I’m going to oversimplify things a little here, so please bear with me. No matter what mechanics, genre, themes, or budget a game has, their interaction with the player can be broken down to a cycle of three steps: choice, action, result.
Lots of games pride themselves on the freedom of choice they give to the players,. Similarly, in many games, the mechanics are multi-faceted, intricate machines which are prepared to account for a dizzying array of player actions. Not every game succeeds in showing how player choices matter, but some do an excellent job of showing how a player’s choices and actions affect the world of the game.
This is a drastic oversimplification of things, and I’m sure many of my friends with enthusiasm for game design and theory would say as much, but for today’s episode, oversimplification is appropriate; I’d argue oversimplification is what Divekick is all about.
Social time. Escapism. Fun. When I play recreational games it’s usually in the hope that those aspects of the activity will lead to reduced stress. But this weekend, I had a hard time focusing on the game on our regular tabletop night and had to say no to a bonus game run by this blog’s favourite guest author.
I wasn’t out at work or sleeping in bed or something so obviously excusable like that. I ended up going out on a fleet to help my online space guild stake a claim on more imaginary solar systems. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about it, but it’s hard not to think that there must be something wrong with my priorities when I have time for them and not for my friends.
The reason I say I shouldn’t feel bad about it is because I know better. The Five Geek Social Fallacies were posted in 2003 and remain an important reference for when I might be falling for one or more. I know it’s not necessarily sound scientific psychology, but I have adopted those five fallacies as guidelines for what kind of negative thinking to avoid. Today it’s three and five that I have to read and reread. It’s OK to do something that requires less mental energy than more tabletop RPG adventures with friends. It’s OK not to grab every available tabletop night to the exclusion of space friends. I know these things at an intellectual level, but it’s still a challenge to feel it sometimes.
Every now and then, this list of randomly generated games throws me a bone. A few weeks ago, I got to play one of my absolute favourite games (and listening to the response, a favourite of some of our readers as well).
It may interest you to know that the original Mass Effect was not appealing to me the first time I played it. The first time I played Mass Effect was on a friend’s Xbox 360, and I found the controls to be unintuitive and imprecise, making even the game’s initial sections a bit of a slog for me. It wasn’t until I played the sequel years later (also on my friend’s Xbox 360) that I really got interested in the series. It’s a little backwards, but Mass Effect 2 is that game that got me interested in Mass Effect.
What makes something funny? Most people can agree on a definition of comedy just vague enough to be nearly pointless. Some definitions acknowledge subjectivity, and define comedy by its intentions as opposed to specific content. In short, comedy is intended to be funny. However, most definitions, while striving for accuracy as to what is funny, fail utterly in describing how something is funny. Furthermore, what one, or even most people may find funny can be unamusing, or offensive or hurtful to some. Comedy in a social context requires a careful balancing and understanding of others opinions and feelings.
In a way, comedy as entertainment should be easier. After all, it stands to reason that the audience of a comedy movie or show comes with a expectation and the desire to be entertained. Yet even this can come up short. At a live show, one can’t possibly gauge the individual preferences of an entire theatre of people. At a movie, jokes that aren’t working can’t be rewritten or altered to suit the audience’s tastes.
This being the case, I do not envy The Behemoth, the studio behind BattleBlock Theater. Good comedy is hard to pull off in any medium, especially an interactive one like video games.
This weekend (Friday evening May 4, 2018 to Saturday night on May 5) was the first spring iteration of Edmonton’s IntrigueCon. I had a great time playing some 5e D&D (and running it for the first time) and playing a flavour of World of Darkness that I hadn’t tried before. As much fun as those sessions were, I have to say that the most interesting game to talk about wouldn’t be any of those. It would be the one that involved no dice rolling and drawing a map on the paper table covers.
The Quiet Year is a game that uses nothing but pencils, paper, a few six-sided dice, and a standard deck of playing cards in addition to the rule booklet. There were no grand maps of the city of Waterdeep at this table nor any carefully arranged dungeon maps. Although there are a few rules to pull the game along to its conclusion in an orderly fashion, the rules have very little impact on the success or failure of the fictional civilisation being rebuilt.
This is how it works: a society has suffered a catastrophic conflict with “the Jackals” and have four seasons to rebuild until the “Frost Shepherds” arrive to mark the end of the game. What the Jackals are (literal canines, gang members, aliens) is not specified, nor is the precise cause of the fall, nor what the Frost Shepherds are. This means that this game can be played out as a science fiction adventure on an alien world, as a medieval high fantasy, or anything else a person might come up with. In our case, we went with a fairly plain post-apocalypse theme.
