Challenging the Supremacy of CCGs

Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) is an old game.

Sort of.

It was just released by Fantasy Flight Games at GenCon last year. In it's current iteration it follows Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" (LCG) model used by it's other popular games Netrunner, Star Wars: Destiny, and a Game of Thrones LCG. You see, L5R used to be a Collectible Card Game (CCG) in the same vein as Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon. After it's release in 1995 the game soared in popularity into the late 90's and only died quite recently in 2015 - to be reborn from it's CCG ashes in the format of an LCG in 2017. The difference in the two business models is simple but profound.

In a CCG one is expected to buy booster packs of randomly distributed cards, usually with a single "rare" guaranteed inside. The result is players having to buy tons of booster packs to get the exact cards they want or buying cards individually at a considerable mark up if a card is considered tournament viable. Since I was a young boy burning lawn mowing money buying small pieces of cardboard and D&D books, getting cards from booster packs is just the way things were done. I didn't find it weird (and no one else seemed to at the time) that booster packs were essentially gambling. Plunk down your 4 dollars for a shot at the jackpot rare!

In the LCG format there are no artificial rarities created by the games publisher. Instead of buying randomly distributed booster packs, players purchase a "core" box of cards. The core set includes the rules, tokens, and roughly 240 cards. The cards included are enough to make "starter" (slightly smaller than tournament legal) decks for each of the seven clans in the game. If you are familiar with Magic or Pokemon, clans are roughly analogous to mana color or element type. There are also a number of "neutral" cards which can be played in any clan's deck.

That one 30 dollar box gives you everything you need to get a taste for the game's different clans and decide whether or not you want to play more. For those enamored with the game after playing with their starters and want to play more competitive decks, you must purchase 2 additional core sets. Why? Because each core set includes 1 copy of each clan card, and 2 copies of every neutral card. In L5R a deck can have up to 3 copies of a single card. Having 3 core sets allows you to build 2 full size tournament legal decks with up to 3 copies of your clan cards and it gives you 6 of every neutral card (enough for 2 decks to share the same neutrals). This same 3 core model is followed by all of Fantasy Flight's LCG products.

You may be saying to yourself "Hang on a second, that's almost 100 bucks to buy into this game with a full deck!" You're right. A full deck in Magic can be bought pre-constructed for around 15 dollars. You and your buddy could be playing technically tournament legal decks for a buy in of 30 dollars. Very quickly you'll realize that a lot of the cards in that pre-constructed deck are junk however. Your friend will buy a few booster packs and upgrade their deck and you will have to follow suit. In this way a new addiction to the cardboard crack of Magic is born.

With the LCG model luck is removed from the equation and extra cards aren't to be found. New cards are added to the base set of the game at regular intervals, but each new pack contains every card in that set. There is no fishing through boosters for that one card that makes your deck click together. One purchase gets you a full play set of every new card. Economically the two styles of card game take reverse approaches.

CCG's have a low up front investment cost with a high lifetime cost. LCG's have a high up front investment cost with a lower lifetime cost. Even over the life span of the average player if these two propositions even out with time the LCG offers one gameplay benefit over the CCG that tips the scale towards LCG games. By virtue of the fact that LCGs give the players who buy in every card available in the design space, a player never has to commit to a particular style of play.

In Magic, if I get bored of my current deck I have to rummage through the rest of my cards and see what I can put together. Unless you have a huge collection already worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, invariably that deck will have some weak points that need to be shored up and then it's back to the game store for more cards.

In the LCG model if my buddy swaps in some cards that start devestating me, I have access to the exact same cards and every other card in the game to come up with a new strategy. There is no going back to the store (except to play or buy new expansions every few months). You can build the exact same deck as the one that is winning the big tournaments, without shelling out 300 dollars for a play set of mythic rares. You've already got all the pieces of that championship deck sitting right there on the shelf.

