Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it's not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You've got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character's personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode's Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character's deck using cards you've acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can't just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren't particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players' attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it's possible to do great work this way. But it's also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn't have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it's designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it's hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia's highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You're going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that's all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as "the right way" and the random event firehose as "the wrong way", in truth it's a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn't be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror's "go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason".

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder's time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they're on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

13th Age

I've been fed up with D&D and its many incarnations (basically D&D 2, 3, 3.5, and 4, Pathfinder, and other d20 knock-offs) for some time now. The picayune rules complexity is painful and unwelcome; the generic European medieval fantasy gameworld is bland and uninspiring; its core activity of killing things and taking their stuff is vaguely unsettling; and the constant repetition of the same storytelling tropes has become tiresome. With small-press and indie RPG publishers doing so many interesting things, it's time to move on. My tastes now run much more towards a game like Arcana Evolved, a game based on the D&D 3.5 rules but one where Monte Cooke's wonderfully imaginative and well-realized world, driven by a distinctive creative vision, justified the complexity. Or Robin Law's Ashen Stars, which uses a simple, highly playable and player-driven game system in a terrifically-realized setting. Nonetheless, I was optimistic about 13th Age. The promise of a streamlined game system and higher expectations for player engagement appealed to me, but a d20 game based in a traditional D&D-ish fantasy world makes finding players much easier. Here was the possibility of happy compromise.

If you’ve played D&D4, the rules transition to playing 13th Age is relatively painless (and only somewhat less so, although perhaps a little more fraught, if you’re coming from D&D3 or Pathfinder). Your character sheet will look much simpler, but entirely familiar. You roll d20s for checks. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers define your character. Healing surges, saving throws, and attacks and defenses are all still there. Combat no longer uses a map grid, but otherwise has a similar feel. D&D4 may have had a variety of issues, but it did good work in terms of filing off needless rules complexity and making D&D a more playable game and less about searching for rules exploits. 13th Age pushes even further in this direction.

Although 13th Age races and classes are defined similarly to D&D4, they are clearly homages to incarnations past. They’re all here: Fighters, Wizards, Clerics, Rogues, Bards, and so on. Barbarians are simple to play, have only a few powers to activate even as they go up levels, and just wade into melee and kick ass and take names. Fighters are more sophisticated and have a variety of combat maneuvers that can trigger on every die roll. Rogues and Wizards reclaim their place as the most intricate classes, requiring both the management of lots of abilities and the creative use of strong but situational powers. Notably, Paladins are both playable and interesting, a first for a fantasy d20 game I believe (I can’t personally speak to Bards). Initially I was pleased to see D&D4's movement towards balanced classes, but I soon realized the fix (giving everything a high degree of symmetry) was as bad as the original problem (the classes no longer felt distinctive). 13th Age gets this right.

So far, this “just” adds up to a more skillfully executed version of D&D. 13th Age brings 3 key new ideas: character backgrounds, icons relationships, and one unique things  (there are some other ideas, including a magic item system that promises more than it delivers, but these are the big ones). Some aspects work better than others, and they all highlight both the potential and the pitfalls of the game.

Backgrounds replace D&D skills. Concrete skills (run, jump, diplomacy, etc.) are gone. Instead, you write backgrounds for your character, which can range from the straightforward to the esoteric: "temple guard", "reformed thief", and "hellhole commando" are some examples from the book. My last character, a dark elf paladin, had "Emissary of the Court of the Stars" and "The Queen's Executioner". If you need to make a skill check, just see if one of your backgrounds applies and use it as a bonus. This is terrific and gives you a lot of interesting leeway to both bring your character to life in a mechanically useful way, and add your creative voice to the setting (who knew the Elf Queen used elite assassins?). More games should do this.

Replacing the bizarre pantheon of D&D deities, 13 Age gives us 13 Icons – the mortal but incredibly powerful movers and shakers of the 13th Age world. Some of these are cool and add depth to the setting: The Archmage, The Crusader, The Great Gold Wyrm, and The Three. Some of them are startlingly generic: just the names of The Dwarf King, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, and The Orc Lord tell you most of what there is. All characters start with relationships with a couple of them, either positive, negative, or ambiguous. You roll a die for each of your relationship points at the start of a session, and 5s and 6s create “story hooks” which bring that relationship into that evening’s play. I like this is theory, but unless you’re playing in an extremely improvisational style, in practice it is at best a bit awkward. The throughline of 13th Age is still largely about killing things and taking their stuff, so GMs are going to spec out combat scenes (much easier than any version of D&D, but still some work) and work out the general adventure flow, so these relationship rolls serve mainly to provide riffing possibilities or flavor. Which is OK but not spectacularly interesting, and they also have a big risk: they can significantly damage party cohesion. If one player has picked the Crusader and the GM uses one of her relationship rolls as the hook for the adventure, how does she convince another player whose relationships are with the Elf Queen and the High Druid to come along? These icons have rather different agendas. 13th Age provides no inherent glue to keep parties with relationships to different Icons from coming apart. The first thing you need to figure out as a GM is how you keep your players together and focussed. These relationship rolls are sufficiently awkward that I suspect many GMs will end up looking at their players’ icon relationships and just regard them as story requests, and ignore the die-roll mechanics associated with them.

