Friday, August 27, 2010

Building a gladiatorial arena (brainstorming)

My proto-Dark Sun campaign is going to feature a gladiatorial arena as the primary tactical encounter area for the first several sessions. I'm a huge fan of building props for games, and have a large amount of hobby supplies that are devoted to building terrain... I've got a hot wire foam factory kit, modelling epoxy, flock, ballast, Hirst Arts molds, stacks of scrap styrofoam... the whole thing.

So, I need to plan out the arena, since it's going to be where all the 'action' happens. First things first, I want it to be large, but not terribly unwieldy... it would be nice if I could transport it, for instance.

So step one will be to design the basic arena. It will need to be large enough to support reasonable mass combat, or to handle a gargantuan beast with room to maneuver. So my first thought is to make it rectangular/oval, with the tactical surface being roughly 30"x50".

The base will be a thin, strong surface... possibly chipboard. I'll need a surface slightly larger than the proposed arena floor, so that I can build up walls and gates around it. The actual arena floor will be made from 1.5" thick pink styrofoam. I will use this, because it will allow me to put some 'subterranean' features onto the arena floor. The basic arena floor will be featureless, but with two large 'pits' situated near each end of the long edge of the oval. These will be cut out of the styrofoam, revealing the chipboard beneath. I will have at least two modular pieces that can plug into these holes... the first will be narrow grates (suitable for walking over), the second will be wide grates (that a model could conceivably fall through). Finally, there will also be modular floors that can be put in, removing the pit entirely.

This will allow each side of the arena to have three options... flat floor (no game effect), narrow grates (steam, gas, tentacles, etc can enteract with those on the grates), wide grates (same issues with environment, but now you get to make acrobatics checks while walking across or risk falling in... or being pushed in... or being grabbed from below), or open pits (again, nasties can be inside, or they can just be areas to be bullrushed into...).

So, our basic arena will have a large tactical suface, two modular environmental areas, walls with gates for entry points of combatants. that's a good start.

The first major piece that will be added will be a 'King of the hill' pyramid. This will be a modular pyramid consisting of 1"-thick pink styrofoam in the following default configurations:

2"x2" 'Crest' or the top, level 1
4"x4" level 2
6"x6" level 3
8"x8" level 4
10"x10" level 5
12"x12" level 6

I will make 2 each of these sizes, so that a ziggurat style pyramid of up to 12" in height can be formed in the middle of the arena floor. This will allow for the following configurations...

12-8-4, 1 layer each. Allows for a 3" 'hill' with relatively gentle slopes. Climbing to the next level is simply difficult terrain. Being pushed from the top would result in little to no damage.

12-10-8-6-4-2, 1 layer each. This creates a 6" hill (30' to scale). Going down a level is difficult terrain, up a level difficult terrain that requires an easy climb check. Being bullrushed off the top could result in significant falling damage.

12-10-8-6-4-2, 2 layers each. This creates a 12" hill (60' to scale) with 10' high walls between levels. Climbing up requires a moderate climb check, and getting bullrushed off the uppoer levels will be decidedly unpleasant.

These will be the basic configurations, with others possible. In addition to the basics, there will also be 'floor' and 'wall' traps that can be mounted... spike strips, climbing poles in the walls, arrow traps, etc... with various triggers, so that players can experiment and use the traps as offensive weapons.

The nice thing about having this arena is that with just these relatively simple pieces, you can already create dozens of configurations to keep the tactical battles fresh. It also will give me a strong basis for fights while still allowing me to build a 'terrain feature of the week' that I can spring on the players as the nefarious arena masters come up with new things to keep the arena exciting.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Building a new Role-playing campaign from scratch

I'm currently brainstorming a Dark Sun campaign, using the 4e ruleset. One thing I've learned over they years is that D&D doesn't have to be planned out to be fun, and in fact fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants DMing is a great way to have fun when you don't have the time to devote to a full campaign.

However, in this case I do have time... it's going to be months before the Council of Thieves Campaign I'm playing in is over, and I want to limit my campaign play to two at a time, and Kingmaker isn't going to be done for ages...

So, I've started building up my concepts and conceits, in very broad strokes...


So, you meet in a tavern!
I have to admit that trying to get an interesting 'party genesis' handled is difficult. Without devolving into a bar fight or a raliroading of why, exactly, this Paladin is chooising to run around with the dude in the black cloak with the green-tinted weapons, you really have a half-assed blather as each person tries to justify why they're working together, and for what goals.

Also, you have to deal with backstory and such, when most players are busy tweaking stat bonuses. I've decided to do away with all of that. Each Player will have the opportunity to create one or more 'Proto-Player Characters'. I'll be creating an alternate character sheet, where you will fill out things like the player's name, immediate family tree, their age, what their parents do/did for a living, their profession, and a few traits, like 'strong' or 'beautiful' or 'educated'. No stats. No class.

As for the characters themselves, they'll be thrown together via a railroad plot at the start. Yes, I fully admit it. The point is to have the players learning about who *they* are prior to codifying stats, class, feats, etc. Every Proto-PC will be looked at on the basis of race/traits/background, and will be introduced on a Slave Ship, crossing the Silt Sea... almost certainly, every Proto-PC will be a prisoner on this vessel, but others could be guards or overseers or staff...

The first adventures will be cinematic/story-telling, going over how they got on the ship, who they meet there, and resolving some conflicts (food and water shortages, domineering overseers, advances by the captian, attacks by creatures). Some Proto-PCs will likely die. Others will be sold offout of the campaign. The key here is to let the players 'feel out' a few different options. Eventually, they will leave the Silt Sea, and become gladiator-slaves, fighting in the arena to entertain the masses. At this point, the characters will be actually fleshed out with stats, class, and full-fledged character sheets. And hopefully, with a session or two of cinematic role-playing, they'll already have a personality that complements the choices made to actually create the character.

The art of the railroad
I'm developing my campaign ideas with a fairly heavy hand at the outset... when it comes to an adventuring party, there's a lot of questions. You can spell them out as the Who/What/Where/Why/When/How. In this case, I give the players complete control over the 'Who' (as long as they fit in Athas, obviously). But for the rest, I'm going to initially be heavy-handed.

What? Gladiator Slaves. All of them. Where? The pits and arena. When? they answer to the overseer's schedule. Why? For entertainment and to make their patrons money. How? With the tools they've been given.

Whatever class they choose, the first several levels of the game will revolve around life in the Gladiator pits: Social interaction, lobbying for better training, better weapons, better armor, better patrons. Attempting to curry favor and influence, honory and glory (or possibly infamy).

In addition to the social interactions and trying to survive the pits, there will also, of course, be arena battles. Initially, these will be mass melees, as none of the PCs have earned any glory or a name for themself, they'll be fighting alongside each other and NPC minions, against the 'enemy of the week'. This will allow me to set up any ridiculous combats I like, showcasing monsters, terrain features, weapons, armor... none of the PCs have control over who they fight, or what they fight with.

My goal, initially, is to be able to focus on who they are... gear won't be attached to characters, or money. The only thing the players hae control over after they've made stats is what 'face' they present in the arena to the masses, and how they interact behind the scenes with their peers, the guards, and their patrons. Over time, they'll become more influential, more powerful, and at that point, the railroad will dead-end into the sandbox. Do they stay in the Arena, fighting for glory? Buy their freedom? Escape? Become patrons of other slaves, and take on the mantle of overseer? Modify public opinion from the sands to overthrow corrupt government? It's up to them... I'll make it clear as time goes on that they are becoming exceptional... that nothing is truly keeping them in the pits, and then they can decide how to take the campaign from there.

