Saturday, December 24, 2011

In Which The Warlock Wishes Well!

Happy holidays, fellow gamers!

Just stopping into remind you that I'll be taking the next week or so off, enjoying my holiday break (and hopefully recovering from this respiratory infection while I'm at it!). 

But, before I go, some exciting news:  I've been pegged to work on a second book in The Laundry series for Cubicle 7!  I'll have more information on this one for you, as I'm allowed to divulge more details.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

In Which The Warlock Drools All Over the Keyboard...

This past Saturday was one of the more relaxing we've had in a while, as the holiday season has been rolling on.  The PlatinumChick and I, along with ChaoticFrederick and GeoMike, headed off to Columbus to see the WildLights exhibit at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.  Also joining us was the PlatinumChick's good friend WoWSonya, who we don't see nearly often enough.

That made for a great afternoon, but the bigger treat came for me that night.  You see, friends and neighbors, WoWSonya's husband Sean had recently received a beta key for Diablo III!  Oh, man!  The envy, it must have been streaming off of me when I first heard the news.

Luckily for me, Sean is of the generous sort, and once we returned from dinner, he logged me onto his account and let me have at it!  I'm pretty sure that you could see my grin from orbit, as I slid into his computer chair and started my quest. So, as you might expect, here are my observations on a single playthrough of the Diablo III beta!

 I wanted to be able to jump into the action as soon as possible, without having to worry about fragility or spells, so I knew the Barbarian would be a great fit.  I typically played a Paladin in Diablo II, and tend to favor melee classes in most computer games, and I wasn't about to change here.

First up, the gameplay feels like I'm sliding back onto a comfortable couch.  The feel of the game immediately brings back memories of Diablo II, with primary skills attached to left and right mouse buttons, and other skills linked to hotkeys.  But, while the gameplay felt familiar, it simultaneously felt more...advanced?  That's not the right word, but it's close.  It was incredibly easy for me to pick up, though I did move around my hotkeys, setting my non-mouse skills and potions onto the home keys, for easy motion.

The mighty Barbarians of Mount Arreat
In Diablo II, characters typically advanced one or two skills--my Paladins typically favored an offensive aura like Holy Shock or Holy Freeze, coupled with Zeal--a low mana cost skill that delivered up to five incredibly fast melee hits with a slight damage buff on each.  In DIII, however, you have an entire range of skills at your disposal, which you can swap any time you return to town.  While I enjoyed trying out all of the offensive skills--I didn't care much about buffs or defensive skills--I quickly found a combination that worked well for me:  Cleave (a multi-hit swing that generated the Barbarian's resource:  Fury), Hammer of the Ancients (a close-range, massive-damage Fury-spender), and Weapon Throw (a long-range toss of a barbed axe, dealing tons of damage and "snaring" the target).  I did, however, trade out Hammer of the Ancients for Ground Stomp, which dealt sizable damage and stunned all enemies near my barbarous avatar.

Since none of these skills were reliant on skill points or the like, they always worked at their full capacity.  Really, there's very little number-crunching necessary in Diablo III.  Even the four primary stats are simply representatives of how much damage, critical chance, health and the like your character has.  While some have decried this as a lack of customization, it really serves to get you back into the action faster--there's no need to stop the zombie-smashing!  And, really--by the time I finished the beta, I was level 10 and had about 12 skills to choose from, which made for plenty of choices already.  And with the rune system still on deck?  Yeah, choice won't be a commodity here.

Hammer of the Ancients smashes a Cultist
in the Diablo III Beta!
One thing that struck me, however, is how beautiful this game looks.  Details are everywhere, and nearly everything can be targetted and destroyed.  I was in awe of the blood spatter as I smashed a zombie into the ground with Hammer of the Ancients, then followed up with a Cleave that sent the zombie flying back, with its head neatly severed and spinning on the ground.  After acquiring the services of the blacksmith, Haedrig, I picked up an enchanted two handed sword.  At first glance, the detail was quality, with a sharp-looking wavy blade and a squared-off hilt, but when I zoomed in, I found that not only did the hilt have a uniquely-designed pommel, but also an etching of an eye on the lower portion of the blade!  Gorgeous!

The visceral nature of combat, though, may be the best part.  Watching zombies ragdall as I Cleaved through them, hacking my way through barrels and watching the rings scatter across the floor, stomping the ground and seeing baddies stagger backwards...this is the visceral, full-bodied feel of a game that's never going to be tiresome. 

Whenever it manages to come out, Diablo III is going to be a massive blast.  Can't wait!

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Which The Warlock Mulls Choice and Consequence...

With the holiday season in full swing and preparations already being made for the impending ChrismaHannuKwanzaRamadanaFest, retailers have been eager to get the newest releases of video games on the shelves, ready for all of us eager consumers to gobble up in amongst our holiday feasting. 

