Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Which The Warlock Has Too Much Plated...

Sorry, but it's a short entry this time, fellow gamers.

I've been staring at a computer screen all weekend, working on a pretty large segment on an upcoming book for The Laundry:  tentatively titled "Cultists Under the Bed". 

Because of this, I'll save the bigger details on what's been going on in The Flood, as well as what else I've been working on for the mid-week entry.  For now, you'll just have to be sated with my upcoming convention schedule for 2012!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Which The Warlock Mulls a Manifesto...

Once again, my compadre at The JourneymanGM has stumbled upon something of particular interest.  This time, it's a Reddit page, entitled "My Gamemaster Manifesto".  Essentially, each manifesto is a series of pledges or promises each makes to their players, as part of the game's fundamental social contract.

A fair amount of these elements are very similar to one another, or are the sort of things that simply go without saying for me.  In other cases, the statements are simply impossible to guarantee, making a guarantee less than worthless.  Saying "I will provide a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end" or "I pledge to create a game that is fun for both myself and all players at the table".

So, given those caveats, here's my own list...with a few items that deviate a bit from the norm.

1.  I pledge to challenge you as a player and as a character while at the game-table. 
When I run a game, I intend to challenge the interests, the desires, the strengths and the weaknesses of your character, but also those of you as a player.  Whether that means taking advantage of character flaws on your character sheet or pushing your own tendencies as a player, I will not be complacent in challenging you during the course of the game.

2.  I will help you play the character you want to play.
Your character is your purview and, barring certain occasions befitting the plot, you are the final arbiter of what goes on your character sheet.  If I am running a game, it's because I feel that I have a degree of system-mastery over that game.  Further, your character is a primary player in the grander plot.  If you are having difficulty with either portion, I will offer unbiased, honest feedback on how to approach your character.  However, the final decision as to any character changes belongs to you as a player.

3.  I will make the game as interesting and accessible to all members of the table as possible.
Fun is subjective.  I can't make you have fun.  What I can do is make the game accessible and active, which makes it more likely that you will have fun.  What we do at the table may not be to your taste.  If that's the case, you're welcome to bow out.  However, I intend to make our shared storyline interesting to you and accessible to someone not necessarily a fan of the given genre conventions.

4.  I pledge to be true to the given genre.
If I'm running a horror game, you should expect cults, creeping monstrosities, and ancient terrors.  If I'm running a steampunk game, you should expect airships and mad science.  This is true for both my own creations and for those brought to the table by others.  I will be vigilant in maintaining a truth-in-genre for all of my games.

5.  I will bring something new to the table each session.
I will not be complacent as a GameMaster, and will challenge myself with each session that we have.  I will not rely on 'old tricks' or previously-used techniques simply because they worked once, but rather will refine and hone my technique with each game, each plotline, and each session that we share.  Gaming evolves, and so shall I.

6.  I will call attention to the positive and the negative.
When you (as both a character and as a player) do something cool, you will receive the attention and adulation deserved.  You deserve the opportunity to shine.  If the inverse is true, I will speak up, so that the offending behavior/tactic/what-have-you is not repeated.  I will not be content to sit back or be passive-agressive in my dealings with you, simply to have another player at the table.

7.  I will be open to feedback and will be easily accessible.
Gamemastery is a form of writing--a specialized and shared form of writing, but writing nevertheless.  Writing cannot take place without revision.  I will listen openly and share honestly about my design and development process and take thoughtful feedback under deep consideration. 

Thoughts?  Additions?  Subtractions?  What do you think?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Which The Warlock Contemplates Some Criticism...

A few posts ago, you might remember my review of Dragon Age: Origins, which I finished over the holiday break (after only a year of having it sit on my shelf!).  Well, what you didn't see is my Facebook feed, which absolutely lit up with anti-recommendations when I mentioned my eagerness to pick up the sequel, Dragon Age II. Apparently, many of my acquaintances and the like were only the tip of the iceberg.  In fact, the negative reviews for DA2 seemed to outstrip the positive ones by far!

Call it stubbornness.  Call it a determination to go my own way.  Call it raw curiosity.  I bought DA2 anyway. 

And, you know what?  I greatly prefer Dragon Age II to its predecessor, as it made significant improvements in nearly every aspect of both game, characterization and story.

But, before I begin my diatribe, let me just put this here:  SPOILERS AHEAD!  BEWARE!

