Saturday, January 28, 2017

Visions of 40k 8th Edition

Stormcaller over at Bell of Lost Souls has some “safe bets” for 40k’s impending 8th edition. I’m not terribly impressed. His first two statements, that many will like it and some will hate it, is about like saying that grass will be green and Ultramarines will be blue. (Yes, that pun is front-and-center in this game. That tells you so much about its origins. ;p )

Stormcaller also brings up the bonuses you get if you max out the number of units in certain formations. Clearly, this is a call to buy more miniatures. Only, who the heck has time to play with armies that size? Adam Harry (also at BoLS) points out that maxing out some of the units in Fall of Cadia and Wrath of Magnus would mean armies over 3k (and possibly close to 4k) points. The “standard” game of 40k in the US runs between 1-2k points and takes something in the neighborhood of three hours to play. Eventually, as Harry points out, player fatigue becomes an issue, even if you’ve got six hours to play (and if you do, I think most would prefer to play a pair of smaller games).

Now, everyone is assuming that 8th edition will be “streamlined.” That, after all, is the buzzword these days. But goals and achievements are two different things. And there are practical limits on what GW can do with 40k. Just as everyone knew WotC had to use the classic six stats when they published 5th edition D&D, you can bet that GW will include the multiple-rolls-per attack thing that is the hallmark of 40k: roll to hit, roll to wound, roll saves, remove casualties. This cascade of rolls incentivizes big armies; the more shooting you’re doing, the more you’re likely to hit and wound, and the more likely your foe is to fail some of those saves. And GW is all about selling the minis.

But all that takes time. You’re rolling handfuls of dice, pulling out the hits, rolling those, pulling out the wounds, and then your target gets to roll those dice or an equal number of their own. Sitting there counting out how many of 40d6 rolled 3-or-above takes time. So does picking up and re-rolling the few that went off the table. As does re-positioning units or terrain knocked about by the flood of dice.

7th edition did a decent job of streamlining the rules already by simplifying how you adjudicate things like charges and cover. Granted, they did make things like the psychic phase more complicated, so there is room for streamlining, but not that much outside of what some people would consider sacred cows of 40k.

Granted, if GW is willing to go after the sacred cows, especially the you-go-I-go aspect of the rules, then yeah, there’s tons of room to streamline and make play faster. I just don’t think they’re going to do it. If you want a quick, simple game, you’ll have Deathwatch. But 40k is still going to clock in at 20+ minutes per turn between 1k and 2k points.

That said, I think we’ll be seeing a LOT more of these grand army formations. You just won’t see many maxed-out formations. This is because your FLGS really dislikes the way wargames are made and sold.

Why do I say that? Because wargames eat obscene amounts of shelf-space. For example, your average wargame has five or more factions and each faction has a handful of troops types, leader types, and special units, possibly with vehicles on top of all of that. This is part of the fun for players; you identify with your “side” and the way it plays, and you eschew the other factions for their failings. If the publisher does their job right, every side has its features and bugs, and seeing how they interact is part of the fun.

But all of these units eat up shelf space like a horde of ravening locusts goes through crops. And, on top of that, play space for wargames is expensive; the six-feet of table two 40k players use could host 5+ RPGers, 6 CCG players (each of whom probably paid an entry-fee for the privilege of playing; there are reasons your FLGS bends over backwards for M:tG and its ilk), or possibly 8 folks playing a board game. This is one reason you’re likely to see someone pushing Frostgrave get exceptional support from your FLGS; the game uses the same minis that the store already sells to RPGers, uses less tablespace, and easily expands to more than just two players in a game.

(Someday, someone is going to produce a wargame where players build their units from a standard box of parts, like robots or some such. If they do it right and it becomes successful, FLGS owners will weep tears of joy.)

Anyway, point is, if each player plays only their faction, and there are lots of factions (I think 40k has something in the neighborhood of a dozen now, and that’s not breaking out chaos into its four + unified or all the different flavors of space marine), that’s a lot of shelf-space for a fraction of the players of a single wargame. This is why it’s so tough for a new wargame to gain traction at an FLGS.

