Five years ago today I volunteered to drive a friend to her brother’s house, about two hours each way, so that she could spend Christmas with her family. When we got to the town we were headed to, before we found the house and went inside for tea I decided to ask her if she was interested in us being a couple. Today I am posting from where my wife and I are spending Christmas this year with her family.
For some people there are no special holidays at this time of year. Some of “the holidays” have already come and gone while other folks will be waiting another week or two for their holy days to arrive. For some, Christmas is a profoundly holy time while others are less moved by religion than by their love for the time of social and cultural celebration with loved ones. For some people this is a time of joy, for others it’s difficult. Whatever your tradition and/or disposition, it is my hope that every person reading this will find blessing in their own way as the wheel of the year completes another turn and the light begins to grow longer each day.
I’m back from holidays for a year-end post next Sunday where I will talk about some of the content you can expect to see in 2019.
Picking up from two weeks ago, I had mentioned that the World of Darkness campaign I was playing in has gone on indefinite hiatus. I sat down for tea with the storyteller who was running that show to talk about what happened and why. I wanted to try and put some names to the thoughts and feelings we were having, and we came up with four characteristics of a tabletop RPG which separate the kind of game that our different players want to play. It’s not intended to analyze every aspect of the TTRPG experience, but to provide some language we can use when talking about being more intentional about choosing those games. The four we came up with were:
Setting: It’s more than aesthetic preference. Some people just don’t care for playing pretend in medieval Japan and would much rather go to space. Some settings also lend themselves to differing levels of agency and characters: it’s not impossible to do survival horror in a high magic pseudo-Arthurian setting but it’s not easy to pull off. Likewise, heroic power fantasies are not often draped in the low light and cigarette smoke of a noir setting. The other thing to consider is how much absurdity vs. consistency people enjoy: Monty Python and The Holy Grail, or Lord of the Rings? Even if you love your friends, they might not be suitable players for that OSR dungeon crawl and that’s okay. I am here to say that it is okay to tell your friends that zombie apocalypse is not your jam.
Agency: One of the reasons I have a little bit of trouble with enjoying survival horror type games is that I love when my choices matter more in the fictional world than they seem to in the meatspace. It’s not enough that there seems to be a revived interest in the kind of thoughts Lovecraft had about race in the real world, now I have to pretend that ancient monsters are on an inexorable warpath to drive humans insane and kill us all? I’d much rather be a dashing rogue who at least tries to shoot Cthulhu in the face and keep his composure while doing it – and at least have an outside chance of being a little bit successful.
Characters:Robin Laws’ Player Types describe what kind of players come to the table. In my discussions with the storyteller from my most recent campaign, we decided that distinct from the player type, there are also character types that certain players tend to play while others like to mix it up with different types of characters even if they mostly represent the same player type. We identified the following:
A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative
Not all tabletop RPGs are very good at accommodating every single one of these, therefore it’s inadvisable for people who are itching to play a character integral to a big plot to go dungeon crawling. Discussing what you want to play with the DM/GM/Storyteller is a good idea and both parties should be willing to take “no” for an answer: whether that is accepting that a character concept is not suitable for the game that is being run, or declining to play that game. I have kept myself out of at least one campaign based on the fact that my two best ideas for characters were wildly incompatible with the type of game that was being run.
Decisions: What kind of choices are offered to players and how do their decisions affect the plot? We identified four distinct styles. Simply offering “good” and “bad” choices don’t make a game interesting. We know that good guys win, bad guys lose, England prevails is boring if not problematic. The simplest way to avoid this is to present situations where two good choices have different costs, or two bad choices offer different opportunities to mitigate the damage. Rather than “slay the dragon” it is “do we convince the dragon to go burn someone else’s town or do we use foul forbidden black magic to become powerful enough to destroy the dragon?” Of course, getting thrown two bad options with no third way or deus ex machina to fetch a “win” might frustrate some players. If the DM is excited to create that kind of dilemma then they need players who are into that sort of challenge.
The second style is to offer bad and worse choices, where the players cannot know which is which until after the consequences are set in stone. This is generally how it has gone in the horror type games I have played. This is especially frustrating to the power gamer sorts who love to win, but also to many other player types who are invested in their characters.
