Last weekend I was at IntrigueCon 2017. You can find my write-up about last year here. This year I didn’t sign up for any games in advance, which meant I had to play whatever had open seats. Of the four sessions I attended, three were variants on old-school D&D and one was a variant of Dungeon Crawl Classics called Mutant Crawl Classics (which doesn’t seem to have its own page on the website, though you can find the books in their store).
The thing that I noticed about playing Swords and Wizardry as well as getting to play Sftabhmonton, an OSR-type game that I mentioned last year, was that the potential of becoming a hero is always there, but low level characters are utterly disposable. MCC, in contrast, is unapologetic about being a meat grinder. What I really found intriguing about these different games I tried last weekend was the relative ease that a party can form and get going, without having a dedicated session for character building or establishing a plot. The rewards for most of the characters I played, though, was death.
Later editions of D&D lay out a clearer path to rewards, which can be good because I find very few adults with adult responsibilities are up for taking years upon years to finally get a shot at something that can be taken away in an instant by a snotty DM who jumps on you the one time you forget to specify every inch of the floor you are going to check with your trusty ten foot pole. We want to feel like out time is worth more than that. The older games, though, don’t hand out a reliable payoff. It is difficult in these retro versions of D&D to keep a single character alive. The increase in risk does mean an increase in reward, as a high level OSR-type character is actually something to be marvelled at, rather than some powerful hero who has spent a few dozen sessions with DMs who hand out levels and XP like candy (I have been one of those on more than one occasion, especially when running 4e campaigns).
Whether or not it’s worth going old school instead of getting in on a D&D-brand game using the relatively newer rules really depends on what a player is looking for. A satisfying heroic romp through a complex story including a nice epilogue? Or an evolving story, that has to grow on its own because investing too much into making unique characters with well-written backstories is unreasonably risky in an old-school game? I can see the appeal of both, though I have to admit that the least satisfying end to a character is when a DM punishes me for not checking every square inch of the dungeon for fatal traps. The one time I forget to say that I check the ceiling, or the whole doorway rather than just the door, and it’s all over? Congratulations, you’re oh so clever, and that’s several hours of my life that I will never get back. If I am invested in the narrative I don’t want the game to actively interfere with my enjoyment of that narrative. It’s not to say that I want it to be free of challenge, but I want failures to mean something. Even if goals become achievable or the character dies I want to feel like there was a reason that it happened if I have spent time and effort in building up a character who is part of a story rather than just a game piece to move through a dungeon. In the longer games that I run I have to work on making a valid path that includes failure rather than softly ensuring that my players win all the time because that’s how I want the story to go.
But, for being able to sit down with no prior relationship to the DM or the other characters, and no intention of ever playing more than one session, I have to say that I really quite enjoyed the games I played and will be looking into running some for groups that aren’t going to meet weekly for several months. One such opportunity I hope to take advantage of is when I get together with my Extra Life team in November to play some games. If you have not already done so, please consider making a contribution on my page.
Alastair continues Full Steam Ahead next week with Half-Life Deathmatch: Source.
Before saying anything else about this specific game, I want to tell you how it came to be in my library. It was my fourth year at the University of Calgary, and I was in the middle of writing a project for, I think, Cold War Politics (it was either that or US Military Politics). This project was a beast to write, and after my third night in a row staying up until 3:00 AM, I opened Steam. I needed something, anything, to take my mind off of this paper.
Enter Wargame: European Escalation, a real time strategy game set during the Cold War. Players experience a variety of scenarios in which the Cold War degrades into an armed conflict, the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact facing off in the European theatre of conflict.
Given the course I was working on, and my natural interest in the history of the Cold War, especially in Germany, I thought this seemed like an interesting game. So, I made a deal with myself: once I finished the project, I would buy it and play it. I completed the paper, bought, and downloaded Wargame: European Escalation.
Three hours later I stopped playing it, not returning to it until I started writing Full Steam Ahead. Turns out writing academic papers fuelled by sleep deprivation and heavy metal music is more fun than Wargame: European Escalation.
