27 April 2013

Pathfinder - My Friend and My Foe

Today I ran my Pathfinder campaign again.

I do love Pathfinder. I like feeling connected to the long, amazing history of the world's first role-playing game. I like owning many beautiful hardback volumes of intriguing rules, monsters and whatnot. I like the wealth of material available, from full settings to adventure modules. I like playing with miniatures, it's a nice change of pace from the usual role-playing games I play. I even like the ubiquitous clichés, sometimes it's just cool to get down to the basic themes of old-school gaming.

I do love it, but it's really a kind of love-hate relationship. I won't lie to you, preparing for a Pathfinder session can be stressful, more so than most RPG's.

It's a game with a fairly steep learning curve, it must be said. The core mechanisms are actually quite simple, but there's so much more to master, particularly as a GM. The subtleties of combat, unique abilities of different monsters, the abilities of each character class, the myriad feats and spells and magic items... Where does one even begin learning it all? After a couple years I still feel like a total noob.

Of course it doesn't help that my group hasn't been able to get together all that often lately (we've only had a dozen sessions since summer 2011, with sometimes even half a year passing between sessions). And every time you feel like you're almost starting from scratch (not entirely true, of course, but it's not like you can remember everything for that long). I know people to whom complex rule systems like (modern) D&D or GURPS seem to come entirely naturally, like second nature. This doesn't exactly help, as I am clearly not one of them. I have lots of trouble remembering details.

Knowing all this, picking up those thick rulebooks begins to feel like a chore, and patience is not one of my virtues. You feel like you're never going to be good enough, no matter how hard you try. So you procrastinate. And you procrastinate. And then you beat yourself up about not preparing enough.

There's no such thing as a perfect RPG session, of course, regardless of system. There will always be important rules you forget. There will always be flaws in your plans. The players will always do something unexpected. There will always be plot holes you don't realise until the players stumble upon them. It's something you have to live with as a GM. Just try to forget about it and have fun. But when you add relatively complex rules to the equation, those feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness easily grow manifold.

But it's not like you can quit, either... Who'd want to do that? It is, after all, one of the most important, awesome games in the world...

25 April 2013

The Flow of the Game: One More Soar Engine Post

I blogged yesterday about the core ideas of my new (and untested) RPG rule system. As I had a little time to kill, I figured I might as well try to tackle one more aspect of it. This one's a little harder to put into words, though, and the aspect of the system that is, for me, perhaps the largest question mark. The core roll mechanisms are simple enough that they should, in my mind, work reasonably, but whether the flow of the entire game, based on ideas below, works is another matter...

Mostly action in RPG's tends to go on these lines: The GM describes the enemies. You attack one of them. They attack you. You repeat this until someone runs out of hit points or retreats.

With Soar Engine I'd like to try something slightly different. As I've said earlier, the idea is to make it a little more situation/goal oriented, rather than focusing on HP and repetitive action. The GM describes a situation. The players react to it. Ideally, the GM doesn't have to do much more than that once the scene gets under way. Let the players be creative, and focus on the big picture. Since the majority of enemies can be defeated with a single action, and the player characters don't have hit points (at least in the traditional sense – failed rolls can still have adverse effects, though), you don't need to go into too much detail about what exactly the NPC's are doing. (Essentially, in a combat situation, you could say the NPC's are actually attacking constantly, but it's the players' own actions that determine their effectiveness.)

Except when it suits the narrative. You still have to keep the players on their toes, of course. Mix up the game, drop in some twists and surprises. So at any point the GM can declare what I'm calling a 'Reaction Event'. At this point any characters involved must make an appropriate action (usually defensive in nature, but creativity is to be encouraged). Maybe the characters walk into an ambush, or trigger a trap. Maybe the enemies suddenly regroup in a massive counter-attack. Maybe the boss monster has charged up its devastating main attack...

Enforcing a clear turn order during action sequences is, in my mind, a good idea. It gives the game a little structure, and, most importantly, ensures that everyone has a chance to play. You could roll for 'initiative', but I think it should be entirely random (i.e. not affected by characters' stats), its only function to make sure that different players have a chance to act first. A player's turn involves one cohesive action (and one dice roll, if needed). The time it takes to do this isn't really important, nor do I think it's necessary to keep track of 'rounds' in addition to individual players' turns. Once you've gone round the table simply move to the first player again. (Think of a movie scene. You have a shot of one character doing something. Then the camera cuts to another character. It's not an exact science, the passage of time is highly subjective. Every detail doesn't need to be shown, nor do events involving different characters necessarily take place simultaneously.)

