Just a quick anct to thank GoodReads and its people, its giveaway system, and to the 361 people who entered! Those books have been signed, and will be shipped this Fri, 170707.
A quick note: my first GoodReads giveaway for one of five copies of YMM02: "Steps of a Ghost" ends June 30th. It takes no more effort than creating a GoodReads account, and clicking the 'Enter Giveaway' button.
Best E3 2017 Conference: Microsoft
When it comes to gaming, I am not an ‘industry insider’; my gaming information usually comes from podcasts, and therefore, said information may be skewed by the lens of the speaker. Typically, I could care less: I don’t play most genres of video games, so most gaming information just doesn’t concern me. If I am intrigued about a particular game, I then put in the effort required to assess its purchase and/or play value. (Both are nearly equivalent values for me, since I typically play strategy games, yet find myself with less time in which to do so.)
‘Jessi: since when do you give a fuck about E3?’
Since 2015, when I had identified a select group of ‘content creators’ of whom I could consider their opinions valid. Hell, I actually had a decent time watching E3 2016. (While April 2015, specifically, was a fantastic month for 4X gamers, 2015 was shit for video gaming.) I was looking forward to E3 2017.
A brief detour: most people have terrible memories, such that few remember…shit, most of their lives. Content creators suffer from mechanisms that act to limit memory in two ways: (1) They engage with hundreds or thousands of people on a daily basis. Even I would have difficulty trying to remember which stories or rants I had told to which people were I speaking to a collective 100,000 people on a weekly basis! (2) Everything relatively ‘important’ is recorded for them; not only do content creators maintain a vast collection of their own memories, many of them have a dedicated fanbase who will recall that information for them.
I do not have total recall (neither the psychological state in which one can remember everything s/he’s ever sensed, nor either movie, Schwartzenegger or Farrel), but my memory is exceptional. So I found it strange when, while trying to evaluate 2017’s E3 conferences, the content creators ‘with’ whom I watched said conferences seemed to use a different rubric than they had for 2016’s conferences! Since I am not a gaming industry insider, I adapted the criteria of my content creators’ 2016 assessment of E3 conferences. It is by this rubric that I declare Microsoft to be 2017’s best E3 conference.
Caveat: I did not watch the Nintendo nor PC Gaming conferences (because the content creators who I watch did not commentate them and/or record them to YouTube).
Sony dominated 2016’s E3, in part because its production values were high, its transitions smooth, and its speaking portions confident and short. Microsoft’s presentation satisfied these criteria to the highest degree this year. Their primary speaker (Phil Spencer [??]) spoke confidently, and transitioned from one topic to the next smoothly and with alacrity. Sony’s conference began this way, but Microsoft sustained it for the duration of theirs.
This year, my content creators placed greater emphasis on the emotion behind the presentation. Several noted that Ubisoft’s and EA’s developers spoke with more ‘heart’ when evaluating their respective conferences. Some developers' unabashed tears of joy were noted as particularly meaningful.
Volume and Diversity of Games
Microsoft ‘presented’ 42 games (~a decuria of which were highlighted via montage), spanning big-budget AAA games, indie games, first-person shooters, puzzle platformers, VR games, RPGs, and artistic ‘experiences’. Did any of them interest me particularly? Not really. But the fact that they showed them—showed such a wide variety of games—added value to their conference.
Conversely, the rest of the conferences showed very few games (e.g. Bethesda) or very little diversity of games (e.g. EA’s ‘sport-a-thon’ or Sony’s five first person open world RPGs).
Additionally, Microsoft’s was the only conference to show new hardware. I would give several days of my first-born’s life to learn more about this super-special power management system developed by an X-Box 1-X engineer!
Game Trailers and Gameplay
The most prominent critique of Sony’s 2016 E3 conference was that they showed games back-to-back-to-back in a rapid-fire manner. While some valuation of this criterion is subsumed by ‘Presentation Style’, above, my content creators’ 2016 E3 rubric placed a high emphasis specifically on the rate at which trailers and gameplay were shown, and the celerity of transitions between them. Of the 2017 conferences, Microsoft’s pacing was rapid without detracting from the inherent value of each game.
Some content creators stated that the transitions from one game to the next were ‘too small’—they couldn’t appreciate their thoughts on the games before being forced to move onto the next title. I did not. In fairness: most of the games in Microsoft’s conference did not interest me.
Final Thoughts on 2017 E3
While I consider Microsoft’s conference the most superior of E3 2017, they didn’t show a single game that I actually want to play. But I play a very limited selection of genres, focusing primarily on sci-fi 4X and grand strategy titles. Can’t play those on console.
Although Sony’s conference suffered technical issues for internet viewers, I tried not to consider them in my evaluation.
I did not watch the PC Gaming conference, so I cannot comment on it. But they get an honorable mention for the XCOM 2 expansion.
And I really want to see the tech specs for that XBonX power management system!
Office DoorAnct 170604
Magic Items and Item Creation Rules in RPGs
This monogram is based upon the first query in this video of “Office Hours”, by Adam Koebel. I summarize: “How do I create a system for magical item (MI) creation that is meaningful and interesting, requires special ingredients for each item, but isn’t cumbersome?”
And an offensively short summary of Adam’s eloquent discussion: “Most games have MI creation rules; most of them are terrible. Even indie RPGs tend to handle it poorly. Blades in the Dark (‘Blades’) is my new hotness, and does it well.”
False. I will elucidate: Blades is not my kind of game. It is well-designed, and does almost completely mechanize MI creation. In fact, Blades mechanizes everything…in the most basic lesson of abstract algebra ever game-ified. It’s quite elegant in its design: ‘this’ is an element, ‘that’ is an operation. One combines two elements with one operation to create a third element. A player creates a character with a ‘playbook’ of tags and moves, uses ‘units’ of resources and discrete 'ticks' of ‘clocks’ to further goals. Randomness is handled by a d6.
