Tag Archives: Games

Half Life 2 — A very late review

I didn’t want to play Half-Life 2 when it first came out. I found the demo to be an glorified tech demo, bland and predictable. On the other hand, Team Fortress 2 with its siren call of competitive and cooperative game play is something I’ve been meaning to check out. With a choice between the Orange Box (giving me many games for one low price) and purchasing TF2 solo (this was a couple of months back before it went free to play) I chose the more economic option and became a proud owner of HL2.

Simply put, Half-Life 2 tries hard to be an excellent game. It looks good, the controls are easy to use, and there is a lot of world-building to see. But that’s the problem. All I ever got to do was look at the world, I never got to explore it. The limitations artificially foisted are numerous and varied.

For one, there is the story. All by itself, it might have sufficed to be a short novel perhaps. But as part of an interactive medium, the story suffers in its inability to let the player be the hero. In giving no quarter, no choice to the player, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes a bland background. This is incredibly jarring since NPCs constantly say that the player will think of something and lead them to victory. But no thinking is required on behalf of the player. Just follow the primrose path laid before them. How then is the player motivated? There is absolutely no reason to save the world because there is nothing at stake. There are no worthwhile failure conditions. And it doesn’t matter what the player may want or do, the world will be saved because that is what the story says will happen. For as much choice Half-Life 2 gives the player, you might as well be playing a high-res version of pong.

Second, there is the actual game itself. Only at its very end, did Half-Life 2 resemble anything like an actual game. And that was more an homage to the old arcade Tron game.

Otherwise, Half-Life 2 is best described as a series of in-game cut scenes punctuated by an occasional puzzle or fight. This really makes it no different than any other FPS released in the last decade. Most of the puzzles and fights are very easy. But there are a rare few which jumps so far up the difficulty curve as to be completely separate from the rest of the game. And while this is a fantasy game dressed in the guise of science fiction, there are more than one puzzle or fight which defies the rules of their world. Almost every enemy could see through walls, there were enemies which never faltered in their aim, and enemies immune to all attacks.

I think that the designers of the game were not so interested in what the player can achieve but were far more engaged in celebrating their own creation. Like some four year old holding up their crayon art for praise, Half-Life 2 wants you to be impressed with itself and not the experience that it brings to you.

This attitude is endemic in the video game world. We hear that the game creators want to engage Players through story and consequences, but Half-Life 2 gives no control over either to the player. Where this discontinuity originates, I have no idea. All I can see is that there is no trust in the player to be the hero, there is no trust in the player to choose the righteous path. I am not asking for an AI game master to  improvise at the player’s whim, but something far simpler. To start, failure should be an option and it should not end the game. Right or left should be meaningful options. At the very least I should be able to chart out the plot as per Robin’s Law of good gamemastering and have it be a straight line.

Games like Half-Life 2 that attempt to dazzle to distract from their flatness do a disservice to all games.

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Development Log

Just a few quick notes about what I’ve been working on lately.

First, the biggest push has been a board and card game. I’m not exactly sure how to categorise it since it uses both extensively in play. It is based on some 3 am answers from the days when there wasn’t anything else to do but to hang out at iHop ordering from the kid’s menu. In this case, the question was, “If you had a billion dollars and a cable network, what sort of shows would you make”. And the answers were kinda crazy.

But that’s not what the game is about. The game is about taking some of those crazy shows and putting them on a schedule, in competition with other players trying to do the same thing. The idea is to award points a few times during the game and whoever ends up with the most points, wins.

The fun factor is going to be in arranging those crazy shows. You could have “The Fish Hour” followed up by the reality show, “I dream of Angelo” in the same way that Steve Jackson’s Illuminati game has the many crazy groups all controlling each other. Well, that and being able to best your friends.

Currently, I have the basic mechanics worked out and have moved to start in on the numbers. The part of the game where you see how many of which card is needed at minimum to make the various other bits of the game work properly. That’s going to take a bit more as the mechanics can get a bit hairy. Right now, in order to make a show you have to have three things. The first is the show’s card. That has to be in your hand. The next is you need the personnel to work on it. This would be the writers, actors, and producers who do the work of putting the show together. And finally you need the money. Where I am right now is trying to get those numbers to be harmonious. Not easy and requires a bit of math followed up by trial and error before reverting back to further math.

