Bringing Social Distancing to Your TTRPG

Planning your next Dungeons and Dragons session but unsure how the burgeoning pandemic will affect attendance? Wondering how much Purell you’ll need to clean all your dice after you roll them on the table? Unsure how to handle taking turns to bring the food when your increasing paranoia about getting sick has granted you the ability to see the germs wafting out of everyone’s mouths as they breathe?

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Despite the Bumpy Road, I Haven’t Forsaken Destiny 2

Destiny 2, despite the hopeful and positive review I gave it in December, has had some major struggles during its first year. There have been numerous controversies and even damage control didn’t manage to do anything but limit the fallout of the problems. From the numerous bugs breaking the Player versus Player elements of the game that cropped up every time something big came out to the discovery that the game was specifically programmed to rarely drop ammo for the gun you’re using, the first year of the release was a series of ambitious ideas that ultimately fell flat. There were out of control power-balance issues that made it difficult to succeed in PvP unless you did very specific things people shared on the internet so literally everyone could do them. There were frustrating bugs preventing a lot of the more interesting unique armors and weapons from performing as they were supposed to. There were even a few instances were doing events the way you wanted to became impossible because getting kills with your character’s special power (their “Super”) didn’t count toward the goal of getting X kills with your character’s Super. I ran into that one and had to change how my character worked in order to complete the objective. Sure, it was an easy change to make, but it’s so incredibly frustrating to only realize that the game wasn’t counting my kills after getting what should have been half the kills I needed.

I’ve fallen through platforms, used a piece of armor that literally didn’t work the way the description said it would work, had to deal with ineffective grenades because enemies could just run away after they exploded and ignore the secondary damage effects, had a gun whose special effect wouldn’t trigger half the time despite its trigger literally being “is being continuously fired,” and gotten stuck in loading screens for more hours than I’d like to count. The game has crashed at random only to give me reasons that had nothing to do with why the game actually crashed and I’ve had horrible moments where clicking out of the game has caused it to fail to finish loading the activity I’m about to do.

Despite all that incredibly frustrating crap, I’ve continued to play the game. Either my roommate or myself has figured out a way around the bug we encountered and we kept playing. I got better at the game so I could more easily tell when server lag for the PvP matches was to blame for me missing my target and I even helped set up a raid that took forever because some of the mechanics for a particular portion of said raid are incredibly obtuse and stupid. I’ve stuck through it for an entire year, keeping at least one character near the maximum power level so I could stay relevant and it is finally about to pay off.

As is now tradition for a Destiny game, the first year of its release is an absolute train wreck. Once that year is over, the live team takes over and will take care of all development for the game until the next one comes out. In Destiny 1, the live team fixed all the problems, managed to quickly fix most of the problems they introduced, and actually gave the player community what they wanted. By the time Destiny 2 was imminent, Destiny 1 was actually a really fun and successful game. As is evidenced by the announcements we’ve gotten ahead of September 4th’s expansion and the patch notes from the groundwork update we all downloaded today, it is entirely clear that the live team actually took the lessons they learned to heart the first time. It is equally clear the core team did not. To be entirely fair, the core team tried to entirely bypass the issue by doing something new but it ultimately failed. To make matters worse, it often felt like no one had actually tested out the software before they sent it out to the players and the proposed solutions generally felt like someone was pretending to listen to your problems while planning to just do what they want in the end.

Now, the live team is swooping in to give the players what they want, fix the balance of the game, and literally give the protagonist of the voice, The Guardian, their voice back. Seriously, the core team didn’t let the protagonist speak at all, instead using the little magic/holy-powered robot orb that made you into the unkillable killing machine you are as the voice for the protagonist. It was rather frustrating to have the orb, your “ghost,” constantly talking at your character or cracking jokes with other people. In addition to a bunch of quality-of-life updates and fixes, they’re adding a new game mode, a huge new expansion, something they’re calling the biggest raid ever, and a whole host of new weapons, armor, and unique items in order to revitalize the game so that everyone isn’t running around with one of four guns in each of their three gun slots. Hell, now you don’t even need to worry about the gun slots as much because now it’s almost possible to have a gun of any type in any gun slot, with the exception of some of the most powerful ones, like swords and rocket launchers.

