The Altered Scrolls: Oblivion (Part 2: Energy)

17 Jun


Every game in the Elder Scrolls series has something it’s built around, something it does better than the rest of the franchise. These strengths aren’t just the result of the right team, or the right iterative design, or just plain dumb luck: they’re the logical conclusion of everything the game is and is trying to be. Arena was a romp across a vast and ambiguous world of sorcery and monsters, a grand and classical adventure. Daggerfall was a game of dead-drops, conspiracy, and fully-realized political dynasties with a palpable texture of interactive intrigue. Morrowind provided unforgiving objective challenges set against an alien landscape, and transported the player body and soul to a breathtaking world realized to the limit of its technology and not a step further.

Oblivion’s goals were more direct. Oblivion isn’t about texture or narrative or universe in any sort of discrete sense. It’s about energy. Oblivion never wants you to stop running.

You can start by taking that as literally as possible. Stamina used to deplete if you ran; in Oblivion running just makes your energy regenerate more slowly. Previous games had you regain low magicka by resting properly, Oblivion recharges it before your eyes.

No more wandering the wilderness looking for the right identical mudshack, either. In fact, you’ll never get lost again, and that’s a money-back guarantee. No matter how far up a dungeon’s drainpipe you get stuck or how far from the road you’ve roamed, a quest arrow will always point your way, whether that’s to the lost ruby you’re being paid to recover or just the most convenient exit. Even if the entire rest of your screen was blacked out you could probably beat an Oblivion quest just by following the red and green markers, so long as concerns like challenge and environment design and narrative don’t apply to you–if all you want is to beat a quest, you won’t find yourself taxed unduly. Anywhere you can wander randomly to and any quest you can physically accept are going to be scaled comprehensively to your level; not only will you’ll never get lost, you might have a hard time losing.

Done with the quest now? Getting home’s never been easier. If you want to go anywhere you’ve been before, you just fast travel. No cost or downside involved. If it’s one of the game’s many major towns you can fast travel there even if you’ve never been before. This was possible for a price in every game prior—in Arena this was because there was no intervening territory, in Daggerfall this was because the world was stupidly massive and cumbersome to traverse, and in Morrowind, this was only possible at certain fast-travel vendors. Oblivion offers free and practically unrestricted usage because anything else jeopardized the flow; anything else put an obstacle between what you want to do and what you’re doing now. Nothing is more antithetical to the questing design philosophy.

Free fast travel wasn’t the only unprecedented change; die rolls for combat had been deadfiled with all the other old-school tabletop-era abstractions. Now attacks always hit on mark and spells always cast successfully. Character skill spoke to damage, manuevers, and spell knowledge instead of percent chance of doing fuck all. On paper the effect was probably comparable; I’ll reserve a discussion of practice for an in-depth examination of the combat system later. Suffice to say, featuring combat as a key selling point of the game was a sea change for the franchise.

At a core level Bethesda games are defined by their NPCs. The ones in Oblivion are jackrabbits, plain and simple, and they are determined not to waste a second of your time. Everyone you talk to opens by telling you who they are and how they’re different from the rest of the herd: I am Balthus and I am obsessed with dogs. I am Remayne and I’m grouchy and tired. I’m hardly exaggerating the blunt, unguarded frankness with which they make their introductions, and once those are cleared they’re not interested in chatting much either. For the first time, dialogue menus are constrained only to relevant options. No more wiki-style nexus of universal topics; for every character you’ve now got a pool of rumors and maybe one or two other relevant topics. Oh, but don’t worry: if they’ve got a quest, they’ll tell you all about it.

NPCs move about everywhere. Everyone’s in motion. Everything’s voice-acted. Everything’s a quest hook, and every quest hook was doable right now. Everything was happening everywhere at once. Players never had to struggle to successfully inhabit the world of Cyrodiil, and often, they didn’t even need to think very hard. Getting in and getting things done was effortless.

You can see how Morrowind begat Oblivion. You can see how new technology made gripping, immersive fights more desirable than awful frustrating dice games. You can see how the ability to smoothly integrate a compass to make sure players don’t get lost greatly improves how many players stick with things and complete a quest or two. You want voice acting, and if you’ve got it, you better make everything to the point or you’re going to be recording dialogue until 2043. You want to make the most immersive and immediate and god-damn futuristic sequel to Morrowind your better-every-sequel earnings can buy. So that’s just what you do.