The third style is like a puzzle. There is a solution to be found that moves the plot forward and satisfies a win condition, and your job is to find that solution. This works well when players go into it with the right expectations. The trouble is when the player who loves this style goes into a game more like the second style described above and expects that there are answers to find and a correct way to do so. It just gets all the more frustrating when everything goes to hell.
The fourth style looks kind of like a fishbone diagram. There is a plot and it moves forward. Your choices affect the flavour of the outcome, but that outcome is assured. I have come to dislike the term “railroading” as it seems to get tossed around whenever a player’s zany idea gets a flat “no” from the storyteller/DM/GM. I generally don’t like games where it’s really someone else’s work of fiction but where I am given trivial decision-making power. I would much rather just enjoy a performance than have my input tacked onto the side of it if that’s what it is going to be. That I can derisively refer to as railroading. But unless the DM/GM/storyteller is VERY comfortable with improvisation, this style starts to emerge if things are going too far outside the expected narrative and I don’t mind a little bit of this if it is done responsibly.
So we’ve got all this descriptive stuff, how does this help me choose a TTRPG?
Looking at this from my own perspective as a player, I can do most types of setting except for the bleakest of the post-apocalyptic, generally play a part of myself, and enjoy a high degree of agency. If that’s the game someone wants to run, I can consider committing to it. I am not sure I can commit to doing Lovecraftian stuff where agency is minimal; if that’s what a good friend wants to run then I wish them well but won’t try to force myself to play the type of game I am just not into and hope that it won’t be taken as “I don’t want to spend time with or play games with you.”
What’s next? Full Steam ahead resumes its regular run next week and will appear at least once in October. Then my next four posts will be a deeper dive into each of these four characteristics. Now that this is becoming a series where I keep expanding each point into four more, should I come up with a name for it? Powers of Four? Suggestions are welcome in the comments section.
Run along the wall, over a yawning, dark, abyss. Jump from the wall to a nearby ledge. Sidle over to a flagpole before the ledge collapses. Drop down, swing around the flagpole, leaping to a nearby grate. Plunge your dagger into the grate, so you don’t slip down the wall. Jump to the balcony above the grate, rolling past the pressure triggered darts. Sidestep around the swinging blades, slide down a banner hanging nearby with your dagger, drop down the floor, sneak up behind the guard, and slit his throat.
How many ways can this go wrong? What are the chances that it would all go right the first time? Don’t worry, because you will get to try again.
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.
At one time I was an anti-Steam Luddite. I was used to an old model of game distribution whereby a person would go to a store, pick up a disc, bring it home, and the household would be able to play the game. I resented the very notion that my dad, my brother, and myself would EACH have to pay ~$70 for the game we wanted to play. But, as the platform grew, their extreme discounts made things more affordable, and when I was no longer living in the same house as family members with whom I might want to share I was primed for my eventual turn: there was no other way to play Civilization V. It was a choice between Steam and no Civ. We know how that turned out.
So, now the majority of the video games I play are on Steam. Ever since the Full Steam Ahead series started on this blog, at least half of the content here has been related to games that were purchased and played through the increasingly ubiquitous platform. As far as gaming and content goes, I have come to put a lot of trust in Valve’s Steam. Unfortunately, they have chosen to punch a hole in that trust. As of this morning, Super Seducer was still available on the Steam Store. In case you haven’t heard, it’s supposedly a dating sim. I didn’t think I would be writing about this genre again so soon. It’s not normally my thing. But this goes beyond things I personally don’t like. It’s very, very bad. It basically teaches men not to take “no” for an answer, and to pursue in the face of requests to desist. This “game” should not be given a platform, and I already trust Steam less because it’s been available for some time now. Sony’s PlayStation has done the right thing in not publishing this. Good on them.
So, if Valve does remove games from Steam for various reasons, then I see no reason why they should permit this. If they don’t want sexual content, it’s like Seduce Me. If they don’t want hostility towards their customers, they need to remember that women use Steam too. If normalizing the stalking behaviour advocated by the incredibly toxic PUA community is acceptable under their terms and conditions, it’s time to make a change. If they are not willing to do this, it is time to reconsider how much we trust their platform. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, everything runs on trust. There was a video game industry before Steam. There will probably be one after Steam. How long that period of time is may depend on how much we can trust the content on their platform.
