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The Head in the Road

The Head in the Road

[The weekly D&D post had been postponed due to the holiday here in the US]

As the caravan surged onward, a whole lot of nothing happened. The end.

But wait! Although we’re not modeling a two month journey in real time (although sometimes it feels like it), things do happen. Like how the caravan found a severed head in the middle of the road last week.

The caravan stopped, or at least slowed. The folks at the front of the caravan got out and investigated. The players moved up along the column to join in the gawking. Turns out some of the forward guards noticed that while there was a head in the road, the head was still attached to a body, and that body was actually buried in the road up to his shoulders. To add to the mystery, he had the word “Oathbreaker” written across his forehead.

Some caravan members wanted to keep going, to leave this “oathbreaker” to his fate. He obviously did something horrible, or else why would someone go to the trouble of burying a man up to his shoulders and scribbling on his forehead? Best not to get involved.

The cleric of the group stepped up and did a cursory check of the…head…and diagnosed that he was still alive, but dehydrated and worse for wear. He would die soon if he didn’t get out of there, so the Samaritan’s outnumbered the Do Nothings, the man was excavated, and one of the cart drivers offered his cart as a mobile hospital for the remainder of the need. He wore only a loincloth, his forehead tattoo…and the symbol of the Harpers on his arm.

After some water and nourishment over the next few days, the bard — obviously the most charismatic of the group — opted to interrogate the new addition to the column. His story was that he had been betrothed to a woman, but had broken off the engagement when he found out that her father and brother were part of a bandit gang, and that they were expecting that he would join up once he was part of the family. He had been jumped by the bandits, branded, and buried in the road as punishment.

The bard didn’t buy it, and said so to the rest of the party. Why would someone with the brand of the Harpers end up in such an embarrassingly dangerous situation unless they had angered a group more powerful than roadside bandits?

Over time, the man regained his strength, and helped the carriage driver with his tasks. The party noticed, however, that he was paying particular (in their view, overt) attention to the cultist wagon, which was only a few wagons behind his own. The cultists, in turn, seemed interested in this new addition to the traveling group, although neither the man nor the cultists made any overt attempts to intercept or interfere with one another.

It wasn’t until a stopover at a roadside inn that the party waved the man over to their table, where they proceeded to once again interrogate him. Once one of the members mentioned that they were on a mission for the Harpers that he came clean with the truth: he had been on a mission similar to theirs, embedded in an earlier caravan in which a different group of cultists were carting goods along the trade route. However, his cover had been blown, he was framed by the cultists as a bandit sympathizer, and the caravan opted to bury him in the road as punishment.

In the end, he swore he wouldn’t interfere with the party’s mission; it would be best if they not be seen talking for the remainder of the trip. However, he could serve as a distraction; since the entire caravan knew about his supposed association with the Harpers, the cultists would certainly be keeping an eye on him, and less of an eye on any other potential threats. Also, he offered to get the party in touch with the Harper contingent in Waterdeep once they arrived.

A few days later, the party arrived in Daggerford, the last major stop before Waterdeep. Several passengers who had been traveling with the column left, but two signed on for the last leg of the journey: a female gnome, and a tall, bald man wearing a suspiciously warm woolen cap that covered his head, ears, and neck. Making matters more suspicious, this stranger managed to engage the cultists, and even to somehow book passage on their wagon.

With a fair bit of Wisdom (Perception), the warlock noticed that the stranger was sporting some interesting tattoos on his head and neck that he felt necessitated the strange choice of headgear. Although this stranger was traveling with the cultists, he didn’t seem welcome in their midst, so while the caravan camped beside the road one night, the warlock approached the stranger.

He seemed affable enough, and when the warlock called him out on his attempts at subterfuge, the man admitted that he was Thayan, a nationality known for it’s almost rabid devotion to necromancy, and feared and hated throughout the Sword Coast. However, he claimed that he was only a merchant before the rise of Szass Tam, the lich who now rules Thay. Not every Thayan was devoted to the art of raising the dead, this man claimed, and he was headed to Waterdeep to take a ship across the ocean to a place where Thayans aren’t as repugnant as they are considered on the Sword Coast.

*   *   *

The caravan trip is getting a bit long in the tooth, so events were sped up just enough to reach a milestone this week or next week. Modeling a two month old journey, mixing in excitement and adventure, is difficult. It shouldn’t be wall to wall combat, but it shouldn’t also be boring. It shouldn’t be undiscovered country (a well-traveled trade route), but it shouldn’t be uneventful. There’s always opportunities for combat in D&D, but there’s rarely scenarios which require real RP skills, so I wanted to focus this trip more on the non-combat random events listed in the module.