But GW already has traction, and by getting players to embrace building armies from multiple factions (Guard + Marines + Mechanicus, or, as we’re seeing now, Dark + Vanilla Eldar) they increase the efficiency of the shelf-space they’re demanding. Mechanicus might not have enough fans to warrant much space on a store’s shelves, but if marine players are also buying those minis, now it might make a lot more sense to give them more room. And, of course, that means more minis sold, especially if the marine player likes what Mechanicus does and decides to expand his “allies” into a full army to play as a change of pace.

So, my predictions for 8th edition: there will be all sorts of talk about streamlining the game, but it won’t do more than shave a few minutes here and there, and won’t be dramatic enough to change how people play the game. There will also be a lot more support for building huge mix-n-match armies via formations and allies rules, which will royally piss off the competitive players but make the narrative gamers much happier.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

And For Good Reasons - Outcast Review

If you saw the trailers for 2014’s Outcast, you can be excused for thinking it would be a train-wreck. Nicholas Cage and Hayden Christensen as AWOL crusaders who’ve travelled to China (or, at least, a Hollywood version of China) and get involved in dynastic politics? Yeah. But, the important question is, would it be a glorious train-wreck?

The answer is: meh, not so much. Nick Cage prancing about with a prosthetic ruined eye and snakes wrapped around his wrists isn’t as much fun as you’d think, mostly because he defaults to doing an odd impersonation of Long John Silver for most of the last third of the movie. Christensen actually comes off quite well, though you’d be excused for thinking he was a poor-man’s Karl Urban with that haircut and delivery. But this is lightyears better than much of his work in Star Wars.

This one avoids most of the pitfalls of the White Savior trope. Yeah, the ex-crusaders are excellent warriors, but not supermen, and you don’t get the feeling that there’s something special about them, that either is a chosen-one type. But you absolutely get the sense that someone wanted to do a Chinese historical epic but was afraid that if the main characters were not white that American (or maybe Chinese) audiences wouldn’t show up. This isn’t the only box-checking this movie suffers from. We’re also treated to the reluctant warrior trope; all three of the bad-asses in this film have been deeply scarred, even ruined as people, by the wars they’ve fought. There’s no such thing as a noble warrior or even a noble cause. There’s only brutality and guilt, but hey, look at these fun action sequences we’ve put together for your enjoyment! Yeah, classic example of Hollywood hypocrisy in action.

And that, in the end, leaves us with a luke-warm film. It’s got some neat costumes, but nothing on the level of Curse of the Golden Flower or Game of Thrones. It’s got some ok fights (the final mano-y-mano clash is actually pretty good, except that it happens for no reason other than that’s how things are done in movies). It’s totally lacking in a classic Nick Cage freak-out, though. He swerves close, then backs away. Just like this whole movie does, in its depiction of cultural interactions, violence, and emotion.

This one is probably not worth your time unless you’re a Cage completest, and even then you’ll likely only watch it once.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Abandoned Territory

DRAGON magazine #154 was published in February of 1990. It’s largely a forgotten issue (the theme was war, but wargaming was out of vogue in the RPG world at the time, so it mostly talked about historic examples of military conquerors, feudalism, and heraldry) except for an editorial by James Ward entitled “Angry Mothers From Heck (and What We do About Them).” This was the infamous article in which Ward explained that the 2nd edition of D&D (published in ‘89) lacked half-orcs and assassins and renamed demons and devils in order to avoid the negative publicity that had dogged the game through the ‘80s. The article loudly trumpeted the fact that D&D was about good, heroic characters and teamwork, and would feature “wholesome” content that would be beyond objection.

The result? Well, causality isn’t an easy thing to trace, but in ‘91 we got Vampire: the Masquerade, the game where you played a blood-sucking undead slowly losing their humanity. V:tM was wildly popular (though we don’t have numbers to know if it was Pathfinder-levels of popular) and brought lots of new faces (especially female ones) into RPGs and LARPing.

When a successful RPG publisher states, “This we will not publish,” what they’re doing is abandoning territory to their competition. They’re making it easy for you to find customers they’re not servicing (or to peel off customers they’re servicing poorly). WotC did something similar at the dawn of 4e, basically stating that they were no longer going to publish material in compliance with 3e’s OGL and abandoning those customers to Paizo. (You could say a similar thing happened at the dawn of 5e, but licensing issues and a perceived lack of popularity have prevented much of anyone from capturing the old 4e audience, to the best of my knowledge.)

