to be able to heal myself a little and to use Longstrider, even as a multiclassed character weighted mostly towards fighter has been really useful, but improving my spellcasting is slow going; I'm not going to get 2nd-level spells until 10th level.  I'm currently at Fighter 6 / Ranger 3 - I think the plan out to 12th (not that I expect the game to run that long) is Fighter 6 / Ranger 4 / Fighter 2.  I'll get 2nd-level spells from the next level of Ranger (as well as Uncanny Dodge and Speak with Animals at will), then Expert Weapon Proficiency from Fighter 7 for 2d6 damage on the waraxes, and then Greater TWF at Fighter 8.  Which brings us to...

Iterative Attacks: TB changed iteratives so they work like TWF, Flurry, and Rapid Shot - extra attacks at a penalty to all of them.  Being able to roll a handful of d20s all at the same bonus has sped my turns up nicely.  Jared (who plays Somak) has also taken advantage of it, though Dan (who plays Alonso) really hasn't yet; he keeps rolling them sequentially rather than in parallel.  I had to go buy a fourth d20 to roll all of my attacks, but it was quite a pretty die, and I don't regret it.  Four attacks, each at -4, has been pretty effective; I'm very very likely to hit with one of them, and usually hit with two.  It's basically the D&D application of the Starmada principle that "Volume of fire is important," and it's easy on the maths.  I almost with I had Power Attack so I could really benefit from the math reduction this change saves.

Skills:  Being able to scatter points across class skills and get effectively four ranks for one skill point has been useful; I've been spreading mine around to get a few points each in things like Swim and Heal (which actually helped recover from the ability damage from Malevolence last session).  I think I'll probably get Knowledge (Nature) next level...  something I really ought to have, but I bet Somak's got me beaten on it.  Being able to assist wouldn't hurt, though.  Getting 4+int skills as a fighter was also really useful; I'm at max ranks in Stealth, Survival, Perception, and Search, and then I got the class bonuses from Ranger.  I'm as sneaky as the rogue, have the best perception in the party (thanks for the Eyes of the Eagle, Tim), and can track a party of four humanoids across firm ground a week and eight hours of rain after they passes.  Haven't gotten to use search yet, though.  Anyway, being good at useful skills as a fighter is a nice change of pace.

Druid: Somak's been effective in melee, tripping with a modified guisarme (using TB's melee weapon customization rules; he reduced crit threat range and boosted base damage) and Enlarge Person from Barridan, but he has a hell of a glass jaw; at last check, Somak at 9th level had around 36 HP, while Barridan, the halfling sorcerer, had 42ish.  Probably poor HP rolls on Jared's part, but it puts the druid solidly in the second line of melee behind me (for reference, I'm at 85 HP.  Toughness got upgraded pretty hard in TB, and Con 16 and d10 HP are awesome).  The bonus to hit prone foes in melee has really helped offset my full attack penalties, especially now that Adam's Inspire is gone.  Unlike the 3.5 druid, though, the TB druid hasn't been dominating melee in wild shape (they really toned Wildshape down; it's kind of like an Astral Construct of personal buffs now); he has been succeeding wildly on his trip attempts (with the size bonus from enlarge, using a two-handed weapon, ability score buffs, and ability score boosts from Hybrid Form), but he's not an unstoppable bear with an army of bears (no animal companions, and summoned creatures are fairly weak - the dragon slew a Summoned Monster IV from him in one shot of its breath weapon).  I think we're all pretty happy with the changes here.

Rogue: I think Alonso's been less than maximally effective due to poor design choices by Dan, rather than by poor design by the TB folks.  This is all.

Sorcerer and/or Cleric: Barradin was initially a Cleric 4 / Sorcerer 4, but eventually realized he was basically just using sorcerer spells and leaving curing to the wands, so Tim let him switch to full Sorc.  And he's been throwing fireballs like a sorc ought to be; he picked up Empower Spell at 9th, and has been using it on his Scorching Rays and Fireballs to good effect.   No complaints here, though I'm sad that we didn't get to see a proper half-and-half caster in full, versatile action (they operate very similarly to a caster of full level in each class, but lose out on some bonus slots and readies from each class).  I'm also sad that we didn't have a proper caster / non-caster multiclass; I guess I'm the closest, with +2 BmB from my fighter levels and +1 BmB from my ranger levels.  Maybe next campaign I'll run a Barbarian / Druid or a Cleric / Monk...

Not a whole lot else to report...  we haven't run into any really annoying parts of the system yet, that I can recall.  Oh, Dispel Magic.  We're not sure if we like the Dispel change or not...  they changed it so that it got to dispel at most one effect from the target, so that you weren't stripped of all of your buffs in one go.  On the one hand, this is really nice for your PCs if they like to buff and your enemies like to dispel.  On the other hand, Tim's NPCs have been better buffed than we have (except for the fight against the dragon, where we drank so many potions that if we had been using the old Potion Miscibility rules, we'd've all died), and his enemies haven't been using dispel, so we've been getting the short end of the Dispel Magic stick when we go to dispel their buffs.  I guess the real problem is buffs themselves; they're annoying to keep track of, and Dispel Magic just means you have to recalculate everything in the middle of combat.  Tim proposed changing their durations to encounters, rather than simulationist units of in-game time; this could be justified by the fact that if you're not actively using the benefits of the buff between combats, the power of the spell isn't being expended, or it's just leaking away slowly enough that it'll evaporate over a rest period, say.  It's an interesting solution, but we haven't tried it yet.  I almost favor removing buffs from the game wholesale; TB's spine analysis didn't take them into account and still came out which reasonable numbers, which suggests that they could be removed without severely breaking any of the core combat numbers for the game.  Alternatively, granting inherent bonuses would work nicely as well; just give me something that I can write down and add up once, and then not have to remember.  Fodder for another post on another day.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Trailblazer Mages: 3/4 Base Magic Bonus?

