Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Review of the Keep Part 2

So in my last post, and yes, admittedly it has been a couple of weeks... I reviewed prepping for a game session with NBOS software The Keep.

I have now had the chance to run 2 games from behind my laptop using The Keep, and can share my experience and advice angle.

First, having all of the information in one place was FAN-TASTIC.  No shuffling of papers, no needing to look things up, it was all just right there.  That said, if you don't put EVERYTHING in there, expect to still do some looking up and web surfing to find what you want.  This can mean that you might have to prep a little more to make the absolute most of out of the keep.  If you leave something out, that something might become important and require you to do some on the spot research, which is something we would all love to avoid.

That stuff aside, the best perk in the keep for my group was a little part of The Keep called the GM screen.  This lets you hook another monitor up to your laptop, and whenever you click on an image in the keep, it can be projected only to the second screen.  This allowed me to constantly be showing our group what they were fighting, I was also able to show a map in a PFS game when we fell way behind on time so that we could move things a long faster.  My players love the GM screen.

I'd be happy to answer any further questions, so ask away, and I still recommend The Keep!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A review of "The Keep" part 1

I am constantly trying to improve and evolve how I GM my games.  I genuinely enjoy the time it takes to prepare a game, so it doesn't become tedious.  I have become increasingly fond of using my laptop to help GM, and in light of that, this week I purchased a piece of software called "The Keep" from nbos.  (I purchased mine on Paizo, it was a couple dollars cheaper.)  Below is my review.

Price:  A bit steep actually.  Coming in at around 30 dollars.  This seems pretty in line with similar products though.  I would have much preferred paying about 10 bucks less.  But that's not to say that I think 30 is overpriced, but it is an expense that certainly is trivial, at least not to me.

First Impressions:  So I paid the seemingly high cost, installed the software to my flashdrive (cool feature, discussed below) and started the program.  As soon as it loaded, and I looked at the interface for the first time, I thought to myself "well... this sucks, what a waste of money."  The interface isn't flashy, there's no pop up that says "Start here" there really isn't anything that comes up right away to tell you what to do or how to make the best use of program.  So, I did what anyone would do, I just started playing with the buttons and seeing what happens...

10 minutes later:  I get it now, despite not being initially intuitive once I started playing with the program its functionality became much clearer.  You create a new entry, for me, this was to create "Carrion Crown," the adventure path my group is currently playing, then you give that entry 'children.'  Each child that I gave to carrion crown became rooms in the dungeon.  Then I could give those rooms children to post monster pictures, stat blocks, read aloud text for the room, all the knowledge DCs, skill checks, etc.

My old system was to use a word processor that contained all of the information for a room, all of the stat blocks for monsters in a room, and anything else I would need to know during gameplay.  The problem with this approach was that my documents would get long, and cumbersome.  I would end up with files like "SoG Prep" and "More SoG Prep" and "Prep for SoG," just because I didn't want huge text files that were unpractical to print, and hard to use quickly from the laptop.

The Keep takes away the need for this, with each room in the dungeon being it's own child, I can use the navigation panel to go anywhere I want.  I have completely cut out the need for using a word processor to help prep the game, I can do everything right there in The Keep.

Things I like:  I love that I can install the program to a flash drive.  I can work on prep now when I have downtime at work, and not have to do any conversions (Word at work, Open Office at home), emailing files to myself, uploading to dropbox, etc.  I can keep my flashdrive with me, and run The Keep from there.

The GM screen.  How functional this becomes for me, is yet unknown.  The GM screen feature allows you to have a second screen project an image, while you run the keep from the laptop.  This would allow you to show monster portraits or maps to the group, while you see everything else behind the scenes.  I haven't ran a game using The Keep yet, I'm still prepping, so I don't know well this work.  I'm still trying to figure out the best way to use it to show maps, without showing the entire map.  The Keep allows you to move an image around so that you can only show parts of it, but this seems clunky to try and keep parts of the map hidden.  I might use an image editing program to cut up my map, and show the parts to the group as they become revealed.

Built in PDF reading.  I have a subscription to Paizo's Adventure Path, as such, I get a PDF of every book for free.  Having a built in integration of PDFs to The Keep makes using these PDFs incredibly easy.  I can copy/paste, I can click between rooms of the dungeon and the room in the original PDF, etc.  I keep the bookmarks tab open in the PDF reader, and this makes quick navigation around what you need even easier.