Of course, everyone has their limits, and it’s interesting to note how Paizo has quite purposefully positioned themselves just a smidgen outside what WotC considers acceptable. While what is considered acceptable isn’t always easy to pin down philosophically, most of us can recognize where something falls on the spectrum when we see it. D&D looks like this, Pathfinder looks like that, and the thing over here with the penis-slugs has got to be LotFP.

This is what makes an article like Kotaku’s “Dungeons & Dragons’ Gradual Shift Away From Monster Boobs” interesting. While it’s not an official pronouncement from WotC about what will and won’t appear in D&D, it’s pretty close, including lots of quotes from Senior Manager Mearls and Lead Rules Developer Jeremy Crawford.

While at first blush it appears to make enough genuflections to political correctness to warm the cockles of any HR manager’s heart, that’s almost entirely from the author of the piece, D’Anastasio. If you read the words of Mearls and Crawford, you get a very different message. Here’s a list of quotes plucked from the article and out-of-order to make it clearer what I’m getting at:

“We’re equal opportunity cheesecake merchants,” Mearls added. “We don’t assume heterosexual male players.”

In an e-mail, Mearls said that nymphs were simply unpopular monsters among Dungeon Masters. 5th edition was designed after crowdsourced playtesting, and over 175,000 responses from early testers confirmed that gamers prefer elder brains and beholders, apparently, to monster boobs.

“When we considered the audience, we tried to think of how men and women would react, and make sure the reaction we elicited was in keeping with the monster’s character and the design intent,” Mearls said.

Bare breasts are absent from Volo’s Guide, the latest supplement to the Monster Manual out in October of this year, in what Mearls says was a conscious effort to “make sure that the art we presented was as appealing to as wide an audience as possible.”

“I think there was a feedback cycle where the inner circle of fandom was mostly male, that group gave feedback on what they liked, and you had art that delivered what they wanted,” Mearls said.

The Mearls quotes almost seem to backpeddle on the promise of the article’s title: “No-no-no-no-no! We’re not removing the cheesecake, we’re just recalibrating it to appeal to a wider audience. Calm down, owners of Hasbro stock. We know sex sells; we’re just making sure we use as broad a scatter of titillation as possible.”

It’s an interesting dance, one in which WotC attempts to both cater to current corp-world pieties while still promising to satisfy the entertainment-hungry customers. Of course, it’s mostly for show; as the article makes clear, D&D’s days as part of a counter-culture are over. Nobody turns to D&D manuals for titillation anymore. The idea is laughable, like someone saying they get turned on by perusing O’Reilly programming manuals.

Which means there’s lots of abandoned territory there. And I mean LOTS! Venger Satanis has staked out his claim to part of it, with his focus on campy, ‘70s comedy mashup of Benny Hill and Star Crash. Raggi’s planted a few flags on the hill of sex-as-body-horror, but he’s hardly saturating that market.

And that, to the best of my knowledge, is all there is, really. Both Numenera and the new Blue Rose give a wink-and-nod to sex-as-empowerment, but their love-as-thou-wilt (pun intended) ethos is rather lacking in friction or heat.

Compare that to where popular fiction has taken the subject. The obvious point of reference is Game of Thrones. You can probably get there from the new Blue Rose (there are some intriguing relationship mechanics in the game I haven’t had the time to deeply explore yet), but it’s not the direction Blue Rose is pointed. You can probably tack that on top of D&D, but WotC has no interest in helping you out. Pathfinder would love to point you in that direction, but they won’t go there with you.

And that’s not even touching the real 500 lbs gorilla in the marketplace: romance. Monsterhearts is a (small) step in the right direction, but also an understandably timid one that’s a bit mechanically complicated in all the wrong places. (The fact that it started out as a lampoon of Twilight that morphed to embrace Gingersnaps and Jennifer’s Body says a lot about why the game stumbles. When we get a game that openly embraces Twilight without a hint of irony, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.)

I should add, I say this not having played Monsterhearts, so if someone’s got a more experienced opinion on this, please speak up. Also, if there are games out there that I’m missing, please say something. The market’s so broad now, it’s easy to completely miss huge swaths of it.