Tag Archives: RPG

The Outer Worlds

I played a game!

In even more shocking news, I played a game within about half a year of its release![1] I’m, uh, I’m actually having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. So, The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG in which you wake up to a colonial civilization in decay and have to work out what to do about it. See, everyone came to the system from Earth about 70 years ago in two colony ships, except the second ship never showed up. Not to get too on the nose politically (primarily the first couple of groups), but the system is divided into approximately four groups.

  1. The Halcyon Holdings Corporation, who sponsored the outbound flight and even now works to develop new products for the many inhabitants of the Halcyon System
  2. The employees of the ten companies that pooled resources to form the HHC, mostly indentured to pay for their passage, and mostly unable to see a path to buying their full freedom from the situation, and that’s not counting the ones who haven’t really thought about wanting to
  3. Dangerous marauders who have broken free and now prey on society
  4. A handful of independents who through either corporate success or unlawful escape now live free of corporate restrictions, but at the mercy of the aforementioned marauders, not to mention the deadly beasts who roam the worlds and, sometimes, corporate troopers looking to enforce the original code

And now there’s you, a recently awakened colonist from the second ship, which is not lost after all, it just arrived extremely late, and by then enough water had passed under the bridge that the Board of the HHC decided… but I suppose now I’m getting into details past the first hour of play, so I’ll leave it here.

The story of this world is a delight. I can see lots of options I could have taken differently that would have had major impacts on the outcome, and some of them I would even want to see, only, who has time for playing for another 40-50 hours? The path I took, I have very few regrets about, so that’s nice. Plus the one sidebar about 90% of the way through the game that had me laughing in delight about one sublime moment of full character immersion for easily 30 minutes, before I restored and played like an adult instead.

The gameplay is… well, it’s fine, right? This is largely a shooter RPG, as I think they all are now, and it has companions, which means that your companions will always screw up your ambush and use up half or two thirds of its effectiveness. Which is a bummer. And the inventory system is nightmarishly bad. But on the bright side, once you acknowledge that there’s no way around that fact, it mostly melts away into irrelevance and just becomes the thing that makes you play a couple few extra hours than you would have in total. But if I had cared less about the plot and characters, I would have stopped playing quickly in frustration over just how bad it is, and never gotten past that threshold.

The story and backstory of the world definitely end up with more questions than answers, even as the story of the game concluded very satisfyingly. I very much want a sequel, and… I think I want that sequel to not include character importing, because my character’s story is over. But I’d hang out in the universe again from a different POV, no question.

[1] There is no question, in retrospect, that this is quarantine[2]-related. But I started in January, so it’s not solely due to quarantine.
[2] Note to future generations: It’s the Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine of 2020, not some weird personal thing or one of the other quarantines you will have learned about in your history classes.

Dungeon Master’s Guide (5th Edition D&D)

I honestly don’t have much to add after reading the 5e DMG than when I reviewed the Player’s Handbook. That book contains almost all of the actual rules for the game, so that’s where the meat is.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is, for a wonder, actually that (a guide). It’s not as referency as the Monster Manual, for example, which is just a bunch of tables of monster stats in alphabetical order with flavor text next to each. But it is primarily a reference book full of ideas. “How do you want to deal with character downtime between adventures? How do you want to deal with magic items? What kind of story are your players interested in, and how do you provide them a good balance if not everyone agrees? How do you fill out the rough edges of your world, so there’s a place for the adventures to happen? How do you decide what is going to happen? How do you make sure it’s balanced to where the characters are, so they neither explode into a bloody mess nor march triumphantly through ranks of lesser beings with no challenge at all?” You know, the things you need to know to make it a good game.

Some of those details are useful to me, many more are not (because I’m not making my own world or my own adventures any time soon, for example), but I appreciate the level of detail provided. Someone put a lot of thought into this edition, and it shows. And there are things that are definitely useful, like ways to tweak the rules to make things feel more superheroic or more gritty and real. As reference books go, I’m just trying to say: it’s very solid.