So it looks like the group's taking a break from Starmada this weekend for a D&D one-shot while we wait for Jared to return from somewhere.  I'm pretty OK with this; Starmada's fun, but we get really competitive about it, so I'm not sure it's the best thing for group cohesion.  But as the games go, so go my thoughts, and so goes the blog, and so this one's about Trailblazer

Trailblazer (henceforth TB) is a 3.5 derivative that is nominally competing with Pathfinder, though on a much lower budget and with basically no support (I hear they're coming out with a monster book soon - might have to pick that up).  They did some really neat things that made 3.x significantly more fun; my favorites are their iterative attack changes (now works like Rapid Shot, Flurry, and TWF - penalty to all attacks to get an extra attack.  Much easier to keep track of the Power Attack penalties), combat reactions (AoOs, Aiding Others, Dodging, and Blocking now all fall under one mechanic that scales nicely with BaB, giving the martial classes a nice boost in addition to the extra class features they already get), and the unified Base Magic Bonus progression / casting system, which eliminates the need for classes like the Mystic Theurge and makes Caster / Non-Caster multiclassing much more viable (for example, a Cleric 3 / Monk 6 casts as a 6th-level Cleric in all respects, which is still useful at 9th character level, while 3rd-level Cleric casting would not be so much).  Non-casters like the Rogue, Fighter, and Barbarian get 1/3 BmB, Ranger, Paladin, and Monk get 1/2, Bard and Adept get 2/3, and full casters get +1 BmB per level.  Your total BmB is indexed into a table that determines the number of slots and readied spells (CD Spirit Shaman-style) you have available from all of the class lists you have access to (with a few restrictions that I won't go into here).

Trailblazer also did a bit of class rebalancing using a numeric system developed by Craig Cochrane (author of the Immortal's Handbook).  This generates a number around 1 for each class, which is the average CR gained by taking a level in that class.  The non-caster classes get the short end of the stick, ending up mostly between .9 and .95, while the full casters end up around 1.2 after TB's modifications, plus or minus .03.  The primary contributing factor to their higher CRs is naturally their spellcasting; they gain about .4 CR per level just from their casting.  The CR from casting formula's interesting; I've reverse-engineered it to .00025 * max spell level available at 20th level * total number of spell levels per day available at 20th level (before bonus spells and whatnot).  So a 3.5 Sorc ends up with about .6 CR per level of casting, while a Wizard ends up around .4 because they have fewer raw spell slots per day.  I think, however, that the casters in the 1.2 range could be pulled down to around 1 by reducing their BmB from full to 3/4.  At 3/4 BmB, at 20th-level caster gets 100 levels of spells per day and a maximum of 8th-level spells, for a CR per level from casting of .2.  This, applied to any of the full casters, would reduce their CR per level to 1, plus or minus .3.  It also raises the level at which play starts to break down from 4th-level spells like Solid Fog that hose non-magical characters unstoppably from 7th to 10th, which means that Epic 9th then becomes a viable option (for those unfamiliar, I recommend checking out Epic 6th here).

There are, however, a couple of problems with this solution, as pointed out to me by one of my caster-playing friends.  The first is that at low levels, casters suck extra - you don't get 1st-level spells until 2nd level with 3/4 BmB.  The second is that your caster level lags as well as your spell availability, decreasing the power of all your spells in addition to limiting your slots.  The third, and perhaps most systematically serious, is that since saving throw DCs are based on spell level, by reducing spell level availability, you reduce saving throw DCs against spells across the board.  My proposed solution to problem 2 is to do something similar to the Bard's Arcane Forte ability, which grants them a bonus to caster level with spells from certain schools.  This lends itself beautifully to specialist wizards, and to domain-centric clerics, but I haven't found a good way to apply it to subsets of the Sorc or Druid lists yet.  Problem 3 could probably be solved through careful selection of spells - those without saves, like most rays, or those with saves that you know your enemies to be weak against.  I'm loathe to increase save DCs across the board, though I'm also slightly tempted by True Sorcery's approach, where all spells had a save DC equal to 10 + half caster level + relevant ability score modifier.  It introduces a nice parallel to monster special ability saving throw DCs, and makes low-level spells more useful at high levels.  3.5's psionic augmentation rules might be the best way to go, though.  Finally, I don't have a good solution for lack of spells at first level, except perhaps to round BmB up at first level with a 3.0 Druid Animal Companion-style caveat (for those unfamiliar, a 3.0 druid could choose an animal companion with a number of HD less than or equal to their druid level, except for 1st-level druids, who could get up to 2 HD of animal companions).

Thoughts?  Nerdrage?  Willing victims for playtesting?  I'm hoping Tim'll let me run a TB character this weekend for the one-shot; while I ran a 10thish level TB campaign last summer, I could stand some 6th-level playtest data as well.  Also, this may lead up to a Wilderlands of High Fantasy TB campaign - I found a cheap used copy of the Necromancer version of Wilderlands recently, and it looks like it would play kind of as a cross between Traveller and D&D, which would be pretty awesome...