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Thinking Out Loud

Friday, September 30, 2005

In Case of Emergency, Break Game >> The Anarchist's Guide to Making Games Implode

I just posted a slightly tongue-in-cheek GeekList over at BoardGameGeek about games that have mechanical chokepoints -- games that can either be sabotaged to stalemate (something occurs that freezes the game an no one can play) or artifically ended before the proper game flow ever really gets established.

The idea came to me after a recent night of gaming in which this very thing happened. Justin, Michael and I were playing Marco Polo Expedition by Reiner Knizia. I absolutely hated my first game, but swore I'd give it a second chance. Well, the game is still dreadful. Here's my blurbage about Marco Polo Expedition from the GeekList:

The game is bad enough as it is, with the surge-and-draw pace and thin hand management. But you can bring this game to a grinding halt and reach a stalemate situation where literally a player cannot take an action.

In fact, this just happened the other day, and is the impetus for the list. The game was dragging on anyway, despite an earnest effort (at first) to play as intended. But about 1/2 way through, Player A (whose name rhymes with "stroglide") passed each turn and simply drew a card.

Sounds benign, right? Except that with only 3 players, and 1 of them never contributing cards to the discard pile, the draw pile, when reshuffled, only had cards we had already discarded... Eventually, Player Y was able to collect important cards needed to advance on the trickier spaces, and eventually the two other players were locked out of movement -- the cards in our hand were unplayable to pass the current sets of requirements, and without more cards added to the discard pile to shuffle in new options, we were stalemated.

It's actually far more satisfying than you might think to see a camel go kaaa-BOOOOOM.

Click here to read the Anarchist's GeekList and the other implosive games.

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Marco Polo Expedition: 2.5/10 (AVOID!!) -- An odd duck. Theoretically a hand management game, but the pace was strange. Irregular surges of activity followed by incredibly long pauses of inactivity. More strategy may reveal itself as time goes on, but hording cards, and taking advantage of the first player to "blink" and act (and thus open up an opportunity for rapid advancement by subsequent players) appears problematic. Further play simply shows that the game is erratic, clumsy and perhaps even broken, as card hording can reach extremes where there are no more cards to draw and no one has the required cards to advance, leading to complete lockdown.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Playing at the Speed of Strategy >> Games That Really Need a Timer

I just posted a new GeekList over at BoardGameGeek.com... Actually, it's my first GeekList in more than two weeks! Pretty crazy, since I had been posting about 2 GeekLists per week for a while. Anyway, here's the lead in. You can read the entire GeekList over at BGG.

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After perusing some gaming blogs, Tom Vasel's excellent Musings On posts and getting more playing time in with some long-unplayed games in my collection, I've become convinced that some games just really need to have a time limit imposed, either on the overall time you're willing to commit to playing or a timer set for players to conduct certain moves/phases.

For this list, I'm focusing on the latter -- let's list games which really need a timer to keep the game moving along. Without a timer, one overly analytical player can drag a game down to a grinding halt, or otherwise a game simply might not be able to get played in a single session. For other games, a timer helps create a frantic, frenetic pace that helps add to the chaos, excitement and theme of a game.

Some people think that playing under the pressure lessens the enjoyment of the gameplay experience, but not for me. When I've finished my move (especially in games with simultaneous phases) and I have to wait 5-10 minutes for someone else to finish their move, that's not fun, either. In fact, that's not even playing any more... Remember, you're only actually playing the game when everyone is doing stuff!!

You'll notice I don't bother to include Chess... For one, using a time clock is an accepted way to play Chess, and for two, it's not really my cup of tea.

So what do you think?
What other games desperately need to have a time limit imposed on player turns?
How much time is enough? Too much? Too little?
What are some of the repercussions to instituting time limits in your gaming group?
Has including a time limit backfired for some games?

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Game Recap 9/24/05 >> Farfalia, St. Pete's, Buffy & Palazzo

I gamed briefly earlier in the week, but didn't jot anything down, so felt compelled to finally update things with last night's gaming. Justin (astroglide) and Julia hosted, inviting Trey (yayforme), Michael (armadi) and me over for some boardgames.

They were just wrapping up a game of Manila when I got there. It looked vaguely interesting, and hearing Julia briefly recap what had happened and the rest of the crew discussing the game mechanics, it sounded a lot like a casino game of craps, with some additional betting/management elements thrown around a theme. Might have to try it out.

The first game I got in on was a card game I had picked up around GenCon and really wanted to try out for some time -- Farfalia by Derek Carver. Yes, the same Derek Carver who designed Blood Royale and Warrior Knights for Games Workshop. I love card games with conventional mechanics, like trick taking, and since Farfalia was spefically designed for 5 players, I was especially interested. It did not disappoint, even though I came in dead last by a wide margin.

