A Rambling Post About PAX East 2013

Each step further away from the Boston Convention and Expo Center feels like another mile closer to the real world. I can feel that same old sensation growing in my chest as the crowd of geeks around begins to thin and dissipate into the greater Boston area; it is a sense that echoes something close to bereavement. Later, sitting at Boston South Station is an eerie scene as geeks, subdued and quiet, huddle at tables or on the floor each group isolated and alone as if with the closing of another PAX East they lack the willingness to look around a meet the gazes of their compatriots; perhaps  they are afraid to see the loss mirrored there.

As usually it takes me a solid 24 hours before I can turn around and confront the memories of the past weekend. Three days of nerd heaven full of laughs, games, music, and all around good times. PAX (in its Eastern incarnation) is something quite special, yes I’m romanticizing a little bit here, but there is something about the sense of community, as Cliffy B. noted during his “storytime,” that allows us to revel in who we are in a way that the rest of the world never seems to understand. That is what PAX (and any conventions one chooses to attend for any slice of fandom you can name) is all about: an unburdening from the concerns of the outside world.

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Web Therapy: DM Burnout

This topic discussed quite a bit across the web but believe it or not this is the first time I’ve really run up against it myself. It’s one of those things that started slowly but has snowballed over the recent months. I don’t know how obvious my weariness is to my players but every time I sit down to DM now I cringe to think that my ennui is showing. Part of it is time, it’s weird but I feel like I had more time for gaming when I was in college with a full load of courses. When confronted with the choices of prep for a game, read, play a video game, or go for a run it almost pains me to say that prepping for a D&D is often the lowest on that list. (That’d be Symptom #3 on this list).

I think I’m at a point where my frustration with myself is starting to morph into frustration with my players. It often feels between the painting of miniatures, perusal of smartphones, and frequent nonsequitor conversations that people are often as disinterested in gaming as I am in running the game. I’d love to be able to say to myself that this purely a reflection of my own dissatisfaction but another part of me, which I do my best to silence, takes it a bit personally. It creates this vicious infinite loop that does little to help resolve the situation. (That’d be Sympton #6).

Every article I’ve looked at tells me the same thing: walk away from the GM’s seat. A part of me desperately clings to this campaign; particularly since things are close to a really good end game. If things are going to end properly for this campaign though I think I need to be as fresh faced and excited as I can and truthfully I’m just not there. I’m a little worried that if I walk away now we’ll never come back to it. There is a rational part of my brain that says that the notion of giving up shouldn’t bother me so much but the completionist part of my pysche is screaming in defiance.

View from the top the world: thoughts on Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Exiting the dwemer ruin, laden with pieces of dwarven metal, I quickly dispatched two wolves before they could charge me. Creeping forward I noticed a large tower like structure in the distance and below a cliff to my right the prowling form a snowy sabre-cat. I should know better. Really, past experience should have showed me by now but with an inexplicable compulsion I nock and draw an arrow. I feel regret and dread as soon as I loose the string With a snarl the cat charges. I loose arrows but to little effect. After a brief hesitation I turn and run. I head towards the tower I saw earlier.The cat nips at my heels during the brief chase to the tower’s front door but eventually I burst through the door of the tower, a lighthouse, and slam it behind me. My sigh of relief is cut short as I note the scene revealed in the tower’s dim light: blood spatters the walls and floor, debris is everywhere, in the center of the room the mutilated form of a woman’s body, and near the fireplace the severed body of an insect-like creature. I pause hearing now the faint scuttling sounds from somewhere beneath me. Vicious snow-cat outside, unknown horrors beneath me…at least there were no dragons flying around. Welcome to life in Skyrim.

Continue reading “View from the top the world: thoughts on Skyrim”

Dragon Age II Demo: Sorry Guts, your sword is small.

So, last night I finally had a chance to sit down and play the PC demo of Dragon Age II.   Here are my thoughts on some of the changes in practice (as opposed to in theory):

Users can still pause combat and switch characters but can’t stack commands.

This is precisely as annoying as I thought it would be.   I’ll have to get used to it if I want to play the game otherwise I’ll be spending a lot of time micro-managing every action.  Dragon Age II, if you don’t want to be constantly pausing and issuing commands, absolutely requires that you take advantage of the Tactics system.