RPing is difficult, though, on both sides of the screen. From my perspective, combat is simple: pay attention to the enemy stats, use their abilities to drive their behavior, and pull no punches. The same goes for the players. RPing non-combat events is significantly less simple. These require a setup, which is easy and provided in the module, but they also require a response that’s built upon the player actions. It’s up to me whether or not the player actions can subvert and trivialize the importance of the event’s outcome for the remainder of the story, or to somehow make player actions have a long-lasting effect and find another way to keep the story on track. Ideally, in a custom campaign, I’d be perfectly fine with the first situation: let the players drive the story outright, and just fill in the gaps with the result. With a module, though, certain encounters and events are important later on, and if the players trivialize them by ignoring them, or turning them around (in a logical sense), taking the outcome of that encounter out of the flow of the module is like playing Jenga with the story. Once in a while should be OK; When it becomes a pattern, and too many blocks are removed, the whole thing falls apart.

I was a bit concerned about the approach the players were taking with the oathbreaker. They were confrontational and arrogant, playing the encounter like they had the upper hand. His story about breaking off an engagement couldn’t possibly be true since he had a Harper insignia, and outright told him that he owed them the plain truth for digging him out of the ground. I ended up strongly suggesting that maybe they should name-drop Leosin’s involvement, because I was very disappointed that they were taking a combative approach rather than an approach that (to me, which may have been the real problem) should have been more logically forthcoming: he’s a Harper, and the party was sent on the mission by the Harpers, so the mutual association could be exploited instead of relying on brow-beating this guy into compliance.

This was obviously an overstep of my job as the “impartial DM”. If the players want to approach a situation as they see fit, it should be their choice, and it’s up to me to either deal with the consequences (in some way), or to somehow re-route them back to the official story later on.  This encounter was from the random encounter table, which means that technically it has little ramification on the overall story, so really there is nowhere to re-route the players to. I was more disappointed that I felt that there wasn’t a lot of thought being put into the approach, but that should ultimately be the player’s call: however they want to approach a situation should be the way they approach a situation, and it’s up to me to deal with the results. My job is really to not use the party’s actual approach as a determination for reward or punishment; their actions simply are what they are. If the players push the story away from the intended outcome, then it’s either find a way to get the story back on track (if it’s important to do so), or to simply let the outcome stand on it’s own.

However, after feeling really bad about blowing up about the situation, I opted to install this Harper as a reliable contact in Waterdeep that the players can use in an unfamiliar city. I figured that while the players considered getting the truth as gratitude for saving this guy made sense, getting the gratitude of an entire city-wide network of the Harper society was an even better reward.

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Character Study

Character Study

My daughter has been hounding my wife and me to give her “commission work” to draw because other family members have offered to buy some of her artwork (not in a patronizing way), and because I talked to her about the commission circuit.

We gave her some instruction on what we wanted her to work on. For my wife, she wanted a picture of herself and her sister playing a board game. I asked for a picture of me playing a video game (duh). She works in the anime/chibi style, so I expected a cool picture I could use as my online avatar because having an in-house sweatshop to churn out art is what I need if I’m ever going to make headway with this game development shtick.

Thing is, she gave us a lot of crap about not “giving her a lot to work with”. She was expecting exacting detail, like clothing poses, facial expressions, and probably even minutiae like colors and patterns. I frowned at her, and told her that she’s kind of missing the point of “art”: it’s not about someone telling you what to make; it’s about something asking you to make something. We wanted her to apply creativity to the process, but she wanted the path of least resistance.

So I met her half-way. I want her to draw something, so I figured since I’m playing Guild Wars 2 ahead of the expansion, she could draw my Ranger. I took a bunch of screenshots from the front, sides, and top (the best I could do with the limited camera range in the game), and told her that she only needed to draw from the waist up. At the very least I expect it’ll be a good workout for her, but I’m more than half expecting her to basically just copy what I’ve given her. Ideally, I’d like her to take the face, hair, and clothing, and draw some kind of “not what’s in the screenshots” post, like an action pose or something.

