Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fallout: New Vegas doesn't railroad you at the beginning (rant)

Okay, I know it's at least two years old at this point, and in video game dog years is thus an ancient game, but I want to talk about Fallout: New Vegas for a minute.

Fallout: New Vegas is one of my very favorite computer RPGs ever. It's up there with Torment and Baldur's Gate 2. I really really really love this game. It has an interesting story, ample opportunity to explore (despite some delusional gamers' claims to the contrary), and it is one of few games where I truly feel like I go where I want when I want, and my decisions have real consequences. Plus lesbian monk punching monsters for the win.

I realize not many people love the game like I do, and I accept that people have different tastes and different preferences in games. All I ask is that if you dislike the game, dislike it for reasons that are not just plain wrong.

One of the wrongest reasons to dislike Fallout: New Vegas is the claim that the game "railroads you" because the characters and world design encourages you to travel east instead of north from your starting location. A good friend, whose opinions I usually respect, made this claim just recently, even stating it was a reason he never finished it, which makes my heart break, because if you like good RPGs, it is a game so very worth finishing. He said, "It forces you to follow the main plot and won't let you go straight to New Vegas." (Spoiler: New Vegas is what lies straight to the north of your starting point.)

Here's the thing: if you go straight to New Vegas, you TRIGGER THE PLOT FASTER. There is a reason why certain major plot characters are in New Vegas (your first hint that this is going to happen: the game is called Fallout: New Vegas), and you can very easily skip past early elements of the main plot (which are largely inconsequential) and suddenly find yourself right smack in the middle of the main plot before you are actually ready to be.

The truth of why the game strongly suggests (but does not force) you to go south or east instead is in fact, to encourage you to explore the game and get a feel for the world. The closer you get to New Vegas, the more you get wrapped up in the goings on in the world. If you are the kind of person who likes Fallout games because you can explore and find weird locations and fight monsters and talk to people in little towns and get a sense of what's going on in the world before you get involved, it's actually better to follow the game's advice and go any direction but north. It's in fact much easier to leave the game's main plot by hanging out in that central eastern/southern region and discovering the very many areas around there and doing the very many sidequests you find there.

But the thing is, you want to dive straight for New Vegas, you can! Yes, the game design does border the northern roads with several swarms of giant death flies, to discourage you from going that way. The game ALSO puts not one but TWO Stealth Boys in easy reach of you in the area you start in. You do the math. If you're determined to go north, you can do it. You have to be careful, you have to be observant, and you have to have good timing, but you can do it, and it's not that hard, because I did it, and I am the farthest from leet ninja game maneuverings as you can be and still be able to play video games at all.

I am in a game right now where I have a 4th level character hanging out in Freeside. She got that way by going straight north from Goodsprings and being careful. Levels 3 and 4 were earned in the New Vegas vicinity. She has a crappy Stealth score, for the record, as her frequent head injuries inflicted by Fiends with plasma weaponry will show you. But she is there, and she's alive, and she's slowly gathering the friends, caps, and supplies needed to do the various quests she's picking up in and around there. She's not ready to charge Fiends in head on quite yet but she's getting there (she can certainly pick off stragglers easily enough). And I'm sure someone who plays ballsier than me could be past the Vegas gate by now.

Could they have designed the game where you started in a different starting point so you'd have to travel far to get to New Vegas, forcing you to explore on the way one way or the other? Sure. But I think that'd actually be more railroady. Interesting thing is, this way gives you a choice--take the hard but fast road to get to the plot (and bigger guns and such) faster, or take the slow and easy road and take in the sights along the way. I guess if they made a mistake, it's that they didn't make it clear enough that this was in fact a choice, not a railroad. At least, that's how I see it, and I'm living proof you can play the game however you like.

I can count on my hand the times I felt deeply railroaded in F:NV. Once was through a single particular plot late in the main plot, where you are forced to give up an item and not given options to try and sleight of hand it or whatever. The other is through the majority of the Dead Money DLC, and especially the way the endgame works (there's a character who is unkillable until a certain trigger, and there's no good reason for it). (Mind, I loved Dead Money, but it is what it is.) Most of the DLCs by their nature are also "railroady" because you have to get to the end before you're allowed to return to the main game area, but that's also kind of the nature of the beast anyway.

But it was definitely not in the beginning.

