Monday, December 11, 2017

Call of Cthulhu - The "Weird Oregon" Campaign

For the first time in over two decades I've run a Call of Cthulhu campaign that has now lasted more than twelve consecutive game sessions. Most CoC games I've run usually make it as far as 6-7 session before an accumulation of events finally hit that climatic endgame and the surviving investigators abruptly retire and retreat to the areas of the world they mistakenly think are safe. Last year my campaign ended after about eight sessions with an abrupt and highly revelatory conclusion that also left roughly 60% of the party dead, including at least one second new character introduced after the first expired messily. Eight sessions felt like a lot. I've run CoC games in ages past that made it to at least 12-15 sessions, but those haven't been since the nineties. I've played in only one CoC game that survived 12 sessions, but in fair disclosure those were sessions back in the late nineties/early 2000's that ran the entire day, so the had the quality of a younger man's marathon run.

Needless to say, for a long time now CoC has been my go-to game for very specific short campaigns with definite conclusions, usually lasting from 1-6 sessions. I have never been the sort of CoC GM to really grokk how to run (and sustain) megacampaigns like the Antarktos Cycle or Orient Express.

The new campaign I'm hip deep in was built around some interesting premises, and was inspired heavily by David Lynch's conceptual basis for Twin Peaks: The Return. I still plan to write more on that show soon, but suffice to say that it is the only creatively interesting film or TV I've seen in many years, and I'm on my third viewing now that the Blu Ray edition has been released. It was so interesting, in fact, that the initial game I ran was originally intended to be a 1-2 session CoC campaign with a zombie apocalypse inspired by Herbert West's Reanimator tales, but I almost immediately cancelled that and turned it around in to an ongoing story arc that simply began what looked like a narrowly averted zombie apocalypse.

The idea for the revamped CoC campaign was a sort of "Oregon sure is weird, and a lot of stuff happens here," kind of approach. I took the actual town of Coos Bay, as well as other locales such as North Bend, Astoria, even the Ape Cave region in Washington, on down to Mt. Shasta just on the California side and worked out what effectively amounts to about a dozen Call of Cthulhu scenarios' worth of modern day adventuring, all starting just a month or so before the eclipse earlier this year. Each scenario was tied to one or more of the others by virtue of specific characters, or plots, or artifacts, or the schemes of certain factions of mythos monsters that have a presence in the region. All of it ties in to a couple "super plots" which provide much of the driving background impetus.

The game is still going strong so I can't provide details, unfortunately....wouldn't want spoilers for the players!...but I plan to eventually try to outline the whole thing in a coherent format. One of my players actually built an amazing spreadsheet to try and track all of the goings' on and figure out the relationships of the various associated parties, events, people and places they had's almost a work of art in its own right.

The Twin Peaks influence comes in like this, using these steps:

#1. Have lots of separate stories, all possibly related somehow, going on at the same time.
#2. Give each PC a connection and motivation to resolve one or more of those stories, with a few showing evident overlap.
#3. Keep recurring villains going for as long as feasible, but let them go out in style when the opportunity presents.
#4. Don't be afraid of longer or more quiet moments. These are great for setting mood or resolving obscure plot bits....or creating new ones.
#5. Have some basic underlying ties to everything that are, from an endgame perspective, fairly simple. The idea is to "make it look convoluted and maddeningly complicated at the start, but in the end make it look simple and resolvable toward the end," but then, in true Lynchian fashion pull the rug out from under them just when it looks like closure and simplicity is in reach.
#6. Death as an end goal...even not a primary means of player death though such possibilities lurk. The group so far has only had one actual player death and one retirement/replacement. But all of them are ready with backup characters because the risk of actual death has been insanely high.
#7. Play out weird and unpleasant relationships with the mythos wherever possible. Also, not all mythos encounters are necessarily bad....some might oppose the actions of others and may be indirect allies! This isn't giving much away....but the Esoteric Order of Dagon in fictional Coos Bay is, in fact, the closest thing to an ally the players have right now. Chiefly because things going on in the region do not benefit the order in any way, but hey.....beggars can't be choosers.....

Anyway, those are some of the driving components of this ongoing campaign. If I have my way, and it looks like everyone is sufficiently invested that this will come to pass, but maybe this will be a campaign setting that runs for another 12-15 sessions, making it the longest CoC story arc I've ever run. Factor in that one of the PCs in this game survived last year's 8 session campaign and that means at least one of these characters has already hit an impressive 20 session survival rate, with more to come!

Anyway.....back to working out details on next week's session!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Better Late than Never Review: Watch Dogs 2

Continuing a series on games over the last year for people who have busy lives and can't keep up:

Watch Dogs 2 (PS4 version)

I just keep playing and playing this game. I finished Watch Dogs (at last) before I dived in to Watch Dogs 2, and while you certainly don't need to have played the first to enjoy (or understand) the second, it is helpful to really shine a light on why the original Watch Dogs was lacking in many ways that Watch Dogs 2 not only fixes, but excels at in every way.

