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Month: May 2017

Full Steam Ahead: Total War – Shogun 2

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 19 Hours

My first introduction to the Total War series was Medieval 2, purchased during a summer in Calgary where my only activities were training for speed-skating, attending an optional religious studies course at university, and playing video games. The game’s blend of large-scale turn-based strategy (fulfilling diplomatic duties, strengthening my monarchical line, angering the pope) and intense bursts of high detail real-time strategy (flanking maneuvres, ambushes from the forest, angering the pope) left an impression on me that few game series have since matched. I’ve often heard people refer to the one-more-turn effect of some games like the Civilization series, or XCOM. Total War is the series that introduced me to this phenomenon. I guess I’m not terribly surprised that Total War – Shogun 2 is in my library.

I can’t remember why or when I purchased this game. Given how many hours I spent perfecting the Holy Roman Empire, being betrayed by the Franks, or attempting to keep Iberia from falling into the hands of Moors, I am surprised I didn’t log more time in this game before Full Steam Ahead. I’m especially surprised when I consider my interest in the Sengoku Jidai (warring states period) of Japan’s history. Why’d I stop playing? What have I learned from years of absence? Will these question actually be answered, or are they purely rhetorical? Oh well, this train-wreck has to start rolling somewhere.

Please don’t betray me.

Full Steam Ahead – Introduction

We used to play games we never pay for. Now we pay for games we never play. This is how Steam has changed PC gaming.

I have, at last count, 131 games in my Steam library. This represents nearly a decade of money spent on things I cannot physically hold and hundreds of hours logged in worlds that do not exist outside of virtual space. I’ve often heard friends talk of their to-read or to-watch lists. Those of us who have Steam sometimes face the issue of an ever-increasing to-play list. Like the impulse CD bought years ago at a gas station, or the book from an old rummage sale, heading unloved from one person’s shelf to mine, my Steam library is filled with games I don’t play. In fact, there are some games I purchased, or received as a gift, and have never played; there are some I never even bothered to download.

In and of itself, that’s a fairly depressing statement. Games represent the artistic and technical collaborations of large groups of people, sometimes hundreds of people, but they have become backlog on my computer. It is, to be fair,  the right of every customer to choose what they do with something once it has been purchased, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed with myself. I do not like to be disappointed with myself. To that end, I’m going to be changing the way I play games on Steam for a bit:

  • As of May 1, 2017, I am buying no new games on Steam, except possibly as gifts for other people.
  • I have taken the 131 games in my library and randomized them with
  • I will play them in the order presented on that randomized list, writing down my observations and thoughts as I go.
  • Once the list has been completed, I can continue to use Steam normally, if I choose to do so.

This is less of an exercise in reviewing old games and more and examination of myself and the feelings these games generate within me.This series of posts allows me to explore the depths of my backlog, discovering, or rediscovering, games I love, games I once loved, games I played, but soon discarded, and games I can’t even recall. If it helps, imagine me dressed like Indiana Jones, spelunking in some long-forgotten temple that looks like the Steam library interface (okay, even if you don’t think of me that way, I’m going to think of me that way)

If people want, I’ll post the list of games so they can know what to expect. Also, before I go any further, I have to express my gratitude; a great big thank you to Almost Infinite for hosting these posts, and to the almost infinitely pleasant and thoughtful Graham MacFarlane for being interested in this project.

Here’s hoping some of you find this interesting as well. So, without any further delay, Full Steam Ahead!

The High Cost of A Free Action

A few weeks ago I was explaining the concept of The McLauglin Group to someone who was not familiar. At its best, it was a roundtable discussion where several points of view were heard. At its worst, it was five pundits incoherently shouting over each other on television. It has always reminded me of how conversations about current events went in my family growing up, but now that I think about it, the spectacle of five well-known characters talking in five different directions over top of each other all at once reminds me of what happens when dialog scenes in D&D or WoD break down. Of course, in some tabletop games such as the session of Great Ork Gods that I played last night, dialog can look a little more like this than a raucous debate. But as a DM I have often struggled with the fact that most groups don’t get together and appoint a captain of the party with whom a prospective employer/quest-giver can easily converse with. Five different voices, five different agendas, five different questions.

The problem, I think, is that “talking is a free action” has become a slogan which is used to wring out more opportunities for a player (through their character) to do something impressive, outside of the action economy. In “combat” type situations, there are usually very specific rules on what a character can do as an action, and how many of those they can take before it is the next player’s turn. The rules of D&D make it clear that you don’t have to wait an entire round before shouting “HEY!” at one of your party members. I don’t think that it was ever intended to support off-turn monologues, but that’s sometimes what it mutates into at the expense of the flow of the game. It’s easy as a DM to make actions in a puzzle-solving or trap-defusing situation flow in an “initiative” order complete with turns and action economy even if it’s not exactly a fight. I find it difficult to rein in some of these things without seeming like I am coming down too hard on someone’s attempt at role-playing. I am usually thrilled when my players try to do things in-character rather than a metagame-rich conversation with me out of character. But right now? Really?

