Beyond the Wall

On 14 April 2016 I was able to try out this role-playing game by Flatland Games. I ran the game for two of my brothers using voip and an online dice roller. Thanks to the innovation of the playbooks and scenario packs, it was astonishingly quick to set up. It’s a simple game with a lot of elegant tweaks and, while I’m not a fan of the OSR movement in games or Tolkienesque fantasy in general, Beyond the Wall really worked for me.

I’ve played role-playing games for much of my life. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a twenty-sided die was for.[1] I think playing games helped me to develops maths and reading skills[2] but also gave me a pretty safe way to pass away the summer months when I was a child. I carried on playing as an adult, probably because it’s a bit cheaper than getting drunk all the time.[3] I think it’s a peculiar hobby, when you get in to it, especially as I usually end up as the games master, a position analogous but not identical to that of a referee in healthier pastimes. Basically, everyone else pretends to be Lord Grim Grimminity or The Sourcerer of Saigon and I’m taking the role of Hannibal Lector, the inn-keep of the Prancing Pony,[4] the armies of the Dark Lord, and also that tree with the net in it. I don’t know that is speaks to anything other than having a slightly administrative bent – it’s less about creativity as it is that I’m pretty good with spreadsheets. I’m being rather off-hand about the whole thing, but I’ve had some great times with RPGs, told some fun stories, and made some excellent friends.[5]

As I have grown, my tastes in gaming have developed and, more or less, solidified. I like modern games with crunchy powers and lots of fights. I am not too fond of role-playing in the acting sense; I enjoy throwing dice because of its uncertainty, I don’t feel I’ve much of a gift for putting on the silly voices. I vastly prefer non-standard fantasy; a sort of hodge podge of influences that allows me to have wizard schools be something between a mystery cult and a kung fu school, naming conventions drawn from anything other than Ye Olde Englande, and less adoration of kings and Lost Golden Ages.[6] Also, I tend not to care for nonhumans, especially hobbits, in fantasy, for a bunch of reasons.

Beyond the Wall then, probably shouldn’t be the kind of thing that appeals to me, but since I grabbed some of the alpha documents way back in 2012(?), I’ve found it rather charming. The initial hook is the playbook system. In BtW you can generate a character the same as you would in any other version of Dungeons and Dragons[7] and be on your way, but the writers recommend you use the Playbooks instead.[8] Each playbook focuses on a particular concept or archetype of adventurer, and then provides some random charts to flesh out your particular iteration. It begins with their childhood and then moves on to their life in the village, how they became an adult, and who their friends are. All the while, it squirrels away bonuses to your abilities, skills and so on, so that once you have rolled through the playbook, you have an idea both of what your character can do and who they are. Character generation extends in to the creation of the village, a process shared by the whole group.

For example, last night my two brothers rolled up an Assistant Beast Keeper, Shirley, and a Halfling Outrider, Cuthbert. Shirley was the son of a smith but learned a bit from everyone. He’s the witch’s apprentice and mucks out the stables. Soon, he’s marrying in to the Miller’s family. Cuthbert is the child of famous local “tobacco” farmers, he befriended a local merchant, and became friends with Shirley when they helped the ghost of a long forgotten murder victim. Of course, they also know that the Miller intended to have the local merchant robbed, leading to Shirley’s nuptials in some no doubt humorous manner. Shirley has a pet mouse he named Queso, Cuthbert is walking around with some treasure maps. This all from about fifteen minutes of dice rolling. While they were doing that, I was able to pull out a scenario pack and, with some rolls of my own, determine that some nefarious subterranean goblins had attacked their village, abducting the local merchant for unknown reasons – that not all the goblins were on board with.