Reaction Events are outside the regular flow of turns. All involved characters make their rolls immediately, and once the situation is resolved, turns resume where you left off. The GM can have a turn too, of course. It doesn't necessarily involve much, since much of the time NPC's don't attack in the traditional sense, but could be used for a bit of extra narration based on preceding players' actions, or it could be used to trigger timed Reaction Events.

I have mostly been talking in terms of combat, but the same mechanisms can, of course, be used for any kind of action. An 'enemy' could be a bomb that needs defusing, a computer that needs hacking, a runaway train that needs stopping, or whatever.

That more or less wraps up what I have to say about the rules, until I actually get around to writing them up (which I probably won't be doing until I've had a chance to test the system at least once)...

24 April 2013

Soar Engine Addendum: On Video Games and the Tabletop

As an addendum to my post earlier today about my new RPG rule system, Soar Engine, a thought or two about its (and RPG's in general) relationship with video games...

As I said in the previous post, playing Mass Effect was a big influence on developing the concept of Soar Engine. But it runs deeper than that. For basically all of my adult life, video games have been a huge influence on me (perhaps even more so than as a kid). And for many years I've yearned for a pen & paper RPG that more effectively captured a little of the feel, and aesthetic, of video games.

The things I enjoy in my RPG's – larger-than-life characters, over-the-top action, etc. – I sometimes describe as cinematic, but what I really want to say is video game like (though that obviously doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well). However, I'm not sure I've ever quite succeeded in bringing in this feel quite as well as I'd like.

Of course video game RPG's, one of my favourite video game genres, were (and are) heavily influenced by their pen & paper counterparts. But going the other way, drawing influence from video games, is a little more challenging, I think. Speed is naturally one of the main issues. You can devise a system that emulates the mechanics of some game, but taken to the table it inevitably becomes much slower. And that naturally detracts from the feel of the game.

So with Soar Engine I hope to emulate the feel, or perhaps I should rather say aesthetic, of video games, rather than paying too much attention to underlying mechanics, like counting HP and damage, equipment management and whatnot. The power system I explained in my previous post could, in all its simplicity, be used to emulate the special abilities of characters from all sorts of video games, from biotic attacks to summoning Bahamut to level your enemies. And that, in my mind, is what in the end defines these characters – their unique ways of making the action feel dramatic. That is what I want to bring to the tabletop.

A Little More on the Soar Engine

This post is pretty much about procrastination (and racking up an impressive amount of blog posts for this month), but whatever...

Recently I wrote about Soar Engine, the concept for a new RPG rule system I was developing, mostly just for kicks at this point. I thought I'd take a moment to try to put into words some of the core concepts (not that anyone really cares, but on the off chance that a small handful of my friends might be interested).

As I indicated in the previous post, Soar Engine is a rules light system with a focus on dramatic action. It is, first and foremost, a storytelling game. Ideally, the rules would encourage creativity, not hinder it. But I also still want it to be a storytelling game. Making tactical decisions based on well defined rule mechanisms is, in my mind, part of the fun. Balancing these two elements can be a challenge.

Characters in the Soar Engine are very simple. They have a simple list of ten 'stats', defined by numerical value (0-5). These combine elements that many systems divide into 'attributes' and 'skills'. (They probably correspond more to the former, but include a few things like 'fighting', which most systems would treat as skills, distinct from generic physical/mental traits). In addition to these 'stats', they have a few 'powers', specific to that character. These could include special training, special gear, supernatural abilities etc. Powers don't have levels, you simply have them or don't.

And that's it. A number of stats and a handful of powers. In a nutshell, you roll dice, add the appropriate stat, and if you have an appropriate power you get an additional bonus. However, like I said, 'tactical decisions' are also part of the fun, so there are some advanced things you can do with powers ('all-out' attacks, 'combos' etc.) that grant you additional bonuses – but for a cost, of course. (For example, doing an 'all-out' action will give you an additional bonus, but will lock that power for the remainder of the scene.)

There are no rule mechanisms that describe the character's personality (in form of advantages/disadvantages, or whatever). The purpose of the rules is to create dramatic action, nothing more, nothing less. Anything else is entirely up to the players, and the narrative. You're free to write as much as you wish about a character's background and personality, of course, but building rules around it would only limit the narrative rather than add to it.