So, I wanted to talk a bit about money last week, but being rather ill forced me to phone it in with the hype list. Money is something I always find a bit difficult to manage within games (within real life is a whole other topic). In the past two weeks I have become richer than I have ever been in EVE Online, yet have played very little. On the tabletop, I struggle with ensuring that players feel rewarded while making it so that magic daggers can’t be traded for castles and the like (an especially potent problem in 4e, where mundane items ran in the ones of gold pieces and the really cool items run into the millions).
I think part of it has to do with figuring out whether money is supposed to represent property or progress. In EVE Online, I have noted that it is a measure of property. The most profitable activity I engaged in was coming across the randomized location of a very lucrative, very difficult to clear NPC combat site (The Maze, for those familiar). I did not receive this as a reward from grinding away; it was like finding an object on the side of the road. Pure dumb luck. Now, not being a big shot myself, I was not about to risk going in there. I sold the information on the location for quick cash, which was huge compared to what I had. That location was equivalent to property, much like the old motorcycle I just sold in real life. Money for ownership of a thing, be it a tangible object or quantified access to valuable information. The precise value in currency is not always guaranteed and you can always lose the thing.
In another game I’ve been playing and talking about lately, Path of Exile, money seems to be more a measure of progress. It is not completely free from the whims of the random number generator, but I can reliably predict that I can grind long enough to get the crap items to trade for the crafting items to use on the high quality mundane items to make my super equipment of death. To get more shards/orbs/etc. I must grind, but never can I unexpectedly lose these items either. It becomes, therefore, a measure less of property than of progress in grinding my character into something more powerful than she already is.
So, when it comes to tabletop, I think it is important for the DM to be straight with the players: that family sword you went on about in your backstory… could an old naked man conceivably steal it? In a heroic fantasy that sort of crap ruins the game. But if the players are into it, then such a surprise encounter could be far more intriguing than just running through the campaign with the monster lists and treasure packets and just accumulating more stuff free of risk. Because remember, if one group always wins, one group is always subject to atrocity. And that might not be as bad as it sounds if you can successfully pull off creating cartoonishly evil villains without making it into something with unfortunate implications. Or at least if you do fall into that pit, make the most of it and challenge the party to actually think about what they’ve done to “monsters” and if that money is as clean as they think it is…
Oh and one last note about money, if you haven’t supported my Extra Life Campaign in 2017 please consider doing so.
Raising money for Extra Life. I have played for my local hospital in past years, but seeing what’s going in Puerto Rico lately, it seems like they can use all the help they can get. So please, if you have the means, put something up on that page.
Continuing to run Alastair’s great series of posts about delving the dungeon of his Steam inventory, aptly named Full Steam Ahead. The next one will be about Wargame – European Escalation.
Next week’s post is going to be about in-game money: is it something we should consider to be worthless because it (usually) can’t buy physical goods? Do we “earn” it? How does it make or break the game?
In the last blog post, I talked about how much I enjoyed the game, and then I launched into a play-by-play breakdown of my latest new game in Jade Empire. I covered what I had been doing in my various log ins, hoping to give you a sense of the depth and wonder of this game. If I fail to get that sense of awe across, it’s certainly not because the game is lacking in anyway. It’s just hard to capture what makes this game so great in short segments. I’m going to to keep playing, and I’m going to try to finish the game. However, this time, I want to write less about what I’m doing, and more about what I’m feeling.
The supporting cast for this game is utterly fantastic. I know I briefly touched on Sagacious Zu and Wild Flower in the last post. That was briefly after we met Black Whirlwind, a gigantic, violent mercenary. What he lacks in the depth of character, he makes up for with ridiculously exaggerated stories about his own fighting prowess and drunken escapades. You also meet Mad Kang, an inventor of the wondrous flyers that trace the clouds above the Jade Empire. He soon replaces your broken mosquito fighter for a beautiful prototype called the Marvelous Dragonfly. You meet Sky, a roguish scoundrel whose jokes and unabashed flirting hide a traumatic past. You meet Henpecked Hou, a former champion of the arena turned bun-maker by an overbearing wife. You meet Silk Fox, a femme-fatale who is, in truth, the disguised Princess Lian, daughter of the Emperor. She is convinced that her father is unaware, or is being manipulated by his advisors, but she cannot imagine his guilt. You meet Zin Bu, the Magical Abacus, a member of the Celestial Bureaucracy (A fictionalized version of China’s traditional pantheon) who is charged with tabulating all the damage the player and their party caused during the game.
