Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons and Redesigns

Now dammit, Wizards of the Coast, make up your mind!

Yeah, this is about two weeks late for a reasonable complaint, but something has to be said!  By me!  Because my opinion is very highly regarded. Also by me!

Okay, I started playing DnD probably in 2006, right before the end of 3.5, so I want you to know where I'm coming from.  I know that every DnD player has their own system that they started with that they believe is the 'best.'  I am fully aware of that and, dammit, I am still going to complain!  I loved 3.5, it was complex without being (most of the time) overly complicated, it offered diverse options for players, a sorcerer could actually feel legitimately different than a wizard and a warlock was substantially separated from a battlemage.  Before anyone tells me this, I am well aware of how easily broken the system is, I mean Pun-Pun has worked his way down to level 1.  For those of you outside the far, far too geeky realm that is the optimization community, Pun-Pun is the ultimate concept, you exploit a series of loopholes to create a character of essentially limitless power.

Yes, it's broken, but you know what?  I really don't care!  Most of the time that I played it, I was with people who weren't optimizing, at least not too much.  We were playing to have fun and sometimes we were playing character concepts we wanted to explore.  There was fun enough for everyone and, to be fair, the most fun I had was at epic levels, beyond level 20, when you start being able to do stupidly powerful stuff.  But it was fun because the players were constantly trying to find ways to outdo one another.

For instance, in one encounter, a group of us were facing a series of conjured monsters and animated colossal columns.  We had my brother, a thiefly kind of guy, myself, a warlock, and two of our friends, one of who was playing a Red Wizard built for the boom boom and the other who was playing an epic vow-of-poverty druid, which is insane because it gave him levels of divinity and he had no need for items.  At all.

The druid turns into a big thing and starts tangling with the baddies, the wizard is trying to blow one of the columns apart, the thief is trying to get into position to end these poor, little things and it got to be my turn.  I cast an eighth level spell, maze, on a column.  Maze requires an intelligence check to escape or the target remains trapped in a parallel world until 1xcharacter level minutes pass.  There are six rounds in a minutes, I was level twenty-five.  Columns have no intelligence score, therefore cannot make that roll.  Ever.  So, the party won the encounter, but I won the style points.  Later on, the druid thwomped the tarrasque by turning into something bigger than it, he won that round.

In any event, that's the kind of thing I loved about 3.5, it was broken, but everyone, even people who filled the same kinds of roles, felt different.  4E never felt like that for me.  Fourth Edition simplified the game in order to try to appeal to new players and I can deal with that, it kind of turned the game into a WoW type MMO, only on a tabletop.  Each character class falls into a subheading, leader, striker, defender, there may be more but I forget them if there are.  They all fill the obvious roles as they are named, strikers deal the most damage, defenders take damage, and as I remember, they heal, leaders supply some kinds of boosts.  So, we have three kinds of classes (at least), and the classes themselves are supposed to fill in how they're different.  So, a warlock and a sorcerer are both strikers, but ideally fill the bill in different ways.

This is where my problems come in, they really aren't different.  I mean, flavor wise they seem to be, sure, but in effect, they both shoot at things from range with magic.  You could say the same thing about 3.5, sure, but in that edition the sorcerer had an expansive spell list and had to make choices about spell slots and what they were willing to use them on while the warlock had a small number of abilities but could use them all as much as they wanted.

They simplified the game to make it more accessible, but in the process I feel like they simplified the feel of the game right out of it.  Instead of having spells or a spell list, you have powers that essentially go on cooldown and you use certain abilities to as your basic attacks, for instance the warlock had an eldritch blast and an ability called eye-bite.  They were 'at-will', you could use them as much as you wanted, but they had other abilities that were encounter, you could use them once per fight, or daily abilities that you had to take an extended rest between them.  You don't get spells! A wizard doesn't have dozens of spells to use, they have maybe ten.  So I don't feel like I'm playing DnD, I feel like I'm playing WoW or DnD Online. 

