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Full Steam Ahead: Bioshock

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 0 Hours

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.

Annus Revelati

At this time last year I was writing one of those retrospective posts lamenting the year that was. I’m not going to sit here and list all the horrific plays in political games around the world we saw this year. Almost everything that has excited and outraged us has been as surprising as a sunrise given the events of late 2016. Every violation of the rule of law and basic decency coming from the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world should be no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to 2016. That we now have unscrupulous players in Canada and other countries looking to imitate that example is as predictable as it is appalling. Yet despite all this I believe that rather than an annus horribilis, 2017 has been an annus revelati. If my Google/Wiktionary-based Latin skills are good enough, that should mean a year of showing, uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. We cannot help but see now what has been under the surface, whether it was intentionally obscured or simply invisible to those who chose not to see. This has been the year that we have been reminded of some of the things we have to take into play rather than take for granted as axiomatic truths.

As important as it is to keep the big picture in mind, it is very important that we also see the brighter things even if they seem very small in a very large world. For me personally, 2017 saw a number of happy events yet none of these were really new things. I got married, which showed the rest of the world the love that my partner and I hold between ourselves. Though in some ways it can be considered a new beginning, it was a fulfilment of the engagement that happened in 2016. I formally joined a Unitarian Universalist church, though I had been interested in the faith and attending services throughout 2016. I welcomed a second author to this blog halfway through the year who has been a HUGE help in making this project manageable at this time in my life. That, too, was suggested to me just as I was first starting: bring in guest posts sooner rather than later so that it seems less weird when it happens. It took a while, but I am glad that I did that with Alastair’s series. I got back in the DM’s chair during Extra Life, but I have spent more time talking about wanting to run more tabletop adventures than actually doing it in 2017. That adventure, naturally, revolved around revealing the sordid truth about the temple that loomed large over a destitute village.

The most exciting part of a tabletop adventure’s plot is usually some sort of revealing of the truth.

So, looking back on the year that has passed, everything that has happened in my world has been about revealing and uncovering the nature and consequences of what was already set in motion. Now it is time to look forward and think about what to do with what has been revealed. I believe that we can affect games much larger than ourselves by how we play our little games, whether recreational pastimes or the game of life as it plays out for our small individual lives. These are my recommendations to my readers for the year of 2018 CE on how we can work to improve our play:

  • Defend, but don’t play defence. Innuendo Studios is doing a fantastic series called the alt-right playbook, and in Never Play Defense we are reminded that a person can be effective without being right if they are playing aggressively. I’m not saying that you should ditch substance for bravado, but boldness is a better look than apologetic hesitation. I recently had the opportunity to inform someone at a game table that I am certain that my Romani friend would never attempt to “gyp” him of any points that he is due. Making this matter-of-fact statement was far more effective than something that started with “Sorry, but I am offended by…” There is no need to allow yourself and your loved ones to be attacked nor is there any need to turtle up and yield all of your ground. Now is the best time to speak up at your gaming table when someone is doing or saying something that could put you on the defensive and renew your efforts to be deliberate in what media to (not) consume. And, if you are so inclined, support Innuendo Studios.
  • Don’t apologize for what you are (not). Following that, when someone goes name-calling, embrace the ones that should not be an insult in the first place. A lot of what I write in this space might be labelled as “social justice warrior” ranting even though in terms of 4th/5th edition D&D classes I am probably more of a warlock than a fighter. But seriously, why should I yield this ground? I endeavour not to be antisocial. I detest injustice. I believe in fighting for what is right. Getting upset over labels only derails my intent and delivers the desired reaction to the sort of person who would wield such a so-called insult (refer again to the video linked above). So be a social justice warrior, or evangelical Christian, or whatever words people say in disdainful tones that, at face value, actually represent the kind of person you aspire to be.
  • Let go of the notion that everyone agrees with your rules. If you have not learned this again and again in 2017, then you have not been paying attention. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” and quotes attributed to Voltaire about free speech are fine when an overwhelming majority of people in a society can agree on the basic rules surrounding minimal human decency and the existence of immutable facts which cannot be changed by the volume and repetition of spurious zingers. You can’t play a game with those who won’t agree to the rules. No fair play is possible when the torch-wielding mob is out to cause havoc. Such people must be dealt with in a different manner than people who can agree to a good set of basic rules but with whom you profoundly disagree with when it comes to how to solve particular problems.
  • Embrace a little bit of swagger. Remember that while your stated beliefs don’t make you a better person, telling the truth does. Your tweets don’t make you a better person, but playing fair does. The colour of your political party’s campaign signs does not make you a better person, but holding people accountable for their behaviour especially when it’s a popular person on your team does. So when you can be certain that you are doing and saying the right thing, do it openly and proudly. There is no reason to pretend that fair play, the rule of just law, and respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of every person aren’t for winners.
  • Read Crash Override. I am just getting started on it now, but the subject matter is really important. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Zoë Quinn personally. If you want to be a critic, be an informed critic. Know about the things you disagree with. Learn about (sub)cultures that you haven’t really been concerned with up to this point. But also, being sympathetic doesn’t excuse ignorance either; it is important to know what you are up against and what you can do to help. Games matter. The internet matters. Internet and gaming culture matter. These are important parts of, not distractions from what we call real life.

