A Gnome's Ponderings

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

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Yeah, I enjoyed fourth edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 14, 2017 6:04 pm
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Quality fidgeting with online games

Lowell Kempf
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Somewhat to my surprise, instead of playing just a couple games on boardgames-online.net and leaving the site, I have found myself having a few of the lighter games almost constantly going.

There's actually a very simple reason for this. Unlike Yucata, which is my go-to place to play board games online, it is really easy to use boardgames-online.net on my phone. Well, at least for the more casual games like Patrician and the members of the Coloretto family. Hansa might not be so easy.

Of course, if I am pausing and making a move in a game while I'm doIng something like standing in line or waiting for water to boil, I don't want a brain burning game. A casual game like Coloretto fits the bill perfectly.

Now that we live in a world where smart phones are pretty common, they offer no end of ways for us to distract ourselves. Too many ways, really. However, playing games against other folks is probably my favorite way to occupy myself on the internet so this works out well.

This also reminds me that good casual games, even if they are simpler in design, are not that simple to design. You see a lot of them but you don't see a lot of them with staying power. Off and on, I've been playing Coloretto since 2005, which isn't bad. Particularly when my first plays weren't that good

I know that boardgames-online is not going to become my primary game site. There will come a time when I will finish the current games and not start new ones. And letting me fidget isn't the biggest compliment I can give a site. But I am fidgeting with some good games.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 12, 2017 11:27 pm
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Why is 10 Days is important?

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I have never played Racko and, thanks to the 10 Days series, I probably never will. The 10 Days games takes the sorting mechanic of Racko and marries it to geography. This change makes a game that is more visually interesting, educational and engaging.

In every game in the series, you are trying to create a sequence of contiguous countries/states/provinces while different vehicles like planes or cars can help make connections. There have been seven games in the series, although some of them weren't in English. I think. And, actually, it doesn't matter since place names are the only words in the games

About twelve years ago, I wrote a review of 10 Days in Africa: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/89054/light-enjoyable-game-... Rereading it, I'll still stand by that review.

The 10 Days series is not Allan Moon's best game design. (Or Aaron Weisbaum's, for that matter) BUT I do think it's one of their more important designs.

Rule wise, the 10 Days series is very, very simple. They are games that you can teach to just about anyone, children and teens and adults. They are accessible enough that non-gamers can be competitive while tense enough that seasoned gamers can enjoy them.

If that's all the 10 Days series had to offer, that'd still be pretty good. However, in addition to teaching cognitive reasoning skills (which hopefully most games will teach), the 10 Days series also legitimately teaches geography. Pulling that off while being fun is a pretty impressive feat.

While Edutainment has come a long ways in the last few decades (What can I say? Bubble Guppies impressed me when our son went through a Bubble Guppies phase) but a game that really works as a game that is very educational is still no mean thing. The 10 Days series can work as a standby in most game libraries and classrooms.

At the moment, it looks like the US map is the only one available in the US. Which is a shame and I hope that changes. I am glad, though, the series is still out there.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jul 12, 2017 5:18 am
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An RPG filler?

Lowell Kempf
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The 18 Card RPG has underwhelmed me but I'm still seriously planning on making a copy of it.

I stumbled upon the game in boardgame geek's PnP files, which is where I find potential board games to make. RPGs, that's a bit more unusual.

The game consists of eight attribute cards, eight goal cards, one double-sided rules card and one double-sided scenario card. And that's it. No dice need apply.

You choose one of the two scenarios and then deal out two attribute cards and two goal cards to everyone. Each attribute card has two attributes and you choose one on each card. The goal cards also have two goals but one is white and the other is gray. The gray ones all deal with interacting with other players. Pick a white goal and a gray goal. All of your choices are public knowledge.

You take turns being the active player. On your turn, the other players use one of your goals and one of your attributes to frame a scene where that attribute gets you in trouble. You use the other attribute to try and solve the problem. The group decides if your solution works. If it does, you fulfill that goal.

