The Half-Life series of games is significant in the history of Steam. Half-Life is the game that really put Valve, the company behind Steam, on the map. Each rare release in the Half-Life series is acclaimed by critics and eagerly awaited by gamers the world over. It is reasonable to say that the success of Steam is a by-product of the success of Half-Life. In fact, my first games on Steam came from the Orange Box collection, which featured both Half-Life 2 and its two follow-up episodes. However, I’ve never played the original Half-Life. The closest thing I have is Half-Life Deathmatch: Source, a re-release of the the original game’s multiplayer.
In Half-Life, you play as Gordon Freeman, a mute theoretical physicist forced to defend his research facility from invading aliens and ghoulish special forces after an inter-dimensional experiment goes horribly awry. In Half-Life Deathmatch, the complex story is done away with in favor of maximum accessibility. The players become warriors, fighting in a variety of contained levels against one another, with no greater purpose than to kill, and, arguably, be killed.
Given that Half-Life Deathmatch is a purely multiplayer game, I need people to play it with. However, unlike previous multiplayer games I’ve done on Full Steam Ahead, I have no friends who pay or even own this game. That means I’ll have to find some people online.
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.