While it remains to be seen just how much this power shift breaks the game, I think it’s a far better way of fixing the game than the core team’s strategy of trying to pull back on the power. Just give everyone godly powers and then no one will complain because they’re just as stupidly powerful as everyone else is. To paraphrase the villain from The Incredibles (the first one, not the second one): “If everyone’s super OP, then no one will be.” It’s a good strategy for a game where you’re essentially supposed to play an immortal, god-killing terminator of all that would stand against you. Seriously, your character killed a god-equivalent creature in the first game and I’m pretty sure we killed one of its almost-god children in this one. There’s nothing wrong with being a little OP if everyone else is, too.

It’s really been a mixed bag, this first year of Destiny 2. All signs point toward things improving, but I think I’m going to remain cautiously skeptical for now. I don’t really want to get my hopes up after they were crushed when I moved from playing Destiny 1 on my friend’s PlayStation to playing Destiny 2 on the computer. As much as I’ve enjoyed the game, there’s always been this sense of missed potential hanging over it because of how good the first game was by the time they stopped updating it. Hopefully this new expansion will help it finally reach that potential.

UnEpic Was the Opposite of Mundane

Do you like RPGs? Do you like the idea of having a fully customizable character you can turn into a super-specialist or a jack of all trades without having to sacrifice character effectiveness?  Do you like Fantasy that is aware of the typical tropes and has a delightful mixture of falling in line with said tropes and standing them on their heads, both in such a way that it makes even the most tired trope feel fun an exciting? Do you like all of those things and side-scroll action, too (AKA, a “Metroidvania” style game)? If you answered yes to all of these questions or found the potential combination of them intriguing, then I have a game for you to try out!

UnEpic is all of those things and more. It is a side-scrolling RPG starring Daniel (at least, that’s the name he gets in the promo materials, you get to name your character when you start the game but that’s mostly for save file reference), a typical video gamer who got transported into the game when he went to the bathroom during one of his first ever tabletop gaming sessions. He finds himself in a castle and, deciding someone must have slipped something into his drink or food, decides that he’s hallucinating so blithely wanderings further into the castle. After a few rooms, he happens upon an evil spirit (AKA Zera) that tries to possess him, but it fails to do anything more than get stuck in his body. As he moves deeper into the castle, slowly becoming convinced he’s not hallucinating, he eventually figures out what he needs to do in order to get home. As he does, there are a number of humorous scenes as he and the dark spirit sharing his body try to trick each other. Daniel wants help navigating the castle and the spirit wants to kill him so it can leave his body and inhabit another that it can actually control. Daniel usually comes out on top since, ultimately, it is up to the player to decide whether or not to follow the Spirit’s advice, and the spirit is initially only trying to get Daniel killed. As the game goes on, the Spirit starts mixing in actual help with the incorrect instructions, making it much more difficult to figure out what is good advice and what isn’t.

As he explores the castle and learns more about what it’s going to take to get him home (and it’s fairly early that he learns he has to defeat the lord of the castle), he find money, items or gear, and magic to help him on his way. A lot of it is fairly typical fantasy fare, stuff like swords, bows, heavy armor, and more specifically named stuff like “Tunic of the Ranger” that makes you better at using bows and even unique stuff like Excalibur and an axe you get for, uh, helping out Goblins during mating season. Did I mention this game requires you to enter your age when you navigate to its page in Steam? Definitely not a game for young children, what with the references to sex, alcohol, and drugs. Fun fact, it’s also on the Switch now and plays even better on the handheld, wide-screen glory that is the Switch than it did on the computer.

Anyway.  As Daniel explores the castle, he discovers he needs to defeat the lord of the castle and, in order to do so, must free 8 light spirits from their prisons. From there, it’s all finding keys, exploring secret rooms, trying not to get murdered by traps, and finding the right gear so you can kick as much ass as possible while trying to figure out how to make it through rooms that randomly drop rocks on your head and through dungeons where every door you find is locked by a key that isn’t the one you just picked up. For the most part, in terms of gameplay, it’s nothing special. It’s fun, light-hearted take on dungeon delving is what makes it stand out. There are games with smoother controls, more intuitive interfaces, better layouts, and better levels, but this one hits the “satirizing fantasy” niche better than most similar games I’ve ever played.

