Sunday, 8 December 2013

Rooksburg Reviews: Dungeon Keeper 2

To start with, a disclaimer; I did not play the original Dungeon Keeper aside from a quick playthrough of the first mission before playing this.  Unfortunately, if graphics don't have a timeless quality to them then I'm quickly put off so I skipped ahead to this game.  Therefore, I can't address any of the 'which is better' arguments.

Dungeon Keeper 2 (which I'm constantly reminding myself doesn't use 'II' instead of '2') is a strategy game developed by Bullfrog, and is quite unlike anything that came before it- apart from its predecessor, naturally.
Previous strategy titles were either Command and Conquer style, i.e build an army base and attack another army base, or they were Theme Park style, i.e micro-manage some sort of business venture peacefully.  This game could be considered a combination of the two.  In it, you play the role of an evil overlord who is trying to wrest control of the portal gems- magical items that when combined will allow passage to the overworld.  To do this a base of operations must be built, providing facilities to keep your creatures happy and train them up ready to take the fight to the lord of the land, all the while defending yourself from pesky heroic adventurers.  Where this differs from other real time strategy games is the fact you have no direct control over your minions; all you can do is guide them to what they should be doing.  The most control you have is picking up and dropping creatures near their task and hoping they do their jobs, or through the use of possession spells.

The UI shows everything you need to see without getting too cluttered.
The level design is extremely well done, unlocking something new with each land you conquer in the campaign.  In many games this would get rather repetitive, starting from scratch each time, but this game will always give you different challenges to face- one level will have you taking your time to build an overwhelming force to defeat a powerful foe, another will have you hurrying to intercept someone before they can escape, another will have you fighting against rival keepers and destroying their bases.  Along with the narration this makes the game constantly feel fresh, and with each level able to be completed in an hour then you won't get bored easily.

Each room you build will attract a new creature, and each time a new creature arrives it will be introduced by your mentor so you'll know exactly what to do with them.  It's well worth your while to attract as many different creatures as you can as they all perform different roles, and to add to the challenge there's no knowing if you'll get the creature you want even when you have the right room for it- a portal can only attract 15 creatures, so if you attract as many creatures as possible straight away to defend against invasion then you may not have room for new creatures to fill new rooms.  By the same token, you may decide a particular level won't need traps, so you won't build a workshop, meaning you won't attract trolls leaving room for other creatures.  And if you decide after all that then it's still not enough, you can capture enemy heroes after defeating them, converting them to your cause through use of the torture chamber.

No I'm not going to address feminism in this review.
Speaking of the torture chamber, it should be noted that this game has a 'Mature' rating.  In my opinion this is unfounded; in ESRB's opinion it's due to excessive gore and violence.  Here's my rundown of what this game contains, for anyone interested: On defeating a creature, they are knocked out.  If they are not transported to a prison, they will die and leave their corpse and a puddle of blood.  If they die in prison, they dissolve into the ground and become a skeleton.  When tortured, a creature will shout in pain though it's far from traumatising.  Mistresses will sometimes climb on torture equipment themselves, and moan in pleasure.  And of course there's the theme of the game which is having fun being evil.  I have not encountered any drug references, swearing, or nudity- if this game was released now I would rate it Teen, and based on the humourous cutscenes I'm guessing that's what the creators were hoping for.

On completing the game I would say there is a lot of replay value, again because of the variety of levels in campaign mode.  If you don't feel like going through the campaign though, there's 'My Pet Dungeon' which is like a sandbox- each dungeon has set conditions, like some will have less gold or spell limitations, but in all of them it's up to you when you unleash your enemies.  The true purpose of this mode is to help you remember the basics of the game, as each dungeon is a tutorial in itself, going into great detail about all the rooms and creatures if you haven't played a while; an excellent idea as there are so many games I've left for a couple of months and forgotten half the features for, requiring me to start all over again.  Then of course there is the (rather limited) skirmish mode, which is fun but does have a limited variety of maps available.  And the multiplayer mode which has the same limitations as skirmish, but does still have an active online community- and if you ever want more maps then there are packs available to download if you look for them.