These sorts of play aids are really useful. The prompts help encourage less confident, less assertive players[9] to contribute stuff to the game and the world, and it gives everyone a stake in events. At one point, while Shirley was trying to convince Queso to scout the goblin warren for him, Cuthbert got impatient because it’s his friend down there with the cannibals. I also really liked that I could get an adventure for an evening put together in the same time it took the group to make characters –  and not some desultory hacker[10] but a twisty warren with the potential for interaction and lateral thinking. Indeed, the two of them used peaceful means to get through the first encounters – feeding (and freeing) some hungry gob-dogs, negotiating passage with the lesser king of the goblins.

Locating the game in the village, with the heavy focus on the local and personal, helps resolve some of the problems I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. The characters are not princes or chosen ones, they’re just little locals with a bit more luck or talent than their fellows[11] but not set apart from them. It’s a focus I appreciate.[12] There are miss-steps, such as the continual reiteration of what your fathers did, who your father was, rather than leaving it as parents or parents, or even switching between mother and father. While I dislike the shades of benign aristocracy in the Noble playbooks,[13] I really like that the playbooks contrast and complement with the villagers. There is a difference between the Would-Be Knight, born of the village, and the Knightless Squire, heir to the manor, informing their backgrounds so that, while both might be wielding heavy arms, their origins have an impact on who they are as people.

To return to the specifics of my game session, then, this manifested in a series of rolls that linked Cuthbert and Shirley together. Cuthbert’s motivation for leaving his comfortable hobbit hole was the tales of far-off places that a visiting Merchant shared with him. Shirley is set to marry in to the Miller’s family. This came together when Cuthbert rolled that he had seen the Miller arranging for a thief to rob the Merchant – and Shirley helped Cuthbert to disarm the whole situation. This is a purely random series of accretions that have come together to present the backstory to Orford, but it was really cool in the way it turned out. Shirley and Cuthbert are fast friends because of this event – and in Shirley’s case, it got him a fiancée.[14]

Within the playing of the game itself, once I had determined the motivations of the goblins and the scope of the lair, BtW is modelled heavily after pre-3rd edition D&D systems. When making attacks or saving throws, one rolls high, for ability scores, one rolls low. On first read, I didn’t particularly care for this, it’s a needless complication that will slow down play as each person tries to remember whether they roll low or high this time. There is a sidebar in BtW that explains why this design choice was made: the roll under stat check means that there is a meaningful distinction between ability scores that don’t have a differing ability bonus – so a character with a 9 strength and one with 12 will have different chances of succeeding at a task without needing to proliferate bonuses. That’s pretty sound reasoning, so I kept it.[15] And, as this session featured mostly ability and skill checks rather than the clash of arms,[16] ability checks came up a lot more often. When it did come time to throw down, the combat rules are very simple – roll, hit, damage – but there is the option to adopt stances in combat, which I’ll probably look to integrate more later. I was able to vary monsters a little bit by upping their hit points, a simple fix that I probably wouldn’t have done in a more complex game.

This simplicity is probably BtWs greatest asset and but also a liability; it’s fun to give a little narration to action, but it doesn’t have any impact on the mechanical level. It certainly lacks the heft of 4th edition D&Ds ability to declare what type of attack you are making, or even 13th Age’s variable dice mechanics. There is something to be said for reliably representing outcomes within the system itself – so a warrior knows how to ding an enemy just so and leave them dazed, or a ranger can always find such and such an amount of food. And, as always, while everyone is free to describe actions and chance the dice, magic users retain a set of mechanical tools that allow them to declare that A Thing is Happening. I think that much of the Old School methodology considers this a feature, not a bug, so I don’t anticipate it getting examined at any point.

It’s a game that lends itself well to a decent sized group or a small one. I do think that, with more players, the interactions between playbooks and how that rolls out in the village is an incredible asset. I’d even be happy to look to import the playbook method in to other games. For future sessions, I’m looking to roll out the village generation, traits, and then area and threats. BtW was good fun and I’m looking forward to future sessions.

