Monday, March 19, 2018

Starfinder RPG and Dead Suns Campaign First Impressions

We had our first game and it was... interesting.  We played the introductory Dead Suns Part 1 adventure path by Paizo with a party of 5 players and a decent mix of races/classes/abilities (two soldiers, one operative, one envoy, and one mystic).  About the only core role/class we were missing was a technomancer i.e. space wizard equivalent.  The setting and rules are so so and what you'd expect from Golarion in space overall but the balance in the adventure path was off (even factoring out mistakes made by the GM that artificially inflated the difficulty).

First off I'll comment about the general overarching game mechanics.  They're pretty much what you'd expect from a D&D3X style system and it's easy to catch on to the basics if you're familiar with the older variants.  That said... there are many significant changes like being able to multiattack with penalties as a full round action without having to first unlock the second attack at high levels.  There are also minor changes like diagonal movement costs and magic missile not scaling with level.  For vets of multiple prior related editions, remembering whether the second diagonal costs normal or double movment (which seems to flip flop between various editions).  All in all, it's familiar and comfortable but certainly not revolutionary or groundbreaking in any way.  It's D&D3X in space for better or worse. 

The art in the books though is full color and top notch assuming you like the style (which I do).  The races introduced feel different and are most certainly not just the old fantasy tropes with a "space" adjective added in front of them.  If you do want to play those legacy fantasy races, the core rulebook does include them later on in the rules but I'm glad that they're not the focus.  Each class is unique and varies enough from the old fantasy equivalents to feel like they're their own thing. 

Unfortunately, I find the setting to be a bit of a let down despite the above.  It's basically an advancement of the old Pathfind Golarian setting which admittedly I was never a fan of it but neither was I critical of it.  There are new races and planets like I mentioned but the core setting and default start is basically just a big space station right above Golarion (or more correctly where it should be as it disappeared) and there are other planets that are just fantasy tropes in space (like the planet of space undead ruled by space lich overlords).  Maybe it's just me but I kept finding myself thinking "oh, that's just the space *fill in the blank* equivalent".  That's due in large part because of the actual Golarian/Pathfinder parts ported directly over as well as those just heavily influenced by the fantasy setting.  I would personally have preferred a completely independent setting but I recognize the obvious potential business benefit of leveraging a previous industry sales leading game (Pathfinder) for easy conversion into your new project.  While that gives the game relatively easy access to a large playerbase right out of the gate, I can't but help feel that the setting and game will suffer for it in the long run.  YMMV.

Finally we come to the Dead Suns adventure path.  In short, as an old 3.X GM and player for years, I found the balance in the adventure path to be suprisingly off but a large part of that was because of two big mistakes by the GM that inflated the difficulty unncessarily.  The first encounter after the players introduce themselves to each over is CR4 (and that's assuming you think that rating is accurate..see below).  Your first interaction before any real roleplaying with NPCs is to get your feet wet with an "Epic" difficulty level encounter for 1st level characters and presumably new players to the game.  The GM was supposed to only attack us 1/6 of the time but he must have missed that part in the setup (and combined based on common sense two encounters into one the next time). 

Regardless of his mistakes, the CR 1/2 (as in one half) street level gang thugs we were facing had the equivalent stat wise of dex 18 weapon spec and focus shooting.  No big deal, right?  Just use some social skills to beat the encounter nonviolently, right?  Yeah, they also had the equivalent of Cha 20 and full class skill rank in intimidate to boot.  Their actual stats were nothing close to that but their end bonuses for both attacks, damage, and some skills were significantly higher what was possible for us as 1st level player characters.  They were markedly better than CR1 opponents should have been let alone the CR1/2 individually they were listed as.

The GM commented that his main group had a very hard time with the scenarios as well.  I asked another Starfinder GM and he said that Paizo does that with most of the official encounters and that he personally actively encourages his player to NOT fight but find away around combat.  That wasn't an option for us in the first encounter as it was literally scripted that the shooting started right as we arrived and we were caught in the crossfire.  That trend continued throughout the game and the Deus Ex NPChinima had to save us yet again later that night in the next big encounter.