So: hate on F:NV if that's what tickles your fancy. But not because the "beginning railroads you" -- because it doesn't, and you're wrong. And if you don't like it, I'll send Veronica in to punch you, so there.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Slayers d20 Revisited

So, one of my long time projects has been taking Slayers d20 and doing a massive revision of the mechanics, which includes "Pathfinderizing" the rules.

Slayers d20 was of course Guardians of Order's attempt at making a D&D-esque ruleset starring Lina Inverse and general fantasy mayhem.

I can't rewrite Slayers d20 with IP, but per the OGL I do have access to the mechanics, so that's what I've worked with, turning it into a system I call Insane Fantasy.

You can access the alpha draft of the rules here:

Yes, that is a link to a Paizo forum post, which in turn links to the items on GoogleDocs. Apologies for linking to a link that links to links, but I'd rather direct everyone to the same place. Comments are enabled on the documents themselves so you do not need to comment on the message board--and of course you could comment here as well.

If I am ever happy with Insane Fantasy that I'd want them to be totally public, I'd probably post them to some kind of game wiki for free here. This project is entirely for fun and not profit--although I'd still like it to be GOOD, so feedback is much appreciated.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Pathfinder RPG Advanced Race Guide

Paizo's latest add-on to its collection to its Pathfinder RPG line is the Advanced Race Guide (ARG). This is not a book for DIY would-be dictators to guide the master race to take over the world, but rather an in-depth exploration of the various character races available in the Pathfinder RPG and setting lines. I find it an interesting supplement, although not necessarily a must-have for everyone. GMs who want to tinker with their races for their homebrew worlds will definitely want a copy, as will players who want some more unusual race options (provided their GM allows the book of course). For those who largely stick to core material or don't do a lot of homebrewing or want to use unusual races, it may not be worth the expense (if in doubt, get the $10 .pdf). There is some degree of repetition of older material, as the ARG is to an extent a compilation of races featured in previous Paizo publications, although the purpose of the book is also of course to expand in depth upon them all. And of course there is an extensive section on how to build brand new races as well.

The ARG builds upon concepts originally introduced in Advanced Player's Guide (APG), and I would say that Paizo largely expects you to own and use the options in the APG if you want to use the ARG. The ARG uses alternate racial abilities, alternate racial favored class abilities, and archetypes, all introduced in the APG first, and the archetypes available include archetypes for the APG base classes as well as the base classes introduced in Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat. I take this as a blessing and a curse, a sign of "supplement bloat" to a degree. If you own and use all the options in the APG, then you'll have no problem further supplementing your games with the ARG. If you don't, the book may be largely useless to you. My own personal dilemma comes from the fact that I do not use any supplementary base classes in my home games, so all the archetypes that reference the APG, UM, or UC classes are useless to me and I feel like I have less content available to me. I realize there is a rock and a hard place situation here--if no prior supplementary material is referenced, then those who do use those materials also feel short changed. I will give Paizo credit that they explain what all the new concepts are so that if you don't own the APG you will still understand how the various alternate abilities and archetypes work, but this book, more than any other supplement to date, has rung to me as "you must have collected all four to be able to use this book properly." This situation is very much YMMV, and I point it out simply so that others may be aware.

The book is divided into four sections, the first three of which are basically variations on the same theme. Every race depicted in these three sections gets new alternate racial abilities, favored class abilities, archetypes, as well as race specific feats and equipment. There's also extensive flavor text for all races, and lovely art to accompany it.

The first section looks in depth at the core races, dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, half-elf, half-orc, and human. It expands upon their description text from the core rulebook, and it adds more alternate racial abilities and favored class options than what are listed in the APG, although what is listed in the APG is also repeated. Every core race now has a unique favored class option for every core and base class available in the game. Core races also get three new archetypes per race. I appreciated the extra detail in this section, although I did feel to a point like I was re-reading stuff I had already in the core rulebook or APG, but the new material is also valuable. I especially enjoyed most of the new feats and equipment.