On each turn, the players draw a card and play out the corresponding events from the booklet. This may direct players to choose what shortages or abundances of resources there are, or do something specific with the map. There is often an OR choice on these events and there is nothing regulating how many times the players can choose the good (or at least less-bad) event over the worse one. After playing the card, the player may make their own choice of starting a discussion, adding something to the map, or beginning a project of their choice. Again, there is nothing stopping the players from making oh-so-convenient resources readily available, that fill the gaps in resources, and that are close to an idea plot of land to build a village on. Players may also start a crisis for the community with forest fires and poisoned rivers. It is entirely up to the players at the table whether this is a legend of prosperous pioneers or a tragic tale of woe and misery in the twilight of human civilization.
As the game progresses, players add projects to the map and use the dice as counters: projects may take up to six weeks (each turn is one week), and this timeline is set entirely at the discretion of the player placing it on the map. The only limiting factor is that there are a set number of project dice to be deployed at any given time, so players are occasionally compelled to choose between starting a community discussion or adding a new feature to the map instead if there are too many projects active.
The whole experience was a lot different that the tabletop games with wargame ancestors. This was as much of a collaborative storytelling experience it could be while still being a game rather than a writers’ circle. Looking back on how much stress I was experiencing in trying to get my dungeon set up and getting players set up with suitable characters for D&D, I really see the value in a game like this where there is no preparation required and no storyteller/GM/DM to have expectations of. In being so minimal in its restrictions on players it really allows something interesting to develop at the game table. As excited as I am to run another 5e scenario at IntigueCon’s main event in October, this is the game I am going to remember for being something different.
I met up with a friend of mine the other night; the friend who suggested to me that if I was going to write about any MMO I should give EVE Online a whirl rather than WoW, etc. He was shocked to find out that I was still playing it and profusely apologized to me. I told him that it was OK. There have certainly been times where I considered moving on for good. The battle of 9-4RP2 is one of those (that’s the overhyped “million dollar battle” that people were excited about in late January). I came home from work that evening knowing that something big was going down, started up the game and didn’t stop for about five hours. My wife was worried about me and wanted to know if I was okay. I assured her that this was an exceptional event that would not be happening again. I would make sure of it: if it ever looks like a five-hour TIDI-fest is going to ensue then I am going to feel the need to attend to real life and log out. The lack of fun and monstrous waste of time was exactly what I am not looking at in a game.
It was not long after that when my alliance departed the so-called north (the battle mentioned about happened in Cloud Ring, while we lived mainly in Branch as a part of the Guardians of the Galaxy coalition) to move to The Spire. There we were to join the Drone Control Unit (DCU), a subset of the mighty Drone Region Federation (DRF). That did not work out so well. By the time we arrived they were already starting to break under siege. As a result, a lot of the fleets were also not a lot of fun. We would receive pings with all kinds of superlatives related to how important it was to form a fleet as large as possible. Some of these would be hours of waiting for nothing. It wasn’t TIDI, but it was grueling. And it showed in our enthusiasm. I recall one particular evening I joined a fleet with about two and a half hours before I planned to leave to attend a social event. It took an hour to form up, then we did lots of flying through gates, then docked up and waited some more. Eventually it was time to leave, and so I dropped fleet early. I did not regret it, as I later found out that they waited at least another hour before walking into a trap. Still not the kind of stuff that makes a person be interested in playing the game.
Due to widespread dissatisfaction with how things were going, my alliance announced that we were leaving and moving even further south (a good move considering the DCU imploded very shortly after this was announced). We departed towards Detorid/Immensea/Tenerifis. If you look at Sov Maps the south appears to be a dog’s breakfast of little territories quite unlike the empires of the Imperium/Goons in Delve or GOTG and PL in the north though the ascension of the Winter Coalition has made it a little less fractured at the coalition level (in EVE the groups of players from smallest to largest are corporation, alliance, coalition). We are no longer under the protection of a powerful coalition. We are on our own now. And yet I enjoy this game more than ever. Any day of the week has us going out and meeting up with some smaller groups for some pew-pew spaceship combat. Everyone so far has been a good sport. We win some, we lose some, and it’s actually fun. I don’t miss the security of the north or the unfulfilled promises of empire in the east. Small gang warfare is something I can enjoy as time permits. When it comes to screen-based distractions, that’s everything I could ask for. I am glad that things are going south for me in this game. No need to apologize for that.