Visiting virtual San Francisco and the bay area with the DedSec gang is a blast, no matter how you choose to approach it. The game has a robust storyline that I am still not finished with (according to an FAQ I looked at I am about 60% of the way through the storyline) but when I do take a moment to run story missions I am always rewarded with a thoughtful, entertaining push forward in the tale of hackers, corporate sleazeballs, well intended anarchists and all of the gun toting maniacs in between.

The lead character is hacker Marcus Holloway, a well-intended hacktivist that serves as the glue that binds DedSec. Unlike the prior game's vigilante Aiden Pearce, Marcus is not a madman with an arsenal seeking revenge at any cost, but instead an idealist who wants to make right in the world by humbling the Blume Corporation and others behind the utter annihilation of privacy and decency driven by big data out of control. Sure, you can play Marcus like a gun toting madman if you want, but the game does not require this. As a result, as the storyline progresses I've had far fewer "hmmm, that ain't right" moments  than I did in the first game. Moments such as Aiden pondereing the evil of the guy who he seeks to kill for the murder of his niece, even though he just mowed down a thousand other guys who all had nieces and kids too, you know? Just to get to the one crime lord of Chicago.

Nope, Marcus is represented throughout the game as a guy who prefers to taze an enemy, even if that enemy is shooting at him with lethal force. In fact in my play through the game, with the co-op and multiplayer missions being the only exception, I continue to play Marcus as a nice softy who only uses stunning weapons to get through missions. It's really quite cool.....I'm almost always able to solve most events in the game through non-violence, or worst case the liberal application of electricity.

Anyway, the reason I've played this game so long (I play it at least once a week on average for a couple hours when I have time) is because it's so full of stuff to do. So many distractions. From racing games to the impressive multiplayer, to the enormous number of side missions, photo bombs, stunts, just finding name it, this game is packed with stuff to do. It is very easy to play for hours, feel good about it, and have gotten exactly nowhere on the main storyline.

The multiplayer is also shockingly good. You have players drop in and out of your own phantoms in the night, a player will suddenly be in your area and a chance to either team up or take him down presents itself. The hacker missions are the most fun, where you must spot him, tag him, then steal his data while he tries to find you are some of the best. One of my most successful hacks was one I'll remember as a "Kodak moment" forever, when I crawled in the back of the pickup truck the guy jumped in to try and get out of the area or look for me....I am not sure what he was going for....and he drove all over the place without realizing I was in the back of his truck. My assumption is he was playing in FPS perspective....foolish! Hack from the back of the truck successful.

I once teamed up with a kid who was eager to show me that he had unlocked literally everything in the game. Hours of mayhem ensued, as a showcase of destruction engulfed San Francisco in a manner simply impossible in the more rigorous, set-piece controlled multiplayer of other games. The freedom to cause mayhem in Watch Dogs 2's multiplayer goes way beyond any equivalent experience in other FPS MP or even most MMOs. It's almost intoxicating, although you can sometimes get paired with a jerk, or a guy who has no clue what's going on and proceeds to drive off a cliff or something. But those WTF moments were outshined by the "holy crap this is amazing" moments of the multiplayer experience. The only other game of this scope and design I know of is GTAV....and honestly, Watch Dogs 2 is just a nicer, cleaner experience (even with in-game strip bars).

Verdict: this game is the ultimate sandbox, it gets multiplayer right in a way I didn't realize could be done, and it provides spontaneous gameplay experiences that are unique and exciting. The fact that I can choose to play through most of it as a peacenick pacifist who won't even harm the well-armed gun toting biker gangs is just icing on the cake. A+++

Long after I've deleted Gears of War 4, Halo 5, Titanfall 2, and many others....I suspect I'll still be playing Watch Dogs 2.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Planescape is...Juvenile? (Not Bad Necessarily, just.....Juvenile?)

I've been using some Planescape content in my D&D game recently, a 5E campaign set in my own world (Lingusia, Age of Strife) but with some planar crossovers going on.

As I was running a mixup of the ongoing plot with some Planescape material related to Avernus, the first layer of hell, and the sundry beings you can encounter on said well as certain travellers at a known gate town, I had this weird realization that Planescape is essentially a Juvenile fantasy tressed up in just enough rough clothes to feel "edgy" from a juvenile fiction point of view. It takes concepts such as the layers of Hell and the Abyss and makes them just clean enough to be serviceable....just friendly enough for low level berks to survive even if it's a helluva ride on the way through....and it ascribes a lot of intensely ordinary, human emotions to everything in the planes, even if it does so with a sort of satirical panache.

I've run plenty of Planescape in the past am definitely surprised that I really "felt" this tonal shift in terms of how I interpret it now than I used to. It's not that it wasn't there....nope, it totally's that I, as a gamer in 2017 with decades under my belt, am no longer quite as excited at that tonal feel, that essential "simplification" of the underlying lore, than I once was.

I suspect a lot of this had to do with how TSR handled D&D in the nineties, as a product aimed at kid (and mom) friendly, with as much excision of risky elements as possible. It was a kinder, genlter and more naive era. Today.....not so much. I like a bit more Dante Alligheri in my Hell, maybe (bad analogy; I ran a D&D game in the mid nineties using Role Aid's actual adaptation of Dante's Hell). Maybe what I mean is....I like more depth. More complexity. And a Lot More Horror.