What I love about this is how it keeps deck building and player skill at the forefront of the game. The focus in a Living Card Game is heavy on the Game. The focus in a Collectible Card Game is heavy on the Collectible. Over the long term I'm not sure which strategy is better from a business perspective. As a consumer, the LCG model is far friendlier and keeps the cost of playing competitively far lower. It remains to be seen if any of Fantasy Flight's LCGs can make a dent in the lumbering behemoths of Magic and Pokemon, still by far the most popular card games of this type in the world. It is refreshing to see a new take on the card game genre and I know which one I'll be putting most of my dollars behind in the future.

Painting White Plume Mountain

I had to keep most of these hidden away from my player's long enough to try and surprise them when we ran White Plume Mountain, but now I thought I'd show off some of the paint jobs. I'm particularly happy with the pewter ogre with his big tree trunk club modeled after the art in the 3rd edition Monster Manual. 

White Plume Mountain in the Realms

I recently ran White Plume Mountain over a weekend D&D bender for my regular play group. It's a very short and brutally designed puzzle dungeon that has a long history in D&D, one of the few modules for the original edition of the game that has been updated for damn near every edition since including 5th edition. The compilation book Tales from the Yawning Portal has seven classic adventures including of course, White Plume Mountain.

While Tales does include gorgeous new art of the mountain and updated traps and monsters it doesn't do much more besides replicate the sparse introductory text used in the original modules to try and give hooks for player characters. When White Plume Mountain was first published stories and cohesive world building wasn't something TSR thought players or DMs cared much about - or if they did they would do that on their own. Fair enough.  Tales itself doesn't bother to give the DM much help bringing the adventure into Faerun, the 'default' setting for 5th edition. In fact it provides exactly one sentence:

Forgotten Realms. The mountain can be placed near Mount Hotenow in the region of Neverwinter.
— Tales from the Yawning Portal, pg. 95

Sounds like a tale from the yaaaaaawning portal amirite?

Being the sort of person who can't be content to not know how and why White Plume Mountain exists in Faerun instead of Greyhawk (where it was first published) I had to explain where Keraptis and his mad lair came from. So let me present to you how I would have written this section of Tales and how I made this mad adventure slot into my personal Faerun campaign.

Step 1) Re-Write the Legend

The module has always come with a "The Legend of Keraptis" page which can be given to the players to provide them with what the general hearsay about this Keraptis character is. Since this adventure is published in Tales from the Yawning Portal and the Yawning Portal is an actual tavern in Waterdeep with a great bar tender I re-wrote the Legend as if he was telling it with some extra Faerunian flavor.

Take a seat by the fire my friends. Mind the well in the center of the floor now, unless ye wish to be facing the Undermountain. But that’s a  tale for another day.

You’re here to listen to my tale of the mountain. White plume mountain.  They say it sits on the land like a boil, somewhere in the mere of dead men south of Neverwinter - ever smoking a white cloud from its peak into the swampy air. It is the lair of the mad wizard Keraptis… or so I’ve been told.

He was once one of the mages of Netheril before it’s fall into ruin. He was known even among the extravagant Netherese magi as a cruel eccentric. He delighted in magically creating new monstrous creatures as well as diabolical magical traps to test them against. But after the collapse of his society, Keraptis had nowhere to indulge his sadistic magical research.

He searched Faerun for a desolate place he would not be disturbed. After a time he retreated into the mere of dead men where he found White Plume Mountain. He burrowed within its rock, accompanied only by his cohort of enslaved gnomes - using them to tunnel out the mountain to his insane desires.

That was over 1800 years ago. Keraptis had long since faded into legend and then into a faint memory, only remembered by the most learned sages of ancient history when the Lord’s of some of the most powerful cities in Faerun received a strange letter recently.

It informed them that one of the most valuable artifacts in each of their royal treasuries had already been stolen. They had been taken into the heart of the mountain and if they wished to have them back they must send a champion - one from each city. The letter wasn’t signed except for a with a large K covered in writhing snakes.