I’m not a fan of this new genre of RPGs—that of ‘fictional positioning’, ‘narrative focused’, ‘grab and go’ RPGs. It’s a genre on which White Wolf tried to capitalize in the 1990s with their ‘Storyteller’ system, failing because their mechanics were nearly as complicated as those of other games, but confused its players because it was trying so hard to wave the ‘No Mathz!’ flag that there wasn’t enough room in the game book to actually describe (and balance) the system’s stats model.
Of course, this new genre of RPG isn’t trying to appeal to me, nor does it lie about its impeti. I play games with complex, strategy/tactics-first mechanics. The ‘story’ of the game is not created by the narrative actions in-game, but by the twelve successes that turned my basic ball of flame into Jessi’s Raging Magma Storm of Deathstomping, or by applying a bleed effect on a hasted opponent, watching it die because of its own celerity! My RPGs (Coming 2018!) are mechanized w/out regard to fictional positioning—I don’t want to spend twelve years explaining the swings I take with my katana, I just want to roll my dice. I want my comprehensive knowledge of game mechanics and tactical risk-minimization to determine most of how the game goes.
‘Fictional positioning’: the gaming philosophy which requires two criteria be met for an action to be attempted by a character in the game: (1) it must be mechanically possible—the game must have a mechanic that allows the character to attempt said action; and (2) it must make sense within the past or current fiction of the game. That last part is always poorly phrased—rephrase: the stage must be set in such a way that the action may be attempted.
Poor example: proper fictional positioning, sans mechanics: ‘I stand next to this NPC.’ ‘You are standing next to the NPC.’ ‘I would like to give this NPC a great massage.’ ‘Okay…there’s no Massage skill, so…you succeed? Or fail? Roll a Flirt check.’ ‘I’m not flirting; I just want to ease this NPC’s back tension.’ ‘Okay…roll a Medicine check.’ ‘I’m not trying to be a massage therapist.’ ‘Uhh…roll a Perform check?’
Poor example: proper mechanics, sans fictional positioning: ‘I would like to buy power armor.’ ‘Okay: you find the local armorsmith.’ ‘I would like to use my hauntingly beautiful charisma to get her to give me 8% off the purchase price.’ ‘Cool! What do you say to her?’ ‘I rolled a 27 on my Charisma check. Yes! That actually gets me a 13% discount!’ ‘Right, but how do you convince her to give you this discount?’ ‘By using my massive charisma.’ ‘Right, but how? Do you flirt with her?’ ‘No, I don’t have a Flirt skill. I use my Charisma.’ ‘Right. So do you try to befriend her?’ ‘Wouldn’t that be Diplomacy?’
Good example of positioning and mechanics, so good that millions of RP Gamers use it every week w/out realizing it: ‘I move adjacent the goblin.’ ‘You have 10 meters of movement, and can take a Move action to stand adjacent the goblin.’ ‘Do I have any modifiers to attack this goblin?’ ‘Yes, because your friend taunted the goblin’s mother with a successful Taunt roll.’ ‘I would like to stab the grot in her kidney region.’ ‘You already declared that your dagger was readied; are you actually attempting to hit the kidneys?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then your called-shot penalty cancels the taunt bonus. Roll to hit.’ Roll successful. ‘Ha, ha! Die, you pathetic greenskin!’ 'Not on 3 damage, she doesn't....'
Most games, and most gamers, count on a natural social mechanism w/in a gaming group: compromise, give and take. ‘I will give you two lines about what I say to her.’ ‘Excellent. That, with your Charisma roll of 27, enamors her to you, and you get that 13% discount.’ Or: ‘If you recognize that nearly everyone on the planet can perform a decent massage if pressed/motivated to do so, I’ll agree to a DC 5 Medicine check.’ ‘Excellent! You roll a 14. It’s a decent massage; not the best he’s ever had, but welcome.’ And not at all awkward for you to perform in the middle of the tavern.
Adam’s discussion began with the D&D perspective on magical items: find better items to kill bigger monsters to find even better items, et cetera, ad eternia.
But there’s a larger schism at work behind this query, because gamers in their 30s and 40s played D&D in a time when magical items were, simultaneously, the source of great tales and legends, but also essential to one’s survival. In the days before DR (damage reduction; 3.0+ D&D), you just flat-out couldn’t hurt a shadow without a +1 weapon. Werewolves used to be ‘gear checks’; they only had four hit dice, but if you hadn’t accrued enough money to have that spare silver weapon on your person for just such an occasion, they might as well have been invincible.
Yet, from Level 1, each and every one of us were drooling for the day when we’d finally be able to cut off our dominant hand and stick the Hand of Vecna in its place! Because D&D was based upon fantasy literature; a common theme of which is the ultimate quest to retrieve Merlin’s Great and Long Staff of Omnidicking! Every NPC in Ye Olde Land knew (a) the names of every major artifact in the region, (b) the badass dictatrices who currently wield them, and (c) the terrible curse that befalls all whose hubris makes them think they are worthy of the legendary life’s-work of Grit-gnat the Horrific Kneecapper!
Time has since flown; 21st Century RPGs are either combat simulators or narrative-focused ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’. Adam accurately identifies the flaws of magical items in most games: (1) If you go questing for a specific item, you won’t need it when the quest is complete; (2) If you let PCs buy (and sell!) MIs, you’ll ruin the game’s economy; (3) if you make MIs too difficult to build or too rare to find, the PCs will be continuously under-powered. The latter is especially true for non-spellcasters—I don’t care how many bonus feats the fighter gets, if she doesn’t have a magical weapon at level 10, she’s in for a rough time.
Or in modern/sci-fi games: ‘What’s to stop my players from buying the best armor, the most explosive weapons?’ Nothing, unless you (1) force the PCs to go abroad to find them; (2) allow them to sell fifty AK-96s for one suit of power armor; or (3) force the players into isolation with only 9-mils and two magazines. Respectively.
