Wildstar Journal - End
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2014, 5:16 am
No, I'm not going to stop playing Wildstar already. But the journal is over, after me having taken some decisions regarding this game. I consider the solo game of Wildstar to be one of the best currently available, and in its challenge level more fun to me than World of Warcraft. Crafting and the auction house are also very well done. Housing is "nice to have", albeit not something I'm going to spend hours on. On the other hand I consider that the combat system which works so well in solo mode breaks down in multi-player. And yes, I also tested PvP. With multiple players fighting multiple opponents, mob or player, there are simply too many telegraphs and things going on too quickly to allow for a decent degree of tactical control. Combine that with the decision of Carbine to make dungeons and raids inaccessible for the majority of players, and I just can't see myself doing much, if any, multi-player content.

On the negative side that means that reaching the level cap in Wildstar for me will be equivalent to a game over screen. And due to the low number of zones in the game, I'm not going to play a large number of different characters; currently I play 2, and the maximum I could imagine if I decide to play an Exile alt would be 3. And chances aren't good for me to play Exile, unless I would be allowed to send mail from Dominion to Exile, as I find having to start the economic game over from zero to be too annoying.

On the positive side, having decided to opt out of the multi-player part of Wildstar means I am under absolutely no pressure to be at a certain level in a certain time. At first my instincts kicked in, where I was thinking that if I pay a monthly subscription, I need to play a significant number of hours per month to make it worth paying. I had already considered unsubscribing from Wildstar after the first month, just because I will be away on holiday for three weeks in July, and Wildstar doesn't play well on a laptop. But now I think I will just keep that subscription active, and maybe play a bit of Wildstar during the holidays in activities that aren't affected too badly by low framerates, for example crafting and trading. It isn't as if I couldn't afford to pay for a Wildstar subscription for the up to 6 months it will take me to "finish" the game if I don't hurry.

I find that my enjoyment of Wildstar increases if I don't pursue traditional goals like fast leveling. This weekend I spent an afternoon farming all the weaponsmithing tier 1 recipes in the two level 6-14 starting zones. Such activities fulfill the basic formula for fun in a MMORPG: I set myself a goal, I pursue that goal over a limited amount of time, and I'm happy to achieve the goal at the end of the day. I don't consider MMORPGs to be competitive games, even if lots of people try to artificially introduce competitive elements like "server firsts" into it. If you don't exclude activities which give a sub-optimal amount of rewards per hour, there is a lot of things to do in Wildstar. And I intend to enjoy Wildstar until inevitably I run out of content.
Tobold's Blog



MMORPG life cycles
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2014, 4:21 am
In last weeks thread there developed a side-discussion on how short the life cycle of MMORPGs are. And because people generally are bad at math, they couldn't agree on whether World of Warcraft was the most stable MMORPG ever, or the most volatile. Quote Hagu: "WoW lost 4-5 million customers, probably more than all other MMOs have in the West, so "just fine" might be overselling it slightly.". The fact that a quarterly report of Blizzard can easily show a up or down movement in player numbers of WoW which exceeds the total player number of any other MMO in the West makes it appear rather volatile, so "WoW loses a million players" is a frequent headline in gaming news.

I think it helps to not calculate in absolute numbers, but in percentages. Basically just draw a curve, ignore the scale, and see how steep the rises and drops are. So on the one hand we have World of Warcraft, which rose to its peak subscriber number in 6 years, and then lost about a third of those subscribers in the 4 following years. On the other hand we have the games of the "post WoW era", with one famous example of the short life cycle behavior being Warhammer Online, which rose to 750,000 subscribers in a month, and then lost two thirds of those in the following 6 months. Or Star Wars: The Old Republic that went up to 1.7 million subscribers in the first two months, and then also lost about two thirds of those in the following 6 months, before going Free2Play to stem the fall.

If you look at this that way, the most stable MMORPG is EVE Online, which took nearly 10 years to peak. Although, just like WoW, opening Chinese servers in a later point of the life cycle certainly helps against volatility. Second place after EVE Online is then World of Warcraft. Every other game, even earlier games like Everquest, lost higher percentages of subscribers in shorter periods of time.

I believe that the MMORPGs of 2014 will peak in less than 12 months after release, and will lose more than half of their subscribers in the 12 months after the peak. But it isn't certain that they will release any numbers. I haven't seen any numbers published for The Elder Scrolls Online; there have been "best guesses" based on physical box sales that put subscriber numbers in the first month at 1.2 million, which sounds nice until you consider that they had 5 million players signing up for beta. TESO might have peaked *before* release. I don't have any numbers for Wildstar either, but they wisely restricted beta access much more. But while many people consider Wildstar's "endgame is for the ultra-hardcore" design to be exactly what they want, I don't think anybody believes that a lot of the 95+% of excluded players will stick around for a long time. The arguments typically are "they will leave anyway", rather than that this design will make them stay.
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A question for the hardcore
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 June 2014, 2:33 am
The hardcore vs. casual debate is getting increasingly ugly on the Wildstar forums. A lot of people who didn't think of themselves as "casual" made it to level 20, tried the first dungeon, and found out that Wildstar in fact considers them to be part of the unwashed masses not worthy to do group content. So they complain, and get shouted down by those who like the Wildstar difficulty as it is. But in all that discussion I am missing one rather essential point. And so I am asking it here:

Imagine that all what the hardcore players say is true, and that ultra-hard content and 12-step attunements and all that is good for the game. But what exactly would be the harm if we take all that group content and duplicate it, providing an "easy mode" copy with lesser rewards?

To me it appears that for a raiding guild to function, there needs to be a pool of potential candidates out there. And it would be much preferable if those candidates had already SOME knowledge and training in the content that the raiding guild wants to tackle. Furthermore one of the motivations of the hardcore appears to be wanting to be a role model that other players look up to. But a real casual player who is interested in decorating his house and his mount collection or whatever isn't going to look up to a raider strutting around in epics. Somebody who is doing easy mode raid content is much more likely to see a hardcore raider as a role model.