My biggest problem with the original Dragon Age was its generic storyline.  From the very start, your character was the last of the Grey Wardens, attempting to unite the sterotypically fractions factions of elves, mages, and dwarves against a tyrannical usurper and an incoming totally-not-orcs horde.  the story could have been easily written by a 12-year-old Dragonlance fan, with only a few stand-out questlines where the story shines.

Varric, telling his story to the Inquisitor...
Dragon Age II rectifies this beautifully by tightening up the narrative structure.  While the idea of the epic, world-spanning quest in DA: O is good in theory, in reality it's just unwieldy.  The narrative of DA2 is told through the words of Varric Tethras, one of your characters' companions.  However, the vast majority of the action in DA2 takes place in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches, to which your family has just migrated from fallen Lothering--a locale from the first game.  Destitute and looking for work, your main character finds themselves making a name for themselves by attempting to become a partner in an expedition to a dwarven ruin. 

However, following various twists and turns, the main character finds themselves in the midst of a city rife with its own problems.  A delegation of the militant Qunari have taken up residence in the city, gangs roam the night, and the Circle of Magi have been butting heads with their Templar and Chantry overseers.  Hawke (the main character) and their band of motley adventurers quickly find themselves in over their heads, confronted with a coming conflict that none seem to be able to prevent...but more on that later.

One of the biggest improvements DA2 made came in graphics, particularly backgrounds.  Often, the backgrounds in DA: O were fuzzy or undefined, and they definitely showed their age, as a game from nearly 5 years agoBut, worst of all, they felt stock and generic. 

The Wounded Coast--one of the most gorgeous areas
in Dragon Age II!
In DA2, however, the backgrounds and setting is used to its utmost.  Each district of Kirkwall has its own feel and theme, from the posh gardens surrounding the Chantry Courtyard in Hightown to the dingy, unkempt slums in Darktown.  Each area has its own design and attitude, which makes the city feel like a living, active place.  It becomes easy to tell where you are as you navigate through the city by night or day, simply by landmarks and background elements.  The view out over the sea when in the Wounded Coast area simply has no parallel--it's a beautiful, visually stunning area, which made my jaw drop for the first time since reaching the Arreat Summit in Diablo II.

Similarly, combat is much improved in DA2.  While the traditional classes of warrior-rogue-mage return, the classes are able to interact through "cross-class combos" that provide additional damage or benefits.  For example, if a mage casts Winter's Blast, the target may become frozen, which allows a warrior to deal higher damage.  Similarly, if that warrior uses a Shield Bash, the target is knocked off-balance, allowing a rogue to take advantage.  With the party AI greatly enhanced--coupled with 20-odd customizable tactics slots available for each party member--it's easy to take advantage of these ability combinations. 

While the game suffers slightly with combats that perhaps run too long, and the "wave" mechanic of dropping additional baddies into a scrum grows a little tiresome, I didn't find myself bored with combat as I did in DA: O.  Previously, I simply mowed everything down while my party mopped up behind me.  In DA2, I felt active and involved, choosing high-priority targets and hunting them down, alternating control of my character with those in my party:  Varric (a surface-dwelling "legitimate businessman"), Isabela (a ship-less lusty swashbuckler), and Merrill (my love-interest, an apostate elven mage).  I always felt like I had something to do, or some new strategy to try.  Plus, the game removed much of the "equipment-juggling" that tends to overcomplicate and clutter many party-based role-playing games, which was a much needed design choice.

My favorite portion of this game, however, comes in one simple piece of understanding, which many critics and even fans seem to have overlooked:  the story of Dragon Age II is a tragedy, not a heroic epic. 

Under the framing narrative of Varric telling the story of "The Champion of Kirkwall" to a Chantry interrogator, Varric's tone throughout the cut scenes is one of loss, wistfulness, and memories of "better times".  And, why shouldn't he feel this way?  Nearly everything that Hawke and his companions build up over the course of the 7 years together in Kirkwall comes crashing down, as their own actions spiral out of control.

The result of all Hawke's works...up in flames...
Case in point:  Varric himself.  Hawke, Varric and the rest are betrayed by Varric's brother at the end of Act I.  When Varric's brother resurfaces, he has gone insane, and Varric is forced to kill his own brother out of mercy.  But that's not all!  Merrill's pursuit of elven history costs her teacher's life, if not the lives of her entire clan.  The mine that Hawke invests in--giving hundreds of migrant Fereldans employment--is burned to the ground and destroyed.  Hawke's own mother is drawn in, then killed by a serial killer who escaped Hawke's investigation in years prior.  Anders, a mage companion, spouts rhetoric not heard outside of Malcolm X or Magneto, decrying the templar oppression from his Darktown clinic, all the while he plans a terrorist attack to start "the coming war". 