Adam also mentioned creation-focused character classes. Nearly every RPG has one: Deadlands Mad Scientist, Pathfinder Artificer, Rifts Techno-Wizard, Apocalypse World Savvyhead, etc. And any RPG that doesn’t have an explicit item-creation class has skills, feats, and other rules that govern the blueprinting, creation, and repair of objects. And yet, these classes/skills tend to be rarely used!
‘But why, Jessi?’ Fair query. Crafting mechanics have become so important to computer RPGs that a good one often correlates directly to a game’s success. Some of the most popular games in the world have as free-form a crafting system as possible—e.g. Terraria, Minecraft, Legos. And yet, many table-top RP Gamers ignore, subsume, or handle item creation exclusively during downtime. Why??
My theory: item creation systems allow creators to directly affect game mechanics. Minor, incremental changes—a +2 longsword to replace the fighter’s +1 sword; a +1 optical sight for a gun; a nitro tank to a car—are fine. In fact, the GM can simply offload the responsibility for providing such upgrades onto the party’s crafter. How would anyone know--your gaming group has five people! After the first few levels, the group would settle into a routine: give the crafter 10% of your loot, so she can upgrade your favorite submachinegun with an extra-long magazine, stability stock, faster smarklink, etc. Now the group is spending their money on upgrades instead of frequenting local arms dealers; they spend 50 credits every week, instead of 200 credits a month. Balance maintained, while the GM still uses ‘item scarcity’ to keep the grenade launcher out of their hands for a few more levels.
‘What about that new hotness?’ Tha’ fuck would it matter? In narrative-focused games, what’s the point of having a new magical item? To allow access to a new action? It’s narrative-focused. ‘I would like a cape like Dr. Strange’s cape: I want it to pull me out of danger.’ ‘Okay, you’ll need to kill Empress Redcape to get it.’ ‘Nah, I wanna make it.’ ‘Alright. I’ll give you a 42-tick clock. You’ll need to spend a downtime action to tick it forward.’ ‘Any way I can reduce that?’ ‘Sure, you can go to Redcape Mountain and retrieve the Cape of Creation.’ ‘Eh. Can I buy one with money?’ ‘Yep: it’ll take you 42-ticks worth of missions to collect the requisite money.’ ‘What if I steal the Candelabra of 42-Ticks?’ ‘No problem! It’s currently in Dr. R. Edcape’s private collection, just 42 units of Money across the ocean.’ ‘I’d like to make a special class move/book/feat that would allow me to mimic the effects of the cape.’ ‘Excellent choice; just the way I would do it. For completely non-arbitrary reasons, it’ll take 42-ticks worth of Experience to get the first level of this special class.’ ‘Why??’ ‘Because you must cross the Red Ocean, fighting your way through the Creation Pirates to study the 42 Ways under Mistress Cape.’
My apologies; that metaphor just wouldn’t end!
“Office Hours” likes to give specific information and guidance; I share that philosophy:
(1) Game balance is fluid, varying, and subjective. GMs are consumed by game balance. Some have to be, especially if, like Adam, you GM in front of thousands of people. But for your own table top group, one’s only concern is if the players feel like the game is balanced. Often, this means that each player feels s/he brings something unique and powerful to the group’s exploits. If the bard feels like she doesn’t contribute as much as the fighter with the dual vorpal katanas, focus less on combat. Or allow the bard to discover the Melody of Superhotness—a scroll that can only be read/sung/played by a bard that allows her to, 1/day, force her target to remove all of her/his/its clothes in eager anticipation of coitus. My dear friend Sam GMs with this maxim: “Give every character a chance to shine in every adventure, during every game day.”
(2) There is no such thing as a creation system that is meaningful, special, and unencumbered. A system either describes crafting mechanics ad nauseum (e.g. Pathfinder, Deadlands), or places the responsibility of player projects on the shoulders of the ill-advised GM (e.g. nearly every other game). My advice: pick two of the three.
* Special and Unencumbered: Item creation is limited to classes or skills, and those who focus on them—at the expense of other skills and talents—should be allowed to create items on demand, en masse. D&D 3.5’s system does this best: a flat gold fee, a number of 8-hour shifts directly proportional to that fee, etc. No XP cost, no lengthy quests, no special items required. When I’ve played with this kind of system, I even let the players break down old/found items to ease a fraction of the build cost/time for new ones. (See (3), below, for more info.)
* Meaningful and Unencumbered: At regular intervals (e.g. level up, boss completion, shard acquisition) the party can create or commission the creation of an item. This process is unencumbered because the party has control over when this milestone is achieved. Important to this kind of system is to make it as transparent as possible—and in this one regard, Blades in the Dark does player projects well: creating red.Cape requires ten ticks of this clock; it will cost 1 Money and 1 Downtime to tick the clock.
* Meaningful and Special: This was the original standard, in the 1980s RPGs. ‘You may be awarded a daiklaive only by challenging the pack leader to first blood under Luna’s warrior phase while maintaining a Caern’s blessing!’ I want to ensure that you understand: this method of item creation is shit. I just flat-out refuse to play games that use this model of item creation. They’re either stupid:
(‘You now wield the Foot of Smork!’ ‘Okay, so what’s its bonus? +2?’ ‘It is the Foot of Smork! It will make the downfall of your enemies 5% more likely!’ ‘Okay, +1 then. Anyone need a dumb +1 weapon?’)
(‘You now wield the Shoulder Bone of Vecna!’ ‘Excellent! The first thing I do is use it’s once/year ability to summon an army of 1,000 skeletons!’ ‘Behold! Your fearsome army of the dead awaits your bidding!’ ‘Hey, small shit village from level 1: it’s payback time for refusing to pay us double that 5 gold bounty!’ ‘Let’s see…there were 42 people in that village. Roll 42d100s; one a roll of 1, Vecna consumes your soul.’ Rolls a 1. ‘Oops.’ ‘Okay, Kendra the Paladin Valiant is now Vecna the Returned Bad Time. …Time for a new character? Or are we good here? This a good end point for the campaign? Feels like a good end point.’)