I swear I’m going to talk about Bioshock in a bit. It is a game that deserves to be talked about. But if you’d all be so kind to allow me a minor digression and retrospective, I’ll make it pay off. Cool? Cool.
November 2007. I’m hanging out with my best friend who has just bought Bioshock. The game was critically acclaimed for its setting and its stellar writing. Created by developer Ken Levine, it was considered a spiritual successor of his previous game series System Shock. The game won game of the years awards from BAFTA, IGN, and X-Play, all respected sources of video game journalism at the time.
These praises and accolades meant very little to me. I knew nothing of its setting or the System Shock series. The writing was good window-dressing, but I thought little more of it than that. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less about games criticism or analysis, because at the time, games did not mean much of anything to me.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ll permit me a quick aside from subjecting myself to weekly adventures in my Steam Library.
We are now entering the holiday season, and I certainly wish nothing but the best for all of you this Christmas season. However, for several people, it is a season of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. The holidays, so frequently advertised as the most wonderful time of the year, can be especially trying to those already suffering from depression.
That’s why resources like the Calgary Distress Centre are so important. They provide a 24 hour hotline for those in need of assistance in time of mental and emotional crisis. This hotline provides a listening ear and a gentle voice to help someone in their darkest, most despairing moments. I know because I’ve used this service. It’s helped me get through some of the worst days of my life.
Furthermore, the Distress Centre does more than just provide the 24 hour crisis hotline. They also act as an information resource, they provide free professional counselling services, and they run the Connecteen, a confidential support service for teens and youth. The Distress Centre provides all these services free of charge, and their hotline is manned largely by volunteers.
In this season which promotes charity and goodwill towards all, I’d like to ask the readers of Almost Infinite to help support the Distress Centre. I know that there are dozens, if not hundreds of worthy causes asking for support during this time of year, and I don’t for a second pretend mine is any more deserving than others; this is simply the one I am most familiar with, and I’m using what small platform I have to promote it. In support of this organization, I’d like to introduce the Steam-Powered Hope funding drive.
For what it’s worth, I’m prepared to offer incentives for donation.
Below, you will find a list of every game in my library. This is the randomly-generated order of the games I’m playing for Full Steam Ahead. I decided at the start that I would play the games as the random order dictated, no matter how good or bad that order was. Now, I’m giving you all a chance to mess around with it, however you see fit.
For a $5 donation to the Distress Centre, you can move any game from anywhere on the list to anywhere else on the list. This means you could put all the games from the Prince of Persia bundle in order for $25 Or you could make me play through the Strong Bad games in reverse order. Or you could make your favourite game the very next one on the list. Or you could make me replay games I’ve already played.
For a $20 donation to the Distress Centre, I will add a new game of your choice to a location of your choosing on the list. I will cover the cost of purchasing the game, your only cost is the donation.
Donations will close December 31st. I know that it’s a lot to ask, but I’d really appreciate your support in this. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the comments. Without any further ado, here is the list. Game I’ve already completed have been italicized:
Total War Shogun 2
Assassin’s Creed 2
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead
Star Wars Battlefront II
Wargame: European Escalation
Half Life Deathmatch: Source
Mount & Blade
Street Fighter IV
Arma 2 : PMC
Poker Night at the Inventory
Poker Night at the Inventory 2
Half Life 2: Episode 1
Mass Effect 2
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Age of Empires 3
Batman Arkham Asylum
The Ship Tutorial
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Half Life 2: Deathmatch
FTL: Faster Than Light
Age of Empires 2
Just Cause 2
Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 2
Civilization V: Gods and Kings
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2
Total War Rome 2
RWBY: Grimm Eclipse
Strike Suit Zero
Crusader Kings 2
Cities XL 2012
Half Life 2: Lost Coast
Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 5
Hitman: Blood Money
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1
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?
The first post on this blog was published on the first Saturday of May 2016. That means this post is the fiftysecond weekly post, and therefore marks one full year for Almost Infinite.
The first thing I have learned about running a blog is that measuring your audience is an inexact science at best. I have lots of numbers. Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Jetpack (a WordPress plugin), WP Statistics (another WordPress plugin I had installed before discovering/needing Jetpack), and my web host all have their own measurements. I don’t have enough expertise to interpret all of these in context, but my intuition tells me that I am reaching more than nine people per week and fewer than one thousand. I know that the higher numbers represent both real person traffic and robots, while the lower numbers seem a little bit too low. The actual number of people reading this blog is therefore a known unknown.