That's my 4E rant, this is a new rant.  Wizards announced recently that they are building a new system, and that, in the process, they're crowd sourcing it.  They're asking potential players what they want out of it.  That's cool, but it's only been about four years since 4E was released.  I know that 3 and 3.5 were both over by 2008 and that 3E had started in 2000, but 3.5 started in 2003.  Again, only five years, but it wasn't a complete overhaul.

I'm kind of afraid of what this means the future of the game.  2nd edition, AD&D version one had eight years and second edition AD&D had eleven years.  They had small, I mean very small, books for most classes  to give more options and a high level of complexity.  I wish I knew how to play 2nd AD&D, I bet I'd like it pretty well.  But while I haven't cared a lot for 4th, they did some cool things with it and it feels like they're going to kill it well before its time has come.  I can only hope that the crowdsourcing makes it work better.

In the mean time, I wait for the price of Pathfinder to drop.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mumblings on anime

So far on this blog when I've spoken about something I've been giving some of the background of whatever it was I was ranting about.  I'm not going to insult anyone's intelligence by trying to tell you what anime is.  I'm just going to talk about my experience with it, some of the things that I have enjoyed and why I have more or less stopped watching anime.

If I think far enough back, I remember the first anime I ever saw, although at the time I didn't have any idea what it really was.  In fact, I'll go ahead and say, I didn't know what anime actually was until I was much older, easily sixth of seventh grade.  The anime I first saw was the original Dragonball, no Z or GT added ( GT still making no sense in my head since that acronym means Grand Tourer, as in Mustang or MGB GT.  Expect a car post at some point).  I was about seven years old and my brother and I had only recently been given a television by my grandfather for Christmas.  On Saturdays, still being young, I would wake up and eagerly watch Saturday morning Cartoons, usually on Fox.  (Insert nostalgia for the old days when Saturday and immediately after school were the only times to see decent cartoons here.)

So, when I say wake up, I mean early.  Earlier than I'd get up for nearly anything not actually important now, so, like 6:30-45.  Fox's good shows didn't really start until eight or nine, so no new Power Rangers or anything of the kind for a while and ABC didn't have anything on yet either.  But Dragonball started at seven and they played two episodes.  Being hungry for cartoons, I watched Dragonball, of course.  Now, I don't remember much about it, I know now that it was still the first half of the series, the first quest for the orange orbs.

Moving on, the first anime that I actively sought out was on the first airing of Toonami, Robotech.  This was a show that I adored, it was everything a ten year old wanted, giant robots that transformed into jet fighters fighting against giants in literal suits.  IN SPAAAAAAACE!  How could things get any better, right? 

Fast forward til I was about twelve and we move from Robotech to Gundam Wing and I become aware of anime.  A friend of mine and I both watched it and we started from the beginning and watched it all the way through and the film Endless Waltz.  Looking back on it now, it was terrible and only built on the cliches of anime, teenagers that save the world!  But, twelve year olds simply don't care, they find something they love and stick to it, and this was like Robotech, only one gundam had a scythe and that was rad!  Also, blood.

We move on again and we really hit the point when I was most into anime as a thing.  So we all know, I'm skipping Dragonball Z because there's nothing more to be said about my opinion either at the time (yay, martial arts fireballs!) or now (awful! hilariously so!).  Three series were airing on Cartoon Network about this point, I was in high school and, again, my friends and I were watching them.  Those three series were the Tenchi series (sue me, I was an adolescent boy), Outlaw Star (which I watched but never really enjoyed) and finally, the important bit, Cowboy Bebop.

Bebop represents an important development in science fiction in my opinion.  I loved it when I saw it, the series had a fairly adult plot and adult characters with awesome jobs (bounty hunters) and humorous characters (Ed).  The semi-post-apocalyptic world was expanding into space, but instead of having the utopia of Star Trek or the powerful central authority of Star Wars, we are left with a loose confederation of colonies and space stations.  These population centers had various levels of advancement and wealth and all of the characters were realistic, they had problems and could hardly make their ends meet financially.

If you ask me, Cowboy Bebop thematically represents a stepping stone and potential inspiration for one of my favorite series ever (to a point, I get tired of watching the same short series of episodes and movie over and over again), Firefly.  It's not wonderful, but it's not quite hell, the settings of each are realistic ones. 