(3) Give game balance, and the responsibility for its equilibrium, to the players. ‘But I am a GM! Heavy upon my shoulders and my shoulders alone rests the burden of Game Balance!’ Feels like it sometimes. But it’s wrong, and anyone who tells you otherwise is likewise. Let the space marine have that plasma cannon—it will occasionally explode. Let the psychic focus on mental domination; when the Warp explodes around her, it’ll be hilarious. Let the ork dual-wield Big Choppaz, and just fucking mow through rank after rank of Imperial Guard. How is she going to be helpful in challenging the planetary governor’s tax tariff policies?
Many GMs offer this advice; ‘if character A is too good at action X, then challenge A with action Y.’ And you don’t have to do it in a sneaky or malicious kind of way. Use this ‘fictional positioning’ to your advantage, and rely upon the abundant cornucopia of game circumstances. Yes, “Court of Swords” spends 2- to 3-quarters of a session in combat, because that was the intended focus of the game—they wanted a tactical, combat-driven RPG…probably to contrast the highly-narrative “Blades” and “Nebula Jazz” also running on Roleplay.
Regardless of the game, all campaign worlds are vast and varied. Simply allow the players to pursue their own agendas. Those who want to banter with and seduce NPCs will choose to do so. Ditto for those who need more heads for their belt. Your job, as GM, is to make both of these opportunities available and engaging.
‘The point, Jessi!’
Give the players control over the crafting system of their game. Make the most powerful items in the game only buildable by the players. This is how I treat item creation in my games, and in games with class-focused crafters. Questioner: ask your players if they want a creation system that is “meaningful and interesting…but isn’t cumbersome”. Tell them that a super smart lady told you they can choose two of the three:
For ‘special and unencumbered’, the D&D 3.5 system is pretty good: pay your gold, spend the downtime, here’s your wand of cure light wounds, 50 charges. If you’re not playing a d20 system, I recommend the creation rules for the Mad Scientist in Deadlands, or that of my upcoming titles [??]: ‘I want a ranger long-rifle.’ ‘Cool. Roll Int + Craft. You get one roll per day of creation. You suffer a -5 penalty for not being Eldar, but you can still attempt to build it since you’re a psyker. Do you have a rifle-smithing flair? Good. It’s an Exotic weapon, so you’ll need to accrue 300 successes/hits/7’s.’ Done. That player can now snipe fools from a kilometer. Still not going to be helpful with that damn governor and her shady tax codes.
Especially in this case, I would just not bother giving too many special items as loot. Sci-fi games get off easier in this respect: ‘Congrats, you’ve killed the Vindicare assassin! She’s got a master-crafted Armaggedon-class sniper rifle.’ ‘Aww…I already have one of those!’ ‘Well, her goons also have 53 lasguns, let’s see…twenty of their flak armors are still usable….’ Giving the players the authority to craft the best in-game items will give them the opportunity to engage with player/downtime projects that have actual meaning, because they’ll craft what they want, when they need it. Then, when it breaks, when it jams, when it gets stolen from an unconscious body, the player will feel that sense of personal loss more powerfully—and your game will be more engaging for it.
If you’re playing a d20 game (e.g. D&D, Pathfinder), just use those systems, and let your ego get out of the way. Unless a master-craft item is required, just gloss over the ‘item’ part. Let the druid collect bark on which to scribe scrolls; the naval alchemist to collect various sands and waters for potions; the urban sorcerer to fashion a wand or rod from a length of lead pipe or rebar.
If you’re playing a d6 (e.g. Shadowrun 5e) or d10 game (e.g. any White Wolf game, my games—coming 2018!), use that system’s d10 ‘success/hit/7s’ requirements, but elide any but the most potent, powerful, or rare ingredients or processes. Allow an hourly check for small stuff, daily check for ‘common/mundane’ items, a weekly check for uncommon tech or basic magic item, and a monthly check for the most potent stuff. Be sure that you and the player define the item’s type and the amount of successes required to complete it. Some examples:
* Improvised explosive (Access to cleaning closet; roll 1/hr, 3 successes)
* Convert semi-auto pistol to full-auto (Access to workshop, the gun; roll 1/hr, 4 successes)
* Armored trenchcoat (Access to medium sized town’s shops; roll 1/day, 7 successes)
* Slinky dress (Access to any clothing/fabric store; roll 1/day, 3 successes)
* Basic grenade x10 (Medium town’s shops; roll 1/week, 6 successes)
* Sniper rifle (Machinist’s workshop; roll 1/week, 15 successes)
* Vibro knife (Scientific workshop; roll 1/month, 12 successes)
* Carrier-class interstellar vessel, w/ full complement 100 attack drones (Every kind of workshop, resources of massive cities; roll 1/month, 5000 successes)
‘Jessi, I can’t let a player build a fucking starship!’ Sure you can. She starts designing it in her garage. After a year of adventuring, her Craft skill increases, specializes—and the work goes faster. She spends the bulk of her income building workshops and factories, hiring engineers. A second year goes by; now she’s rolling 100 dice/month, because of those she’s hired. Our shipwright has increased her social, pedagogical, and management skills to make her employees more effective. Another year: the shipwright’s team defeats a group of militants who’d captured a nuclear submarine; you allow her to jury-rig the sub’s fusion drive (w/ a skill check) in exchange for 100 successes.
Finally, the team is ‘15th level’, and her work is complete! Don’t just let it sit there: make it the team’s HQ! The next five ‘levels’ can now take place all over the solar system! How does the shipwright train the crew she’s hired? How does the system’s police force register the carrier? A few minor space combats, then a couple of massive ones. How does the group’s leader change her command style at the helm of the carrier? Will the team’s physician beg the team to come to the aid of the beleaguered miners of asteroid colony FookMee?