[1] Stacking up as towers.
[2] Though not language skills. Too much fantasy has left my grammar a pitiful wreck.
[3] I never really went down the rabbit hole of miniatures wargaming. I did have some lizardmen once. I stopped collecting them after being told that painting them like poisonous geckoes was Doing It Wrong. Tough lesson, but probably saved me a lot of money in the long run.
[4] I don’t like Tolkien, doesn’t mean I can’t reference him.
[5] Perhaps, given I have never been attached to a gaming scene, it might be better described that I have excellent friends who have allowed me to share with them my strange hobby.
[6] I am partial to Lost and Obscure Relics – but the thing I want is the past to be different, not better.
[7] Roll dice, pick class, record stuff, fight monsters.
[8] They also offer loads of them for free on their website.
[9] Not a problem with the two brothers I was playing with, mind.
[10] Which, to reiterate my stance earlier, I’d have no problem with. I like fights!
[11] I’m quite left wing. This way of thinking is quite often mischaracterised as thinking everyone is the same; it’s not, it’s that everyone is equal, which is really quite different.
[12] Though I’m not saying it’s a move to speak from the margins, I think it is certainly influenced by this impulse.
[13] The Nobility playbooks also include the only specifically gendered archetype: The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. All the other playbooks don’t assign gender characteristics to the PC so generated. We could read this gendering as implying that all the other playbooks are neutrally male – especially the predominantly martial types such as the Squire and the Future Warlord, given that her skill at arms marks the NWD as transgressive. That could be a problem for some groups. We could assume that this is a (social) class rooted constraint; a Local Hero can be a woman because gender roles are less strictly enforced on the sharp edge of survival. Still, If one player is making a NWD and another making a Squire who happens to be a woman, it creates a conflict in concept. I also think, that it pays to bear in mind the source materials: that is, not that women did not fight in history, but the fiction that BtW is inspired by, which includes many, many very very popular examples of your women who rose up to fight against the wishes and expectations of their society. It is an example of importing inequality to a secondary world in service to audience expectations.
[14] Which is an interesting connection all in its own right – I tend not to focus on relationship issues within game, but here’s a fresh hook.
[15] Also, one of my players has the most atrocious dice luck, so being able to succeed on a low roll is a rare chance to shine for him. Or to fool the dice gods, depending on how superstitious you are.
[16] Shirley and Cuthbert successfully negotiated with a pack of Gob-Dogs and the Goblin King, though they would later go on to fight the King anyway. It was reasonable in the context of the game.

This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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The Darkest Dungeon

Of late, I have been playing a game called the Darkest Dungeon. It is a side-scrolling Roguelike RPG, designed by a studio called Red Hook, and funded (in part) through Kick-starter[1]. It is one of the success stories of the current trend of crowd funding, in terms of both money raised and the product that is being delivered. I first became aware of the game’s existence through a video put together by Matt Lees, a videogame/web-media personality whose work I follow. I wasn’t part of the Kickstarter, I was given the game as a birthday present. It is currently available through Steam’s Early Access feature. I’d like to share my thoughts which are, overwhelmingly, positive.

First of all, and probably most importantly for me, the game is absolutely amazingly realised. I am of the opinion that there is a bit of a glut of Lovecraft-mythos inspired media currently out there, a kind of lazy embrace of Cthulhu and assorted monstrosities without any interrogation of the text. Similarly, the trend for ‘dark fantasy.’ To put it another way, given I did write ‘dark fantasy’ novella, I have developed in to a bit of a picky snob with regards to genre.

In The Darkest Dungeon I think these two themes have been stylishly represented and artfully deployed. The game is presented to the player in two modes: a washed-out township with a collection of decrepit buildings or, the meat of the game, 2-d side scrolling sprites arranged in order as they move from the left side of your screen to the right, tripping hazards and looting treasures along the way. A simple foundation, boldly realised. The art direction is amazing and evocative: the Ruins are gothic, there’s a slaughter-house vibe to the Warrens of the swine, and the Weald is the dark forest of traditional fairy-tale married to a Del Toro-esque fantasy vision. Everything looks grubby, worn, and a little close to breaking; the heroes look nearly as bestial as the monsters they face; and the simple colour shifts of the torch wash out the world in threatening reds and obscuring blues. This is accompanied by fragmentary narration by a nameless ‘Ancestor’ who warns and entreats in equal measure, a score that emphasizes the claustrophobia and creeping unease of the setting, and a sound effects palette that shifts from soft whispered squeals to reverberating echoes. An incredible amount of work has gone in to realising this setting.

