Tobold's Blog
Saturday, August 18, 2018
 
The Vault of Iptiz

As I mentioned before, I have been 3D printing a lot of True Tiles to build dungeons with for my Dungeons & Dragons games. Now my local roleplaying club over the summer started a special D&D campaign: It has multiple Dungeon Masters, and lots of players. Basically it is an endless dungeon crawl, with the main rule that at the end of the session the players need to be back to base, so that the next session can be played by another DM and a different group composition from the same starting point. I first joined as a player, and now have a halfling barbarian / rogue, which is a bit silly, but more fun to play than you would think. 19 AC without armor, resistance to non-magical damage, and giving the rest of the group advantage on melee attacks on all mobs next to him.

Anyway, I then decided to also try my hand as a DM in this campaign. So I needed a dungeon. And I found just the perfect one: The Vault of Iptiz, which was made by the creator of the True Tiles, Wyloch, and comes with a helpful video on how to build it with tiles. I already had the tiles, but then printed some of the other dungeon decorations described in the module. So I wanted to show you the result:

Should be fun to play tomorrow, what do you think?

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Saturday, August 11, 2018
 
The importance of combat

When you look for a mobile game involving fantasy heroes battling monsters, you invariable stumble upon the so-called Gacha games, which are Free2Play games with collectible heroes from loot boxes. I sometimes play those a bit, because the hero collection aspects are fun enough, I don't mind the Pay2Win nature of these games, and I don't tend to go overboard with loot box gambling anyway. However I usually end up not playing very long, because I get bored of the combat. Combat is frequently either completely automated, or so trivial that an optional auto button results in the same combat result as you playing manually. Boring combat, boring game.

I thought about the contrast to some other games I have been playing recently. One is Octopath Traveler on the Switch. The other is a dungeon crawl series of D&D sessions with varying DMs and players my roleplaying club is currently running, which doesn't bother with story but just has that classic door - monster - loot mechanic. And in spite of all the failings on the roleplaying and story side of both Octopath Traveler and the D&D hack & slash session, these games are fun, because the combat is fun.

That isn't to say that I wouldn't prefer a game in which both the story and the combat are great. But it isn't always possible to get everything you want. And when looking at the shortcomings of a game, I end up liking a game with flawed story and good combat more than the other way around. So when I looked at a Steam offer for Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom at 50% off yesterday (I played and liked Ni No Kuni I), I ended up not buying the game because the reviews that the world is fantastic, but the combat is a) action RPG combat and b) not so great.

My plans for the weekend: Playing Card Hunter, a game with little story but great tactical combat.

Thursday, August 09, 2018
 
D&D on US national TV

Just as an addendum to the previous post, I just saw in the news today that The Late Show with Stephen Colbert featured an interview with Joe Manganiello, in which the two talked for 10 minutes about how great Dungeons & Dragons is. In case you had any doubt, D&D has really gone mainstream. You can get a late show host and an actor talking about the game in a way that shows that both are serious players and appreciate the culture. Instead of just making fun of the nerdier aspects of geek culture, the two are celebrating it on national TV. Way to go, D&D!

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Sunday, August 05, 2018
 
Dungeons & Dragons "eSports"

Two weeks ago the CEO of Hasbro caused some confusion by mentioning Dungeons & Dragons and eSports in the same sentence. That was widely misquoted as "Dungeons & Dragons has a future in eSports". It doesn't. You can't "win" in Dungeons & Dragons, which makes the game eminently unsuitable as a sports competition. What really happened was that for Hasbro Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering are in the same business unit (Wizards of the Coast), and the CEO talked about the importance of Twitch and eSports for that business unit. What he meant was Twitch for Dungeons & Dragons, and eSports for Magic the Gathering.

Once you decoded the news, the sad part of it is that my complaint that the new Magic Arena is only targeting a small population of highly competitive players basically just got a response of "this is working as intended". Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast think that a highly competitive game that looks good as eSports on Twitch will drive sales. I'm still not convinced. A game like Starcraft makes for good eSports, because as a casual player you can still play it outside of tournaments without necessarily getting crushed immediately. Magic Arena doesn't have that protection. And due to the collectible "Pay2Win" aspect of Magic, a game that only has a highly competitive mode will quickly become inaccessible to new players.