Why not?? Why hold players back from making the stuff they want to make? Why shouldn’t the team’s sniper learn how to custom-make her own rifle and/or rounds? Why can’t the team’s priest make a faithful copy of the Mantle of Piousness? Hey, GM: look at yourself in the mirror: ‘Why am I so terrified of allowing players’ characters to engage the game’s item creation mechanics, in the spirit of the game, with little or no encumbrance on my part?’
For ‘meaningful and unencumbered’, I’d recommend offering items for the completion of missions. It doesn’t matter who or how they’re given to the PCs—steal it from the bandit lord, who is known to carry it; loot it from the necromancer’s library after you’ve driven off her dead; offer it as a reward when the party returns to the quest-giver (who might have secretly hoped that they would die on the return trip…). Be a bit stingy on the gold/credits side of treasure, but be sure that they’re paying that armorsmith for something they actually need. Mask it in a bit of secrecy: ‘The armorsmith has finished her work, and bestows upon you the Mark XIII power armor! It’s stats are basic power armor.’ (But then, during a fight when the warrior is downed, tell her that the meaningful investment in this armor actually saves her from the wound!) The Pathfinder rules will probably suit you as is, but play up the ‘fiction’ of the creation process. Have the acquisition of a special ingredient or material be a side quest, such that the party need not choose between killing the bandit lord or yanking ten bear asses off of ten now-bottomless bears on the other side of the county.
For ‘meaningful and special’, go back to the horror that was 2nd ed. AD&D or the original World of Darkness. May the New Moon shine favorably upon you, because if I find you I’ll create a vulgar Prime effect to rend your avatar right the fuck out of my universe.
Those Nook and B&N links; you can buy the paperback through B&N if you'd like.
That's it for now! I have several projects in the works, including a new Mercy Mace book (Jan 2018), and a new Parallel Reality book (Dec 2017). Until those come out--and until release info is available for other projects--keep watching @MercedesMace for Jessi's Mega Late Game Reviews (#JMLGRs), for a new series of futurism monograms, and for my hit-n-miss attempts at humor and philosophy! :]
It's straight-forward: From the Diary of Young Mercedes Mace 02: "Steps of a Ghost" links have been updated for Amazon Kindle and hardcopy paperback!
I always make my books available for the Kindle Lending Library; if you have Prime, it's free to read my eBooks. Or, if you buy the hardcopy, you may download the eBook version for free.
Nook should be available over the weekend.
A review of: “Star Ruler 2: Wake of the Heralds” expansion (170507)
by Jessi’s Mega-Late Game Reviews
This is a review of Star Ruler 2 (SR2) as it is as of March 2017 with the “Wake of the Heralds” (WotH) expansion. My critique is quite positive, as was my review of the [base game]. Please note that, although I have played nearly every 4X game released on Steam since 2008, and have several hundred hours in the original release of SR2 and for the expansion SR2: WotH, I do not tend to play 4X games at the highest of difficulties, nor do I engage with any multiplayer systems.
Previous game and review reference
You may find my review for the release version of SR2, after its very large update about a month later, here.
While I had my own ideas for potential improvements to the game, my conclusion was that SR2 was an exceptional and unique entry to the 4X genre.
Desires heading into expansion
The dev team posted a query in its Steam forum, while about half-way into their work on the expansion, asking players for their wish-list for WotH. Specifically, I proposed (& whether it made its way into WotH):
* More item/weapon research for ships (Yes)
* Enhanced fleet demographics (Some), research for differing fleets (Yes)
* More native planet traits (Yes), multiple resources per planet (No, though increased native planet traits), manufacturing opportunities to create virtual resources (No, though introduced new race-resource interactions)
* Pre-settled planets (No)
* Alternatives for artifact generation (No, though more artifacts can be simulated using researched ship modules)
* Re-balanced and varied ore-based systems (Yes)
And to end this section, I want to say that the dev team replied to my list very thoroughly, and implemented systems similar to those that its player-base requested—mostly in a better form than we had imagined!
More, more, more
I’ve always said that good expansions should (A) introduce more of good systems, (B) improve or eliminate poor systems, and (C) streamline ‘meh’ systems. The SR2 dev team delivered in spades! I’d say that the theme of WotH is ‘More, more, more!’
* More Resources! In each tier of resource, the number and their effects have increased. More Tier 0 foods and others; Tier 1 and 2 resource types; more unique resources; and more native planetary resources (some of which apply their effects to their planet, some to the planet that imports them). With these new resources, ‘specializing’ a planet to produce a specific resource is more effective. For example: a new Tier 2 “Lattice [xxx??]” increases Research on the importing world by 40%, decreases energy generation by 40%. A new Tier 0 food ‘Syrup’ increases Influence pressure by 25%. New resources allow planetary specialization for Defense, Influence, and Research. Cylium unique planets still enhance Energy, and while there are no explicitly Credit-enhancing resources, the Tier 0 “[xx??]” and “[yy??]” improve the development speed of planetary tiles and population growth, respectively, which improve the economy of planetary upkeep and taxes. More Tier 3 planets provide higher Defense and Labor generation and effects; focusing all of one’s Tier 3 resources on one’s unique planets is even more effective!
* Two new race archetypes! ‘Extra-galactic’ places three beacons in random star systems across the universe; your people from Andromeda (my fluff, not SR2’s—Andromeda is the galactic neighbor of the Milky Way) send colony ships through these extra-galactic beacon stations to colonize planets you have designated for colonization. ‘Ancient’ un-automates your civilization’s economy. Economic buildings must be purposefully built, large orbital replicators must be moved from one planet to the next to colonize them, and Crew and Power modules are combined into one Core module. For extra fun, play with ‘Sublight’-only FTL. Then check yourself into the nearest 1930’s-style asylum.
These two options, along with two new map options, provide more options for veteran players. Because this is exactly the kind of content that should be in an expansion, I approve! (I have not experimented with all of these variants, however.)
