Thief Of Seas (Sea Of Thieves Review)

As a self-described landlubber that is just now playing (and reviewing) a game that came out close to 10 months ago, I don’t know if I have anything truly original to add to the discussion. Sea Of Thieves, by now, has been reviewed and dissected and “Let’s Played” a rum-barrel’s worth already, so repeating what seems to be a common consensus of observations feels almost pointless. Still, I’m gonna do it. ‘Cause I want to. It’s MY blog, and I’m Captain here! So hoist that anchor and swab the sails or whatever!

For some background in case you haven’t seen the game, you and your friends (or other players online if you are the kind of pirate that sails alone) work as the crew of a pirate vessel, manning the sails and setting courses, out to uncover buried treasure and defeat other pirates along the way.  You design your pirate, pick your ship, gather your crew, and set out into the open ocean, seeking the island on your treasure map to fill your coffers. It’s a fun concept, and one that thematically comes with some well-recognized and built-in tropes.

The first thing you are likely to notice is that the game is absolutely beautiful. Rare has done a phenomenal job here with everything from water textures to fish scales. It’s also an incredible social experiment for teamwork and group role play. These points are pretty much universally agreed upon, but there are short-comings that pop up across the board, too: It does feel like an unfinished game. It plays more like an early-access title, where the bones are in place and the skin is holding everything where it should be, but there just aren’t that many organs in the body yet. It’s missing content, and a variety of content, to be specific.

One of many beautiful islands you’ll encounter out on the high seas.

One place the game falls short is in the item system. You essentially start the game with every item you will ever use, from shovel, to concertina, to flintlock. You can spend in-game gold to purchase new skins for these items, but you can never augment them, change them mechanically in any way, or ever encounter new items to use. An upgrade system patched in for tools, weapons, or your pirate in general would go along way to making this a return-play title. As it stands you only make money in order to buy more cosmetic skins, which is not a recipe for a long life cycle. If those skins meant something–if buying a different flintlock pistol had an actual in-game effect for damage or rate of fire or accuracy–then grinding it out would feel more beneficial. I’d spend 5,000 gold for a spyglass that zoomed in farther; I’m not so inclined to pay it for an identical spyglass that just has a different color trim.

A very strong positive in the item discussion is the music aspect. Having musical instruments to play during down-times–in harmony together no less!– is absolutely fantastic. It’s my favorite innovation for any game in years. The bottom line, however, is that like many other things in the game, there just isn’t enough of it. There are only three instruments and four songs, so you will burn through the variety quickly. If I had my druthers there would be a few more instruments and a ton more songs. This isn’t just a passing thought, I’ve thought a lot about how it could be implemented in a more engaging way! First, you would start with only one instrument, and have several more that you could buy, giving you a reason to spend your hard-pillaged gold when you get back to port. New songs could be unlocked from quests, or by leveling up with a certain faction, and having an option to purchase or uncover sheet music would be interesting. Perhaps new songs could be unlocked when you buy new instruments (or new skins for your existing instruments.) THEN it would mean something. Hell, I’d grind for weeks just to unlock new songs.

Mash play on that jambox!

Interaction with other crews can be a fun and rewarding experience. I was boarded by another crew once that just wanted to make an alliance with me, and after agreeing we shared our subsequent gold rewards for the remainder of the play session. When encountering others in-game there’s this moment of “Are we going to be friends or enemies?” where you size each other up, swords drawn, apprehensive and wary. And then when the voice chat kicks in, which is directional and area based (use game chat, not party chat!) you can diplomacize your way through.

Of course, this is a game about pirates! So often times you’ll be scrapping and broadsiding and looting and killing each other. It can occasionally be frustrating when, for the third mission in a row, another crew sinks your ship or runs off with your treasure chests before you can turn them in, but that’s part of what the game is all about. Sometimes the best way to defend against pirates is to become a pirate.

The act of sailing itself feels very rewarding and almost therapeutic. Working together to navigate, keep the wind, and decide when and where to drop anchor gives a rush of excitement to each and every mission, even if its just to collect chickens. You might find yourselves at each other’s throats one moment, and reveling in your impressive synergy the next. It’s a tiny social experiment each time you set sail for a new destination.