It should make for an interesting campaign.

Monday, August 23, 2010

SwordQuest: Earthworld, an Atari 2600 experience (part 2)

I finally had a chance to sit down with Stella and play this game. Remember, this game was supposed to be the holy grail of Atari 2600 adventure gaming, the game that would be everything Adventure was, and more. Upon loading the game, you are presented with a color-cycling sword and the copyright. Arguably, this is better than Adventure's intro screen.

Not a bad start, I guess.
As soon as you press 'fire' you start the game, where you're presented with a relatively inscrutable screen. Your avatar (an armless, bald dude in a blue shirt... arguably an improvement over Sir Square) stands in the middle of a 4-way intersection, and has three items in his inventory. A dagger, a grappling hook, and a rope. (or possibly a crossbow bolt, a sword blade, and a cobra. It's hard to tell.)

Moving around the room is easy enough. I press 'fire' and am in a room with an amulet, a flashing door, and a symbol that looks remarkably like a woman in a lewd pose. I can maneuver my inventory here, dropping or picking up the items. I decide to pick up the amulet, and leave the rope and hook behind. Pressing fire on the door icon takes me back to the room.

I immediately decide to explore to the right. I'm thwarted. I find I can't go left, either. Ok, down it is. Going down, I get rewarded with a pseudo-3D hallway effect, and am in an even pinker room than before. Pressing 'fire' puts me in a room with a symbol that is possibly a trolley car headed for me, but most likely a set of scales. I seem to recall that the rooms are zodiac-based. I might verify that if I go read the instructions.

I go down again and I get my first clue! Woo! It is simply the number '1'. I know if I collect all the clues, and figure out the secret, and build a time machine, I can have a chance at winning the Talisman. I expect that at this stage of my life, it's more likely that I'd build a time machine than complete this game.

The room with the clue has what I'm going to assume is Scorpio's symbol, as well as a talisman of some sort. I go pick that up, and leave the amulet in its place. Maybe the '1' meant to drop the item from the 1st room here. I still can't go left or right, so down it is.

I'm now in a bright green room. The symbol is probably Aries, but there's nothing here. So far, I'm sevral minutes into the game and have encountered nothing remotely interesting. By this time in Adventure, you'd have been eaten a few times at least.

I go down again, after verifying that I still can't go right or left. Ooh! A purple room, but this time I'm not in an item area... I've got a skill challenge! I'm at the bottom of the screen, and there are pink things moving... I quickly deduce I'm either supposed to dodge those, or move across them, to get to the purple door.

Woo! Frogger! Only bad!

I decide it's likely 'phase 1' of Frogger, where you have to avoid the cars. I quickly realize this is incorrect. You can't move left or right, and can only move forward jumping from pink thing to pink thing. And it's pretty brutal. They move quickly, and if you hit the edge of the screen, it dumps you off. Every fail sends you back to the start. After a few tries, I decide to time myself to see how long it takes me to make it.

On the 19th try I make it to the door... and miss it. 3 minutes down the drain so far, but despite being completely unfun and pure twitchiness, I'm not to throw-the-controller level yet.... FUCK YOU GAME. 50 or so tries later, I've made it to the stupid last rank a half-dozen times, but missed the door each time. While I'm currently at throw-the-controller levels of frustration, I also know that I simply have to be at the right hand side of the screen for the last couple jumps, period. I appreciate trying to make things hard, but the varied speed and requirements to line things up is just stupid...

FINALLY. Made it. 10 minutes of repetitive bullshit, half-assed Frogger clone with bad graphics and one-dimensional controls (Forward/back only? Really?) I make it into the Aquarius room, I'd guess, and can pick up a dude and a jug. I do so. I leave the talisman here, too, for no good reason. Woo! I can move left! Apparently one of the items lets me do so? Or maybe it's a reward for beating that stupid screen. Except... moving left just puts me back in the Libra room. Lame. Well, anyway... I go left some more and get to Gemini... where there's a candle and a lance or trident. I get both of those items...

Ok, I'm getting bored. I can move around, see rooms, but I've not found any game to play except Shitty Frogger. I start running around randomly, because that's sure to help. I finally find a new challenge screen... I'm excited, briefly, until I realize that I'm back to Shitty Frogger Returns. This is the height of adventure gaming in 1982, really? Shitty Frogger and obfuscated puzzles involving picking shit up and putting it down somewhere else?


More Frogger? Really?
Either this screen is 100 times easier, or my previous 'challenge' screen has honed my abilities, because I get through this Frogger screen in one try, and am rewarded with Sagitarrius' room, with what I guess is a cloak in it.

Ok... wander, wander, wander. Oh, look, I can keep playing Shitty Frogger Mk I, I bet that room is super important and has to have lots of shit dropped in it to get a clue since it is so freakishly painful. I find more items... shield, key, shoes, booze and pills... but I have no idea what to do with any of them. It's time to break down, admit failure, and... read the instructions.

Ok, the instructions have useful info. The lewd woman was Virgo. The booze/pills is food, the dude is a talisman of passage, the shield is leather armor. I can now see what all the items are, and the room symbols... I also learn about the challenges. Frogger Mark I is using rafts to cross the Aquarian Rapids. Frogger Mark II is dodging the spears of Sagittarius. I've apparently not yet found the Horns of Taurus, or the roaring waterfall of Leo. Which is odd, because I've seen the rooms that have those symbols...

Ok, the instructions are only moderately helpful. I'm supposed to put things in rooms... but as far as I can tell, it's purely trial and error, with a combination of 12 rooms and 15 objects. I'm not going to do the math on that, I'm willing to accept it's simply a large number. Luckily, I'm living in 2010, and not 1982... so I can make use of the internet, and solve the puzzles of Earthworld with Google, instead of my free time and sanity.

With the aid of a walkthrough, I learn that the reason I've never seen the 'Horns' or 'Waterfall' is that I have the items necessary to avoid them. Yay. I also learn that the clues are pretty much entirely arbitrary, and involve dropping things with no rhyme or reason. Apparently, you were supposed to buy a game that had about 20 minutes of game play, but to be compelling, you needed to drop items in rooms. Again. And again. And again. Ah, hundreds of hours of compelling game play of moving things around in hopes of getting a magical combination, with occasional games of Shitty Frogger to lighten the mood. Good job, Atari!

I think I'm done with the game at this point... I have little interest in playing the other variations of 'dodge things' to get the privelege to randomly drop things in rooms. The only question I have is: 'Is this game better, or worse, than E.T.?' It just might be worse.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Welcome to Dark Sun

For those of you waited with bated breath for my foray into Swordquest: Earthworld, you'll have to be slightly more patient. Instead of playing the game yesterday, I moved my wife and her partner's offices to their new building. The last thing that crossed my mind was to try to play and post about one of the most incoherent Atari 2600 games of all time.

So instead, I'm going to post something that doesn't involve having to play a videogame, and just talk about the 'new' D&D supplement, Dark Sun.