But most of all I consider the financial implications. If there is a large population who would like to do group content, but isn't able to, they are likely to quit Wildstar. It would cost very little of money and developer time to provide them with an easy mode copy of the dungeons and raids. And then they would stay at the very least some time longer, contributing more money to Carbine's ability to produce future content for the game.

The only possible argument I can see how easy mode would be bad is that some people would shy away from hardcore raiding if easy mode raiding was available. But honestly, is that really the sort of player you would want in your hardcore raid?

So I really can't understand why anybody would be against the *additional* provision of easy mode content, after giving the hardcore raiders all the ultra-hard raiding content and shiny epics they desire. If you know any good arguments, please tell me!
Tobold's Blog



Wildstar Journal - Day 7
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2014, 3:04 am
As reported yesterday, I found that there was a good profit margin in doing refined power cores, buying the materials at the commodities broker and selling the power cores there. So I pushed heavily into that market. That significantly lowered the prices and profit, but I ended up with 40 gold (four times the cost of a mount). Fortunately buying, crafting, and selling doesn't take too much time, so I spent most of that session doing quests with my esper alt.

The reason I was playing my esper is that I noticed that his rest xp were low. In fact, after playing him for a while and using up his rest xp, I found he didn't gain ANY rest xp over night. Strange, the information I had about rest xp was that you get *some* everywhere, twice the number if you are in your capital city, and between three and four times the number in your house, depending on decor. In any case, it seemed worth it to level up the alt to get to level 14 and be able to park him in his house when not needed. In this session I made it from level 11 to 13, so this goal is getting close.

In the process I observed another weird thing: In Wildstar you don't get a talent tree, but you get AMP points. And to get to the higher levels of AMP abilities, you need to find those skill AMPs as a drop or buy them from a vendor. And it turns out that the distribution of the AMPs you can find is seriously skewed. My warrior is swimming in AMPs. My esper can't find any AMPs for the assault branch of the AMP talent tree. That is reflected also in auction house prices, there are hundreds of those warrior AMPs for cheap in the AH, while the esper assault AMPs are not available, or have a single one in the AH for 10 to 100 gold.

Besides the random drops, you can get AMPs from vendors. So I looked up the AMPs I needed for my esper. Bad luck, there aren't any assault AMPs in the zone I'm in. I would need to switch to the other newbie zone and grind reputation to buy one of them there. A second one is in the capital, but only sold for prestige points, the PvP currency, in spite of not being a PvP-specific AMP. And the other three are in much higher level zones. So in the end I decided I couldn't put my points in the assault tree as I wanted, and went for the utility tree instead. The support tree (healing) is useless for soloing.
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An interesting theory on the Wildstar business model
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2014, 4:23 am
Green Armadillo has an interesting theory on the Wildstar business model: He believes that Carbine is counting on most players leaving the game in the first 90 days anyway, and trying to retain just the top 1% to 5% of hardcore raiders. Quote: "Five percent of WoW's over ten million peak would be over half a million subscribers, which would put Wildstar in solid territory by any measure."

While as a theory this is interesting, I do have a problem with the math. Because the 5% Carbine could possibly retain are not 5% of WoW peak numbers, but rather 5% of Wildstar peak numbers. Which are probably closer to 1 million than to 10 million. And to the best of my knowledge of MMORPG economics, 50,000 subscribers aren't enough to keep a triple-A MMORPG afloat.

Numbers can be deceptive. If you look at a graph of World of Warcraft subscription numbers over time, you get the impression that for some time people joined WoW, then it peaked, and then people started to leave WoW. But imagine you had the possibility to track each individual WoW player. Imagine you knew exactly what the 8 million players of World of Warcraft during let's say Burning Crusade are playing now. It would be totally wrong to assume that just half a million of them quit WoW and 7.5 million of those 8 million are still playing. Chances are that the numbers are closer to reverse: Half a million people of those 8 million during Burning Crusade still play WoW, the other 7.5 million quit. The overwhelming majority of people playing WoW now are people who joined the game much later. WoW doesn't necessarily KEEP players, it replaces them by new ones.

I believe that for most people hardcore raiding is a phase, not a permanent lifestyle choice. For me certainly it was. You can't point at the 8 million people of Burning Crusade, of which 1% to 5% played raids with attunements and think that these people are still around, only waiting for another game with raid attunements. Raiding is fun, but it does have inherent disadvantages: You need to be online for a large block of hours simultaneously with your raiding friends, and while your personal performance might be important to you, it is not the deciding factor to whether the raid succeeds. You can fail because your raid companions failed, and that causes inherently unstable social situations. "Guild drama" is a term we are all familiar with because of raiding.

And, let's face it, we aren't getting any younger. World of Warcraft is approaching its 10th anniversary, and if you started raiding even earlier, in Everquest, even more time has gone past. The years are likely to have a negative effect not only on your reaction time and raid performance, but also on your availability for raiding, due to things like growing work and family responsibilities and competing claims on your time. And for most of us the years also did a good job of putting our priorities into perspective: We now have other goals in life than being a top raider in this or that MMORPG.

Thus I do not believe that it will be possible for Wildstar to attract a stable pool of half a million hardcore raiders and keep them playing (and paying for) the game for several years.
Tobold's Blog



Wildstar Journal - Day 6
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2014, 8:29 am
I took a long weekend off from computer games and played Outside instead. Thus the gap in my Wildstar journal, where day 6 is the sixth day *I* am playing and not the sixth day after head start or release.

Anyway, at the end of day 6 my warrior main is level 17 and my esper alt is level 11. The most time in this session was spent with my warrior doing quests around Hycrest. Fun, but nothing special to report. The only interesting thing was that my quest journal was full of quests for that zone, because those quests got "phoned in" while I was exploring the zone for farming herbs in the previous session. As that overloaded my quest tracker I decided to abandon all those quests. Interestingly if you do that, they remain in your quest journal, with a link to phone the quest giver to get the quest back. Nifty!

Other than that I followed the advice of one of my readers, who on reading about my power core production had asked whether selling the power cores wouldn't be better than making weapons from them. On the one side I remain persuaded that making power cores for your own weaponsmithing is a good idea, because it allows you to level up weaponsmithing while making good money. On the other side I have to agree that if you aren't interested in skilling up weaponsmithing, you make even more money by selling the power cores directly.