Farfalia: 8/10 ... Innovative, well-developed 5 player trick taking game. The integration of suits and the "spread" that you're trying to match cards from is inspired, and the rotating partnership/solo dealer scoring works incredibly well. Takes a few hands to get the feel for how this plays differently from other trick games with trump, but is the best 5 player trick game I've played yet.

--

Julia stepped out to grab some dinner, and the four of us played a game of St. Petersburg. I've never played a game that was so much fun the first time (2 player) and so disappointing the second time (4 player). I benefited from sheer luck of the draw by being in position to snag the Mistress on turn 1, and never looked back. None of my other decisions seemed very difficult -- or important -- once I secured that huge VP lead. By game's end, without really "trying" the rest of the way, I still ended up winning by a 15 point margin... I didn't bother recording the actual scores, as it was a pretty dry, uninspiring game.

St. Petersburg: 6/10 (dropped from a 7/10) ... Fairly straightforward, mathematically calculable decisions and quick, simple gameplay. I can see why people grow frustrated with initial draws for cash. At first, I felt the game suffered greatly from "rich get richer" problems. I can see that there are some opportunities to block the play of others by putting cards into your hand, but there seems to be no way to "catch up" once you're behind. I'd play again with 2 players, but it really felt awkward and clumsy as a 4 player game.

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Earlier in the week, Justin and Julia had expressed interest in trying out Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Game. I read up on the rules and pulled this out. After playing musical chairs with the different hero roles, the group finally settled in for the game. Justin played Oz, Trey was Xander, Michael was Willow, and Julia the femme fatale Buffy. I licked my chops playing the Master, thinking I'd wipe them out quickly as they split up early in the game.

A combination of poor die rolling (on my part) a few key combat rolls (on their part) and healing Buffy back to full health from 3 health paved the way to a group victory for Good. I had Buffy pinned between the Master and Drusilla briefly, before a card let her move to any space on the board, then Willow rushed across the map to heal her. I at least killed Xander, but that was about it. Still, a fun game, and I think everyone would play it again.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Game: 7.5/10 ... A much better game than you might expect, and one of the few games out there with cooperation as a core component. Nice pieces, simple rules, fairly good replay value. And a lot of fun, to boot. Luck heavy, but since the game plays so quickly, and the social element is high, it's not an issue.

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The night ended on a pretty low note for me, as Justin pulled out Reiner Knizia's Palazzo. I had jokingly commented that I heard it was "like Alhambra, but without the fun." Unfortunately, my jest was fairly accurate. Granted, the day after, Justin dropped us an email to point out that we had missed 2 rules (that the quarries start out populated and you can just ditch a tile you win instead of being stuck with it). These would have helped improve the game, but still, it was a pretty disappointing experience.

Palazzo: 5.5/10 ... Seems awfully clunky and mathematically uneven for an RK design. Odd situations occured throughout the game where your best move was to do nothing, lest you set up the next player for a strong turn -- but unfortunately, you're forced into these spots. Also gameplay easily bogs down in money drafting early on... there's no reason *not* to draft money over and over and over until you're through the entire deck. And without initial seeding of palazzo pieces, whoever "blinks" first and takes a build/auction turn gets less out of their action than others who can benefit from the tiles remaining on the board after that move (corrected from a rules update after our play). And I was disappointed how incredibly derivative the scoring and structure were to Clocktowers and Alhambra. One of the least original RK games I've seen so far.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bitten by the RPG Bug...

While I've always enjoyed roleplaying games, I find I actually prefer running (or "DMing") roleplaying games than playing in them. But playing can be awfully, fun, too! Jay Moore (MUkid) is running a D&D campaign set in Eberron, and he's a great DM -- you can tell he puts a lot of time and effort into preparing for each session, and his enthusiasm rubs off on the players. It's been a great time.

The only downside to playing in such a fun campaign is that I desperately want to run a campaign of my own! It's been several months now (discounting GenCon) since I've run a group, and I'm starting to go through withdrawal. I had run several fairly long (9-18 month, meeting anywhere from 1/month to every-other-week) campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons with several different groups, as well as numerous shorter 1-5 session "mini campaigns" to try out new genres and systems.

Well, the fever is rising and I really, really, really want to find a group of gamers to develop a campaign for once again. While I'd be willing to play Dungeons & Dragons, all the writing and work I do for d20 D&D starts to wear on me, and I'd really like a change of pace. As such, the RPGs I'm most interested in running for a group right now include:

Warhammer Fantasy. The new 2nd edition looks sweet, despite some questionable marketing/release strategies. I really like the dark, gritty world and relatively low power curve -- it helps limit the "monty haul" gaming style, when a sword used early in your adventuring career is still useful later on. I like many things about the game, but probably wouldn't stick as close to the canon of the Warhammer universe as others. And the setting is rich and deep, allowing for political and intrigue driven stories as well as military pursuits.