I played Dark Sun when it originally came out. My character was a Fighter/Psionicist Thri-Kreen that specialized in those little tri-pointed throwing stars. I believe he had a 21 dexterity and 22 strength. His name was unpronounceable, and the rest of the party just called him 'Tick'.

I don't recall much about the game, other than despite having a power-level orders of magnitude higher than anything I'd ever played before, we regularly got our asses kicked.

I'm pretty excited to see the new Dark Sun for 4e... I think it's a terribly good match for the system. Some people disagree with me, but lets take a look at it:

Dark Sun is a brutal world of isolated city-states, surrounded by deadly wastelands. Points of Light, check.

Dark Sun characters are incredibly powerful, exceptional beings that have to be that strong just to survive the rigors of the game world. Uber-powerful 1st level PC's, check.

Magic is limited-use and frowned upon, the gods are absent and magic use is destroying the world. Magic use is limited to in-combat attack spells and difficult rituals, check.

I think it's a perfect fit, and am already planning a campaign that will start once our Council of Thieves game wraps up.

I've even got a solution to one of the major complaints about D&D 4e, being that combat feels like a tactical game. My solution? The party is going to be a group of freshly captured slaves, thrown into the arena as Pit Fighters. Each session will involve social and roleplaying opportunities, as the party interacts with other slaves, slavers, bookies, and etc. Combat can happen in these portions, of course, but the players are prisoners, and jailbreak/escape isn't going to be on the table in the Heroic Tier, unless something extraordinary happens. Because of this, any 'riots' will be broken up by the guards/wardens more often than not.

In addition, each session will have a planned combat... an 'Arena'-style death match, where the 'party' will be on one side of a mass combat. The opposition will vary from week to week, as will the 'interesting features'. Sometimes they'll be able to bring armor and weapons of their choice, other times they'll have to take what is given, pr they may have to go for things on the arena grounds.

Each week there will be interesting terrain features on the arena floor, and more importantly... the most important factor of combat won't be 'kill it quickly and take it's stuff', but instead 'survive, while being as entertaining as possible to the crowd'. Boring fighters, when they lose, will get the 'thumbs down' from the crowds, while popular fighters will live even if they fail to win.

I think I can get through the Heroic Tier quite well with political intrigue, gambling rings, a prison economy, etc, with the fights as 'flavor' as opposed to the point of the campaign. It also gives me a lot of leeway on relative treasure levels and equipment... as nothing 'belongs' to the players, I can modify equipment on the fly, while still taking into account each player's preference, occasionally allowing them very early access to awesome toys...

It should be a good time. I've got a few months to prepare before CoT wraps up, as well, so I've got time to build an arena out of styrofoam and Hirst Arts blocks, as well as work up a large stable of NPCs.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SwordQuest: Earthworld, an Atari 2600 experience (Part 1)

In 1982 I was beginning to end my love affair with all things Atari. While the 2600 was still my game system, and the games were increasing in quality, there were simply too many things conspiring against the game system, primarily the fact that arcade games were growing more and more polished and technologically advanced, and the 2600 was having a harder and harder time capturing even the essence of these games. As the 2600 was pushed to its ultimate limits just to present a version of a game that would be recognizable as the source material, the quality and fun suffered.

I had almost given up on my 2600 at this point, but was an official, card carrying member of the Atari Club (as an aside... is it just me, or has the concept of 'card carrying member' of clubs gone to the wayside? Neither of my kids have any club memberships that include a meaningless ID card. On the other hand, I've got my Pathfinder Society card and my DCI card on my nightstand. Hmm. Maybe the concept is just followng my generation around.)

One of the perks (the only perk?) of being a member of the Atari Club was that every so often you got a 'magazine' that was a thinly veiled product catalog. It was called 'Atari Age' and had silly puzzles and articles, and it was an interesting read for a few minutes when it came in the mail. I remember sending off my $1 membership fee in a security envelope that I got from my Dad's office, with the address scrawled in my trademark 'block capitals'. It was months before anything came of it, but eventually, the magazine started coming.

I can't remember which issue of the magazine announced the SwordQuest series of games, but the entire concept grabbed me... 4 games would be released, more complex that 'Adventure', and they would include a puzzle that if you solved it, you would win a real treasure! And, the 4 winners would be flown out to compete for a $50,000 gold and silver, jewel-encrusted sword!
Real treasures! worth $150,000!

11-year old me thought this was the greatest thing ever. I was good at games! I was smart! Nothing was going to stop me from beating SwordQuest: Earthworld (the first of the games to be released) and claim my Talisman. In fact, I had visions of winning *all four* games, so I'd get the Crown, the Chalice, and the Philosopher's Stone, and then of course winning the Sword by default.

I plotted and planned. There were some major issues, however, with my plan. I was 11 years old, and didn't have a lot of disposable income, and lived in a tiny town that didn't have a store dedicated to keeping the newest 2600 games in stock.

Eventually, Swordquest Earthworld made it to my town, and a couple of kids got it (I wasn't one of them). There was a brief time of jealousy and sneakiness, as the 'haves' taunted the 'have-nots' with how they were going to win the Talisman. Earthworld was a key part of recess discussions for a couple of weeks.

Then, the secrecy started to fall away. No one who had the game was getting anywhere. The game wasn't fun, and the clues weren't showing up. Soon, Earthworld cartridges started showing up as 'swaps' (We would bring carts to school and swap them with friends, either as actual trades, or loans). The people with them said that because they 'owned' the game, if any of us found the clues, they would be the ones that would win the prize. This didn't go over well, and SwordQuest somewhat fell out of favor.

I eventually got a borrowed copy of SwordQuest: Earthworld, but didn't have the comic and instruction book, and it was inscrutable at the time. I played at it for a few minutes, I believe, but then put it away.

Tomorrow, I'll post my experiences with Earthworld, as I'm going to play it. I am going to play until I uncover at least one clue. Depending on how long it takes to find the first clue, I may play longer. We'll just have to see.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Innovation, the best 2-player board game I've played in a long while.

My wife and I have a history of playing 2-player board games after the kids are in bed, instead of watching TV or reading. Over the years, a number of games have hit the table for an extended stay... In the past, the top hits were Lost Cities, Carcassonne: the Castle, Balloon Cup, Medici vs Strozzi.

For a while we had an abstract phase, with Ingenious (Travel Edition) or DaVinci's Challenge as the go-to games.

Recently, we moved into Ra: the Dice Game and Qwirkle, and then Race for the Galaxy.

Since Origins, I had managed to play a few games of Innovation, but my wife had not, having been playing other games at game night. At GenCon, I made a point to pick my own copy up from Asmadi games (Along with Win, Lose, Banana and the WLB expansion, Cake).

We played the game in the Hotel that evening, and it was a hit, even though I didn't do a great job of explaining the game. (I claim tiredness). We ended up playing it 3 times together at GenCon, and I played 3 more times with other people. Initially, there were some balance issues with the game, and it seemed to end far too quickly. however, at the end of the Con, I managed to read (and correctly parse) all of the rules, and came up with two major issues that took the game from 'neat, but seems broken' to 'very, very good game'.

Since GenCon, we've played it 2-player, 3-player, and 4-player with my mother-in-law and our son. The game plays quite differently with different numbers of people. 4-player is more chaotic, as there are more powers on the board and more opportunities to screw with people.