Bioware’s games, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age frequently use this play style. One main player character, supported by an ever growing group of followers, supporters, and compatriots. Jade Empire is no different in this respect, but it’s hard to remember the last time I was so engaged in the stories of the supporting NPCs. Even minor quest givers have interesting stories, breathing life and complexity into the Jade Empire. The game does an amazing job of, in one moment, making feel as though I am the most important person in the world, that the whim of destiny has left the fate of the Empire on my shoulders. In another moment, I am reminded that I am but one person in a massive world.
Sonder is a term which describes the moment of realization that everyone around you lives a life as complex and intricate as yours. I’m sure that some of this blog’s readers have experienced sonder, or had moments approaching sonder. It is a profound experience, at once connecting you to the world and people around you, and simultaneously defining the vast chasms of understanding and empathy between us.
Never, in years of gaming, has a game been the source of sonder for me, until Jade Empire.
The game controls very well. My father is a golf enthusiast, and when asked to identify what he likes about golf, he usually talks about the interplay between rules and technique. For example, everyone knows, theoretically, how to win golf: complete the course with the fewest possible shots. However, it requires immense skill to actually place the golf ball, a small, light, easily misplaced sphere, hundreds of yards away, using nothing but an over-glorified stick. The combat in this game feels the same way: You know you have to beat an enemy into submission, but can you use you the skills available to you to make it happen?
Jade Empire provides a variety of different fighting styles, from hard hitting martial styles, to the valuable supporting styles, to powerful magical projectile styles, to flashy but unbalanced weapon styles. There are also the impressive transformation styles, which allow a player to become a powerful demon, or a golem, or even a ghost. However these magical forms come at a cost. You cannot heal while you are transformed, the force of the transformation constantly drains magical power, and your ability to dodge is greatly limited. New styles are constantly unlocked and discovered throughout the game. Furthermore, these fighting styles are augmented by magical gems and passive techniques scattered throughout the game.
If done improperly, this massive amount of skills could be overwhelming. However, you collect these skills as the game progresses, meaning that while there’s always something new to try, you will usually have some reliable techniques to fall back on. There are some games that give you enough skills to do exactly what you want, whenever you want.; Graham wrote about this a few weeks back. There are some other games which give you a multitude of options, but only a few strict paths actually give you victory.
Jade Empire sits perfectly in the sweet spot for me. While I tended to fall back on a combination of Legendary Strike and Spirit Thief, I would occasionally supplement it with the petrifying effects of the Stone Immortal, leaving the Horse Demon transformation style for only the toughest enemies. This isn’t to say that the versatility of the game made combat easy; combat was brutal, punishing mistakes and frequently forcing me to fall back to my latest quicksave. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The story is also wonderful. I’m torn between wanting to give you the blow by blow of everything that happened, and preserving the story for those of you who wish to experience it yourselves. Suffice to say, there were many moments that made me laugh, a few that made me feel triumphant, and at least a few surprises that made me feel like an idiot for not seeing through them sooner.
As you play throughout the game, you become familiar with the game’s central moral philosophy. The way of the Open Palm and the Way of the Closed Fist. Morality systems are (say it with me now) nothing revolutionary. However, most games present rather obvious moral choices such as, “donate money to orphanage, but only after providing loving homes for every orphan” or “Burn the orphanage down, after donating money to the election campaign of an obvious villain.”
Open Palm and Closed fist are more nuanced than the standard good/evil morality systems. Open Palm is a way of charity and benevolence, of walking in accordance with one’s place in the grand scheme of things. However, it is easily exploited. Furthermore, it strictly forces people to accept their lot in life, however miserable it may be. Closed Fist, conversely, is a path of attaining one’s own power. Frequently it is greedy, violent, and chaotic. However, it occasionally does a better job of promoting one’s individual rights, a encourages its practitioners to help others realize their own strength. Using even these simplified definitions, it’s easy to see how not every Open Palm decision is morally good, and not every Closed Fist option is morally evil.