Deadlands. One of my favorite settings for any RPG -- Wild west + Cthulhu = Hot Fun! The game oozes with great theme, chills and creepiness. Unfortunately, the system is a bit cumbersome and can take some getting used to. This isn't a problem for players willing to invest a few sessions to get a feel for how things work, but sometimes the mechanics can get in the way, prompting me to use some much simpler conventions. Still, despite the quirks, the supplements, game environment and concept are top notch.

Marvel SAGA System. I love super hero games, and there is none finer than TSR's SAGA system, a card-driven game that captures the high action of comic books better than any other game I've played. Period. The downside of superheroes can also be one of the appeals -- established characters are rich with existing history, and vary greatly in power/ability. Who wants to be Hawkeye or Daredevil when you could be Spiderman, The Hulk or Captain America? As such, creating custom heroes, preferably in a setting where the comic book pantheon doesn't exisit, makes for a much more compelling - and interesting - game setting.

Call of Cthulhu. I'm always up for Cthulhu, though the high mortality/insanity rate generally precludes long term campaign style gaming, I'm incredibly fond of the game, and think it's one of the best systems for short 1-3 session story arcs, where players can really focus in on a plot hook and endure greater risks than they'd normally undertake, since the slow spiral into madness and destruction is part of the fun. Ia! Ia! Cthulhu F'tghan!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Battlestations >> Damn I love this game

Last night Michael Silbey (armadi), Trey Dembski (yayforme), Justin Honold (astroglide) and Justin's girlfriend Julia came over to play an introductory game of Battlestations. I used the pregenerated characters I designed for the Battlestations Yahoo! group and BGG, and ran through a modified version of the Boot Camp scenario from the core set.

It was the first time any of them had played, and the first time I had referee'd a session in several months, so it took a while to get a feel for things. For people who haven't played an RPG/boardgame hybrid before, it can be a bit intimidating, as there are so many options available, and it's hard to tell what you can do, what you should be doing, and who should be doing what... Whew!

But after the first hour or so, as folks got more comfortable with the rules and actions, and I slipped back into referee mode, the pace picked up and the action mounted as missiles started to chase down the player's ship, the marine and engineer boarded a missile bound for the enemy ship, just as a boarding missile rammed into the player ship -- the crew effectively split in half, fighting two boarding actions on separate vessels.

Unfortunately, the crew failed to achieve a single victory condition from the mission briefing -- get the ship up to speed factor 9, download 10 units of data from the relay station, destroy 3 targeting satellites and return with no damaged modules. Completing 3 of the 4 would have been a success, and all 4 an overwhelming success... But they did manage to capture the enemy vessel, despite having their own ship blow up (literally moments after the pilot and scientist loaded themselves into a boarding missile and zapped their way to join up with the others on the commandeered vessel).

I absolutely love the game. With greater familiarity with the rules, the players started to notice things they could have done differently, more efficient uses of their time, better questions to ask with the science bay, and started to see some long term "cool factor" with regard to gaining experience, upgrading modules, customizing your bots/equipment, requisitioning new ship modules and expanding the ship...

And the campaign rules introduced in the Galactic Civil War expansion simply rock. I can see a group of players remaining interested and enthusiastic over the course of an entire campaign with all the great missions, the neat campaign progression and personal investment in the characters and the ship...

Hopefully, these folks would like to play again, as I really enjoy refereeing Battlestations. And hopefully Jeff and Jason Siadek will keep producing great content for the game!!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Design Block -- Augh!!

Ok, so finally one of the meetings from GenCon has come to fruition. I just finished hammering out the details for a game design for an established publisher who was looking for someone with eurogame experience to apply to a very niche game type. He liked my D&D writing and content, the work experience I had with WizKids, and was able to learn more about me from my BoardGameGeek profile, GeekLists and articles.

So I sat down to start drafting a concept proposal for the game, detailing the high level mechanics, design goals, components list and brainstorming a few nuances and ideas that would be developed into the core game model.

And then I got up. And watched TV for a bit. Then I logged on and squidded for a while, playing World of Warcraft. Then I sat down again, determined to get some work done. Then I started browsing eBay. Then I played around with the new digital camera.

Hmmm... All those ideas that had kept me up the night before had evaporated! Poof! They were gone. Well, unfortunatly, still are gone. Now the only thing rattling around inside my head is the sound of crickets chirping.

The well is dry.

Three days have passed, in pretty much the same fashion. I have a few comments, a few scribbled notes. But something is missing. Partly inspiration, partly energy, partly the creative epiphany that triggers the furious flurry of writing and developing gameplay concepts.

The longer this block has gone on, the harder it's been to sleep... and the harder it's been to try to force myself to work through it. Hopefully this won't last much longer, or an interesting concept will suddenly pop into my head, dislodging the design block and letting loose the flood of pent-up ideas!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Game Recap 9/9/05

Wow, my first full night of gaming since GenCon! And what a great evening it was. Eva (DeiTass) and Jorge (hibikir) hosted Chester (cornjob) and me. It was the first time I got to play with any of them since Geekway to the West, and it felt really good to get such a variety of games to the table.