Anyway, though, one thing I should have mentioned in my last review and did not: I am in awe of the genius simplicity of the advantage and disadvantage rules. See, time was, you’d have all these modifiers as a hold over from wargaming. Because, optimally, you are playing on a 3D map with 3D figures, and they are moving around in reaction to each other. So, yay, the enemy is unaware of you, good job, bonus. But boo, they’re behind a waist-high wall and it gives them some cover. Penalty! And all this stuff stacks up, right?

The way advantage works is, either because of a specific reason in the rules (surprise, enemy is immobile, character learned a cool technique that they can use only sometimes, or whatever it is) or because the DM sees a good reason why advantage should be granted due to the tactics being clever but the rules not covering it specifically, you get advantage on the roll you are making. Which means you roll your d20 twice, and take the better roll. Disadvantage works exactly the opposite, you find a reason why this is hard (your hands are covered in blood and it makes your trap tools slippery, or you’re just waking up when the fireball explodes in the middle of camp), and you roll your d20 twice and take the worse roll. It doesn’t stack where you’re rolling any extra dice beyond two, and it cancels if you would have both.

If that doesn’t sound incredibly simple and clever to you, it’s because I described it wrong. Seriously. Best rules update since they took away THAC0.

(Secretly, I still like THAC0, but I couldn’t think of an easier touchstone.)

Player’s Handbook (5th Edition D&D)

Full disclosure: I did not read the entire Player’s Handbook cover to cover. Because, like, there’s a section with a bunch of spells in alphabetical order, right? Except for a couple to get a flavor of the formatting, I did not read those[1]. I may have skipped other stuff too? I forget.

That said, this is a pleasing book. I last played 4th Edition, in the 2010-2011 timeframe, which it turns out was a long time ago? I liked how they handled combat, but came to greatly dislike how they handled the characters, who all seemed like smudged copies of about four types. And that’s where I have good news! Combat in 5e is about the same, it does a good job of working out timing (I mean, who goes when), positioning, movement, reactions, all of that. But the character mechanics are nearly as diverse as they were in the first and second editions, while being simultaneously streamlined[2] for ease of use.

Even better, there is a good variety of resources available for ensuring that your character has a backstory and a current story outside the adventure itself. This is the kind of modernization of the game I can definitely get behind. Obviously you could always make your character’s history as rich or as vague as you wanted, but formalized rules to assist in the endeavor are entirely welcome.

So anyway: good stuff.

[1] I want to know how to play and run the game. I do not need to read reference books. See also: why there will not be a review of the Monster Manual.
[2] A point that was driven home to me when I looked up the 1e stats for the spell Dimension Door earlier this week. It had a casting time, which I remembered, but it also had a recovery time after use and the weird AD&D conceit of “inches”, which we used to call areas. (I don’t know why? Maybe the book also called them that.) But 1″ is either 10 feet inside, or 30 feet outside (if I remember correctly), because magic would somehow work that way? I’unno. My point is, it’s possible that my longstanding desire to run a first edition AD&D campaign has been, um, misguided.

The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse

Change of pace!

I think I want to run a game, but I haven’t figured out what yet, since nobody wants to play 1st Edition AD&D. A while back, I got the first in the End of the World series on a whim, knowing it would be a series, and that their hook (aside from multiple scenarios per book, each such book centered around a different theme) is a game system that allows you to play yourself, just as the world is beginning to end. In this case, due to one flavor or another of zombie apocalypse.

So, the system? Is a little overly complex, for my taste. And okay, a careful reading of the previous paragraph makes me sound like I’m high, but the fact is, familiarity and nostalgia forgive a lot of complexity. But much more importantly than that is whether your simple, elegant system is successful at being simple and elegant. This one might be, if I’m comparing it to a game from 35 years ago where every rule is an edge case, but I’m comparing it to a homebrew system I stole from Ken Kofman like 20 years ago, and by those standards, this one is pretty hacky. So, y’know. (Also, I’m a lot pickier about rulesets these days, when nostalgia isn’t a factor.)