So how well has this game aged?  It was released in 1999, and the game has quite clearly aged since then,
even compared to 2001's Startopia (a similar game created by some of the same production team).  However, it's easy to ignore the graphical limitations especially when there's such good gameplay.  It also has a lot of charm you don't often get in modern games with various quotes when you reach milestones ('an imp can do a good impression of you' on reaching 20 imps, 'neutral creatures regret they can't attend' if there are unmet neutral creatures somewhere, etc).  Incidentally for the best easter eggs, play this game between midnight and 3am.  Ultimately you should play this game now before the graphics become too unbearable, as HD patches can only do so much.

tl;dr review:
Graphics 7/10- a bit jarring at first but tolerable.  Make the most of it while it lasts.
Sound 9/10- very atmospheric, though you may have explaining to do when your gf or mum's in the room and you pass over the torture chamber.  Mistresses can be loud.
Gameplay 10/10- very addictive, and if you start to get bored it's generally a sign you're powerful enough to complete the current map.
Story 6/10- it's nice to have a story at all compared to some games in the genre, but there's no conclusion.  This game was clearly set-up for a sequel that never came.
Overall 8.5/10- As the tagline says, 'It's good to be bad'.  Rarely do building/RTS games keep me captivated to the end without feeling stale, but this one has- and with its style and sense of humour it's been enjoyable at every stage.  My only hope is that the graphics will stay bearable in years to come, or that a faithful sequel is made to conclude the story- it will be great to see Horny get some fresh air.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Spotlight: PTA Homebrew

As I stated previously, Pokémon Tabletop Adventures is a game that has a lot of potential, but a few flaws.  As such, I've been working on some homebrew rules for it to make things more streamlined whilst also giving a bit more depth to the world.

A whole new world:
Before we got too far into the FireRed game, I decided to restart in a new region now that we had gotten a grasp of the rules.  We would play in a region I had been working on called Aerouanta (I can provide an in-depth analysis if requested), and the plot would remain basic: each year a competition is held to discover the region's champion.  Trainers gather from all over the world (allowing a couple of our players to keep their previous characters), but they would only be allowed to start with a single low-level pokémon.  Participants would also be divided into teams of 4-5, so they can take part in various events held throughout the year; things like tobogganing, bug-catching contests, and general other things inspired by the animé.  Obviously it would take a long time to get through a whole year, so I would throw in various sub-plots involving legendary pokémon and evil teams getting in the way- before we stopped playing I had an elaborate plot involving a bottled water company named 'Érus' that was experimenting on one of our players, inadvertently creating a psychic link to Deoxys due to a certain chemical they used to augment water's healing properties (I had to come up with some explanation as to how water could heal you in the games).  Ultimately, if the players ranked highly in the end of year tournament then they would have the option of becoming gym leaders or hunting down legendaries, or maybe the whole plot would be halted in favour of a civil war between the Poison-type metropolis and the Psychic-type city.

Rule revisions:
The most significant rule change I made was completely revamping trainer classes.  I decided that trainer classes as they were took away emphasis from pokémon, and there were just far too many feats to keep track of when you had to look after a team of 6 pokémon as well.  Instead I created my own classes (which I shall go into detail about in a separate post, if requested), each with 'base' abilities and 'advanced' abilities that steadily rose in power with each gym badge obtained.  We found immediate improvement in terms of gameplay, though slight disappointment at losing abilities from the previous game.
Another change I made was with pokémon contests, which are a bit of a disjointed mess in the source material.  My changes were a hybrid of the video-games and the animé; there is an 'appeal' stage and a 'battle' stage.  The appeal stage consists of a two-move combo to amaze the judges- Mr Contesta who likes unpredictable moves, like cute pokémon using tough moves; Mr Sukizo who likes moves that accentuate a pokémon's strength, so smart pokémon using smart moves; and Nurse Joy, who likes a balance of power and affection- if a pokémon can only use the move it learns at level 70 then it's extremely impressive, if it's a tm then she doesn't appreciate the pain caused by applying a tm.  The results of this round give a handicap to the battles, which are a standard fight until knockout though you also gain points according to the judge's criteria.  This eans that even if you won the match you may still lose on points.  The players all found contests to be an interesting change form regular battles with an added level of skill and creativity, even inspiring one player to focus most of the efforts on ribbons rather than badges, meaning I had to think of much greater prizes to compensate for reduced levels.
Smaller changes I made included making trainer HP= Con x10, giving trainers a higher chance of survival and making calculations easier; trainer movement= 5+/- Wis modifier, reflecting a trainer's ability to 'know' the battlefield; and most significantly the amount of moves a pokémon could learn equal its Intelligence capability +3, applying to both natural and TM moves (so an Int 3 pokémon could learn 6 natural moves and 6 TMs).  This gives a lot higher unpredictability in battles, and means you won't run out of moves quickly because you picked all 'Battle' frequency moves.  These were all met with great approval.