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All The Small Things

All The Small Things

Guild Wars 2, has adopted the “daily login rewards” mechanic that gives you something for each day you log in. They approach it different from some other games in that they give you something simply for logging in, whereas other games require you to log in on consecutive days. I can have a lapse of weeks in between logins for GW2 and still get the next item in the calendar, but for other games breaking the streak means starting all over again.

I want to thank Stargrace for her introspective post on the things that keep her in the game. A lot of what she likes in a game are the things that I also like: the things that make the game a world, such as crafting and housing and exploration. What we both dislike is the chore of logging in.

When did this become a retention mechanic, and for some (undoubtedly), why does it work? Naturally, we all like free things, but from a big picture perspective, I believe we all play games for the big reasons, like because our friends play, or because we like the art style and the overall gameplay. Those kinds of things tend to be pretty interchangeable between different titles, though, so whether we get our specific fix with WoW or WildstarDefiance or Firefall, it really comes down to a personal preference. Beyond the commonality, it’s the layers on top that serve to differentiate one game from another, and it’s become a case of refinement so granular that it seems that a lot of companies start relying on the small things to bring us back when the base conceit between titles is the same.

Even still, a lot of companies feed us things to keep us playing. For F2P games which have a subscription option, one tactic is to give you a cash shop stipend, a la The Secret World. You don’t have to actually log in; just keep paying, which is the same to the operators either way. Many games rely on the occasional promotion that just dumps loot on you (Marvel Heroes), and can often times be centered on an anniversary event (GW2). A recent tactic has been to send out emails regarding the release of character names, telling lapsed players that they should log in again to renew their claim (SWTOR). Sometimes, players are greeted with a daily reward, and a panel telling them what they can win that day if they stick around and play for a while (Neverwinter)

The lure of free stuff is always a good way to supplement people’s interest in a game that they’re already playing, because I think it renews their interest and validates their belief that the game they’re already playing is awesome. But as a reason to log in, separate from the lure — or the dissatisfaction — of the actual game? No. What designers are trying to Spackle over is the idea that players have to want to log in entirely under their own power, to experience a game that means something to them. Short of actually accommodating the different tastes of the player base by throwing in everyone’s pet mechanic, designers instead throw in these carrots in the form of free stuff, thinking getting something for nothing will get people’s feet in the door, and then maybe they’ll stick around for five minutes, maybe ten the next time, and maybe an hour or more later on down the road, once they learn that constant appearances are rewarded with handouts.

But that’s not a good reason to stick with a game. I hope designers understand this. They’re smart people, so I’m sure they do…but the business people who make the decision to include these kinds of things? I’m not so sure there.

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In Other News – June 29 2015

In Other News – June 29 2015

Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment

I picked up Sword Art Online Hollow Fragment for the Vita this weekend. I enjoyed the first half of the first season of SAO, quit the second half of the first season, and was meh on the ideas behind the second season. Being an MMO player, the idea of being virtually stuck inside the game is both interesting and frightening. We’ve moved away from the idea of the “MMO as a living world” and into “MMO as a string of mechanics”, so bringing it back around to the space as being it’s own ongoing ecosystem is cool; physically dying in the real world if you die in the game, however, is very uncool.

The game itself is in Japanese with English subtitles, which under most circumstances is just fine. In this case, it’s like a psychological experiment gone haywire, mainly because in the hour or so I’ve put into the game, 2% has been fighting things, another 10% has been running from place to place, and 88% has been thumbing through conversation. I don’t actually know what these conversations were about, since my brain refused to process anything after what seemed like the twelfth hour of reading one language while hearing a different one. Adding insult to injury, the Japanese propensity to include every single little twitch and emote and exclamation and gasp and muttering and sidebar to the main conversation while requiring that each be progressed through a press of the button…

The game itself is borderline-obnoxiously convoluted, but like anime itself, it takes a while to get used to and once you do, you get more comfortable with it. Supposedly you can “bond” with secondary characters through such mundane tasks as “talking to them” and “sitting with them at a cafe”. Doing so increases their ability to fight. They’ll also make requests for specific actions in combat, like “please stun” the target. Complying allows the two of you to fight much better in the long run. But to get to that point, you need to master the basic, LB, and RB hotbar states, both for you and for the requests you make to your companion. It’ll take about an hour of just familiarizing yourself with the character screens before you can become effective…if you can get some time alone outside of conversation, that is.

Destiny?

I’m not going to touch the brouhaha that has been surrounding Destiny and Bungie as of late, except to point you at this article which reminds us all that Activision is behind Bungie now.

