Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 20, 2017
 
Printing heroes at home

There is a piece of good news for the few of us who like to print D&D miniatures in 3D at home. And two pieces of bad news. The good news is that Hero Forge is now offering the digital download option on their website. You can use their excellent editor to create a D&D character of one of many different races, with lots of different equipment and pose options. And then instead of choosing a material to have it printed by them, you choose digital download and get an .stl file.

The two pieces of bad news are that a) that option costs $9.99 per miniature, which is only slightly less than the $14.99 for the cheapest printed option. I consider it worth it, but it might not be for everybody. And b) you don't get the file immediately, but sometimes "after one business day for processing", sometimes after a few minutes. So if you want to print a more common miniature, like a wizard with a staff and pointy hat, you'd better first check sites like Thingiverse for a free version. However I really like Hero Forge for the less common hero miniatures, or the ones you want with very specific equipment.

The .stl files are of very high resolution and end up being 75 MB large. When I want to edit them on Tinkercad (e.g. for adding print supports), I first need to use Meshmixer to reduce the number of triangles and the file size. And of course a typical home printer isn't producing that high resolution miniatures. But it's a bit like with photographs, it's better to have too high resolution and scale it down than having too low resolution.

If you want to try it out, check out the Hero Forge Digital Downloads info page. It links to your user profile (if you have an account with them), where you can download two demo .stl files for free.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017
 
Nintendo Switch game pricing

I haven't played anything on my Nintendo Switch yet, as I technically only get it for Christmas. That hasn't kept me from looking what games there are for the console. Apart from the two "system seller" games Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey there are quite a number of Nintendo and third party games on offer. So the choice is quite good. What is not so good is the pricing.

Prime example: Skyrim. I can overlook the fact that the game is 6 years old. I can overlook the fact that it doesn't look as pretty on a TV screen as it looks on a PC screen. I can overlook the fact that playing it handheld means you run out of battery after a few hours. But why does this game which is sold on Steam for €14.99 cost €59.99 on the Nintendo Switch? Unless you really, really want to play Skyrim on a handheld tablet (unlikely), or don't have a PC able to run a 6 year old game (even less likely), why would you want to pay 4 times more for the same game? But yet sales are quite good.

For me as a PC gamer the era of €60 games looks like ancient history. I haven't bought a €60 game on Steam for years. Most full price games on Steam are cheaper than that, and I don't usually buy full price games; I have enough games in reserve to be able to wait until I get the same game for half price or less. If Bethesda can sell Skyrim for €60, I imagine there must be a lot of console gamers out there who aren't as price sensitive as the PC gamers. For me that just doesn't look like good value for money.

Saturday, November 18, 2017
 
Invisible Flying Wizards

In one of my campaigns in one future session the group will come upon a castle. The gates are locked, there are guards on the battlements. Thus there is a challenge to the group to overcome: How do they get into the castle? Now this sounds like classic situation for Dungeons & Dragons. However through most of the history of D&D this was more of a headache for DMs if their group was at least level 5: Wizards had spells like Fly and Invisibility, and that made "sneaking into the castle to open the back door" boring instead of a challenge. So why would I put it in one of my adventures? Because 5th edition cleverly solved the invisible flying wizard problem!

Many of the spells in 5th edition are now using concentration, a new concept. If you want to fly, you can cast the Fly spell, but you will need to concentrate on it. Not only does that mean that if you are hit by an arrow, you have to do a concentration check or fall to the ground; it also means that you can only concentrate on one spell at once. Flying, yes, invisibility, yes, but not both at the same time. Thus the Rogue, who *can* be simultaneously stealthy and climbing walls, isn't put out of a job by the invisible flying Wizard any more.

Having said that, for some classes the concentration concept is overused and ends up making their spellcasting overly weak. A prime example is the paladin, who has very few non-concentration spells, at least at lower to mid-level. Spells like the level 1 smites really shouldn't be concentration, as they are already not very powerful and concentration means they don't work with more important spells like Bless or Compelled Duel. For the Warlock the fact that Hex is a concentration spell and the very staple of his existence, makes any other concentration spell nearly useless.