Or put another tastes on how to interpret the planes appear to be leaning darker and more gruesome.

Anyway, game tonight! Will see how that affects the group's foray into the Nine Hells....

POST SCRIPT: So after some thought I decided it was ironic and amusing to suggest Planescape was juvenile when, in many respects, the totality of D&D can be regarded as such. The question is not "is this juvenile?" but rather "What are you going to do with it?"

Tonight's game was a lot of fun, not juvenile, and still rooted in Planescape. Maybe juvenile isn't the right word.....maybe Planescape's default presentation is just more whimsical and light hearted than may be typical of the represenation of such in a modern gaming era where Shadows of the Demon Lord is a Thing, you know?

Either way tonight went exactly as I wanted.

Better Late than Never Review: Titanfall 2

Titanfall 2

Disclaimer: I have barely played any of the Titanfall 2 multiplayer, so my main takeaway from this game has been the single player campaign (played on PC).

So in short: this was the best of the FPS campaigns released last year. Titanfall 2 was good enough that I played through twice, once on PC and again on PS4. The campaign adds a story, a sense of coherence, and a point of existence to the Titanfall franchise that was lacking in the first multiplayer-only game.

The Titanfall 2 game casts you as a soldier aspiring to be a pilot. The pilots are the jockeys who pair up with their sentient robot buddies and kick ass. Presented as technologically savvy and well-equipped super soldiers (sort of) the pilots are a bit like the Spartans of Halo, but not in an augmented way.....they are just very, very good at what they do and use their suit, helm and robot to kick serious ass. Inevitably your soldier is thrust into a scenario forcing him to take on the mantle of pilot, and you get your first robot, BT. BT quickly steals the show as the best robot sidekick, ever.

The storyline involves a world in dispute, a range of suitable badguys for you to take down, and far and away some of the best run and gun gameplay mixed with giant robots that you can get. In fact, this entire package is's heads and shoulders above what Call of Duty coughed up in Infinite Warfare, and honestly the next Halo game needs to pay attention to what Titanfall 2 did because it's doing the SF FPS genre better than everyone else.

Sadly I simply felt little to no motivation to get involved in the online multiplayer experience this time around. The single player campaign was so good I played through it twice, but every time I jumped in to the online component I'd play a few rounds and just feel, "m'eh." Maybe I'm getting too old to care or something.

Verdict: Solid A+ for the single player alone. I won't bother to review multiplayer other than to say that it "looked and felt competent, but lacked whatever it is I need to feel motivated to keep playing." Though that said, with my current annoyance at CoD WWII and Star Wars Battlefron II, I might reload Titanfall 2 and give the MP another go. Hmmmm.

Like most games from last year you ought to be able to find this one for $20 or less and at that price it's a steal. I wouldn't bother with the deluxe edition unless you plan on going full multiplayer and like lots of cosmetics and new mechs, though.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Better Late than Never Review: Gears of War 4

Time for some late final reviews! For old guys and dads everywhere who can no longer keep up with the shiniest, latest, greatest:

Gears of War 4

I finished Gears of War 4's single player campaign a couple months ago, after a long period of procrastination. At some point I settled down for a solid weekend with a determination to play through it. The overall campaign experience was....decent. But it was a smaller story of a new generation of future gears (sort of), with a passing of the torch (sort of) from the old guard. In the end, it was a fun ride but left me with an odd feeling that Gears of War is maybe....a bit overplayed? Formulaic and tired? It was a more coherent tale, and the new developers in charge of the game really wanted to tell a thoughtful, more consistent story than prior GoW games have, but it was also less dramatic. This is the first tale in the Gears universe where the existential threat is there, but it doesn't feel all that threatening, for some reason. At the end of the day, the villains are back to where future installments need them to be, the obligatory "shocking loss" moment is played through with far less drama than prior series went for, and not much happened beyond that. was a good game, it just lacked that little bit of incoherent crazy that marks your prior entries into the franchise as being so distinct. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know it was overall a less engaging experience for me than Gears 1-3 were as a result.

The multiplayer component of GoW 4 remains the bread and butter of the title, but I also found this to be less than stellar, with little motive to keep with it. At least it has split-screen and offline modes, which means my son and I can play. But you know what? Even then he's not asking to play this at all, vs. his constant love of CoD and Star Wars Battlefront titles. Hmmm.

So overall I feel like the game deserves a B+ for attempting to make a more thoughtful storyline, even as it failed to make that storyline engaging; and a B for more of the same old multiplayer gameplay, but hey, I'll say an A for continuing to support splitscreen and offline gameplay, even if  it, too, felt very "m'eh." So overall rating a B.

On the plus side you should be able to find this for $20 or less now, and at that price the campaign is well worth a play through. Here's hoping that this prologue of future games to come gets more exciting with the next installment.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Major Gamer Family Milestone!

