Friday, August 31, 2012

Grognard Grumblings - Tribes: Ascend Pseudo-Review

Little-known fact - when I have a Windows machine, not enough homework, and no tabletop gaming readily available, I sometimes play video games other than Dwarf Fortress.  In this case, it was the most recent iteration in the Tribes series, and it made me mad for a lot of reasons.  I played Tribes 1 and 2 back in high school and earlier in college, and they kind of established my expectations of a Tribes game - three flavors of armor, about ten available weapons (plus packs, grenades, mines, and beacons), an overwhelming focus on capturing the flag (with a sideline on camping the enemy generator), jetpacks, skiing, and being utterly demolished by players who had been playing since the game's release.  T:A...  doesn't quite deliver on these expectations, especially that last one.

Here we have nine flavors of armor, each of which has its own unique weapon set based on an unlockability model (which makes me mad), but which can only carry two weapons (and these are strictly divided into primary and secondary categories).  This is some serious bullshit, especially when other folks are using heat-seekers and you don't have flares because your class just can't ever have flares (contrast with T2, where light and medium defense and a lot of light offense always carried flares).  Other equipment shenanigans include the laser grenades that fire lasers at random across an area for their considerable duration (since when is that a thing grenades can even reasonably do?) and the assault rifle.  Now, don't get me wrong - I like the assault rifle a lot.  This is because it's a very nice weapon - it takes the best of the chaingun and blaster from T1/2 and puts them together into one package.  No bullet drop, no scatter, good ammo capacity, good RoF, and decent damage.  If you figure out the right lead on someone and have a decent amount of ammo left, they're toast.  The problem, of course, is that in the hands of someone who was halfway decent with a chaingun in T1/2 (which I'm not even sure I am), it's stupidly effective at (say) gunning down flag cappers skiing away from your base at high speeds, even at long ranges.  Not bad at shooting down jet fighters either.  If that sounds like any assault rifle you know of, let me know.

The assault rifle also introduces a problem with existing canon, though.  Historically, I've used three weapons as references for the 'power level' of Tribes - the fusion mortar, chaingun, and plasma gun.  Consider for a moment that historically in the Tribesiverse, a plasma weapon was the equivalent of most games' shotguns - short range and good damage, but not an instant kill.  The raw, burning sun-fluid plasma is an 'indoor toy' in Tribes, useful mainly for letting light armored players punch through shields to destroy generators and other static, shielded targets.  Let that sink in a bit.  Then, consider also that almost every user of heavy armor in any iteration carries a fusion mortar - a man-portable tactical thermonuclear weapon system, complete with radioactive green explosions - and that a direct hit from such a device is insufficient to kill an undamaged heavy, and that a shielded heavy might weather several such hits.  Finally, the chaingun - a belt-fed minigun, usable in one hand by any armor type, without any upwards recoil.  These three weapons suggest that historically, Tribal armor in the Starsiege universe has been durable and strength-enhancing beyond the point of reason.  I guess the publisher of this iteration decided to 'fix' the canon by replacing these vehicle-grade weapons of manual mass destruction with two-handed assault rifles that need to be reloaded from a magazine rather than being belt-fed.

Hell, reloading in general is a problem - everything was auto-loading in T1/2, even the mortars.  Here it's all fancy manual reload animations every time you fire something, rather than a muffled 'clunk' of the chamber cycling at the end of the refire delay.  The extraneous graphical chrome isn't confined to reloading, either; visor cracks when you get hit, spaceships flying around up in the clouds, jetpack trails behind people, explosions in the distance outside of the map's bounds.  There's a huge amount of HUD noise, too - indicators appear and disappear when you're skiing, and every last inventory station, repair gun (not pack - gun.  This makes me extra mad, since I can't both carry two weapons and repair shit.  Used to be I could carry four weapons and still fix the gens - now I'm hosed if someone's camping the generator and I need to kill them before fixing it.  But more on the generator game later), generator, and a whole host of other crap shows up on the HUD.  I had a couple times where the enemy was between me and my base and I couldn't accurately target them because there were too many little indicators in the way.  T1 and 2 solved this using the command circuit - you could waypoint a generator, and find your way to it that way without introducing any more information than you needed.  Here, everyone knows all the time where everything is (and if there is a command circuit, I have yet to find it.  It certainly isn't bound to 'c' like it was in previous versions...).