If a few more people do a few more of those things, I believe that 2018 will be a brighter year, even if just by a little bit.

Full Steam Ahead: Street Fighter IV

The word iconic seems to be getting thrown around a lot these days. Like its much-maligned pal the exclamation point, the word iconic seems to be overused to the point of of inducing weariness. As such, it has gone from being a widespread acknowledgment of excellence and cultural significance to a mere recognition of existence.

Many games and game series can be characterized by that latter definition of iconic. They exist, you’ve probably heard of them. You might recognize them if you saw them being played, but they mean very little to you in the grand scheme of things.

The Street Fighter franchise is easily the former kind of iconic.

Let’s go fight some streets!

Your Own Objectives

My wife was recently insisting to me that success should be self-defined rather than looking for external validation. Those aren’t easy words to hear for a man who is several weeks into trying to install a laundry sink, who is still in the middle of a long litany of leaks and return trips to the hardware store. That laundry sink which he could have paid someone to install, but was talked out of the service by the sales staff at the hardware store because it’s so simple and easy for anyone to install. In that light it’s easy to dismiss the notion of setting one’s own victory conditions because leaking fixtures don’t care what your personal goals are, they leak anyway. Yet neither of the two recreational games I have been playing to the exclusion of any others in recent weeks have such clearly defined success and failure conditions. They are both games that one wouldn’t play without the desire to set one’s own objectives. I haven’t been getting into any new-to-me video games (Alastair has that covered for now), but have been continuing to play two of the three most mentioned video games on this blog, Terraria and EVE. If you were hoping for an Undertale post this week, tough spaghetti. And in keeping with my commitment to this being a games blog that sometimes mentions EVE rather than an EVE blog that sometimes mentions other games, that leaves us with Terraria.

Surviving the first night in a hut like this is a good initial step, but don’t award yourself any medals for an accomplishment of this scale.

Some finite games have very clear victory conditions. The “sandbox” type games don’t have a specified end or victory condition and are only limited by the constraints of the medium and the amount of time we can spend with them. When the choice is placed upon us of how to measure progress it can be difficult to get the balance right. Victory conditions should be a challenge; merely surviving one night in Terraria is a good first step, but that’s not winning the game. However, victory conditions should not be impossible for mere mortals either, such as the complete purification of a large Terraria world from the ever-expanding blights (corruption, crimson, and hallow). Perhaps some of the linear content (such as fighting through the series of boss monsters) is the most obvious goal, but I don’t think that’s what sold 20 million copies of the game.

I abandoned my first medium-sized world because I knew that I wanted the blight to be under control but would never have the time and motivation to bring a world of that size back under control after letting it go for as long as I did. So I created a small world and got to work on using my advanced gear to immediately contain the crimson. I didn’t get it perfect, but seems to be stable at 1% crimson. My objective is not necessarily to play through all the boss monsters, though that is a perfectly valid goal. Having defeated Golem in my first world, I was able to assemble one of the best defensive armour sets available in the game yet once I summoned Duke Fishron I was quickly dispatched. At that point I decided that I would rather build for a while. Now, knowing that constructing one large base is more optimal than building a village of houses, I have a glorious tower.