Last night my son actually sat at the table (for the most part) and participated in a Savage Worlds SF Game I ran (more on that later). This turned out to work out quite. Well. I mean...he's 6....but he listened to GM dad, and responded with coherent choices that showed he was trying hard to understand where he was at. There was only one moment where he got derailed from "what is going on" vs. "what he thought was going on," and the group got him on track. Also, thanks to my regulars for putting up with this experiment =)

So the fun narrative of Ensign "Tattletail" (gotta work with him on names)! A Intersec Colonial Security driver who got to pilot the APC the group took to a remote colony under alien attack! Ensign Tattletail got to, among other things, run over some aliens, get the group into the colony biome and to the security building, backed out of the security building parking garage when it was revealed to be full of aliens, escaped a trap where the aliens dug a hole under the road so the vehicle would be disabled, and then tried targeting the satellite dish where the mad scientist was using the broadcaster to try and summon the evil alien god. Then he helped escort the colonists they saved in their convoy.

Anyway, for those who are also gamer dads contemplating this experience, some advice....

Savage Worlds is a really good system to introduce kids to, as long as you supervise them. The dice mechanic was easy for him to pick up, and I conveniently made him a character that all the key skills were "D8+wild die" which meant he could roll the same dice consistently.

In considering this, I think White Box for Swords & Wizardry is also a good system to introduce a new player. That son's spark of interest started with Starfinder, which is a needlessly complex system for adults let alone kids, but Starfinder is slavishly illustrated with amazing art, which immediately piqued my son's interest. Savage Worlds luckily also fits that bill, but I used Starfinder to help illustrate characters for my son while using the SW rules for actual play.

I've actually tried Basic D&D (classic 1981 edition) with my son earlier this year. It was interesting because he was still a bit disconnected from the rules vs. what the play approach was, but he conceptually was there from the imagination angle. Six months later, after last night's session, I think it's time to revisit the D&D experience, using either Basic D&D or White Box, because he was totally on target last night.

That said: we gave him permission to hang out with his tablet or friends (other kids who come to the game store) while other player events unfolded, because a normal adult group of six players = a lot of content the kid is not interested in. I realized that a smaller group of maybe 2-4 would work really well to help foster focus and cooperation, but it needs the right kinds of players (I am thinking 2-3 friends of my son, and my wife as the co-wrangler). A game designed for a kid's attention span, understanding and pacing would be an interesting experience, and fun to pull off, so I am eager to try this out soon.

Friday, December 1, 2017

D&D 5E - World of Sarvaelen - The Emoniae, Ancient Descendants of Elemental Sorcerers

Continuing the Sarvaelen "Watchers of the Sullen Vigil" adaptation to D&D 5E:

The People of Emon

Also known as the Emoniae, the people of this distant land exist far in the west, beyond the ruined expanse of the wastelands of Camrinal. Emon was the greatest independent threat to Camrinal in its era of rule, and the Emoniae were a culture of sorcerers much like the Empire. When the Final War erupted, their lands were devastated, and the Empire sought to exterminate their greatest rivals as quickly as possible. When the conflict ended with the destruction of Camrinal, most of Emon’s warriors were caught in the destruction, and destroyed. Still, there were plenty of survivors back home, now mostly dwelling in ancient, deep enclaves within the vast Adasatrak Mountains where they stood guard against the outside world.

Today the Emoniae are still driven by magic as a way of life and such arts find a greater acceptance within their mountain fortresses than anywhere else. The Emoniae remain isolated and tend to mistrust the young eastern kingdoms that have arisen from the ashes of the Final War. It is also the only land where the study and worship of the Old Gods is still permitted.

The Emoniae (singular Emon) as Characters
Many emoniae have a talent for magic, and are most commonly mages by class. Emoniae are, like pureblooded of Camrinal, prone to attracting the attention and interest of demons, spirits, elementals, old gods and other beings from the Elemental Realms. Elves have an abnormal fascination for them, and as a result it is more common to run into half-elves of mixed elvish and emon blood than any other combination. Emoniae are a special type of human, with the following racial traits:

·         Emoniae gain +1 in intelligence or +1 in Dexterity or Strength

·         Emoniae start with the Magic Initiate feat.

·         Emoniae start with proficiency in either Arcana or Insight.

·         Emoniae learn the common (Aeronostic) tongue as well as Emonish, their cultural language.

·         Elemental Affinity: Emoniae revere the elemental old gods, and still worship them. There is a chance on a DC 20 Wisdom check that an emon has some elemental heritage in her or her bloodline. The immediate effect is an innate basic understanding of the elemental language and an affinity for that element, which means that they tend to be regarded favorably by elementals of like type that they meet (+2 reaction modifier on Charisma checks).

·         Elemental Taint: Emoniae may gain the elemental taint feat at 4th level (GMs may require this automatically). It is advised that each time an emon reached a feat/attribute gain by level, a save against the spellcaster’s primary stat vs. DC 8+total character level must be made. Failure requires the emon to take this feat!

Racial Feat: Emoniae Elemental Taint
Prerequisite: Emon heritage, spell-caster level 4 or higher
When a magic-using emon with elemental taint reaches 4th level in any spell casting class (wizard, sorcerer, paladin, ranger, warlock, cleric or druid) he or she begins to manifest a sign of elemental corruption, usually in the form of a glow or emission from the skin, and a slow but certain "change" on the skin that seems to be a manifestation of that emon's elemental taint (stone-like skin, persistent water running from pores, smoke, or a misty fog following the emon). This first manifestation is cosmetic and can be suppressed with concentration taking one full round.