Rule additions:
The biggest addition I made involved skills, which I used Skyrim as inspiration for; basically the more you do something the better you become at it.  This included higher knowledge checks for scanning many pokémon, better capture rolls for capturing more pokémon, shorter hatching times for hatching eggs, etc.  Ultimately I feel these skills failed as we started gathering more cluttered character sheets which was the exact thing I was trying to avoid with trainer classes, but I still feel there is some potential for this method.
Another addition yet to be tried, is giving each species of pokémon a unique characteristic, the theory being that traditionally unplayable pokémon will now be playable, and traditionally overpowered pokémon may prove more difficult to control keeping a balanced playing field.  Examples I have so far include Butterfree attaching Poisonpowder to moves using its wings, and Jigglypuff having increased accuracy on Sing whilst using its 'inflate' capability.

And that's it for my homebrew bits for Pokémon Tabletop Adventures.  Feel free to use any of the above ideas for your own games, and if requested I can provide more in-depth files for pokémon characteristics or I can put up a post going into more detail about trainer classes or my region, Aerouanta- descriptions of gym leaders, rules for events, etc.

Finally, if you're interested in what you've read and fancy playing the game yourself, and you live in the Weston-Super-Mare/Bristol area, then let me know and perhaps you can join us for the new game I'll be setting up early next year.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Spotlight: Pokémon Tabletop Adventures

So far, this blog has had little tabletop content- something that needs rectifying considering this is the reason why most of you are here.  Semi-regularly (i.e when I have games available and playtested) I shall do a 'spotlight' on a particular game, similar to a review, and follow up with some in-depth looks at particular aspects of the game such as expansion sourcebooks or my experience with races and classes.

Today's spotlight is on Pokémon Tabletop Adventures.  A few things will go through your head on hearing that title, and the people I tell about it generally have one of two reactions; either 'Pokémon is awesome, how have I not heard of this before?!?' or 'lol Pokémon's for kids, how would a tabletop game of it work?'.

So, What is it?
Pokémon Tabletop Adventures (PTA) is a fan-made game that looked at the various pokémon abilities and settings and thought 'this could make for a pretty decent tabletop roleplaying game'.  It addresses the fact that there will never be a console game directed to an older audience, nor will there ever be an official tabletop game.

What do Trainers do?
Trainers are the player's avatars in the game.  They share the same stats as D&D characters: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis and Cha.  They also have classes such as Ace Trainer, Martial Artist and Breeder, as well as feats to help specialisation.  Feats include how effectively you can hatch eggs, special 'tricks' you can perform in battle like commanding a pokémon to close it's eyes, avoiding certain moves etc.  Levelling up is versatile, essentially being awarded for how often you perform certain actions.  You can level up from catching a certain amount of pokémon, winning badges from gym leaders, or by simply performing a great enough accomplishment that the GM feels you're worthy to level up.  Levelling up grants access to advanced features of your class, or you can choose to cross-class.

What do Pokémon do?
Pokémon are obviously the main focus of the game.  They serve as willing thralls to their trainers, provided they're treated fairly and with kindness- though it's up to GM's discretion if ruthless slavery is allowed.  Pokémon are used as tools for overcome skill challenges, such as using a vine whip as a ladder, and as weapons for defending against wild pokémon or battling other trainers.  Whilst pokémons' stats, moves and abilities are adapted from the video games, tabletop introduces capabilities- this covers how far a pokémon can move per turn in certain environments (overland, underwater etc) as well as how heavy an item they can lift, how intelligent they are (which can affect ability to follow commands or how much abuse they're willing to suffer), and any special abilities they may have, such as telekinesis or egg-warming.

What's the aim of the Game?
Many games are run similar to the video games, a simple quest to collect badges and become champion of the region.  However the greatest fun comes from thinking in terms closer to other role-playing games- looking at legendary pokémon's abilities and thinking how they may pose a threat to the world, either under the control of an evil trainer or through their own free-will.  For inspiration it is recommended GM's look at the various pokémon movies- Mewtwo has a vendetta against mankind, someone's attempting to harness the legendary birds' power, Deoxys has crash landed... Or there's the option of basing your game on the side-games like Pokémon Conquest, a feudal era setting where warlords vie for control over a region; or do away with trainers entirely and be based on Mystery Dungeon where players can control a single pokémon to represent themselves.  This game is hugely versatile in terms of what style of game you wish to play.