Without going to much into the plot, I will describe one scenario in the game. A vile and corrupt magistrate, Judge Fang, stands in your way. However, he also stands up to the Jade Empire’s vicious secret police, the Lotus Assassins. Removing him from power benefits you, but not necessarily the people of his jurisdiction. One can either kill him, or professionally embarrass him. In addition to this, the player becomes acquainted with Gentle Breezes, Judge Fang’s courtesan. Judge Fang treats her violently, and frequently takes out his frustrations on her. Although my playthrough was almost exclusively Open Palm, Gentle Breezes and I lured Fang to a secluded spot where I killed him and his bodyguards. The game considered this a Closed Fist option, but I couldn’t allow myself to. I had a drama teacher who once said the best drama comes from multiple right decisions being in conflict with one another; the converse is also true.
I really don’t know what more there is to say. This game was a wonderful experience, and I’m glad I finally, after nearly 24 hours of play, got to finish it. I know I frequently use the screenshots to showcase something funny about the game, or insert some levity into these posts, but this time I just wanted to capture some of the beauty of the game. These screens might lose some of their significance being removed from the context of the story, but I hope you’ve found them visually appealing.
I feel good finishing this one, the same way I feel after reading an especially good book or walking out of the cinema after great movie, However, as Chai Ka says, “Without endings, there cannot be beginnings.” Chai Ka was right in the game, and his words hold true outside the game as well. Thanks Jade Empire. It’s been spectacular.
If you’ve been following this blog for some time then you will expect that when the gaming world and social issues intersect that I am likely to have an opinion on it. But I don’t think I want to spend too much time rehashing why it’s bad to use racial slurs when you are a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers. What I am interested in is how those in positions of authority respond to incidents like this. Something else happened in the gaming world this week, and that’s the collapse of CO2. No, sorry, there hasn’t been a breakthrough in carbon dioxide emission reductions. CO2 in EvE Online stands for Circle of Two, which had been a big alliance in the game for many years. The short version of this story is that a player in the alliance with very high level access to their resources handed over the castle keys to an enemy alliance because he became convinced that the supreme leader has been running the alliance into the ground. Much drama ensues after this betrayal. This is classic EVE as I have come to understand it. Upon learning of the betrayal, gigX (the former CO2 leader) logs on and makes a death threat against The Judge (the betrayer). He is immediately banned. Kotaku has the most in-depth story I’ve read on this so far. What does this have in common with PewDiePie? In both cases, a man went way too far with his words. The difference is that one is banned, and the other is still on his platform.
One could say that CCP is promoting in-game subterfuge and political intrigue by not making the subterfuge and betrayal against the rules. They even include “being the villain” in official advertisements about what one can do in the game. However, when gigX crossed the line into making real-life threats (a big no-no in EvE’s EULA) they didn’t hesitate to ban him. There was no debate over whether words were just words or anything like that. A line was drawn, he crossed it, and he was banned for life without consideration of how much money he had tied up in the game. This is a good example of how speech that isn’t necessarily illegal (local police might not find the threat credible enough to get a warrant) still leads to unfortunate consequences for those who violate community standards.
PewDiePie, meanwhile, still has his popular YouTube channel despite establishing a repeated pattern of behaviour which, while it may not be illegal, is rightly seen as morally reprehensible by decent people. It’s upsetting but certainly not surprising to see some of the usual canards about words being “just words” and all that. First, let’s keep in mind that defences that boil down to “this is not illegal” are usually very poor for establishing the acceptability rather than the legality of the conduct. I don’t think it would be right to bring the full force of the state down on PewDiePie because he dropped an n-bomb on the internet. But that’s not the only alternative to considering what he did to be acceptable. There are individual actions that one can take: I won’t be watching any of his videos and I will encourage others to abandon him as a matter of principle. I will allow YouTube’s response to colour my view of their platform. But, as a society, we need to be denying an audience to these kinds of people. If we fail to do this, then we leave too much room for something akin to a missing stair. The term is usually used in the context of sexual assault/harassment, but I think we could also apply it other kinds of psychological abuse, such as making your fellow online game players wonder if they are actually in real life danger (which has happened over MMO games more than once in the past decade so it’s certainly possible though not very common). It is certainly the case that at my D&D table it would be a terrible failure on the part of our group if a player threatened another player in an explicitly real-life context and we just worked around it rather than addressed it. Whether it was my house and my campaign or one I was just playing in, I would demand that person’s removal. In the case of the Judgement Day scandal, I don’t think The Judge is genuinely scared of gigX. But in this corner of the gaming community, there is a danger that “oh, that’s just how he is” becomes a way to permit behaviour that really ought to be unacceptable.