An emon with this feat must choose one elemental type to exhibit going forward: fire, cold, air, earth, necrotic, radiant. This becomes the primary elemental affinity, which is dominant. If the emon has elemental affinity, this first elemental type must match the one chosen for affinity. An emon who did not have elemental affinity before (see racial traits) gains it with this feat.

Emoniae may have more than one connection to the elements, but each subsequent elemental type exhibits as secondary to the primary elemental affinity. For example, an emon with cold as primary may appear to have icy skin. If he later adds elemental earth affinity, he may display gravel or rocks floating in the ice of his skin. If he later adds fire, his eyes may blaze with hot light as water runs down his flesh.

This feat may be taken multiple times. Each time the feat is taken, a new elemental trait is manifested, rolled for on the table below.

Subsequent taints are harder to suppress, requiring a saving throw (same as above) to quell the effect for one day. When the emon sleeps or is unconscious it reappears. Roll each time the feat is taken to see what manifests:

D12 – Elemental Change
1-4 - a new cosmetic trait related to the source of elemental taint manifests (fire hair, frozen skin, stone skin, levitates slightly off ground). This effect grants resistance to the elemental type. If you roll this again, gain a new trait and a new resistance.

 5-6 – Choose one elemental type (fire, cold, air, water, earth, radiant, necrotic); you may add this elemental type to the damage or effect of a spell you cast as a bonus action.

7-8 – Gain the ability to Conjure Elemental as the spell once per day as if you used a level 6 spell slot. The second time you roll this you treat it as if the spell slot were level 7, and so forth up to level 9. Alternatively, on subsequent rolls you may increase use to twice per day.

9-10 – You gain resistance to one elemental type (as in 1-4 above), unless you already have resistance, in which case you gain immunity to that elemental damage type.

11-12 - gain permanent emission of elemental type: stone skin (gain natural AC 15), fire erupts from flesh (immune to damage from fire but deals 1D6 fire damage to all on touch), air (gains levitate at will), or water (emits water permanently at the rate of 1 liter/hour, gains water breathing). These traits are very difficult to disguise and require a save against the caster attribute at DC 8+level of caster with disadvantage to suppress the trait for 1 hour.

The second time on this chart you roll a 12 your character gains the elemental type (extraplanar) for purposes of classification. He or she is now considered an elemental. The form changes noticeably to be "more" of the elemental type and the emon's humanity becomes suppressed. Breathing is no longer necessary.

The third time you roll a 12 the Emon gains the ability to plane shift to his elemental plane of appropriate type once per day.

The fourth time the emon rolls 12 on this chart he becomes a true elemental and departs the material plane, becoming an NPC at the GM's discretion.

Five Facts About the Emoniae:

1.       The Emon city-states in the Adasatrak Mountains are each said to have been built over an elemental portal which leads to each of the elemental realms. Interestingly there is the seventh portal beneath the city Kalimdar, which is said to open into the Twisting Nether.

2.       Some emoniae claim that a spy and patriot named Eredatha, who was a consort to the old Emperor of Camrinal, was responsible for sabotaging the plans of the mad Emperor, leading to the destruction of the kingdom. This is officially decried as apocryphal, but a secret order of spies and assassins called the Dedicates of Eredatha believe it to be true.

3.       In an emon house finding a member who manifests true elemental affinity is considered a house blessing and automatically elevates the house to the affinity caste, giving them special social privileges. Someone of low caste who develops affinity is usually adopted by a willing house, given title and land privileges.

4.       Emon is not very welcome to outsiders, but the gateway cities of Kerenesk and Rathor serve as the safe harbors for outsider merchants and traders. From these two cities the goods of the outside world are imported to the city-states of the inner kingdoms which otherwise allow no outsiders of non-emoniae blood in their walls.

5.       Most emoniae are of sallow, almost albino complexion, but the emoniae of the coast are dark of skin and prone to elemental earth and fire affinity. The coastal emoniae call themselves the Eredenei, and claim to have migrated from across the ocean long ago, coming from a sunken continent called Dakarast.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Starfinder - the New Working Campaign Premise: Stranded 500,000,000 LY from Home - the Mayall's Galaxies Campaign

So after the last blog here's the late evening inspiration I got up to:

1. I'd let everyone start at level 3. Use the default point buy method in the book (no rolling!)
2. Start with 6,000 credits instead of the measly 1,000 cr. -- this is a bit higher than the book advises
3. Core classes and races only. Ignore chapters "Setting" and "Pathfinder Legacy." They don't exist. If any do, I'll mention it. Some suitable exotic racial options from the Starfarers Companion  might be suitable. All the core races (page 40) are fine. Most of the racial options in Alien Archive may be fine UNLESS they are obviously a fantasy race. Nuar are an uplifted species in this universe, genetically modified animals which were bred on Fringe Worlds in human space as cheap labor to bypass slavery laws. 
4. Equipment is whatever you can afford. I'll think about level limits for purposes of the game, but for buying equipment, assume if you can afford it you can get it.

