Category Archives: Gaming

D&D: GM Advice

Being a Dungeon Master in any tabletop role playing game is a unique position with responsibilities and duties that players do not have. It can be daunting for people new to the systems or the concept and a reminder of what a Dungeon Master should focus on can always be helpful. These are in essence the job of the Dungone Master.

  • Foster the relationship between the players, the game, and keep the play session moving.
  • Arbiter of the rules
  • Set the stage for the adventure, but not dictate it.

Fostering the relationship

Dungeon Master’s are the glue that keeps the game running by engaging the players in some form of adventure. They are checking if the players look to be engaged with what is happening, enabling hero(or villain depending on the nature of your game) moments where each player has a spotlight based on their actions or decisions. A competent Dungeon Master constantly evaluates if members of the table are lost and bored while the other are having a drinking contest or shopping trip. React to your players and embrace the content that they seem to enjoy, challenge them to expand their interests, but let them point the compass.

You will find recommendation after recommendation that a session zero should be done to establish ground rules, the tone of the game, and the focus of the players. I do not want to undervalue this tactic, but for a new Dungeon Master, you simply don’t have the experience and knowledge to know how to run a session zero. Instead, the best recommendation that can be made is to develop the skills to be self-critical on the game. After every session, take notes on what felt like it went well and what did not to evaluate and research why this might have been.

Are half the party bored unless there is combat, loot, and rewards or are players begging for role-playing moments that do not occur because you are not engaging with their requests? Are they asking for a reason to care about the plotline you are pushing?

Did you nearly kill the party in a fight you did not expect to be so difficult? Do a post mortem on whether it was just a result of bad tactics/luck(dice rolls) or did abilities get used incorrectly resulting in a harder conflict then intended.

The point of this self-evaluation is not to be self-destructive but learn from any mistakes (intended or unintended) to improve for the next session or campaign. React and shift your priorities when presenting the content.

Rule Arbiter

Dungeon Masters are the final word at the table about how to apply rules, but they must strive to apply them consistently and fairly. Whether you adhere strictly to a system rule book (D&D 3E, 4E, 5E, Pathfinder, or any other system) or you have custom rules you implement the rules need to be the same between each session.

The Critical Role Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer has a great saying “You can certainly try” in response to player questions and requested actions. The point of the Dungeon Master is not to tell the player how to play or what to do, but explain how they can attempt to do each action. If the player wants to do something most would consider impossible, you determine what they need to roll to see if they succeed or not. The harder the task the higher they need to roll, but this keeps the player from blaming the Dungeon Master from blocking their actions and role-playing and the failure rests on the player instead of due to the Dungeon Master saying “No!”.

There will be times where you realize that the rules are providing unfair advantages or unbalanced situations in the game. Evaluating these situations and deciding if there should be changes to the rules can occur, but are best done outside of play sessions with clear communication between the players and the Dungeon Master. It could either be a discussion or the Dungeon Master explaining the rule change and communicating this is how it will work going forward consistently for future game sessions.

Depending on your game there can be benefits to “fudging” dice rolls as a Dungeon Master from behind the traditional Dungeon Master Screen. This can be in the form or changing rolls, ignoring rolls, ignoring hit points of creatures, and other changes to the standard rules. The most important aspect of this tactic is to never use these actions against the players. If the players think the Dungeon Master is cheating against the players it just leads to mistrust and a broken party. If these are selectively used, but only done so to the player’s benefit it can help the game run more smoothly. If it is too common the player’s can think they can do no wrong and you might need to re-evaluate the style of game you are playing and what level of risks are involved in player decisions.

Staging the Adventure

You have spent weeks of time planning the perfect adventure, the best plot hooks, and the perfect set pieces for glorious life and death battle between your players and the biggest enemy in the game, but your players are spending all their time away from the action playing pirates! At the end of the day this is not your story to tell, it is the player’s.

Whether your adventure is homebrew or straight from a published adventure you must understand that your job as a Dungeon Master is to set the stage and let the players decide what happens. You cannot force their hand and direct where the party is supposed to go on the predetermined path. The party might simply be inclined after playing their characters that instead of being the noble heroes that they might instead be the villainous bad guys.

The Dungeon Master should solicit the feedback of the players and collect their back story information, but after that, it is the Dungeon Master’s job to set the stage for the players to make decisions. These can be informed or uninformed decisions based on the situations, but the consequences of actions must always come from the decisions the players make. You might have presented 3 side quests for the player to interact with, but they simply don’t care and want to rush to find something related to their backstory or the main focus of the campaign.