The protagonist’s video gamer roots show in the way he tries to address his problems and the game’s mechanics catch him and any similar players off guard when it starts to introduce a lot of rules more commonly associated with tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, skeletons take (slightly) reduced damage from swords and spears, but extra damage from blunter weapons like maces or clubs. Bows require targeting for enemies that aren’t straight in front of you, which can be a little frustrating because you might have to cycle through available targets before getting to the one you want, but the fact that you can miss a slug crawling across the ground when firing straight ahead is the first real evidence you get of the game’s excellent hit-box management. Never will you take a hit you feel you shouldn’t have taken and never will you hit something unless you see your weapon enter into the enemy’s model. It can be incredibly risky to use a close-range melee weapon since that requires getting within striking distance of most of the enemies in the game, but they usually do more damage and have better bonuses or stats than spears and bows.

It’s a fun game with relatively simple mechanics that don’t take long to pick up and really start to flow smoothly once you get used to swapping between items in your shortcut menus and rapidly targeting enemies with ranged attacks while avoiding the enemies closing in on you in melee. It even has a ton of fun little references to other games and media liberally sprinkled throughout. Some of them have been a little obfuscated in the Steam and Switch versions (the only versions I’ve played, but I read a few articles about it while trying to figure out if the spirit’s original name was a reference to something) for copyright reasons, but most of them are still there. There’s even one a few minutes into the game, when you fight your first enemy. I won’t spoil it, but it really sets the tone of the game.

If you’ve got ten bucks (or less, if you get it during a Steam sale event) burning a hole in your pocket and want several hours of relaxing dungeon exploration, I recommend checking out UnEpic. It’s not going to blow your mind, reveal the secrets of the cosmos as they relate to your inner-most heart, or make you acknowledge the secrets hidden deep inside that you won’t even admit you’re hiding to yourself (we’ll leave that to Celeste), but you’ll have a good time as long as you don’t mind a bit of a bratty protagonist who keeps getting shown up by the evil spirit possessing him.

Returning to the Borderlands

Borderlands is one of my favorite game series, second to only the Legend of Zelda series. There’s guns, gnarly explosions, the ability to instantly reduce someone to a red mist and chunks if you do enough damage, stupidly high numbers, an incredible cast of hilarious characters, guns with ridiculous effects, weird missions, plenty of jokes, and some incredibly stirring moments. These games, and the second one in particular, have been responsible for some of the strongest emotions I’ve ever felt as a result of a video game, and they did it all by creating an over-the-top and crazy world with an equally over-the-top and crazy cast that are still entirely real and believable. And they say you can’t really tell an interesting story in a first-person shooter.

Since the second one, Borderlands 2, is my favorite, I’m going to focus on that one. When you start a game these days, you can pick one of six playable characters, each with their own unique back stories, class abilities, and role. Since the game has cooperative play for up to four players, each character tends to fall into one of the roles you find in a typical RPG. Axton, the commando, is the party tank. Maya, the siren, is the party cleric. Zero, the number (assassin), is the rogue. Salvador, the Gunzerker, is the blasty mage. Krieg, the psycho, is the barbarian. Gage, the mechromancer, is the off-tank. Each of the characters has three skill trees that allows you to focus them toward one part of their role over another. Axton, my personal favorite, can focus on hit points, regeneration, and not dying; putting out tons of damage, staying mobile, and tactical damage; or creating a turret that is going to be a huge threat to all of your enemies, thereby diverting their attention away from you.