* More Researches! The research tree has been enhanced and expanded. New paths and combinations, more enhancements to resources, general enhancements to ships, ship weapons, ship hulls, and ship modules. Additionally, ‘infinite researches’ (a la Civ 6) have been added for weapon damage, engine thrust, shield capacity, support capacity, and hex health. Which leads to:
* More Ship Weapons! Additional weapons in each of the three primary weapon categories (projectile, beam, missile) have been added, as well as novel weapon design! A beam-like weapon that does damage to every hex through which it passes! A missile-like weapon that launches globs of plasma that attach to ships, doing damage-over-time! A drone launcher, that…launches fucking drones; they persist for a time, doing consistent damage! A star-bomb that creates solar flares which wipe out the population of all settled planets in the system!
* More Ship Modules! Many artifacts that specifically target ships are now available to add to a ship after their research: skip drive, ion cannon. A deep space telescope duplicates the lvl 4 Crystal planet effect of showing all ships engaged in FTL travel. “Troop pods” can be unlocked to provide an alternative to sieging a planet using time and supply. “Broadcast antennae” mounted on capital ships will periodically convert other empires’ in-system support ships to be part of your fleet! Additional ship energy and control modules, and armor types and mechanics are also available.
For some reason, a high proportion of SR2 forum posts pertained to making capital ships that were not carriers. As a huge fan of all carrier-style ships—literally, in every fucking game I can play, e.g. carriers in Axis and Allies; carriers in Civ and Civ Beyond Earth; carrier modules in Endless Space; strike craft carriers in Battlefleet Gothic; SoSE’s cruiser-carrier and carrier capital ships…and carrier defense stations…and carrier modules on stations and titans….
Where was I going with this? Right: many forum posters didn’t want carrier ships. Kinda supports my theory that all forum posters are slowly driving themselves insane. But the devs responded by expanding the types of ship hulls that can be applied to capital ships.
Don’t want a capital ship that can have support ships? The ‘Destroyer’ hull improves a ship’s damage and health, but cannot maintain a support fleet. On the other side of the spectrum? The ‘Carrier’ hull doubles the amount of support capacity on a capital ship, although it cannot sport any weapons itself. The ‘Titan’ hull is still available, and can be expanded upon by the ‘Colossus’ hull [does what??]. There’s also a hull that decreases the [??] cost(s) of a capital ship by requiring an ore cost.
Ship design is still 100% under the control of In addition to being able to design independent stations, we can now design ‘Support Satellites’, which orbit a specific planet…:
A great way to improve planets using what I consider SR2’s best, most unique, most fundamental mechanic: being able to use multiple types of resources to accomplish similar goals. It’s late in the game, and you need more damn food, but your planet has neither the space nor the upkeep for a megafarm! ‘[XX??]’ satellites add one neutral food to the planet around which it orbits at a one-time, upkeep-free cost of credits and those spare research points you’ve been building up! Need even more defense for your core worlds? Build a ‘Tactical’ satellite to improve the effectiveness of your defense fleets! Increase population by spending Influence, or duplicate the refinery sans maintenance costs with a higher up-front cost!
Defense is now more useful, easier to understand, and easier to implement. One still has the option to assign Defense to a star (via right-click menu), and it will still create support ships around the system’s settled planets.
In WotH, one also has a ‘Defense Reserve’: a pool that fills at one’s Defense rate, to be expended anywhere in one’s civilization to instantly build support ships. There’s nothing more fun than building up a Reserve of 1000, then assigning it to a planet, whose surface is immediately covered with layers of support ships!
Since Defense has always been a somewhat nebulous concept for SR2 neophytes:
- Defense is a resource, one of the five global resources of the game (Credits/Money, Research, Influence, Energy, and Defense). (Labor could be considered a resource, but it’s not global; it’s produced on a planetary basis, although labor-producing planets can export their labor to shipyards.) Therefore, Defense is produced on planets, in surface structures, triggered by the ‘pressure’ of imported resources. There exist Tier 0, 1, and 2 Defense resource providers, as well as a (new!) Tier 3 planetary resource.
- The primary use of Defense is to spawn free support ships. (Edification: support ships are smaller craft which are attached to a planet, a station, or a capital ship. Like the latter, one’s support ships may be completely customized; however, they are limited in the types of modules one may include in their design, and rely upon Supplies from their host.) Unless created by Defense, support ships cost credits, and must be created by something that produces labor (usually a planet, especially in early-game).
- (Once support ships are created, they are placed in orbit around their creator, unless something in-system is set to receive them. One may also transfer support ships between any two objects that can support them.)
- Defense is not exactly equal to an equivalent proportion of support ships’ cost in labor. The ratio is 1 Defense : 4 Labor worth of support ships; I believe this is a constant throughout gameplay, though I have only anecdotal evidence for this claim.
- When one’s Defense production is small (e.g. 5/minute), defense is stored (hidden) until enough has accrued to build a support ship. However, once said threshold has been reached, the ship is built instantaneously. If one’s Defense Reserve is large enough to cover the labor cost of one or more ships, they are built instantaneously upon triggering the Reserve.
- The Reserve fills from global Defense production first; once it has filled, Defense production is then distributed to all star systems tagged to ‘Use Defense’. If no system is so-demarcated, then Defense is automatically applied to one’s home/start system. Defense is never wasted; even if your start system has no available fleet capacity for support ships, Defense continues to accrue in the background, until the system’s capacity is increased. (However, any Defense stored in this ‘hidden’ manner cannot be transferred anywhere else.)
- ‘But Jessi: how do I increase my Defense Reserve value??’ Admittedly, this one took me a while to figure out. ;P However, just like every other aspect of SR2, there are multiple ways to improve the size of one’s Reserve: a neutral fleet ‘reward’; some researches; but the primary method is by the construction of Barracks on planets. One begins the game with 0 Defense Reserve capacity (unless one begins play with the Deliquent Attitude; see below). Barracks are cheap to build, cheap to maintain; when one’s budget can afford the consistent construction of a barracks upon every new planet, it is quite possible to increase one’s Reserve to 1,000 or more!