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.” – Cliff Pervocracy
The troubling aspect of the commentary that objects to the gigX ban is that he should be given consideration because, like PewDiePie, he is a content creator and many people like him. So, the reasoning goes, deny him his platform and droves of people will quit in disgust and ruin something for many more people. I think this is a terrible line of reasoning because it seeks to excuse something that ought not to be acceptable simply on the grounds that the person is popular. If anything, people in these positions of power should be held to a higher standard because they are the ones with more power to set norms in the community. It’s not that I believe that YouTube racists with less than 100 views or the nobodies threatening CODE. agents shouldn’t also be banned, but banning those guys doesn’t send as clear a message when they have no power in the community. Rules and codes of conduct only hold meaning if the popular and powerful are expected to maintain at least the same standards of compliance as the people whose objections can more easily be ignored. If the continuation of the game really does depend on the acceptance of this kind of behaviour, maybe it’s better off not being played at all.
One thing I would like to be very clear about is that denial of audience is not the same as outrage. We don’t need anti-gigX or anti-PewDiePie rage posts; those would be counter-productive. Anyone who has watched Llamas With Hats by FilmCow will see that shouting at Carl’s heinous behaviour not only fails to deter him, but encourages it because it shows him that he still has an audience. Towards the end of part four, Carl calls us out on this: how can anyone be surprised at anything he does, given his history and the fact that despite it all, Paul is still there to see it and shout about it.
The series takes a turn after part 4, the originally intended ending, because somehow FilmCow’s audience kept demanding more. Although he continued to achieve greater and greater heights of depravity, it was all meaningless to Carl because he lacked his audience. He was not defeated by a powerful opposing force or by outrage and denunciation. It all fell apart when Paul decided to pack his bags and leave. That is why I support banning these objectionable people from their respective platforms: while we still let them make us outraged without denying them their audience, they keep on going. While we still continue to live with the guy who is hungry for hands, we are permitting him to continue.
What you permit, you promote. YouTube might do well to take some cues from CCP in this regard.
Jade Empire and I go way, way back. In 2005, I read an article in the Edmonton Journal about a game inspired by Kung Fu and Chinese mythology. The article talked about the fact that it was made by a game studio in Edmonton, Bioware. The article talked about the basics of the story. Most importantly, for me at least, it talked about how the mechanics of the game made the player feel. I remember this article vividly, because it was the first time I had ever seen a traditional newspaper write an article about video games as anything other than a product to be reviewed or a piece of of dangerous escapism. I remember thinking that not only did the game itself sound cool, the way the Journal wrote about it made me think about games in a way I had never thought about them before. I still think about that article when writing my own pieces on video games to this day.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually played Jade Empire. By this point, I had played some of Bioware’s more widely known games (Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), and I wanted to see what else they had available on Steam. I was so excited when I found out Jade Empire was on Steam. I downloaded it, and it didn’t work. However, unlike some of the games I’ve already talked about in this series, Jade Empire never made it to the “Doesn’t Work” folder; I wanted to play this game so badly that I spent the next several hours downloading patches and altering file pathways so I could play this game. Finally, I got it to work, and it was every bit as good as I expected. Sure, the control scheme was a product of the mid 2000’s. Of course, the graphics were dated. Sure, the voice acting isn’t especially great (despite a fantastic minor villain played by Edmonton’s own Nathan Fillion). I didn’t care. I absolutely adore this game. It represents everything I love about Kung Fu, about Bioware, and about games in general.