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San Marco
Jorge, Eva, Jay

Game called on account of Chester...

I got there before Chester, and based on the general BGG consensus that San Marco is a good 3 player game, we set it up for Jorge, Eva and me while we waited. We only got about 1/2 through the game before Chester arrived, and we called it there. But it was more than enough to get the real feel for how the game would play out, if not the nuances and strategies. I was really impressed with what I saw, and enjoy the "I cut, you choose" dynamic, which makes for some really interesting decisions -- which can sometimes beautifullly backfire!

My initial reaction is very favorable, and I could see San Marco becoming a popular area control game and settling in around an 8.0 or so in my ratings.

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Beowulf
Chester: 35
Jorge: 24
Jay: 22
Eva: 18

I've become quite fond of Beowulf, with its slight push your luck elements and interesting hand management decisions. I also like dropping out and "drafting" your rewards/penalties, which feels a bit like For Sale, and has drawn several comparisons to Taj Mahal. I was very surprised by the end results, as I had pretty solid luck when drawing for Risks and drew better than average alliance tokens. I thought I was close to the lead, despite having a wound at the end of the game, and was quite surpised to be not a close second, but actually 3rd.

Now with 3 games played, I do see some issues with the Risk element for drawing cards. It's too good an option, and can wreak havoc over the course of the game -- the game is too short to really have the luck of the draw balance out, and someone hurt by one poor Risk can be seriously impaired, while another one draws well, benefiting in the current episode as well as the next episode (by virtue of card conservation).

That said, the game is quick enough that it's not overly annoying, though I think there should be some sort of limit to the maximum number of times you can Risk, either in an Episode or overall in the game. Perhaps you start with 5 VPs or so, and each time you risk, you lose one of the VPs -- then there's something far more tangible to balance it against.

Current Rating: 7.0 ... Unchanged after three plays. I think it's found its spot. A fun game, with a few blemishes.

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Tower of Babel
Jorge: 75
Chester: 68
Eva: 63
Jay: 51

Despite being soundly trounced, I still really like Tower of Babel. While it seems like a mish mash of Knizia game elements at first, they work together surprisingly well. I made two poor decisions, where I tried to build things and the offered bids weren't enough to allow me to complete projects, essentially giving the other players points while I got nothing -- the first examples I've seen in the game where passing was advantageous.

It was an odd quirk that I noted I never even had the option of attempting to finish off a wonder until the game was nearly over -- while Chester was able to finish off the 2nd wonder, drew the special card giving him and extra action, then used it immediately to finish off the next wonder, as well -- giving him a very strong advantage. When I finally did get to complete a wonder and draw a special card, it was a useless card, as it was literally impossible to play by the end of the game (earn 3x value if your bid isn't selected -- when I had only 2 color cards in my hands, and I knew those wouldn't be selected based on the endgame situation).

So, after a few plays, my only real beef is the huge discrepancy in utility of the special cards. I think a Draw X and Pick 1 option would be better, as it's too easy to get stuck with a real stinker, while someone else draws an enormously powerful card for exactly the right situation.

Current Rating: 7.5 (up from 7.0) While the quirk of special cards bothers me, my rating improved oh-so-slightly based on a better understanding of the value of different action, and seeing how things fit together more.... and the fact that I can see this appealing to a broader range of gamers than most games I've played recently.

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Tigris & Euphrates
Jorge: 6/7/8/9
Chester: 6/7/7/10
Jay: 6/6/9/9
Eva: 5/6/6/7

To end the evening, Chester wanted to play something he was familiar with, and I wanted somethign that played in under and hour. Well, Chester got what he wanted! :) It ended up clocking in at an hour and a half, but was still a lot of fun. Yes, you heard me right -- I had fun playing Tigris & Euphrates for the first time ever!

First, Jorge and Chester had the right mindset, as Eva and I are still learning the game -- while I know mechanically how the game "functions" the strategies and domino-effects of triggering conflicts still elude me. So we were able to solicit feedback, take back some turns that didn't trigger the events we thought they would, and so on. Very much a learning process for me.

I was hammered down very early on, losing literally every conflict I was involved in (as attacker and defender) giving Jorge and Chester some significant points early in the game. My main quibble with T&E (aside from evaluation of actions) is how it can easily be a player's best move to completely crush an already weakened player -- kicking the dog and further distancing (and frustrating) a player who is already taking it in the pants. And taking it in the pants repeatendly for an hour and a half generally isn't much fun.

Ah, but the last turn of the game was what made it all for me. I had tried to plan ahead and map out a turn to turn my pathetic 3 points in blue and 4 points in black into something competitive. I placed a tile and triggered external conflict, drawing suspicion and questions of "are you sure you want to do that?" as earlier in the game. But my planning was correct, and I was able to win both of the conflicts involved, gaining crucial points in blue and black, as well as securing a treasure cube and ending the game.