The goal of doing all of that math is to have something that feels more engineered, a game that is flexible and resilient to the sort of abuses that players put games through. In this way, I am approaching it like a software project. I want to be able to get as much done with it and to “harden” it to the point where I don’t have to do much work, if any, to support it after I’m done.

More updates about the development of the game as they happen.

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Confusion about subscriptions

It has become clear that in some circles it is possible to make a good deal of money by selling gaming content through a subscription. The biggest player in this space is World of Warcraft. And considering that you can make some back-of-the-napkin calculations that result in billions of dollars, it is unsurprising that others want a cut of that. There are crucial differences between computer gaming and more traditional pen’n’paper which makes getting at those subscription dollars incredibly hard.

The first, and arguably the largest, is the open nature of pen’n’paper gaming. It is easy to swap books, make copies, rely on other player’s income to fill in the gaps needed to play, or for everyone to chip in on some essential tome. The ability to share with your fellow gamers what they need to construct their imaginings has been fundamental since its inception. Without it, pen’n’paper gaming falls apart.

Given the slow, yet steady, direction of sharing like traditional books that e-publishers have been heading in it may yet still be possible to have a digital versions of pen’n’paper which respect the needs and traditions of the hobby. However, this is likely many years away and it will not be without significant legal wrangling in courts and settling of questions which have yet to be addressed.

Second hurdle is one of perceptions. Right now, most digital subscriptions leave me with a feeling of getting less for more money. With print magazines one usually get several bonuses. Home delivery, deep discounts for renewal, and subscriber-only promotions that kept people paying. One also get to decide what to keep, collect, or transform from the print into some other useful entity. With digital subscriptions, you have to rely upon the good faith that back issues and articles will be there when you need them. Likewise, pricing has been somewhat problematic often varying from site to site and year to year. It is easy to feel ripped-off when you pay the same price but are unable to use it in the same way.

And there you go. Until the issues of sharing and of use are answered digital subscriptions for traditional gaming is going to falter and fail.

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My Weekend in Rokugan

This past weekend was the first Weekend in Rokugan for the new Spirit of Bushido campaign. I got to play a bit part in the overall proceedings running a few games and filling a role in the interactive Saturday night. It was an incredible time with a far better turnout than the admins were anticipating.

There were three new campaign mods premiering last weekend. These were A Walk Through the Mountains, Delicate Negotiations, and Poisoned Gifts. I got to play slot-zeros of Walk and Poisoned which are interesting and I think indicate the sort of directions that the admins want to take the themes and the sorts of ideas to explore. Poisoned Gifts more than others. Although I have a bit of affection for Walk, having ran it multiple times on Saturday.

The interactive was a different experience, an experience that was structured around the players, their clans, and the choices put into play. I got to play the Lion’s clan leader and have to admit to having a little bit of fun when calling the clan together for a meeting. It was something to watch the players wheeling and dealing and trying to change the world of Rokugan into something more of their liking.

Of course, the Admins get the final say over what impact on the campaign that the choices and deals made have, but the players get to have the knowledge of that they have had their say on that direction. And it will be a very interesting one given the sorts of deals that were worked out Saturday night.

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Cub Scout cave, create awards for playing video games

A little behind the times on this but I did want to comment.

I’m of two minds. On the one side, I’m justifiably thrilled that my hobby of twenty five years is pervasive enough that even the Scouts have to recognize it as a cultural force. On the other, I am disappointed that they did so. Gaming, despite the wonderful social interaction one can experience through it, focuses a great deal on the individual sometimes in an unhealthy way. To me Scouting exists in part, to get boys and young men away from their computers, video games, and other aspects of pop-culture. To expose them to the wider world, to help them develop an appreciation of the natural wonders and of their community. To get them away from themselves.

In my opinion the requirements for the beltloop award and the Academic pin do neither and instead smack of a commercial exploit of the scouts.