The far more important part of the book, therefore, was the 75% that followed the rules, in which five apocalyptic scenarios were explored. Each section has the player POV description, a description of what’s really going on, multiple plothook ideas, NPC/monster stats, a timeline of the apocalypse from minute one to year three or four, and then a post apocalypse section for roleplaying into the world that exists beyond the end of our world.

These? Were mostly good. I think there was only one scenario whose genesis and result I liked both of, but that doesn’t mean it would be impossible, or even especially hard, to mix and match. For reasons of potential game spoilers, I won’t go into what their scenarios actually are, but there were definitely some pretty good ideas scattered throughout the thing. Enough to make me want to buy more books in the series, if I can ever find them used. I doubt I’d run another zombie game? My only really successful GM experience was from one, so it’s probably better to try something different.

But I do love me a good apocalypse, so.

Dead Island

I bought kind of a zombie console MMO last year, but then never played it because I was under the impression that it needed a lot of players instead of just me. I later discovered over Labor Day weekend that not only can it played single-player, but it’s also kind of hilariously over the top, what with the zombie rap song and the dozens of bikini zombie models to choose from and the significant number of decapitations and head-crushings and weapon modifications available. I guess what I’m saying is it’s just pleasant to swing a burning baseball bat at a charging zombie and watch it burst into flames.

As for the storyline, it turned out to be a lot broader and a little deeper than expected. Broader in that zomg, so many sidequests, none of which even involved requests to bring back… well, okay, that’s not true, there were totally collection quests, but they at least had no bearing on advancing any plots or changing any characters. Those folks never got tired of their cans of food no matter how many I provided. But anyway, the rest, in which the mysteriously immune people wander the island in search of ways to save everyone and untangle the mystery of where these zombies are coming from and why they can drown? It’s interesting enough to go on with, and I eventually cared about one or two characters.

But mainly it’s those super fun collectible, buildable zombie-splattering toys.

Mass Effect 2

Remember when Shepard, um… yeah, okay, neither do I. I know she did something to learn about the history of the Protheans and the present of the Reapers, and repelled an initial foray into “the destruction of life as we know it”, but that’s about all I remember. Because I played Mass Effect way too long ago. To give you an idea of how long ago, I didn’t finish playing Mass Effect 2[1] until after the majority of people I know who like video games had finished Mass Effect 3.

But I did. And it turns out that knowing why the Citadel was attacked and what that means to the next few years of “life as we know it” isn’t so relevant when compared to politics, especially if new players in the galaxy (called by people who are watching history The Collectors because of their habit of gathering up entire populations and leaving through a mass effect relay nobody else has ever returned from in recorded history) kill you before people get a chance to decide if they consider you a hero for sure or not. Although martyrdom is nice for the hero image, don’t get me wrong.

But it’s cool, because Shepard is back a couple of years later (you can’t keep a good hero down apparently, especially when she has the financial backing of her biggest political enemy behind her) to figure out what happened to her and what is about to happen to everyone else, with new allies at her side (and a selection of the best old allies, including Tali, without whom the galaxy basically seems not worth inhabiting). If you liked the first game, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like the first game, it is either a) because you are a bad person or b) because you hated the inventory system. That has been fixed, and all that is left to worry about is the exploration of uninhabited planets, which is not bad per se as long as you don’t give yourself the mistaken impression that you should ever explore them in advance beyond your needs. Because there are way more planets rich in resources than you will ever need to probe.

And if there are unexplored planets that have plot relevance but are not announced except by looking for them? That is a fault of the designer, not the reviewer.

[1] Technically, I still haven’t finished, as there are monetary DLC that seem worthwhile. But it feels close enough for review work.

Mass Effect

One sign of an extremely good video game is that it would be almost easier to describe it as a movie and leave out the game elements entirely. Well, okay, that may not be true. But if the reason you want to leave out the game elements is that they were so seamless and non-intrusive that you only very occasionally even felt like you were playing something instead of watching it and influencing the outcome, that would be good. It would also be a good sign if your father, no stranger to games even if he’s not the gamer type, were to ask you after watching the last 15 or 20 minutes of the game to clarify that it was in fact a game, and not a movie.