Now, if you look at these excerpts that I actually remember from my short run of pursuing anime you will see a common theme.  SPAAAAAAAAACE!  Most of these are fantastic science fiction set in space with varying levels of adult themes.  But, also like I said, I'm not into anime anymore, outside of things like DBZ Abridged.  I had a long conversation with a friend who much more of a anime fan than I am.

The conversation led me to a kind of understanding of why I gave up on anime.  While talking about Bebop, I asked her, and eventually the question got around to a bigger fan, what is the spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop?  And I was told that there really hasn't been.  I'm expositing that this probably means that, while there may be similar series, there isn't a really good one.

I can't say what really happened there, but since then it seems like popular anime, at least state-side, has been aimed at much younger audiences, Naruto, One-Piece (which I understand has been horribly butchered), and the like.  Even the bits that are more adult have had a strong shift away from science fiction and much more toward fantasy, which ought to be right up my alley (and somehow isn't, also expect a rant on that).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't really understand why there can't be a good, new series of anime that is sci-fi and in space.  I mean, I know about the Eva remakes and several Gundam series ( like G Gundam, aka Pokemon Gundam), but these are not really the same thing.

Here's what we need, space anime... IN SPAAAAACE!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In which I take minutae to stupid extremes

In my last post I mentioned a game called League of Legends.  I talked about its exchange system, both in real money and in-game currency.  You can unlock champions permanently with either in-game influence points or hard cash Riot points, the only things you can't buy with IP are character skins, which most of the time isn't too much of a concern.

What I didn't talk about was the game itself.  Now, when I say this I'm not talking about the mechanics, although I'm sure I'll get there eventually.  No, what I really mean is the narrative of the game, at least what there is of the story.  Since the game is entirely about competitive play between teams, its kind of like expecting to get a great storyline out of online Starcraft games.

The story that is present in the game you have to get from the character bios and the lore section of the League of Legends website.  It's all pretty simple, you have a world, a MYSTICAL world populated by fantastic beings (and also people and critters).  This land has been the site of a long series of huge wars utilizing a kind of magic referred to as 'runes,' and while I am fully aware of what a rune is in most games and real world runes as records in Germanic languages.  The Rune Wars apparently was leading to the end of the world as they knew it, and no one seemed to be fine.  So, in order to come up with a system of settling conflict without destroying the world a new governing body was formed, the Institute of War that governs the League of Legends.  The League is controlled by the summoners of each end of a conflict.  The summoners, appropriately, summon champions that make up the combatants of the League.  The two opposing sides then lead armies of lesser soldiers against one another until the opposing sides Nexus is destroyed. 

I'm perfectly fine with all of this, the champions are people and things that have agreed to take part in the conflict for whatever reason, personal gain, a challenge, and in a few cases it seems against their will, like Cho'Gath and Kog'Maw, two beings from the Void, or if you're a Discworld reader we might as well go ahead and call it the Dungeon Dimensions. 

Where my problems really kind of start is with the armies your characters lead.  This is one of those things that if you don't read the website you won't know it, the individual soldiers are controlled by their own summoners.  In fact, the lore seems to imply that this is how beginning summoners are trained and I suppose that makes sense.

So, this is where I land on it, how hard must it suck to be these guys and how hard do they suck at their jobs that they are literally cannon fodder with no strategy or skill.  All they do is wander down their lanes and attack the first thing they come into contact with, but they seem to prefer their opposite numbers.  Sure, if they find an enemy champion by him or herself they'll attack them, but once an enemy soldier attacks them, the aggro switches over to that attacker.  Pressing this even further, we land on the idea that there are four kinds of soldiers, sword and board soldiers, ranged attackers with magic staves, a guy with a cannon and a relatively large load of hit points, and the super minions, the standard guys in, I kid you not, fantasy style mecha.

So, we have these guys who are controlling all of these things, maybe three or four full waves worth of summoners.  On top of that, the cannon guys only spawn every other wave and the super minions only spawn after you destroy your opponents' inhibitor.  There's summoners for all of these guys, a load of them, I'm sure. If we assume that more powerful soldiers are controlled by better summoners, then we end up with the idea that what these guys end up with is working their asses off, sucking at their jobs, and being rewarded with the ability to control a stronger unit.  It's the most experienced guys that haven't quite gotten to the point where they get to control one of their team's five champions.  They have no guarantee that they will ever get to play, they won't spawn unless you destroy the enemy inhibitor.