In particular I was making refined sapphire power cores (I still have to check out the economics of the lower level refined quartz power cores). It turned out that buying the components for one refined sapphire power core on my server at the commodities broker cost under 15 silver. The refined sapphire power cores had buy orders for 35 silver, and the lowest sell order was 80 silver. So even taking into account cost for mailing components between the two characters and auction house listing fees there is obviously money to be made. I sold 16 power cores over the evening making about 10 gold profit in the process. Of course it is well possible that this won't work in the long run. It is a very basic buy components, craft, sell product scheme, which will quickly be reproduced by others. But I do have fun finding that sort of scheme.

In the long run I am not sure where the economy of Wildstar will be heading. The big unknown factor here is C.R.E.D.D., which just went live. They work like PLEX in EVE Online, but the economy of Wildstar doesn't work like the economy of EVE Online. While you can spend a lot of gold on mounts or house decorations, Wildstar to the best of my knowledge doesn't have a repeatable money sink like the destruction of space ships in EVE is. And it is also not obvious to me why a player who happens to not be interested in hardcore dungeon / raiding content would want to continue playing Wildstar after the level cap and put money into decorating his house. It will be interesting to see how all of that works out in the end.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 16
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2014, 3:53 am
While the previous session ended in a chaotic retreat, the Favorites of Selune did manage to grab the chalice of the dragon on their way out. That completed their quest to find the three sacred vessels for Sir Oakley to purify the temple of Gardmore Abbey.

Technically speaking the purification of the temple is a skill challenge, a special feature of 4th edition D&D. Despite numerous official and unofficial attempts to fix skill challenges, they never really work well. Either you handle them as a boring series of dice rolls and get very little narrative out of the exercise. Or you ask the players what they propose to do in a given situation, and then you have the problem of trying to translate their ideas into a skill check. If the players want to use powers or have ideas that don't correspond to skills, that gets rather tricky. So for the purification of the temple I used a mixed approach, asking everybody what they proposed to do to protect Sir Oakley while he was doing his purification ritual. I accepted all ideas, and asked for dice rolls only if appropriate.

When Sir Oakley started the purification ritual, the shadows in the temple began to move. At first they started to whisper trying to dissuade or distract Sir Oakley from his ritual. The players tried to chase the shadows by adding more light to the temple, and chanted religious hymns to overcome the whispers. Then the shadows changed tactics and started throwing debris at Sir Oakley. Some players used their shields and bodies to intervene, and the wizard used his mage hand to protect Sir Oakley from above, swatting stones away like ping pong balls.

Then the temple turned completely dark, and the players had a vision from the time of the fall of Gardmore Abbey: Wraiths coming out of a room in the vaults, up the stairs and into the temple. Having been there in the previous session, the players could identify the room where the wraiths came from as the one where the gnolls are. At the end of the vision, light returned to the temple, but the wraiths from the vision where now physically present and attacked. But that was an easy fight, and the players quickly dispatched them. Finally, at the end of the ritual, the shadows fled inside Sir Oakley, trying to possess him. But the players managed to overcome that final obstacle too with magic and religion. The purification of the temple was complete, and Bahamut sent a reward, the torc of justice, a +2 necklace with nice powers.

That being done, the vision during the purification had given the players a hint where to search for the source of the chaos in Gardmore Abbey. They went back into the vaults towards the room with the gnolls. As they feared being attacked in the back, they used spikes to block the door towards the minotaurs. But they also saw that the minotaurs themselves had nailed shut that door from the other side. The gnolls meanwhile had used stacked up vases behind their door to act as a primitive alarm system. The rogue couldn't completely silence that one, and so the fight against the gnolls began with both sides well warned.

When trying to use a card of the Deck of Many Things in that room, the players had another vision from the past: The captain of the guard of Gardmore Abbey during the orc attack, Havarr, decided to use the Deck of Many Things artifact in the hope of using it to beat back the orcs. But instead of a helpful result he drew the skull card and unleashed a horde of undead on they abbey. The combined assault of the undead from within and the orcs from outside then caused the fall of Gardmore Abbey.

The fight against the gnolls turned out to be somewhat too easy, mostly due to my experiments with the escalation die. Importing a rule from 13th Age, the escalation die gives the players an increasing bonus every round of the combat, up to a maximum of +6. The rule is designed to prevent combat from dragging on too long, but ultimately it is somewhat overpowered. I already have players with attack bonuses of up to +14 fighting monsters with an AC of 22. If they get a +6 bonus they hit even if they roll a 2 on the d20, which pretty much destroys all challenge. And while the gnoll fight WAS quite short due to this, it also meant that I didn't even have the opportunity to use all the powers of the various gnolls. And with the escalation die making combat very fast, any crowd control power that stops a monster for just one round becomes very powerful as well. In consequence I will not let the escalation die increase by 1 every combat round any more. Instead I'll just use it to give a bonus if the group fights more than one fight after an extended rest, +1 for the second fight, +2 for the third fight of the day, and so on.
Tobold's Blog



The Snugg executive case for iPad Air review
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 June 2014, 11:31 am
*FTC Disclosure: This review is based on a free review copy I received from The Snugg*

When I bought my iPad Air, I bought the official Apple smart case to go with it. I regretted that decision later. Not only was the smart case rather expensive, and I didn't really like the available colors, but it also turned out that the damn thing didn't even fit well. If you close the smart case normally you either get a spot in the middle where the cover doesn't touch the screen, or if you straighten that out you see that the side of the hinge doesn't touch the screen. The bad fit causes the magnetic lid to not stay on and to not always work in shutting down the iPad.

So when The Snugg wrote me and asked whether I wanted to test one of their iPad cases, I just happened to be interested in that kind of product, and agreed. They sent me the electric blue Snugg Executive Case for the iPad Air (iPad 5). Already the color is a huge improvement over Apple's washed out blue (and The Snugg has a wider range of color available). But the main thing is that it is in many ways a different product than the smart case. The iPad Air in the Snugg leather case is nearly a centimeter thicker than in the smart case, and about 100 grams heavier. The upside of that is that it looks a lot less blatantly obvious like an iPad, and more like a filofax, which potentially might reduce its attraction to thieves. Choose a more serious color and it doesn't look out of place in a business meeting, which is probably why they called it executive case.