Lastly, the One Unique Thing is the simplest but also the most interesting aspect of your character. Usually just one short sentence, it describes what makes your character different from everyone else. The rules and examples give you significant leeway in interpreting just what “unique” means; you can go with “unique in the party” or “unique in the entire game world”. Some of the examples from the book are pretty mundane (“I am a former cultist”? Really?), and my preference is to be aggressive about making your uniques interesting and truly unique (my paladin’s was “I am the only elf who can withdraw from the mystical Elven dream consciousness”). Low-level D&D characters have always had the problem that they are generally incompetent and unremarkable stereotypes. Giving them a unique thing means everyone has a sense of destiny, even at low level (never fear, your one unique thing doesn’t have to be an accident of birth or ancestry, it could also be something earned or experienced prior to the start of play). One way to think about a unique thing is that it can be intriguing but non-specific – perhaps a question you don’t know the answer to that the GM can use as a hook to play off. But, it doesn’t have to say anything about the future; it could be something memorable that you did in the past that can give your character depth. To me, the best ones are the ones that say something about both your character and the world. The game itself doesn’t give what I would consider firm guidance on this though, it gives you a few soft suggestions and lets you figure out how you want to use them.

This I think is an example of where 13th Age, for all its many virtues, falls short because it hedges. It doesn’t have its own  premise, its own reason for existence, or if it does it doesn’t go all in. If you pick up Numenéra or Night’s Black Agents, those games are in no doubt about what they are trying to do creatively, and deliver what they promise. 13th Age is instead relying on you to tap into your long history of playing D&D and D&D-like games to bring along the elements of D&D that you like and meld them with the ideas in 13th Age. In terms of tapping into the largest available market of gamers, this is obviously great. In terms of presenting a game with a clear creative vision of its own that might compel you to play it, not so much. This wishy-washiness of how to play the game’s simplest, most important core idea – the uniques – is one way this plays out, but there are other important ways too. The gazetteer of the world is less than 20 pages long (counting art) and consists mostly of tropes and vague descriptions, and is too high level to be of much use once you get down to brass tacks and try to set actual adventures in actual locations. Only a few of the Icons have more than a column of useful text attached to them, while many – The Elf Queen, The Dwarf King – have perhaps two meaningful sentences of description, far too little for them to be useful as anything more than an access point to your repository of bad fantasy tropes regarding Elven Queens or Dwarven Kings (dwarves never being rules by queens, and elves only rarely by kings).

That might be fine, but let’s be honest here, these tropes are boring, predictable, and generally suck. It’s not enough to just do D&D with a better rules set that is more about creative play and less about creative rules exploits. I want to care about the world I’m playing in, to be part of the group not just because they needed a cleric and my character was available at the time.

So I find myself conflicted about 13th Age. The game design is great and is mechanically by far my favorite in the “kill monsters and take their stuff” genre. Not a high bar admittedly, but still! I love the backgrounds and the One Unique Things. I am less enamored of the fact that the gamemaster has to do so much heavy lifting to make the game work: flesh out the details of all the lightly-detailed icons and figure out what they are up to in her world; fill out the too-sparse bestiary; figure out some way to make sure the party is coherent; not just police the inevitable “awesome at everything” backgrounds and “I’m the only person who can fire at-will 10d6 fireballs from my eyes” uniques, but fill in all the guidance that the book lacks on how to corral players and the GM into a coherent campaign style that will produce interesting and useful uniques. Giving players freedom is great, but in order to be productive, that freedom requires constraints. Specifically, it requires the constraints of a setting. 13th Age seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be innovative and give players agency and all that, but it doesn’t want to scare off D&D and Pathfinder players by putting a stake in the ground. So it waffles. There is nothing more deadly to a creative enterprise than waffling.

For a sense of comparison, I’ve run both 13th Age and Ashen Stars recently. By virtue of Ashen Stars’ clear premise, strong setting, and clean system, I was able to put together my first story arc and successfully run it with less than an hour of prep time. By contrast, prepping an adventure for 13th Age was a time sink because so much world creation still needs to be done – fleshing out and determining the motives of the icons, figuring out their organizations, building cities, working with players’ varying and sometimes conflicting uniques, and so on. Because 13th Age lacks a Premise, the resulting chaos demands to be sorted.

I have nonetheless enjoyed playing 13th Age as a mild rebuke to the overwrought D&D tradition. The game system is elegant and does reward player creativity. It's easy to get into and lively. But for me, the bad fantasy genre of D&D-style roleplaying that 13th Age is channeling is not really in my blood, so 13th Age needed to do more than just show up and look cool to win me over. It fills a niche, and it’s a game I’ll probably enjoy playing from time to time, but for where I am in my roleplaying career it’s still not the answer.