I'm willing to give the game another try (and will actually be Gm'ing next time as we convinced the GM to join us for a single game only).  Although we didn't reach 2nd level yet, I forwarded the group a "loan" of 300 xp to reach 2nd level to see if the equity between characters and published encounters is more balanced later on.  I suspect I'll still have to adjust on the fly some of the crazy bonuses down a bit though but we'll see.  All in all, at best the experience overall was mediocre although I will admit that it was nice to sit down at a table with fellow gamers and do anything for the first time in years.  I'd give the game overall 2 1/2 stars so far but the Dead Suns campaign only 2 stars due to the perceived lack of balance for a supposedly introductory 1st level adventure.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Crisis of Robotreachery! Palladium Abandons Robotech

Apologies for the tongue in cheek title but it seemed appropriate given the penchant for the dramatic displayed by Palladium Books in the pastcompany in question (see below for an explanation).  Palladium Books has finally thrown in the towel on their Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarter with less than 30 days left in their license for the property.  After raising over $1.4 million USD in 2013 and claiming for years that the game was fine despite delays, they now claim that after producing only roughly half the rewards (more by model count, less by individual sculpt count) that they ran out of money years ago and can't produce the remaining rewards nor refund customers.  

As a backer, I've covered this project and even come out with my VERMILION SQUADRON house rules for it (link here).  I've avoided criticizing it too harshly here in the past as the project was by the barest definition "ongoing" but Palladium has officially abdicated their substantial remaining contractual obligations after 5 years (four of which had *ZERO* rewards fulfilled).  The initial wave of miniatures were unfortuantely very poorly designed with upwards of 20 parts of a 40mm scale figure with seemingly unnecessary splits including 3 part heads and 4 part legs that somehow still result in a lack of real poseability. There was a little hope mid 2017 with the announcement that a "project manager" was hired for the company and specifically for the project but his biweekly updates soon turned into useless filler that ignored the real issues of the campaign in favor of answering questions no one asked as well as posting a single typo ridden minor rules supplement using uncredited pilfered creative commons art. 

It's long been speculated that the company used backer funds that were supposed to be reserved for the production of wave 2 to instead purchase most if not all of the thousands of retail copies of the game.  Prior to the crowdfunding, Palladium was in dire financial straights after a years earlier embezzlement by an employee (which they named the "Crisis of Treachery" and which was the inspiration for this blog post title parody) and were frequently unable to reprint books from their catalog for years at a time.  One of the stated goals of the crowdfunding in interviews was to allow Palladium to be on stable financial footing and they magically were able to suddenly reprint titles after the crowdfunding as well as finish their prior crowdfunded RPG books that were a year overdue.  Now they claim that they also have no money yet they're sitting on thousands of retail boxes that they seemingly couldn't afford either.  Their pricing breakdown for the production and development costs certainly do nothing to dissuade that theory either as the per unit cost to produce the boxes would put them at a loss if the funds only account for the backer copies they were supposed to pay for.

While Palladium is offering a trade program of sorts for your remaining credit, the relative values are increadibly skewed in their favor.  The remaining outstanding Wave 2 rewards in the base pledge according to their add on math come to over $200 yet they're offering roughly $30 in trade for existing items.  Additionally, backers must pay for shipping depite it being included in the original crowdfunding as well (and Palladium apparently having a reputation for charging exhorbitant shipping costs as well traditionally).  To say that many backers are disappointed would be an understatement.  After years of misleading backers, Palladium waited until just a few weeks before their license expired to finally come clean as to the supposed real state of the project and to offer a pittance of credit for product backers already have that they themselves would contractually be required to destroy in a few weeks.  Other than cases of outright fraud, I can't think of a gaming related crowdfunding project that started out so promising and was mismanaged so badly.  Palladium truly deserves the permanent hit to their already lackluster reputation that they'll inevitably get for how they've treated their most loyal customers since 2013.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

To Brazenly Reboot... Star Trek Discovery Review (Part 2)

Also, in case it's not obvious...  *SPOILER ALERT!  CONDITION RED!*  The review contains spoilers for the first season.
The Ugly