The second section basically does the same thing for non-core but popular races for both PCs and NPCs, such as familiar "savage" humanoids like goblins, kobolds, and orcs, as well as the various races oldschoolers would collectively refer to as "planetouched," like tieflings and aasimar. This section goes into a little less detail--although what is there is still comprehensive, and each race has only two archetypes and less new material. Likewise the third section repeats the formula for very uncommon races, including a number of "animal-folk" like catfolk and tengu, as well as some unusual planar influenced races like the suli (jann-descended) and the wayang (shadow-descended). My understanding is a lot of these races originally appeared in Pathfinder setting material (I don't usually buy from the Companion or Chronicles lines so I can't speak to how much new is introduced). These uncommon races get only one archetype and again less information in general, but are still presented with well written descriptions. I did feel short changed on the amount of abilities--in particular, I think at least the races in the second section could have used more racial abilities and favored class options, to match the first chapter. I would have been willing to sacrifice some archetypes from the first or second chapters for the extra space. In fairness, for racial options, I generally prefer the alternate abilities to race-specific archetypes, but that's in part because I grew tired of racial class restrictions as far back as the 80s, and it's a concept I have no desire to see return to the descendants of AD&D.

The final section is the race builder, a system to allow GMs to build brand new races from scratch. It uses a point based system to build races, with "standard," "advanced," and "monstrous" races as categories for how many points you should use to build a certain race and how many abilities they may be able to have. The system includes a strong caveat that the race building rules are guidelines, and that the entire section is to be used at the GM's will and with the GM's discretion, which I do think must be borne strongly in mind by any and all users. I participated in the ARG playtest and review and I think the designers did take some of the most important feedback to heart -- for example, that not all core races needed to be shoehorned into a 10 point build, when obviously some core race abilities were truly more or less valuable than what the developers originally tried to assign them to be to make them fit a mold that they'd never been put into in the first place. This makes some of the point costs and assignments more sensible than they were than in the playtest, and at least I am fine with the fact that some core races come out to more or less than 10 points. From what I recall from the playtest, I think few will protest.

Still, I wish more player feedback from the playtest had been taken into consideration for the final product. My particular, though minor, peeve is that there are too many too-specific abilities -- a racial ability that grants you the ability to work with stone, but no such thing for working, say, with metal or clay or leather. Of course you can substitute in such things yourself, but I would have preferred many of the choices to have been made more generic to begin with, rather than force us to wing it in a system that already presumes a fair amount of "winging" to start with.

Nonetheless, it is a solid system that will give race tinkerers a lot of content to work with--again as long as all is taken as firm guidelines than laser-etched rules. I also like that the section provides some advice for how to deal with races of different power levels. Since Pathfinder did away with the problematic "level adjustment" concept from 3.5, the race builder rules offer different alternatives for having very racially "mixed" adventuring parties. The basic rule of thumb is generally to take a powerful race and remove abilities so that they match core more closely, or alternately to use the race builder to add abilities to weaker races so they are better balanced with stronger ones. Some may not like the idea as much as I do, but I appreciate firmly getting away from the character level issue entirely.

Production-wise, the book matches the high standard of quality that other PFRPG hardcover books meet. It is a good length, printed cleanly and clearly on glossy pages with beautiful artwork that enhances but does not distract from the text. The spine is solid enough, and I ordered mine from Paizo directly, whose dutiful golems placed corner protectors all over the book so there was no chance of it getting battered in shipping. My one layout nitpick is that for each race listed, the standard racial abilities are listed in a separate box at the bottom of the page. The way the pages are designed, it is very easy to read the race's description and then go straight into alternate racial abilities before you've managed to read the standard racial ones first, and makes it hard to cross reference between the two.

The ARG is a very nice supplement, with a well-organized and vast amount of information on Pathfinder character races. While I wouldn't consider it required reading, if character racial options are what's up your alley, then it's THE go-to sourcebook for Pathfinder.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Brian Fargo plans to make Wasteland 2 backed by Kickstarter

If you've never heard of Wasteland, it was a video game produced in the 1980s and was THE seminal post-apocalyptic RPG which sired the Fallout series of games.

Veteran game developer Brian Fargo of inXile Entertainment has launched a Kickstarter project to fund a sequel. Rather than deal with the utterly abysmal way publishers treat developers, let alone the fact that few mainstream games get proper QA testing before release these days, he's gone straight to the fans to provide the backing needed to get the project rolling. The response has already garnered over $1.6 million, with 18 days left to get even more. The original goal was $1 million with any additional funds going to expanding the game further; it also is part of the Kicking It Forward program, which means some of the profits will go toward other indie projects.

(Fargo, for the record, wrote and produced the original Wasteland and was co-lead on the original Fallout, and has a generally impressive list of games in his design portfolio.)