Despite coming in third, my last turn improved my score dramatically, and had just a single conflict gone my way earlier, or a single tile placement been made better, I could have had a legitimate shot at the game. Regardless, I did pretty well for how badly pummeled I was earlier in the game.

Current Rating: 7 (from 6.5) Another slight increase, as another puzzle piece fell into place. I can definitely appreciate why some people enjoy the game so much, but a good deal of strategy, planning and anticipation elude me -- and I'm not sure how to get over that barrier.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

My Kind of Gamer >> Part II - The Enthusiastic Gamer

Following up on my previous post, musing about the different types of gaming behaviors and personality types I prefer gaming with, I had some time to think about another attribute that I enjoy in my fellow gamers -- enthusiasm.

While this seems obvious, I've been in several forced, contrived gaming situations where one or more participants were obviously there "against their will" and were anything but enthusiastic about the prospect of an evening of gaming. That's not to say that the tagalong participant won't get into it or enjoy themselves, but it can be difficult if the person lacks enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is not just blindly being led around, willing to play/do anything to placate the other players. I've played with those sorts of players, and it starts to wear thin after a while... True enthusiasm for games and gaming can manifest in many different forms. Here are just a few ideas that come to mind as I mull this over:

  • Willingness to learn new games, integrate new players and broaden their gaming horizons
  • Offering to read the rules to a new game beforehand and teach it to the group
  • Tries to coordinate gaming time with friends, or replies when others in the group are looking to get some gaming in (even if they can't attend)
  • Interested in reading more about a game to learn new strategies, check out variant rules, post session reports and share the gaming experience with others
  • Offers to share their own games, purchases new games for the group or is willing to pitch in for games that will be played by many
  • Looks forward to game time, chats about it socially with others and presents a positive vibe at the gaming table

Some of these attributes may seem to overlap with being a gracious gamer, as I discussed before, but there are some subtle distinctions. I think enthusiasm is a bit more internalized per player, but a player's enthusiasm can definitely be contagious and spread around the table. But overall, as I add more and more traits I appreciate in my fellow gamers, I think there will definitely be some cross-over. And quite a few of the gamers I routinely play with exhibit quite a few of these traits.

Good thing... But I guess that's why I'm gaming with them in the first place!

So what do you think?
How important is enthusiasm among your fellow gamers?
What are some other ways enthusiasm expresses itself around the table or in your group?
Can a general lack of enthusiasm suck the life out of a game, even if it's your favorite?
How do you foster this behavior so players maintain interest and enthusiasm?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

My Kind of Gamer >> Part I - The Gracious Gamer

Over the last few weeks, I haven't gotten nearly as much gaming in as I usually do. Instead, I've been wrapping up a few freelance contracts, spending more time with my family, and recovering from a recent illness and seasonal allergies.

But while I haven't gotten to game often, gaming is never far from my mind. I've started to think more and more about the wide variety of gamers I get to game with. I have a "pool" of 20-25 gamers I game with -- some more often than others, but most of whom I see every month or so. And no two gamers are alike. Sure, there are some similarities in traits and tastes (otherwise, we wouldn't be gaming together in the first place) but there are far more differences.

Some of the differences are in play styles, experience, susceptibility to analysis paralysis and the like. Other differences are far less game-centric, but still affect the game experience -- from simple manners to sense of humor, from empathy to enthusiasm.

The trait that's been on my mind the most lately, though, is grace. Or more accurately, being a gracious gamer. It's hard to define, being more of an intuitive feeling than a static, measurable attribute. But some discussion points come to mind that I think help describe what I mean.

  • When another player has an excellent turn, at your expense, do you applaud their success and clever play, or more likely to wallow in your own situation?
  • When table talk targets you as a player in the lead to be dealt with, do you take it as a challenge, or become disgruntled at being singled out?
  • When you lose a game by a wide margin, do you credit the play of your opponents, or look to your own poor play?
  • When faced with extremely poor luck (bad dice rolls, horrible luck of the draw, victimized by random events) do you roll with the punches or feel persecuted?
  • Are you a good loser, or more importantly, a good winner?

Answering these questions myself is difficult, as it's never easy to be truly objective about one's own behavior. I'd like to think I'm a gracious player, but I know I have my fair share of moments around the gaming table I'm not proud of. And while there are many, many attributes that characterize the type of gamer I like gaming with, I think a gracious player is near the top of the list...

What do you think? What does being a gracious player really mean? Do some of your regulars exhibit this far more frequently (or infrequently) than others? Can other positive attributes offset a player who is habitually fails to be gracious in victory and defeat?

What Would You Do?? >> Hypothetical Gaming Situations

Puerto Rico: You've invited a relatively new gamers to join your group. After playing a few lighter games to get into the mood, you pull out Puerto Rico. The new gamer has never played Puerto Rico before, but is eager to give it a shot. The first time player sits to the right of an experienced player (by default, since the rest of you are familiar with the game).