The thicker leather comes with some extra features: A stylus holder, and places to put things like business cards or pieces of paper, although as this is between the cover and the iPad the thickness is obviously limited. The Snugg case has a hand strap in case you are one of the people who like to walk around with the iPad held in one hand. And the case has a latch at the back into which you can fold the cover; that results in two very stable stand positions for your iPad, one flatter angle useful for typing, one steeper angle for watching videos or talking on FaceTime. For balancing an expensive iPad I much prefer that sort of latch to the magnetic-only fixation of other cases.

The Snugg case does have magnetic fixation of the cover, and it works: You can hold the thing upside down and the cover doesn't fall off. You can also put the case in a bag without the cover slipping off and the iPad turning itself on. But in all fairness I have to remark that with the Snugg executive case just like with the smart case on closing the cover I did not have a 100% success rate in the magnet shutting down the iPad. I'd say it works "better", but if you close it somewhat limply the magnetic lock doesn't engage. Other than that the Snugg cover works very well. Recommended!
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Wildstar Journal - Day 5
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 June 2014, 1:12 am
I love it when a plan works. My Wildstar money making scheme, while complicated and time intensive, did pay off big in the end. In a change from when I tried it in beta, the power cores that the technologist now makes are blue name. And if you use them to smith a weapon, you get a blue name weapon. Sure, the name itself is the same whether it is written in white, green, or blue. But not only are the stats on the blue weapon much better, making them easier to sell on the AH, but also the NPC vendor price goes up. So I didn't even need to wait for the AH to make a quick 20 gold and buy a mount. I took the raptor for my draken warrior, to stick with the WoW troll theme. I'll take the hamster ball for the chua esper.

As that worked out so well for the refined quartz power cores, I started to wonder whether I wouldn't be able to get to refined sapphire power cores. So I moved my warrior to the level 16+ zone and started farming herbs. And it worked, I quickly got enough herbs to send to my technologist alt and learn the second tech tree up to sapphire power cores. That in turn enabled me to craft for myself a level 15 blue weapon which is probably best-in-slot at this level for a warrior. And I have the power cores to keep training weaponsmithing while making profitable weapons.

The only annoying part of this was that riding around in a new zone without questing fills your quest log even if you don't want to. By just turning up somewhere you get the quests "phoned in", and if you don't accept them they just end up on a different to do list of unanswered calls. I will have to sort that out later. But this weekend I won't be playing, I'll be out in the sun instead.
Tobold's Blog



Wildstar Journal - Day 4
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2014, 3:18 am
In the Wildstar beta I was doing okay with regards to earning gold. In the release version not so much. It turns out that adventures are expensive, as you don't get any loot but a big repair bill. And I bought some AMPs on the auction house to experiment with dps and tank builds. As a result my warrior main is level 16 and doesn't have a mount yet. My idea to fix that is to level my esper alt to level 10 and start technologist crafting with him. That will allow me to craft power cores for my main, who is weaponsmith. And if I craft the cores instead of having to buy them, weaponsmithing can be very profitable.

In consequence day 4 consisted of leveling my esper (I got to level 9), and gathering plants with my warrior. The rarer plants are in the higher level part of the zone, and as you don't need a special skill to farm them, the warrior is better suited for that job. Plus he can use the seeds he finds to plant in the garden of his house.

So I was with my esper in the starting village of Deradune when I read a system message reminding me that it was launch day. On the first day of the head start that village was packed full with people. Today it was nearly deserted. Launch day was a complete non-event for Wildstar. Apparently nobody buys games in boxes any more, so there was no reason for anyone to be there at launch, but not for the head start.

On the one side the absence of players helped my esper with his challenges. On the other side he had problems finding other players for the group "wanted" quests. And somehow I find it a bit worrying if the starting zone of a game is already deserted on launch day. It seems everybody has rushed on into the higher level zones. Pretty soon nobody will be leveling in Wildstar any more.
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Fast is not the same as challenging
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2014, 3:55 am
Imagine a very simple game: Your screen shows just two arrows, the left one pointing to the left, the right one pointing to the right. When one of the arrows flashes, you need to press the corresponding arrow key on your keyboard. If you press the right key within the time limit you gain a point towards your high score, if you press the wrong key or are too slow pressing the key, you lose.

Obviously this game only requires the brain power of a trained pigeon to play. It is in no way intellectually challenging or difficult. But if you took a large enough pool of players, you could tune that game, reducing the required reaction time to succeed, until only 10% of your player population are able to beat it. The other 90% would be players who either naturally have a slower reaction time, or are over 24 years old, or simply found the "game" too boring to put much effort into it.

But of course the 10% of players who can beat that game will be extremely proud of this "achievement". They will call themselves the "hardcore" and look down upon the 90% who can't beat the game. And with some clever marketing you might even be able to make these hardcore players pay $15 a month for playing this game. Because, remember, they might not have more brain power than a trained pigeon.
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New player guide to role-playing: Getting started
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 June 2014, 5:52 am
Another question from my "ask me anything" thread was about how to get started with pen & paper role-playing games. That is not an easy question to answer. In fact it could be said that this is one of the weakest points of the hobby: There is no easy way to pick up a box/book, sit around a table, and start playing.

When Dungeons & Dragons was young, it existed in two different incarnations: A Basic D&D game, and an Advanced D&D game. The basic game had much more simpler rules and thus was easier to learn. Since the third edition of D&D in 2000 there is only one version, and it is the advanced one. The main competitor of D&D today, Pathfinder, is also based on advanced D&D rules. 4th edition changed D&D into a more tactical game, but that ended up being even more complicated. Errata and rules changes didn't help. Many other rules systems on the market were also made by veterans for veterans, and didn't exactly simplify the rules. So how does one learn to play?