Speaking of the generator game - it's pretty messed up.  Inventories are no longer critical to getting medium or heavy armor, since you can spawn in whatever you want, so the main benefit (at least in low-level public play) of having generators is having working turrets.  Honestly, not worth fighting the generator campers for; have fun sitting in my basement, I'm going to go grab your flag and actually win the match.  Especially when you're using those damn dirty laser grenades.  So that partially negates the manpower allocation decisions on defense; put all of your D-team on the flag and they can have the bloody generator room.  Effectively, the design team decided that the convenience of spawning in whatever armor you want is better for the game than having that strategic depth of choices about what is worth defending or attacking and how much force you, as a team, should allocate to those objectives.  The logistical element of defending a simulated supply train is now gone, and everyone should be on the flag, all the time.

Oh, and heath regeneration.  They decided that a button-activated repair kit was too complicated, so they added in automagic health regeneration in the style of Halo or Call of Duty.  They removed a real, useful resource-management choice that added to gameplay in doing so.  Previously, you spawned with a repair kit, and you could either use it (healing a bit and expending it) or throw it away, in which case it would self-destruct after 30 seconds or so.  If you died and had neither tossed it nor used it, it could be looted off of your corpse by friend or foe.  This led to gameplay like "Well, I'm uninjured, but I'm going into a situation where I will likely die very rapidly, so I'll use or toss my kit despite being uninjured to deny resources to the enemy", or "Our flag carrier is badly wounded and incoming; I will toss my repair kit to him so he can heal himself and survive to make the cap."  You know, like, real choices that impacted the outcome of the game.  It also made deathmatch slightly more interesting (not that anyone ever played deathmatch), because the only sources of healing were a repair backpack if you could find one, which you'd have to actively use at the cost of jetpack fuel, or the bodies of your fallen foes.  All of that gameplay is now gone; sit in a corner, wait 30 seconds without taking damage, and you'll be good to go.  That's so much more interesting, right?  Granted, a real old-school Tribes player would say "Wait, since I can spawn in whatever armor I want at full health, it's more time-efficient for me to suicide than hide waiting for the heals to kick in."  Suiciding when you're out-of-position (blown off your route for offense-types) has a long history in Tribes, to the point where there's even a hotkey for it, because it's faster than walking back to base.  After all, there's no respawn delay.  Well, there is in this version...

So - as a Tribes game, I don't like it.  Mucks up too much of the Right Stuff from previous versions, and makes the game much less cerebral.  The problem, though, is that it does succeed in actually being kind of fun.  T1 and 2 were hard - it took me a couple of weeks before I got my first kill.  I've never capped a flag in either (though towards the end of my time in T2 I did get good enough to chaingun down cappers and get returns on a regular basis), and spent most of my time in T2 turret farming (building defenses) around our flags and letting my turrets do the shooting.  T:A is much easier (though this may be due in part to a much newer player base) - I mowed down countless (upwards of 15) flag carriers yesterday during my first day of play.  In medium armor, I was able to successfully chase cappers in light armor; this bespeaks either very easy skiing or very unskilled cappers.  I retook the generator room from heavy campers twice; that would never, ever have happened during someone's first day in T2.  Shield-offense would have stomped them and taken their repair kits repeatedly, probably healing more from the kits than taken in damage.  You only ever have two weapons to use, so choosing between them in any situation is much easier than choosing between 3+ in T1/2, and you have much, much more jetpack energy to play with - I played one round as a heavy and was dumbfounded by the amount of flying I could do.

So, it is kind of fun, in a simple-minded run around and shoot things successfully sort of way.  But it also lacks, I think, some of the depth of T1/2, where everyone had the same tools and it was all about figuring out the best ways to use them without any enforced roles.  Basically my conclusion is that they 4e'd it - made it pretty, easy to learn, and beginner-friendly at the expense of The Way Things Have Always Been, a lot of gameplay choices, and parity in equipment.  Roles are enforced, healing is easier, the system is designed to sell you shit, the maps are much simplified, the team resource allocation aspect looks pretty dead, and weird player skills like beacon-stopping are gone.  Just as with 4e, I think my tenure here will be brief.  After all, T2 is still around via TribesNext, and the folks over at the Team Warfare League are still holding tournaments...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mutants, Masterminds, and Minmaxers