So, yes, concentration is a useful new concept. But I think it is currently applied to too many spells and could be better balanced.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017
 
Elemental Evil: Session 9

In the previous session the group arrived at the base of Feathergale Spire. As Princes of the Apocalypse is designed as a sandbox adventure and doesn't have a linear story-line and "quests" leading people to the next goal, this session started with a discussion between the players on what exactly they were looking for in Feathergale Spire. The one point where they could all agree upon was that they were looking for Glasstaff, the evil mage from the previous adventure, who had escaped them but left a letter indicating he could be found in this tower. Landry the halfling monk also had a larger view on fighting the evil elemental cults as a goal, while Theren the elf warrior was especially interested in finding the keys to magical portal they had found in the previous session.

With the help of their Aarakocra allies the group ascended the pillar to the base of the tower, one level below the main entrance with the drawbridge. Here they found 12 large stable doors, with signs that this was were the flying mounts were kept. Listening to the doors they found an unoccupied stable and entered there. Another door led to the central staircase of the tower, but one of the Feathergale Knights was in that room. The group managed to jump him with surprise, and kill him before he could raise the alarm.

Going up the staircase they found that at each level there was a central room with doors to the other rooms of the level. They decided to skip all those doors, and just continue to go up. That worked well, because I played the tower as written, with there not being any guards on the staircase. So the group arrived just below the top level, seeing open sky above them. Landry decided to sneak a peek to see who or what was on the top landing. However he miserably failed his stealth check, and was seen by Glasstaff, who fired a magic missile at him. That started a fight, with the enemy consisting of the mage, two Feathergale Knights on giant vultures, and Thurl Merosska.

The group concentrated on Glasstaff, killing him before he got another spell off (I should have let him cast Shield as a reaction on the first attack, but forgot about that). Then Theren wanted to call a truce, persuading Thurl that they only were here because of a previous beef with Glasstaff, which he assumed to be the boss of the tower. However it turned out that Thurl was the boss, and Glasstaff his invited guest, so the group reconsidered the truce idea and the fight continued.

That fight turned out to be tough. In fact the book says Feathergale Spire could be handled at level 3, and they had a hard time at level 4. I guess the book assumes that the players don't actually fight the air cult, because there is an option of joining them on a hunt instead and then sending them off against the rival earth cult. As an alternative the book describes the group being captured and thrown off the tower, but then being rescued by the Aarakocra. As I had played up the fight against the evil elemental cults and the information the players got on them, as opposed to the "players are in the dark about what is going on while searching for a missing delegation" story of the book, and as I had added Glasstaff to the tower, the peaceful option was a lot less likely.

Fortunately it all ended well: The group defeated Thurl and his knights on the pinnacle. They got the mage's glass staff of defense [DM's note: I changed that one to be able to cast Shield as a reaction, not only as an action, which would have made the spell rather useless.], they got one of the four needed keys to the magic portal from Thurl, and they used the Wing Wear wondrous item they had found in the stables to paraglide down from the top of the tower before further inhabitants of the tower stormed up the stairs. So apart from them not getting the xp for having killed everybody (which would have been very difficult) they achieved a near perfect outcome.

The group returned via the Sighing Valley to Red Larch and rested over night. Then they discussed where to go next. From Popée's Zhentarim contact, the town baker, they got the information that the warrior in stone armor they had found in one of the four graves was presumably an earth cultist. From the dwarven book from the previous adventure they had a rough idea where the four Haunted Keeps were, and the baker told them about the Sacred Stone Monastery. They also learned about the existence of Rivergard Keep, and the information they had from Landry's Order of the Gauntlet contact suggested that this might be where the water cultists were hiding out. That seemed to be a good next target, but as it was getting late we ended the session there.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017
 
SailCraft Online

The game of Battleship as played with pen and grid paper is a hundred years old. 50 years ago Milton Bradley turned it into a board game with plastic pegs. There have been various computer versions, and even a rather horrible movie in 2012. Now I found a mobile game called SailCraft or SailCraft Online, which is basically Battleship on speed with all modern Pay2Win conveniences.