The best option today is finding other people who are already playing, and to join them. Many stores that sell role-playing games have some sort of organized play events, or at least a message board where you can find other players. Google can help too. How successful you are in finding people to play with will depend on where you live, for example America is much better covered than Europe (D&D stopped getting translated into other languages a few years ago), and of course it is easier to find other people with the same interest in urban environments than in rural ones.

If you are really determined to try to learn the game without outside help, the best way to start would be a starter box. The 4E starter box ("red box") is out of print and is being sold on the secondary market for outrageous prices over $100. Pathfinder has an in-print and thus affordable "Beginner Box". But if you can wait a few more weeks, 5th edition D&D will publish both a free set of "Basic Rules" and a very affordable "Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set" on July 15th. Once I get hold of these, I will post a review, but right now these would be your best bet of getting into D&D without joining an existing group.
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Wildstar Journal - Day 3
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 June 2014, 3:22 am
On writing the title I realized that "day" is a bad unit of measure here: Day 1 and 2 were Saturday and Sunday, so I had a lot more hours available than on day 3, which was a work Monday. Anyway, I spent half of the evening leveling my first alt, a chua esper. Then my guild needed another level 15+ player to try the adventure again, and I decided to give it another shot, this time as dps.

The result was that I still don't like the "hardcore" Wildstar adventures and dungeons. They are simply too fast and twitchy for me to be enjoyable. There is even less tactical thinking involved than in a WoW dungeon. For example as dps warrior I had very little control over who I was hitting when the enemies were bunched together, and no way to check aggro. Warrior might be an ideal dps class for group content, I felt I was doing less good than in the previous attempt as tank. Ranged dps have a huge advantage of having a much easier time avoiding the area attacks of the enemies, as melee it was nearly impossible to fight a group of enemies without getting hit as there were telegraphs everywhere. So in the end the whole thing played like a long firework of flashing lights and button mashing with very little feeling of having control over the situation.

I like the Wildstar combat in the solo version, because it is less trivial than the WoW equivalent. But I find it scales up badly to 5 players fighting half a dozen mobs. And the absence of a "normal" dungeon mode for more casual players annoys me, I don't want to play heroic all the time. I always disliked the gap in difficulty between solo and group content, and I had hoped that Wildstar would close that gap somewhat by making solo content more challenging. But they just made all content more challenging and kept the gap. So I guess I will play Wildstar without the adventure / dungeon / raid content. Too bad for Carbine, because that means my subscription will be shorter.
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My first World of Warcraft dungeon group
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 June 2014, 12:11 pm
My very first dungeon group in WoW was a group of 5 shamans going to Ragefire Chasm. We didn't even know at the time that we weren't supposed to do that. We figured that shamans could both tank and heal, so we had all the bases covered. And that first group finished that first dungeon on the first attempt, although in hindsight we were obviously doing it very wrong. And that is the reason why World of Warcraft still has millions of subscribers, because it ramped up the challenge level rather slowly, and didn't make us newbies fail on our first attempt.

I am sure that MMORPG veterans of the hardcore persuasion will love Wildstar adventures and dungeons. But if the very first adventure in the game already requires Teamspeak to beat it, it means that a large majority of players is absolutely excluded from dungeon content. You can't have exclusive hardcore stuff without excluding people. And I believe that will be very bad for the long term health of Wildstar. You simply can't finance a game with only hardcore players, and even if you cater to them it isn't sure they will remain loyal to your game.
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New player guide to role-playing: Alignment
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 June 2014, 7:50 am
When I asked for ideas for this column, I got several replies on the subject of alignment. So I'll talk about that in this post. First of all it has to be remarked that alignment is not system neutral, it is very much a Dungeons & Dragons concept. And curiously it is the earlier editions of D&D that have a very game-centric alignment system: Your alignment can be changed by magic or by acting against it, and that can have consequences on the powers of your character.

What you need to keep in mind here is that D&D and many other systems are playing in the fantasy genre, where story-telling often revolves around a strong conflict between good and evil. You don't just fight against somebody attacking your region, you fight against an evil necromancer and his undead army attacking your region. If the players are the heroes of good, you don't need a lot of effort to motivate them to fight against an evil menace.

The downside of such a simple black vs. white conflict is that it leads to lazy role-playing. The lawful good paladin of D&D is sometimes known as "lawful stupid", because it is easy to always opt for the obviously "good" choice without regards for consequences. That can be fun in one campaign, but then quickly gets old. Believable characters have a much more complex web of motivations and personality quirks than just being the lawful good fighter against evil.

Ultimately the question in a role-playing game is always what kind of story you want to tell. If you want to tell a simple good vs. evil story, an alignment system can help to keep the players sticking to the good role. But if you want to deal with complex moral dilemmas, any rules-based approach is bound to come up short. You can replace an alignment system with a better character creation process, where you ask each player for his motivations (including secret ones). Many other role-playing systems work just fine without a strict alignment systems. A story with difficult decisions should be interesting to play, and not serve as a threat to take powers away from the characters for breaching their alignment.
Tobold's Blog



Wildstar Journal - Day 2
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 June 2014, 4:04 pm
I started day 2 of Wildstar doing challenges, as I am an early riser, and the challenges were better with less people around. I was usually just trying to get the satchel of salvaged goods, as sometimes it contains AMPs. But on second though I should have taken the decoration items where available, as those sell for good money to vendors.

Then I joined up with two guild mates to do the shiphand mission Steady Traveller, during which I dinged 13. You can solo that one later, but if you go in at level 12 with a group, the two guaranteed items you get are really good. After that I did a bunch of quests, until I dinged 14. Then I went to Illium to get my house. I took the rocket house I got from the pre order, and got a mineral plot and a garden as well. I had found some decoration during my adventures, including a "discarded bra", which makes my house feel like a bachelor pad. :)

Not that my draken is likely to attract any females in the outfit he is wearing. I found a witch doctor's mask a headpiece, and looting the boom box today gave me pink dye. So while I was in Illium I visited the stylist, put on my pre order costume pieces, and dyed them pink. Not pretty, but probably rather unique.