And the result is a game that couldn’t feel more different from its parents if it was about a magical girl dentist.

There’s one overarching change I’m neglecting, and it’s probably the most important. Everything else adds up to create a new and unique feeling, but the one element that stands on its own most—and the one I think is most overlooked in favor of more measurable mechanical changes—was its confident and prolific use of scripted, animated events. For better or for worse, this was the one line Bethesda would never cross back over.

Arena and Daggerfall didn’t contain anything you could really call a “scene,” unless you’re talking about the agonizing cutscenes of the former and FMV/prerendered videos of the latter. Morrowind mostly knew its limits. It could make people hit marks, say lines of dialogue while standing with their arms at their side, and turn hostile—and it could only do those things while the player was otherwise occupied. Generally the dialogue happened during a frozen menu. If it was spoken, the player was generally rooted to the ground so they couldn’t interfere. Its NPCs lacked the grace of finger puppets and problem solving of a stunned ox, so there weren’t really grand ambitious scenes, and the story was mostly told through documents, static conversations, and journal entries after fights and acquisitions.

Not Oblivion. Oblivion enacted mini stage plays whenever it was appropriate and at least a few times it really wasn’t. Walk into a room and an NPC calls out to you and forces you to converse. A gate to Oblivion opens, watch the captain gather the men and make a speech. You’ve stolen the artifact, watch two NPCs exposit to each other what it is before one of them dies unstoppably. While this is a boon to storytelling in some cases, it does reflect poorly on the player’s role in the narrative; there’s a tangible sense of going from an independent agent to the lead actor of a prewritten drama. Literally the first thing a new player is required to do is hit a mark. Immediately after doing this the player’s controls are frozen until they have interacted with four nonplayer characters, none of whom can die unless you count the predetermined and immutable death scenes reserved for three of them.

So if control and agency are routinely sacrificed for storytelling, the question raised is: is it worth it? My answer may surprise you.


The Altered Scrolls: Oblivion (Part 1: The Hype Era)

13 Apr


I intimated earlier in the series that there is no such thing, broadly speaking, as an unsuccessful Elder Scrolls game. The least you can expect of the franchise is success on a game’s own terms. Success on the last game’s terms, you can never count on. Successful in hindsight? Not guaranteed at all.

By the standards of the previous game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion. And by the standards of the next game, Oblivion is a ponderous misshapen clunker that takes every opportunity to shunt the player off the precipice of immersion.

By the standards of the day? A difficult question. “The day” was one of the most interesting periods in the franchise’s history, and one of the most tumultuous in the history of videogames.

It’s difficult to explain today the culture of expectations that surrounded Oblivion during its late development. I’m trying to be analytical in this series, and that often means stepping outside pure sentiment and trying to look at a thing for what it is. But if I’m really going to get into what people expected from Oblivion, what it represented, I’m going to have to get a little bit more personal. I was there. I saw the game’s PR cycle from the same ground floor as everyone else, and I can only relate it how I saw it.

Oblivion debuted in the Age of Miracles.

Every announcement to do with Oblivion was breathtaking. Bethesda was at the cutting edge of a major technical revolution; in the time since Morrowind, the studio’s tech had made drastic leaps and strides behind closed doors. Every new feature leaked or demoed represented a new frontier, an unprecedented degree of perfect simulation. Games before took place in static unyielding matte paintings, set dressings made to give a cheap impression of a fantastic world; Oblivion, by every breathless report, was nothing less than virtual reality.

Objects obey realistic physics. Arrows have arcs and lodge in soft materials. NPCs have lives, personalities, habits, schedules. Spells have different physics depending on materials and can produce different effects on subjects depending on what element is being used.

 Simpler times, right–that we’d find such little things exciting? That these steps forward, now taken for granted, were mindblowing enough to drive a firestorm of hype that didn’t die down until well after the game’s release?