You’ll find each crew member must fill a role. The helmsman can’t see where they’re going, so the navigator will have to bark cardinal directions and headings from the map room, while the lookout in the crows nest or up on the bow tells them how to avoid rocks and unmarked land masses and other ships, while the deck hand raises, lowers, and angles the sails for optimal speed and handling. It forces you to work together and communicate clearly, and when it doesn’t work you could be in for hilarious results. As good as it feels to get your crew working together like a well-oiled machine, it is sometimes even more entertaining to fight over directions and crash your ship into a jetty of rocks.

Rare has put a lot of their strengths into this game, which is to say creating bright, fun, cartoony visuals and lighthearted comedic fun. But don’t let that superficial take fool you: Sea Of Thieves is chock-full of some of the most amazing and shockingly beautiful visuals you’re likely to see in a video game. The rolling waves and water spray are hands down the best I’ve ever seen, and there have been a multitude of sunrises, sunsets, and storms that took my breath away. I often found myself staring into the distance, mystified, instead of steering my galleon away from the rocks that were about to kill us all.

Overall the game is just a little too friendly.  Dying, and even sinking your ship, has absolutely no penalty associated with it other than the loss of time. You don’t lose gold, you don’t lose stats, you don’t lose reputation. Just the time it takes to regenerate your ship. You don’t even have to buy a new one! Ships are free! Of course any treasure chests you had on board will sink too, but you’ll get a resupply of bananas and cannonballs and wood for free, and there are always new chests to uncover. But this no-consequences approach coupled with the fact that there are absolutely no upgrades or perks for items or sailors, makes for a “beginner friendly” feeling at all points of the game. You don’t feel rewarded for grinding, and PVP will always be the same equal experience. It’s a bit of a let down.

And then, of course, there are the huge difficulty swings. While this almost makes the last paragraph seem dubious, the game sets you up to feel comfortable and fair, with your experience being hamstringed by PVP balance, only to suddenly dump you into a fight with a Kraken on the edge of an erupting volcano where you have absolutely no chance of victory. And since you’ll never upgrade your ship or equipment, there’s no clear path for overcoming these high-difficulty obstacles. It seems greatly imbalanced for a game that has presented itself as “all about balance.”

There are a few other personal gripes I have about the way you interact with the world. For example, when you’re on an island you can’t see what the island’s name is, even if you have the map in your hand. It tells you on-screen when you approach but there isn’t any other way to check it once you do. The mission picking mechanic doesn’t work well, either. There’s some missions that use the captain’s table for a vote and others that don’t. You can’t highlight what mission you’re on. You can’t put multiple missions down to vote on. It needs to be addressed.

Pushing rowboats around needs fixed. We managed to get several of them stuck over a couple days of playing, with no way to back them up or push them off the spit. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to pivot around in place or row backwards (at least we couldn’t discover a way.)

The interface does a lot of heavy lifting, but there are some minor inconveniences.  It’s hard to switch to bananas, your only healing agent, when you’re in the middle of a fight, something you’ll most certainly have to do. Patching holes in your ship is also unintuitive, as it forces you to highlight wood planks in the item wheel specifically instead of just checking if you have any in your inventory. The game doesn’t ask you to take this extra step for loading cannonballs, so it’s a surprising and frustrating discovery when you first go to patch a hole and the UI tells you that you need wood planks, even though you clearly have five.

Item wheel overlayed on screen, which takes up to 3 button presses to switch to an item in real-time.

It would be very nice to have a little feedback for the player when you’re doing damage. You are never shown how much each weapon dishes out, and often you can’t even tell if you hit your opponent or not. It makes some fights drag and feel futile. Players like to weigh the pros and cons of different weapons, and know that when they hit they are actually doing damage.

I also encountered two major bugs while playing. The first one displayed the buttons on screen incorrectly when giving me instructions. For example it might say “Press Y To Sell Chest” but I actually had to press “X” on my controller. This happened on multiple occasions and for different interactions. Secondly, a very major glitch took place that left me unable to interact with objects at all. I couldn’t steer the ship, I couldn’t look at the map, I couldn’t fire the cannons. I was reduced to a glorified look-out for a chunk of my time while other crew members did all the interacting. It seemed like Beta build stuff that shouldn’t be occurring this far into the development cycle.

So how do you suppress those feelings of frustration and anxiety in-game? Well, there’s grog! Grog drinking is fun and immersive, and it’s one of the best “drunk-mode” sequences I’ve seen, with random stumbling and swaying visuals, accompanied by sailor hiccups and burps. But after the first two or so times you’ll probably not do it again, unless it’s to purposefully frustrate your shipmates or your streaming audience. Unlike in real life, there are no mechanical benefits to drinking grog. It’s just funny.