Alex's M&M game launches Saturday.  Mutants and Masterminds, for those unfamiliar, is a combination of True20's 'feats and conditions' core and a point-buy system, where you construct characters by spending points (and get extra points to spend for flaws, like Disturbing, Blind, Mute, Kryptonium Vulnerability, and so forth).  It's well-known that point-buy systems lend themselves well to min-maxing, and MnM is definitely not an exception (and perhaps the strongest example I've met yet).  As a result, our crew of Dirty Optimizers has been hard at work for the last two weeks or so experimenting with "builds".  Sad to say, even I have fallen prey to the charms of this way of thinking (slipping back into my old ways, if you will), and have achieved theoretical optimums in damage defense (MnM's HP equivalent) and melee damage bonus...  at the cost of being blind and unable to retreat.  I look forward to having this PC die in a hilarious way (pitting the durability of the build against sheer flaw-enforced rashness in play), whereupon I will be able to return to preparing to run more ACKS during the semester.

And what an ACKSing it will be!  I've got a whole pile of potential players (Tim, Tom, Drew, Jared, Alex, other Alex, Joe, Andrew, maybe Robert?), and should be able to form a wonderful cloud rather than strict group.  On the prep agenda (in rough order of priority):
  • Lairs near Opportunity; these are pretty trivial and mostly done already, honestly.
  • Plots of enemy forces (why yes, players, you have made a few enemies...  some of whom I'm sure you've forgotten by now...)
  • The Zaharan Vaults of Xea-Gle, pointed to by a treasure map found in the Bleak Chapel
  • Another, unknown dungeon, pointed to by a map found in the Crocodile Temple.
  • The Lost Dwarven City of Cogoruhn (or "Cog" for short; I like to have codenames for dungeons).  This may end up being a megadungeon, and it might require the party to temporarily rebase for easy access...  or I could have a second party running in that region.  Lots of complications here.
  • The City of Freeport - I picked up Vornheim recently because it was on sale, and I could definitely see the PCs ending up in these parts in the nearish future.  Also looking forward to applying Vornheim's methods to Dardantus...  oh, and stealing the Fortune rules.  They're really pretty similar to a rule we had back when we ordered Chinese while gaming regarding 'burning fortunes', so I think they'll go over well (and will also be hilarious).
  • The towers of the fallen arcane cabal known as the Circle of Six.  Can never have too many dungeons lying in wait for hapless adventurers...
  • I should perhaps flesh out and finish the Monastery of Madness, but I don't really expect the PCs to return to there any time soon.
Oh, and homework.  But that goes without saying; mostly reading and a few papers this semester.

Finally, I'd like to make a plug for the Chronicles of the Grim Fist over on the Autarch forums.   Cam tells a pretty good story of a good game, and updates pretty regularly (unlike some of us...  sorry all).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

But Soft, What Yonder Blog Doth Update?

Certainly not this one.

Kind of back from vacation, doing the Long Drive back to school.  This one has been less inspiring than last iteration, since I've seen all of these place names before.  Vacation yielded some interesting thoughts, though:

  • Hiking up hills in hot weather is unpleasant.  I need to increase the probability of "heat wave" on my random encounters chart.
  • We spent a lot of time swimming in rivers, since it was too hot to hike.  Alpine rivers are cooold.  Random river width: 3d6*10 feet at any given point.  Smooth to taste.  Also, where it's narrower, there are likely rapids.  Finally, I'm kind of wondering if my region doesn't need many, many more minor rivers for increased realism...
  • We also spent a significant amount of time in a local used bookstore, which had both books and a very friendly resident cat.  I picked up a copy of A History of Warfare, and have gotten through the stone age.  Now I want to run a Polynesian / Aztec ACKS game :(  I also picked up another book there that might warrant its own post; I'll get there eventually.
  • I stocked the hexes around Opportunity using the new lairs / hex guidelines, and even more than before, the question of "How does anyone survive in ACKSland?" is being asked.  That merits its own post as well.
I've also been pondering Hulst and his quest.  More details forthcoming there, but I think the reason Hulst likes to chant "Hulst Hulst Hulst" during battle, and the reason he is nicknamed the Roaring Raider, is that under his belief system, it is critically important that the people you kill know the name of their slayer so they can tell your ancestors of your deeds in the afterlife.

Finally, Alex is ramping up a Mutants and Masterminds campaign.  Need to write a post on the inherent minmaxiness of point-buy systems...