Well, no, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. I put it to you that people weren’t really excited by these individual steps forward. It’s just that each of these steps, taken together in that credulous era, promised something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Somehow, the possibility that the new physics engine and visceral combat and NPC behaviors and spell systems were all just individual bullet points, discrete little systems nominally and even a little shakily implemented, didn’t seem to occur to a lot of people. It was easier than ever to believe that they were just the outward face of a comprehensive, lifelike simulation.

We didn’t look at the previews and see a pretty immersive videogame, we saw a world that had a pretty cool videogame inside of it.

I remember how the official forums felt. Belief was the atmosphere, thick and intoxicating as wine. People began to play the imagined perfect game in their heads long before boxes hit shelves. Everyone had their characters all planned out. Everyone had their backstory written up. People were hatching assassination plots and writing fanfiction about them. I remember the tone of thread titles: “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you’re out of the dungeon?” “What’s your character’s motivation?” “What’s your build going to be like?” I remember a lot of what people planned for. Most of it would turn out to be impossible.

Did everyone believe quite so hard as they did? No, certainly not, but more did than you’d think. This was a time when the internet was really hitting its stride as a flashpoint of hype and speculation and hadn’t fully realized its role as a megaphone for cynicism and bitterness. On top of all that, Oblivion’s devs did a masterful job of sharing just enough details about the game to enkindle feverish fantasies, never enough to ruin them. Previews were less exposition and more narrative. Depictions of gampeplay were vanishingly thin on the ground.

Think about the possibilities. Think about how great this will be. This game will blow your mind. You won’t be able to believe it.

 Oblivion was the last time I ever really believed all of that. I suppose everyone in this hobby has a first big disillusionment; I don’t think I could have had a bigger one.

So now that I’ve told you all of that, forget it. Forget the idea that Oblivion broke a promise it possibly never intended to give. Forget the now long-forgotten notion that it would be the first convincing virtual reality ever created. Forget the idea that this game existed to be anything but another Elder Scrolls game, and consider instead: what did this great leap forward of tech and gimmicks do for the franchise?

That’s the first question I’ll examine in the posts to come.

But another question looms. Before launch it was a murmur drowned out by excitement and speculation; after launch, it was lost in the general positive reception. Even now it is a lonely, cantankerous question, not always welcomed even by those who sympathize because of how ugly and divisive and possibly meaningless it is. It has nothing to do with the evolution of technology and everything to do with the evolution of the franchise goals. It’s ugly because the change means a lot to some veteran players. It’s divisive because the nature of the change split the fanbase in two. It’s possibly meaningless because the developers, quite understandably, don’t seem keen to acknowledge it anyway. I wonder how visible the change even was to those inside the development process—whether the paradigm shift Oblivion brought with it was seen as a natural progression or a willful departure from Morrowind’s values.

Because this, more than any technological advancement, was what would change the face of the franchise forever.

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The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 5: Bitterness)

28 Feb


There’s no such thing as Your Dad’s Elder Scrolls Game.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that every entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise is the table-flipping, game-changing maverick that conceptually reinvents the series and makes you forget what came before it. Similarities between titles become visible only in retrospect, and only in comparison to how drastically things have changed since then.Generally speaking, this perpetual revolution is a force for good: there’s a reason every entry in the franchise is more positively and broadly received than the last, and it’s a testament to the effort and savvy of the development teams that they’re capable of keeping this up. But on an individual level, the changing nature of the franchise can lead to bitter disappointment.

Which is why I’m reluctant–in this series and in all things–to move on from Morrowind.

I have good things to say about every game Bethesda’s designed. I’m fond of them all, I respect the talent and craftsmanship that went into each one, and I think all of them are successful by their own metrics.

But Morrowind was the first and last entry in a series of its own, and for all the well-deserved accolades of later titles, I wish to see something this beautiful again. Morrowind was the dawning of an era that never came.

This was a game that reinvented the open world by tuning players to an alien frequency. It makes the player a traveler in a strange land, and not the sort of traveler who rides sightseeing buses and follows a tour schedule and stays in the hotel each evening: Morrowind makes you the sort of traveler who stumbles over a border with a water bottle and a blanket and no idea what country you’re in.