So, enough talking around the game, let's get to the meat of it. I'm going to focus on the two-player aspect, as that's where I have the most familiarity.

The game is played with a cards, and there are 10 'ages' of cards, that work somewhat like tech levels. Age 1 is Prehistory, Age 2 is Classiscal, and then you work up to Age 8, Modern, and Age 10, Information. Each age of cards have their own icons and powers. Your goal is to work your way up through the ages, improving your civilization and technology level and become the first one to complete 6 'achievements'. (In 3- and 4-player games, you work for 5 or 4 achievements).

At the start of the game, the board is set by putting the 10 ages of cards in 10 separate piles. The top card from each of the ages 1-9 is set up in a stack of 'achievements' for those ages. these nine achievements can be earned by getting enough points from other cards. In addition you have the 5 'special' achievements that can be earned through either a difficult task, or a slightly simpler task that requires you to have the power of a specific card.

Both players are then dealt 2 'Age 1' cards each, and the game begins with each player picking one card from their hand, and melding it to the board in front of them. The person who plays the card closest to the start of the alphabet begins play and can take one action. the actions are:

Draw a Card: you may draw a card of equal value to the highest card you have melded on the board.

Meld a Card: you may meld a card from your hand to the board.

Achieve: You may take the top achievement from the achievment stack and place it face down in your achievement zone. You may only do this if you have 5x the age of the achievement in points, and a melded card of at least that age in play... so to take the Age 1 achievement, you need 5 points and an Age 1 card melded, and to take the Age 5 acheivement, you need 25 points and an Age 5 card melded.

Dogma: this is the meat of the game. Every card has one or more 'effects' that can be done if the card is in play in front of you. For one of your actions, you can perform all of these effects. Dogma effects let you draw cards, meld cards, score points, score special achievements, 'splay' your melds of cards, return cards, steal cards and more. Some high level dogma effects will end the game, as well.

The goal of the game is, of course, to score your 6 achievements, but you can only do this through dogma effects, as that is the only way to score points. Dogma effects are tied to symbols on the cards, and the number of symbols you have determines how the powers work.

The symbols are: Tower (representing military power, disappears in Age 4), Leaves (agricultural/natural power), Crowns (political/religious power), Light Bulbs (ideas and innovation), Factories (economic power, appears in Age 4), and Clocks (future tech, appears in age 7). Every card may have as many as 4 of these symbols on it, and the number of each symbol determines your power level.

In addition, the cards themselves come in 5 colors... Purple, Green, Red, Yellow, and Blue. I feel like these colors are broad concepts... Red cards seem aggressive, Blue cards seem to be 'high tech', yellow deals with  manipulation of your resources. However, it's a loose enough fit that this may simply be a case of me trying to impose patterns where there may be none.


When playing, you meld cards on top of like colors... so if you have a red card, and wish to play another one, then you will cover up the existing red card. This means that as the game progresses, you will lose access to powers from earlier ages, as well as those symbols. This makes it so that it is possible to gain/lose ground in the symbol arms race for dogma powers. At any time you can have at most 5 cards 'active' in front of you, although those cards may be on a stack of like-colored cards.

Now, why do you bother having all these cards, and all these symbols? Because of dogma effects. A simple Age 1 card is 'The Wheel'. This card has a dogma effect of: Towers: Draw 2 Age 1 cards.

When you perform this dogma, you will draw two cards... a great deal, since normally you can only draw one! howevver, we have to look at the power that runs the card... towers. When you activate this dogma, every player counts their tower symbols, and anyone with as many or more as you will also execute this dogma... and they'll do it first. So if you aren't in the lead on towers, they'll also get to draw cards.

There's a few caveats to this though, that are where the strategy of the game starts to come through... first, if an opponent shares your dogma, you will draw a bonus card after everyone is done. Secondly, when you draw cards, if you need to draw from a stack that is empty, you draw from the next higher stack.

So, you may choose to allow me to draw cards from 'The Wheel', especially if you see that there are two Age 1 cards left... which means I draw them both, leaving the Age 1 stack empty, and then you get to draw 2 Age 2 cards and a bonus card on top of that!

As the game continues, the dogma powers become more complex, but one of the powers of note is the 'Splay'. Several cards will allow you to splay cards to the left, right, or up. When you do this, you spread the stack out so that the one or more of the symbols on the lower cards are revealed (a splay left will reveal one symbol, a splay right 2 symbols, and a splay up three symbols). These splayed card symbols count for the purposes of dogma, so splaying cards is the best way to increase your power.

Eventually, dogma powers will say things like 'meld a card from your hand and score a card', or 'return a card from your hand, and score a card of one higher than the card you returned', or 'I demand that my opponents put their top cards with towers on their board into my score pile'. In this way, dogma effects change the game, and score points. cards are worth a number of points equal to their age, so an Age 1 card is 1 point, while an Age 8 card is 8 points.

As you build your tableau you will be looking for opportunities to score points so you can claim achievements. Early, this is relatively easy. But later in the game, you have to balance scoring points, protecting your score pile with symbols, and trying to get into a high enough tech level on your board to claim the higher level achievements.

Initially, games are a little stilted, as you aren't sure about the powers, but as you learn the cards, you become better able to respond to your opponent.

I highly recommend this as a 2-player game, especially now that we're playing by all of the correct rules*. It's also good as a 3-player or 4-player game, but the increased chaos/randomness may turn some players off. (Conversely, some players thrive on increased randomness, and for them the game is likely better with 4).

For the record, since we've started playing this game in the evenings since we got back from GenCon, my wife has kicked my ass every  time we played until last night, when I finally got a good engine going, and she was stunted. We played again, and I burst out of the gates to a 3-0 lead, and then, despite having a million cards splayed and tons of symbols, couldn't score another point and ended up losing 3-6.

However, last night we also got into Age 10 and actually used Age 10 powers for the first time...

*Initial plays missed two very critical rules. First, you can only achieve a card if you have that level on your tableau. There are Age 1 and 2 cards that are very efficient at putting points into your score pile, especially as the stacks are depleted. We had a game end with a person getting the 2-7 achievements off points, but the highest card on their tableau was a 3. clearly, this can't happen if you follow the rules.


Secondly, we initially played that if I performed a dogma (such as 'draw two Age 1 cards') and you beat me on symbols, you could refuse to do it, thereby preventing me from getting three Age 2 cards while you only got two age 1 cards. However, the rules are clear that unless the card says 'You May ...' then the dogma is not optional. You can use this to your advantage, not only by forcing people to draw, but by making them meld, score, or otherwise use cards that otherwise might be hurting you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Anatomy of a TPK (with a bit of history)

I've played role-playing games for a long time. A LOOONG time. I first truly started playing D&D with the Basic and Expert Sets, that my Grandmother purchased for me when they were released in 1981. I was 10 years old at the time. I'd played in a game with my friend Walter's older brother prior to that, that used lumps of lead that were supposed to represent heroes and monsters (miniature sculpting has come a long way in 30 years) that I believe was either OD&D or the original blue book Basic D&D.

Anyway... from age 10 until I was 19, D&D was a staple of childhood. In middle school I 'graduated' to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and while most kids my age were spending allowance and lawn-mowing money on movies, clothes, or sporting goods, I was shelling out $20-$30 a pop for hardback role-playing books.