The three requirements for the Belt loop include the following:

  1. Explain video game ratings and why they are important
  2. Create a schedule for yourself that includes time to play video games
  3. Play video games

I’ve paraphrased them, if you’re curious, here are the official requirements.

Those seem simple enough, right? The thing is, these aren’t aimed at the scout. They’re being aimed at the parents of scouts. Why does an eight year old even care about ESRB ratings, let alone be able to explain why they are important?

It also dodges a lot of questions about what role video games, and gaming in general, play in our culture as well as being gracious in play. Having fun also seems to have escaped the scouts with the way this has been organized for the Cubs and Webelos.

All in all, this is a step forward in recognizing that gaming is an important part of our culture but lacks important cultural contexts that gaming creates for both the parents and for the kids playing them.

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Design of Dubious Use Presents

Item Classifications

For some time now RPGs include various classifications for items and then link them to certain mechanical benefits or detriments in the rules. For example, the GURPS system not only had types of weapons and damage but also Tech Levels, describing the point in history where the game was taking place and what sort of items could be found there. Obstinately, this was to keep laser guns out of the medieval fantasy, but in my experience, it served only to confuse the players and cause trouble. You can see where Tech Levels get silly quickly with the addition of half levels and the +/- which modifies the meaning of a given TL in an attempt to make it more customized.

Another good example can be found in D&D. Here you find weapons classified as either Exotic or Common, slashing/bashing/piercing, and by their damage die. In purpose, these are all present to give players a strategy to work by. Certain types of weapons do better or worse against certain types of foes. In practice, this causes parties to be concerned not with the story and its elements but often with the contents. How many times have you sat down to start a game session and are hit by a barrage of questions? “Are we going to be engaging undead?” “What sort?” “Skeletons or zombies?”

From such, or because of such classification, RPGs have rules which limit what characters can do based solely on them. Proficiencies, Skills, and Talents are layered with caveats giving players access to one or two of the categories but not all. But do these classifications do anything for the roleplaying experience? Do these rules enhance the drama and the player experience or end up restricting Players and their imaginations?

Here are two situations of high drama which Characters can find themselves in.

Situation 1: Your character has been kidnapped and put in a locked room. You’ve been able to escape your bonds. There’s nothing in the room but a chair, the rope the character was tied up with, and a table. Your character hears the kidnappers coming down the hallway talking about how the ransom hasn’t been paid and they’re going to murder them.

Situation 2: Your character is in the middle of a large battle, both sides have people dying all around you. Your weapon is broken and you’re suddenly faced with an opposing champion. Your only choice is to grab a spear-like instrument currently impaling a fallen comrade.

Both of these situations can apply to a whole party, not an individual. Both have the same problem when having rules reinforcing classification systems. Can the Character take up that spear or grab that chair and make good with their life? In both situations they should be able to because it makes sense dramatically. The system should be focusing on the drama of the situation and not the objects lying about the characters. These are not the plot macguffins you put in there. This is a Character in life and death. The drama of these situations does not lie in the materials but in how they are used.

When creating a system of classification for item you create a certain intent. If that intent is to limit or restrict then you have limited and restricted how your players imagine and react to the situations presented. Does that make for good roleplaying or not?

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We need to post more…

We really need to post more on this… I certainly do.

So, here’s my resolution. I’m gonna try to post once a week.

My current plan, is to start developing stuff for New World of Darkness games. Today’s contribution, Homebrewed Keys and Manifestations for Geist: the Sin-Eaters

Geist has Manifestations (the sin-eaters special magical powers) associated with 7 of the 9 core attributes. Naturally for me, I would like manifestations for the other two attributes.

Also, Keys bend how a manifestation works, flavoring how the power works. I’ve started work on several new keys, to add new flavor to the powers.

Here’s what I have so far.

New Keys and Manifestations.