- And although Defense provides one with very small benefits in the early game, many players use Reserve (instant when applied) and production (a steady rate) to create nearly all of one’s support ships—handy when one is building carriers that can support thousands of hull-size of support ships, but one wishes to spend credits elsewhere! This is where the 4:1 exchange rate really shines, since support ships tend to scale linearly with hull size: one expenditure of a 1k+ Reserve can produce ~4k worth of support ship hull-size, fleshing out the support fleet of a large capital ship (or medium-ish carrier hull ship) just constructed!
Changes to the Senate, and the Popularity Win Condition
In vanilla SR2, the ‘Senate’ was basically nothing. A single diplomacy card allowed its player to, after a vote, host the Senate on one of your planets, moderately increasing the Influence generation of said planet. Although moving it from one civilization to another improved its benefit (and cost to play), the AI almost never hosted the damn thing, so its effect was largely blunted by the mid-game.
Some changes to the Senate system make it more interesting, and tie into a new victory condition. Bear in mind: the original senate diplomacy card remains unchanged (although the AI activates it more frequently). ‘Election’ cards now pop up in the diplomacy stack; with 10 Influence cost, one can create a vote to become the Leader of the Senate. (One must succeed at the vote. Additionally, ‘Open Elections’ are now one of the Events that occur randomly; if the Open Election passes, the most supportive civilization becomes the Senate Leader.)
Being the Leader of the Senate creates 3 new opportunities:
(1) There are Leader-specific cards in the diplomacy stack. (E.g. permanently increase population of target planet by 2, Labor by 1; stall a vote for two minutes after placing your influence; and kick another civilization out of a vote!) Any civilization can purchase these cards, just like any other cards. However: only the Leader can activate them! You can hoard them until you want to become the Leader, keep them once another ruler takes over, or you may need to spend a lot of Influence to retain your Leadership!
(2) As the Leader of the Senate, you are occasionally gifted a Leader-specific card. Since being the Senate Leader does not increase your Influence generation [true??] (recall: being the Leader has nothing to do with ‘hosting the Senate’), these free cards effectively generate free Influence…assuming you use them! Drawing the free cards is worth nothing if you don’t, which actually encourages players to take advantage of Leadership.
(3) Finally, only the Leader of the Senate can build the ‘Senatorial Palace’. Unlike the ‘Host Senate’ card, the Palace is an orbital; it has a build cost associated with it (which can be attenuated by building it upon an orbital platform artifact!). When you lose Leadership, the Palace becomes inert, but will activate again when you retake the Senate. From the Palace, you can purchase three cards: Election, Galactic Superpower, and Galactic Utopia. All of these cards share a purchase cooldown.
The former allows the Leader to keep her/his position, or to retake it when desired. The Galactic cards (“Utopia” and “Superpower”) allow the Leader to begin a vote. Although each grants powerful effects in their own respect, having both in effect simultaneously activates the new diplomatic win condition. Upon passage of the second card of the pair, planets in systems bordering yours begin to lose Loyalty—at a pretty rapid rate!—and when they reach zero, the planet converts to your control! When your trade borders increase, you begin converting those planets, until someone (i) cancels your Leadership, (ii) destroys your Palace, (iii) ends one of the Galactic cards (e.g. via the ‘Sabotage’ card), or (iv) there exist no foreign-controlled planets within your trade borders.
It’s a very powerful win-condition which forces your opponents to maintain a vigilant watch on the diplomacy system. It’s not like Influence used to be useless; like for the other four resources, one of Star Ruler 2’s most engaging, fundamental concepts is that resources can be transformed into another, or a resource with a high production rate can be used to bolster a player’s efforts in a low production resource. The WotH expansion…expands this flexibility. As mentioned above, Influence can be spent on: population-increasing orbitals; cards to replicate food; research unlocks; winning or opposing Events; and, of course, the diplomacy cards, which permit numerous benefits. But the new win-condition and other diplomacy additions, just as the expansion’s streamline of Defense, make Influence an even more powerful system.
I’ll admit: one of the largest barriers to entry for SR2 is the vocabulary they’ve chosen for some systems. I understand why the importation of planetary resources creates ‘pressure’ to construct buildings that create said resources. But ‘pressure’ is not a common term in the 4X genre used in the context of resource production. The new ‘Attitude’ system suffers the same obfuscation of the its purpose; while ‘attitude’ means precisely what the dev team intended for the system, ‘societal belief’ or ‘philosophy’ would better express the concept.
Having said that, the Attitude system is fantastic! There are six categories of Attitudes, each of which contains two quasi-mutually exclusive philosophies. Each civilization begins play with level 1 in a single attitude, based upon your Government type. As the game progresses, you may purchase level 0 in another attitude category, up to one philosophy in each of the six categories. Depending on one’s playstyle, and the challenge one faces in one’s opponents, leveling certain attitudes is more difficult than for others. The benefits gained at each level range from fairly weak to fairly strong, and again, some players will find some benefits better than others.
Overall, however, the attitude system is a welcome addition to SR2 because it makes gameplay more dynamic. Some of my attitude preferences (level the bonus is gained):
- Collectivism (lvl 5): All ships created at a planet gain +10% HP / Factory on its surface.
- Deliquent (lvl 2): Double pick-ups from defeated remnant fleets (super handy early game).
- Progressive (lvl 5): Increases ship blueprints by 14 hexes.
I don’t play SR2 because of its graphics—although the ability to zoom way the fuck in and way the fuck out has always appealed to me!—just like I don’t play SR2 for the story. The game doesn’t really have one. Personally, I don’t think it needs a story. Even the races have little in the way of story, relying upon the mechanics of each race (or racial options, if customizing) to spin a narrative. Playing a Capitalist Terranoid Empire with hyperdrive is a very different experience to playing a Communist Verdant Theology!