To counteract some of that recent negativity, let me throw down some other positive things. Clouds in the shape of things is awesome. The bullhorn affect on group chat was a fun and surprising detail. I learned Port and Starboard, Bow and Stern! I kinda learned how to sail! Honestly, this game had me looking up terminology and techniques for a real-life skill that I had previously never had an ounce of interest in. That’s pretty cool.

I don’t say this often (in fact, I don’t think I’ve EVER said it before) but Sea Of Thieves would actually benefit from following the Free-2-Play model. It’s an online multiplayer game, after all, with only cosmetic upgrades to spend your in-game currency on. Paying for it like a normal full-release game, even at a reduced price tag…just isn’t reasonable. People will spend money for in-game cosmetics, Fortnite has proven that. You can keep PVP even and fair–you don’t have to venture into that despicable Pay-2-Win category–and still make money off the product. This seems like a game that would become exponentially better the more people were playing it. A Microsoft exclusive release at $60 for an online multiplayer game…Yeah, this was a marketing problem that hopefully hasn’t sunk an otherwise entertaining and well-made game.

The final word is: It’s a terrific game, loaded with fantastic details and interesting concepts and breath-taking vistas and thoughtful interactions. Is it worth playing? Absolutely! I had a BLAST playing it. But will I keep coming back to it? Will it be a return-title that I just can’t help but play over and over again? Probably not. Not in its current state, at any rate. With more content, more depth, and more motivation to upgrade and grind it could be a tremendously addictive game, full of replay value and months of enjoyment, but for now I’ll hang up my captain’s hat and retire from sea life with the riches I’ve already acquired.

 

 

Here’s a gameplay montage of one of my play sessions with friends from my YouTube channel (yeah, go subscribe!) PG-13 for language.

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Pandemic Legacy

Super stoked to start a campaign of Pandemic Legacy!

If you haven’t played a legacy game, essentially there will be rule changes, special ability upgrades, map location changes, and many other game minutiae effects that carry over from game to game. Think of it as a “campaign” that continues each time your group pulls Pandemic out of the game closet.

We’re playing “Season 2” as the group I play with these days already played season 1 before I moved to town. I’ve played lots of Pandemic in my day, but this is my first legacy game of any kind. I’ve heard friends rave about Risk Legacy for years.

We had a blast playing, enough so that we’re planning a second game night just to devote to it.

The game plays very similar to the original, but sort of in reverse. Instead of traveling to locations to cure their viruses we make sure locations have supplies so that war and famine and disease don’t break out. It’s a new thematic approach, but it feels natural and familiar to veterans.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which is why it’s one of my favorites. It’s also HARD. That fact hasn’t changed with the Legacy version, and of the two rounds we played last night only one was a success.

Next up we get to explore more of the map, as the game presents a fog-of-war mechanic usually reserved for video games. It’s masterfully done in my opinion, with changes to characters, the game board, and even the rulebook itself completed with stickers or markers, making it a “permanent” change. Each character even has a sort of life bar, hidden behind scratch-ticket silver. You won’t know who can take the most damage until it happens, and character death is permanent.

It took me a while to get on board with the concept of a game being “one use,” but it’s so seamlessly and naturally accomplished that I quickly saw the merit of a permanent option over a recyclable one. You’ll get your money’s worth. Yes, if you want to start a new game with a new group you’ll need a new copy of the game, but it will play so uniquely that it almost doesn’t matter, even to penny-pinchers like myself.

I’ll update as the campaign moves on, but for now my initial review comes with high praise and a strong recommendation to gamers of the genre and even role players and strategy gamers in general.

Roll Charts: Weapon Properties

Shattered Empire has a deep randomized system for generating weapons and their properties for treasure parcels and shopkeepers. This system is designed for GMs to setup before play, as it involves separate rolls for type, condition, material, and bonus properties. But what about generating quickly on the fly? What about other games that don’t have a system in place?

The following may not work with every game system, but it should be easy enough to adapt. Note: This is for generating special properties, not the base weapon itself.