The workshop section of the tower that runs from the very top of the map into the underworld.

It’s a great base as far as I am concerned. It houses all of my NPC allies. Every storage area is labelled (a big deal to those whose first workshops grew organically from one workbench and a single chest into a tangled mess of hoarding). In other sections of the tower, using the quirks of the fluid physics in that game, I can generate an endless supply of any of the three liquids (lava, water, and honey). My materials lab can also put out an endless supply of gel, an important crafting ingredient for torches and bombs. I also have a spider nest cordoned off that generates what I need to produce silk. Essentially, if a crafting material can be farmed, I can do it in this tower.

Water, lava, and honey are the three liquids in Terraria which can be combined to make materials such as obsidian. This is my setup for being able to manufacture whatever I need without having to search the world for materials.

All of this to say: the way I play the game is not according to a scoreboard or number of boss monsters defeated. The goal of building a home base to do these things was entirely up to me to conceive, achieve, and evaluate. I can show off my stuff, as I am doing in this post, but it’s not for anyone else to decide whether this is success or failure at playing this game. External validation is possible, but the way I choose to play the game makes it unnecessary to the core experience.

Who needs to explore deep caverns to find the glowing mushroom material for crafting? Not this guy.

Things seem to be going well with setting my own objectives in this particular game. Next on the list is to build some impressive pyramids (to fill the holes I made in excavating the crimson caves) because my world didn’t generate with a natural pyramid. I may even resume fighting the boss monsters as intended one day, but for now I am getting back to improving the tower instead of working on the sink.

Full Steam Ahead – Mount & Blade

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 5 hours

According to Steam, I have spent only 5 hours playing Mount & Blade. This isn’t entirely true. I played hours and hours of Mount & Blade’s demo back in 2008, on my old Steam account. I didn’t buy the game, because at the time, I was very worried about my Steam purchases spiralling out of control.

Ironic, isn’t it?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a stupid idiot.

Fast forward a couple years. I was able to find a physical copy of Mount & Blade at Zellers, of all places. It was a good price, so I decided to pick it up. Once again, I played it a lot. However, this was on my old computer. It died, and took with it all I could remember about my steam account. I lost all the info for that account, and I had long since abandoned the email associated with with it. This meant I would have to pick up what few games I actually had on a new account for my new computer. Mount & Blade was not among them.

Fast forward another few years. During one of the Steam Summer Sales, the Mount & Blade series was one of the daily deals. At this point, I hadn’t been following the series for a while. Two new games had come out, the sequel game Warband and the spinoff With Fire & Sword. I played the original briefly, but I pretty quickly devoted more time to the improved Warband. Still, the original holds a special place in my heart.

I ride for Calradia, a fictional continent trapped in ongoing wars between five different nations. Mount & Blade is definitely a sandbox, letting you find your fun in a variety of different ways. Want to play the political game? Become a scheming noble! Want to become a filthy-rich caravan master? Max your trade and leadership skills! Want to become a well-read do-gooder? There’s an option for that! The possibilities are near endless. Rather than continue an old game, I start up a new character called Tethrathoth, the numeric value of an absurdly large number.

Quick aside; in googology (the study of large numbers) the number Tethrathoth can become larger. One of the largest numbers in the Tethrathoth family is, I kid you not, the Great and Terrible Tethrathoth. The game won’t let me name my character the Great and Terrible Tethrathoth, so I name him B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth, for a couple reasons.

  1. BIGG is the name of yet another absurdly large number (it is actually an acronym for bewilderingly incomprehensibly ginormous googolism).
  2. My character looks kind of like the Notorious B.I.G., because I can choose to use my freedom of expression to make my video game characters look kind of like 90’s rappers.
It was all a dream! / I used to read word-up magazine!

Great. Terrible. Notorious. Those are some lofty titles, and I intend to earn them.

I’m a bit rusty, but if memory serves, a good first step is amassing a decent following, recruiting villagers from the various nations, training them into soldiers, and hiring on hero characters to help bear the brunt of combat. Mount & Blade doesn’t feature a morality system like some other games. Instead, your progress is measured in renown and favour with individuals and places. For example, looting and razing a village doesn’t make your character grow horns or their eyes glow red. It merely lowers your favour within that village (and perhaps with some of your followers). You choose your path to success.