All change in the plot, environment, politics, or rewards and risks should all flow from the decisions of the players. Keep in mind that choosing not to act is still a decision by the players, so if the players decide to rest their next battle might be harder because the enemies had time to heal or go get reinforcements. The Dungeon Master has to juggle the consequences of direct decisions, the unknown ramifications of time in the game, and non-player character perceptions of what has happened. The more you can ground these impacts in the various personalities of the factions, environments, and characters the more you will have a living and breathing world that your players want to inhabit.

If you are using a campaign book or even if you created everything from scratch you need to know options of where the party might go to prepare in advance. You don’t need everything detailed out, but at least a vague concept of where the party might head.

Additionally, the valuable skills of improvisation are key to having a world that the players are impacting. If they take actions that you are not expecting you should address the immediate impacts at the moment, but it might be practical to take a short break or end a session on the cliffhanger to enable you to chart out new branches of the story that you had not considered.

Let the players chart the course and you merely update them on the impacts of their route through the world. Their reputation can grow or shrink depending on if they ran towards the fight or away to save their own skins. The impacts on the world can be averted, subverted, or avoided entirely depending on how they tackle the problems.

There can even be a real possibility that you need to turn the campaign into something entirely different from what you planned or was in your purchased adventure because they are interested in other things. Salvage what you can, inform them of their choices, and you can even punish the characters in the game, but never punish the players for being honest about what they enjoy about the game.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the culmination of the story of Nathan Drake and his misadventures searching for treasure, his identity, and his place in the world. After discovering the legacy of Francis Drake his claimed namesake in El Dorado, braving the risks of Shambhala,  and the hidden voyage of Francis Drake into the Rub’al Khali desert Nathan Drake is found living a domestic life working for a marine salvage company.  Nathan is doing his best to live the home life and sharing moments with his wife Elena Fisher like betting each other over video games to decide who does the dirty dishes. Surprisingly Nathan is greeted by his brother Samuel Drake, someone he thought  dead, and after brotherly comradery and catching up he thrust into a new adventure searching for the infamous pirate Henry Avery, his treasure, and the key to saving Samuel Drake’s life.

Through various flashbacks, this journey explains the backstory of the Drake brothers, the strains of honesty in relationships, and what it means to be family. The traditional gameplay elements of cover shooting, climbing, puzzle solving, and amazing set pieces carry through into this entry. New features are the rope grapple for climbing, swinging, and mobility based combat as well as an enemy tagging system to assist with stealth efforts. The bones of The Last of Us, the previous Naughty Dog release are visible in this game and it is best described as a hybrid between the Last of Us and Uncharted. The crate moving for accessibility to higher areas is straight from The Last of Us. The follow system by the non-player characters is the same. and only your actions can result in enemy alerts.

New enemy AI is visible with enemies pairing up to investigate disturbances. I was verbally shocked when pulling an enemy down a ledge when hanging there and the enemy actually grabbed Nathan’s leg on the way down leading to a grapple break scenario.  This random element showing the evolution of enemies are the delights and surprises in playing these games.

The callbacks in the game are lovely between playing Crash Bandicoot and referencing Monkey Island were highlights.

Plot wise the story is fraught with danger, betrayals, surprises, and death-defying escapes we come to expect from Uncharted, but the mystical elements of the first three games have been replaced with the scarier elements of human relationships and emotions of greed and betrayal. For someone new the series starting on this penultimate entry it would be accurate to complain that the third act of the game can drag down the pace, but for someone who has grown up with the story of Uncharted and Nathan Drake the understated plot that allows the characters to breathe and live is a fitting and appropriate conclusion of the Uncharted Saga. While that last stage is slower paced than previous entries third act due to what the player and the game has shared over the lifespan makes it all the more meaningful.

In hindsight, it was a good thing for Naughty Dog to release the Nathan Drake collection to allow all of the games to be playable on the same system. With the story, I strongly recommend playing the Nathan Drake Collection of games first before to fully appreciate the plot.

 

New Adventures

The last couple of months have been quite busy. Between purchasing a newly built house, setting it up to be barely livable, adjusting to a new commute and responsibilities, enjoying the lack of noisy apartment neighbors playing trampoline on the horribly degraded subfloors, the holidays, another year of BBQ (1st place Bloody Mary Competition for Curtis), and returning to raiding in World of Warcraft.

I have also been getting excited about Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. A MMORPG being developed by Visionary Realms. With the namesake of Brad McQuaid and trying to revitalize the legacy of the original Everquest. They did a twitch stream on the 11th proving that it is far from vaporware.

Incidentally coinciding with the announcement that Everquest Next was cancelled to very little surprise, but much disappointment, this rekindled a rose colored glory of Everquest in my heart and a passion of sorts.