So, like I said, how hard must it really suck to be one of these summoners?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thoughts on free online games

Anyone who reads this can probably guess where this is going.  When I say 'free online games,' what comes to mind?  For most people of my generation, up until last year it meant that you were hopping online to find a nice flash version of Tetris, or to set up a bookmark for your mother to play Bejeweled.  There was a bit of innovation when I was in high school, the free browser based MMO, Kings of Chaos, Astro Empires, that kind of thing.  These things weren't so much games as they were an opportunity for someone who actually spent money on it to trounce those who didn't.

No, what I really mean as far as free online games are games that, five years ago, we would have paid $15 a month to play them and been happy to do it.  We all know this model, it's WoW, it's Age of Conan, it is whatever MMO came out at all for the last 15 years.  All games of the type have followed the strategy, but lately, it seems like something new has been born.  I am far too late to be ground breaking on this subject, but it's phenomenal to see this in action.  These game that we used to pay a subscription for are now entirely free, at least to a point.

Many of you know what I'm talking about, up to level 25, you can play WoW for free (with limitations)!  You can play a truncated version of D&D Online for free (with limited class and race selections!)!  These are models that represent what is really the first wave of mostly free to play games, you can get most of the game experience, but you can't really get the whole thing without putting some cash down.

Which leads me to my point, in past six months or a year, there have been some games that have totally flipped this.  So many of the Cryptic Studios titles have taken the new route of being entirely free, you get the whole experience!  No caveat, no asterisk, the games are free!  Of course there are some limitations, but they don't bog you down.

In the past two days, I've been playing a game that I played for a while when it came out, Star Trek Online.  I really had fun with it when it was released, but I was in school, didn't have a lot of time to dedicate and so on.  I had fun but could not justify the cost.  About 6 months later, I bought another month of it and took part in exactly one microtransaction.

For those of you unfamiliar with that term, let me break it down for you.  In the old days, you would buy a game, you would play that game and think to yourself how much fun it would be to have something in the game that wasn't.  Your only hope was that there was  a mod or a patch that would give it to you, in Doom 3 it was the flashlight duct-taped to the gun mod, in Fallout New Vegas, it's the new Sawyer mod that makes everything way more difficult.  These days, the developers are making these kinds of additions, some of the stuff you were able to get by without, but really wished you had.  These additions are made available at a fraction of the cost of the actual game, but can add some serious content.

In my case, I was a sucker for the Star Trek movies and bought the Excelsior class vessel, which I still love and still have access to even though I no longer have to pay for the game.  The new age of the MMO has made some interesting developments, but let me get to my point.

As I have surveyed so many different ways to utilize this new method of play, free with microtransactions, I believe I've seen the group and the game that has struck the best balance.  Riot Games and League of Legends.  Let me explain, LoL was born from a custom map from Warcraft 3, not really important.  Quickly put, it's an RTS in which you really only control one character and maybe his or her pets.  The game has a rotation of 'champions' that you can play for free each week.  As you play, you accrue the in-game currency, influence points (IP), which can be used for a myriad of purposes, but I think the best uses are to permanently unlock any champion in the game for play at any time.  Alternatively, you can purchase Riot Points (RP) with real world currency and use it toward the same end and more.  You can do some things with RP you can't with IP, you can buy new skins for your unlocked champions, for instance.

The thing that I admire most about it, though, is that you can play this game and actually be competitive without ever dropping a cent on it!  It may be quicker to drop 20 bucks on an RP card, but you don't HAVE to if you don't want to.  That champions you unlock are just as effective if you buy them with one than the other.

I suppose, getting to the end of this, there isn't really a point to the whole diatribe, but you know what?  I like the trend, I don't have to spend money to play it and it isn't piracy, it's just fun at a low-to-reasonable price.  What could be better?  If anyone has any thoughts, please feel free to share them.