Once I got to college, AD&D fell to the way side... oh, we still looked at it now and again, especially when Dark Sun came out, but the games that took over were things like Traveller, Bushido, RoleMaster, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2013, Palladium, TMNT, Rifts, GURPS... the college I attended had a huge Role-playing group, and we played every different system we could get our hands on.

After college, I returned briefly to AD&D 2nd edition, playing with my old high school friends, but it wasn't the same. We started an abortive 3.0 campaign, but hated it because the combat was far too tactical, and the character power levels were horridly imbalanced. We jumped ship and played White Wolf games for a couple years, with a Vampire campaign running through the years while Werewolf, Mage, Changeling all never really managed to get anywhere.

After that, role-playing wasn't really a priority. I was playing a lot of other games... Magic the Gathering, Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, board games. Then 4th edition came out, and I wanted to see if they'd fixed my issues with 3rd edition. They had, and I ran a 4th edition campaign for a while, until one of the group moved away.

Then, about a year ago, we started playing Pathfinder with friends, and I was back playing in a constant campaign. A few months ago, our DM started a second group, to play the Kingmaker Adventure Path.

We rolled up characters, and our party was ready to brave frigid temperatures, deep snows, bandits, and a brutal random encounter table to claim a kingdom of our very own. The party was fairly balanced... Paladin, Rogue, Druid, Wizard. We began our adventure, mapping, setting watches at night, picking up quests.

Now, all of this history is a prelude to this statement: in nearly 30 years of roleplaying, I had never once experienced a TPK, a Total Party Kill. I will say there are times I should have been in one, but something always saved our asses. Now, I'm not saying we never had campaign reboots, because we did... but they were never based off a game, that at the end everyone looks up, and the DM says: 'OK, you're all dead. We'll make up new characters and start again.'

A Total Party Kill is not something most DM's strive for. A TPK means someone has just screwed up horribly. Possibly several people. Hopefully, the screw-ups are the players, because at least then they deserved it. I'm going to go over our TPK and analyze it a bit, to see just how many screw-ups were required to get to this place... as well as pick out 'moments of awesome'.

Our party consisted of four level 2 characters:
Kieyanna, a Paladin 2 of Calistria (goddess of lust, gambling, etc) that was houseruled to Chaotic instead of Lawful. Heavy armor, giant sword, and carried a whip for combat maneuvers.

Daehir, a Fighter 1/Rogue 1 with light armor, low strength and hit points, but ridiculous dexterity. (My character) Also of note, I'd contracted lycanthropy in a previous adventure that manifested not only on the full moon, but when I confirmed a critical in combat... if a crit was confirmed, I would have to roll to see if I changed to an enraged hybrid form that attacked the nearest creature, friend or foe, for 2d10 rounds.

Dr. Two-creeks, a Druid 2 with great mental/weak physical stats, with an armored Boar companion (Crixus).

Urtos, a Wizard 2 who was a drunkard, had visions of Kieyanna becoming 'king', and had a combat strategy of 'fall prone, fire force missiles' to avoid combat.

The four of us stumbled across the fort of the bandit known as the Stag Lord. It was dark and quiet, and we began our plans.

The following plans emerged:

1) Set up an ambush in the woods, wait for a bandit party to return/leave, fight them and attempt to capture one or more to interrogate/use as hostages.

2) Set up a distraction, such as a large fire, and draw out a group to see what is going on, so that we could fight them, and capture one or more to interrogate or use as hostages.

3) Note the position of the bandit fort, observe it to try to determine the number of bandits and their habits, return when we are more prepared (read: 3rd level).

4) Use some dust of illusion on Kieyanna to make her great sword look like a bag of gold, her armor to look like tastefully ripped silk clothing showing a LOT of skin. She and Urtos would convince the guards that they were helpless travelers with a lot of loot, so that they would open the gates, then Two-Creeks and Daehir would charge in from where they were hiding off to the side, and we would attack with a full-frontal assault. this plan was even named: Pig in the Poke 2. Urtos, our wizard, had previously used 'Pig in a Poke' as a plan to draw bandits *in* to our fort, this plan was a modification, allowing us to get in to theirs.

Guess which plan got chosen? Yes. Number 4.

Plan fail 1: You chose the wrong plan.
Plan fail 1, subsection A: Picking a plan becuase of a clever name, doesn't make the plan clever.

Once we were sure we were going with this crazy plan, Urtos and Kieyanna moved up the road, while Two-creeks and Daehir snuck off to the side. While Kieyanna and Urtos begged/pleaded, they also failed bluff checks. And as the other two crept up, suddenly Zombies popped up out of the ground and attacked the people off to the side.

Plan fail 2: The bluff didn't work.

Plan fail 3: The situation has changed, your ambushers have been ambushed instead.

At this point, the rational solution would be to chalk this up as a big fail and run away. But no. We decided to fight it out...

The guards began taking shots at us all from the wall with bows. Urtos ran off to get out of the line of fire... bringing up more zombies. Kieyanna decided to keep to the plan, and climbed the gate (making an amazing climb roll) and flipped over the other side.

Two-creeks and Daehir got peppered with arrows and charged by Zombies. We used up some healing magic and an entangle trying to control the zombies while Kieyanna, on the other side of the wall (still looking like a ravished woman) tried once more to convince the bandits to open up.

Urtos ran to the gates, fleeing the zombies, Kieyanna gave up diplomacy and started cutting bandits in half with a greatsword enchanted to look like a bag of gold, and Daehir took this opportunity to confirm two criticals with his rapier and kukri and start howling at the moon.

Moment of Awesome: Kieyanna slicing two bandits in half in two attacks with max-damage rolls.

Plan fail 4: We've split the party.

The next round, Daehir spends a full round action wolfing out into a hybrid form, Kieyanna opens the gates, and Urtos and Two-creeks run inside, while the zombies are stuck in the entangle. As they get into the gates, it is noted that there are a couple of 'named' bad guys and 5 more goons. And they're calling for more help.

Plan fail 5: in the face of overwhelming odds, consider flight.

Daehir rages and transforms, and rips through three (injured) zombies in one round, Urtos catches 5 bandits in a color spray, Two-creeks and Crixus go after the named guy...

Plan fail 6: if you are spending a lot of resources just to get to 'fair fight' then  you should reconsider your actions.

 Moment of Awesome: the guards on the wall seeing Daehir transform and shred multiple zombies.

In the fort, we're attacked by a series of important bad guys... the Stag Lord himself, and two more named bad guys, as well as an owlbear. The goons are going down quickly, but the wizard and druid are out of offensive spells. Daehir runs, in hybrid form, and attempts to leap the wall (Side note: that's cinematic awesomeness, and I'm still upset that I wasn't able to do it even with a natural 20. Not that I rolled a natural 20. But even if I had, it would have failed.)

Plan fail 7: if you've run out of limited-use abilities, and haven't engaged the boss yet, RUN AWAY.

Things go south pretty fast here... Daehir manages to climb the wall, and is a whirlwind of destruction, ripping through goons and one of the named guys... but is sitting at 1 hp while raging. And wasted a round going after the boar, because it was closest after I ripped a goon in half. Kieyanna, once facing named guys, stopped rolling natural 20s and max damage. She's still up despite fighting multiple foes because of lay on hands.