And so each of the lord’s contacted each other and learned of their shared predicament and each in turn elected champions to retrieve their prized possessions. Know that if you too step foot into the mountain in search of those legendary artifacts, you will be merely playing a game devised by a demented 1800 year old wizard for his sick entertainment. Of course if you won, you would be extraordinarily rich… and could maybe pay back your bar tab with a few extra gold dragons for your old friend Durnan.
— Durnan Dryndilstann, Owner of the Yawning Portal

Step 2) Keraptis and the Mountain in Faerun

Next I fleshed out a bit of the historical background for this wizard and where he ended up. He's supposed to be old, even the original adventure has him over a millennia old. In Faerun this lines up pretty well with the fall of Netheril, which happened to be filled with powerful wizards.

Keraptis in the Realms

Keraptis was a Netherese wizard who survived Karsus’ Folly, having already left their floating cities by the time the disaster occurred. Keraptis cared little for the fate of Netheril, only interested in furthering his own magical experimentation. He was particularly fond of magical items, a good number of which “disappeared” when Keraptis left his floating city for good. He fled into the mere of dead men and isolated himself within the lone mountain that rose from the miles of swampland around it.

Keraptis grew sadistic in his isolation. The gnomes he hired to carve the dungeon became it’s first slave denizens. He delights in luring powerful monsters and adventurers into the mountain and trapping them there forever as it’s new protectors.

When Keraptis approached death he undertook the final ritual to become a demi-lich. Keraptis had spent centuries learning every rock and gemstone that made up the interior of the mountain. He placed his soul into those gems, diffuse throughout the mountain making the very earth around his dungeon his body and phylactery. He has absolute dominion over the dungeon and still directs and mentally dominates his minions within it, able to cast spells within at will and even shape new rooms. Keraptis however takes great pride in his current dungeon layout, having used it to sadistically kill and enslave great monsters and heroes alike.

It has been over a millenia since any powerful adventurers have wandered in for Keraptis to play with and he grows bored. So in the year 1493 DR he decided to insight some chaos. He stole 3 magical artifacts, one from each of the largest civilized settlements near him. He took Whelm the Warhammer from Mithral Hall. He stole Wave the Trident from Waterdeep. Blackrazor the Sword was taken from Westgate.

Geography of the Mountain

White Plume Mountain is located deep in the Mere of Dead Men on the Sword Coast, between Neverwinter and Waterdeep.

From Faerun Wiki: “The Mere itself was full of trees, vines, quicksand, and hidden islands, and it was generally covered in fog, making visibility very poor. The bones of fallen creatures were clearly visible throughout the Mere. The water was deep enough that it could be navigated on a flat-bottomed boat, but the dark water and hidden obstructions made that choice dangerous.”

Tales of the mountain and its eternal geyser occasionally make their way out of the Mere by the rare adventurer or lost merchant who goes deeper into the swamp and lives to tell of it. Rumors of a fierce tribe of Bullywug who inhabit the stretches of swampland surrounding the mountain’s base have kept people away - not to mention the will-o-wisps, trolls, giant vermin, lizardfolk, hydras, and doppelgangers that infest the heart of the Mere.

Only the rare sage still know that it houses inside the ancient lair of Keraptis of Netheril.

Step 3) Re-Write the Letter

The final part that I felt needed to be updated was the poetic letter Keraptis sends to taunt the lords he has stolen from. I decided to edit some of the opening stanzas in order to hint at the location of the mountain within the mere of dead men. I have a digital hand out version with a background and a printable version with only text. Printing it on some parchment paper made a great handout at the table. 

So there it is. Hopefully you have a clearer picture of how this dungeon could fit into the Forgotten Realms or maybe it sparked some ideas for how you would do it completely differently. That's the fun of Dungeon Mastering, happy gaming!

My New Game: Star Wars Risk - Black Series

Welcome to the first installment of "My New Game" where I give my off the cuff impressions after playing a new game for the first time. These shouldn't be considered full reviews but quick first impressions to give you an idea about whether or not you will have fun with the game in question.