Setting: (Note, edited a couple times because I seem to have copied a draft and not a final....gah)

Setting starts with the near future. Earth is a distant memory, lost to time...but it wasn't only about a century and a half earlier. The region of space everyone functions in today is known as Mayall's Galaxies, a special galactic location of two galaxies in collision. 

In 2095 Earth discovered a warpgate located in the solar system's Kuiper Belt, and another one at Alpha Centauri by 2250. The solar warpgate was the first they learned to activate, and scouting expeditions reported a vast galactic expanse in an unknown location eventually identified as Mayall's Object, a two-galaxy collision occurring in distant space. Redubbed Mayall's Galaxies, this became the center of a colonization effort. The first decade led to dozens of colonies, a major space-station, and hundreds of thousands of eager immigrants to a new galaxy, literally. 

About two decades after the colonization The Drift was discovered when humanity collided with the  Kasathas, who introduced them to Driftspace drives and also the power known as the Weave, which humans equate with some sort of quasi-magical higher dimensional psionics. The Solarian orders started with the Kasathas and other races, and humans adopted them.

When first contact with Mayall's Galaxies' Kasatha happened, something else caused a problem....the warpgate shut off, and the gate parked in the Kuiper Belt of the Solar System appeared to detonate in an anti-matter backlash. The colonies in Mayall's Galaxies were cut off from Earth!

The first colonies was hard, and few worlds were precisely ready for human colonization without terraforming, but the colony ships with their terraforming resources did most of the work. Over the next hundred years other races were encountered, but a curious pattern emerged: many, many worlds in Mayall's Galaxies show signs of ancient colonization or the development of native species, but all of these native aliens appeared to have died out, gone extinct, or disappeared. Most of the species in this galaxy (of which there are cataloged dozens) are all natives from other galaxies just like humanity, who arrived by one-way jumpgates, were kidnapped by reptoids or grays, or got here by misfortune. Only a handful of actual native species still exist, including the Kasathas, shobad, formians and a few others (see below). 

In this setting there is no other magic than what is defined in the core, and only practiced by the Mystics, Solarians and Technomancers. The optional class/spell stuff in 3PP Starfarers Companion is assumed to be nonexistent until I can review.

The Drift is still a way in to a weird other-dimensional space. That may accidentally bridge on other universes, with suitably terrifying Event Horizon-esque horrors. 

The fact that most species in Mayall's Galaxy are imported means that you as the player can assume any history or background in Starfinder is acceptable, but it's all ancient history to the species, which usually follows up with a paragraph along the lines of , "And then this colony ship used the Stargate discovered at Point X and found themselves trapped in Mayall's Galaxy."

Species of Mayall's Galaxies:

Species of this region fall into three categories: trapped species (colonists, explorers and visitors who were lured here by warpgate or other means and then cut off from home), native species (aliens that seem to have developed here as natives, or have been here so long it is hard to determine if they started as visitors from elsewhere), and Special exceptions. This breaks down as follows:

Trapped Species Brought here with Humanity's Arrival: 
humans, androids, ysoki (may be uplifted species brought her by humanity?), Nuar (also an uplifted species), 

Trapped Species of other Origin: 
Lashunta, Shirren, Vesk, Contemplatives, Draeliks, Haan, Maraquoi, Lashunta, Ryphorians, Sarcesians, Dragonkin (see below), Skittermander, Verthani, Wrikreechee

Native Species:
Kasathas, Barathus, Formians, Ikeshti, Kalo, Shobhad, Urog, Wytchwyrd


Grays: Grays, interestingly, are from the Milky Way and traveled here much as humans did. The Gray colonists arrived ten thousand years before humans did, and are distantly related to the Grays which plagued humanity's pre stellar years

Reptoids: Reptoids are native to Mayall's Galaxy, but they may have created the vast warpgates that led humanity and other species to this galaxy....possibly as traps. 

Dragonkin: Dragonkin are certainly dragonlike and exist, but are either A: coincidentally dragonlike or B: an uplifted or engineered species. They call themselves the Athokar and appear not to have a recollection of their true heritage. 

Drow (Hirrin): Drow are nonexistent, but have an analog of some sort called the Hirin. Their nature is a mystery, but their threat is evident.

Space Goblins (Harkoniath): Space Goblins call themselves the Harkoniath but humans call them space goblins because of how they look and act. Harkoniath live in junk flotillas and survive on piracy and salvage, having long ago stripped mined their home system. They are also a stranded race, though likely they had little to care about at whatever strip mined system they left behind.

Spacefarer's Companion Options that are okay to use:
Native Acceptable Species in Mayall's Galaxy: none
Human Uplifted/Created Species: catfolk and mechanoi are acceptable.
Species that may have arrived by Stargate and became trapped in Mayall's Galaxy: Deoxyians, Suli, Vishkanya, and Wayang may all be permissable.

Themes of this proposed campaign:

1. displacement; with few excpetions, most species are visitors and colonists, unwitting trapped in this galaxy
2. Mysteries....thousands of worlds with evidence of collapsed civilizations; why, and how? Does the convergence of two galaxies have anything to do with it? 
3. Resource problems: many worlds, few still able to support life; the pressure of dozens of species to compete over the last thousand years for precious resources pushes many into necessary but unwelcome conflict

4. Isolation - humanity has been here two centuries and is barely holding on to a dozen colony worlds while aggressive species like Vesk and Shobad seek to take that from them and subjugate the new arrivals.