No matter which character you pick, the story stays pretty much the same, aside from a slight variety in the way the NPCs interact with you and what background information you’re given for your character. Handsome Jack, the owner of mega-corporation Hyperion, wants to dig up a vault and unleash the creature within it upon the planet, removing the bandits and people who live on it in order to turn it into what he considers a more peaceful, happy planet. He’s willing to kill anyone he has to in order to do what he thinks is best, constantly blames the player for forcing his hand, and seems to delight in the violence he gets to personally inflict on the people who defy his tyranny. Your character survives a train wreck and is then recruited by the anti-Hyperion resistance in order to strike back against Handsome Jack in an attempt to gain control of the creature inside the hidden vault first, so you can unleash it upon Hyperion instead.

Needless to say, a lot of crazy stuff happens that severely complicates everything. All the while, as you try to sort out the plot and turn in as many side-quests as you can, you’re collecting guns with crazy effects like shooting in bursts of thirteen that, when shot into a wall, create a low-quality rendition of the oldest cave paintings in the world. Or guns that never run out of ammo, guns that generate their own ammo, guns that explode when you attempt to reload them so that you never have to bother with replacing ammo clips, grenades named after classic D&D spells, and automatic sniper rifles that get more accurate the longer you hold the trigger down. Half the fun of the game is seeing what crazy guns you get and what their crazy effects do and, since the guns are all entirely randomized aside from a few important ones, it is incredibly unlucky that you’ll encounter the same gun twice.

As you move through the missions, gaining levels and collecting loot, you get to unlock new powers and abilities, turning your character into a one-person murder machine whose only weakness is one-shot kill attacks like some of the incredibly powerful enemies have and the fact that you sometimes just run out of bullets. The reason Axton is my favorite is because he not only just gets straight boosts to his damage, he also gets incredible health regeneration. He is my ideal character for a solo game because I don’t need to worry about dying as much and can take my time to line up the head-shots that’ll make each fight a breeze. It is incredibly rewarding to watch the huge numbers pop up as I shoot a bandit or bizarre creature in its weak point. There are ways to get higher numbers with other characters, but that’s contingent on luck and the right combination of guns and abilities.

While some missions can be difficult because of the requirements or that the way the game is designed to accommodate both solo play and cooperative play with your friends, the game is also forgiving. Hit boxes for most enemies and weak points are rather larger than they look and there are ways to bypass any amount of aiming deficiency. Shotguns, for one. Grenades, combat abilities, melee attacks, and stubborn refusal to do anything but work on improving your aim until you can nail a head-shot from across the map also work really well. Your best bet, and the most fun way to experience the game in my opinion, is to play with at least one other friend. The cooperative experience only adds to the game, since it makes it a lot easier to just plow through whatever enemies are blocking your way forward, to a degree. There are usually more enemies as a result of extra players by your side, but a friend can help you get back on your feet if you’ve gone down far more easily than if you need to rely on killing an enemy.

If you don’t mind a little gore on occasion and enjoy first-person shooters, I cannot recommend Borderlands 2 (and the rest of the family) strongly enough. It is incredibly fun and, though the pacing can slow to a crawl at times of heavy side-questing, is never boring. Check it out for the PC (my recommendation) or the re-release put out on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. You can’t go wrong, no matter how you choose to enjoy it.

This Game Has A Destiny Too Complex To See

One of the games I’ve been playing a lot recently is Destiny 2 on the PC. It isn’t Borderlands, but it is still a shooter with super interesting guns and special powers you can swap around. That’s close enough for me to enjoy, especially since I can easily get all of my friends to show up on an evening to play some Destiny 2 with me and I’ve yet to actually finish the story of a Borderlands game with anyone but my librarian friend. It may not have the same sense of humor, cell-shaded glory, intriguing characters, smooth control scheme, super supportive community, excellent campaign mode…. Okay, maybe the comparison isn’t as great as I’d originally thought.

That isn’t to say Destiny 2 is bad or that I’m not enjoying it. I actually really enjoy Destiny 2, even the online PvP (Player versus Player) modes. I play it all the time by my own choice, even if I never really play it by myself. The campaign doesn’t have as much replayability, but it is also super easy to just power through if you’re interesting in earning the XP for your clan (a loose association of players that can bring you some minor benefits and is basically just a list of people who’ll do the three-player missions with you) or trying to increase your chances of getting a rare gun. It was a lot of fun to play through the first time, even if it wasn’t super compelling. You can definitely tell that the main focus of the game is supposed to be on what happens AFTER you complete the campaign.