Star Wars: Risk has absolutely nothing to do with Risk as you know it. About the only things the two games have in common is that they require rolling dice and take place on a board divided into sections. I'm a fan of Risk and my wife is a mega-fan of Risk in all it's flavors which certainly helped me convince her to buy this game with me. That said, a more appropriate title for this game would be something like Star Wars: Battle for Endor or something similar. This is a Star Wars board game first, the Risk label is purely branding and marketing and not reflective of the mechanics.

I point this out in case you were primarily interested in the game as a fan of Risk. So throw everything you know about Risk out the window and approach this game with a fresh mind. What have we got here?

The game covers the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, with mechanical representations of all 3 of the major conflicts occurring at the climax of the original trilogy. The main conflict is the battle between fleets in orbit around the fully operational 2nd Death Star. The two other conflicts are Han's strike team on Endor trying to disable the shield generator around the Death Star and the one on one battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Each player has to manage all three of these conflicts, balancing their attention between them. Every round the Rebel and Empire player choose 3 order cards from their hand of 6 to command their forces. Since only 3 orders are issued per turn, which conflict to engage with how much and when seems to be the prime strategic consideration.

The ultimate goal for the rebel player is to destroy the Death Star at the center of the board. In order to do this, they first must win the ground battle and disable the shield generator. The Death Star is invulnerable to fire from the rebel's ships until those shields are down. The Imperial player can spend their time trying to slow the ground assault by throwing storm troopers at the situation or push harder on the fleet so it doesn't matter as much if the shields go down. Or they can ignore those battles entirely and focus on trying to kill Luke, which will force the rebel to use orders to combat Vader rather than push the ground assault.

After my first game I found the design of the board to be somewhat misleading. All 3 battles are important to the outcome of the game, so why is over 2/3rds of the board taken up by the space battle? In fact, given how important the ground assault is to winning the game it's disappointing that they opted to keep that part of the battle as a single linear track on the side. There are storm trooper minis provided but no pieces for Han or the rebel strike team beyond a cardboard token. The ground assault mechanically ends up amounting to nothing more than hoping for rolls over a certain number which becomes progressively higher as they approach the shield. The best the imperial player can do is make that number 1 higher by placing a storm trooper in the rebel's path.

The battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is similar dice flailing and hoping for luck. Each order used to command one of the two duelists lets them roll 4 dice and on a 4, 5, or 6 result they deal a wound to their opponent. Like the Endor ground assault, this part feels like it could have been fleshed out with more tactical considerations and is lacking compared to the space combat. Luck isn't the only factor, I enjoy the strategic consideration of where to spend your three orders - I just wish there were more influence possible on the outcome of those orders. Perhaps this luck factor in execution is where the DNA of this game intertwines with Risk the most.

Ironically the part of the game that looks like traditional risk has a huge diverging factor from the original. In all variants of Risk that I have ever played two people roll a set of dice. The attacker rolls and the defender rolls and then these numbers are compared with the defender winning ties. As far as I'm aware that single mechanic is the backbone of Risk and it is not to be found here. The space game itself has the best tactical part of the game however. You cannot move into a sector with enemy ship types which lended a strong feeling of forming a blockade to playing as the Imperial TIEs. Once the shields were down it still took a few rounds for the Rebel's to punch through and take out the Death Star.

So is the strategy particularly deep? No, not really. Does it play like a game of Risk across the Star Wars galaxy? Nope. What it does give you is a casual strategy game that you can play out in less than an hour for two people. I can see pulling this off the shelf when I'm in the mood for something less intense and less time consuming than Dead of Winter or the Game of Thrones Strategy Game. It would be a great game to play with kids who are Star Wars fans too. It's perfectly on level for a 10 year old to have a blast with or older Star Wars fans looking for a quick and simple strategy game. If you want something with a lot of depth and replayability then you should look elsewhere.

New schedule, more content!

I had to hire an adventuring party to clean out the kobolds who had taken up residence in the empty corners of my blog. It's been rather quiet here for a few months owing to terrible, horrible things. Such as the holidays and my dayjob and being lazy.