People have some reservations about patronage projects like this, and I understand those reservations. Anyone should think carefully about whether they want to contribute. But the mainstream video game world is getting riddled with issues of publishers nickel-and-diming players for bits and pieces of the game as they go along, and laying on the hassle of stunts like requiring famously single player games to be online-only. This is exactly the kind of situation where I think it's incredibly valuable to be able to put your money where your mouth is and be part of helping realize what should be a great project. As opposed to, say, pre-ordering a product you can be guaranteed will be full of bugs and incomplete on release.

And yes, I've put money down to back this. For $50, I get not only a digital copy, but a boxed copy with disc and real live actual game manual and other "feelies" that have been long forgotten in contemporary video game distribution. And all of it DRM free. All that for $10 less than the average MSRP for a mainstream RPG these days, which are usually guaranteed to be buggy and incomplete on release. (You can donate as little as $1, and for $15 you get a digital copy of the game.) I know I'll have to wait to see the final result, but I am happy to wait to see a final, complete, well-designed product. I realize I can't be guaranteed of such a thing until the game comes out, but I'm willing to take the chance this once, as I feel under the circumstances it's a good chance to take.

(crossposted to my dreamwidth and livejournal blogs)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Harvesting Fun

After Dragon Age, with its wrist-slittingly bleak outlook on storytelling, I decided to go look for something with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. And nothing is more like the video game manifestation of a cheery Lesley Gore song than the Harvest Moon series.

Well, actually, I'd never played Harvest Moon itself before. I'm a huge fan of its fantasy cousin Rune Factory, which is in fact a really brilliant fantasy series for the DS (I believe there is a version or two for the Wii as well). But Harvest Moon actually came first, and is a series of farming games. Yep, farming. You play a newcomer to a town, you sow crops and raise livestock--and you also try to befriend and even woo townsfolk and participate in town shenanigans like various festivals. It's a simple simulation but quite addictive. Rune Factory adds dungeon crawling, monster fighting, and item crafting to the table, and as a fantasy gamer I thus prefer this, but Harvest Moon in its simplicity has its appeal, even if its cows and chickens don't look slightly and awesomely demonic.

The particular Harvest Moon game I got is "Tale of Two Towns." I'm led to understand this is a pretty entry level version of the game. Its gameplay is largely as in Rune Factory but without the monster hunting bits. You plant crops, raise animals, fish, scavenge in the wilderness, cook dishes, and chat with people and do quests for them. The gist of the story is that you move into a mountainside area occupied by two towns, who have been bickering for generations. They bicker over which empty farm of theirs you get to occupy, and you have your choice of either (and you can move back and forth between the two); one is better for raising crops and the other is better for raising animals. You have to raise the towns' friendship over time by participating in cooking festivals, which is how the towns "duel" each other. And that's pretty much it.

It's a very slow paced game, and I have a feeling I may not have picked the best example of the series out there, but it's a nice break from dark and dreary RPGs (though I will probably go back and do a replay of Fallout: New Vegas soon, or crack and buy Skyrim even though I said I'd wait until all the DLC came out first). There is a simple pleasure to be had in figuring out growth cycles and how to befriend your animals and learning recipes and so on, plus engage in the difficult matter of how to earn the most profit with what you produce or find (the mechanical goal of the series is to maximize profits, interaction and romance and town plotline aside). The music is decent, the graphics bright and pleasant, with lots of lovely little details painstakingly worked into the background.

It's a Japanese game, and for some reason every Japanese game I've ever played come with a degree of the "Guide Dang It" philosophy (to borrow a phrase from TV Tropes)--you really have to at some point look at a walkthrough to figure out certain things. But such things as they are. Some things in the game could have had a little more thought put into it -- you can have a pet owl that flies you from the top of the mountain to one of the two towns, but no way to quickly get TO the top of the mountain, so the owl is kind of useless (I wish I hadn't bought him). The inventory is waaaay too small... I get inventory management is part of the game's challenge but it's frustratingly so; inventory management is NOT fun and it's the one big thing that detracts from the series (Rune Factory has this problem as well, though Rune Factory 3 was better about it). I think if they put all your tools in a separate inventory that did not take up backpack space, that would be a godsend. The quest system is a little too random--often you receive requests for stuff that you can't possibly achieve (not till much later in the game). But ultimately, there's a lot of fun to be had.