It’s not that the game is rough, and certainly not that it’s unfair. The game plays scrupulously by its own rules; it just so happens that these rules don’t seem designed with your convenience and inevitable victory in mind. Challenges like fighting monsters, navigating lava, crossing wilderness, and, indeed, finding quest locations at all don’t exist as comfortable obstacles on a pre-scripted level-scaled ramp to glory; they’re just not tailored that way. Challenges exist on their own merits, on their own terms–out there beyond the boundaries of civilization that you willingly cross. But these challenges are fair. You can engage in them at any time, and with any tools, and however and whenever you win, the same rewards will be waiting for you. They are objective. They exist. They are not variables attuned to your accomplishments, they’re stern features of the world.

And like these challenges, quests and factions are not thrust upon you. NPCs are trapped in their invisible cages of triangular patrol routes, and by and large they can only speak when you speak to them first and only about what you ask them to. You can ignore them if you want to. You can kill them if you want to. They merely exist.

Without a compass or level gate or scripted events, every journey is unique, unpredictable, unexpected–yours. Every time you perform a quest the experience will have a different texture.

That time I tried to take the road and ended up getting swamped by daedra from the ruin. That time I was a little underleveled and kept resting up on the top level and trying to make my damaged equipment hold up. That time I had an amulet that let me sneak past the first guy, so I could just clean up the last few monsters and teleport home, even though I was way too low level for the treasure I got. That time, I was high level and had that one broken ring of healing and just punched my way past everybody for the fun of it.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s because you, without any prodding or pressure or hand-holding or special treatment, decided to make it so. Success happens only when you have the means and prudence to make it happen.

This sense of impartial design adds more than challenge, does more than require you to engage more actively and thoughtfully with the gameworld. It reinforces the sense that this place doesn’t exist for your benefit and isn’t organized into comfortable episodes of adventure. It’s not a videogame level, it’s a world, and you’re not running through it…you’re exploring it.

Again: no Elder Scrolls game that came before felt like this. And from this point onward, the franchise would move steadily, purposefully, determinedly in the opposite direction.

And I have to admit this has been to its benefit.

Focusing on constructed rather than organic experiences has done their brand many favors. It’s a kinder and probably more universally effective approach to take. But I miss the calculated inaccessibility of Vvardenfel, and I hope against hope to one day see its like again.

And now, the feature that terminates each entry in this critical series. What would a review of TESV look like in a world where the rest of the franchise followed this game’s lead?

“Don’t get me wrong: the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Valenwood is as beautiful and rich and fully-realized as any I’ve seen in a videogame. But actually experiencing it is a chore that few would relish. All the little obstacles come together: the combat is fiddly and overly lethal, the NPCs speak in accents that are genuinely difficult to parse, the much-vaunted translation minigame wears thin quickly and discourages the player from speaking with anyone but a fellow foreigner, and half of the quests end in anticlimaxes where I can’t tell if I’ve made a mistake, the developer made a mistake, or that’s just the way things are supposed to go. NPCs will tell you that venturing into the three-dimensional treescape without a guide is certain death, and the amazing thing is, they’re not kidding: ill-researched forays end in the player being eaten by monsters I’m not even sure are killable. All very gritty and realistic. My question to the developers is: what’s the point of going to such great pains with your gameworld if we have to go through similar pains to see it? I may sit down and play through this one with a page of cheat codes at the ready, but that can’t be the best way to experience Valenwood. Maybe the modders will save this one yet. (5.5/10)

Next week: Drilling the Marble Jaws

Rutskarn’s writing is supported by Patreon. To back him, and to access his monthly novella series about desperate adventurers, click here.


Back from Convention; Dead Adventurer Sweepstakes

16 Oct

EDIT: And the winner for October is Tim van den Langenbergh! I’ll be in touch!

As some of you know, I’ve spent the past weeks hosting lead developer Arvind Yadav for IndieCade and its subsequent publisher feedback and networking rigamarole. But the silence is soon going to be lifted in a big way; not only will regular content resume, but the first novella in my Patreon-backed series, Adventurers: Song of the Bastards, is about a week from release! Which means this is a fabulous time to announce not only the fact that this series even exists, something I had not previously posted about on this site, but the existence of an attached regular drawing. It’s called the Dead Adventurer Sweepstakes. I’ve had no kind of time for preparing graphics, so for now, just imagine a rotted adventurer corpse clutching a ticket and giving a peppy thumbs up.