So yeah, have posts to write, but no real fleshed-out bodies for them yet.  I'll get around to it once things settle down.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Of Vacation and Wilderness Lairs

Well, finished my summer job and now taking a week of vacation out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest before beginning the Long Drive back to school.  As a result, I expect that any posts this week will be wilderness-themed, since I'll be spending a bunch of time out in it.  If I find any grand vistas which inspire, I'll post pics.

On a more mechanical note, Alex of Autarch recently provided a beautiful answer to a question of immediate relevance to A Few GP More - just how many wilderness lairs are there per six-mile hex?  This came up while Carcophan was looking for a tribe of beastmen to bind to his service - I was pretty sure there was a village nearish to town, but was unsure of the lair density I should aim for.  Alas, it is a bit late now, but fortunately Alex has come to our aid.  Per his post:

Based on the average frequency of encounters, the average spotting distances of encounters, the average percentage chance of an encounter being in a lair, and the average distance traversed per encounter throw, I worked up the expected number of lairs per hex.
You can use the following table to determine how many lairs will appear in each hex:

TerrainLairs Per Hex
Clear, Grass, Scrub1d4
Each day of searching, allow one encounter throw to find a lair.

This is the kind of thing that really should have been in the rulebook, but I'm glad enough that ACKS has an active development team on the forums doing QA.  Plus, now there's a good mechanism for my players to go hunt down those gorram wyverns that keep threatening to kill everyone...  Interestingly enough, this also suggests that there's probably one lair somewhere in the Inhabited hex of Opportunity.  I'm thinking wererats, crypt-things, sewer monsters, and other fun may come of this.

Monday, August 6, 2012

For a Few GP More: Season 1 Finale

In which more plot threads were opened than closed.

We left off the penultimate session of this 'season' of ACKS with the company in the town of Opportunity, resting after removing the Curse of the Dancing Altar from their teammates and gear.  Drew's bard Garwyn had brought the Watch of Opportunity up to snuff, collected his first month of taxes, and had a castle under construction in order to secure the surrounding countryside.  While the castle was in the works, Garwyn held 'court' in his modest townhouse in the Guild District, receiving ambassadors from the Caravaneers Merchant Consortium out of Deal, who paid their respects, tributes, and permit fees.  Unfortunately, one of their caravan guards had been hired by Crowfeed, a former thieves' guild leader who Garwyn had unseated violently while bringing order to Opportunity, and struck him with a poisoned crossbow bolt before being cut in twain by Corinth.  Garwyn survived thanks to anti-venom, and the Caravaneers paid reparations and swore to aid the Company in bringing Crowfeed to justice for the damage done to their reputation.  Additionally, Garwyn dispatched a spy to Deal, from whence the caravan had come, to find Crowfeed and to report to the Judge of Deal the presence of this criminal in his jurisdiction.

Some days later, Corinth was contacted by a white-clad monk who claimed to be seeking to safeguard the knowledge of Skulltaker's location beneath Sandygates.  During the course of their conversation, the monk revealed that his Appian Order had Durgrim in their custody at their monastery north-east of Deal, where he was recovering from torture by Skulltaker's cultists, and Corinth revealed that Skulltaker had been sealed into Sandygates via wish.  The monk thanked her for this knowledge, and then attempted to poison her; upon being slain, he disintegrated into a cloud of angry bees.  It is believed that he and his order are servants of the Chittering One, but their aims remain unknown.

Sick of poisoning attempts, the Company decided to venture to the Temple of the Crocodile, 30 miles into the swamps southeast of Opportunity.  En route, they slew a giant tarantula and made peaceful contact with a band of elephant-man.  Upon their arrival, they found a tricky political situation, with two factions of crocodile-men in opposition.  One worshiped Bokrug, the Water Lizard, traditional deity of the crocodile-folk, while the other worshiped the Great Crocodile, a terrible winged crocodile which lived in the Temple (which the traditionalists claimed profaned it).  Corinth befriended the Bokrugites with an offer to slay the Great Crocodile, while Carcophan overcame the problem of boat acquisition to reach the Temple proper with arcane intimidation, extracting an oath of fealty from the chieftain in this manner (and so laying the foundation for a chaotic, beastman domain for himself).