What do I need to Play?
All you need as a player is this website:
This contains everything you need to play the game, and is updated when any changes come along (currently it looks like a couple of months before Gen VI is added though).  Alternatively there are pdfs available here: You will also need these pdfs to be GM, as they have handy references for capture stats, experience drops, and information on legendary pokémon.
Everything is completely free, and there are tools available for random stat generation etc.  Most of these can be found on the PTA forums:
Also bear in mind that this game is still in Beta, so there may be the occasional balance issues that need addressing.  If you do encounter any issues when playing, please bring them up on their forums so they can be discussed.

Playtest Findings:
When I discovered this game, I asked a few of my friends what they thought and ended up with a group of 4, plus me as GM.  The group consisted of my partner, a huge Pokémon fan and long-time roleplayer; a guy who enjoyed Gen I pokémon but has little roleplaying experience outside of video games; and a couple who had little to no experience of pokémon at all, but a lot of roleplay experience.
I decided to keep things simple at first, playing an adaptation of FireRed almost word for word and seeing what happens.  The classes chosen were Ace Trainer, Capture Specialist, Breeder, and Psychic.  Each trainer was given their starter- something that wouldn't be overpowered but not too weak either.  In game-terms, these were the default starters as well as any pokémon the players could justify owning as a family pet.  This resulted in Charmander, Squirtle, Psyduck, and Eevee.
We weren't keen on the character sheets supplied, and ended up making our own which was simple enough- the main problem was a lack of space for inventories and feats.  I don't know if the provided sheets have changed in the meantime, as I've used our own sheets ever since.
I had heard that early encounters could be extremely difficult, but we didn't have too much trouble- a lot of GM discretion is needed to judge what a party is capable of.  We did encounter our first major problem at this point though, which is how much info are trainers allowed to have?  My partner could list every type advantage and had a good idea of stat-lines just by looking at a pokémon, and had trouble segregating player knowledge from character knowledge.  I decided to give the others a chart of type advantages, but I didn't want them to know the types of pokémon they saw- it would be more fun to figure it out themselves.  This had mixed success, as the couple new to pokémon couldn't resist looking things up in bulbapedia on their phones at every opportunity.  Ultimately I decided it wouldn't matter too much about what they knew, as capabilities meant pokémon were capable of different things than they are in the videogames, but it was a pity they weren't willing to play blind.
Our next problem was with the amount of pokémon being captured.  One player in particular wanted to capture everything he encountered, which brought the game to a halt as we listed off relevant stats for everything, and between sessions I was using a lot of ink and paper to print out sheets for them all.  I had to insist that he make a choice as to whether a pokémon would be used or not, just to speed things up, which he was understandably disappointed by- it's nice to have the freedom to use anything you want.
Nevertheless, we were having fun and streamlining things as we went.  We soon came to our first gym battle vs Brock, the Rock type gym leader, and this is where we realised tabletop really excels.
In the video games, you pay barely any attention to a pokémon's nature, or the conditions of a gym battle.  So it would be perfectly acceptable for this player to use a Sickly Pidgey against a Rock type, if only to gauge how strong his opponent is or scout moves.  However, in tabletop; Brock is a soft gym leader, who appreciates the love that goes into raising pokémon and can't stand seeing them injured for no reason.  His gym floor is also littered with rocks, giving him a small advantage to compensate for his lack of type versatility.  Even moreso, he has several Trainer levels as a Type Specialist, which help compensate for his weaknesses.  So when this Sickly Pidgey is sent out against him, he is not impressed.  He gives the challenger a chance to reconsider, but the challenger refuses.  One hit and the match is over.  Brock berates the challenger for using a pokémon he knew would fail, and lectures him on how being a trainer means loving your pokémon and not using them simply as tools.  The player felt ashamed and went off to sulk for a bit as he lost his gym battle where the others had a hard-fought victory.
At this point, our opinion of the game was good, but there were a few things that could be changed...

The game is extremely fun, but certainly has its flaws.  There is a lot of paperwork involved, and it can be difficult to keep track of all the different mechanics; personally, I believe there's too much emphasis on trainers and not enough on pokémon.  The trainers appear to develop into superhumans when you have enough levels, which I feel is wrong for a pokémon universe.  Playing a straight port of the video games doesn't work, but it helps you understand how the game works and makes good practise for when you're confident enough to make your own world.  Possibly the most surprising finding, is just how dark this game can be; The early game can involve many pokémon deaths when following standard rules, and when you actually think about some pokémons' abilities they are horrible- 1000 year curses, eternal burns, soul-stealing... and in tabletop, all of these can be plot hooks that will turn a cartoony kids game into a Call of Cthulu-esque setting.  And that is awesome.

In my next post, I shall describe some of the homebrew changes I've made, as well as show off my own region.