The original game is strictly symmetrical, except for the player moving first having a slight advantage. But in SailCraft the two players don't have the exact same fleet, nor do they even have the same size of grid. Instead your grid size and your special abilities depend on the ships you choose for your fleet, limited by the level of your mothership. Ships come in common, uncommon, rare and legendary types, and the more of the same ship you find, the higher you can upgrade them in level. Each ship has an active and a passive ability, and stats for how many spaces it adds to your grid and how much "luck" you have going first. Active abilities allow you to do different things than just targeting space D4 and hoping you hit the battleship: For example you can fire a torpedo, send out a bomber, or use a telescope to scout some grid spaces. There are also counter-abilities like a torpedo-net or anti-aircraft guns.

Overall that makes the game a lot more dynamic to play than the original. But obviously the player who has collected more powerful ships has a distinctive advantage, having more powerful active abilities and a larger grid on which to hide his ships. Fortunately there is a matchmaking system that prevents you getting paired against the top players while you are still in the lower leagues. Which makes the game okay playable without paying any money, or just buying the occasional special offer. Having endless amount of time isn't much help, as you can only grind a certain number of chests full of ships every day.

I don't think there is any game left that didn't get this sort of monetization make-over in a mobile version, frequently based around collectible items. I've even seen coin dozer games that work like that. SailCraft has the advantage that the underlying game of Battleship is a relatively intelligent one, and you can actually outthink your opponent to a certain degree. I just don't think I'll ever make it to the very top, because that appears to require some serious spending, which I am not willing to do.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017
 
Is Your D&D Character Rare?

FiveThirtyEight, a website better known for predicting election results with statistical methods, a few weeks ago posted a statistical analysis of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons characters regarding their choice of class and race combination. The result is boringly predictable: People overwhelmingly choose a race that gives at least a +1, if not a +2 bonus to their main class stat. As the race system has been designed to favor combinations that appear in the cast of Lord of the Rings, you get a lot more elven rangers than dwarven rangers, etc. However that is much less an attempt to emulate the classics but rather simple stat minmaxing.

I don't know how these statistics look for other games or previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But I suspect that the "bounded accuracy" math of 5th edition D&D makes a +1 or +2 bonus a lot more important in this edition, because there aren't so many other bonuses around. Unless you "roll lucky" (which is my way of saying cheat with your stats), an elf paladin is simply too bad stat-wise to be playable. That from a role-playing point of view a haughty elf might make a brilliant paladin if played well is of no importance. You choose your class, then take one of the few races that are good at that class, or default to humans who are good at everything.

As a role-playing challenge I would love to try a gnome barbarian. But as a 5th edition character with standard array or 27-point buy stats I'd end up with something not very fun to play in combat. The World of Warcraft system where your choice of race has only a very minor influence on your combat performance is more to my liking.

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Monday, November 06, 2017
 
Don't want to battle for Azeroth

World of Warcraft announced a 7th expansion called Battle for Azeroth. At this point in time I don't feel any interest in that expansion. If it came out today, I wouldn't buy it. As it is coming out in a year, there is still time for me to change my mind. But there is a greater than zero probability that this will be the first World of Warcraft expansion I'm opting out of.

Sunday, November 05, 2017
 
Elemental Evil: Session 8

In the previous session the group had located the tower of the elemental cult of air and gained new allies in the form of a group of Aarakocra. They had decided to approach the tower through the Sighing Valley and try to sneak in from below with their allies helping them up the pillar the tower stands on. But first they needed to get there.