Fans of SR2 are also fans of Endless Space (ES), GalCiv 2, Sins of a Solar Empire (SOSE, “so-see”), and even more heavy-strategy-focused games like Creeper World 3: the story is unimportant—one’s playstyle, one’s opponents, the mechanics and the map: each of these adds to the narrative of a map. The map lasts for 5-30 hours of gameplay, and the narrative is finished: the ‘story’ of the game is complete.
All that said, the dev team overhauled every art asset in the game! The models, the planets, 2D and 3D surfaces all look crisper, grimier, shinier, etc. There exists some variety among art assets now, and blended effects on planetary surfaces look more natural, more subdued. Weapon, shield, and jump effects are more colorful, more smooth. And this graphical update was, of course, made available to all SR2 players, including those sans expansion.
Again: I was heavily biased for SR2 going into the WotH expansion. For me, for my playstyles, for what I wanted, the WotH expansion is nearly perfect.
From the Diary of Young Mercedes Mace 02: "Steps of a Ghost" is published! From the back cover:
"YMM02: “Steps of a Ghost” is the second collection of short stories from the Didary of Young Mercedes Mace—the teenage adventures of the sun-sensitive girl-detective, growing up in the frigid frontier state of Alaska. This collection includes:
“Poor Kid Quandary (Sophomore)”: Mercy returns from winter camping to discover that she isn’t the only spectre wandering the grim perma-night of Alaska’s December…!
“Shooting Secret (Junior)”: Robbie—one of Mercy’s only friends—has started to pal around with Leah, the only other faux-vampire in Fairbanks. Ick. But what does she have to do with a grotesque, blood-drenched site in the middle of the woods??
“Prom Night Puzzle (Senior)”: With only three days before the big dance, Mercy takes a case to pay for her dress. Her client thinks his significant other is cheating on him. But trite high-school drama becomes life-scarring tragedy in the frigid winds of a cold night, black within and without!"
E-Books should be available Tues (170502), and hard-copies no later than Fri! I'll post links when active. Thank you to all of the Mercedes Mace readers!
YMM02 “Steps of a Ghost” will be delayed until April 30th, to give the last of my editors more time for review. We apologize for this third delay! But it will absolutely be released by the end of the month!
Let’s talk about Hearthstone. If you were unaware, HS’s new expansion released last week: ‘Journey to Un’goro’. Do I like HS? Yes, though no one would be surprised were I to express frustrations at the game. Daily frustrations. However, regardless of the value barriers Un’goro presents, I am enjoying it very much! For one, very specific reason: one very specific deck:
My taunt weapons warrior quest deck! :}
My favorite HS class is the warrior—favorite by a wide margin! And my favorite warrior theme is a weapons-centric deck. Not ‘weapons-heavy’, but ‘-centric’: focused on as much weapon synergy as permitted by the Rank 20 meta.
From GvG through ONiK, one of the warrior’s class-defining features—Taunt—has been useless to the point that I never ran taunt minions. No one did. (Although I cannot find a particular article from which to source this opinion, it is commonly stated by players and in forums.) There are three reasons for this:
(i) Taunt has routinely been over-priced, or taunt minions are routinely under-statted. Most taunt minions have not been interesting—Sludge Belcher was the most interesting taunt minion HS had, such that everyone ran it!
(ii) Taunt minions, because of (i), are low-tempo propositions. HS has become a ‘faster’ [source??] game with every expansion until…well, Un’goro. Fast card games require players to maintain a certain level of momentum, or ‘tempo’, or one’s eventual defeat can be predicted as early as turn 2 or 3.
(iii) The warrior hero power can keep a warrior alive better than that of any other class. Given Armorsmith/Whirlwind combinations, C’thun armor decks, Reno Jackson, and Justicar Trueheart, a warrior just never really needed the security of taunt minions.
With low-value taunt minions, the continuous nerf of charge minions, and the nerf of one-turn-kill (OTK) enrage-based mechanisms, warriors had basically one class-defining feature: the Fiery War Axe.
No: the Fiery Win Axe.
Shit: weapons. Warriors consistently get great, common weapons with every expansion. Or passable common weapons. Every time another class gets a common weapon, that class gets apeshit over-powered. Since Blackrock, I’ve been using Reno warrior decks with some big minions (e.g. Chromaggus, Nefarian); charge enrage decks with some big minions (e.g. Chromaggus, Nefarian); since WotOG, pirate decks with some big minions (e.g. Chromaggus, Nefarian). And weapons. So many weapons, the current President would approve my budget increase.
My weapons warrior decks have never been Legend-quality; some months, they’re not even Rank 16 quality. But I like them very much, and I play mostly vs. Innkeeper or Dungeons. (I am sad that Blizzard anct’d that they won’t be doing any Dungeons in the coming year.)
When Un’goro launched, I had to copy 14 Standard decks to my archive before deleting them! Since then, I’ve only made two decks: my taunt weapons warrior quest deck, and a murloc shaman to summon 30 murlocs. Also, I got two copies of the shaman deck when I spent all of my gold buying Un’goro packs.
My new warrior deck is awesome! It’s a ton of fun to play, has not lost all of its PvP matches, and is interesting to the point of being viable against every other class. I must credit the HS dev team: from the perspective of warrior and shaman, they have focused Un’goro around these quests while still introducing a wide variety of mechanics. Most of the new taunt minions are interesting and fun to play, and Sulfuras with its associated change in hero power could not be more fantastic and apropos to weapons-centric warrior decks and play-styles!
P.S. I don’t normally gush about HS—on a given day, I may not even like HS—but the HS team deserves 600 words of my praise and excitement for making a new warrior archetype enjoyable and engaging.
Jessica White writes several book series based to various degrees on Mercedes Mace, a noir-style private detective in a dystopian, alt-history San Francisco in the 2020's.