Several turns into the game, you find yourself in this situation. Two ships are nearly full of sugar and corn, the last one empty. The inexperienced player goes first for the turn, and is about to select the Craftsman to produce a bunch of corn and indigo, but has no warehouse. You're to the right of the first time player, and cringe as you envision the seasoned pro picking the Captain to ship all the indigo he's about to produce and force the newbie to lose everything he just produced.

What do you do?
A) Say nothing. The newbies got to learn the ropes at some time.
B) Ask why the Craftsman appeals to him - perhaps he doesn't realize the impact of his decision
C) Point out the problem - tell him how the move benefits the next player
D) Offer a suggestion on how another role might be in his best interest right now
E) ___________ (fill in your own response)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Poison >> It's Too Good To Be Bad (D&D/RPG)

After being involved in so many online forums discussions, chat room arguments and face to fce chats over the past several months on alignment, morality of actions, and recently, the use of poison as it relates to game morality in roleplaying games, I decided to finally address the issue based on my own experiences as both a player and DM over the years. First, I'll list some of the most common arguments I've heard for why poison or its use is evil. Then, I'll explain why I utterly and totally disagree with each of them.

It may come across smarmy, perhaps a bit sarcastic. That is not directed at the board or its readers. It's really directed more toward my playing groups, based on our numerous discussions (ahem, arguments) about this very topic. So it's slightly tongue-in-cheek and uses quite a bit of hyperbole to make my point.

Hopefully, agree or disagree, you'll enjoy the read and maybe rethink your position on poison. Common arguments heard for why poison is evil:

1) It's evil by its very nature
2) It gives the user an unfair advantage
3) It's sole purpose is to impair and injure another being
4) Poison use lacks honor or dignity
5) It requires pre-meditation of violent action and full knowledge of the possible effects
6) It's cowardly and detaches the victim from the aggressor

And now for my rationale debunking each argument.

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1) It's evil by its very nature

This is easy for me to rationalize out of game and in game. Spiders, scorpions, snakes, wasps and itty bitty dart frogs are not evil. They all use poison to live, thrive and survive. Whether it's a defense mechanism or a hunting tool, poison is commonplace in the natural world. In strict game terms, these creatures are of neutral alignment, not evil. If poison and its use were truly evil, animals with natural poison abilities would be classified as evil.

If someone makes the counter argument that an animal/insect lacks the intelligence and self-awareness to understand the ramifications of its actions, that's great. Please, go ahead and make that argument. It goes a long way toward adding weight to most of my other points about poison. That alone virtually makes my argument that the use of poison can't possibly be evil.
This counter argument offers an insight that the poison itself is not the evil, but it's the understanding poison's impact and accepting those consequences that are the factor that make its use evil. I'll cover that shortly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

2) Poison gives the user an unfair advantage

Combat, encounters and Dungeons & Dragons in general are all about facing unfair advantages and equalizing them. One could argue that a pure Fighter or Barbarian has an unfair advantage in melee combat over a Sorcerer or Wizard, but that doesn't make the Fighter or Barbarian evil by default. The fact that some classes can use magic items or cast spells is an unfair advantage over ones that can't. A monster that has damage resistance to certain weapons is unfair to warriors. A creature with spell immunity is unfair to casters.

I strongly disagree with the argument that using poison gives the poison user an unfair advantage. On the contrary, poison is an equal opportunity tool. In strictly game terms, each class has different strengths and weaknesses. In the strongest stereotypical comparison possible, one could assert that "Strong Physical Combat/Weak Magic Ability" sits on one end and "Weak Physical Combat/High Magic Ability" sits on the other end of this theoretical spectrum.

The further you are to one end of the spectrum or the other, the more you need to expend in terms of class and role resources to get better at your opposite. This is usually done by spending skill points, feats or selecting new class levels. However, with poison, everyone has roughly the same access.

Since only a select few prestige classes have any poison related skills or abilities, poison crafting abilities are available to anyone. Doses of poison are fairly affordable and come in a wide variety of forms, offering a lot of flexibility to the end user, and there are no imposed class restrictions on being able to purchase or use poison (such as buying a wand of fireballs having no appreciable benefit to a pure fighter).

The fact that poison is so accessible to so many characters, classes and roles makes it a universal equalizer. It doesn't matter if you have bulging muscles or a bulging medulla -- anyone can use poison and use it effectively with a little bit of practice and applied resources. That sounds pretty darn fair to me!

So which is the greater unfairness?

- A tool available to anyone, safely useable with a modicum of training (ie, doses of poison, requiring a few cross-class skill points and some money)
- A tool requiring a restricted subset of the populace to expend time, training and resources to use properly (ie, a suit of heavy armor for Wizards [requiring feats/suffering drawbacks] or a Staff of Healing for a Barbarian [requiring acquisition of different class levels/abilities]).