Everyone gets four turns to fulfill their two goals. If you succeed, you win (and there can be more than one winner, of course) If you fail, you get to narrate your own death scene.

The 18 Card RPG is not the most minimal RPG I've ever seen. The original version of The Name of God is less than half its length and that is a surprisingly rich and engaging game. Although the fact that all you need are the cards, no dice or tokens or pencils or paper is nice, although, again, 18 Cards isn't unique in that.

And a major ding against it is the lack of any real theme. Mechanics can be interesting but a RPG lives and dies on the stories you tell with it. Theme and setting are what you fall in love with in an RPG.

The tone of the game is a bit off. The two scenarios, both of which are about being some kind of lab experiment are at odds with some of the light-heartedness of the attributes and goals.

However, what I do like about 18 Cards and what keeps me looking at it is the structure. The actual structure of the game, how each scene is framed and only going four times around the table, is very tight and strong. While there is a lot of freeform, how the group forms a scene around attributes and goals gives a lot of guidance. It reminds me a of Epidiah Ravachol's Astro Robbers from What Is A Roleplaying Game.

A few years ago, I played another RPG that was clearly designed to be pulled out and played, Tau. Come to think of it, I think the designers billed it as an RPG filler. But the game play was cluttered and unfocused. Compared to that, 18 Cards seems much simpler but also much cleaner and accessible.

The gray goals get a bonus mention because they force your character to interact with at least one other character, so the game isn't just completely separate narratives.

I can't help but wonder how much better 18 Cards would be with more focused theme. It could be focusing on a specific genre or even setting. (This is at least the third time I've seriously wondered if a game could be improved by turning it into a Star Wars game. Ironically, Doctor Who is my franchise of choice. I still haven't recovered from the Phantom Menace. To say nothing of the scars from finally seeing the holiday special)

The 18 Card RPG feels like it's 3/4 of the way to being a solid and fun game. Despite looking at so many one-shot RPG systems and micro RPGs, I've never really thought of the idea of an RPG filler. However, with some work, I can see 18 Cards being one.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 11, 2017 4:53 pm
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Making a list for non-gamers. Did I play it too safe?

Lowell Kempf
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I was recently asked to suggest a game as a gift for a family whose gaming experience was primarily Trivial Pursuit.

Here's a spoiler: there aren't going to be any surprises on the list I gave them.

I went with the idea of games that were accessible and fun and relatively easy to find. I also wanted to make it a fairly short list, to keep myself from getting out of hand.

Here's what I came up with:

Ticket to Ride
Dixit
Can't Stop
Take It Easy

Out of that lot, not knowing the folks involved, Take It Easy would be my top pick. I've had a lot of success with it with folks who have no interest in games to the point of getting repeat plays in the same sitting.

They went with Catan.

Which was my real introduction to designer games and I do think is a great game, as well as revolutionary one. However, I have also taught to non-gamers who found it too heavy. I love it but I have to wonder if it's too big a step from Trivial Pursuit.

If they had said Monopoly, though, my list would have started and ended with Catan

My takeaway from this is that I might be too conservative and too safe in my choices of games for non-gamers. After all, I know someone who used Puerto Rico as their game to break in new gamers. Although, they were dealing with folks asking for games. And I've seen folks who thought 7 Wonders would be the perfect introduction and that went up in flames.

I do sincerely think that people who play lots of games all the time often underestimate the complexity of games. (Teaching Race for the Galaxy with three expansions comes to mind. Seriously?)

At the same time, am I being too conservative? If folks have a regular game night with Trivial Pursuit, maybe they will want something longer and with more teeth. Maybe my bad luck with Catan just means I'm a bad teacher.

It is a good question. Yes, an overwhelming game can spoil someone from wanting to play another game but it isn't helpful if they aren't engaged or challenged.
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Sat Jul 8, 2017 12:50 am
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