So the latest adventure is the creation and launch of a fan site for Pantheon, The Frail Age. The good news is that I have gotten past the concept to a functional website and it is up and running. It is not everything I was thinking of when envisioning it, but it is a good starting point to grow into since the game is not yet out. It will be a new adventure of branding, promotion, and content development to build this into a resource players will actually want to use. That is a challenge no doubt, but right now I have the energy and drive to find a way to succeed if the game delivers as expected. I am not fooling myself that even in the best of situations the game may never see the light of day due to business realities, economies/markets, and hardships regardless of the best of intentions. Either way the experience will be one that will be positive and enable personal growth.

Walking Dead Season 2

The game continues the story of Clementine as she navigates the post zombie apocalypse after the heartbreaking loss of her protector Lee in the first season.

The animation is excellent and controls continue to work well. There was a momentary issue where the graphics slowed to a crawl, but I think it was an issue of my console heating up since a restart of the game corrected it.

The writing is still interesting and has some honest decisions where it comes from their perspectives and motivations.

The curse about Telltale games and more specifically the walking dead, there are just no good choices. There is no happy ending, but more a character story of how people react to, handle, and respond to impossible situations. The story is crafted to specifically place you between two characters having to pick a side when people are angry, frustrated, and rarely wiling to listen to reason. Sympathetic characters have secrets to hide. Bastards have some backstory or secret that gives better explanation of their motives.

The one true bastard Carver, voiced by James Marsden, is well acted and is a clear villain.

What I take away as chain playing all 5 episodes in 2 days is that in the apocalypse you need to keep a level head and try to understand people’s emotions and reasons. Discussion needs to happen to avoid the group shattering problems that occur. There are no saints in this wasteland of zombies. Forgive, but do not forget people’s actions (both good and bad). You need to help others and the help of others.

The lessons I took from the game is that I hope I can be true to my convictions and maintain my humanity and believing in the better nature of others despite the numerous betrayals and unrewarded sacrifices that are likely to happen.

 

Uncharged: The Nathan Drake Collection

The Uncharted Series of games was the definition of PlayStation 3 games as they grew and adjusted over the life of the console. The recently released collection is a nice addition to PlayStation 4 library and good value for the purchase price.

Including the single player games of the previously released PlayStation 3 Games:

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

All have been changed to 60 frames per second and fit on a single disc. The multiplayer features are gone, but this logistically makes sense due to the shift to PlayStation 4.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

The game was new and the formula was not quite established yet. The graphics probably experienced the largest improvement due to age, but it stays very true to the original. The aiming feels a bit off, but I cannot tell if this is due to the change to 60fps or just my memory failing.

Graphical achievements:

Dynamic wet clothing up to what is submerged and Flowing water.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

This game had the best pacing among the trilogy and refined the formula of the crazy set pieces, the interplay of character banter with rotating on screen cast, and great escalation of danger and risk.

The supporting characterization that Nathan Drake is a realist and is not above giving up on the treasure as the hero comes out of his hidden core. He plays the hero because he feels he is the only one who can, not because he wants to be a hero.

The only complaints with this game is there two spots of intense difficulty spikes and sometimes it is due to the AI of your teammates who decide to break cover and just start shooting while you were letting your enemies thin themselves out. The first is the water passage late in the game as you struggle between and RPG firing enemy far away and a closing group of armor clad shotgun wielders (head shots are only way to kill them). The other is the end boss fight and this fight gets me yelling at the screen every time. The execution is so tight due to facing a double barrel shotgun that reloads faster then anything in the real world.

Graphical Achievements:

Snow accumulation on clothing,

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Pacing just felt poorer in this installment. The locations were more varied and efforts were made to improve the characterization with some new additions. This fits with a story that returns to Sir Francis Drake and the resulting back story of Nathan and Sully.  Where the first game was focused on Nathan and Elena, the second game on Elana, Chloe, and Nathan, the 3rd game has vignettes with the others but the focus remains on Nathan and Sully. Their meeting and what they mean to each other.

Complaints however need to be leveled at Marlowe, Talbot, and their endless army of men in suits. Their motivation is left completely blank outside of “POWER” and the abilities of Talbot are unexplained. The hallucinogenic powers of the water I can except, but when people unaffected by mind control darts see a man disappear into thin air it breaks down.

The set pieces are grand, but the level design suffer believability at times and seems more intent on making you slog through enemies more so then because they would actually be there. It is ultimately due to the combat encounters they want you to experience, but some of the combat waves are just out of sync and the checkpoints feel like they make you suffer if you screw up and have open combat when stealth fails. The pirate levels in the ship graveyard are the best examples of this.