There’s already a lot to do after the campaign ends, and there will only ever be more as new content is created and released. There are Strikes, which are three-player missions that have a good chance of dropping good gear, which come in a couple different flavors. Vanilla (normal) strikes are relatively easy and vary widely, but don’t drop very good gear that often. Heroic strikes are more difficult and drop better gear along with having a chance to drop the best gear. Nightfall strikes are even more difficult and have special rules, but also drop better gear in addition to having the best chance of dropping the rarest gear. There’s the Crucible, which is the main PvP mode, and the Trials of the Nine, which is a special format of the PvP mode that gives you really great gear if you manage to win 7 out of 9 matches. There’s also the Leviathan Raid, which is the highest-tier of end-game content, requires six people, and is the best way to get gear. There’s also a number of things that happen on each world, such as public events that anyone can join, small adventures for alright look, and the constant grind of earning tokens you can trade in to each world’s representative for random loot around (but usually below) your level.

All of this content is geared toward players who enjoy making multiple character, doing weekly or daily grind sessions to get the best possible weapons, gear, cosmetic items, and emotes. There’s some room for more casual players since the best way to get gear to do the weekly milestones, which basically just requires that you just play a little of every game mode every week. You can do it in a couple of hours one night a week if you’ve got a decent group of people to play with, though doing the Raid can easily double that. You can just keep playing with the same character the entire time or switch between a few characters to get the weekly rewards all over again as you help the more casual members of your clan earn their weeklies. Personally, I like to play it whenever there’s someone online to play with but I usually stick to one character because I’m not super motivated by the rare weapons. I just like to “Captain America” things as a Titan (you get a shield you can bash people with, block attacks with, or throw at distance enemies to damage and blind them. It’s so much fun to just run around punching the crap out of enemies in a shooter. And, if you get the right gear, it’s a totally viable strategy.

The sheer variety of play style available to the players is where Destiny 2 shines. There are three very different classes with different styles of play and each of those classes can be played in a number of very different ways based on the special properties of your armor. I have arm armor for my Titan that includes the lunge distance of my melee attacks and the damage the attacks do, which stacks with a class ability that does the same thing. If you set it up right and time everything well, you can fly around a battlefield like superman, punch everything to death. Warlocks do incredible amounts of damage in general but are probably also the biggest utility class since you can modify them to increase damage, heal, use more grenades, be super mobile, and so on. Hunters are the high-damage, very mobile sort of class that have the best mobility and the most options when it comes to attacking (In terms of strategy rather than in terms of abilities). Each of these has sub-classes that change their abilities and grenades, and writing about them all would be at least a full post per class.

The biggest problems the game has come in the form of the continued support from the studio, Bungie. There have been a number of uproars in the player community already in regards to some the questionable decisions Bungie has been making, all of which is compounded by the fact that Bungie isn’t very good at communicating with its fan base. There was the XP debacle (XP was being weighed so that super grind-y players didn’t get too many of the loot boxes you get by leveling up or by purchasing from Bungie), the only recently resolved issue involve the DLC (players without the DLC got locked out of almost every post-game activity that was a part of the weekly reward system), and the tumultuous Prometheus Lens arrival and subsequent nerf (PvP used nothing but this gun because it could nearly insta-kill other players and a large segment of people wanted to keep it around. Personally, I hated it since it made every PvP match the same boring grind of who pulls the trigger first). In the last couple weeks, Bungie has really started communicating more clearly and openly about what’s going on, but a lot of players are still left wondering just how all of this stuff made it through testing or why Bungie made some of their clearly dumb decisions they’ve subsequently backtracked on.

I can’t really hold the game accountable for the mistakes of the company that made it, though, so I would definitely recommend getting Destiny 2 (and its DLC because the extra missions they’ve added in Curse of Osiris were a lot of fun).  I’d recommend playing casually or settling yourself in for the cycle of frustration and excitement my roommate seems to go through every week or two, but that’s really up to you. If you’ve got an open evening every week that you’d like to fill and a group of friends you like to game with, I strongly suggest filling it with Destiny 2. You’ll have a lot of fun, if nothing else.

