Archive for September, 2014

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)

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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.

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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.