What I'm Unsure about...
The Dice roller is not overly simple, there is a lot of clicking and weird things to do to say, roll a d20 +5.  That simple command would require:  1 click on the d20 dice, 1 click on the 1d20 button, 1 click on the add button, 1 click on the number range to add to, and a final click on the number 5.  By that time, I've done the math in my head.  I think I am going to be using Combat Manager with The Keep in order to handle rolls and combat.  The Keep wants to have everything a GM would need in one place, and it comes pretty close, but I'm unsure that its dice roller will be efficient enough to use during game time.

As I hinted above, I'm unsure about the GM Screen.  I like it, but I don't know that it will do everything that I would really like it to do.  Ideally, I could have my map, and I could have a fog of war type function that would let me reveal parts of the map as it is explored.  I think NBOS offers another piece of software that can do this, but it also has a cost, and I am not ready to give them more money yet.

I'm not sure how it is going to work during the game, but I will post part two of this review after it is giving its test drive on Sunday.  I don't anticipate problems, and I think I will like it, but I don't want to assume too much yet.

What I don't like:
The cost.  Its only 30 bucks, but then again, it is 30 bucks!  19.99 and I wouldn't have an issue at all with the cost, I also fear that the price tag will scare people away who could probably benefit by having a pretty good piece of software added to their arsenal.

The "uh..." moment that I had when I first loaded it.  A tutorial, a "start here", or even a built in campaign would have been helpful so that I would have a clue where to start.  First impressions are important, and this one sucked.

The 'other programs' that you can integrate with The Keep.  NBOS produces a character sheet creator, and a random table generator that can integrate with The Keep.  I have played, albeit briefly, with these other two programs, and they are intimidating.  They rely on a lot of coding, a lot of manual reading and referencing, and are very unfriendly to a new and casual user.

I do like The Keep.  A lot.  It can do a lot of things, and I constantly get new ideas to get even more functionality out of it.  I would certainly recommend it, if you have the cash to drop on it.  Don't let its first impression scare you away, it's worth a second look and worth taking some time to play with and figure out.

What software do you use to GM?  Are you using The Keep and have more ideas, further input?  Comment below!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A review of "Pathfinder Society Scenario #2-11: The Penumbral Accords"

Note:  This review is made entirely from the player side of the table.  I have not 'seen behind the screen,' so there will not be much information from that perspective.

There are also very big spoilers, so if you are planning on playing this scenario, and want to be surprised, you should probably not read much further.

Overview:  The Blackros family entered into a slave trading agreement with some 'bad guys' from the shadow plane.  Now that agreement entails giving over a couple of their own daughters, so the Blackros family wants the agreement to be broken.  The pathfinders are hired to go into the museum at night, and break the agreement and save the daughters.

Combats:  The combats were pretty good, though our particular group had a harder time with the golem than we did with the "boss" at the end.  The DR possessed by this golem made the fight take longer than it probably should have.  The raptor that we encountered at the very beginning of the encounter can also hit pretty hard.  It one shotted our party's eidolon, and it has quite a few natural attacks.  Fortunately, once we got some hits in on it, it didn't take long to get down.  The alchemist knocked our cleric unconscious, but our bard was able to save the day in recovering him.  So, at the end of the day, the combats were good.  They were challenging but not impossible, dangerous, but probably not pushing the TPK risk.  Of course, our GM may have been fudging some rolls, but I didn't perceive this from where I was sitting.

Role Playing:  There are some great opportunities to role play, and there are some moral decisions that have to bed made along the way.  The group encounters several slaves along their journey in the museum and these could really be played out if that's how your group likes to play.

Faction Missions:  Since this is a season 2 scenario, the newer factions will have to share missions with one of the original factions.  That's OK  but something to be aware of.  We had 3 people all doing the Taldor mission.  There is also some tension between a couple of the missions.  The Cheliax mission requires silence of one particular slave, whereas one of the other factions requires getting a slave to tell 'his story.'  This made for some RP tension between a couple of our characters.  If your group can handle that maturely, then it can be fun, otherwise it could be a bit of a problem.

Time/Prep:  Our GM had maps made ahead of time, but they didn't seem super complex.  There are a couple of mechanics from classes that a GM would have to be familiar with, the monk's ki, the alchemist, construct traits, low light fighting, and balance on slippery surfaces.  The entire scenario also only took our group 3 hours to get through.  I do not know if there was an optional encounter that was skipped or not, I didn't get a look at things from that end.

Overall:  I had a great time playing this mission out.  There is a little bit of a go to room, kill the bad guys, go to next room, kill the bad guys, but our GM did a good job of playing these out and not making them tedious.  The missions were fun, and made for some good RP options in our group.  The difficulty was challenging but never felt impossible.