Graphical Achievements:

Fire burning buildings and Sand environments.

—————

I am certainly looking forward to Uncharted 4 on the PlayStation 4 next year. The previews look wonderful and they seem to be focusing on some mud effects.

Destiny: The Taken King

I picked up Destiny last year and enjoyed the game play, missions, pvp, and unique character classes. There was many complaints about story and bashing of Peter Dinklage’s voice over work. Personally I had no problems with the ghost voice over, but acknowledge the story was paper thin however not surprising with it coming from Bungie who created Halo.

The problem was I generally soloed the game and once you reached max level you had a horrible grind to raise your convoluted light level by getting better gear and your heart break when you get the elusive legendary engram and get a horrible piece of green or blue gear. This insanity lead to poor game play choices like loot cave farming of low level mobs with high frequency to just get more rolls against the loot lottery.  Like many I stopped playing and got distracted to other games and other activities. I dabbled a bit but never really toyed with the DLC expansions until the Taken King was announced at E3 2015.

June of 2015 I took a break from World of Warcraft and started Destiny again and with the new content and improvements I grabbed the DLC packs to give them a try. The new strikes  were interesting and the new factions improved little user friendliness with allowing you to continue to gain faction levels.  The only complaint was that the leveling zones had high level content mixed in to surprise you until you learned to avoid them. Even once you get max level of 20 you were locked out until you could get higher light level. The only saving grace was that there really was no penalty for death.

With the release of the Taken King they improved quite a bit of the game. The leveling system was changed to be straight xp from level 20 to 40, however the light system was not removed despite being hugely improved in combination with the loot system changes. Light was changed from an esoteric number to get different levels to a easily understandable numerical average of gear’s attack or defense value. Additionally artifacts and ghost slots were added to contribute to this allowing more opportunities for decent drops.

The loot lottery was improved by allowing blue gear to drop with higher attack or defense values then your legendary or exotic however you now have an opportunity to keep your favorite gear by infusing the gear by consuming a higher attack or defense level item.  On top of that the engrams have improved drops and usually they are useful. It is still RNG based so I have had the situation of three primary weapon engrams turn into three motes of light when I desperately needed a primary weapon upgrade. The level of gear you get is largely dependent on your current light level when decrypting (Some low level quests dropping engrams will give low level items). Doing patrol duty and gathering a significant amount of engrams you can actually see the improvement of your light level jump up 5-10 levels depending on luck.  So tip to the wise even if you don’t want to use the item save it for decryption and do one item at a time if you have upgrades equip them and then decrypt the next piece.

There are other quality of life improvements with abandoned quest kiosk, shader kiosk, speeder or ship kiosks, and exotic kiosks. Once you have earned the item you can either purchase it again or equip it and allow you to keep your inventory cleaner and out of your storage vault. The gunsmith is a new faction that allows you to get new weapons as part of the armsday to fill some gap in your load out options. The pvp factions are now changed to earn at half the rate of your main vanguard or crucible faction at the same time as the main faction. Some of these have costs such as exotic shards to get the exotics. You even have an option to upgrade certain exotic weapons into year 2 values. Quests can be tracked now and there is larger quest quantities as well as bounty storage.

The main quest story is relatively quick with only 8 missions, but they are improved with better character voice over work by Cayde-6 (“Nathan Fillion”) that is very reminiscent of Mal Reynolds of Firefly. Despite a short main story quest the content continues with new quests to keep you doing things for the vanguard, Crota’s Bane faction, and Queen’s Wrath faction. The new strikes have some new mechanics and fun areas to explore. Since the expansion is new and folks are new to the strikes if you are using random matchmaking the abandon rate can be annoying. Worse so in Heroic Vanguard Strikes and some missions are worse then others despite proper light level values. The Restorative Mind mission with relic running and a light wall that moves you around a ring can be brutal when the rest of the strike team dies once the light wall begins automatically moving at the end of the fight.

Not sure I will ever touch a raid in Destiny, but I will acknowledge the design done in those fights. Nightfall strikes as well are pretty brutal if you try to solo this and I think I might never do it alone, but at least I do not feel completely punished for not completing it with the new loot grinding. It feels more prestige then required.  I really haven’t done much PVP yet, but I think I will get more into it this time around.

How long Destiny: The Taken King lasts is a good question but the improvements feel like it has more longevity as I play the other classes and get the new archetypes. So far focusing on the Warlock and having fun being the Palpatine lighting thrower. If you enjoyed the game at release but got bored there is quite a bit for you to enjoy.