The good news is on the side of Dungeons & Dragons. While not "eSports", a game of Dungeons & Dragons on Twitch or YouTube is often very watchable. Because it doesn't matter that nobody is winning, as long as the theatrics are good. There are a bunch of channels where people with some acting skill put on a really great show, which makes D&D on video sometimes even look better than reality (depending on the acting skills of your real life friends). And the Hasbro CEO is right that this has contributed to the stellar growth of Dungeons & Dragons since the release of 5th edition. He was right to correct Jim Cramer that D&D is not a "dead brand" any more, there is a huge revival ongoing where D&D is now bigger than before.

Dungeons & Dragons is a complicated game to get into. The duality of rolling dice on one level and playing a role on another level takes some time to grasp, and the rule books are thick. Seeing it played on video makes the idea of starting your own game appear a lot less daunting. (Pro Tip: If you would like to try starting to play Dungeons & Dragons with people who never played before, the Starter Set is excellent and contains everything you need to get started for under $20). YouTube also has channels on how to DM, or how to be a great D&D player. That is a lot of support that D&D didn't have the last time around. So while not eSports, Dungeons & Dragons does have a big future online as a watchable game, and unlike Magic Arena that online experience translates well into a fun experience at home.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018
 
I thought the bitch was white

The excuse of I thought the bitch was white for me summarizes all that is wrong with culture wars, on both sides. Because while people tend to be very partisan about the incident itself and the validity of the excuse, both sides accept the basic premise of it: Whether an insulting tweet of one person to another person is acceptable or not depends on the race (and gender) of the receiving party. Roseanne wouldn't have been fired if her target *had* been white. And I think that is wrong, the inviolability of human dignity should be sufficient argument to act against people spewing hate speech against others or making inappropriate remarks. Those others shouldn't need to be especially underprivileged.

Imagine one coworker telling another coworker, "you have a nice ass". Why is it that in today's society this would be a firable offence if and only if the speaker was male and the target female? Why shouldn't a man be accorded equal protection from such remarks, and regardless of the gender of the speaker? Why shouldn't a white person have the right to be offended (and protected against) if on the receiving end of a Planet of the Apes remark?

Not only do I believe the world would be a much better place if made certain insults and remarks generally socially unacceptable, regardless of who the target is. I also believe that affording certain groups a special protected status will just perpetuate the idea that these groups are somehow inferior. And ultimately it will create another group, that of those who aren't accorded any of these special protection statuses, which will end up being the "safe to insult and harass" group. You'll end up with white men pretending to be Muslim or gay, just in order to be protected from harassment.

Thursday, July 26, 2018
 
Out of the Abyss thoughts

I have spent much of my holidays preparing the second half of my Out of the Abyss campaign. I watched a series called Shane Plays on YouTube in which a DM explains how he run the adventure. I bought and read the Elven Tower Guide to Out of the Abyss. I studied the materials on the Out of the Abyss DMs group on Facebook. And I decided on the “default” sequence of events I would push the adventure in, if the players don’t express another preference. The amount of helpful material that is out there, and the time it took me to really understand the adventure tells me that Out of the Abyss is a deeply flawed book. The overall story is fine, but the execution is lacking: Information is all over the place, some important stuff is missing, and some is just badly crafted. Especially in the second half, where the encounters are all over the place in terms of challenge and interest.

I think that a good part of the problem is the idea to cram a campaign of 15 levels into a single book of 250 pages. For comparison, the Zeitgeist Adventure Path campaign that spans a similar range of levels is 1,300 pages long. That leaves one with two choices for Out of the Abyss: Either you use the book as a backbone for a long campaign, in which case you need to add a lot of stuff to it, especially in terms of encounters. Or you play the book as is, in which case players will level up very quickly. Having started in fast mode, that is how I will finish it. Which means doing the whole campaign in a total of 20ish sessions, which is about a year at the twice-per-month frequency we play. Not ideal, but then I think that after a year the players will have had enough of the Underdark and want to see something else.