Tabletop Highlight: The Dresden Files RPG

I’ve mentioned my love of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher before. I’ve yet to go into it at any real length–I’m saving it for a longer Wednesday review–but I wanted to write about something a little tangential as it has gotten popular enough to have related games and comics. There’s a card game now, a few board games, and a RPG that uses the Fate system. I haven’t played any of the board games yet, or the card game, but I’ve run the RPG and I have to say it was a lot of fun.

For those of you who haven’t played a game using the Fate system, you build a character using a point-allocation system for attributes and skills. You can use points to buy skill modifiers that give you extra ability in specific applications of that skill, but the result is ultimately decided by how many positive modifiers you have after rolling a set of what are called “Fate Dice.” Fate Dice have 6 sides, two of which have a “+” mark, two are blank, and two have a “-” mark on them. “+” adds to your end result, “-” takes away from your end result, and the blank sides are do nothing to your end result. The whole system is fairly low on numbers, compared to most RPGs I’ve played.

Most of the character sheet is actually taken up by what we call “flavor text” in D&D, except the Fate System relies on all of this color and characterization to focus your character. You have to pick strengths and weaknesses, which have the potential to affect your skills and dice pools (how many dice you can roll for a particular check), and almost all of the skill checks amount to a Pass/Fail system with the only real modifications on that being how well you’ve succeeded. The whole system focuses very heavily on storytelling rather than number-crunching, which means it can be either super forgiving or very harsh depending on how your Game Master prefers to run it.

The whole system feels super different from everything else I’ve played since almost all of those other systems are heavier on the numbers side of thing. All of the numbers feel super reassuring to me as both a player and a GM, since math comes easily to me and I’m comfortable enough with the rules as a whole to know when to fudge things, so the Fate System was almost like having to learn an entirely new language rather than just playing a different game. That being said, I don’t think a number-heavy system would work very well for a Dresden Files RPG.

While the book series has a lot of elements that would fit into a more hard-math rule system and shares a lot in common with many of those same systems, it ultimately fits best into the story-driven Fate System. There are many times in the Dresden Files were a character digs deep within themselves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it is hard to have something like that play out in a rules system that has clear results because of numerical dice and hard math. In the Fate System, there is literally a mechanic for saying “actually, I succeeded that because I’m a determined son of a bitch/really good at this one thing that helps out unexpectedly/got extremely lucky that the one thing I needed just happened to be in this little cabinet here.” Those are aptly called “Fate Points” and they allow a player or GM to insert an element of story into one of the times when numbers would otherwise rule outcomes.

Fate Points are allotted to a character based on how many points they have left after their character is made. This means that a higher-powered character has fewer opportunities to fudge the numbers and just succeed than a lower-powered character. In the Dresden Files RPG, this means characters who have no magical abilities or affinities can wind up steering the plot or showing up just in the nick of time to save the bacon of a powerful shape-shifter or wizard. Just like Butters has done for Harry.

The game does a very good job of balancing power levels by placing additional restrictions on higher-powered characters and giving a wide-variety of cheaper powers to non-wizards so that they have the opportunity to contribute and compete with the wizards for the spotlight. If you want to make a wizard and are starting as low-level characters, chances are good that your character won’t be able to do much at the start, whereas a shape-shifter can already transform and use specialized aspects of their powers outside of their transformation.

That being said, the lack of hard-numbers means the GM needs to be rather proficient at making things up as they go along without a precedent to go off. It can be difficult to resolve combat if no one is spending Fate Points to swing it one way or another. I recommend reading the book thoroughly rather than just skimming like you can with some of the hard-math systems. All of the information you need is in there and talking it through with other people who’ve read it or run the game before should be all you need to clear up any confusion.

If you really enjoy the Dresden Files and want to play a game in as close to the book-world as you can get, I definitely recommend picking up PDFs of the books. Some of them even include character information for the people from the books and all of the books will tell you from what point in the series the information was obtained. You don’t need to have read all of the Dresden Files in order to join it, but having read some of it is definitely helpful.