You also get to choose what success means to you. With B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth, I manage to win a few tournaments and melees, make several profitable business deals, and raise several villagers from peasants to battle-hardened veterans. However, I won’t be satisfied until I can look B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth’s face and see someone great, terrible, and notorious. In the world of Calradia, that means joining the war game.

I sign on as a mercenary in service of the Khergit Khanate with a company of 39 soldiers. We are summoned by Sanjar Khan to present ourselves at a siege in the Nordlands. On the way, we spot a caravan owned by the Kingdom of Vaegirs, one of the Khanate’s many enemies. However, I forget that caravans are not to be trifled with. After getting overwhelmed by heavy cavalry, most of B.I.G.G.’s army is killed, with a few of being captured. The caravan which captured us parades us around for a few in-game days before running afoul of another Khergit army. We lost all but 5 of our troops, as well as valuables, supplies, and prestige within the Khanate; it’s a devastating loss.

While captive, B.I.G.G. had some time to think about some things. He came to this conclusion: He might lose. He might see his friends and allies get killed. He might be captured again. But he was going to make every enemy who opposed him pay in blood. That’s what it means to be terrible.

I was a terror since the public school era.

B.I.G.G. starts by killing the Vaegir caravan that captured him. Then, he raises what few forces he can before rushing to meet Sanjar Khan. The battle goes poorly, resulting in yet another near-complete destruction of B.I.G.G.’s army. He escapes, rebuilds, begins sacking villages, attacking weakened armies, laying siege to castles, destroying everything and everyone who he come across who seems weak. He is mistrusted by many allies, hated by his enemies, and feared by commoners and criminals alike. That’s what it means to be notorious.

As of typing these words, B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth is level 14. He commands 40 soldiers of varying levels of skill and from a diverse array of backgrounds. Vaegirs, Khergits, Swadians, Nords, mercenaries, farmers and farm women. He is on a mission to track down a spy when suddenly, the game freezes and crashes.

In all my years of playing Mount & Blade, I have only ever had the game crash when using mods (believe me, we’ll talk about mods during a later post). This is the first time I have ever had this game crash on me using basic settings.  I’ve now played Mount & Blade 19 hours on this profile, and I know for a fact I could play this game for another 19 without running out of things to do. When it crashed, it set me back to just after the battle with Sanjar Khan, just after B.I.G.G. Tethrathoth had lost everything for the second time. Honestly, I’m not even that upset, because if I had the time to, it would mean I could do it all again.

That’s what it means to be great.

If the game shakes me or breaks me/I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand.

Calradia, the world of Mount & Blade is, graphically speaking, not pretty. The gameplay is varied, but repetitive. Combat can be brutal. Losses set you back significantly. But it’s a world that hooked me as easily this playthrough as the first time, nearly ten years ago. Most games on Full Steam Ahead, I play until I have enough material to write about. To be perfectly honest, I long ago got all the material I need to write about Mount & Blade; I’ve just been playing it for fun.

There are two more Mount & Blade games in my library. Warband expands the world of Calradia, adding a new faction, new game modes, and new quests. With Fire & Blood is set in real-world eastern Europe during the age of Europe’s empires. What’s more, all the Mount & Blade titles have active modding communities. World War I? They have it. Westeros, from the Song of Ice and Fire series? They have it. The Star Wars Expanded Universe? They bloody have it.

I might be done with this game for now, but the world of Mount & Blade clearly isn’t done with me.


Next Episode: Street Fighter IV

Part of Something Bigger

Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.

A fleet taking down a player-owned starbase in EVE Online.

Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.

Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.