The lack of material in the book also means that Out of the Abyss is not a good support for an Underdark sandbox campaign. Except for the two chapters dealing with travel in the Underdark at low and high levels, the remaining chapters are too linear and too focused on the story, with not enough details to support a sandbox approach. For example the chapter on Menzoberranzan is only 19 pages, and half of that is taken up by the specific Out of the Abyss story. You couldn’t run another adventure without using other books there.

I think my next campaign will either be Curse of Strahd or the shortened version of the Zeitgeist Adventure Path in 5th edition. Both have the advantage that I know the story very well, my group of younger players doesn’t, and both campaigns are narrower in level range. But first I need to finish Out of the Abyss. It is unfortunate how much preparation time this adventure takes, but now I have spent that time, I feel prepared.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018
 
Facebook

I have a weird relationship with Facebook. Some years ago I created an account under the name of Tobold and used it to play various games on Facebook. I had over 500 “friends”, because I just invited anybody I met in those games, as the games were designed to work better with more friends. That ended badly when Facebook correctly realized that “Tobold” is not the name that is written on my passport and decided to kick me out due to their “real names only” policy.

I still do have a Facebook account with my real name, but that one I only use for a handful of real world friends. I don’t like using my real name on the internet, using a pseudonym is my first layer of privacy protection. So I’m really not visiting Facebook all that often. I somehow got into my head that Facebook was for exchanging funny cat pictures, and not really of interest to me.

What I hadn’t realized was that Facebook has so many users, it can sustain user groups with really, really niche subjects. So lately I joined two groups: One exclusively for dungeon masters running the Out of the Abyss campaign, and one for people 3D printing tabletop miniatures. In spite of these groups both being obviously *very* specialized, they each have over a thousand members. I feel like I am connected to a large percentage of the people who share an exotic niche interest with me.

I’m still refusing to add friends to my real name account, but that’s just me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018
 
Octopath Traveler

I’m now 30 hours into Octopath Traveler, the new Square Enix JRPG exclusive for the Nintendo Switch. Good news if you don’t own a Switch: The game isn’t so good that you’d need to buy one. In fact I found Octopath Traveler less good than Battle Chasers : Nightwar. But Octopath Traveler is good enough for me to keep on playing, so I guess it’s okay.

What people remark first in Octopath Traveler is the graphics, which are fake 16-bit “classical JRPG” with added 3D and lighting effects. Pretty, but unfortunately not very practical. Often it is very hard to see what part of the scene you can walk on, so getting to let’s say a chest you see is harder than it should be. Besides invisible walls, the game has invisible monsters, or rather monster encounters are just completely random and can be spawned by walking in circles.

Combat is classic JRPG style, turn-based on a separate screen, with the monsters on one side and the heroes on the other. The novelty in combat is boosts, with heroes accumulating boost points every round, which they can use for stronger attacks when called for. Monsters also have weaknesses, so that hitting them with specific weapons or elemental attacks makes them vulnerable for further attacks. It’s a fin enough system, although I personally prefer the Overcharge system of Battle Chasers, especially since in Octopath Traveler mana regeneration is a bit of a problem for spellcasters. It gets better later in the game when gear and second jobs give you better mana regeneration.

The weakest point in my opinion of Octopath Traveler is the story. There isn’t one, at least not for the first 30 hours. Instead you get 8 individual stories for the 8 individual characters. And you can’t even follow one of those stories for more than one chapter due to levels: You need to do chapter 1 for each character, then do chapter 2 for each character, and so on. That makes the story experience rather disjointed, and it is unclear why the group would even travel together. Plus most of the individual stories are rather bad, or at least bland and generic, with the exception of Primrose. With each chapter following the same basic pattern, some dialogue in town followed by a dungeon with a boss at the end, story in Octopath Traveler is rather forgettable.