This does not seem like the right solution to the problem.

As far as solutions, I don’t think a chess clock or an egg timer or a conch for each player’s speaking turn would be most effective. Dialog in dramatic situations flows more freely than it does in a stilted structured debate format. What I am going to try to do is have more courage and more faith in my player groups: if I, as the NPC they are dealing with, demand to have a single point-person on a regular basis I am going to try trusting the party to appoint one without it becoming a problem. I fear that having a party leader would legitimize the behaviour of steamrolling over anyone who isn’t the loudest and most assertive player, but maybe that’s something I can trust the group to work out themselves. I am going to try and remind myself that it is legitimate for an NPC to pound the table (and maybe drive a dagger into it if it’s a fantasy setting) and demand that the in-fighting stop or tell everyone (in-character) to shut up and take turns speaking. And as for those timing devices, I might pull one of those out if there are other events going on (such as a bomb in the room or guards closing in) and subject the entire party to it at once: it’s all well and fine to debate how to disarm the ship’s self-destruct sequence, but they only have five real minutes to make it happen. Hopefully these two strategies will be effective when conversations derail the game, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more.

Today, before I say bye-bye,  I am proud to announce a new series of posts on Almost InfiniteFull Steam Ahead will be written by my good friend Alastair who has decided to share the story of his adventures in exploring the backlog of his Steam collection. Like my writing about video games, he will be reviewing the experience of the gameplay rather comparing each game to its peers. I look forward to having more than one author publishing on this site.

Priests and Pantheons

In Myth and Place I wrote about the use of myth to give a sense of where a game takes place. For escapist role-playing games it is important that the setting is made distinct from mundane places. Whether it is a campy romp through space, a heroic tale of sword and sorcery, or a Victorian horror thriller, myth is required to separate the in-game setting from the real-life context that it exists within. Often, but not necessarily, this is done through religious myth in particular.

Every Dungeons and Dragons game I have played in relies heavily on its pantheon. Whether it is an original concept created by the DM or the deities of Greyhawk detailed in the official resource books, the gods always seem to matter in D&D. This isn’t as much the case with other systems, such as most World of Darkness variants (except Scion where everyone is a demigod). But whenever religious myth matters at all in one of these fictional game settings, I find that it tends to serve very similar purposes to the mythology of real religions but with much different weightings and outcomes. And if the DM isn’t making religious myth enough of a big deal, sometimes the players will start to fill in the gaps.

In our real-life religions we tend to rely on the pedagogical and sociological functions of myth more heavily than the mystical and cosmological. In plain terms, most people don’t reach for their Bible or their Quran first when trying to explain the physical properties of matter. Many of us do, however, go straight to the stories within those books to define the right way to live, what is right and what is wrong, and what kind of values ought to be enshrined in the rules by which our societies operate. This is not to say that all of us have entirely abandoned the cosmological and mystical functions of our respective religious mythologies, but that we have a tendency to spend more time seeking answers about the human experience than about the concrete physical realities of the world.

Whether by design or emergent from play of the game, fictional gods can’t help but make themselves known.

In the realms of fantasy fiction, though, we lean much more heavily on religious myth to explain the exotic cosmology and the mystical aspect to make the setting feel different than the world we actually live in. We don’t seek answers to big life questions from our fantasy pantheons. We seek theatrical intervention, plot advancement, and a coherent explanation of the physical world the characters inhabit. Moral and ethical frameworks matter in interactive role playing games, but without a sustained focus in the roleplaying those big questions can easily take a back seat to looking into the settings religious mythology for how to do about smiting ghouls and skeletons with divine light or effectively leveraging the force or whatever it is the player characters are trying to accomplish at the time. Campbell’s four functions are still there, but the emphasis is different.

An interesting thing happened in the World of Darkness campaign I am a player in. The Asylum setting lends itself to stories with a Gothic fiction feel rather than those which prominently feature interventionist gods. Initially, the dominant religion in the setting was just there to make life feel complete; the first mention of it being when my character decided to make seasonally appropriate holiday decorations for her kids as something to do while waiting for other events to play out. Over the course of the campaign, religion has become a central focus and the mystical function has taken on a much bigger role than the sociological. This was not something that we were shepherded into. On the contrary, one of our players almost single-handedly dragged the religious myth of the settings from the margins into the spotlight. The character, in her self-appointed role of priestess in a tabletop system where spellcasting clerics aren’t actually a thing, picked up on religious myth and ran with it so far that it has become part of the canon. Now our characters look to their religious mythology for answers to physical phenomena. This is a fine example emergent gameplay at the RPG table, and I love it. And so, while a highly detailed and original pantheon may not be required for every interstellar mission or dungeon delve, this is not something we can afford to ignore in an open-ended campaign. God only knows what can happen when players engage with the religious mythologies of fictional universes.