Monsters hideous and peculiar

Monsters hideous and peculiar

I’ve never really played “Roguelikes.” I remember, vaguely, the original Rogue as something my older brothers probably played, but especially that my mum really liked.[2] That meant that, apart from a little bit of peripheral reading, I was not familiar with the mechanisms of Roguelike play – randomness, nonlinearity, the tendency for things to sometimes be just unfair. That is not to say I only play games with a preset structure – a current favourite is Crusader Kings 2 – but I’m more inclined to ‘save scum’[3] if I don’t get the outcome I want. That option isn’t available in DD, which means that I have to accept my losses as I progress. This has been emphasized by a particular conceit I have embraced while playing Darkest Dungeon: I have renamed each of my heroes to a family member or friend.

Or a nickname, on request

Or a nickname, on request

It is an odd little quirk to get you more invested in the characters, that tiny amount of customisation. You can do a similar thing in the 2012 X-Com game;[4] my actual first play-through of the game featured me renaming every recruit that of my friends and family, semi-prompted by the narrative of familial duty that the game presents.[5] This added investment, the tiniest of tweaks in customisation, added another layer to my engagement with the fictive universe: I wasn’t just some nameless inheritor sending strangers off to die, I was me, and the people fighting in the tombs were my friends. Yet the game itself exceeds the expectation of just naming your soldiers that the afore-mentioned X-Com offered. The heroes of Darkest Dungeon suffer for their travails, bend and break as they are exposed to danger and horror, and develop strange quirks of personality as a result of it. I think it is telling that, while the quirks that affect stats were the one’s that were most obviously detrimental, it was the traits that reflected personality that brought the characters to life and affected game play. One Graverobber was ‘Curious’, rifling through books and scrolls even as they further eroded her mind. Then there was the Crusader, a holy warrior, afflicted with Kleptomania; sometimes, against my wishes, he would open chests and pocket the treasure for himself

Meanwhile, in Hamlet...

Meanwhile, in Hamlet…

Even back in town, characters would refuse or require certain activities: the Highwayman who refused any comfort other than drink, or the Vestal who had been barred from the Brothel for her ‘Deviant Tastes.’ The band came alive with quirks beyond my direct governance. When, finally, the deathblows fell,[6] I had become attached to them through their habits as much as the names I had given them.

The center cannot hold

The center cannot hold

There are also, mechanically, so many little features of Darkest Dungeon, all geared to evoking the claustrophobic feel of the descent. Your characters are not just at risk of bodily harm; they have a Stress meter that endures between forays in to the dungeon. Gain too much stress, and your hero can break, becoming abusive or paranoid. Gain even more, and it could kill them.

All too much

All too much

Stress is gained in combat, but also from unexpected surprises such as finding a gruesome scene or reading a particularly troubling text. You have limited supply space when you go in to the Dungeon; your heroes need to eat, but how much will you bring? You need to plan for what you might encounter: tunnels to clear passages, or bandages to bind up cuts.

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Yet this all costs gold, and takes up space, reducing how much you can bring home from the dungeon. The money so spent is lost. That’s the core of the gameplay, balancing the risk of pushing on and losing everything, with the potential to gain more treasure. A tough fight might be winnable, or you might prefer to retreat when things go south. Unlike, say, a modern MMO where the only thing lost is time, in Darkest Dungeon you could lose a treasured Hero (and the investment they represent) as well as everything they were carrying

.Darkest Dungeon is not without flaws. Despite your heroes deteriorating state, there is no sense of urgency in the over game. It is a perfectly viable strategy to rinse through several heroes just to get gold and heirlooms. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Occultist being locked in as mystic and coded as non-white.[7] There are a lot of bugs, from graphical glitches where objects, events, and even characters will be locked out; there is a consistent problem with crashes and lock-ups, and the game is not at all well integrated with the Steam Overlay. I had to turn off alerts of any sort, and frequently had to restart when taking screen shots.