The class, skill, and level system in Octopath Traveler is allright. The only annoying thing is that you can’t freely change which 4 out of 8 characters are in your group. Until very late in the game you are stuck with your first choice of character. Fortunately I was aware of that, and took Alfyn the Apothecary, who has good group heals using cheap materials and no mana. The 8 characters also come with either a “noble” or a “rogue” version of 4 different skills that can be used with NPCs to get more information, to fight them, to get items from them, or to make them join the group temporarily. You need those skills to do various quests, but frankly I found those quests a bit annoying, as they are frequently about getting an item or person or information from A to B, but the game doesn’t necessarily tell you where the other location is. You basically need to talk to every NPC in every town and then connect the dots yourself. I rather cheat and use a side quest list. My least favorite part of the system is the rogue having to steal stuff, often with a low percentage chance. It just leads to save scumming, which isn’t fun at all.

On the positive side, Octopath Traveler is a huge game. After 30 hours I’m just half way through chapter 2, and I think there are 4 chapters. Think of it as 8 JRPGs glued together, with all the advantages and disadvantages such a collection has. Not my favorite game, but certainly playable for a long time, especially if you are the nostalgic type and love to see a new spin on this genre.

Saturday, July 21, 2018
 
Getting over idleness

If I look at my Steam account, the game I played the most is Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms with 1400 hours, way ahead of XCOM 2 with just over 200 hours (I played World of Warcraft more than that, but it isn’t on Steam). However that number for Idle Champions is completely fake: I have had my computer running with Idle Champions in the background for that time, but that isn’t really the same as “playing”. Idle Champions is comparatively tactical for a clicker game, your choices especially on formation matter, but it is still an idle game that runs best with very little supervision. It just is inconveniently set up in a way that the game needs to be running to reap rewards, you only get a fraction of the rewards when offline.

On the PC that isn’t much of an inconvenience. The operating system is called Windows because running several things at once is the main thing Microsoft wants you to know it can do. “Playing” Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms on the PC does in no way stop me from actually playing other games at the same time, or doing other things with my PC, like 3D printing. When run in full screen the alt-tab switching to another program has some weird bugs, and of course you could count the amount of electricity it uses as a cost, but other than that the background operation isn’t much of a problem. But I have the same game on my iPad, and because it only runs when it is in the foreground, that makes Idle Champions for iOS basically unplayable if you have other uses for your tablet / phone. And on a mobile device, electricity use in the form of battery drain is much more of an issue.

So in spite of a constant stream of new content and events being released for Idle Champions, I will stop playing the game on all platforms and uninstall it. It really isn’t a bad game, but for what it does it is nevertheless too much of a resource hog. I just guess it will keep its place on top of my Steam played list for a long time, if not forever.

What game is on top of your Steam list? Do you regret those hours played?

Friday, July 20, 2018
 
Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a computer role-playing game on many different platforms that takes the characters of a series of graphic novels onto a new adventure. It plays a bit like a JRPG in that combat moves the group from the overland map to a battle screen, where the heroes duke it out with the monsters in turn-based combat. But the graphic novel style graphics and the innovation in combat gameplay make the game feel very modern and fresh. One of the best RPGs I have played lately, and I just finished it on the Switch after 60 hours at max level 30.

You start out the game with just one character, Gully, but that very quickly grows to three. Over time you get up to 6 characters, but you can only take 3 of them in your group. While that first led me to some crazy group compositions because I wanted to get everybody to the same level, later in the game I used an A-team of the first three characters, and a B-team of the other three, and both teams worked quite well. You could play through the game faster by just using the original three characters and never switching, but what would be the fun of that?

The interesting aspect of combat is that your characters have both “actions” and “abilities”. Actions are free, instant, basic combat moves. Most of them generate “overcharge”, a form of temporary mana. Abilities use mana, and often have a casting time, but hit a lot harder. If you start using abilities right away, you will over time run out of mana. So using actions to create overcharge and than use that to power your abilities is the more sustainable option. But of course sometimes survival beats sustainability. The balance between the two, and the different actions and abilities the 6 characters have, make combat quite interesting, even over 60 hours.