To combat the entropy of these kinds of things, like a good D&D group, the writing and posting here will be a regular weekly occurrence. I'll be making sure that a new post goes up every Wednesday - except of course when they don't. But that is the plan.

There is so much I have wanted to write about: great games to review, monsters and lore to share, reports of my exploits at the LGS in search of glory.

But wait, there's more!

In addition to writing more about tabletop gaming I also intend to start putting up video content - specifically sharing my D&D groups roll20 sessions. We are just on the cusp of wrapping up the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign and will be moving into an epilogue taking their characters from 14 to 20 on an adventure to the farthest corner of Faerun. While it contains spoilers for the way that our campaign played out which in some way is similar to other PotA campaigns, the epilogue will be all new material that delves deeper into how I have fleshed out the background threats of the campaign. I think it will be a good hopping on point to the story for viewers. It's going to be epic!

I'm working out the logistics of how to record and edit that in the best way possible and I can't wait to start sharing our adventures with the wider world.

Tenser's Tapping Stick

The 10-foot-pole is one of those weird artifacts left over from the original days of D&D. Given the way the game is played today one could be forgiven for not understanding why such a mundane and unwieldy object finds itself in the 5e Player's Handbook adventuring equipment section. Listed simply as "Pole (10-foot), 5 copper, 7lbs" the pole doesn't even get its own description in the more detailed explanation of some adventuring gear. In fact, the only other mention of a 10-foot pole in the PHB is on page 190 where it is mentioned that tapping a 10-foot pole counts as a type of incidental action not requiring an action (like opening or closing a door).

In the old days of Dungeons and Dragons, long before the coming of the 3rd age and the d20 system, skill checks weren't a thing. Traps were dealt with on a less game mechanical basis and tended to have their mechanisms described in clearer detail. For player's to get past these traps, a great deal of careful poking and prodding could be helpful.  The first edition of the game is also notorious for its insta-death traps, deadly caustic slimes lurking out of sight, spheres of annihilation casually hanging out in statues, etc. Hence the 10-foot-pole was found to have boundless uses for the first wave of players in the game.

Due in part to 3rd edition and its "disable device" skill, this style of playing out traps fell out of favor with gamers who didn't want to tediously tap their way forward to avoid trip wires. I think 5e further improves on the streamlining of traps in gameplay with the addition of passive perception to avoid exactly that type of scenario.

And even though I began the game in the 3rd edition era and never dealt with much 10-foot-poling myself, I do have a soft spot for gaming traditions. To honor that tradition and to further play around with the D&D beyond homebrew tools, I bring to you my first spell to be added to D&D Beyond.

Tenser's Tapping Stick

Converting Mage Knight Minis for Dungeons & Dragons!

I've been preparing myself to run the classic adventure White Plume Mountain for some friends over the upcoming holidays in December. White Plume Mountain is a puzzle dungeon or what Matt Colville calls a "Funhouse Dungeon". Being the over achieving kind of DM that I am I want to get accurate miniatures for all of the weird creatures that prowl the tunnels of the mountain.

One of the puzzle rooms makes use of five flesh golems. I'm trying to save time and only hand paint the major monsters and characters in the dungeon, using pre-painted miniatures for the more common dungeon monsters. Well, painting five flesh golems would certainly set me back some time that I could be better using on more interesting minis. The problem for me was those darn flesh golem miniatures are freakin' expensive.

What is a Dungeon Master short on time and money to do? Find some Mage Knight miniatures that would get the job done is the answer! A lot of Mage Knight miniatures are super cheap compared to D&D due to the comparative popularity of the two games. These flesh golems were 99 cents. If you can find a Mage Knight miniature for the D&D monster you want to represent, it's a very simple matter to re-base them and save some cash.

Step 1) Grab your mini by the foot with a pair of pliers and apply some gentle twisting. The cheap glue on these separated without much effort at all.

Step 2) Get distracted taking apart the Mage Knight clicky base.

Step 3) Glue those suckers to an appropriate D&D sized base.

There you have it. Get yourself some Mage Knight minis, re-base them, and bask in the glory of your new collection of cheap miniatures.