For example

For example

This would have been a bigger problem without the constant auto-saving. I also think that the game’s difficulty could use some attention; the balance between the risk of exploring in the dark doesn’t feel that great, while the rewards are staggering. There are some abilities that just come across as emphatically better; I can’t imagine using any of the Hellion’s self-bebuffing abilities when other classes can do more for less; the Arbalist and the Bountyhunter’s Marks are both vastly inferior to the Houndmasters and the Occultist’s. There’s some need for another balance pass there.

It is an excellent, atmospheric game though. It achieves the tense feeling of a classic dungeon crawl without reference to complex placement. The music, art, and tone of the game draw you in; what at first seems a plea for help is gradually revealed as more of a protracted confession of wrong-doing. The little touches on the Heroes makes you feel connected with your favourites, even as you throw them again and again in to the jaws of doom. Each classes offers something a little different, a different strength that, it turns out, has a niche in the Dungeons. Build a party around Marks, build a party around Blight, or build a party that is so tough you can just wear the enemies down. I love the kind of real, tactical choice Darkest Dungeon offers, and more that it wraps it in a game so evocative and ridiculously beautiful. It is already amazing, and there is more to come.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

[1] Also involving the company Klei, who were behind the equally quirky “Don’t Starve.” There’s some commonality in the aesthetic of the two games.

[2] In fact, when I was chatting with her about The Darkest Dungeon, her face lit up as she said “So it’s like Rogue!”

[3] That is, quit and reload from an earlier point in the game.

[4] Which I also quite enjoyed.

[5] I made my exploits available to send friends through a private screenshot collection, some of which you see here.

[6] In some cases, multiple times.

[7] Though by and large the game is excellent when it comes to the diversity of the heroes. For most characters with visible faces, the tones vary dramatically. So good on Red Hook.

World of Something or Other

As I reflected on in an earlier post, I am a person who plays games. I don’t know if I would categorise myself as a ‘gamer’ per se; I like games, I spend a lot of time playing them but I don’t share the cultural values that have accrued around gaming as a hobby. Still, I am certainly an enthusiast. I am also (currently? Still?) an unemployed person which means a wearying amount of free-time.

An authentic fantasy experience?

An authentic fantasy experience?

Just recently, Activision-Blizzard have released a new expansion to their incredibly successful World of Warcraft franchise/brand. To borrow an Americanism that I have become fond of, it is very ‘Inside Baseball. ’Warlords of Draenor takes you from the present setting of Azeroth to an alternate-past of the original homeworld of the Orcs and the Draenai. This is the result of time-travelling plot involving a former Warchief of the Horde, Garrosh Helmscream, to get an army of uncorrupted Orcs and show everyone!

A subtle critique of reactionary masculinity.

A subtle critique of reactionary masculinity.

I have been playing World of Warcraft (henceforth WoW) for nearly ten years; a distressing amount of time when you think about it. My earliest memories are mostly of playing a hunter (think Legolas, but an orc) and riding around on a wolf. I have been in guilds and, for a brief time in Wrath of the Lich King, I was even a leader for some small raids. Nothing fancy, but lots of free time. Four years ago I left the game for three years. I came back to see the previous expansion and have come back for this one. It’s pretty much the same game, but polished to a brilliant finish. Warcraft is something that I seem to gravitate towards when I am otherwise spinning my wheels; if I had the option to do other things, I’d do those, but WoW offers a variety of distractions to tide you over.

All your dreams come true.

All your dreams come true.