An increased reliance on action heavy combat.

I actually really liked this aspect of the game for the most part.  Combat feels quicker and more brutal despite almost no real mechanical difference.  Things are streamlined in a useful way, particularly when it comes to potions which are shared by the party at large and are hardwired to quickslot apart from your attacks/abilities.  I found the in-game feedback a little lacking and at a resolution of 1600X1200 found the cooldown counter (a slight shading) a bit difficult to see.  Why they went with gray, rather than a more obvious color like red or yellow or even a numeric countdown, is beyond me.  The new enemy deaths are bit over-the-top to the point of being almost comical.

No Overhead Tactical View

Bioware had explained this from a design standpoint using “interiors with ceilings” as a major point (particularly for the locked in 3rd person view for console players).  Honestly this decision is still stupid.  Placing an area effect spell while locked in a third-person view is pretty damn awkward; especially since you can’t center area effect spells on an enemy.  It also, for me at least, makes getting a handle on the tactical situation a little cumbersome since you have to rely on the mini-map, which places enemies as red dots, to get a handle of the broad picture.  You can adjust to it but it still seams like a bad move on Bioware’s part.

Things I didn’t talk about when I talked about Dragon Age 2 previously include the dialogue system.  This is more or less ripped straight from Mass Effect though it blatantly categorizes most responses as what I can guess are good (represented by some sort of angelic halo thing), neutral (a mask), and “bad” (a hammer?).  It works and if you’ve played the Mass Effect series you’ll be pretty familiar with how DA 2 operates in conversation.  Unlike Mass Effect 2, the DA 2demo  has some wildly inconsistent voice acting ranging from the horrible wooden (Hawke’s brother) to the fantastic (Flemeth).  I like Varric, the dwarf rogue who narrates the game and joins your party, and the cut scenes during the demo are really quite well acted.  Isabela is…distracting?  Her character design seems deliberately provocative but I admit she seem somewhat better proportioned than other video game vixens.

The demo really just scratches the surface of the story and I’m curious to see where things will go.  I have a feeling that many of my complaints from the first game will go unheeded here and have more to do with me as a gamer rather than the game itself.  The colors are still washed out and faded, there is still an abundance of browns and the game just doesn’t pop visually.  Compare DA2 with the recent Skyrim trailer or footage from Guild Wars 2 or even Diablo 3 and I think that DA2 comes in at the bottom by a considerable margin.  I was a little disappointing to notice some very obvious clipping on models during cut scene and there were some weird loading hiccups (might be my PC) during gameplay and cutscenes.

The Dragon Age II demo left me with the impression that after some rather minor changes DA2 should play very much the same as Origins.  It didn’t leave me super excited for the game but at the same time it didn’t leave me frothing with rage. I still no absolutely nothing about the story, other than that it chronicles Hawke’s journey to becoming Champion.  I look forward to seeing where that goes.  Of course Dragon Age II can’t be the game I really wanted maybe Bioware can work on “The Adventures of Sten and Shale” for their next title?

On Dragon Age 2

It’s starting to look like Dragon Age: Origins was something of a swan song.  The last hurrah from a publisher whose bread and butter was the in-depth computer RPG.  That is hyperbole…at least to a certain extent.  Recent announcements from Bioware as to the changes in Dragon Age II, namely that you are playing a specific character, a stark departure from the “old school” vibe that Dragon Age: Origins embraced.  This isn’t anything new on Bioware’s part, it is afterall what Mass Effect does, but the change does strip the series of Baldur’s Gate successor mantle that rested so aptly on Dragon Age’s shoulders.

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To 4e or Not to 4e

So apparently several weeks absent from the GM seat is enough to ignite the fires of my fledgling imagination again.  My last go round in the “hot seat” was none-to-pleasant an effect that was mostly my fault; a symptom of my own laziness.  For the first time in what feels like forever I’ve actually been able to use my down time to actually brainstorm, if not outright plan, some of what I hope are fun things for my players to do whenever I start my game up again.  However, I have noted in the past a tendency towards enthusiasm regarding the idea of GMing but quickly that I grow disillusioned with the reality of GMing.