Plan fail 8: when you're out of healing magic, and everyone is in single-digit hit points, you really should disengage.

We focus on the owl bear, and hurt it badly, but it's still got Kieyanna. Then, Kieyanna stops trying to get away, and instead PUNCHES the owlbear. Natural 20, confirmed critical, max damage. She punches the owl bear to death. TO DEATH. Unfortunately, the bad guys drop Daehir to negatives, Two-Creeks to zero, and Urtos to 'oh crap I think he's dead'.  Kieyanna and the boar are still up, and luckily the Boar's command was to 'defend Kieyanna', and she's toe-to-toe with the Stag Lord and the boar is on the Barbarian Combat lasts for several rounds of whiffing, as Kieyanna and the Boar are rolling horribly, and the bad guys can't get past their ridiculous armor classes. During this time, Two-creeks wanders around at zero, no healing, looking for potions or wands, or something to get one person back in the fight. failing to find anything on the corpses, she goes deep into the fort and into a basement...

Plan fail 9: don't go into a basement, all alone, at zero hit points.

Moment of Awesome: PUNCHING A FREAKING OWLBEAR TO DEATH !

While Daehir and Urtos bleed to death, Kieyanna finally managed to kill the Stag Lord! Unfortunately, the Barbarian killed Crixus, and Two-creeks, in the basement, just got attacked by a rabid Wolverine and mauled to death.

At this time... with 3/4 of the party dying, Kieyanna at 3 hit points, everyone was dead except for the Wolverine and the Barbarian... I wondered, at this point, if our DM would have him give up, since his leader was dead.

No such luck, combat continues and one round later, Kieyanna is dead.

Plan fail 10: don't count on your DM to save you after you've shown repeatedly that you're unwilling to be reasonable.

We looked up. the battle had taken hours. We'd used every spell. Every potion. We'd all fought tooth and nail through our last hit point. Despite going with a horrible plan, and even worse tactics, the dice were stupidly kind to us through a ridiculous fight... until the very end, when Kieyanna couldn't roll over a 4 to save her life (literally).

It was one of the most epic role-playing combats I've ever had. And we were *second level*. At the end of it, I was a little sad... I'd liked Daehir, and really wanted to see what it would be like to play a Werewolf.

Looking back, it's easy to see that we could have recovered at several points... as soon as the bluff failed, as soon as the zombies popped up... those were the key spots that could have saved us all. Toward the end, we probably were going to have some casualties, no matter what.

Instead, we got slaughtered. We were stupid, but it was glorious.

Note: pictures to come. Probably.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adventure, an Atari 2600 Experience (Part 2)

After my daughter had finished her game of Adventure, my son wanted to play. He's 15 and plays lots of video games. He didn't remember playing Adventure before, and wanted to try it as well.

I load the game and ask him 'So, do you want to play on Level 1, or a harder level?'

'I want to play on Level 1 until I figure out the game.'

[He starts playing... he didn't watch any of the game that his sister played, so only knows what I mentioned at the start about how to move, drop items, and to get the chalice. He grabs the yellow key and goes inside the castle. He immediately picks up the sword, shoves it deep into a side wall, and presses fire...]
'Heh, you can put things in walls.'

[I don't tell him he's just lost his only weapon, or that he can retrieve it via the magnet, I just keep watching. He grabs the yellow key, walks out and re-locks the castle, then drops the key and leaves to go to the hall towards the Yellow dragon.]
'AAH! What the heck is that? CRAP. Wait a second. are you documenting this? Seriously?'

[He runs away from the dragon and goes back toward the castle, reopens it and goes in.]
'Oh, I get it. You drop the key in here when you've opened it, and then it stays open.'

[He leaves back toward the hall.]
'Crap the dragon is following me! No... crap. I died. How do you restart?'

[He restarts and wanders the hall way, dodging the yellow and green dragons, and manages to grab the black key.]
'How are you supposed to avoid these?'
(I tell him about the sword. That he stuck in the wall.)

'Huh. a maze. This is kinda cool. Whoa I did not mean to pick up that barrier.'

[He struggles briefly with the bridge and the black key, managing to get the key back out of the wall and leave the bridge where it is. He enters the black castle.]
'What is that? A door?'

[It's the magnet. He ignores it and moves up into the treasure room.]
'I got the chalice! Oh, that's not cool... he ate me. I can't believe
I lost my arrow. Fail. Oh well, restart, I'm having fun with this!'

[Dies three more times trying to get the chalice out of the black castle.]
'Ok, I know the mechanics of this game now. I can beat this. Don't
put your arrow in a wall. That was an epic fail.'
(I still don't explain the use of the magnet)

[He dies four more times before getting out of the maze and into the gold castle with the chalice.]
Not a very exciting victory screen, is it?

'Ok, I got it. Let's play a harder level. Let's play level 3.'

[I get him started on level 3 and he complains about not having a key or anything...]
'Ok, I'm going to just go get the black key... there's a giant orange thing following me! CRAP A DRAGON. Oh my gosh it's some sort of maze NO!'

[He dies.]
'Ok, maybe I should start on level 2.'

[We restart on Level 2.]
'Ooh! I have a bat! With an arrow! I'm gonna go shank some dragons with my bat-arrow! WHAT? He flew away with my arrow... no no no, not cool.'

[Wanders into the maze and finds the bridge.]
'Cool, I have the gappy secret passage thingy.

[He wanders the maze for a minute or so, and finally complains about how he's holding the bridge. I tell him he can drop it and reposition it, and he decides to leave the maze completely to do so. He gets into the hall and drops the bridge.]
'What? NO. Stupid Bat. That's just stupid....'
(he sighs at the game as just as he set down the bridge, the bat flew in and swapped a dragon for it, which promptly ate him.)
Sister: The bat teamed up with the dragon. They're partners.

[He wanders a while, finds the maze to the white castle, gets the yellow key and gets out of the maze.]
'Ha! Now I can win. All I need is the chalice.'

[At this time, dinner is ready... he spends some time trying to kill dragons, but I eventually make him turn off the game.]
'I want to play this again after dinner. Wait. No, not really. I want to play Arkham Asylum.'

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adventure, an Atari 2600 experience

For my second look back on Atari 2600 games from my youth, I wanted to play a game I fondly remembered, and not something like E.T. that was just horrid even when it was new. I picked Adventure, easily my favorite 2600 game from my childhood. It had replayability issues, so it wasn't a constantly played game, but I never traded it.

I decided to have my kids play Adventure, to see how they'd react to the game fresh. When I first played it to prep for the blog, I realized that I hadn't 'lost' anything. I knew my way through all the mazes, and even how to find the magic dot and enter the secret room. I didn't think it would be a very interesting 'look back' to just go 'Look, I can still beat a game that I could beat 30 years ago'.

Last night while I was preparing dinner, I asked my 8-year old daughter if she wanted to play a game that I played when I was her age. She was interested, despite not being a serious video game player. Her primary experience with video games comes from her DS, where she tends to play Nintendogs, Petz, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and Hello Kitty games. She's just started getting interested in D&D because of her brother, and is still more at the 'Cowboys and Indians' level of imagination play (although for her, it's actually 'Harry Potter' complete with robes sewn by her grandmother and a wooden wand her grandfather and I made).

Your adventure starts here, Sir Square of Gold Castle.