Then I quested some more, until I had all the quests in Deradune done, and was level 15. The map has a helpful slide-out list on the left side which tells you how many quests or other things you are still missing in a zone. As I haven't done a lot of explorer stuff yet, I'm at 84% of the zone done. Worryingly I am also being told that I have done 24% of the world. 24% of the world in two days? It doesn't look as if there is a lot of content. Then I crashed to desktop with a memory leak.

Getting back in wasn't easy, I was stuck in a queue. The queue still says in red that guest accounts have lower priority, and on the forums the opinions are divided about whether that means my account is wrongly flagged as a guest account and has longer queue times. I know that at the start of the game my account must have been flagged as guest, as I wasn't allowed to chat. I can chat now, but now sure if the login issue has been fixed or not. Anyway, the queue timer at first said over 2 hours, but in the end it took only half an hour to get back in.

Next I did an adventure with my guild. And I hated it. Not because of my guild, because they were nice even when things failed. But the design of adventures is A) very hardcore, and B) full of glaringly obvious design flaws. In adventures you can choose which path to go (by majority vote), and we made the mistake of just choosing options at random. First design flaw: The different options are not just different, they have hugely different difficulty levels. And due to the hardcore design and us having chosen a hard option, we got stuck on a boss we couldn't beat, even after several attempts. For that boss we would have needed Teamspeak to coordinate interrupts, which we haven't set up yet. Fortunately the instance server crashed and everybody in that adventure was ejected, so we had to start over anyway. This time we choose all the "newbie" options, and beat the adventure. The second big design flaw, in two parts, is the way dying is handled in this adventure: In one cases you could just rez yourself right next to the fight, and continue endlessly. And in several instances the fastest way to advance was to get killed by trash mobs, as you would respawn behind the trash and right next to the next boss fight.

I don't think I will do much dungeoneering in Wildstar if the adventures and dungeons are like this. In my opinion all options in a level 15 adventure should be doable by a guild group in the kind of gear you are likely to wear at level 15. Having only one beatable option negates the effect of having options at all. And if even the lowest level adventure is hardcore like that, I'm not interested in the long run. I was never the twitchiest player, and now I'm even slower than I was a decade ago in WoW. I like the Wildstar combat system for soloing, because it is much harder than WoW and thus more interesting. But dungeons were already hard enough in WoW, and with the need to constantly move and dodge through a myriad of "telegraphs". And I object to needing a third-party software, Teamspeak, to be able to do content in a game. For me needing Teamspeak is a sure sign that the game is too fast for other forms of communication, and that makes the game too fast for me.

After beating the adventure I returned to Deradune and started doing explorer missions. That didn't help my warrior level, but gained me explorer levels. And I think the slower I take Wildstar, the longer I will enjoy it before hitting that hardcore wall which will make me quit.
Tobold's Blog



Wildstar Journal - Day 1
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 May 2014, 4:10 pm
Due to popular request, I'll log my activities in Wildstar for some days. Day one started badly, at the time where the head start officially started there was no way of getting into the game. Carbine says they were targeted by a DDOS, but you could say that every MMORPG launch is a DDOS, so I'm not sure what really happened. Anyway, it took me an hour and a half to log into Wildstar.

I am trying to hook up with my guild, but my chat isn't working. The pre-order bonuses and boom boxes aren't working either. That remains an ongoing theme for the day: The rewards appear at some point, only to disappear again later. Disappearing items in my inventory make me nervous. As there is nothing else to do, I play through the first 3 tutorial levels, which takes me a bit over half an hour. Then it takes me an hour and a half to go through the second tutorial zone and up to level 7.

So now my draken warrior is in Deradune. Which makes for a striking similarity to my troll warrior in the Barrens nine years ago, same class, similar look, similar landscape. I log out for lunch, which of course is a mistake. First I can't get back in at all, some network error. Then I'm in a queue, at low priority, because the game mistakenly believes that I have a guest account.

The levels just fly by. At 4 hours /played I'm level 9 and decide to take a break from questing and leveling. Instead I take a taxi to Illium the capital, and do the guided tour quest there which rewards me with a daily teleport to Illium spell. I have a look at the auction house, but there isn't much happening there yet. As most players only go to the capital at level 14 and there aren't many that high yet, I have the city for myself. So for a change I can do challenges in the city and succeed, while all day long other players in Deradune cause me to fail most challenges. Worst feature ever, making you hate your fellow players. I don't go straight back, but first visit the other level 7-14 zone, Ellevar, to tag the flight path to there. Then I hearth back to Deradune.

At level 10 I learn mining and weaponsmithing. That allows me to directly make a better sword for my warrior, plus another one in reserve for level 12. Big improvement over crafting in World of Warcraft. I make it to level 12 by evening, and notice that my 10-slot bag pre-order bonus has disappeared, together with all other pre-order bonuses and boom boxes. Part of my inventory is now inaccessible, although I can still see the healing potions I have in there through the special healing item hotkey menu. I decide to not fiddle with my inventory while it is broken and call it a night.
Tobold's Blog



Working as expected
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 May 2014, 4:09 am
One hour into the headstart of Wildstar I can report that the game is working as expected, that is to say not at all. You only ever get an endless string of "NCSoft login service timeout" messages and can't even make it to character creation. Pro tip: You can copy your password to the clipboard and re-enter it every time by just using CTRL-V, which is a lot of speed gain if you want to retry over and over.
Tobold's Blog



Selling unfinished games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 May 2014, 4:54 am
Hey, would you be interested in buying a house? I haven't actually started building it yet, and I don't plan to put much work in it, but if you pay me a monthly fee you can build that house yourself and totally influence the style. If that sounds like a bad deal to you, you need to wonder how Epic Games managed to get a much better reception for their Unreal Tournament 3 project: You need to pay $19 per month to contribute, and Epic Games is only putting a very small team behind the game. So the game will be both crowdsourced and crowdfunded, with Epic Games earning money as middle men.

And that is just one example of the current trend to sell you unfinished games. ArcheAge will happily sell you an alpha key for $150, and $100+ alpha keys have become kind of an industry standard. On Kickstarter you can easily end up paying money for a game that never even sees alpha stage. And Steam has a complete system of Greenlight and Early Access going, where you can buy access to unfinished games. Some of which then get abandoned and never finish.