Of course there is also gear, and it can not only be looted or bought, but also crafted. That starts out a bit complicated, as you need to find a crafting station in the random dungeons to do so. But over time you upgrade the shops in the only town to have crafting stations, and then its just a matter of finding the materials. You can craft not only gear, but also potions, and enchantments that improve your gear.

The game follows a more or less linear story through various overland locations and dungeons. The dungeons are pseudo-random, consisting of a distinct tile set for every dungeon in random configuration. You can run through the same dungeon several times, and sometimes you have to for leveling or finding certain items, but you can adjust difficulty from normal to heroic to legendary and get better rewards.

In spite of having played the probably most expensive version of the game on the Switch, I don’t regret the purchase. I probably won’t play it again on the Switch, in spite of a “new game plus” option, but I thoroughly enjoyed the 60 hours it took me to play through this. I still have an unplayed Steam version I got for cheap at a sale and forgot about, and might play that for a while to enjoy the larger screen. Recommended!

Thursday, July 19, 2018
 
Magic the Gathering Arena beta codes

Some years ago Wizards of the Coast published an article describing psychological profiles of Magic the Gathering players they called Timmy, Johnny and Spike. Basically Timmy and Johnny are more casual players, and there are far more of them than Spikes, who are tournament players. Now if you would make an online digital version of Magic the Gathering, which of those populations would you target? Obviously it should be all three, with special care being taken in attracting the more numerous casual players, like Hearthstone does. But instead WotC ditched the more Timmy & Johnny friendly Magic Duels and created Magic Arena, a game exclusuvely targeted at Spike players.

Me being very much a Johnny player, I totally hate Magic Arena. And with all I know about the online games market I would say that unless the game changes direction radically, it will be a flop. But as I have been playing lots of WotC games, I did get access to the closed beta. And now I received 5 more closed beta access codes, which I am going to post below to let you see for yourself. Please, if you use one of these codes, write a comment stating which one is taken, so that others don’t need to try out all of them to find an un-used one.

Here are the Magic Arena beta access codes:
cyy-zwm3-4u4
rz6-kkwa-cs9
hqk-gjkz-wgz
tm3-s5xf-17j
ngy-gbda-fap

Thursday, July 12, 2018
 
Switch on holidays

I have taken my Nintendo Switch with me on holidays to test its usefulness as a mobile gaming device. For that purpose I only took the main unit with the two JoyCons attached, not the stand to connect it to a TV. Now that I have been using the Switch for several days, this is what I think:

In terms of graphics and game quality, the Switch is doing quite well. There are a bunch of games available that you can play either on the PC or on the Switch, without the graphics on the mobile device being downgraded. However the 6.2” screen of course is much smaller than any PC or TV screen, and sometimes text is hard to read if the game was designed for a PC primarily. The JoyCon controls work quite well when attached to the main unit and used to hold it as well as control the game. However I primarily played turn-based RPGs, so not sure how well the controls would hold up for a platformer or shooter.

The main problem of the Switch is how much energy it consumes. It drains its own 4130 mAh battery in 2 to 3 hours. Knowing that I brought a 10000 mAh power bank, and even that was drained over the course of 5 hours, drawing 2 Amperes at 5 V. That was enough for my purposes, but if you wanted to play all day, you would need a bigger power bank, or stay connected to a wall charger.

I first wanted to play Disgaea 5, which I had bought with the Switch, but not used yet. Unfortunately it turned out that I didn’t like the game, despite fond memories of Disgaea 1 on a previous portable holiday gaming device (PSP). I then looked around what else to play and stumbled upon Octopath Traveler, with a free prologue demo available. I liked that, but the demo was limited to 3 hours, and the main game is only released tomorrow (I now pre-ordered it). So in the end the game I mostly played over the past days was Battle Chasers : Nightwar. Great game, but I already owned it on Steam (that fact slipped my mind when I bought it on the Switch), where I got it in a sale for 15 Euro, while on the Switch it did cost me 40 Euro.

So, yeah, the Switch is a viable option to bring as a gaming device on holidays. But if I was home I’d play the same game for cheaper on the PC, have a much bigger screen, and wouldn’t need to bother with a power bank. Fortunately Octopath Traveler is a Switch exclusive.

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