Steam-Powered Hope

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:

  1. Total War Shogun 2
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind
  4. Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead
  5. Sleeping Dogs
  6. Supreme Commander
  7. Star Wars Battlefront II
  8. Jade Empire
  9. Wargame: European Escalation
  10. Half Life Deathmatch: Source
  11. Mount & Blade
  12. Street Fighter IV
  13. Arma 2 : PMC
  14. Bioshock
  15. From Dust
  16. Poker Night at the Inventory
  17. Poker Night at the Inventory 2
  18. Half Life 2: Episode 1
  19. The Ship
  20. Mass Effect
  21. BattleBlock Theater
  22. Mass Effect 2
  23. Divekick
  24. Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
  25. Age of Empires 3
  26. Batman Arkham Asylum
  27. The Ship Tutorial
  28. Sims 3
  29. Cosmic DJ
  30. Endless Space
  31. Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
  32. Brink
  33. Terraria
  34. Half Life 2: Deathmatch
  35. Hotline Miami
  36. FTL: Faster Than Light
  37. Bastion
  38. Age of Empires 2
  39. Eversion
  40. LA Noire
  41. Just Cause 2
  42. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 2
  43. Alpha Protocol
  44. Civilization V: Gods and Kings
  45. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2
  46. Total War Rome 2
  47. RWBY: Grimm Eclipse
  48. Strike Suit Zero
  49. Crusader Kings 2
  50. Cities XL 2012
  51. Awesomnauts
  52. Half Life 2: Lost Coast
  53. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 5
  54. Hitman: Blood Money
  55. Titan Quest
  56. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1
  57. Star Wars: KOTOR
  58. The Ship Single Player
  59. Monaco
  60. King Arthur II – Roleplaying Wargame
  61. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 4
  62. Psychonauts
  63. Stacking
  64. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
  65. Heavy Bullets
  66. The Wolf Among Us
  67. MLB 2K10
  68. Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword
  69. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin
  70. Blood Bowl
  71. Arma 2
  72. Sid Meier’s Pirates!
  73. Banished
  74. Company of Heroes: Tales of Valour
  75. Borderlands 2
  76. Darksiders
  77. Saints Row: The Third
  78. Darksiders Warmastered
  79. Costume Quest
  80. Company of Heroes
  81. Gratuitous Space Battles
  82. Chroma Squad
  83. Half Life 2
  84. Grand Theft Auto IV
  85. Castle Crashers
  86. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
  87. Prince of Persia
  88. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
  89. Arma 2: British Armed Forces
  90. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 1
  91. Hitman: Codename 47
  92. Super Hexagon
  93. Batman Arkham City
  94. Invisible, Inc.
  95. Grand Theft Auto V
  96. Grand Theft Auto IV: Episodes
  97. Jackbox Party Pack 3
  98. Team Fortress 2
  99. Organ Trail
  100. Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
  101. Kerbal Space Program
  102. Just Cause 2 Multiplayer
  103. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
  104. Half Life 2: Episode 2
  105. Influent
  106. Kinetic Void
  107. Portal 2
  108. Torchlight 2
  109. Metro 2033
  110. Papers, Please
  111. Red Faction: Armageddon
  112. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
  113. Speed Runners
  114. Universe Sandbox
  115. Lethal League
  116. Zeno Clash
  117. Tales from the Borderlands
  118. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
  119. Magicka
  120. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
  121. Super Meat Boy
  122. Audiosurf
  123. Civilization: Beyond Earth
  124. Racecraft Tech Demo
  125. Portal 2
  126. Batman Arkham Origins
  127. Sega Classics
  128. Civilization IV
  129. Bioshock Remastered
  130. Mount & Blade: Warband
  131. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People – 3

The Temple

I went into last week’s Swords and Wizardry one-shot with one goal in mind: have a miserable village beside a resplendent temple, and make that the result of a magical glamour. That’s all. No maps, no written notes, just an idea stemming from a similar visual in Path of Exile when my witch said something like “I wonder what manner of magic this is” when she stepped into the Lunaris Temple for the first time. I sketched a crude map and added some names I plucked from an Uncharted Atlas map and had the players start rolling up some characters. My ideas were far from original, but that’s not necessary for tabletop improv. I just needed something that could move.

The players, whose characters were a loosely formed mercenary squad who banded together to deal with a bandit crisis but were dismissed as soon as things calmed down, dutifully reported to the tavern (because of course) where they heard that the patron of the temple was sponsoring a witch hunt. I was hoping that the phrase “witch hunt” would arouse some suspicion about his motives, but nobody grabbed onto that hook immediately. So I ran with it, knowing that whenever there is a way to play straight into the villains hands, players sometimes jump at the chance. Sometimes they should know better, sometimes it is unwitting, but a DM must always be prepared for the response “OK, sure!” when the villain is making demands.