Fun Fact: Mayall's Galaxy is a real Galaxy about 500,000,000 LY from the Milky Way, which is called Mayall's Object. It's two galaxies colliding at interesecting angles with each other:

Starfinder Round Three: Ramping up the SF Element

Yeah, I can't stop working on this.

Okay, so my thoughts on making Starfinder more SF:

1. Ignore all the content in the Pathfinder Legacy chapter. We don't need no stinkin' Pathfinder Legacy to make this work. This chapter mainly functions to update the default game universe to reflect racial and organizational connections to the Old World of Golarion. We don't need elves in our SF game for this!

2. Reading the history and details of the pact worlds is interesting and useful, but it's best to simply extrapolate ideas from this while deleting the "non SF" elements that won't work for what I'm intending. So....for example...purging this universe of anachronistic D&D fantasy elements would mean ditching drow, orcs and others on Apostae, for example. I could reskin this world and use it....but drow could become some other sort of space alien not connected to D&D or Norse myth to fill the void (no shortage of options there).

3. In reading through the mystic, technomancer and solarian carefully, plus reviewing most of the spells in the book, it feels like this is all easy enough to call magic but claim it's part of some enigmatic "force" (pun intended), be it psionics (Traveller and 90% of classic era SF), biotics (Mass Effect), actual space magic (that is, magic which is some fundamental principle unlocked as a result of some strange reason tied to space travel; for example, the first FTL space travel through the Drift accidentally unleashed the power of this mysterious other-dimensional magic on the world), or something else suitably enigmatic and Clarkensian enough to be indistinguishable from future technology.

I like the idea that developing FTL drive using other-dimensional physics to enter the Drift lead to the manifestation of "magic," and that this magic is regarded as some sort of paradimensional force to contend with....but now centuries old with spacefaring cultures quite used to it. It solves (for me) the problem of how technological advancement could happen at a reasonable pace in conjunction with the sort of magic coming from typical fantasy worlds by saying tech came first, magic came later.

4. The concept of the drift ties in to a special deity, a magical planar realm tied to the conventional Pathfinder planar cosmology, and all sort of other implied stuff. In the new, liberated "Starfinder as slightly sterner SF, now with less fantasy" the Drift is part of the mysterious other dimensional realms which can in turn be used to account for hideous things like undead and demonic/mythos name the idea here is "Use the drift, but make it just like any other weird SF tale where the dimension used to bypass the speed of light has weird and unintended effects, denizens, etc." In this scenario, a movie like Event Horizon dovetails very nicely with the modified Starfinder cosmology.

5. Next, the aliens in the core rules and most of the alien races in the Archive are more than suited to populating this universe, we just need to reskin some of them (like nuar and drow), delete the obvious suspects (see #1 above) and then focus on the more distinctly alien Starfinder aliens, of which there are plenty.

6. Finally, while it's not necessary, adding a connection to Earth is a good way to ground the setting in expectations and help players establish when something new and weird is know... "new and weird." It's not necessary though....see Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, for example.....but it's an idea. I think for my campaign, I'll imply that Earth is there in humanity's distant past....but so far removed that no one anywhere remembers where the homeworld is anymore. It's been lost to memory; so much time has passed since humanity left for the stars that the existence of the homeworld is more of a legend and fantasy in its own right. Ironically, to a certain extent this is precisely what Paizo tried to do by making Golarion disappear. This has the added advantage of making it easier to modify and insert the published Starfinder adventure path modules into the customized setting.

Okay, now to figure out how to try this out! I remain determined to figure out how Starfinder will work for me.....maybe this is the direction to go. Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

After Action Report (Epilogue) - Call of Duty WWII and Star Wars Battlefront II

So which is more evil, Activision or EA? Hard to say, but I think my tentative money goes to EA right now. As you might have read, EA suspended the option to purchase loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront II, which many in the gaming press have suggested was really Disney telling them to stop getting negative press for a Star Wars product right before the next movie. Makes sense.

I'd written about both of these games earlier in the month and wanted to follow up with some after action reports on where they are at now, and how I feel about them after sinking a decent amount of game time in all modes into both games. Here's the scoop:

Call of Duty WWII

Many hours in to multiplayer and Nazi zombie modes and I can safely say that Call of Duty is benefiting from a return to a slower, more tactical experience. The offline split-screen options are solid and the AI for the bots is sufficiently challenging at the highest levels to be a good substitute for live players (at least, for purposes of my son and myself playing). The zombie mode needs more maps (there are only two right now) but it's a solid experience. They got rid of plank-nailing to control the flow of zombies, but they tempered the experience such that it's possible for two offline players to get pretty far into the zombie son and I hit like wave 11 which was almost impossible in prior CoD zombie experiences without four players online.