Manifestation 1 – Dexterity based – The Fetter – Imposes penalties, binds target
Cold Wind Fetter – Cold disables target, may create Ice to bind
Grave Dirt Fetter – Zombie hands grasp at targets legs – Try to grapple/Trip
Pyre Flame Fetter – Flame Lashes parry, drive back enemies
Tear Stained Fetter – Target is affected as if moving against water.
Industrial Fetter – Conjures rusty chains. Binds and slows target
Passion Fetter – Emotional bindings, Fear and Sorrow
Phantasmal Fetter – Illusory chains
Primeval Fetter – Vines and or other plants
Stigmata Fetter – Open pseudo wounds, no damage (til rank 4) but cause wound penalties.
Stillness Fetter – Locks targets Joints
Widow’s Kiss Fetter – Venom disables target, Shuddering/shakes.
Dirge Fetter – Wraps target in metaphysical bounds of words. Target becomes socially awkward, confused, and says wrong words or odd things.
Phlogeston Fetter – Strangles the enemy with tendrils of nothingness.

Manifestation 2 – Composure based – The Pall – Provides Social Defense, Hides intentions.
Cold Wind Pall –
Grave Dirt Pall –
Pyre Flame Pall –
Tear Stained Pall –
Industrial Pall –
Passion Pall –
Phantasmal Pall –
Primeval Pall –
Stigmata Pall –
Stillness Pall –
Widow’s Kiss Pall – q
Dirge Pall – q
Phlogeston Pall – q

KEYS
New Key 1 – The Widow’s Kiss – Poison focus. Both physical Poison and Emotional poison
Widow’s Kiss Boneyard – Grants additional power and insight over poisonous things in area, works best in poisoned land/wastelands.
Widow’s Kiss Caul – Changes body to be toxic to others, adapt to poisons. Also take on aspects of Venomous spiders or reptiles. (Especially Black/Brown/Red Widows)
Widow’s Kiss Curse – Target gets poisoned by incidental contact with normal things. Salmonella from eggs, Mercury from his fillings, his mail is contaminated with Ricin or Anthrax, Etc.
Widow’s Kiss Marionette – Creates a poison that does will damage. If will <= 0, then subject is bound to the sin-eater's will. Widow's Kiss Oracle - Drink poison to gain ecstatic visions, forsight. Also allows you to 'see' poison in things. Widow's Kiss Rage - Each use creates a single dose of poison whose damage and toxicity is based on successes on activation. Lasts for a length of time based on rank. Widow's Kiss Shroud - Bonus defense against Poisons and Disease. New Key 2 - The Dirge - Tilts all manifestations to the Social, All word related. Dirge Boneyard - Constant Chanting, Boneyard extends to all in earshot. Extra effects in locations associated with Oratory or Amphitheaters, or where a Eulogy was recently given. Dirge Caul - Changes the body to become a better orator, more impressive, better manipulator. Dirge Curse - Target suffers various mental disorders that cause social problems. Especially Aphasia and/or Tourette's syndrome. Dirge Marionette - Subject believes the Bounds words are his own thoughts, behaves appropriately. Dirge Oracle - Automatic Writing, Bibliomancy. Dirge Rage - Can be used to inflict damage as an area attack instead of single target. Dirge Shroud - Adds to social defense, confuses others socially(Manipulation). New Key 3 - The Phlogeston - Aethir, Fifth Element, Void. Creates vacuums? Any manifestation where Elemental Keys function the same, Phlogeston key follows the same functions. Phlogeston Boneyard - allows them to force other elements out of an area. Works best in area's that are devoid of most of the classic elements. Works exceptionally well where non-breathable gasses are prevelant, or in outer space (unlikely but hey, it could happen) Phlogeston Caul - Become an archon of nothingness Phlogeston Curse - Phlogeston Marionette - Phlogeston Oracle - Must suffocate self with smoke or inert gasses to activate. Phlogeston Rage - Damage from Vacuum Suffocation, causes perception problems Phlogeston Shroud -

A question of value

To supply my Warhammer group with the materials needed to play the next version, over $150 is going to have to be spent. I have five people at minimum, but most of the time I have seven. According to FFG’s official reckoning I’m going to  need the core box set, the adventure’s set, and at least one extra set of dice. While they have said that you can play with as many people as you like with the core box set, this appears to be incredibly awkward to do, so I consider it necessary to get the expansion. This is a tremendous amount of money just to get basic functionality. Because of this, I have been thinking of the value of the new system when compared to the old and other RPGs.