The Dead Adventurer Sweepstakes

Criteria for Entry:

Must have e-mail and a favorite original roleplaying character. Must be pledging enough to the Patreon to actually get the novella ($5)

 How to Play:

1.) Send me an e-mail with a description of your favorite character, complete with all the details of personality, appearance, aptitude, backstory, and career you consider important.
2.) Every month I’ll draw one name from the hat and create a mirror universe version of them in the world of Adventurers, complete with a short, encylopedia-styled history of their travels and how they met their gruesome fate at the hands of disease, deprivation, rivals, friends, wild animals, shipwreck, traps, monsters, or whatever else would be appropriate. That’s the one thing that don’t change: this is the Dead Adventurer Sweepstakes, not the the Happy Funland Adventurer Sweepstakes. Even if your character didn’t die in your game, it will die in the entry.
3.) Each Dead Adventurer story will be shipped along with the next chapter of the novella.

The winner of this month’s drawing will be announced on Saturday, so shoot off those e-mails! I’ll grease up the guillotine.

(Email all entries to


The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 4: Subtleties)

30 Sep


This series has been going on for a lot of words. I’m doubtful anyone besides an actual Bethesda developer has written up such a lengthy general analysis of this series, and I assure you, I’m only halfway through. Maybe even a little less, considering that my base of retroactive comparison is growing.

I’ve been stuck on Morrowind for three merry posts now, and I can already tell that moving on to Oblivion will be painful–because no matter how long this series stretches, no matter what I do and don’t find time for, I will always have more to say about Morrowind. I’ve talked about its tone. I’ve talked about its goals. I’ve talked about its mechanics, its weaknesses, its strengths. But such is my fascination with this game that I could dedicate a full post to just about any faction, quest, or subsystem within it and not strain to fill a page. What I would strain, more than likely, is your patience.

So I’m setting aside this post to touch on a grab-bag of talking points, any one of which I’d gladly expand on if you catch me in a waffle house somewhere down the line. Many of these will be things this entry does differently than the others. Many will be things I personally love and cherish. Some will be things I moderately disdain. But all demonstrate some small part of my final argument: like it or don’t, this game is something pretty special.

Morrowind‘s narrative is settled around a religious schism between the “real” gods, who are worshiped by the occupying Empire, and three self-made gods who are worshiped proudly and even spitefully by the locals. Unsurprisingly, there’s a complex lore and backstory behind this state of affairs. Surprisingly, and very appealingly, this backstory is framed as it really should be: as a he-said she-said conflict of mythologies and folk histories that sparks heated arguments and debate even between people on the same side. It’s trite but true: history as a debate is much more interesting to learn and follow than history as an inventory. More games and even novels should learn this.

Later Elder Scrolls games would give each town its own architectural hook; in Morrowind, there are five or six architectural styles spread across most of the settlements. There’s a definite trade-off here. Later games use their visual storytelling to communicate more specific details about a town in isolation, but Morrowind‘s visual storytelling tells you about a town’s place in the greater narrative; a squat little mining town with modest Imperial thatch and stonework implies a vastly different backstory than a mining town with Redoran chitin and fringes.

Morrowind has an explanation for why all of its caves are full of hostile bandits and necromancers. It’s practically an easter egg, and it’s worth noticing that until they find it, nobody thinks much about the issue–or cares.

Morrowind is one of few games to deal soberly and temperately with the issue of slavery. One of the many unseemly traditions upheld by the “oppressed” native Dunmer is the right to enslave the two “beast races” (both playable races, mind) for personal and industrial use. When I say it deals soberly with the issue, I mean it trusts in the inherent horror of bondage to rouse players to action. There is a slave-freeing faction in the game, but the player discovers it by freeing slaves independent of any greater questline. Morrowind presents slavery as a feature of the local culture without feeling the need to moralize redundantly–it rightfully trusts the player to know that slavery is bad without needing to make every NPC adjacent to it a hero or a monster.