Sometimes I like games with big possibilities and boundaries that are sometimes hard to see. That’s why I have spent more time in EVE Online than I ever thought I could (more on that next week). But there are other times where I am in the right mindset for some interactive escapism but those big games just aren’t as appealing as I would expect. For example, last week while out on a roam in EVE online somebody forgot to refuel the clone bay where I would normally respawn after getting blown up. Faced with 45 minutes (or more) of taking the long way home, I just could not bring myself to spend that much time on just getting back to where I need to be. That’s when I decided to swap the big game for something a lot simpler, at least until things could get straightened out.
The Swapper is a simple game in a wonderfully dark science fiction setting. It is, fundamentally, a 2D puzzle game built around one neat mechanic: the player can deploy clones and “swap” to any of them provided their beam is not blocked. The player can only control one body at a time, but all of them move in unison. Once I got the display and control settings to a usable point (needed to be running in compatibility mode in order for the mouse to move) I found myself quickly immersed in both the story and the puzzles along the way.
It is a strictly single player game, and apart from the clone/swap mechanic it revolves around, nothing in the gameplay itself really screams write a big thinkpiece blog post about this. But maybe that’s exactly why it really hit the spot when I picked it up: I did not have to depend on other players to do things. I did not have to spend more than five minutes learning how to play the game. It was an easy alternative path to the escape from reality that normally comes from pretending to be in space. I highly recommend it to the Portal crowd: challenging yet not impossible puzzles, good narrative, and no shooting to kill (assuming that we don’t count the clone bodies consumed to break falls). I do look forward to getting back to some of the “bigger” games, but am certainly glad I gave this one a try.
Alastair is taking a break for a few weeks, but rest assured that he will be resuming the Full Steam Ahead series when time allows. Next week I will be providing an update on how things are going for me in New Eden, and the following week I will be playing and DMing some D&D at IntrigueCon’s Spring Mini Con.
Fifteen men and one woman have left this world too soon. Local communities and national organizations alike have been showing up to support their families and others who are feeling the loss at a very personal level. The event is one of the saddest things I have heard in the news recently, while the response is one of the most heart-warming. It’s nice to know that we are a society that shares empathy and shows support in dark times.
Unfortunately, not everyone is showing up in the spirit of empathy. An online harassment campaign has started against Nora Loreto, a freelance journalist who simply asked a question about discrepancies in how we as a society respond to tragedies. It was a valid point that didn’t necessarily have to be made at the time the tweet was posted. However, the explosive maliciousness that immediately followed suggests to me that she said something that needed to be said. Jumping so quickly at the chance to destroy an opponent with a torrent of death threats and verbal abuse is not something that decent and respectful people do. It’s what angry and defensive people do. If our outpouring of support was not as selective as it is then there would be no such rage.
We are not only selective in our empathy, but also in how we respond to a social media faux-pas. I know this because I am every bit as guilty as Loreto is of being slightly ill-timed in my tweeting. I’m being dragged on Stalinist Twitter right now for mentioning that it’s a worthless endeavour to try to compare genocides to one another as they are all the worst. I would stand by that statement on any other day, but I should not have brought up the Holodomor in the context of a post about Yom HaShoah. While it might not have been the worst possible example of trivializing whataboutism, it was still inappropriate. It was a mistake for me to let my opinionated self go unrestrained by my wiser and more prudent self. I should not have said anything, but I did. I posted a tweet that was ill-advised — as a white man who was challenging the prejudices of the far left (or far right to the extent that some of those may be their sock puppets). Sure, they said my opinion doesn’t count. Big deal. What are the chances that this incident will cause right-wing politicians to pluck me out of obscurity for Two Minutes Hate? How likely is it that I am going to receive a barrage of death threats? Harassing phone calls? Attempts to destroy my career? Practically zero chance of any of that. These things are happening to a white woman who challenged the biases within her own society, but are unlikely to happen to me. The fact that we both did the same thing and only she gets mobbed shows that our societal outrage is selective.