I re-bought Destiny for the XB1 because A) I had $50 card from the purchase of said machine, B) XB1 had a bundle on sale for $45 that included the game, the two current DLC, and some extra crap, and C) my brother and friend (XB1 owners) had it, but had yet to get anywhere. I enjoy Destiny just fine; I never got very far on the PS4 as I wasn’t playing as often as others, and while I’m OK at shooters, I’m not so spectacular that I can stomach plowing through them alone (especially some of Destiny‘s creepier locations, which cause me shoulder-tension stress).

So it’s back into the grinder. I got to level five on Sunday, have my Sparrow, and my supa’ power now. There’s an upcoming mission that I’m dreading, where I have to defend the radio tower or something like that. I remember that it gave me much stress and much grief, and I really only got through it because I had other people to help at the time.

Massive Chalice

Another game I worked on this weekend was Massive Chalice. It’s one of XB1’s “Games with Gold” selection for June, and had been on my Steam wishlist for a while. In a nutshell, it’s like Crusader Kings meets XCOM. You control a kingdom pressed on all sides by a magical enemy. You have to take over territories by building fortresses, and then you need to install regents there. In addition, you have to (or can, if you’re smart) marry those regents to other characters so they’ll produce more characters. The kicker is that the characters come from your pool of soldiers, so once they’ve been promoted, they’re out of the battle.

Combat is very much like XCOM. You move, the enemy moves, you get a percent-chance-to-hit on your preferred target, and so on. If your character dies, they stay dead.

The conceit is that you not only have to keep your soldiers alive on the battlefield, but you have to take them out of service for the “greater good” of the kingdom (and to make kids). Do you keep your best soldiers fighting and possibly dying for good, or do you force them to have sex and produce children because they have desirable traits? Wait, that doesn’t sound like a difficult decision…

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The Vine Dragon Cometh

The Vine Dragon Cometh

finally got back to Guild Wars 2 this weekend, driven by a desire to complete my Living Story ahead of the release of Heart of Thorns. Since GW2 is one of my capped games, I feel a need to keep up with it*, especially since the expansion will be building upon the situations presented in this second season (and the first, I suppose, but I skipped that out of apathy and confusion).

I managed to plow through three of the five remaining episodes, leaving only two to complete. I have to say, they’ve proven to be a pretty good challenge, and I spent a good chunk of time screaming at the monitor. I ended yesterday tracking down the Master of Peace, and was frustrated by the mechanics in that area. But I’m also impressed with the designs that I’ve encountered. There have been a few puzzle-battles in these episodes, and they’ve had some interesting solutions. I could have easily have looked them up on the web and saved myself some grief, but of course that consider that cheating, both in the lazy sense, and in the experience sense: I feel better about learning them through trial and error than I ever could had I simply steamrolled them like minor annoyances.

Speaking of minor annoyances, I also spent a good amount of time clearing out my bank space while on layover in Divinity’s Reach. Specifically, my crafting materials. On Saturday, I thought I’d actually make a go of working on my crafting, only to find that I couldn’t make a damn thing because A) I lacked materials, and B) my skills weren’t high enough.

Crafting in GW2 is one of the worst systems I’ve seen; worse even than the push-button travesty that passes for trade skilling in other MMOs. I’m normally interested in crafting, but the gathering mechanics plain old suck. If the sum of a zone’s quests are considered “grinding”, then collecting materials through “click and animate” repetition is certainly a new circle of hell. While I can philosophically appreciate GW2‘s attempt to provide advancement though experimentation when crafting, having to craft crap just to consume crap seems to double the amount of time it takes to progress, at the expense of doubling the resources. Regardless, it’s far too tedious for me, especially when I know I could be doing something else that’s at least mildly interesting. Maybe once I complete the living story, I’ll go back to the lower level areas and farm materials. More than likely I’ll just buy stuff from the AH, considering I sold most of my high level materials for more gold than I can use at this point.

 

* In writing that sentence, I thought that it was a bit weird. I’ve got capped characters now in GW2Star Trek Online, and World of Warcraft, but GW2 is the only one I feel compelled to play because of it. I think it’s because my GW2 cap was earned, whereas with STO I was able to level through the offline duty officer system, and WoW came about thanks to the boost-to-90 that came with Warlords of Draenor. I don’t value those capped characters any less, per se, but I also don’t feel that I’ve gotten to know them as well as I know my GW2 character, who’s been through the entire story — dungeons included.

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