Archive for August, 2014

The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part Two: Mechanics)

27 Aug

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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…

PICK A STORY

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.

 

The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part One: Feel)

12 Aug

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Sometimes you’re at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel you’ve never head of. You’re not even sure why you buy it–maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or the author photo is of somebody who’s not a hirsute chunky American white dude. Nothing specific. Nothing you can really point to later.

You don’t read it right away, because it’s not that kind of purchase–you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you’re getting out of your car and you remember to  bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you’d been reading at home–and your hungry eyes fall one the cover of that paperback . Chapter One; Page One.

From that lunch break onwards, you find yourself coming back to the paperback regularly. It’s good–but it’s not really that it’s good. It’s that it’s weird.

The hero is born in a village that isn’t burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn’t comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabulary–spellcasters aren’t wizards, but byrzkars, and that’s somehow relevant. Elves aren’t haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be the edgy cliche–they’re some third choice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything anyone’s done with elves before.

It’s kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you’re trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show.

That paperback fantasy novel probably won’t end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it’ll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.

Give it time, and that’s exactly what Morrowind is. It may not be your favorite videogame, but give it time and something about it will crawl into your brain and refuse to leave.

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Sneak Preview: Altered Scrolls, Morrowind

08 Aug

Sometimes you’re at a used bookstore and you pick up an old paperback fantasy novel that you’ve never head of. You’re not even sure why you buy it–maybe you like the cover, or the summary on the back was well written, or the author photo is of somebody who’s not a hirsute chunky American white dude. Nothing you can really point to later.

You don’t read it right away, because it’s not that kind of purchase–you just throw it onto the backseat of your car and forget about it for a couple days. Later you’re getting out of your car and you remember to  bring it in and put it on your desk. Then one day you sit down with your lunch, realize you left the Comic History of the Peleponnenisan War you’d been reading at home–and your hungry eyes fall one the cover of that paperback . Chapter One; Page One.

From that lunch break onwards, you find yourself coming back to the paperback regularly. It’s good–but it’s not really that it’s good. It’s that it’s weird.

The hero is born in a village that isn’t burned down by orcs. Magic rules are patterned around some obscure historical mystic tradition that doesn’t comfortably conform to established conventions or even vocabulary–spellcasters aren’t wizards, but byrzkars, and that’s somehow relevant. Elves aren’t haughty fey, which would be cliche, or evil celestial beings, which would be the edgy cliche–they’re some third choice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything anyone’s done with elves before.

It’s kind of like you showed up to watch a stringed instrument contest. For hours you hear everything from Jim Croce acoustic guitar to twanging Southern six-string riffs to wailing glamrock solos to doom-shaken death metal crunch. And just when you’re trying to figure out where on the sliding scale of soft folksy guitar to ear-splitting electric guitar your tastes lie, some guy comes on with a cello and effortlessly changes the context of the entire show.

That paperback fantasy novel probably won’t end up being your favorite ever. It may not be the first book you recommend to people. You may not even seek out other work by that author. But years later, if you come across the spine of that book on your shelf, it’ll all come rushing back. For better or for worse, that book was different enough to stick with you to the grave.

Give it time, and that’s exactly what Morrowind‘s world and story are.

 

The Altered Scrolls: Daggerfall (Gameplay)

06 Aug

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Because I’ve watched six recordings (and about an hour and a half of my time) mysteriously vanish, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature–brief gameplay samples. What follows is an actual, factual, wholly organic account of what a ten minute sample of gameplay looked like while I was trying to record.

And to head off the inevitable questions: the game is pretty much always like this.

I’m out in the middle of nowhere, which is less than ideal. All the classic adventures of song and legend tend to transpire in places with things. So I move my cursor down to the bottom bar, to “transportation,” and select my sailing ship. I teleport to it instantly. It’s a vast, expensive ship; the size and cost of the ship have thus far not proved relevant in any capacity, but there you go.

Now that I’m on my ship, I go to the map, select one of the provinces at random, then select one of the inns in the middle of nowhere at random. Traveling to it costs me 0 coins–the perks of having your own ship, I guess. Six hundred thousand gold well spent.

The inn’s name on the map is…some auto-generated bullshit, honestly, I couldn’t really tell you. I didn’t check in the first place; there’s no point in seeing what a place is called because the name is totally meaningless and you’re probably never going to go back. Let’s just call it The Monkey and Monkey Tavern. I arrive there to find there’s actually two taverns in the small loaded area tile, neither of which are called the right name, and a couple of houses. The nearest tavern is about ten feet away, so I summon my horse, ride up to the front door, and unsummon my horse.

I enter  to find a man kneeling permanently by the fire and a woman in a low-cut dress. I ask the man for directions to the building we’re standing in, and he replies that it’s to the east and south some. Then I ask him about current events. He says he’s never heard of anyone by that name.

I ask the woman for news, and she drops several paragraphs of mathematical formula about how the game calculates strength damage.

I decide to rent a room to heal my wounds. The barkeep asks how many days I want it for–just one, thanks–and the game auto-haggles the price down to four gold coins. That’s actually most of the gold I have on me; I have several million gold total, but the bulk of that is in the bank. I accept his deal, press the the “rest” and then “rest until healed” icons on my quickbar, and find myself teleported to my room to rest.

I wander into the hallway and open the door to the next room. Standing in it is a woman in a black bikini, high-heeled leather boots, and a thong. I shut the door to the next room.

I enter another room that’s empty except for what genuinely looks like a half-open cardboard box. I click on the box, and the game informs me I’m stealing and asks if I want to continue. I do. The box contains a red cloak and a gold-spangled “formal brassiere,” which, needless to say, replaces my shirt when I equip it.

Immediately I hear shouts of “Halt! Halt!” Nobody could have possibly witnessed me taking from the chest–but someone did anyway. Now the game is glitching out pretty bad and doors are opening for no reason, but I go out to meet the guards. They swing at me and the game asks if I’m resisting arrest. I decide not to.

On a separate screen, I am read my charges and asked if I’d like to plead guilty or not guilty. I choose not guilty. It asks if I’m going to debate or lie. I choose lie. I fail and my sentence is stretched from one day in jail to nine.

I’m released from jail and immediately spot an enemy on the horizon–a random female rogue. She has her back to me, but I recognize the character model–it’s the one with the hood running down to a sleeveless, wide-open vest. I get on my horse, ride towards her, attack with my battle axe, and am informed I’ve pulled off a sneak attack backstab. That’s when I decide to quit the game.

So that’s Daggerfall. Don’t believe me? Well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.