I set her up with Adventure, on Level 1. I told her 'This is a game where you try to get a glowing Chalice and bring it back to your Gold Castle. You move with this, and this button lets you drop things. You pick things up just by touching them' and let her go.
[She picks up the gold key.]
'This is cool. I want this game on my computer.'

[She moves down a screen, holding the key]
'Oooh! I got a new level. This one is green.'

[Moves up, presses key against the gold gate and watches it open, then goes in the gold castle.]
'It lets me go in! Can I pick up the arrow?'
(I say yes)
'Do I get a bow later?'
(I ask her what she thinks she'll do with the 'arrow' if she doesn't get a bow.)
'I don't know... I guess I'd throw it at a monster.'

[She moves away, having dropped the key to get the sword.]
'Can I only carry around one thing at a time?'
(I say yes again)
'Huh. Why can't I have a backpack or something?'

[She drops the key and moves to the sword.]
'Now I have the arrow! Now I'll go to the green place.'

[She moves down into the hall and goes toward the maze and the dragon guarding it.]
'Oopsies! He ate me (laughing) Bad Birdy!'

(I explain that the reset leaves everything like it was put restarts her at the gold castle, and reset)
'So I don't have my arrow? That's not fair.'

[She goes back to the yellow dragon, tries to get the sword, and dies again.]
'NO! BAD BIRDY!'

[She dies again.]
'RUN AWAY! Doh. I don't like this bird.'

[She gets away but doesn't kill the yellow dragon, and then goes to the area where the green dragon is guarding the black key.]
'Oh! A Black Key! And another bird.'

[The green dragon eats her. She resets, and it eats her two more times.]
'I don't like this game any more. Can you play a while and gain me some levels so I can get past the bird?'

[I explain how to kill the dragon with the sword. She listens, and this time moves around the dragon, who impales itself on the sword in the floor.]
'Cool! I killed the green dragon! But there's still a yellow one.'
(This is the only time she calls it a dragon, by the way.)
'I want to go get the Black Key. Can you play this now?
(I say no, just keep playing, you're doing fine.)
I'm going to kill the yellow bird before I get the key.'

[She picks up the sword and tries to walk into the force wall]
'How can my arrow go through things but I can't? Does it puncture them?'
'You are writing down everything I say. Are you going to give this to Mommy?'

[Gives up trying to go through the force wall and goes up, looking for the dragon.]
'Cool! Is this some kind of maze? AWESOME.'

[She wanders the maze for a couple minutes. She gives up on killing the dragon, goes and gets the black key, and keeps wandering, trying to get through it.]
I don't like this maze. Can you play for me now?

[I get her through the maze with the black key, but the yellow dragon is still alive]
'Ooh. I thought it was black, but this is orange. I want that arch!'

[She drops the black key, watches it move towards the magnet.]
'OH! It's a magnet!'

[She moves up into the treasure room, and is eaten by the dragon... reset. She tells me to get her through the maze again. She grabs the chalice and starts running with it.]
'I think the Birdy is addicted to the color changing thing.'
(This makes me laugh out loud, and she turns to me indignantly)
'Well, he is! He won't stop chasing after it.'

[She dies several times to the dragon trying to get the chalice. I help her get past the dragon and out of the castle with the chalice.]
'I made it! Oh no, I lost my way.'

[I talk her through the maze, back to the main hall.]
'What now? There's no where else to go.'

[I ask her 'Do you think you might have the chalice?']
'Oh! The color-changy thing is the treasure!'

[She runs to the gold castle.]
'I DID IT! (waits) Is that it? Why can't I move anymore?'

[I explain that she won the game and would need to start over to play again, and ask if she would like to try again.]
'No.'

She walks off to go make a karate robe for one of her Littlest Pet Shop toys. I'm tickled by some of her gaming conceits... specifically the idea of a backpack to hold items, and 'leveling up' to get past something that is too hard. I also like that the colors of rooms and hallways are important to her.

After she was done, though, it was time to expose my 15-year old son to Adventure, for the second time in his life. The first time was about 6 years previously, where he played for about 45 seconds before declaring the game 'a stupid game about ducks' and went back to his PlayStation. We'll see his views on the game tomorrow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

GenCon breakdown

My wife and I just returned from our first GenCon, where we had the pleasure of going with a LOT of friends and friends of friends.

I could go day by day over activities, but instead I'll just mention games played and call the post done...

Board/Card Games:
Civilization (only got to play 5 turns)
Dice Town
Innovation
Parade
Race for the Galaxy (with Gathering Storm and Rebel vs Imperium Expansions)
Rattus
Telestrations
Tichu (actually, my wife played this while I was playing other games)
Time's Up
Time's Up: Title Recall
Tok Tok Woodman!
Win, Lose, Banana (with and without the Cake expansion)

I failed to play the following, despite making at least a modicum of effort to do so:
Ascension
Battles of Westeros
Castle Ravenloft
Death Angel
Irondie

There were a ton of other games I wouldn't have minded playing, but there simply isn't enough time in the day. I did learn that you play games on Thursday and Friday, and do your wandering Saturday, instead of vice versa... that should help next time.

Role-playing games:
Fiasco
The Shotgun Diaries: Die Zombie Die!

These were the only RPGs I played. Fiasco is an amazing shared narrative game, no DM required. I highly recommend it if you have a group of four that likes telling stories and fucking each other over.

Die Zombie Die was a bloody dice fest of fun, low on mechanics, high on over-acting and gruesome death scenes. Our group started out far too slowly and methodically... but once we got into the zombies, things picked up and we had a blast.

RPG's I didn't play, despite wanting to:
Dark Sun 4e

Outside of gaming, I managed to see Wil Wheaton speak and get a chapbook, but failed to play Magic: the Gathering, Battletech, True Dungeon, or TerrorWerks. But all told, it was a successful first trip to GenCon. I will definitely spend more time gaming the next time we go.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an Atari 2600 experience

I dedicate this post to Wil Wheaton, who posted a brief interlude about E.T. on his blog. After reading his blog post, I decided I would play E.T., and determine if it was truly that bad or if it was simply a victim of the times, as the 2600 fell out of favor as it became less and less able to even make a rudimentary approximation of the video games showing up in arcades.

In 1982, I was an 11-year old in Jasper, Alabama. One of the hobbies of me and my friends was, of course, playing Atari 2600 games when we should be doing our homework, or sleeping, or whatever. I have fond memories of many games... Beamrider, Robot Tank, River Raid, Pitfall.

However, my childhood memories of playing E.T. consist entirely of playing it one time at Walter's house for about 5 minutes before we said 'this sucks' and went to play LEGO Wars (a game of our own devising), jump on the trampoline, watch MTV, or play D&D.

Having no real memory of the gameplay, I was unsure what I'd find when I played the game today, over 25 years later. This was all of the impetus I needed to fire up the game and see what it was about.

The entry screen isn't horrible. You can even recognize E.T.

I found an instruction manual here.

Now, once I was a teenager, instruction manuals were for pussies, and no one read them. Ever. But when I was a kid of 10-11, the instruction manual was what you read in the car on the ride home from the store when you got a new game. So, let's read the instructions. It says to start with game three... screw this, let's play. I'm clearly still in my post-adolescent mode, where instructions are for the weak, and the bold start playing.