I met up with most of my regular tabletop group last night. It’s been a little while since we’ve played. We didn’t play our main game last night because it wasn’t until after dinner and social time that we realized that all the notebooks and character sheets were at someone else’s house. So we pulled out the playing cards and had a different sort of games night before getting on to discussing the current World of Darkness campaign as well as the next one coming up. It was exciting to talk about the new campaign, the new characters, the returning characters, the setting. Right up until the storyteller said something that troubled me. “I guess I am going to have to hurry up and end this campaign if you are so excited to start this next one.”
The statement troubled me because I have been in that exact same position. I know what it’s like and I want to avoid making people who are running the current campaign feel like the excitement is because what they’re doing is not good enough. At the same time, the friend who wants to start the next campaign is also a very good DM/Storyteller and I legitimately want to support that endeavour. I want for my friends the same thing I want for myself: to be recognized as a talented world-building creator of fun and engaging content for interactive gameplay. That’s the game-atop-the-game I want to play, where the winning condition for me is that people get excited for when it’s my turn and tell stories of their adventures long after they have been played out. What I want to avoid is making that strictly competitive; I would like for my friends to win just as much as I do.
So, my advice: be explicit in showing your appreciation for the person running the game you’re playing. Make an effort to avoid making them feel like they’re being pushed out of the storyteller’s chair. Then, remember how hard it was to achieve that balance when it’s your turn to run the campaign and you’ve got a party excited for the next one. Enjoy the fantasy world you’ve created while the players are still invested in it but be prepared to yield. Nothing ever lasts forever.
Blizzard’s Diablo series offered us a certain kind of gaming experience. In many heroic adventures the player-characters are often supposed to overcome large numbers of enemies. Diablo pitted the player against endless hordes of enemies. It wasn’t much for the roleplayer who liked to make decisions, or the players who love stories and dialogue. It wasn’t for the puzzle enthusiasts. It was all about people who like random numbers and mowing down hordes of zombies, or killer apes, or zombie killer apes, or whatever the local monsters are like. It was a hack-and-slash experience.
So a few weeks ago, I heard about a game called Path of Exile from one of my corporation mates in EVE. I was told it was basically Diablo, but free to play (the good kind of free to play, with micro transactions that are cosmetic rather than pay-to-win). So I decided to give it a shot, and quickly got hooked on that old familiar gameplay of cutting down monsters and collecting loot. But I quickly found out what the difference is between the old Diablo I enjoyed so much and the new Path of Exile: it was prepared to give me exactly what I want. Jewels, rather than being consumed, could pop in and out of sockets where in Diablo once you affix one of these bonus-granting adornments, it’s permanent. Every item could be traded for every other item, and each randomly generated magic item could be re-rolled. This meant that with enough time and determination, one could assemble a hero’s kit that is almost exactly to the player’s liking whereas the Diablo player would need not only time and effort but also luck to ensure that the rare items they find are the ones they want.
All of the skills gained from level up were passive. I find that in any game when I have the choice between passive and active skills I always tend towards picking the passive skills that synergize with each other because I have a fear of being empty. I am, as a rule, willing to trade flashy displays of power for being able to do something all day long. That is how I build characters whenever possible, but PoE is giving it to me in vast quantities. Behold the skill tree:
Yep, PoE is the game EVE Online players play when they decide the EVE skill tree is not vast enough. All passive, all can be made to synergize with the active skills I already have. I don’t think I have ever seen my mana globe deplete any more than a tiny tick. I am at a relatively low level still, yet I seem to have an unfettered ability to make everything the way I wish it to be. It seems like I am being given everything I want, but somehow it feels like it’s almost too much choice and not enough challenge. Unless I am just looking for something mindless to do, I can’t help but feel like this game doesn’t have a risk/reward balance that makes it great as a game. It’s more like an interactive Dawn of the Dead. Which, if that is what you are looking for, great, but I feel like the best games I have played are capable of saying “no” to my desires every once in a while. But, if I have hardly thirty minutes to play something, I am more likely to go for some over-the-top zombie mowing than I am looking for fleets, taking just one more turn in a game of Civilization, or getting on to planning the tabletop adventures I wish I was running. But, all in good time. I hope for this fall to be good to me in terms of having more tabletop to write about.