The Aarakocra informed them that basically they could go either left or right of the river dividing the valley. To the left was gnoll territory; not the most fearsome of adversaries, but many of them. To the right was the lair of a manticore, which was a much more dangerous beast, but alone. They went for the manticore. Now 6 adventurers hitting a single monster can make for short and boring fights. To avoid that I had placed the manticore out in the open, in plain view, so the fight started with the monster and the group 200 feet apart. Which just happened to be the maximum range of the manticore's spike-slinging tail attack. :) This ended up being a rather interesting fight, with the group using ranged attacks while closing in, and being under fire themselves. They won, but two group members went down during the fight and had to be saved by their team mates. In most rounds I decided to let the manticore fire its spikes on the closest enemy. However at one point the closest enemy was the druid who just had changed into bear form. So at that point I let the manticore make an intelligence check, which it failed, leading it to believe that this was an actual bear who had somehow wandered in and would be scared off easily by a threatening roar. At least the druid liked that idea; the halfling monk who got shot instead maybe not so much.

That fight got the group to level 4, so they took a long rest and leveled up. Then they continued up the valley, to the point where the stream was easy to cross. There the stream came out of a cave, and the Aarakocra had told them that air cultists had been seen hanging around that area. So they explored the cave and found three air cultist spellcasters praying in front of a great door. As the cave was only as broad as the stream, the air cultists did get good use out of otherwise rather useless gust of wind spells (I ruled that a gust of wind gives disadvantage to non-magical missiles like arrows, because I was so surprised that in rules as written the spell doesn't even do that). But they weren't very strong and the party easily beat them.

The portal was showing a symbol they knew from the book on fighting elemental evil: It was the runes of the 4 elemental cults posed around the elder elemental eye. The door was clearly magical, and it appeared as if one needed the 4 runes of the 4 elemental cults to open the door. As they didn't have any yet, they went on towards Feathergale Spire. They found some corpses at the base which suggested that sometimes people were thrown off the spire. At this point we ended the session.

[DM's note: The magical portal isn't in the Princes of the Apocalypse book. In the book as written you can go right down into the underground elemental dungeons. Only that of course the first dungeon downstairs is level 7, and would be quite deadly for a group of level 3 or 4 characters. And there would be no reason to visit the above-ground 4 elemental keeps, thus skipping a lot of the content of the adventure. A magical door on every entrance, with the 4 keys being held in the 4 keeps, seemed the logical solution for this design flaw to me.]

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Hidden Pay2Win

This weekend I noticed a curious feature of Total War: Arena. If you play the game with a free account, you not only earn less xp, but silver is also tight, so you can only afford the necessary unit equipment. If you play with a premium account, you get a lot more silver (because the gross amount before expenses is increased, leaving a much larger net amount). And there is nothing in the game you can do with that silver, except for buying consumables.

Consumables, as the name suggests, only last for one battle. There are a couple of fun ones which give you a very short time effect, or allow you to build a trap or barricade. But there are also consumables which simply increase your stats for the whole duration of the battle. You can set those to auto-replenish, and get the effect in every battle, at the cost of silver. As a result, with a premium account you can play with consumables all the time and not have any money problems. With a free account you can only afford them once in a while. So in the end the premium players' units have better stats than the free players' units. But it is very discreet and not widely advertised. Hidden Pay2Win.

Saturday, November 04, 2017
 
Open beta weekend for Total War: Arena

If you're not in the closed beta for Total War: Arena, but want to try out the game anyway, you can do so this weekend. They couldn't move into complete open beta yet, because the game still needs some balancing, and after open beta starts there will be no more wipes. So they did an "open weekend during closed beta" event, where everybody with a Wargaming.net account can try the game for the weekend.

Total War: Arena is a lot of fun, but they still haven't completely nailed it. Strategic play isn't rewarded enough, while mindlessly shooting into the fray and causing friendly fire is rewarded too much. However ranged units are so damn inaccurate that if you punish friendly fire too much, they basically become unplayable. So there is still some work to be done on that front, and the devs admitted as much.