A Very Reaper Halloween

Halloween is just around the bend and as a Dungeon Master, I must consider Halloween a sacred day to celebrate monsters. Without monsters there are no valiant heroes slaying monsters, just a bunch of dopes standing around in shiny armor with nothing to do.

Some of the cooler and weirder monsters in D&D lore can be found in the adventure module White Plume Mountain. Originally released all the way back in 1979 for the very first edition of the game, it is considered one of the greatest dungeons of all time. It's been updated for every edition of D&D, most recently via The Tales from the Yawning Portal book. Someday I'd love to run it with a full suite of painted miniatures to represent all the monsters within. This halloween I continue that quest with the addition of some sea-lions to my miniatures.

Those are half-seal and half-lion by the way. Very different from your traditional Sealion.

You may notice in that picture some candy. That isn't from my own stockpile of Halloween treats, Reaper actually sent me candy with my order. Not only that but I got two freebie bonus minis. One is an undead champion looking fellow and the other a female elf wizard. Both are kitted out in some rather highish level looking gear. Free miniatures AND free candy? That's how you build brand loyalty, I don't remember any other companies ever sending me candy. Not bad!

Continuing on with the monster theme, I've been running into some trouble with my long running Princes of the Apocalypse campaign. You see the players are getting rather competent and their characters rather high level. After their last session they hit level 11. What is a dungeon master to do? Call in back up from your friends at Kobold Press.

The Tome of Beasts is a 3rd party supplement put out by Kobold Press with a whole host of new monsters for your campaign. A lot of those are higher CRs so this isn't a book I'd recommend to people just starting out. But! Eventually players catch on or spend too much time reading the Monster Manual on their own, or perhaps are DMs themselves. The Tome of Beasts gives you a new arsenal to keep those PCs on their toes.

In fact, the reason my players got to level 11 is because they managed to take down the Flame Dragon from this very book. It took the place of the most powerful creature the Fire Cult could muster in the Princes of the Apocalypse game and not only did they report having a ton of fun fighting it - but I had a ton of fun almost wiping out the party with it.

I also picked up the new iteration of the Dungeon Master's screen put out by Wizards of the Coast. I haven't had much time to go over the differences between the two yet, but I'll have my thoughts on those two screens along with some ideas about using a DM screen in general in a lengthier upcoming post.

Until then, Happy Halloween and good gaming!

Dispatches from GenCon #5: Sonar - Prepare to Dive!

Sonar is a game my wife calls "Battleship for Grownups". This gets the point across rather succinctly. It's a shockingly fun game with very few pieces in the box necessary to play. The basic setup is the same as Battleship, but there is only one ship you're commanding - a submarine. They recommend the game is played with 2 players per submarine. One person plays as the ships captain and the other plays as a radio operator.

With a bit of imagination, this scene will become the tense bridge room of a submarine in enemy territory,

A screen not unlike a dungeon masters screen separates the two teams. The radio operator and captain of both teams are each handed an identical map which shows the area where the submarine hunt will take place. There are four map variants in the box with more or less islands on them all the way to open ocean. Everyone also gets a dry erase marker to draw on their map. Further, the radio operators have a clear piece of plastic they can place over their map. This is used to record and predict any movements by the enemy submarine.

The submarine teams take turns with the captains calling out the maneuvers of their submarines. Each time you make a standard move, the submarine accrues one energy (to a maximum of four) which can be spent to engage a sonar ping, take a silent maneuver, or fire a torpedo. The nuances of the game are exposed when both subs are closing in on accurate positions of their opponents and tracking and carefully using energy is key to being in the right place at the right time to be able to fire off a torpedo.

I've had a ton of fun with Sonar. It's quick to teach somebody the rules and a great way to kill some time for four people. There is a more complex version of the game called "Captain Sonar" which I am unfamiliar with. That game supports up to 8 players and adds more roles to the game in addition to the captain and the radio operator. I'm not sure if I'll ever expand to that version, but give this a look if you want a casual to pick up strategy game with a surprising amount of depth.