Hawke's story is one of loss, over and over again.  It's the story of the rise and fall of power in amongst a maelstrom of rival factions.  Throughout the game, I found my dialogue choices again and again trying to unite rival factions, even as they took up arms against one another.  However, I swiftly found a group of moderates--a group of nobles looking for someone to put on an empty throne, following the death of Viscount Dumar.  In a last-ditch effort, my Hawke threw her name in as a potential replacement...only to find that Anders' actions had brought about the very war that Hawke was about to prevent.

This!  This is tragedy!  This is drama!  This is the sort of storytelling that can elevate video games to that oft-mused category of "art". 

Yes, there are flaws.  As I mentioned, the continual waves in combat grow tiresome at times.  The various dungeon locales are repeated--albeit with some minor changes--fairly often.  And, it would have been nice to have more interaction with two of the major players--the head of the templars and the head of the magi circle--before Act III.  But with varied and interesting combat, spectacular visuals, and a story that breathes and revels in pathos, there's no comparison:  Dragon Age II far outstrips its predecessor.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Which The Warlock Presents His Nefarious Plot...

Apologies for the slightly late entry, but I wanted to hold off until I actually sent off the e-mail to FridayNightWill with the fate of his gunslinger!

Take a gander!

As you drift in and out of consciousness, the shamaness' magic streams over you and through your mind. Images flash into your mind.

All you can hear, though, is the screaming: the wailing and gnashing of spectral teeth, ephemeral fingernails against a stone slab. Screaming, crying, begging, all you can remember is wanting to be free again.

You remember vividly who put you here. You remember the years spent in Rock Island Prison, facing torment after torment, at the hands of Grimme and his men. But you would not renounce your would not give in. That's when the butchers came, and flayed you alive. That's when they put you this stone tomb.

You remember nothing from your life before. Your memories are hazy, and only come in fragments. You remember a great crowd, speaking before them and leading them across a vast waste. But aside from that? Simply faces in the mist...not even your own name.
Okay, that's the flavor text. Here's the meat.
Something (or someONE!) is living in your head now. A spirit from the graveyard is in your head, with its own motivations, ideas and desires. Above all else is vengeance, coupled with the mystery of who you really are...
Sometimes the mind acts on its own. When it does, it has a power you've never felt, coursing from some unseen source. Unfortunately, sometimes it wants control...and it knows how to get it.
Occasionally, I'll ask for an opposed Spirit test. You want to win these. Otherwise, you may find yourself in some dire straits!
Good luck!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

In Which The Warlock Finds a New Way to Challenge a Player...

Now that our holiday festivities are over, we've finally gotten back in the swing of things with our weekly games out here.  "The Flood" has really started to heat up, as our posse have managed to track down a displaced group of Hopi and Apache Indians, calling themselves the "Necessity Alliance".  Believing that these natives could hold the key to stopping Reverend Grimme's reign of terror, the posse agreed to help find the shaman Sees-Far-Ahead, tracking him--in a rather grisly way:  the severed finger of the shamaness Born-in-a-Bowl--to the Jehosephat Valley overlooking the City of Lost Angels.

An image of Jehosephat Jerusalem.
Still, not a nice place to be!
Jehosephat Valley, in the public's eye, is the "potters' field" for Lost Angels--those not of the faithful are buried here in tasteful, if austere, accomodations.

In reality, Jehosephat Valley is deadland.  As in:  Terror Level 6, "Bad Things Live Here" deadland.  In reality, it's where the bones from all of the victims of Grimme's Sunday-afternoon 'feasts' get discarded. 

After sneaking into the cemetary, the posse ran afoul of the Jehosephat minister...who swiftly recognized two of the group as wanted fugitives from Lost Angels, and leapt into action.  Fleeing the guards, deeper and deeper into the cemetary, as the sun refused to rise...the group saw it:  the living, charnel bone-piles discarded by Grimme's feasts.

Now, this is where FridayNightWill got himself into trouble.  You see, Born-in-a-Bowl's finger, still twitching and writhing, had freed itself from its box and began bounding along the path, deep into the charnel wastes....leading Will right into the path of some vicious bone fiends.