I decided that there would be three sets of witches, of increasing difficulty. The first would put up more fight than one adventurer could handle, but having seven was complete overkill. The second I would make a relatively even match, and then the third would be as difficult as the rules suggest is possible. This would give the party an opportunity for some pause during the witch hunt, and hopefully to find a reason to cast Detect Magic, which was critically important to discovering that the temple was a lie. I had read the description of the spell ahead of time and decided that this would be the tell: if a person could see magic, they would see that there is something deeply wrong with one of the relics in the temple. It was not until after the first witch was killed, beheaded, and her hut set on fire that the magic-user found the occasion to cast that spell.

Character sheets for old-school D&D can be fairly simple, which is an advantage when you have one night to run an adventure from start to finish.

It was only after meeting the second witch, this time a pair, that the adventurers started to turn sides. Perhaps it was because it was readily apparent that these were more powerful than the last, as they reacted with annoyance rather than fear when a squad of heavily armed men and women showed up on their doorstep. Perhaps it was lingering remorse over not even trying to ask questions of the first one. Whatever it was, it was back to what I had expected would be the main plot of discovering the illusion. Because I didn’t take the time to prepare (a common DM sin) I felt that I was spending more time than I should have consulting the rule book. After a few awkward pauses (“you are on the road to the temple, please chat amongst yourselves while I frantically look something up”), I found that a single ogre-mage appeared to have hit dice suggesting that it would be an appropriate challenge for a party of seven. I quickly split the abilities and HD evenly into two creatures, there being two witches, but didn’t get to use this information yet because the adventurers decided not to continue the witch hunt.

Like many references, the Swords and Wizardry book offers information about antagonists who are primarily monstrous beasts who fight physically, rather than the humanoid spellcasters I was looking for. I had the same problem with the 4th Edition Monster Vault, though they saw fit to include a few things that aren’t instinct-driven dangerous cryptids. In the case of this adventure, the first witch was a blink dog according to the statistics provided in the Swords and Wizardry book.

The second set of witches sent the players back to the patron with a cursed scroll (looted from the last group of failed witch hunters who came through), which I rolled for the effect based on the table in the rule book. I was hoping for something immediate and decisive, whether instant death or emitting a strong odour for several days. In retrospect, I probably should have just declared it to be something like that rather than rolling on the table since the experience drain effect sent me back to the rule book trying to figure out what that means to a monster rather than to a player character. Once I came up with a way to handle it (pretend that the patron was going to be more powerful than he was, but that this scroll level drained him to the actual stats I had), the party started to dismantle the illusion. This provoked an angry response from the patron, who now had a matron counterpart.

See, I had those numbers for an ogre-mage in two persons and I wasn’t about to stop the action again to figure out how the patron should fight. So that is where the matron came from. The players even asked where she came from, did we meet her before? The answer, unfortunately, was uh yeah, she was around the whole time. She wasn’t.  She was an invention to make the action keep going as we were coming to the end of the fifth hour and it was time to move on to something else. It was time for a triumphant battle of… wait, no it wasn’t, this is old-school D&D where heroic plot lines are not guaranteed. It was time for the villain to cast sleep on everyone and get out alive. The players woke up and returned to town to find that the second pair of witches left the area after they destroyed the home of the potion merchant who was sympathetic to the patron’s witch hunt. With their job complete, the players’ party moved on. In my world, other people have other adventures while you are out having yours. The game may revolve around the players, but the world doesn’t need to. In case you were wondering, the plan for the third witch was to have a steampunk-ish gnome in a giant mecha suit. I try not to keep every cool idea on the “good” path.

So, what do I take from this experience? Swords and Wizardry is good for one-shots. Never neglect to keep different paths valid, whether “good” or “evil.” A DM does not need a detailed map or backstory, but combat statistics should absolutely be prepared beforehand. One good setting idea is better than all the written lore in the world. And lastly, never count on a large group of players to play their characters in a morally and ethically consistent manner. There is still a witch’s head in the possession of a fraudulent patron who is still at large, somewhere.