What all of this does is basically turning players from customers into investors: They invest in the hope of getting a finished game in the future. But in general they are what is called an unsophisticated investor: The players don't have the means to verify whether their investment is sound. P.T. Barnum wouldn't have used "unsophisticated investor", but called them "suckers". Make a nice trailer that targets the hopes and dreams of the player community, cash in the money, and then some time later do an apology post declaring how circumstances conspired to not make that game possible. Rarely do the scammed customers get their money back, although sometimes they do.

I can only advise against most of those schemes. I am willing to pre-purchase a game from a reputable company. But I consider any Kickstarter project to be a charity event with a small chance of a reward. And I tend to put Early Access games I'm interested in on my Steam wishlist and wait until they are finished. Towns was on my wishlist, and I'm happy I never bought it.
Tobold's Blog



Panzer General Online
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 May 2014, 1:39 am
Would you rather play a game made by indie developer legend Mojang, or a Free2Play game by a big game company which slapped a well-known oldie game name on a game that plays very different from the original? Well, your knee-jerk reaction might be wrong in this case. I have been playing Panzer General Online by Ubisoft for several days now, and found it an excellent game. It is a kind of trading card game where you attack on lanes, which is far from the original Panzer General. But that gameplay makes it comparable to Mojang's Scrolls, and Panzer General Online is by far the better game.

While I was surprised how well Panzer General Online plays if you don't pay anything, I bought a $10 starter pack, which is less than what I paid for Scrolls. That allowed me to buy a bunch of boosters with guaranteed rares, speeding up my progress. Useful, but not strictly necessary. Even without paying you get quickly to the level where you earn 50 coins per battle, and a normal 4-card booster is only 100 coins. And unlike many modern trading card games which removed trading, in Panzer General Online you can always sell your extra cards for coins to other players.

But enough of the business model and into the game. What makes Panzer General Online interesting is it's combat. Units are either soft (e.g. infantry) or hard (e.g. tanks), and each unit has both attack values and revenge values against soft and hard targets. The battle takes place on three lanes, which are shown with a hex grid, but that is more a homage to the original than actually different from squares in this case. So you are trying to get your hard and soft units on those three lanes facing enemy units in a way that you do the biggest damage while being the least vulnerable to his attacks. There are three factions, Americans, German, and Russians, with different units (40+ per faction) and different tactics. For example the Russians have great defensive units and cards that lead the enemy into a trap.

Besides your units, you have cards in hand, usually 4, but sometimes 5. Cards cost command points to play, and your command points are at the same time your life counter. So every card you play (and you need to do something each turn) brings you closer to defeat, which prevents the game from stalling. Deviously, every time you play a card, the command point cost of each card in your deck with the same name goes up by one point. So if you have a lot of the same cards, the cost quickly become higher than the benefit of playing those cards. A variety of cards works better, and makes the game more interesting. In deckbuilding the interesting feature is that the cards you can play are attached to your units. You can sacrifice units to attach their cards to another unit of the same rarity.

There are various campaigns to play through, each with several battles. Most are American against German, but later you also open up the eastern front. The campaigns are sorted into chapters of several battles. You can play through each battle repeatedly if you want, but getting to the end of the chapter gives some extra rewards beyond coins and experience. But of course the opponents also get harder. Each campaign can be played on both sides, which makes for quite a large number of battles. Having said that, unless there are bridges, terrain doesn't make a huge difference, so battles mostly differ in what enemy units you are facing. You also get some hints before you start the battle, in case you want to modify your deck for a specific situation.

Each cards has a cost of supply points, and your army has a supply point maximum, which increases if you put points into leadership when leveling. But you also have an overall pool of supply, whose size goes up with level. That supply goes down by the number of supply points in your army whenever you do a single-player battle, and goes up slowly with time. Typical Free2Play feature, you won't be able to play for hours and hours without the supply running out. But in Panzer General Online that limit isn't as low as in other games, and besides buying supply refills, you can also win them in battle. Or you play multi-player. Or you optimize your single-player games by not using as expensive cards.

Overall I found Panzer General Online a quite interesting game, and very fair for a Free2Play game. It is currently in open beta, which is dev-speak for release version, because the item shop is already online. If the idea of a World War II based trading card game interests you, I can only recommend giving this a try.
Tobold's Blog



Asymmetric games and challenge
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 May 2014, 3:38 am
I was born in the pre-personal computer era, so as a child I played games like chess or Monopoly. And those games were symmetrical: Every player had exactly the same starting condition, and who won was determined by some combination of luck and skill, depending on the game. The early computer games often emulated that, or at least pretended to, where you would be playing a game against a computer opponent who was subject to the same rules as you were. Then quickly it turned out that artificial intelligence didn't develop all that fast and with games getting more complex the computer couldn't keep up against human opponents. So the computer was first programmed to cheat, and at some point devs gave up all pretense and gave the computer a completely different rule-set than the human player. Games became more and more asymmetrical.

MMORPGs brought the concept of persistent characters, and that concept migrated to other types of games; that migration was helped by the fact that it is harder to pirate a game with an online account. But it also brought more sources of asymmetry: Even if you play against human opponents, today you frequently don't have the same starting condition. There are many different systems of gaining levels, experience points, skills, or gear. And there are different systems on how to acquire those, from grinding to pulling out your wallet and buying them. But the end result is that one player might well have superior stats to another player in a game, and at equal skill and luck the players' chance to win isn't equal any more.

Skill and luck today are joined by a third factor: Determination. If you are more determined to win than the next guy, there usually are ways to do so. That might be a 3 a.m. keep attack or just organizing a larger number of players in a PvP game. It might be grinding endlessly for an advantage. Or it might be spending more money to advance faster. And more and more determination has become the overwhelming factor in many games, with skill and luck taking a back seat. That isn't limited to PvP games. PvE games also frequently present you with a series of computer opponents that get harder and harder, and you need to grind or pay to get stronger to beat them.