Separated from the group--the rest were fending off a legion of Guardian Angels--Will fell beneath the blows of the bone fiends, falling unconsious...

...and that's when it came to me.  You see, the bone fiends aren't the only denizens of the Jehosephat Valley graveyard.  Rather, there are quite a few errant spirits roaming the boneyard, and despite the fact that the PlatinumChick's shamaness managed to get Will back on his feet, there are going to be consequences for this one...but that will have to wait for our next session!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Which The Warlock Totally Called It...

A few posts ago, you may recall The Journeyman GM and I making some predictions as per the potential of an upcoming edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Well, lo and behold:  it looks like we were right.  In the latest "Legends and Lore" column, Mike Mearls officially outed the current development of a new edition of D&D.

As you can imagine, I'm not particularly surprised.  When Monte Cook came back on board and the 4e release schedule slowed to a crawl--much as it had at the end of 3.5e's run--it was fairly easy to tell that something was amiss over in Seattle.  When word started creeping in by other industry insiders, such as Margaret Weis, it's hard to deny that something isn't going on.

Honestly, I'm sort of looking forward to a new edition.  While I love many things about 4e--the rise of the non-caster character, archetypes such as the warlord getting their due, and the entire ritual system--I almost can't bring myself to play the game anymore.  The reliance on minis-based combat, the similar-feeling powers, and the labyrinthine character sheets (particularly in Paragon tier and beyond) just got to be too much.  When a character sheet hits 8 pages, there's simply too much to go through!

My biggest worry, however, is summed up best here:  in an article for the New York Times by Ethan Gilsdorf.

When 4e came out, the gamer market fractioned.  For over a year, Paizo's Pathfinder has either matched or outsold D&D, as disgruntled fans sought their fix elsewhere.  I've been a devoted D&D player since 7th grade, and I haven't touched the game since this past Origins.  Before that?  Almost six months prior.  Other games--which tend to have a longer shelf life, simpler rules, and faster play around the table--have attracted my attention.  I don't see that changing, to be honest.

It's been stated over and over in the few days since the new edition's announcement that the hope is for a "reunification" of the fractured gamer community.  I can only hope that this is going to be the case...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

In Which The Warlock Ends an Age...

As I've mentioned a few times over the past few entries, I finally managed to play through Dragon Age: Origins--the BioWare-developed fantasy opus, billed as a spiritual successor to my beloved Baldur's Gate series, which I still have installed on my laptop.

I've been hesitant to write a review for DA: O, though, because my feelings towards the game have been more than a little conflicted.  While there's been a lot to love in the game, I can't help but feel that certain changes could have really put this game up over the top.

Building my Dwarf Warrior
One of the best things about DA: O comes from its titular origins--depending on your choice of race (Elf, Human, or Dwarf) and class (Warrior, Mage, or Rogue), your character's quest against the Darkspawn began with an opening interlude, centering on your character's family.  Deciding to play the "dwarfiest dwarf ever", I settled on the Dwarven Noble opening, in which I was the second son of King Endrin Aeducan, and was swiftly embroiled in the byzantine turmoil of dwarven ascension politics.  Finding myself on the receiving end of a brutal backstabbing, I was exiled to the labyrinthine Deep Roads and fought my way to an encampment of Gray Wardens, whom I ended up joining.

Playing as a Warrior, I swiftly gravitated towards two-handed weapon talents...and promptly cleaved my way through the game.  Even without a shield, my main character was a juggernaut of destruction, simply hacking through most enemies.  The "darkspawn"--a not-quite-orc, not-quite-undead horde that swept across the continent of Ferelden--simply posed little challenge. Even my basic "auto-attacks" dealt upwards of 100 damage per swing, felling enemies with a single slash.  Often, combat simply meant switching between targets as I faced one, then another, then another...occasionally whipping out a multi-target slash when surrounded, or a high damage ability when facing a major foe.

Even "red" enemies, with increased hit points and special abilities, were little more than meat sacks ready for me to hack through.  While the game itself was artfully developed, the enemies grew...well, boring.  Some true weirdness in a dwarven tomb was a welcome change, fighting against the hideous "Broodmother", but monsters like that proved to be the exception, rather than the rule.  Similarly, the trip through a corrupted mage tower was suitably icky, but that section was marred by a lengthy (and mandatory) puzzle section, which frustrated me much more than it entertained.