Full Steam Ahead: Arma 2 – PMC

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: None.

For those who have read my past posts, you’ll remember that I bought the Arma 2 bundle during one of the Steam summer sales. For those of you haven’t read or can’t remember the previous post, featuring Operation Arrowhead, I’ll sum up: I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like the over-complicated control scheme, and I really didn’t like the characters in the campaign. I didn’t play very far into the campaign, and I barely spent any time in the individual scenarios. Immediately after finishing the post, I was somewhat disheartened, because I thought I’d said everything that could be said about the Arma series in that one post. I had no idea what I was going to do when the other four games showed up in the random list.

Bad news: less than ten games later in the list, it’s time for another game in this military simulation series: Arma 2 – Private Military Company.

Good news: Arma 2 – PMC surprises me.

Welcome back to Takistan.

The Partial Success

“Here, try reading this,” my dad says. He is, in his retirement, enrolled in Latin classes. He hands me a printout of a passage that he had been looking at for his class. Not being fluent in any of the modern Latin languages, let alone the original, I certainly was not able to understand the whole thing. But between the cognates between English and Latin, cultural and scientific loan words, and cognates with the little French and Spanish that I have dabbled in, I was able to make out a few of the words.

Libro, Satyricon, celebrato, monstrum, lupus, ferrous, argentum. I don’t read or speak Latin, didn’t understand that it was a reference to a specific tale of a werewolf, but I managed to figure out that the passage was a reference to a book full of monstrous beasts of fantasy. My immediate thought was that I wish I did more of this at the D&D table. I think there is an unfortunate tendency towards the simplification of interpreting languages that aren’t “Common” which is a euphemism for English. Players are usually eager to check their character sheets to see if, by virtue of being a Dwarf, that it was Goblin or Giant or Orcish that they are assumed to be able to speak. But without the rule book saying that their character by virtue of race or class speaks the language fluently, the player might give up right away.

What about Giant? Can someone try talking to them in Giant? No? How about Goblin?

I can also appreciate as a DM who has definitely run some sessions with less time to prepare than what was desired, that it is a lot of work to either plan or improvise these extra steps rather than calling for an intelligence check, picking a number between one and twenty, and then either giving the player the page from your notes detailing what the ancient stele has written on it, or give them nothing if they fail. However, there are some things when it comes to extra effort on the DM’s part that makes more of a difference than others. As much as I like making visual maps, I have to admit that it’s not the highest priority a DM should have. One thing that I think does make a big difference is allowing for the partial success. An experience like the one I had in real life can make things really interesting. Think about it… rather than just having a scroll of unintelligible writing in their inventory, your players could get: something something vampire, something something cave, something something priestess. Even without expertise and/or the favour of the dice, this could be enough to keep them going on a (mis)adventure.

I don’t know if this is going to make it into the very next game that I run, but I do hope to remember that little moment I had when challenging players to try and make some sense of something that isn’t written in their everyday language. Overcoming a challenge should not always be an all-or-nothing scenario, especially not when it’s trying to pick apart a written text at the characters’ leisure. I think a really good DM is one who can make partial successes the most meaningful rather than reducing the game to rolling high numbers on polyhedral dice. As a player I would certainly rather go ahead with a partial success than be told “no” and get stuck because of that 3 on a d20. In a game of fantasy we’re certainly foolish to expect everything to be “realistic” but a little dash of realism here and there to make it feel like the character’s situation is a life that a person could live helps players feel more invested in their characters than in their dice.

Today (November 4, 2017) is officially the game day for Extra Life, but my team is holding our private event next week. If you have not yet done so, please consider clicking here to contribute to my page. Note that this year I decided to try something different and play in support of the CMN hospital in Puerto Rico because I am sure they can use some extra help. I will play for my home town again next year. I don’t know how long after official game day that my donation page will be available, so if you have the means and the inclination please don’t delay any further.

Next week, Alastair continues his Full Steam Ahead series with Street Fighter IV. If all goes well with running a tabletop adventure with my Extra Life group, I will post all of the DM’s notes with additional commentary on November 18th.