The problem of that is that games tend to be fun only in a medium range of challenge. If your opponent is far too easy, fun without challenge is limited. If he is impossible to beat, the game just gets frustrating. PvE games use the frustration of harder opponents to try to entice you to play more (or pay more). In PvP games a sort of arms race between players develops more naturally, but with the same effect. And at some point the motivation breaks down, because either the opponents don't get more challenging fast enough, or they advance much faster than you and become frustrating. For most reasonable people the determination to win a game has natural limits, because there are more important things in life. If they can't keep up with the people for who for some reason winning the game is their top priority in life, or if the game presents them with incredibly hard opponents, they just quit. There are so many different games around today that it is easy to find a new game if your level of determination can't keep up with the old game.

I would like a lot of games more if the challenge level and its slope wasn't fixed by the game or the other players, but could be modified by me. I'd love harder combat while leveling in MMORPGs. And there are a bunch of games where I found the game fun enough, but considered the design decision to make the game incredibly hard to be either misguided, or a plump attempt to get me to pay to win. A lot of games could be improved a lot by introducing variable difficulty. Challenge in asymmetric games is by definition arbitrary, and if we can't go back to symmetric games, we should at least have a better control over the arbitrary level of challenge.
Tobold's Blog



Playing pen & paper online
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 May 2014, 12:28 am
sid67 asked: "Totally off-topic, but does anyone know if there is any software/websites for running pen & paper groups online?".

I hear a lot of good things about virtual tabletop applications like roll20.net or Fantasy Grounds. Check out this handy comparison chart!

But personally I would be more interested in an asynchroneous solution, where you play by writing and don't necessarily have to be online at the same time as the other players. That would allow me to play in English with Americans, in spite of the time difference. But I'm not sure what the best sites for play-by-forum or similar solutions are. I would love to join a 4E game as a player.
Tobold's Blog



Basic Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2014, 12:37 pm
As I recently wrote, I consider 5th edition to be both too complex and too expensive to make a good product that gets new players into pen & paper role-playing. And apparently I wasn't the only one who thought that: Mike Mearls from Wizards of the Coast announced Basic Dungeons & Dragons, a FREE online pdf with just 4 classes and 4 races, but covering level 1 to 20. So everybody who wants to start playing can use those free rules system for his first campaign, and then decide whether he wants to expand on that with the information from the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. I will definitively check that out, and maybe even buy the $20 D&D Starter Set to (solo) test how easy it would be to play just using Basic D&D and the starter set.

I hope this works out for Dungeons & Dragons, and they get a lot of new players. Because frankly up to now I didn't see who would actually buy 5th edition. Because 4th edition is such a different game, and 5th edition is conceptually a step backwards, introducing old flaws back into the system, it is safe to say that most fans of 4th edition aren't going to rush to buy 5th. And the people who always hated 4E have long since found a good home in Pathfinder, and it isn't obvious what the advantage of switching to 5E would be. So new players are actually the best bet for 5th edition.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 15
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2014, 10:45 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune found out how to control the cards of the Deck of Many Things they had been collecting. That turned those cards from a curiosity into a bunch of powerful magic items. So we started this session with distributing those cards, the players taking turns choosing the cards they wanted. Then the group headed towards the second entrance of the vaults, some ruined barracks. In the barracks the group encountered two carrion crawlers and a bulette, which attacked from below. The carrion crawlers were relatively easy to kill, leaving the bulette as main enemy. And the heroes used the cards of the Deck of Many Things to great effect to hit the bulette with various status effects like stun and petrification, making the fight quite an easy one.

Heading downstairs from there the Favorites of Selune came to a room with a moon of Selune on the floor, and frescoes showing minotaurs venerating Selune on the walls. In the middle of the moon was a chalice, and a gnoll shaman was trying to get to that chalice. But whenever he approached, flames shot out of the ground. The group attacked the shaman and the other 3 gnolls in the room, but the gnolls fled into the next room and closed and barred the door behind them. The group's priest approached the moon on the floor, and provoked no defense reaction, so that he could grab the chalice, which turned out to be the chalice of the dragon that they had been looking for.

Now the group was still in combat, because there was the possibility to break down the door and go after the gnolls. As nothing happened for a round, I diminished the count of the escalation die to zero. And I waited for the players to decide whether they wanted to go after the gnolls, or leave the place to bring back the chalice of the dragon to Sir Oakley. They did neither. Instead the warlock and the rogue came up with a plan to open another door in the room to see what was behind it. And when they saw two minotaurs and a demon in that other room, the rogue shot an arrow at the demon. All that while they technically were still in combat with the gnolls.

That ended as you would expect it to: The arrow "pulled" the minotaurs including the demon and some minotaur reinforcements towards the players. On hearing the demon roar and the heroes in combat with the demon and minotaur, the gnolls opened their door again and attacked them from behind, nearly killing the wizard (who already wasn't too happy that the others had opened that second door). As the players had managed to pull two large encounters at the same time, there were a LOT of monsters attacking them. So the adventurers ran away. And as the gnolls and the minotaurs were somewhat hostile to each other, and neither of them wanted to be between the adventurers and the others, nobody followed the Favorites of Selune upstairs. At this point we ended the session.

It has to be said that "dungeons" don't make a lot of sense in any game, pen & paper or MMORPG. Why are there so many monsters living so close to each other, and why don't they all come running when the first group of them is attacked? Obviously there are genre conventions at play here, which make a dungeon possible in the context of a RPG, for gameplay - not realism. But those conventions require that the players stick to them: The monsters will not come running by themselves from the next room, but if you deliberately "pull" them, they will. So even if there was a certain logic to verifying what was behind the second door, opening that door and shooting and arrow at the monsters behind went against those dungeon conventions. The players were just lucky that the wizard survived with 2 hit points, this session could well have seen our second death of the adventure.
Tobold's Blog



New player guide to role-playing: Ask me anything
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 May 2014, 7:38 am
Without wanting to turn this blog into Reddit, I could use some more feedback on my "New player guide to role-playing" series of posts. Before I go off on some tangent nobody is interested in, I'd rather ask my readers whether there is anything in particular they want to know about pen & paper role-playing games. Please, use the comment section of this post to ask me anything you want to know about RPGs.
Tobold's Blog



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