Among the many diverse factions in the game are the three semi-aristocratic Great Houses. They’re loosely coded to the three main skill trees–combat, stealth, and magic. The combat one is mostly good and honorable, the thief one is mostly sneaky and underhanded, and the magic one is mostly evil and vicious. The effect of this is that good mages and evil warriors find themselves in difficult situations. Some might say giving those organizations a little extra flavor is worth their specificity and consequent exclusivity; others might prefer factions designed to let everybody have a go. For the ethically incongruous, there are of course standard fighters’, mages’, and thieves’ guilds, which are all pretty neutral.

Morrowind contains more powerful magic items by far than either its predecessors or its descendents. Laying aside the tremendously powerful creations players can cook up themselves, there are dev-created items that can make a character nearly invulnerable. The trick was, to get one of these awesome items, you often had to kill somebody already using them.

A few features that would debut in Morrowind only to vanish forever include throwing weapons and spears; spells that teleport the player to local temples; joinable non-military political factions; beast races with conspicuously different physiologies; vampire clan quest factions; about a half-dozen unique clothing and item slots; fixed-point money-cost fast travel, including forms never seen before or since, such as hireable boats and mage teleporters; a system to taunt NPCs into fighting you so they can be killed in self-defense; joinable religious factions representing multiple faiths; drug prohibition (honest merchants won’t talk to you if you’re holding) and paraphernalia; manors with staff that may be overseen; avian adversaries.

Nearly all the foodstuffs in Morrowind are fictitious. The crops grown on the game’s landmass are largely imaginary–“ash yams,” “saltrice,” “comberries,” “hackle-lo leaf”–and the dishes and liquors made from them are doubly so. One staple in particular, kwama eggs, has a fully-realized species life cycle and ecosystem built around its acquisition–a queen kwama lays eggs, workers (headless dog-shaped arthropods) tend them, foragers (hopping maggotlike creatures) gather nourishment, and warriors (arthropods with a forager jutting from the neck cavity) defend the lair.

A few common phrases and phrases you’ll have to learn from context over the course of playing: serjo, sera, muthsera, s’wit, n’wah, b’vek, almsivi.

Morrowind is actually the second game in the franchise to set its climax inside the ash-spitting Red Mountain. In Arena, Red Mountain was Jagar Tharn’s final bolthole and looked like a generic lava-filed demonic hellscape. In Morrowind, Red Mountain is a semisacred place used as a fortress by the ancient Dagoth Ur; its design gives a few nods in the direction of actual volcanoes. It really sells Morrowind‘s commitment to “plausible, even if that’s sometimes a little bit more mundane than we’d have gone for in the mid-90s.” Also, it raises a lot of appalling continuity questions, but nobody really cares about that.

Next time: drilling the marble jaws .


Team Butts Plays PAYDAY 2: First Heist

23 Sep

Our first foray into PAYDAY 2, a game of stealth, failed attempts at stealth, shootouts, failed shootouts, truncated jail sentences, and mass cop murder. It’s a blast.

The skinny: our crew regularly plays games together. With heist-like precision, we all bought this game simultaneously. With an imprecision that in my experience is equally heistlike, Jibar then proceeded to play the game for many hours and gain fifty levels despite the rest of us remaining totally blind. So we swore him to both a lowered equipment level and absolute secrecy about how the game works. (He doesn’t quite manage it.)

Over the course of this series, you will see every heist we attempt in their entirety–including one repeat of this mission with very different results. You will see us grow. You will see us learn together to stealth, covering fire, crowd control…and love.

This heist takes place before all that. It pretty much goes to shit.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER AWARD (Spoilers for after the jump)

Read the rest of this entry »


The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part 3: Power and Level Scaling)

14 Sep


As I discussed last time, the series’ abstract dice-rolling combats felt–with the advent of more precise graphics and more engaging action-game contemporaries–increasingly alienating and unsatisfying. Players could now see that they were holding up their end perfectly; when they clicked the mouse, they saw their spear go right the enemy’s bean, dead on the money. Hearing that damnable teeth-grinding whff that signaled a wasted attack felt like getting punished for something that was the character’s fault, not the players’. As far as cardinal RPG sins go, creating a deliberate and hostile disconnect between player and character ranks highly.