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3) It's sole purpose is to impair/injure/maim/kill another being

This may have been the most absurd argument one of my players made while I was DMing. And even as a player in another campaign (where I was playing a lawful good cleric that used poison arrows - which *everyone* lobbied morally against), I heard this quite a bit. This is completely irrelevant. Granted, it's also completely true. But still irrelevant. In fact, in the words of Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls, "Well... Duh!"

Why is it irrelevant? Well, look at everything else in D&D that is built for the same purpose that no one is concerned about morally. Let's start with the list of weapons. Battleaxe has the word "battle" in it for a reason. Longswords, bows, axes, maces, the list of weapons is quite extensive. Aside from a few items that see double duty as farming or hunting tools, all these are built to impair/injure/maim/kill. And I don't think anyone can argue that a standard shortsword is evil in and of itself.

Earlier, you'll recall the counter argument that it's all about the impact and acceptance of consequence. Well, that counter argument completely unravels when you compare poison to other tools that impair/injure/maim/kill.

Compared to most weapons, poison has a very, very small chance of actually killing its victim. Only poisons that inflict Con damage can technically kill a victim outright. Most poisons apply condition modifiers or ability penalties. Poisons have no critical range, no critical multiplier. Poisons do not rely on the skills, abilities and feats of the user to augment their effectiveness. Poisons don't do "damage" in terms of hit points. Poisons do not scale in power or magnitude as the user gains experience. Poisons cannot be "stacked" with external effects to improve their effectiveness like magic weapons.

On the other hand, spells and weapons inflict hit point damage, have multipliers, and can be augmented by character feats/abilities and progression. Aside from a few other cases (massive damage, save or die spells, Con reduced to zero, drowning, etc), the only way you can die is if reduced to -10 hit points. Therefore, a great sword wielded two handed by a raging barbarian or a maximized fireball cast by a high level wizard both have much better chances of killing a victim than poison.

In fact, the counter argument about intent and acceptance of consequences would seem to indicate that weapons with higher critical ranges and critical multipliers are "more evil" than weapons that simply crit on a 20 and do x2 damage... After all, they increase the overall damage output of a player, which increases the impair/injure/maim/kill aspect of the weapon. And most people are fully aware of how lethal a particular weapon is. Heck, lots of players I've played with like to brag about it -- "Remember when I crit'ed that Ogre with my Flail for 48 damage and dropped him in one blow - that was wicked!"

If the only argument is the impair/injure/maim/kill factor, poison would be among the most "good" options out there, while direct damage spells and weapons with increased critical range or critical multipliers would be far more "evil".

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You're still reading this? Fabulous. I've only got a bit more to ramble on about.

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4) Poison use lacks honor or dignity

I could possibly see this argument in certain, specific, singular and extremely rare instances. Which I'll mention in a bit. Granted, defining honor and dignity is as sticky a subject as morality and evil in a roleplaying game. However, more often than not, I think poison holds up just fine to honor and dignity.

Which of the following deaths is the most honorable? The most dignified?

- Bursting into flame and being burned alive by a powerful fireball
- Being decapitated by a vorpal sword
- Falling into unconciousness and dying a painless death after swallowing some powerful poison
- Being riddled with dozens of arrows from several rapid firing rangers with you as their favored enemy
- Having your body cleaved limb from limb by a dual axe wielding barbarian
- Having your throat slit by a rogue sneaking up behind you


Death by weapon or spell can be far messier, ignoble and ruthless than death or impairment by poison.

And how "honorable" does one have to be to rationalize his behavior? If honor is fighting with "all cards on the table" to make things as equal as possible, then strategy and tactics suffer. While it may vary based on the mood, flavor and setting of a campaign, all of these decisions make sound tactical sense, but may not be honorable:

- Flanking an opponent to gain an advantage (Your opponent is distracted - you dishonorable cur!)
- Striking from behind cover (Your opponent cannot meet you face to face - you disreputable lout!)
- The use of any ranged weapons (You lack honor by detaching yourself from your consequences!)
- The use of any buff spells (You dishonor yourself by not relying solely on your own natural ability!)
- Fighting a foe weaker than yourself, even if outnumbered (How dare you prey upon the weak - you wretched knave!)
- Setting an ambush (You dare not face me directly and openly? How dastardly!)

I will completely grant that poison may fall outside some lines of conduct for certain societal groups, cultures or religions. But codes of conduct are not always tied to the worldview's definition of morality.

Codes of conduct are usually specialized guidelines and imposed ideals to help maintain a sense of order, structure or service within a particular community or sect. If a code of conduct prohibits the use of poison, and someone swearing to uphold that code uses poison, that is an instance where the use of poison lacks honor and dignity.

However, this would also be the case if the Code of Conduct forbade the use of edged weapons. Or wearing the color green. Or eating dairy products. So yes, in this case, using poison could be seen as dishonorable as eating some cheddar.