And looking at it like that, Mass Effect is an exceptional game. Short centuries from today, humanity has spread out into the solar system only to discover relics of an extinct race that had observed our solar system 50,000 years ago and left behind technology we were quickly able to make use of. Now the mass effect drives have unlocked the galaxy for rapid exploration. And of course, we are not alone in the discovery, nor are we the first. And so, at a moment when humans are accepted as an important member of the galactic community but are clamoring for a chance to be more involved in the governing and policy-making of that community, opportunity arises in the form of Saren, a Council agent gone rogue who has just unleashed a rain of death upon a human colony and garden world in the form of his AI allies, the Geth. Now, the principle character of the game, Commander Shepard, must marshal diverse resources to hunt down Saren while unraveling the mystery behind his motivations and goals. At the very least, humanity’s position in galactic affairs is at stake for years to come. And it’s always possible that the stakes could be higher still.

Mass Effect is an RPG, in the style of Baldur’s Gate or Knights of the Old Republic, not Final Fantasy. That is, created with conscious effort to be reminiscent of tabletop RPGs, if they were played by one player instead of several. In the general course of events, I can only get so much enjoyment out of those games, because the micromanagement gets in the way of the pure joy of playing. And sure enough, the inventory system is an exercise in frustration, both because of the limit on how many things can be kept and because of the horrible ordering system. This kind of thing results in the games taking ages to complete if I ever do, and any justified sense of accomplishment comes tainted by the lack of consistent gameplay over a short period of time. That is, these games take me months or years to complete because I get bored of all the between-time work I have to do, so I play something else for a while instead.

Except, contrary to expectations, I’m about to proclaim joy instead of hardship. The majority of the game was put together explicitly to minimize these kinds of micromanagements, even if the inventory part failed. Instead of pausing and selecting enemies for combat, everything is played out in real time with a third person movement and cover system reminiscent of Gears of War that simultaneously allows growing character skills to matter while providing direct control over the flow of combat. The dialog system was primarily about setting the tone of your character; not what does she say, which is for the most part scripted (though there certainly are important choices scattered throughout the game), but how does she say it: with an eye toward politics and goodwill? Strictly official to get the job done, irrespective of the opinions in his head? Or with a giant chip on her shoulder, trying to cut through the pointless bureaucracy? And there are more tones, of course. So, my point is this: RPGs in general are only so entertaining to me, but Mass Effect was spectacular. Even the simple brilliance of Portal has such a different focus as to make them non-comparable. If it wasn’t for BioShock, Mass Effect would unquestionably have been my favorite game this year. (I really need to finish BioShock. Like, a lot.)

Final Fantasy

Over the past several months, I’ve played Final Fantasy (with intentions to play the other ones, eventually) as my tiny-TV-in-bed time-waster of choice. The amazing part is that I actually got around to finishing it, just last night. Well, it’s not that amazing. I am a jobless bum with no real prospects, since my marketable skills have been eroded over the past three years of getting paid a king’s ransom not to use them.

…but it’s possible that this is not about that. Um. Where was I? Right, the game. I’ve been reading 8-bit Theater for lo these many years, and once I realized they were re-releasing the game, I got it in my head to play as the characters from the comic. Then, I played it for a while. Then, I didn’t. Then, after I got unenjobbed, I returned to it, and after a quick walkthrough to remind me of the dungeon I was in the middle of, I got back to plugging away at it. It is mindless, but certainly entertaining. Even with cleaned up translations of the spells and people’s speech patterns, it still makes barely a lick of sense. But at the end of the day, the world was saved, so that’s pretty cool.

Also: unlike any other Final Fantasy game (well, that I know of; I admit that my knowledge in this regard is limited), there are no chocobos. This alone makes it the most awesome thing ever for the whole of the minute or two that you’ve spent reading just now, not to mention the minute or ten I’ve spent typing. I mean, just imagine it. A world with no chocobos! It would be fairly breathtaking, but luckily we are blessed by other video games who have never heard of such a beast, on even the quietest winds of rumor. But if we weren’t, man. People would be lining up to play this game over and over again, just to avoid that terrible fate.

Or, maybe it’s just me with the chocobo aversion.