Let's start with the Klingons... they're horrible.  Mush-mouthed over prosthetic'ed alien of the week makeup with little to no flexibility or ability for the actors to convey emotion or at times even simply move their necks.  They physically and philosophically bear almost no resemblance to the established Klingons in Star Trek.  I was too young to participate in the bruhaha in Trek fandom that happened when green facepaint Mongolian Space Communists turned slowly into ridged foreheaded Viking Samurai hybrids.  I expected more grimdark in tone and action Klingons given post-BSG reboot scifi but I didn't expect them to abandon almost everything that made them Klingons.  They pay lipservice to the old lore but these would have been much better as completely new aliens rather than Klingons.  The same holds true to the Klingon ships that bear *ZERO* resemblence to what came before and after supposedly in the same timeline.  The D-7 made an appearance midway through and was completely unrecognizable.  The ship asthetics really do bolster my opinion that the what Discovery calls Klingons would be much better if classified as a completely new alien race/fleet.

On a similar note, I'm simply not a fan of the asthetics used on a show that is ostensibly set only a few years before TOS.  Again, I fully expected and wanted updated visuals and tech but the showrunners have effectively rebooted 90% of the visuals with little regard for what came before beyond an occasional bridge beep boop or photon torpedo whoosh.  The bridge feels way too dark and metallic for a Star Trek show and the ship designs look someone spilled Stargate and Tron (both of which I like) all over some Trek outlines and forgot to clean it up.  Ironically there is the occasional almost exact port of an old prop like a communicator that I'd have prefered them to update instead.  Again, I'll use the JJverse Starfleet uniforms as an example of what I expected as they're both modern, different, yet instantly recognizable as Trek.  Something as simple as using primary colors (grey, red, blue, yellow) and brighter lighting on the exact same Discovery bridge with the exact same special effects would have been enough to scratch that itch.  The showrunners wanted to change everything in a reboot while still claiming to be a prequel to the classic Trek timeline.  I'm sorry but you can't have it both ways and they should have just flatout admitted they were changing so much ahead of time like JJ Abrams did with his movies so that the series could be judged on its own merits.  A clean break with classic Trek might be what the IP needs but they should have been honest with the fans after doing so instead of hedging their bets.  It also feels like the showrunners did a 60 degree turn after the midseason break with more blatantly forced fanservice nods to TOS culminating in the appearance of *THE* U.S.S. Enterpise in the season finale that looks somewhat like it doesn't belong in either visually.

Lastly we have the blatant intrusion of real world politics into the show by a creative team with a distinct left leaning agenda.  Star Trek has always tackled social issues in a progressive way but I've never seen it couched so blatantly in political rather than moral terms.  The writers are on record as having based the Klingons on Trump supporters and the parody continues over in the Mirror Universe.  Comments by actors prior to the show's premiere actively dismissing classic fans as unimportant in response to the criticism of the asthetics and politcs certainly don't help either.  Now my political leanings are decidely in the ever shrinking center and I was completely disgusted with both mainstream party choices in the 2016 election but the writers taking out their frustrations on having lost an election within their scifi work is a step too far.  Leave the one sided real world politics out of Star Trek and stick to debating the morality that underpins the issues at hand instead.

The Final Verdict

Overall, I'd give the show as is a 2 stars out of 4 despite the relatively different word counts I gave to the category above.  If the show had been properly advertised as a reboot without the baggage of classic Trek, I'd have given it a 2.5 / 4.  If you don't fancy classic trek, that latter score is probably more applicable to you.  It has/had promise (some of it already squandered with wasted good characters) but I'm not entirely sure it'll make it much past the first two or three seasons.  The beginning of a Trek series has always been rough with those initial seasons traditionally being the worst (TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT) but the TV landscape has changed and I don't know if fans and/or the network will stick with the show long enough for it to find its own niche.

Will I watch the second season?  Probably.. if I can yet again find a way to do it for free like I did this time with the introductory free week of streaming on CBS All Access... but I certainly won't pay separately for the priveledge to do so.  I also have no interest in the associated merchandise that I'd normally be a shoe in for like T-shirts, models, and books.  I suppose I'm simply just not in that new 18-40 demographic that the show is looking to hook but rather in the 40+ dedicated fan demographic that they largely (at best) take for granted or (at worst) actively disregard.