I have just enough knowledge of the game to be dangerous... I remember that the point of the game was to pick up telephone pieces and phone home, but I honestly don't recall any details, just fuzzy memories of pits, Reese's Pieces candies, FBI Agents and Scientists, and inscrutable icons.

Ok, I start playing. I am picking up candy. I'm falling down pits. Jesus Christ
this is frustrating... the pits seem to have a much larger 'drop' zone than expected, and as soon as you get out of them you fall into them again. And again. And again. And I can't remember what any of those icons mean. I'll press 'fire' and see what happens... wait, now I'm teleporting. Ok, that's what that icon means, I guess.

There don't seem to be any FBI guys. I guess that's good. I keep picking up the little 'dots' which I know to be Reese's Pieces. I see a new icon, a mouth screaming. I press fire. Hey, Elliot! Woo! Wait, bastard! He stole my candy. I had seven pieces.

Ok, let's keep going. I keep falling in pits. I fall in one, and see a phone piece. I walk over and pick it up. I keep wandering the screens, and find a flower in a pit. When I press fire I make it grow and I smile. I levitate out of the pit. getting better. I only fall back in 2 or 3 times before getting out now.

I find a new icon, a question mark, and press it. A pit flashes and I drop into it. Ok there's a phone piece. Awesome. I'm two-thirds done with the stupid telephone.

I realize I have no idea how the endgame plays out. In a moment of weakness, I read the instructions. I learn that once you've completed the phone, you have to find a 'space invader' icon, that will call the mothership. You then have to run to the woods and find the landing site before time runs out on a timer that starts as soon as you call them. I ignore all the rest about scoring and lives and get back to the game.

I can't find the third phone piece. Still can't. Can't. FUCK fell into a hole
changing screens. Who in the hell puts pits at screen junctions? Hey, never been here before. Let's look for a question mark ... fuck fell into a another hole... wait, it's got the phone piece! I feel a brief moment of elation as I realize I've been wandering around the same few screens, endlessly falling into pits, and that now I'm done with the pits and can get on with the game.

I hope you like this screen, because you see it constantly. 


Ok, now to call home. Umm. Hrm. Wander wander wander. Shit, I'm nearly out of energy. Wait, I remember I can eat candy. Ok, now, just look for the space invader
piece, or the candy icon. Which looks like a mouth, arguably? Candy! Ok, I'm back up in energy after eating a bunch of candy.

Wander, wander, wander, fuck this sucks. This is the worst type of 'find the right freaking pixel' WAIT there's the space invader! Call home ET!

Ok, now the timer. Gotta find the woods. Let's use teleporters! Look at me, I'm strategizing. I bounce around and appear in the woods. WOODS! Ok, it's here somewhere... shit... I need more time! Jesus, how long can it take to find the stupid spot? I move frantically, trying to explore. I should have done this BEFORE giving myself a time limit... if I have to find all three phone pieces again...

AUGH... WAIT found it. Just in time. Literally, the timer was flashing and almost done. A phone booth comes down and gets me, and I appear at Elliot's house, and scored 7640 points.

Fuck you game. Even without the FBI agents kicking you in the balls and taking your shit, this game is painful. I suppose I should play it for 'real' though and see if I can beat the actual game...

I put the game on '1', and now have an FBI agent and a scientist in game.

I start playing. I get dragged around by the scientist a few times. Apparently if he touches you, he drags you back to his autopsy room and then lets you go. I find a phone piece. I start looking for the next one- FUCK YOU FBI AGENT. FUCK YOU FOR TAKING MY PHONE PIECE.

Ok, now it's randomly hidden again. All the agent does is make you play longer? Really? Ugh. Part of me says keep playing, but I realize that once you have to start standing still to win, the bad guys have a distinct advantage over you. There's no way I'm going to go through this...

I quit playing. But for days, the game haunts me. It beat me. As bad as the game was, I feel like I need to beat it. So, I turn it back on. I'm going to do this methodically. I've played World of Warcraft, and if I can deal with fishing for god knows how long to get a stupid coin you can flip and Mr. Pinchy, I can beat E.T.

I play Game 3 in E.T. again. I'm going to learn the game. It's not long before I've got a handle on the basics. The world is basically cubical, and I can hold that in my head. Dodging pits is easier once you've got a grasp on where the 'edge' pits are on that one screen. I figure out how to find the 'phone home' and 'pickup' spots before getting any phone pieces. I learn how to call Elliot. I learn how to get out of pits without falling back into them immediately. I beat the game with a score of over 15,000, more than doubling my previous attempt, and understand what's going on. I also get a solid understanding of exactly how stupid this game is with no enemies.

Now, for the real game. It's Game 1, with the Scientist and the FBI Agent. I map out the layout of the place in my head. I get picked up by the scientist and the FBI Agent repeatedly... but that's an opportunity to learn the map and you can still see icons. I find the Pickup spot. I find the Phone Home spot. I learn where the 'send the humans away' spots are.

The FBI Agent steals a phone piece and re-hides it, which is honestly a bitch, but it isn't that bad. The Scientist just takes time away from you. It isn't much longer before I have all three phone pieces and am running for the phone home icon. It's a pisser that the bad guys can just hover over pits, but oh well. I've learned how to run to the 'go away humans' spots on the screens. I phone home and make it to the woods. Here is where I learn a terrible secret.

The ship doesn't come to you when you make it to the spot. It comes when the timer runs out. So you stand there, and of course some guy runs in and grabs you. This costs me, and I don't get rescued.

I figure out what you have to do. You have to find a 'run away humans' spot or a 'save me Elliot' spot on the woods screen, and use it repeatedly until the timer runs out... and right as the timer runs out, run to the pick-up spot.

It takes a while, but Elliot keeps me safe. I know that if I changed difficulty levels, Elliot couldn't be on the screen for me to be picked up. But I beat the stupid game. It wasn't satisfying... the game is truly trivial and bad. It's purely a 'wander around looking for the perfect pixel' game, that adds in 'and by the way there are pits and people that reset you to the start' thrown on top, with an endgame of 'perfect timing is required, or you get to start over'.

It's playable, I guess. But it's throw-the-controller arbitrary and punitive. It would be like playing Adventure with 4 bats and invisible keys, but no sword or dragons.

I hate you ET. The only good part about your stupid movie was the guys playing D&D in the first scene.

Welcome to Roll 3d6

Hi. I'm Marshall and you may or may not know me. This is my gaming blog. In this you'll find a few various themes for posts... board games, card games, computer and video games, role-playing games... you may be seeing a theme.

The inspiration for this blog is an email that I sent to someone. The email was about the Atari 2600 game, E.T.

Most people who know anything about the game E.T. only know that it was the worst game ever, that it helped crash the Atari 2600 market, and that mass quantities of the game are buried in a landfill. That's what I knew about it, as well.

However, Wil Wheaton posted a story about the game on his blog, and it inspired me to not only play the game, but to give a stream-of-consciousness ramble about my experience playing the game. My first entertaining post will be a slightly edited version of my experiences.

Other posts in this blog will be about current games I'm playing, but I plan to make a project of playing Atari 2600 games from my youth, but analyzing them as a gamer today. I might also make my kids or wife play them, and get their commentary too.

I hope you enjoy my blog. Please forgive the Spartan look and feel, I'll exert effort to make the site look more interesting later.