I would recommend giving this one a play through, it was a good time as a player.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

H4X Android Magus

I have to admit.  I'm a softy for all the different races that exist in the Golarion Universe.  The Inner Sea Bestiary presented 4 new playable races, and I really liked 2 of them, was ok with 1 of them, and not impressed with the other... but that's another post all together.

One of the two races I really liked was the Android.  I know it is a little too futuristic / Sci-Fi for the purists, but I think it is a cool idea, could be super fun to play.  Being that I had a chance to make a new character for an online game using Rolld20, I decided to give the android a test drive.

Below I present to you H4X the Android Magus.

H4X like most other androids emerged from the technological ruins of Numeria.  He is programmed to be a deadly combatant with a scimitar.  The magic that H4X has developed however, was never part of his programming.  It is unknown how he developed any arcane abilities.  When asked when he became adept at magic, he is slightly confused.  He fails to see the difference as to what animates him, the biological races of elves and humans around him, the trees in the forest, the beasts on the ground, or the birds in the sky.  To him, all of that is magic, so the fact that he was able to spontaneously cast arcane spells is just as mysterious and remarkable as everything around him.  It is unlikely that he truly needs to study his spellbook everyday to prepare his spells, but that's what everyone else does, and H4X desires to be more of a 'person' and less of a 'machine' so he goes through the motions daily.  He can be seen attempting to eat, drink, and sleep, those these processes are also irrelevant to his functionality.

Despite his best efforts to 'fit in,' H4X remains an emotionless android.  Sarcasm, and humor are completely lost on him, he will often try to rationally explain a joke, or a pun, ironically to comic effect.  He is confused and intrigued by the randomness of human behavior, so creative plan making is sometimes difficult for him to carry out.  To him, most problems are black and white, problem - solution.

Once he acquires his familiar, it will be some sort of living creature, and H4X will go to great lengths to care for it and protect it.  Its well being will be a reflection of his desired humanity.

His stat block can be found HERE.  It is also copied below.  As H4X advances he will likely choose the following feats and Magus Arcana:
3)Extra Arcana - Familiar
3)Spell Shield
5) Weapon Focus - Scimitar
5) Arcane Magic
6) Empowered Magic
7) Improved Familiar
9) Intensify Spell
9)Prescient Defense

From here on out, damage, and survivability is key.  There are a lot of good guides to aid in feat and spell selection for a Magus.  Don't ignore those, and don't worry about mixing and matching ideas.  He starts out fragile but a good spell selection and careful play should balance him out as he progresses.  Get some wands, and some gaze spells for the familiar to abuse the action economy that the Magus already has.

The build presented was created with a 20 point buy, it also assumes you are comfortable with a big dump to Charisma.  This is mechanical as well as for RP flavor, H4X lacks emotions, and humanity, his ability to be diplomatic or intimidating, or even to bluff all rely on a more complex understanding of those things, which he would lack.

Regardless of ability score generation method you should prefer:

In a 15pt buy, I would build him:

For Traits:
I took Reactionary:  Explained as how he was programmed to be deadly with a sword, so when a threat arises  he is quick to respond.  It's not an emotional reaction, its part of his programmed combat abilities.
Focused Mind:  Doesn't let external things distract him, easy to explain from an RP standpoint, important to be able to cast in melee as that's whats a Magus does.

You don't have to spend a ton on the scimitar, you'll get abilities to buff it.  That said, don't neglect it, it is THE thing that H4X is most familiar and trained for.
Celestial Armor, or other buffs to the Chain Shirt are good early.  As your armor proficiency increases, progress with it.  AC bonuses are good. He doesn't have a high dex, so you'll have to compensate for that.
Pearls of Power:  Yes.  Get them.  Yes you can recall some spells, more recalls are always good.  The lower level the better value of a Pearl of Power.
Blessed Books:  Also good if you want to put a bigger focus on your spells, lets you add more spells more afford-ably to your book.
Items that boost Str and Int are the other ways to go.

Early on, your tactics have to be smarter.  He starts fragile at level 1.  His AC and HP will get better, but he'll never be a 'tank.'  Using the scimitar with 2 hands when you aren't casting helps a lot with damage, without any risk to hit, so use it frequently early on.   Once you're able to spell strike, shocking grasp is the way to go, Walter's Guide to the Magus talks about keeping it relevant.

You're a great watch at night, your perception is low, but you don't have to sleep.  How this interacts with getting your spells back is up to your GM so iron that out before you neglect the normal night time routine.  My guess is that any reasonable GM will let you get your spells back 'each day' as long as you aren't abusing the fact that you don't sleep.  So don't do things like crafting while everyone else sleeps.

Use his Nanite surge responsibly.  It doesn't have to be used for an attack roll, it can be used for a SV or a CL check to overcome SR, or an important concentration check.  Use it responsibly, you only get it once a day.