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5) It requires pre-meditation of violent action and full knowledge of the possible effects

This argument is completely true. In fact, this isn't even an argument. It's a fact. However, the previous statements about the impair/injure/maim/kill factor of a tool and the honor/dignity factor of employing a tool address this issue fairly well.

Weaponsmiths know what they're doing. They make weapons. To kill other people with. In fact, to make the best weapons - those of masterwork quality or featuring wider critical ranges or greater critical multipliers - someone spent a lot of time thinking long and hard about how to maximize carnage.

The best refutation of this specifically worded argument, though, has got to be the creation of magic items. Not only do you need to invest time, money and other resources into crafting a magic item, you also need to devote XP - a bit of your collective knowledge, experience and essence.

Taken out of any specific game context, which of the following is more evil?

Option A) An alchemist who takes inert chemicals or naturally occuring toxins and combines them in a way that will dramatically impede the reactions of a creature (inflicting Dexterity/Strength damage or paralysis). After days and days of hard work, he has created several doses of poison.

Option B) A mage who is willing to part with a portion of his soul, the very essence of his being, to create a wand of Empowered Lightning Bolt. After days and days of hard work, he has created a tool to inflict massive electrical damage to multiple targets 50 times.

Those who don't find Option B to be more evil (especially in a context-free comparison) are most likely the very wizards busily crafting said wands of destruction.

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6) It's cowardly and detaches the victim from the aggressor

This one's hard to address. Why? Perhaps it's because I tend to play physically underwhelming characters who simply can't stand toe-to-toe with melee characters. Perhaps because cowardly is such an emotionally charged word. Cowardly? I prefer "Clever". Detached? Sure, I can see that... but why is detachment a bad thing?

As a high level fighter, if you find yourself forced into a combat situation against a dangerous, armed opponent, would you prefer to meet your opponent naked and weaponless, or fully armed and armored with your tools of the trade? Well, if choosing fully armed and armored is cowardly, then I guess using poison could be, too.

When my character's survival is at stake (as it usually is), I like to use every possible advantage to ensure that survival. Weapons, armor, spells, magic items, tactics, planning, teamwork. Poison is simply another tool to add to that list. It's foolish to ignore any resource at your disposal. If you desperately need a screwdriver to complete a given task, use the darn screwdriver - don't limit yourself to only using a hammer or saw.

Poison use can certainly be detached. It can be slipped into a drink, coated on an arrowhead, sprinkled on some food, or fumes blown into a room. But a long range sniping archer shooting you from 200 feet away in total darkness with complete cover is pretty detached, too. So is a wizard casting a spell at long range. Heck, by the time a Wizard is powerful enough to cast meteor swarm (9th level spell, 17th level caster), he can cast it from 1,080 feet away (that's 216 squares - or 9 full rounds of all out running by a standard, unencumbered human). That's pretty damned detached, too.

I think this argument speaks more to a perception problem. If you can't do as well as I can in melee without assistance, then your assistance must be a sign of cowardice/weakness/evil. If you can't climb/sneak/jump/spot as well as I can without assistance, that must be a sign of cowardice/weakness/evil.

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One last pure in game/mechanic reason why poison is not evil:

The spell poison (Clr 4, Drd 3) is a Necromancy spell. We know that Necromancy by itself is not evil, as there are several useful applications of Necromancy that inflict no harm or hardship -- astral projection, clone, gentle repose, etc. Further, if the spell poison were evil, it would have the evil descriptor attached to it, such as Create Undead, Animate Dead, Eyebite or Protection from Good.

If poison (the spell) is not evil, and it tangibly creates poison (the substance) that even a Lawful Good cleric could apply without repercussion (based on spell selection limitations or descriptors), then how could non magical poison or its application be evil?

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So, in conclusion, poison and its use can't possibly be evil the way I see it. If you still think that using poison is evil even after all this, then you must also accept, to a degree, some of the following:

Initial Concession Premise: (Choose one)

A. Animals/insects using poison are evil, not neutral
B. Animals/insects using poison are not evil because they lack the intelligence and self-awareness to understand the ramifications

Additional concessions:

A. Using weapons with crit ranges greater than 20 and multipliers greater than x2 is evil
B. Spells which impart ability penalties are evil (bestow curse, ray of enfeeblement, feeblemind)
C. Spells which impart condition modifiers are evil (sleep, color spray, waves of exhaustion, entangle)
D. Spells which inflict direct damage are evil
E. Creating magic items that have the ability to inflict damage is evil
F. The use of strategy to gain a tactical advantage in combat is evil
G. Selecting feats, earning class abilities or purchasing equipment which improves your damage output is evil
H. Selling weapons, spells or equipment which can inflict damage is evil
I. Killing an opponent by any means, regardless of circumstance or tool used, is evil

*pant*
*pant*

Ok, I'm finally done. And if you're still not 100% convinced whether or not using poison is evil, I have a foolproof, guaranteed way to find out.

Ask your DM.

Well, what do you think, sirs?