Probably the most notable release this season has been The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim, a pseudo-Nordic role-playing game that's gotten rave reviews and has already won "Game of the Year" from Spike TV's Video Game Awards.  Its fans--including a certain TripleCritting DigitalKat--are rabid and voracious, and the game has already spawned its own series of memes, particularly regarding a number of guards having taken arrows to the knee.  Further, Skyrim is produced by Bethesda, who has put out quality work in the past and is revered amongst computer and video game developers.

And yet...I find I just can't get interested in this game.  And, finally, I figured out why.

In my (massively limited) spare time, I've been fighting my way through BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins.  My parents bought me the Ultimate Edition--which contains all of the major downloadable content--last year, and I'm still only about halfway through the game.  While the plot is fairly simplistic, revolving around the acquisition of allies against a usurper-king, Dragon Age's storytelling is strong, and the choices that you make have a lasting effect on the game itself. 

Is it worth killing him, to get rid of the demon in his body?
For example, I just completed a quest in which a duke's son became possessed by a demon.  Unable to exorcise the demon myself, I was forced to choose whether to:  a) kill the child, and the demon along with it, b) exorcise the demon, using the blood of the child's mother as a focus (thereby killing the mother, but saving the son), or c) risk traveling to a nearby mage tower to recruit help.  I opted for the third option, cashing in a favor from the mages, but at the expense of their help in a later battle.   

Every choice I made during that series of interactions had drastic repercussions on the remainder of the plot.  Had I chosen to kill the child (or the mother, for that matter), the people of the town would have likely refused to aid me, which was the point of traveling there in the first place!  But, my dwarf wanted to do the "right" thing, trying to save both, even if it meant losing the chance for help later.

While Dragon Age nominally gives you freedom in choosing the order of quests or locations, the game is fundamentally linear.  You travel to one place, solve problems there, then move on to another place.  Occasionally, you'll revisit locations to complete sidequests or the like, but by and large, the story elements are neatly contained, and provide finite, completable goals with lasting consequences.

While my experience with Skyrim has been limited, such hasn't been the case.  The world around you may be graphically gorgeous, massive in scope, and as open as a 'sandbox' gets, there's simply no feeling of impact.  The choices and actions within the game are like so much screaming into the wind--there's no sense of repercussions.  You can massacre an entire town, rob every NPC blind, or fill your house with the heads of your fallen enemies...and no one seems to care.  At all.  There are simply no repercussions for your character's actions, which leads to...well, me not caring.  If my actions aren't going to have a real impact, then what's the point?

I'm finding the same issue between the original Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City.  While Arkham Asylum allowed you to revisit areas, the plot proved to be a masterpiece due to its linearity.  You always knew exactly what you needed to do next, because one objective led directly to the next.  While this might seem simplistic, the unity of theme and effect made for a game experience that was without peer.  However, in Arkham City, the plot becomes much less linear, as the designers sacrificed unity of effect for the sprawling, open-world feel of a full city.  While this makes for a much more freeform game, the game's tight focus is dropped for the sprawling feel, leading to a less unified experience.

This has been my issue, similarly, with so-called "sandbox" roleplaying experiences.  Lacking a centralized plot or storyline, I often find that the PCs have little to do aside from what are typically seen as "side missions".  The "submissives"--to use the terminology from my prior entry--find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being dominant, while the GM's role is reduced to rules-arbiter and world-builder, rather than author-director.

I'm not saying that Skyrim, Arkham City or that sandbox games are bad--they simply show a trend that I, personally, don't really care for:  the fact that many gamers are willing to sacrifice quality storytelling for a perceived freedom.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Which The Warlock Postulates Verbage and Bondage...

In my recent games, it's become more and more apparent that games have begun to fall into a continuum of sorts, when talking about set pieces.

As most English teachers can tell you, verbs come in two sorts: active and passive. Active verbs imply some sort of action: run, jump, climb, eat, eviscerate, disembowel, etc. Passive verbs come from the declension of the infinitive "to be"--is, are, was, were...all of these are passive voice verbs.  Writers typically try to avoid passive voice verbs, by and large, but there are several times where passive voice may be more appropriate to a situation or character.   

As GMs, we all like to think our games run in the active voice, but rarely is that truly the case. Rather, we're often most content to be on the receiving end of our entertainment. The start of "The Flood" provides a great example of this phenomenon. It seems like a very active-voice introduction--steam wagon battles and ghost-rock bombs drive the plot forward at breakneck speed. But, in actuality, the PCs are merely witnesses, and not participants in the majority of the action. While the Great Rail Wars reach their culmination, the PCs get to watch their NPC counterparts hog the spotlight. This isn't meant to be a knock against the campaign--my players have loved it and I've really enjoyed running it for them--but for all the high stakes, the PCs are skating around under the radar rather than rolling with the movers and shakers.