First, the previous version of WFRP was $40 plus tax. It gave all of the careers, all of the races, a starting adventure to play through and a thin GM section. With it I could create everything needed for a campaign, no extras needed. All anyone coming to play need is some dice. This has been the traditional setup for RPGs and it delivers quite a bit of value for the money.

D&D 4th edition is the next natural choice to compare. The core set of books can run you as much as $105 + tax without any discounts. However, looking on Amazon, I can get each one for $23 for a total of about $70 before taxes. And I can check it out ahead of time by going to WotC’s website and getting a free pdf which introduces much of the core concepts and a free adventure to try it out with. In practical terms, a group of five to seven can easily play with just the initial outlay although an additional PHB may be needed. Overall, not bad bang for one’s buck if one is able to get the discounted versions online or even secondhand.

Pathfinder offers a nearly all-in-one tome for $50 that has everything but a monster manual. Much like WotC’s D&D not much more is needed to keep a group of players going after the initial purchase. Currently there’s no free taste but considering it’s built off of the freely available 3.5 SRD one doesn’t really need an official version to try out. Despite this, the amount of flavor put in there by Paizo makes the price well worth it.

GURPS has a two book set, Characters & Campaigns, comprising its core system. Both are listed at Amazon for a total of about $50 before taxes. Together the two have a page count of nearly 600 pages of yummy RPG goodness. Designed for the DIY crowd, the Campaign book goes to great lengths to help the GM get going. Players with a lot of imagination (and more than a little time on their hands) have a dizzying array of options to go with. There is absolutely nothing more needed to play. This is another system that offers a free pdf to give a taste before buying.

In looking at how much is packed into these two books, it is hard not to say that GURPS may represent the most bang for one’s buck. The only drawback is the the amount of time needed for world-building.

These are just the tip of the iceberg. The HERO 6th edition core set is $70 if both books are purchased together. Rifts is currently going for $30. This doesn’t even touch free systems such as FUDGE or FATE. Nor does it address the hundreds of small/independent RPGs, many of which are $30 or less.

So I am skeptical, very skeptical, that the next version of WFRP is going to have a comparable value for my money.

Stuff I'm up to

Since I’ve not had a chance to get another post this week so I thought I’d go over the things that have been occupying my time.

Warhammer module writing has been a bit part of it. This week The Rats Below was edited and is now ready to run at the KC Game fair. I’m very happy with it, having brought it down to 9 pages from 11 without losing a single inch of plot. It flows better, it reads easier, and hopefully it should be easier to run. Not that I’ve put it out there for anyone else to grab just yet, but that will be happening soon enough.

The other big thing I’ve been working on this week is a fourth WFRP module. The original idea I had been writing just was not working. Then on Monday I had a sudden inspiration. In writing these, I’ve been trying to introduce different themes of the WFRP world I find interesting. Where I had been going for some steampunk and greenskins, I kept hitting a wall.  The plot was just not working, it felt too contrived. I ended up taking the  “What will you do” moment from the first, placed it in the rewrite and away it went. Shoving the pcs out into an isolated forest village is a much better and more natural fit. That rewrite is half way written and I’m going to try to get the major plot points finished this week so that the details and editing is all that’s left to do.

I like this new plot for several reasons. It got me out of the writing funk that had settled in. And has me thinking about the overall plot for this campaign. There are a few stories I want to follow up with that stem from events in The Rats Below that I think are especially fun in Warhammer. Those should be written up quickly since I have a good feel for what I want to do. However, it may mean missing NanoWriMo because of it.

Which leaves editing and fleshing out of the introduction module, The Faire. This is a behemoth of a module and not something I’ve been looking forward to. It currently sits at 15 pages and just under 11k words. Not the biggest one out there but it’s big enough. That also needs to be done and have pregen characters ready, for KC Game Fair.

Hopefully the events submitted will be accepted. I put in three, one session of The Faire and two of The Rats Below. That way people can catch up who haven’t been able to come over and get ready for the next one currently being written.