But, as much as I admit this is an attempt at reading internet tea leaves, there are a few things that multiple sources of numbers agree on:
The most popular single post so far is Alignments and Absolutes, which is odd because it’s one of my least favourite ones. It was based on a conversation that I enjoyed, and I felt like I had a reasonably good idea, but that it was still a draft that needed work. For some reason, though, I had already scheduled the post to publish on time. This would have been alright, except that I managed to somehow botch my password so much that I couldn’t log in to edit the post further. I was mortified when I saw that my draft had been published in the state it was in. It is still the most popular post of all time, though, so I suppose it’s not as bad as I thought it was.
The series did alright.The Casual Alpha’s Guide to EVE Online was my first attempt to write a series of posts (more than two parts) on a single topic in gaming. I found that I drifted away from talking about the actual gameplay experience as I learned, but I think that’s fairly normal for most people who have some experience with that game. It does not take long to realize the insignificance of your first frigate exploding to bits. And from the writing perspective, I am glad I split it up the way I did, so as not to hit people with too much at once or bore my non-capsuleer audience to tears by focusing on nothing but EVE for a couple months rather than writing about it 1-2 times over the course of several months.
The post that causes the most issues with measurement is the Election of 201X, my Undertale-themed coping mechanism following what happened in the Election of 2016. One of the reasons I built it the way I did is that I wanted to see if I could use a blog post as a way to direct people into a series of pages that aren’t linked to anywhere else on the website. This is an important thing to know how to do if I ever decide to try my hand at doing some interactive fiction stuff which requires getting people onto pages that are neither blog posts nor pages accessible from the navigation bar. The downside is that every one of the 33 pages counts as a separate hit, so every view of that complete sequence looks like way more traffic than it is.
Talking about serious stuff does relatively well compared to other posts. Topics like the gunpowder treason and responding to racist violence seem like they’d be off-topic for a blog about games (in the usual sense of the word). These ones tend to get picked up by blogrolls like Seen and Heard in Edmonton more often than esoteric rambling about video games, which explains some of the additional traffic. I am going to take this as a sign that I can keep doing these posts every once in a while.
The least popular posts aren’t the ones that go the most esoteric. Depending on which measure is used, it’s either A Tale of Three Castles or One More Turn. It seems to me that D&D and Civ would be staple topics for a game blog, but these early posts haven’t gained a lot of traction compared with others that have been mentioned more frequently in subsequent posts. I feel like I have written far less about tabletop, D&D in particular, than I had intended so far. There is definitely more to come here.
Nineteen likes on the Facebook page, thirty-eight followers on Twitter. Twelve comments, and two people who have signed up to receive posts by email. These are all more encouraging numbers than zero, but I’m still a long, long way from being internet famous. If you like what you have been seeing for the past year, please do engage in these channels and share/repost/retweet. It’s what convinces me that taking the time to write every week is worth the effort. External validation is not the be all and end all; it is true that showing up and putting something out there as promised counts for something even if nobody else reads it. However, I still like knowing that it is worth putting it on the internet. So see the comment section? I would love to hear what you think about the whole site in its entirety. Good, bad, what you like, what you want to see in the future. I want to hear about it and improve upon what I am doing.
Sometimes if feels as if a character’s fate is decided not by the choices they make, but by the vicissitudes of the dice being rolled to determine their success or failure. Can a commoner overcome the challenges of his circumstances and his natural foes to rise into the ranks of nobility and loyalty? I’d like to take a minute: just sit right there; I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air. In west Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days. Chillin’ out max, and relaxin’ all cool – and all shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school. When a couple of guys who were up to no good started makin’ trouble in my neighborhood. I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, and said “you’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.”
I whistled for a cab and when it came near the license plate said “fresh” and it had dice in the mirror. If anything I could say that this cab was rare, but I thought “Nah forget it, yo holmes to Bel-Air!” I pulled up to the house about seven or eight and I yelled to the cabbie “yo homes smell ya later!” Looked at my kingdom; I was finally there to sit on my throne as the prince of Bel-Air