Morrowind was just about the last videogame to learn the lesson: if you’re gonna roll dice, roll dice. Asking players to successfully perform a task and then rolling to see if it succeeds is just frustrating and obnoxious.

Until, that is, the player outgrows failure. And here we come to the bold design decision that kept Morrowind‘s slog of a beginning from being an evergreen parade of suck.

Read the rest of this entry »


So You Think You Can RPG: Fundamentals

02 Sep

Last post, I introduced the main idea of this series: to explore the fun, value, and history of tabletop roleplaying games by designing one. I’ve had a few weeks to think over your many suggestions as to what kind of game I should make. Paring down the list wasn’t easy, because there really weren’t any bad ideas; my decision was based primarily on which one had the most straightforward, intuitive, and well-understood thematic hooks.

“Fish” (no relation, I am assured, to the Oxford Fishes) suggested this:

“Fantasy politicking. No big damn heroes, just courtly airs and intrigue, with any combat being on an abstract army scale.”

That’s what we’re gonna make. We’re gonna cook up Game of Thrones without the long waits between installments. I don’t know about you, but this is something I think I could use in my life–and even if you’ve never played a tabletop game, ever, there’s a good chance you’re thinking the same. Especially since, since it’ll be your version of GoT, you can have it without that one thing that absolutely ruins it! You know, the [pointless character deaths/historical inaccuracy/ethnocentrism/constant sexual menace/oppressive bleakness of tone/hypocritical Mary Sue-ishness] that you and your friends can’t stand. Running an RPG campaign is a lot like making your own beef jerky–the advantage of going homemade is that you can do things commercial releases can’t or won’t.

So let’s design our jerky maker.

My first move is to do a thematic sketch. This is a lot less fancy and technical than it sounds. Basically, because I’m not designing this game to tell one specific story, but to allow the telling of an infinite number stories upon a certain thematic base, I have to give myself a loose idea of what the dimensions and contents of that base look like. So I write down a list of things that spring from what I had in mind.

Letters that take months to arrive. Armies making camp. Balconies and fancy living detached from the realities of war and turmoil. Diplomacy. Knives in the dark. Poison in the wine. Evil advisor. Romance. Betrayal. Spies. Vassals.

That’s a pretty good start. I can kind of see it like a montage in my head–a rough generalization of what an average game will look like over the course of a few dozen play sessions. Now I think of things that players will want to do:

Form pacts. Break pacts. Broker trade agreements. Put out contracts on the lives of others. War with other nations. War with each other. Try to unravel one anothers’ motivations. Leave a legacy.

That last point feels particularly interesting. “Leave a legacy”–what does that mean? That everything they accomplish in the span of the session should feel important. That when they declare war, or cut off aid to Elfland, or turn away refugees, they’re going to have some kind of permanent and tangible effect on the world.

I do a little more brainstorming. After a while, I come up with this premise for the game and how it is played:

The first session, the players create nations or factions in a fantasy world, then personal characters to represent those entities. Players spend the bulk of the session pursuing goals, often at cross-purposes. They will play out the effects of a few months or a few years of history between their factions. Eventually, all conflicts come to a head. There is a climax, followed by resolution–treaties, concessions, or outright surrenders, as appropriate. Based on how well they did, players get to define parts of what happens over the next few years or decades.

For the second session–and every session thereafter–players pick up after the last time-skip, create new characters and factions when appropriate, and negotiate another period of turmoil.

This game is now codenamed “Truce.” I think we’re going to like it.

Next session: We get to the real nitty-gritty stuff.


The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part Two: Mechanics)

27 Aug


The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has the best presentation of a unique, colorful, gripping milieu in the entire Elder Scrolls series–but we can’t talk about that yet. Because before we get to the good part of Morrowind, we’re going to have to do what plenty of people failed to do: suffer through its bullshit. Like its predecessors, Morrowind was as approachable as the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.