Male Android Magus 1
NG Medium Humanoid (Android)
Init +3; Senses Low Light Vision, Darkvision 60 ft, Perception +2
Languages Common, Elven, Goblin, Draconic
AC  15, Flat Footed 14,  Touch 11
HP 10
Fort +3, Reflex +1, Will +1 (+4 Racial bonus vs Mind Effecting, Paralysis, Poison, and Stun) Not
subject to fatigue or exhaustion, Immune to disease, sleep, fear, and emotion effects.  Cannot benefit from
a morale bonus.
Speed 30 Feet, 6 Squares
Melee   Scimitar +4 (1d6+4) 18-20/X2 One Hand or
              Scimitar +4 (1d6+6) 18-20/X2 Two Hand
Ranged Longbow +1 (1d8) X3
Magus Spells Prepared:
1st Level (2/day):  Color Spray (DC 14), True Strike
0 Level (At Will): Acid Splash, Arcane Mark, Mage Hand
Special Attacks:  Nanite Surge, Spell Combat
Abilities Str 18 (+4), Dex 12 (+1), Con 12 (+1), Int 16 (+3), Wis 8 (-1) Cha 6 (-2)
BAB 0, CMB +4, CMD 15
Feats Extra Arcane Pool
Traits Reactionary, Focused Mind
Skills Climb +8, Knowledge: Arcana +7, Knowledge: Dungeoneering +7, Perception +2, Spellcraft +7
SQ Nanite Surge, Arcane Pool, Cantrips, Spell Combat
Combat Gear Chain Shirt, Scimitar, Longbow, 20 Arrows.  Other Gear Backpack, Spellbook
(Contains: all zero level spells, Color Spray, Grease, Shocking Grasp, True Strike, Vanish) 33 gold
Constructed (Ex):  You can as a humanoid and a construct. You have a +4 bonus to resist Mind Effects, Paralysis, Poison, and Stun. You are immune to fatigue, exhaustion, disease, sleep, fear, and emotion effects. You cannot benefit from a morale bonus.
Emotionless (Ex):  You are emotionless and take a -4 to sense motive checks.
Nanite Surge (Ex):  Once per day as an immediate action, you can make your nanites surge to grant you a +3 bonus to a single d20 roll. You must declare you are using this ability before you roll, and it causes the tattoos on your body to glow for 1 round.
Arcane Pool:  You have an Arcane Pool of 6, you may spend a point to give your weapon a +1
enhancement bonus, this stacks with magic bonuses on your weapon to a maximum of +5.
Spell Combat:  You can attack and cast spells in the same round, as long as 1 hand is empty. You take a -2 to attack rolls when you use this ability.

A Reevaluation of House Rules - Ability Scores

It was about a year ago, when I decided "Hey, my table needs some house-rules, that's what all the 'cool' gms do, and ya... I'M that cool..."

In the past year, there have been some successes with those rules, and there have been some failures with those house rules, and now I am considering version 2.  Let's talk about one of those rules I have been using, and what changes I am considering.

The biggest rule as far as how impacts the game, as well as the rule that I want to change the most is the rule governing ability scores.  Right now, our house rules say that each character starts with a 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8.  If they write a back-story, and include relevant traits, they get three free points to distribute however they want.  After racial adjustments, nothing can be higher than 20, there can only be 1 score less than 10, and nothing less than 7.  The original intent of this rule was to create balanced characters that really couldn't be min-maxed.  For those purposes, it has worked.

The problem with this rule, is that is has shoe-horned classes to certain races.  Having a race with a -2 becomes hard to use, as typically you would use a race that has a -2 to an ability score that you don't need.  So, that's where you want to assign the 8 as well.  However, this creates a 6 which is too low.  You can't let the -2 go to your second 'dump stat' and give it the 10, as then you would have two scores less than 10.

As I consider how to address this problem, I am considering two options.  The first is to go old school and roll for those scores.  That's how the Core Rule Book says to do it anyway.  The other option is a point buy, 15 or 20 most likely.  Neither of these options create definite character balance, and point buy certainly opens the door to min-maxing.  As I write this though, I ask myself, so what?  In the real world, some people are better at others at certain skills.  Even in fantasy fiction, some characters do some things better than others.  Balance is widely a myth, both for realism and for fantasy fiction.  Min maxing is the same.  Both methods, point buy, and dice rolling, are the methods advocated in the CRB.  So maybe the house rule that I used to make the game better, didn't really achieve that.  I should have just followed the core rule book all along.