Part of this latest release is an update for the graphics of the player character avatars. It is surprising how much of a big deal this becomes. It’s not so much that my orc is now pretty – he remains a comically muscular, greyish-green chap with a serious underbite – but how expressive he has become. He smiles. He grimaces. He laughs and he cries and the textures of his face move. Sometimes it is nice to spin the camera around and check out his face, almost to check on what he is thinking.

I play almost exclusively on Roleplay servers, which probably seems at odds with the previous statement about not really having a character. When I was younger, I made stories up for these avatars in a fictive universe but time and the realities of a shared game world wear that down.  I believe my last engagement with this was to decide my elf wasn’t a prince, but a former toy-maker and volunteer for military service. In a world of gods and overwrought ‘destiny’, acknowledging that your guy is just… your guy can have an allure all its own.

The gameplay is very polished and there is now something in World of Warcraft that can almost make a piece of the world yours. Now you get a castle, and followers, and you do missions. It’s sort of half-arsed; everyone’s garrison is in the same place, and you can’t just find it. The followers you send out in to the world never turn up in the world. Except Dagg. Whoever came up with that ogre rogue deserves recognition or a bonus. Spotting him popping up has been a joy. It’s window dressing in a game already replete with it but it is a lot of fun, and a minigame at times more appealing than the rest of the game.

Sometimes you get visitors. A lot of the time you wish you didn't.

Sometimes you get visitors. Most of them you fight.

The phenomenon of Massive Online games is such that the best part of it is also the worst: the people. Blizzard have put a great deal of work in to making the game accessible, even as they can say the most horrible things about their customer body. Sometimes you encounter rare gems of people but, as with the internet at large, it can be hard to see them for the morass of shit-talkers. It is amazing that I can click a button to connect with forty strangers and regret it in almost the same moment. Group content with its odd mix of stilted camaraderie and fence maintaining elitism remains the major draw for WoW; sometimes I meet people who are great, a lot of them are as silent as the computer controlled NPCs, and some make you switch off your computer in disgust.

As I mentioned above, WoD is very much the progression of a closed world, unsurprising given how long the franchise has now persisted. It is littered with self-referential plot-lines, cameos and prompts; a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is incredible how much fun it is to have cameos of alternate universe versions of characters you know, and the black humour that can emerge from knowing their fate. As with all things Blizzard, it isn’t at all innovative. It is easy to say it is polished to all get out but the launch bugs kind of take away from that. However, I am not a technical person, nor do those things play much in to my analysis. WoW has always been in an embrace with the conservative side of fantasy: great kings and wise elves, overwrought destinies and magic without attachment to any magical tradition.

Writing is the neglected annex of computer gaming, the adjunct to the technical stuff, and no more is this true than WoW. WoD represents something of a high mark for the writing, with story-lines that mostly make sense even if the aren’t particularly ground-breaking. WoW is funny but remains determinedly retrograde. There’s a wonderful tension that emerges between the proposed narrative and the one that emerges from the gameplay; we’re here to fight evil, in defiance of the wholesale and casual slaughter of an unresponsive world. A more honest appraisal, given briefly by a strange tree-creature that ends up joining your side, is that you are parasites here to leech the resources of a more vital world than your own. The conflict that reignites between the two factions in Ashran, is perhaps just as apposite: the Horde and Alliance are nominally at peace, but the two commanders here ‘didn’t get the memo’ and intend to finish a war no-one else is supposed to be fighting, for sole dominion of nothing.

Robots will kick off for no reason, inspired by their creators.

Two houses both alike in dignity

I play it a lot, and do enjoy it, but there’s a definite element of putting up with problematic stuff. I reflect on this as I wheel around my Blood Elf, having dressed him up in Troll armour. There was the promise, there, of something new: the ‘good’ elves joining in with the ‘evil’ Horde; to not question the binaries (a game with two sides encourages a binary) but to at least attempt reinscribe them, the elves becoming more like their new friends; creating a distinctive culture with a hybrid identity, but that’s beyond the scope of a game that is click, loot, repeat.