Thursday, November 02, 2017
 
3D printing larger objects

Since I bought my 3D printer I have printed hundreds of miniatures for my Dungeons & Dragons game. The miniatures are in a classic 1 inch = 5 feet that is 1:60 scale. So a typical medium sized miniature has a 25 mm base and is around 28 mm tall. As I have written earlier, the main problem of printing objects that size is that printing anything less than 1 mm thick tends to fail, so I had to "fatten" some miniatures or give them oversized weapons to work. Now that I have a good selection of miniatures, I am more often printing larger objects, and the challenges are different.

Now "larger objects" on my 3D printer are limited to 150 mm in any dimension due to the size of the printer itself. Over the last month I printed several objects that were at or close to that limit: Two dice towers, a hinged box, a card tray and two card holders for the 7th Continent, and JoyCon holders for the Nintendo Switch. Apart from the box, which was more of a tech demo to show that you can print a hinged object in one piece, the other objects would be either hard to get anywhere, or be much more expensive. Thus there is some utility to printing these larger objects yourself. The 3D printer also automatically makes items hollow, filled with some honeycomb structure, so a bulky 3D printed object is quite lightweight.

While with larger objects there are no more problems with too thin parts, the main downside of these objects is that the uneven surface is far more prominent. If you are used to holding plastic items in your hand which have a smooth and shiny surface, the 3D printed objects are notably different. Along the Z-axis the layer structure is very visible. And on inner surfaces where the printer had to move across empty space to get to the other side of the object there are irregular imperfections. To some extent you can clean the object up using a sanding sponge. But unless you want to spend hours sanding the object will never be totally smooth and shiny like a commercial injection-molded item.

I still don't believe in a future where we all just 3D print everything we need instead of buying mass-produced items. However there are a few niche applications where a 3D printer can produce a larger object of some use.

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Sunday, October 29, 2017
 
The best Total War?

I have played a few of the games in the Total War series, but I am not a big fan. Now I'm playing Total War: Arena, which isn't a real Total War game at all, and like it much better. I've already played over 300 battles in the closed beta, in spite of knowing that my progress will be reset. So, why would I prefer this one?

I tend to think of games as having a core game, which in the case of Total War would be a battle, and a shell game, which is the rest of the game outside of battle. Now in the classic Total War games I feel that the core and the shell are at counter-purpose to each other. For maximum success in the shell game, the strategic map, you will always want to have battles in which your troops outnumber the enemy. You don't want pitched battles, because even if you win, the losses will set you back in the strategic game. But if you consider the core game, the battles in which you are clearly superior in numbers and quality just aren't any fun. The pitched battles are more fun, because they are more balanced and have a less certain outcome.

Total War: Arena gets rid of the strategic map, and thus resolves that conflict. And the matchmaking makes every battle balanced. I don't really need to care about losses, because they are automatically bought back with silver, and playing aggressively earns you more silver than your losses cost you. The shell game around the battles is a game of simple progression of units and commanders. And as I said, I don't even care much about that, as it will be reset at the end of the closed beta anyway.

Of course I can see how the battles in Total War: Arena might not be for everyone. You only control 3 units, and the action is mostly tactical. Due to the usual lack of coordination when playing with random strangers, the strategic positioning on the battle map is mostly non-existing. In fact the game appears to be designed to aggravate the kind of player that doesn't suffer fools lightly, because there is friendly fire: Ranged units are not very accurate, and artillery is very slow and might fire on a spot where the enemy has moved away from and an ally moved into, so even with the best of intentions it is nearly impossible to completely avoid causing friendly fire when playing ranged. You can even suffer friendly fire from spearmen or pikemen in phalanx formation. Some players are extremely sensitive to losing units to friendly fire, or losing a battle due to allies playing badly or without coordination. I wouldn't recommend Total War: Arena to them. Me, I'm having a lot of fun and even bought a founder pack.

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