How do you generate ability scores in your game?  What's your advice to a fellow GM?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My thoughts on Goblinworks and Pathfinder Online

Those familiar with tabletop RPG gaming are certainly no stranger to Paizo and its flagship product the Pathfinder RPG.  Last summer the company announced that an online "version" of Pathfinder would be developed by a spin-off company, Goblinworks.  Over the summer, Goblinworks ran a hugely successful kickstarter to gain funding for a technology demo of the new Pathfinder MMORPG.  And in December, they attempted to capitalize on previous success and start a second kickstarter with the goal of speeding up the game's development.  With six days remaining the second kickstarter is over 300k short of its one million dollar goal.

Regardless of how this kickstarter ends, I can't wait for the week to end, and the kickstarter to go away.

This sounds harsh, and let me be clear about a couple things before I go into more detail on my thoughts on the matter.

First, I am big fan of MMORPGs... Or rather, I used to be.  I grew up on EQ classic.  "You died?  Hope you can find a necromancer to summon your corpse."  "Oh, you ran through Kithicor Forest at night?  Hope you can find a necromancer to summon your corpse."  I branched out in many other classic MMOs, Shadowbane, Guild Wars, EQ2, Dark Age of Camelot, and of course eventually World of Warcraft.

My wife and I played WoW nightly, we were in a raiding guild, we made "real-life" friends, it was "our thing" to do for a very long time.

The third member of our house changed all of that... It's really hard to raid when the baby needs to eat.  So, we drifted away from WoW.  It was soon thereafter that I discovered a way to scratch the itch that no more RPG left behind, when I discovered table top RPGs, which brings me to my second big point...

I am a big fan of Pathfinder.  I am still a youngin' when it comes to table top RPGs.  I had wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons for as long as I can remember.  But finding groups, especially if you don't know anyone else who plays can be daunting, especially for us old folks who tried to get into it before the explosion of social networking.  About 3 years ago, while investigating my curiosity I came across a program sponsored by Wizards of the Coast know as "Encounters" that was hosted at a game store not far from my house.  So I ventured out the front door, leaving the wife at home, and wandered into new territory.  From then on, I was an enthusiast.  As my appreciation and enjoyment with the hobby grew, I inevitably discovered Paizo and Pathfinder, and my group of fellow newbies (wife included by now) decided to give it a spin and try to save the world through the Carrion Crown adventure path.

We never looked back.  The small collection of D&D books I had acquired were sold off, as soon as possible once Wizards of the Coast announced "D&D Next," and though I took a loss, I was happy to have some money back in my pocket and the books off of my shelf.

Today, my collection is far from small.  I have 4 complete adventure paths, 6 or 7 big hardback books from the core line, and numerous player companions, campaign settings, and modules.  To say I love Paizo and Pathfinder would likely be an understatement.

So, a Pathfinder MMO should be a perfect fit for me, right?

Not so much.

When I want to be a hero these days, I don't rely on a digital representation of said hero.  I don't spend hours upon hours putting up with obnoxious internet users to gain some new pixels to adorn said hero.  I spend those hours around a table with my wife, and increasingly more and more our son, some good friends, and some dice.

The new baby girl needs to eat?  Ok, lets take a little break.  No need to worry about finishing a fight, or ruining other people's fun while you have to go "AFK."  We don't have to devote every night to gaming, we spend about 1 night a week.

I for one, have no interest in going back.  I don't want to have to log in and 'maintain' my character.  I don't want to risk griefers having their enjoyment at my expense.  I don't want to have to worry if my wife and I both have computers capable of running the new game and its expansions.

To be blunt, I have no interest in Pathfinder Online.

It is my hope that when this kickstarter expires, that Paizo will put just a little distance between itself and Goblinworks.  I enjoy using some free time to check the Paizo forums, and the front page is my window as to what's 'trending' right now.  More and more this window is dirty with discussions about an online game that is 4 years away, and that I don't care about. Yes, that's a small complaint, and I might be in the minority, I'm OK with both of those things.  I look at it at it this way, Pathfinder and Pathfinder Online are two different things.  Paizo and Goblinworks are two different companies.  Sure, they're related, but they're different, if I want to read about one of them and take part in one of their forums, I want to be able to do that without dealing with the other one.

Separate the games, separate their websites, clean my window! 

((In the interest of full disclosure, I did support the first kickstarter.  The dirty secret?  I only did it to get a cheap PDF of a dungeon that I could use at my table.  The second kickstarter really cemented my apathy for the whole thing.  I couldn't help but think, "I already gave you money once, and now you want a million more?"  I may, again, be in the minority here, but I'm pretty sure there are others who share my disenfranchised attitude towards another request for money.))

What are your thoughts?