One of the people I play has started a Shadowrun campaign which is one of my first experiences gaming without a d20 in quite a while.  It’s been a learning process and quite a blast so far and the last session allowed me to blow up a barge, snipe a guy manning a machine gun, survive a grenade blast unscathed only to be nearly eviscerated by an assault rifle, and “accidentally” kill a helpless worker (to be fair I thought he was a bad guy).   Combat is mean but fun and characters are not nearly as hardy as they are in 4e (grenade blast survival aside it should be noted that my damage resistance dice pool is like 23 which waaaaay above average).  I’m not sure I’m sold on the dice pool mechanic since rolling so many d6s (while keep track of both sucesses and 1s) can be a bit unwieldy, but I’ve definitely been having fun so far. That fun brings me to other GMing problem: other systems. Continue reading “To 4e or Not to 4e”

On Roleplaying

It’s time to Ramble On.

-Led Zeppelin

As I sat in a comfy chair last night, wearing my free Dragon Age t-shirt acquired at PAX ’07, and playing through the opening scenes of Mass Effect 2 (my Mass Effect t-shit was, unfortunately, in the laundry) I cringed as a notice popped up about earning +4 to my Renegade rating.  I stopped for a minute reviewing the conversation I, or rather Commander Shepherd, just had.  I didn’t recall saying anything particularly “bad.”   I let the moment of sick panic pass and pushed onward secure my good deeds would erase whatever slight misstep I had taken.

You see in every Bioware game I’ve ever played I’ve always been good.  Multiple play-throughs of Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.  All good.  I’ve tried to play evil.  I have, really.  But something always stops me short.  A sick sensation in the pit of my stomach as I lie, cheat and extort.  A cold sweat that breaks out as I exploit the weak  or turn my back on the downtrodden.  I always abandon the efforts, returning to my goody two-shoes tendencies.  With Mass Effect 2 there is a faint curiosity that pulls me towards the glowing orange of the Renegade.  Part of it is a function of story.  I died.  I was brought back.  Two years of my life are gone.  The world around me has changed.  But, have I?  Distrust still exists amongst the various races.  The Alliance left me for dead but Cerebus, whose scientists I slaughtered as a Spectre, brought me back.  The Council sits on its hands unable to act while humanity is threatened.  They’ve turned a blind eye towards the threat the Reapers represent.  Did my old tactics of cooperation and open handed assistance even matter?

I repeat, I’m only three hours into the game.  Maybe it’s nothing Bioware did.  Maybe it’s me.  But I find myself, more than any other game recently, involved on an emotional level with what’s happening.  But I find myself wishing that Bioware made it harder to know precisely how my actions will affect my “alignment.”  Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier games but more so than any other time I could remember I wish the game would let me just choose without the knowledge of precisely what the nature of those decisions might be.  Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade alignment system is fascinating but the foreknowledge of how your words and actions will affect that scale robs me of a certain level of investment in the preceding.  The system is visible, allowing me too much leeway to telegraph my actions to reach the outcome I desire.  The decisions don’t really feel like mine.

I still don’t know why I can’t be evil.  You see.  If you have ever gamed with me at the table you might be surprised to learn about my inability to be even the slightest bit mean.   Scratch that.  You would definitely be surprised to learn that.  Truth be told, you might even refuse to believe me at all since  absolutely none of my tabletop D&D characters has ever been GOOD.  Ever.

Continue reading “On Roleplaying”

Dragon Age is Annoying*

*But I love it anyway.

Things that annoy me about Dragon Age: Origins:

Random difficulty spikes. I’m looking at you Bandit side-quest in Denerim!  The chief signifier of these is the 5 second combat start to party-wipe.

No combat logs. Wait.  How did I die?  I have no idea, oh well.

Inability to queue actions. Supposedly this isn’t an issue if you’re using the Tactics system properly.  Apparently I’m not.

Opaque system. I have no idea how all the little fiddly bits work and thus changing stats, buying equipment, and choosing spells/abilities become something of game whose rules I don’t quite know.  Choosing spells can be particularly tricky, especially when the spell descriptions don’t always reveal key details.  I’m looking at you Cleansing Aura with your suddenly draining all of Wynn’s mana!