Roll 1d20:

1. Unskilled Craftsmanship. The damage and attack dice each receive a -1 penalty.

2. Shoddy Craftsmanship. The damage and attack dice are each reduced by one size.

3. Damaged. The damage die receives a -1 penalty.

4. Rusty. The damage die is reduced by one size.

5. Primitive Material. The attack die receives a -1 penalty.

6. Unrefined Material. The attack die is reduced by one size.

7. Average. No change to weapon stats.

8. Refined Material. The attack die is raised by one size.

9. Quality Material. The attack die receives a +1 bonus.

10. Fine. The damage die is raised by one size.

11. Superior. The damage die receives a +1 bonus.

12. Exquisite. The damage and attack dice are each raised by one size.

13. Masterwork. The damage and attack dice each receive a +1 bonus.

14. Elemental Forge. The weapon gains a 1d4 bonus die for elemental damage (fire, cold, or lightning)

15. Paralyzing. Target is paralyzed for one round whenever weapon hits.

16. Slaying. When the weapon deals more than half of remaining HP in damage the targeted creature is instantly killed.

17. Reaping. Whenever the weapon deals a death blow, the wielder’s AP or allotment of actions is reset and their turn continues.

18. Keen. The weapon’s critical threat is increased by 3.

19. Brutal. The weapon’s damage threshold is raised by 3.

20. Legendary. The weapon deals double damage.

To Explore Strange New RPGs

At one time I started working on a Star Trek RPG homebrew using the BASE12 system. I’ll probably not do anything else with it because I’m much more interested in creating my own worlds than I am in repurposing other people’s. But if you need a starting point for a Star Trek home game, here’s a Race/Class/Skills handbook and character sheet that you can use. This is literally everything I have, so you’ll have to get creative to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

Player’s Handbook

Character Sheet

Separating Simple From Easy:  Why BASE12? 

BASE12 isn’t for everybody; no game system is. The wide spectrum of playstyles dictates the vast array of systems and variants on the market, and that’s a good thing. Imagine if you had to play every game, regardless of setting, using the same game system? Would you really want to roll a d20 to see if you successfully charted a course for your starship? How could a complex figure like a secret government agent be summed up with only three stat categories?

The gaming boom of the aughts brought a new hurdle for developers. With a flood of new gamers–or return gamers that were away from the hobby for sometimes decades–RPGs in general took an approach of “Easy and Accessible.” It was important that newcomers not be deterred by overly complicated rules and structure. “Make it broad and approachable,” the developers thought.

The early twenty-teens saw many systems go a step further: into simplicity. It seemed reasonable that in our fast-paced/low-attention-span age that gamers would want to jump right in and game. Little setup, little structure. Just quick, easy, simple mechanics and let the role-playing take over from there.

And that, too, is a good thing. It’s especially good for pure role-players, and those that would rather meet and tell a collective story with friends than actually game.

But it’s not the only way.

I have always wanted a little more, and since I missed the boat on Pathfinder during my twenties I never quite found a system that let me dig in and get that math-crunch adrenaline rush that I craved. I wanted complicated.

And that’s why I made BASE12. I wanted a complicated, deep system. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to learn or slow to play; complicated can still exist beside quick and easy. It’s just that simple word that I wanted to get out of there.

So, yes, BASE12 is complicated. There are 12 Attributes for your character (compare this to 6 in D&D, or 5 in Savage Worlds.) This depth in defining your character’s attributes would allow you to create any type of character you can think of, and fit it into any genre.

Skills are tied to Attributes, so having more Attributes allows for more precision and variety in Skills.

Derived stats (Hit Points, Stamina Points, Action Points) as well as things like movement distance and initiative come from Attributes as well, giving greater control over minutiae.

Is it crunchy? For sure. It has depth enough for mathematicians, character tinkerers, and level-planners. But it’s still easy to learn, and quick to play.

Wanna try BASE12? It’s free under a Creative Commons license that even let’s you create and sell your own games designed for it.

Here’s a link: Base12 RPG System

Playtesters Wanted!

As I move into the final stage of playtesting before starting a Kickstarter campaign for Shattered Empire, I’ve decided it’s time for people to test it out and give me feedback without me sitting at the table with them.

If you are a GM that has access to a group that would like to playtest a Strategy RPG in a High Fantasy setting and are willing to give feedback on mechanics and documentation clarity, please send me a message or email me at LegendaryDropCast@gmail.com and I’ll send the penultimate draft of the game documents to you.

Looking forward to taking this thing to the next level!

(to get an idea of the crunchiness of this system, here’s what the Character Sheet looks like…)

Character Sheet