Everquest 2: Time-Locked Expansion

2004 was an odd confluence of games for the Massive Multiplayer Online Game user. In the fall of 2004 I was actively playing Everquest after having retired and returning. Found a new guild who was excited about Everquest 2 and it had my attention more so then the other game on the radar World of Warcraft. I also had my older game friends who I did fun stuff with 1-2 times a week.

At the release of Everquest 2 I was splitting time between Everquest and Everquest 2. I played enough to get a late 20’s or early 30’s Inquisitor and then the grind wore on me and some of the early game bugs detracted from my enjoyment.

Shortly after the release of World of Warcraft I picked that up and the great server migration games of login queues.

Long story short I dabbled in both games and by the same time the next year I was back into the Everquest max level raiding pretty hardcore.

It was not until the impending release of Wrath of the Lich King that I actually got hooked into World of Warcraft and the raiding scene that lasted until Cataclysm and the release of Dragon Soul when my work required me to move cross country and give up guild and raid leadership.

Variously through the years I have tried to play Everquest 2 and gotten a high level of 35, but never really felt the hook because it was so lonely in the leveling zones. I was also confused on what released when and how the game progressed.

I heard of the original Everquest Ragefire server which was classic Everquest server. There was entirely too much rose colored glasses for me to seriously consider going back and trying to pick this up.

While I had not heard much about it I learned after the fact that they did a similar server set on Everquest 2 where each expansion is released based on a vote by the player base.  I enabled my subscription to access the progression server and I am honestly surprised how much the game is interesting me. The game feels new to  me and I do not feel overwhelmed by the game content because it is released over time. There are tons of players and interest on the single server. Some of the original annoyances are removed in favor of player convenience.

Longevity might be an issue, but right now it is fun and really giving me the Evercrack feelings. There is challenge and actual fun to the gameplay. Taking my time through it all and enjoying the quests and content.

 

Sunset Overdrive

Finally came back to Sunset Overdrive and knocked this one off of the backlog list. This game is an Insomniac game (makers of Ratchet and Clank) and it tells from the plethora of guns you can use, the amps you can customize your combat with, and overdrives that give you gimmicks to use.

The game is a movement platform/gunner where it is more about flow and keeping moving instead of a cover shooter. The game specifically says “If you are looking for the sprint button, its called grinding”.  Guns range from a Record Skeet Shooter, a TNT Teddy Bear launcher, “The Dude” a bowling ball thrower.

The best part of this game is the humor and the endless snark. It is light hearted with geek references as well as punk/rock influences. The costume customization is comical when you start making some horrid combinations.

The snark is strong with this game. Simply put if you like the sarcasm of a show like Dead Like Me you will love the humor of this game.

Completed 8/1/15

King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember 1

The revival of the glorious Sierra days of point and click adventures of the games of my past.

It certainly has the puns, the feel, and the vibe of King’s Quest games. The art is very beautiful with gorgeous painted back drops and a water colored feel that is reminiscent of the recent Tell Tale episodic games (Wolf among us, Walking Dead, etc). I am honestly surprised that this game was created using Unreal engine because it pulls off a look that is nothing like what I mentally think of unreal engine games.

The voice acting is excellent and the adventure feels good for a first episode of a 5 episode adventure. I am unsure if it has the TellTale typical choices events, but at least it does not have the typical anything that bad that can happen will happen as well as it is a happier game.

The puzzles and gameplay though I would honestly describe as too easy. The old King’s Quests were hard until you figured them out, but these felt largely simple. There was wandering around to figure out my options for sure, but putting them together was too simple. I blame that on the newer game environment we are in and easy being to common.  However I will admit that since this is an episodic game there is a chance for them to scale up in difficulty and I will wait for that opportunity.  While there are a few pieces of inventory that will hold over to the next episode, the episodic nature feels so much shorter.

Probably the biggest complaint about the game is that there simply was not enough comical deaths as you flail around trying to combine the various items and puzzles. The King’s Quests of old were comical with their myriad ways to die horribly in new and unexpected manners. I died a few times, but it was immediately obvious how to correct that. The nostalgia in me honestly wished the difficulty resulted in more gory deaths.

Episode 1: Completed 8/1/15

4 out of 5

Rain

A small indie game from Playstation Plus free games.

Very artistic with some gorgeous environments and fun gameplay. Feels like a cross between Ico and Never Alone in description, but gameplay never felt like the level changes dragged it down. It found the right balance to avoid being stale in the levels, but still fresh as they moved to the next.

A few fun surprises and highly recommended.

Completed: July 19th, 2015