Particularly difficult encounters which have nothing to do with the quest I’m on. Ok, only one so far, the Spider Queen in the Deep Roads of Orzhimar, but really?  Come on now.

Locked chests. Apparently the only means to open locked chests id DA:O is to have a character who can pick locks.  Can’t bash it open, can’t use a spell.  I’ve lost a lot of, likely crappy, loot because of this. Even Baldur’s Gate 2 let me bash chests.

-Bombs and poison.  Apparently I can only throw bombs/flasks if I’m trained in a specific skill or douse my weapon in poison/coating if I’m trained in the making of it.  Not major but still annoying when only one or two party members have the requisite ability.

Lack of auto-pause options. By which I mean none.  Sure the game auto-pauses when combat begins but I’d love to see more options so I can react more quickly to trouble in combat.  For you console people Baldur’s Gate 2,  which Dragon Age has been repeatedly touted as the spiritual successor of, had somewhere around 10 different auto-pause options from “a character was hit by an enemy”  to “after a spell is cast”.  Useful for people like me who like to micromanage their encounters.

ambushes. I walk into a room with a couple of enemies only to be surprised be either enemies I can’t see or enemies from the next room over.  Not cool.  Further more some of the hardest encounters in the game are the “random” encounters that occur when traveling between different places.

And now for the merely mediocre:

“Relationships” with your characters: I don’t really like the gift-giving mechanic with some special exceptions.  Those being gifts that unlock dialogue or produce a character specific quest.  Gifts just feel like a cheap way to pacify characters who don’t always like my decisions.    Oddly outside of those specific items the gift-giving just feels trite and meaningless.  Also, why don’t my party members give me gifts?  It’s only fair.

I know what you’re thinking now: “That is a lot of complaints for a game you claim to like.”  Maybe it is, but they are each in truth minor frustrations amongst a greater backdrop of greatness.  Things like:

the characters. I genuinely like all the characters so far.  So much so that my limit of 3 companions is genuinely troubling.  It is unfortunate that I have to build my party around specific roles in order to actually succeed at the game since, as a result, I don’t get much with other party members.

the dialogue and voice acting.  Despite a few rough accents, or lack thereof, the voice acting in DA: O is typically fantastic.  Veteran talent Tim Curry, Claudia Black, and Kate Mulgrew round out a cast of talented lesser known voice talent.  My favorites are probably Mark Hildreth (now on ABC’s V) as Sten and Barry Ellis as Shale (only available in the “Stone Prisoner” DLC).  Playing different combinations of companions also produces some pretty entertaining exchanges though I was most amused/disturbed by Ogrhen’s offer to bed the elderly Wynn.  In fact Shale plus any other companion is pretty awesome.  Though I do wish they had found away from bring back Kevin Michael Richardson (Saervok from BG/BG2/ToB) and though apparently Jim Cummings (Minsc) did some work for DA: O I can’t place where.  Also every time is “Gather your party and venture forth?” I mimic the voice from BG2 while reading it aloud.

the world.  Bioware has managed to craft a fascinating and detailed world with tons of lore and history that often exists outside the main game in your codex.   From the lyrium addicted magic police templars to the prayer sprouting chanters that hang around local temples Bioware has taken some traditional fantasy ideas into new and interesting ideas.  I am thoroughly excited for Green Ronin’s pen and paper Dragon Age RPG so that I can explore the world on my own terms and in a new way.

the combat.  While rumor is the PC version is slightly harder then the console version, thanks I’m told to the fact that enemies in the console version occur in waves, and occasionally frustrating I find the old school combat immensely satisfying.  Hell, even tactics from my BG2 days often work in the game…sometimes anyway.

Though I’m not yet done I am seriously enjoying my time with Dragon Age: Origins.  Despite what the atrocious marketing campaign may tell you it is not “the new shit” but rather very much old school in the best possible way.  If you’re a fan of Bioware, well you’re probably already playing it in that case, but if you aren’t well then get off your ass and give it a whirl.