And it really must be emphasized that Morrowind‘s problems were nothing new for the series. In many respects Morrowind was a significant step up from its forebears; it just so happened that in those same respects, it was about a half-step behind for the era. For example, the interface was busy and content-dense as it had ever been, but at least it was centralized (I’ll get into this a bit more later, and again when I cover Oblivion). The journal that tracked quests and conversational elements was a joke, but at least it was comprehensive and helpfully hyperlinked, unlike in Daggerfall and Arena where the journals felt haphazard, incomplete, and painful to sift. And yes, there wasn’t a lot of in-game instruction to teach players just what the fuck the difference between Absorb Health, Damage Health, and Drain Health was supposed to be, but at least now when you cast the spell you could sort of figure it out from cues in the health bar (admittedly patched in) and enemy noises. So for accessibility Morrowind rates a solid, “Shows improvement,” unless you aren’t an apologist fan trying to put your inability to criticize a good game into context, in which case it continues to rate the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.

Let’s talk about combat.

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So You Think You Can RPG: The Project

18 Aug

I started writing this series over a month ago, and you haven’t seen an update since. That isn’t because I haven’t been writing things, or planning posts–I certainly have. It’s because they’ve all suffered from one fundamental problem.

They’ve been boring.

See, I’m writing this series for two audiences at once: the people who play roleplaying games, and the people who have never actually done that before. And it is challenging to write posts in a way that keep the attention of both groups. People who’ve never tried RPGs often have an understandably loose grasp of the fundamentals and practicals, and people who run them all the time don’t want to stick around for five or six sessions of tutorial. Writing a series the way I was writing it, I was bound to lose somebody.

So I’ve found a workaround.

I intend to show my readers the goals, tools, systems, and pitfalls of tabletop roleplaying games. It occurs to me that there are few better ways to do this than to take a leaf from Shamus’ book and just make something already. Instead of talking about RPGs as an abstract and elbowing vaguely at the context they fit into, I’m going to design a game from the ground up and talk about exactly what’s going into it and why. Eventually the game will be playtested and released in full.

Key parts of this process I will entrust to you, the readership.  Speaking of which…


When you get right down to it, playing an RPG is just telling a story with your friends. So why is the “game” part there at all? Why are the dice there? The character sheets? The rulebooks as thick as cinderblocks? The graphs, the miniatures, the wiki with six open tabs, the supplement, the dog-eared binder of house rules?

No two groups are going to have exactly the same answer to that question. Some people just enjoy rolling dice. Some people like the strategic parts of the game and enjoy the extra layer of lateral thinking that RPGs usually offer over your classic rigid, heavily constrained boardgame. Some people like having the rules there because it provides a check that keeps any one person from ruining the experience. But the commonest, simplest, truest answer is this: if you design the rules correctly, they’ll help you tell a better story than you would have come up with on your own.

That’s something the really hardcore roleplayers, like myself, are sometimes reluctant to admit. People who’ve played too many poorly designed systems are used to rules that just get in the way of storytelling; for them, die rolls and result tables are crutches for people who can’t keep up or bones tossed to the Magic: The Gathering player who joined out of boredom. But they don’t have to be.  A good RPG system can salvage a story the way a great director can save a mediocre script.

I’ll be exploring why that is as I design my system. Now, I’m not going to be making what’s called a “general system.” General systems are like platformers in the 80s: the idea is that you can pretty much adapt them to fit any kind of story, setting, and tone that you want. They exist to make sure player-controlled characters succeed when they ought to and fail when they ought to, and that’s it. The system itself is practically a glorified referee.

But the other kind of game, and one I’m going to be exploring in great length, is a game designed to help tell a specific kind of story. For example: every single mechanic in the game Apocalypse World is supposed to make players feel like their world and their lives are hanging by a thread, which makes it great for gritty post-apoc stories. Everyone is John introduces a scoring system to make players compete and rapid, Mario-Kart style turnarounds to make sure players are always pushing for the boldest options possible–making the game ideally suited to slapstick. And Great Ork Gods lets players decide how easy and hard things are for each other, thus creating exactly the hostile, macho orky atmosphere the developers intended.

So here’s where you come in. What kind of story, mood, or attitude should my homebrew system strive for? Post your suggestions in the comments.