Morrigan and Leliana:
Two of my lovely companions in DA: O
The strength of a BioWare game, however, comes from its character writing.  And, truly, the developers did not disappoint on this front.  In amongst my numerous NPC options, I gravitated towards the sarcastic (though somewhat naive) warrior Alistair, the cynical mage Morrigan, and a "recovering" bard/assassin named Leliana, with whom I began a fledgling romance.  I found myself constantly talking with my NPCs, hoping for new dialogue options or a new sub-plot.  Since playing on the "Ultimate" edition, my game came pre-loaded with an additional option to play with--the golem Shale, whose barbed commentary was utterly hilarious.  While I would have liked to see a few more NPC-specific side-quests, the sheer depth that DA: O has in terms of followers make it worth listening to every cut-scene and dialogue.

Honestly, would you trust someone
who looked like this? 
Unfortunately the plot itself didn't quite hold up to the high standard set by character development.  A bog-standard fantasy plot, you find yourself betrayed at the outset of the game by a moustache-twirlingly evil advisor to the king, as he bids for control of the throne.  Surviving a vicious darkspawn attack, you find yourself assembling a cadre of allies--mages, elves, dwarves, and humans--to help dethrone the usurper and stave off the darkspawn invasion.  Naturally, each of these factions has their own problems, which it's up to you to solve, if you want their aid in the coming coup and war.  While this plot is structurally sound and full of great NPCs--including the elven warden Zathrian, who made me want to cleave my PS3 with a broadsword out of sheer rage--it's nothing particularly new or innovative. 

The brooding Jon Irenicus,
voiced beautifully by David Warner.
I think it's the lack of a solid villain that keeps DA: O from really achieving greatness.  In Baldur's Gate II, we were treated to the simultaneously sympathetic and aggravating Jon Irenicus, whose dialogue absolutely stole the show in every cut scene he was present in.  Irenicus was voiced by the spectacular David Warner, who may be best known for voicing Ra's Al-Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, lending Irenicus a cultured menace perfect for villainy.  Dragon Age: Origins simply doesn't have a villain of that calibre.  While Teyrn Logain--the aforementioned usurper--is meant to fulfill the villainous role, he simply doesn't have enough screen time to develop properly.  It's hinted that Loghain feared a foreign invasion and lost faith in the current king, leading him to try for the throne, but Loghain simply lacks the development to feel fleshed-out.

Despite my nitpicks, I really enjoyed my time through Dragon Age: Origins.  Immediately after completing the main campaign, I found myself playing through "Witch Hunt"--a downloadable "epilogue" based around the fate of Morrigan, my sardonic mage companion.  I'm already planning to make it through the expansion pack "Awakening" over an upcoming holiday weekend, as well as picking up Dragon Age II.  While reviews of DAII are mixed, its smaller-scale plot and more dynamic gameplay may be more up my alley.  We shall see, I suppose!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

In Which The Warlock Ushers in a New Year...

Ahoy, fellow gamers!  Sorry on the delay, but I was doing my best to enjoy my holiday and recover to the best of my ability.  Both the PlatinumChick and I have been fighting through upper respiratory infections since around the 20th, which we're only now starting to get over.  However, we did manage to have a geek-tastic holiday, which is what matters!

Always the enthusiastic Savage Worlds player, the PlatinumChick got me a copy of the SW "Action and Adventure" decks for Christmas.  I'd been eyeing these up for a while, ever since The JourneymanGM started using the cards in his "Heart of Darkness" trilogy.  They'll definitely make for a great addition as my players finish out "The Flood".

I also managed to finally fight my way through the remainder of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, in anticipation to start the sequel.  While I'd love to spill the beans on my opinions here, I'm going to hold off until this weekend, to better accumulate my thoughts.

However, I do have something special for you!  Following last year's culinary experimentation, I felt that I needed to one-up myself at this year's New Year's Eve party.  As such, I decided to go whole hog...or rather, whole bird, so to speak:  a bacon-wrapped Turducken roll!  I'd originally intended to wrap a full turducken, but with only 15 or so party-goers this year (compared to the nearly 30 last year), it was simply more prudent to use the roll.

So, take a look, and make sure not to drool on your keyboard! 

The fully wrapped roll, pre-cooking...

That same roll, fresh out of the roaster!

A victorious PlatinumWarlock!

The many delicious layers...laid bare for all to see...