Much has been made of so-called "sandbox" gaming, where the plot is entirely driven by PC actions and motivations. And, truly, in ideal terms, that would provide a more active gaming experience. However, this requires significant buy-in from all players at the table, with prep work spread across numerous people.

Anthony Bourdain clearly has
the Two-Weapon Fighting edge...
My favorite foodie, Anthony Bourdain, describes the act of eating as a fundamentally submissive, passive experience. Done correctly, Bourdain claims, a diner should feel comfortable enough to hand their minds and palates over to the chef and simply savor. The chef, in essence, dominates the show, determining each flavor, each texture, and each experience as they intend it to be.

Perhaps in this vein, good game mastery, like the act of cookery, should fundamentally be a dominant, active act? But then, what of the active player, eager to break off in new directions? They're in a different position than the eater, whose role has intrinsically less input. Should a gamer be penalized for positive actions that add to a game? Of course not!

Fun...and good for theorizing on
proper Game-Mastery?
As strange as it is to say, the best analogy I can provide would actually come from BDSM, of all places. If a game master is a dominant, then the ideal player would be a submissive that struggles and resists, providing input and suggestions that provide intrigue and nuance to the established norms of the game. And, as one might imagine, the best Dungeon Master (in both senses of the term) is the one that knows when to back off, and let the players play.

As with all things, balance and variety serve as the keystone. While a player might be dominant in one game, they may come off as submissive or passive in another. Similarly, a quality GM should be able to alternate control of the game, passing dominance back and forth amongst players, all the while loosely holding the reins of the ongoing story.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

In Which The Warlock Compares Editions...

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'd been prepping my Friday night Deadlands group for a what I've been terming an "interlude".

You see, we finally reached the halfway point of our exploits in "The Flood", with the posse gaining several significant allies and having gained a massive enemy in General Kwan, to say nothing of their ongoing struggle against the Church of Lost Angels.  Taking some rest and relaxation in Shan Fan, the posse got to kick up their heels, while I prepped my players for a fast foward.

I'd been itching to break out Hell on Earth for quite a while, but I'd never managed to play the original game that led to Savage Worlds.  That, naturally, has changed.

"All the way to Reno..."
I spent the last two weeks--in amongst some ongoing illness--writing up six experienced pre-gens in the Hell on Earth rules, as well as something of an "alternate timeline" scenario, in which the players' actual Deadlands posse had failed, and Reverend Grimme was free to spread his cult all the way into the 21st Century.  With a horde of Grimme's Faminites heading towards Reno, it was up to our far-future posse to lead the defense of the Biggest Little City in the Wasted West.

Our new posse included:
  • Edward Castellan--a New Templar from Boise, wielding a massive sword and a sub-machine gun.
  • "The Main Man" Marlow--a self-styled road warrior out of Junkyard, complete with chainsaw!
  • Leslie K. Marvin--a Junker from Junkyard, and the creator of several robotic combat drones.
  • Garret Walker--a Librarian from Sacramento, with his pet bobcat, Felix.
  • "Doc Neutron"--a heretic Doomsayer from Carson City, capable of blasting foes with raw radiation.
  • Carrie Ann Waltrip--a Harrowed bounty hunter, who's traveled all over the Wasted West...
While the group loved the change in feel--moving from the steampunk craziness of Deadlands to the desperate post-apocalypse of Hell on Earth--it's the change in rules that really stood out the most.  Playing Savage Worlds before this rules-set made the flaws in it stand out particularly highly.

A result of the hit locations
in Hell on Earth...
Particularly, the multiple damage systems were particularly difficult to remember.  While I don't have issues increasing the wound modifiers up to -5, I kept forgetting to deal Wind damage on normal attacks.  Also, I had to keep reminding my players to roll a d20 for hit location for every damaging attack, which added an additional roll and slowed down combat significantly.  FridayNightWill had a great moment while fighting against some undead Faminites:  playing as "The Main Man", he chainsawed off a Faminites legs and right arm, before finally managing to get a head shot.  It looked like infamous "Black Knight" scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as the undead thing would Not.  Give.  Up.

Also, the sheer number of stats seemed to be really excessive.  Hell on Earth has a separate stat for "Scrounging" and "Survival", which seemed to be a pretty large disconnect for some of my players.  But, on top of those, there's also a "Search" stat.  What does one do when you're looking for a spare part?  Is it "Scrounging" or is it "Search"?  The streamlining done in Savage Worlds--looking for that spare part would be a straight up "Notice" check--seems much needed.

While our foray into the original rules for Hell on Earth is going to be short-lived, it's been an interesting (and fun!) experience.  I purchased Hell on Earth primarily for the plot points and the setting info, and that hasn't disappointed me in the slightest.  When the "Reloaded" version comes out, though, I'll be the first in line to switch over.