Online the experience is great, the multiplayer is solid, and the experience is better than it has been since Black Ops III (which I loved), but with normal mortal soldiers rather than the supersoldiers of the last few entries. The loot crate component of the game is there, and they have tried hard to push you in to the battlefield operations area where you walk around and meet other people (in theory), then open loot crates in front of them.

In CoD the loot crates are 100% cosmetic, which makes them easy to ignore. They are also less exciting than in, say, Black Ops 3 because WWII is trying to be at least a little authentic (black Germans and aggressive active female combatants in full military fatigues aside) so you can't bling your trooper out quite as badly as prior iterations of the series would allow for. But the point is....these aren't exciting loot crates, and I don't know why anyone would really spend money on them. The game lets you accrue in-game purchase points at a decent clip, and I've never felt like I was lagging behind or missing out by not spending a cent on this stuff.

As for the campaign mode, I fired it up a few more times, got really annoyed with the invisible rails, stupid health packs and intensely accurate German soldiers and decided that I didn't care. This may be the first time I may not have finished a CoD single player campaign.

Verdict: I don't regret this purchase, but I do feel that they need to come up with something more innovative and interesting for the next CoD game, but which takes a lesson from the slower and more tactical multiplayer experience. As for single player, they have got to figure out a new formula and stop making these crappy invisible rails shooters with flimsy storylines stringing together arbitrary set pieces. Solid A for the multiplayer modes and couch split-screen, but a C for the campaign. Overall it's a solid B.

Star Wars Battlefront II

The shining gem of this title is the single-player campaign, but it's too short to carry the entire game on its weight alone. The multiplayer is a solid experience....most of the time....but it's a fractured experience. If you play it for a while you'll get the sense of what I mean: Clone Wars map, rebellion map, first order map....rinse and repeat. The game's attempt to stretch across three eras of Star Wars actually makes for a shallower experience as no single era is supported as well as it should be, and I am still irritated when you are on a Clone Wars era map and Darth Vader shows up working with the Separatists, it's just too stupid. As someone over at Cheap Ass Gamer said, why the hell can't you play Captain Panaka when you're on Naboo, or Padme, Anakin, etc? Probably because they are all coming down the pike as premium unlockables for hard cash.

EA freezing loot crate purchases with real money caused some new problems, too. First of those is: people who spent a lot of money before the option went away clearly have a battlefield advantage. As I mentioned before, early on it was clear that being a top dog meant you were in one of two categories: a rabid player who has been playing non-stop since the game started in order to earn the necessary points, or B: you spent a lot of money on unlocks and got the cool stuff. Either way, usually one guy doesn't just dominate the battlefield in two or three of the "top positions," he smashes it to bits. I've rarely seen cases where one guy gets twice the points of the #2 player in other games (including the first Battlefront) but I see that with alarming consistency here. It is a bit too suspicious.

Second, freezing the option to purchase loot crates forces players to earn the points. Well, after a certain point the accrual of these points slows down, and if you're an average player it becomes clear that the play time to get these precious points is simply not worth it. To be fair, Battlefront I had the same problem, but the difference was mainly that everyone was locked in to the same environment, and most of the time the later unlocks didn't give you a decided advantage over the battlefield in the way that they do in Battlefront II. If I didn't have all of the Jabba weapons and star cards I was still able to function just fine in the first game and even excel. Hell, once you had the jump pack, pulse card and Scout card almost all the other star cards were just fun experimental options. Unlocking those took time, but it was fun to play to that point. Getting the end-level unlocks for skins? Not so much, but who cared?

Battlefront II lives under the shadow of its loot crate controversy, which makes the painful cost of time to earning ratio for in game currency stand out. And it's own star cards are not as variant, and are not focused on gaining equipment or actions, but percentage increases and bonuses in play that clearly make a difference in player success. This is disheartening.

The offline component is oddly not as robust as the first game either, if you can believe that. There's a range of scenarios, sure, but the offline bots are rather dumb, and the maps and scenarios just don't play well in offline mode, with it feeling more like a crude shooting gallery than a decent simulation of online play. It exists, and my son enjoys it, but I do not.

The maps in all of the game modes, in fact, are more lackluster than they were in Battlefront I. I've noticed this...several of the maps are just wide open shooting galleries, with lots of clutter to substitute for more dynamic or tactical environments. They are not, on average, as well thought out as the maps in the first game. There are a couple exceptions (Kashyyk map and Maz's palace are really nice maps) but others (especially Yavin and the Imperial Landing Strip) are awful. The gameplay, especially in Blast mode, ends up being "race to one end of the map killing enemy, then get killed by enemy spawning behind you with sniper rifles." Oi.

On the plus side, I like how they balanced hero characters in Battlefront II. I really disliked the hero modes and playstyle in the first game, and those issues have now been fixed.

Verdict: It's got problems, it's effort to model three Star Wars eras somehow simultaneously made this game more robust and yet feel thinner in content than ever (plenty of heroes, but not enough for each era of play), but the actual gameplay is very solid, despite fewer quality maps, and the offline bots are idiots. So the online multiplayer is an A for actual gameplay but a D for slow progression being hampered by the idiotic loot crate system, the offline component remains a C but could have been better if the bots acted more tactically, and the single player campaign remains an A+, but it's not enough to pull this up from an overall C.