If you like simulations and have a DS, and you're in the mood for a nice quiet game, check it out--or other Harvest Moon games. And if you like Japanese fantasy games, definitely get the Rune Factory series (3 in particular was brilliant--phenomenal story AND you are a WERE-SHEEP. Yes, a were-sheep. How can that not be awesome?). Its next installment is coming out frustratingly only for the 3DS. I may have to give in and trade in my lite for it (but generally, hate the whole 3D mess, so it may not be worth it).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dragon Age leaves me wanting to move on from Bioware

I think I'm giving up on Bioware games for awhile. Mind, I've been trying to get away from buying anything published by EA--the company's practices do not endear me to them--but Bioware was always a big kicker. I'm a big fan of Bioware's earlier stuff--I've played the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights and all its add-ons, and Knights of the Old Republic. I missed Jade Empire, and I missed Mass Effect and Dragon Age on release because my computer couldn't handle them at the time. But I picked up Dragon Age: Ultimate Edition for cheap on Steam relatively recently, and my delight with catching up with what Bioware was up to (even if still a year or two behind) quickly faded.

What it comes down to is the following:
- Good story moments and interesting choices offset by other moments of feeling utterly railroaded
- God, the awful cutscenes which would pull nonsense like pull your entire party into the center of a room before you got ambushed. What made that especially lazy is that there were wonderfully challenging fights that didn't have to resort to such cheesy cheating tactics. As I've noted elsewhere, if Dragon Age were a TTRPG (well, it is also one, but bear with me), and the GM suddenly picked up my miniature and moved it to a spot to his advantage, I'd grab my mini back from him and shove it up his nose.
- Others have waxed on this more than I, but it DOES feel like I've played this game several times before... with the only significant differences being that it's more gory (whatever) and I like fewer of the characters
- God the bugs. And I got this game late and fully patched, remember.  The one where the game pulls the hideously boring and cliched "you find yourself in a dungeon with none of your stuff" was just so enhanced by the fact that the game actually deleted my belongings permanently. Lovely.
- So much of it is bleak and depressing, without reprieve. I've just come off finishing Awakening, where there is not one but two sidequests which end in you finding someone's lover having committed suicide. What? Why? Why is this necessary? It's not like they were even very interesting sidequests with otherwise rewarding results (okay, one might have been if it wasn't hideously bugged, but still). Not to mention that the whole storyline is that you're pressed into service into an organization where you must either let yourself be murdered or taint yourself with demon blood, the result of with will, guaranteed, doom you to a life of nightmares and eventual insanity and death within a few decades. Lovely. I feel so heroic.
- Not interested in endless "cinematic" dialogues; voice acting isn't that important to me, but they seem to be emphasizing that and other shallow stuff rather than, say, good combat design (see above about the cutscenes). 
- And that's the biggest thing. I play RPGs often, to feel heroic. Grey areas and difficult moral decisions are good, but I want to feel like my player character chose to do good things and good things came of it. I felt often through much of the game like maybe just letting the world end might have been the kindest thing to do. Even trying to play heroic, I didn't feel it. And I often felt the most important choices were taken from me--or not adequate options were offered me.
- There was a point where I kept playing just to see how it ended, not because I was having fun.

TL;DR: I stopped having fun.

Mind, when I say the stuff about depressing and not feeling heroic--the last game I played before this was Fallout: New Vegas. Shiny happy, black and white morality, rainbows and bunnies Fallout: New Vegas. Well, that's how I seem to remember it now, even though I know there was hideous death and brutality and slavery and difficult decisions, but somehow, they made it fun. Dragon Age seems to be about showing how awful and bleak and dark and gory it can be for the sake of being awful and bleak and dark and gory. The Fallout series (I've played all of them but Tactics) is darker and bleaker and gorier, but it isn't the point; it's about how people deal with that and still come out on top. Plus the humor's better, in my opinion. But I digress.

And ultimately, I think I want to step away from Bioware is because when I stop and think about it... when I think about what was the best Bioware game EVER... for me, it was Baldur's Gate 2. Which, by all means, is one of the best computer RPGs of all time, and that's not my opinion, that's fact. :)

But I think they hit their peak early, and I haven't seen much but downhill since. I'm sure Mass Effect has its own good stuff going on, but at this point, I don't think it's worth my money to find out.

Ah well, lots of other good games out there to play. And I look forward to that, certainly.