So, do I think Loreto would have been wise to hold onto that opinion for a few weeks? Yes. Just as I would have been wiser not to take the bait on my Twitter news feed. But here is the thing: nobody honours the memory of the deceased and injured by engaging in online harassment. Nobody honours the victims of the worst crimes against humanity by denying and justifying other cases. None of these are a zero-sum game when it comes to empathy. We may be limited in our ability to provide dollars to everyone we would like to, but we are not so limited in care and compassion unless we choose to be. And those choices will reflect the kind of people we are, so I hope that we choose wisely by showing kindness and empathy to all sorts of people who are grieving a loss and also to people who make mistakes on Twitter.
There are many kinds of people in any given world. Some are eager to grab the spotlight, while others prefer to mind their own business. Many of the tabletop RPG characters I play tend somewhat towards the latter. I admit that resisting a call to adventure doesn’t make it easy for a DM trying to do her best to get a character into the adventure, but I don’t feel like everyone needs to be desperate to pursue every pickpocket or take up the offer of every huckster that crosses their path just because that’s where the plot hooks are. Some characters have a little bit more Bilbo Baggins in them and need a reason to go if they’re not taken by force into the adventure. The rules of improv tell us to say “yes” to things, but I think sometimes a little bit of pushback from a player who cannot figure out an in-character reason to leave their normal life is not necessarily detrimental. That is, if you want to have characters that aren’t aggressively extroverted busybodies looking to get in the centre of whatever might be happening.
So, what can we do on the fly if a player character owns a bar but decides to let the brooding man in the corner enjoy his drink in privacy and would like nothing more than to continue operating the establishment?
The hooded figure could use coercive force to remove the bartender from his daily business. This could be physical but doesn’t have to be. Being threatened by a powerful guild that can shut the character’s normal activities down can shake them out of their desire to continue doing what they normally do. The character wasn’t out to get into an adventure, but ends up there due to a situation beyond his control.
Take something important from the character. A paltry amount of money isn’t good enough. If it is money or assets then it has to threaten the livelihood of the character to force them into action. If my character’s business relies on a specific set of tools, then having those stolen is a lot more important than his wallet. Or perhaps it is something with sentimental value. Whatever the case may be, a character can be motivated to go on an adventure if it’s too urgent and important to rely on filing a report with the town guard.
Threaten something important to the character. It does not have to be a coercive and malicious threat. But if the character’s family lives nearby and a plague of the undead is on the rise then she may feel more compelled to join an adventuring party than if it was just a chance encounter with some NPC who spends his time approaching strangers in taverns with job offers. Defend a country, defend a loved one, defend a philosophical ideal. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s more important than going to work the next day.
Tease the character with the offer of a solution to a problem. Perhaps the character or a loved one is sick or in need of significant assistance in some way. He may be motivated to take a hiatus from running his business if selling mead isn’t bringing in enough money, or if all the gold in the world can’t fix a problem it may be an offer of specialized expert assistance. There is a need that cannot be met by continuing to keep ale flowing once the local porters are done work for the day.
These don’t have to be elaborately crafted storylines in order to work. They just need to give a player a plausible reason to say “yes” to the adventure for reasons other than it being necessary to advance the plot. The player can make it easier by offering up some basic detail about the character’s life that would work well with an improvised hook. As the DM I may be really proud of my mysterious stranger NPC, but I can’t count on the players being interested enough in her to drop everything and follow along. If that stranger can do one of those four things then a reluctant hero may decide that it’s time to close up shop and go defeat an adversary. I may even have to abandon that mysterious stranger angle for something else. It’s a bit more work to do it that way, but I think it’s well worth trying to avoid but thou must situations.
Today’s game is the first brought to you by Steam-Powered Hope! Plenty of thanks to Charles, who decided he wanted to see an episode about Kerbal Space Program (previously scheduled for game #101) right now, and made a donation to the Calgary Distress Centre. If you want to see a specific game on Full Steam Ahead, ask me for details!
Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours
One of the appealing things about many games is the way they can show me different experiences. For a little while, being a greengrocer with a penchant for games slides on to the backburner, and I can experience something very different. We’ve already seen, in earlier posts, games that put me in the shoes of an undercover policeman, and kung fu practitioner, a contract mercenary, and many others.
In most games, the designers are interested in making these experiences easier than they would be in real life. By improving controls, or providing easy to read visual cues, or perhaps including a comprehensive, easy to understand tutorial, game designers put a lot of work into making these experiences easier to jump into, our more fun to play.
Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s not that the designers didn’t care, it’s just that they cared more about providing an accurate rocket science simulator. The good news is that they succeeded. The bad news is that rocket science is very, very hard.