So politically secured, the Company ventured into the temple to slay the Great Crocodile, which was in fact a juvenile crocodilian dragon with breath most foul, which killed outright the Albanian and Carcophan's newest henchwoman, Myu the Nightblade.  Carcophan himself was laid low by it, suffering permanent injuries to his lungs, while Fjalkov's henchman Okayu lit himself afire with military oil and broke his neck while spasming (he survived, but was paralyzed from the neck down).  Meanwhile, Garwyn attempted to use Carcophan's potion of dragon control, but to no avail.  Before dying, however, the Albanian had landed an excellent shot at the dragon's eye, and Corinth hit it with a desperate throw using the Bullseye Sword.  The dragon tore at Hulst, whose spear glanced off its hide, before Garwyn used his ring of spell storing to slay it with a lightning bolt.

In the hoard, they found many wonders, most fabulous of which were a bag which is bigger on the inside than the outside and a flawless emerald egg the size of a man's fist.  Carcophan secured his rule over the crocodile-men, and the Company returned to Opportunity, where they discovered that two things had gone amiss in their absence.  First, when Carcophan returned to his domicile, he found the lead-lined, sentient skull of Ancaglon the lich had disappeared, as had his tenant, the priest Xenogenes.  It was surmised that Ancaglon had possessed Xenogenes, or struck some deal with him, in order to further his own ends.  Further, when Carcophan took several arcane devices to Kroner to have them identified, the one-armed dwarf was nowhere to be found.  Garwyn's spies reported that he had been contacted by a fearsome witch, who had paid to have his arm healed, and that they had subsequently disappeared from town one moonless night.  She was speculated to be a servant of the Webspinner, or perhaps even Webspinner herself, and while it was cause for concern, the consensus was that there was little to be done about it.

And so the Company goes its separate ways.  Garwyn has set himself to improving the lot of the people of his domain, and to expanding his own power, with the aid of his many henchmen.  Carcophan has retired to the swamp, there to build a tower and rule over the crocodile-folk; his injuries leave him much less able to adventure effectively, and he is loath to subject himself to divine healing, as it might interact poorly with the side effects of his deal with Ancaglon.  The Albanian was mourned, briefly, before it was found that he had 13000 gold pieces in his saddlebags, whereupon there was much rejoicing.  Corinth has decided to continue adventuring; she does not wish to settle down, run a domain, and be bogged in administrivia, and so has decided on the path of knight errant, though she has invested her wealth in caravans.  With her go her henchmen, the barbarian Hulst who owes his ancestor-deity Urvin a quest for the Spear of Aldus, and the valkyrie Freija Windhelm.  Fjalkov the spellsword has also elected to continue adventuring in Corinth's company, and it seems likely that Jerol the Thothite Cleric may remain with her as Garwyn's representative.  While Okayu survived his injuries and was restored to life and limb by the Harmakhans in Opportunity, he is marked for death by supernatural forces, and is likely to be subject to attacks by things from beyond the veil; as a result, his life expectancy is limited.  However, he remains, albeit grudgingly, by Fjalkov's side; he has nowhere else to go.  Finally, it seems possible that, as Carcophan has no surviving apprentices, he may send a crocodile-man minion to serve with the Company in order to remain informed.  This may cause tensions, but is sure to be entertaining.

While the Company has carved out a safe haven for itself in Opportunity, there remain many challenges in stock for it.  These include:
  • Rescuing Durgrim from the Appian Order
  • Eliminating the continually-bothersome Crowfeed
  • Avoiding becoming entangled in the machinations of either Ancaglon or the Webspinner
  • Cleansing the Mad Monastery
  • Finding and raiding the towers of the Circle of Six
  • Pilfering the Zaharan Vaults of Xea-Gle
  • Deciphering the treasure map found in the Hoard of the Great Crocodile
  • Eliminating the remaining orcish warbands scattered when they broke the Siege of Opportunity, along with other forces of chaos in the region surrounding Opportunity
  • Killing those pesky wyverns that keep making trouble north and west of Opportunity
And probably quite a few more that I'm forgetting at the moment.

But for now, ACKS is on a hiatus while all of us move, I recharge a bit, and the characters spend the in-game-world winter drinking in the warmth of Garwyn's newly-finished mead hall (which, now that I think of it, really needs a name).  It's been a lot of fun, and I've finally found a system that I don't have an overwhelming desire to hack.  A+ would will run again.