I’ve also been thinking about my follow up to last week’s expansion of the rpg market article. I’m thinking of trying to get an interview with some marketing departments. Right now I’m looking at Steve Jackson Games and White Wolf. The two of these seem to be a good place to start. But first, I need to come up with questions to ask them. Since this is still mostly a vanity site, I’ll have to be much more prepared to show that this isn’t just for my own edification. Once I have them written, we’ll see what happen.

Beer wise, I wish I could say that more was happening, but there isn’t anything at all. I have two bottles left in the fridge from the ‘make your own six pack’ that netted the beers used in other reviews. I will eventually be getting to them in a future review.

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Building up the rpg market

The amount of money being spent on various forms of entertainment these days is growing, but for some reason, the RPG market remains in its limited scope. Why is this?  Considering that one of the biggest trends in entertainment has been the so-called interactive experience, I find it surprising that RPGs haven’t been touted loudly. The core of RPGs is interaction and the sharing of fun with other people.  However, I realize that these games have had a controversial existence marked with swathes of provocative misinformation and purposeful misunderstandings hounding those who play them.

Perceptions of what these games are and those who play them are the biggest culprit. Not long ago, some umbrage with the images and themes used in the biggest of games, Dungeons and Dragons. Grabbing the headlines, blame for all sorts of horrid and completely imaginary events was unjustly laid at the feet of a mere game. If you look in the right places you can still find this going on today. One of the saddest of these demonetizations came from Jack Chick and his ignorant pamphlets. In it, he unsubtly proclaims that playing D&D leads directly to devil worship, and does so in the most serious of terms. If it wasn’t so sad, all of this would be hilarious. However, since many took them seriously much damage was done to the reputation of RPGs.

To counter these perceptions we must be proactive in advocacy. And to do that we must be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

Role Playing Games are make believe. Dressed up with esoteric rules and polyhedral dice, we project ourselves into worlds of fantastic designs, supernatural powers, and heroic paragons. But at the very core of this experience is a game of make believe. Couched in these terms RPGs don’t seem very dangerous. Practically childish, in fact.  This is a good thing. It takes a sprained mind to twist such a simple idea. However, there is someone else to consider in terming it this way. Us. It will probably take some time for gamers to become comfortable with these terms, nonetheless, this must happen before progress can be made.

Once the idea of “make believe” has been accepted by everyone, we can build on it to show that it’s not a childish escape. There is intellectual, cultural, and artistic merit to the things we do.  In taking on these alternative personas, we get a chance to experience life from a different perspective. Questions of a philosophical nature are given life in new and exciting ways not easily experienced in everyday life. This acceptance even gives us a chance to explain the iconography in proper context, finally pushing our hobby out of the metaphorical dungeon it has been languishing in.

There is a second perception which needs to be addressed. The perception of ourselves.

I have been to GenCon twice now and have to say that I could not have met and had fun with nicer people. Strangers and friends alike, everyone found themselves enjoying the fun. Everything else was ignored as unimportant. Gender, identity, ethnicity, and the lines which generally divide humanity were all tossed away. It’s hard to explain to those who have never experienced anything like it, but for all too briefly the only important matter was laughter and fun.

So why do we accept the picture of a basement dwelling, misogynistic, agoraphobe drenched in sour smelling stains of sweat as the public face for this particular facet of our lives? Why do gamers, RPG players in particular, allow this stereotype to continue unchallenged?

The vast majority of us aren’t represented by this view. For some unknown reason, we tolerate it, and it keeps people away. I’m beginning to think that deep inside we are all elitist assholes. That we don’t want other people to play if it’s not someone already approved. I hope this isn’t the case because it couldn’t be further from how I feel. I like including more people, new people, in my sessions. I like new faces because it means we get new views on the story. There will always be a few outliers that do live in their parent’s basement, eschewing greater social contact for the insulating glow of 20 watt bulbs and the screen of their computers, but that does not mean we accept it as the face the rest of the world judges us by. It by no means is me, my wife, or my friends.

A few years back Wil Wheaton gave the keynote at PAX. In it, he goes through why he continues his gaming and why he exposed his kids to it. In the end he give some sage advice to those who want to spread the word. Don’t be a dick. I cannot think of a singular, simpler way to express what must be done to get more people to join in the fun.

Play. Have fun. Include strangers. And don’t be a dick.

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