I cast magic missile on the darkness

So as all true nerds know, 4th Edition for D&D is on the horizon.  I’m not precisely sure what all of the new features and changes will be.  (I do know that grappling is on the list though.  Presumably the changes will make is so that grappling is no longer the equivalent of a cleveland steamer in both enjoyment and usefulness.  This might be achieved by limiting the amount of dice rolls needed to less than the current number, which gets dangerously close to that of Amedeo Avogadro.)  Regardless, those changes are probably best covered by other, more knowledgeable, people on this site.  I’m just here to talk about the advertising.

Wizards of the Coast apparently approached the guys from PvP and Penny Arcade and asked them to do something cool to advertise the game.   Being webcomics, the fact that comic strips/panels were part of the end product isn’t particularly suprising.  But the comics are really just supplementing a pretty interesting advertising campaign.  They just played the game.  Wizards literally just provided a DM and everyone played 4th edition while a camera was recording the action.  The podcasts are being put up on the Wizards site each week and apparently it covers a lot of the new changes in the gameplay.  I haven’t gotten a chance to check it out yet so I don’t know if the result is something enjoyable or tediously boring.  But any attempt to sell a product by actually showing the audience the product in question rather than through the gaming industry’s normal smoke and mirrors routine is worthwhile endeavor.

PC-RPGs….gasping for air or on the rise?

There are some interesting rumblings in world of PC RPGs and some uncomfortable silences as well.

First off some older news in the place holder image over at Interplay.com.  Interplay, paired with Black Isle Studios and Bioware released perhaps the preatest Post-Gold Box Era computer RPGs ever.  Baldur’s Gate II sucked away months of life taking my fledgling character from the humblest of roots to the pinnacle of goddom (yes) are some of my fondest gaming memories (Quixis of the Open Palm, monk turned just deity).   Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Baldurs Gate, Fallout.  Interplay released some serious gems and it was a bit of shame when they went under.

I should point out one of the images on the placeholder is from the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games.  While for consoles only the light hack and slash fun both games featured was damned entertaining and I can only hope a newly formed Interplay finishes the series (both games ended in cliffhangers).

Slightly more troubling is Atari’s current financial difficulties.  Atari, as far as I know, still holds the license for D&D games.  They’ve managed it fairly well, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 were fun game but neither managed to eclipse the aforementioned Interplay titles.  I know I might catch some flak for this, but I almost hope EA gets the D&D license instead.  I know, I know but with their recent aquisition of Bioware and Obsidian (studios both tied to those original Interplay titles) means they have the talent, and the financial clout, to produce some top notch titles.  However, with the new ruleset (for pen and paper D&D) scheduled for release this summer I’m guessing we won’t hear any news on new D&D titles (discounting those already in production/active development) until some time in the fall.

Next up was a bit from RockPaperShotgun I saw this morning.  They mentioned a job posting by Blizzard that sparked specution on the development of Diablo 3.  With the semi-flop that was Hellgate a true sequel with the Diablo brand would be nice to see.  Having had a chance to beta Hellgate a bit I’m willing to admit that the gameplay was fun and similar to, though never quite as frantic as, Diablo.  The post casually speculates (a I seriously mean speculates) about a “World of Diablo” and I admit I felt a bit tingly at the thought of that.  I doubt it would happen, Blizzard hardly needs two fantasy MMOs, but still that would be a damned tempting prospect for me….and I don’t really like MMOs.

This isn’t to say that other areas of the PC RPG market are dry.  Bioware is as active as ever promising Mass Effect for PC this May, and additional titles in the series to be released on PC as well.  Even better, in a recent interview over at Eurogamer Bioware’s Matt Atwood mentions that the long developed Bioware original Dragon Age will be out before the fiscal year ends (i.e. before April 2009).  In other areas Bethesda is busy at work on Fallout 3, having enjoyed Oblivion I’m fairly confident they’ll turn out a sweet product.  Other than those titles the market for single-player RPGs on the PC looks rather slim, but maybe I’m missing a few.  I’ll suffer through this dry spell well enough, it isn’t like I don’t have games to play, I’m still working my way through Neverwinter Nights 2, just started Bioshock, and have yet to finish Crysis (and that doesn’t include my consoles) so I’m good to go.  I’m curious to see how whether the single player PC RPG will make any sort of comeback in an MMO saturated market; I for one certainly miss the sense of adventure, exploration, and epic story that those Interplay Infinity-engine titles engendered and hope for something similar down the line.