I said in the previous blog post that there are no hit points. This is... mostly true. Most enemies you'll take out with just one successful action (often a physical/supernatural attack, though it could be almost anything, limited only by your creativity – and available powers). Tough 'bosses' might require multiple actions (perhaps entirely different actions, to keep the players on their toes and coming up with creative ideas), but this is a fluid thing determined by narrative, not numbers. As for player characters... despite being a game about powerful, heroic characters, I feel there should still be an element of danger that contributes to the decision making process. Characters won't die, but they can become temporarily 'crippled' if they fail rolls too often (or roll a fumble, or, as I'm calling it, an 'epic fail').

While I was contemplating this system, I was also busy playing Mass Effect. This, undoubtedly, had a great impact on my ideas. Particularly I think it influenced the way I envisioned the 'powers'. I'm thinking the system would work well for a game based on the Mass Effect franchise (or other epic sci-fi with flashy supernatural/technological powers), though of course it should work just as well for other genres, too, the main difference simply being the powers available. ('Would work' or 'should work' – but keep in mind the system is still entirely untested.)

Speaking of Mass Effect and pen & paper gaming, I find it strange that no official Mass Effect RPG has been released yet, while a Dragon Age (the other major BioWare franchise) RPG exists. The latter is, after all, a fairly generic fantasy setting, which any GM with a modicum of time and experience could easily adapt to, say, D&D/Pathfinder. (Though, personally, I think there are much more interesting generic high fantasy settings already available for various systems, so why bother...) Mass Effect's original space opera setting, on the other hand, with its fascinating species and whatnot, would seem like something there could be a call for in the pen & paper world...

Anyway, I'm sure I'll return with more about the Soar Engine some day, hopefully with actual experiences. Till then, keep gaming!

18 April 2013

Tenra Bansho Zero: First Impressions

I think I first encountered Tenra Bansho Zero sometime last year on some news website or other. It was a (then) upcoming translation of a Japanese tabletop RPG. Being an old fan of anime/manga and Japanese video games this naturally piqued my interest. I knew Japan had its own tabletop gaming industry, but games from the country very rarely make it to the west. The PDF version of the game has been available for a while now, while the print version is scheduled to be released soon.

I was tentatively interested for a while. I would have liked to know more about the game, but couldn't do so without buying the game. And, alas, I'm not made of money. Eventually, however, I had to give in to temptation and, grudgingly, bought the PDF earlier this week. (Grudgingly because I very much dislike paying money for intangible things. But, sadly, the print version is currently entirely out of my reach, in part because international shipping expenses for the books are, to put it bluntly, intolerable.)

The $14 for the PDF is, however, a fairly reasonable price, I suppose, considering the game's scope. Included is a 456 page rulebook and 240 page setting book (over 250mb put together). The books look decent, though perhaps not the most impressive I've seen. The setting book is in colour and has a fair amount of quality illustration, while the rulebook is black and white with rather less in way of illustration. Of course I cannot compare it to the Japanese original, but the translation seems to be of fairly decent quality.

It's all... a little overwhelming, to be honest. I'm not sure where to start. Well, the setting, I suppose. The game is set in a fantasy world called Tenra, which mixes up feudal Japan, magic and technology. Mecha and cyborgs exist side by side with magically empowered samurai, ninjas, Buddhist magicians, Oni and the like. The world is left intentionally vague, with the setting book mostly devoted to the different character types and only very briefly discussing things like geography. It should appeal to fans of fantasy anime, though. The setting manages to mix up many tropes of the genre, yet retains a somewhat fresh and original feel. The rules are largely built around this setting. I imagine you could theoretically adapt the system to other worlds (like, say, a more historical feudal Japan, if you exclude the technological stuff), but personally I see little need for this.

And as for the rules... As you can imagine from the size of the rulebook, there's something of a learning curve. At the core of the system is a fairly simple dice pool based skill system, with a simple list of attributes and skills. However, there are several different types of supernatural and technological abilities, with differing game mechanics, which makes for a lot of material to digest.

But what really places Tenra Bansho Zero apart from most games I've played, and will undoubtedly require a little getting used to, are some of the rules relating to player interaction and the game's pacing. Basically, the GM doesn't hand out experience points. Rather, players reward each other with 'aiki chits' for cool (and in-character) lines and actions. These chits are used to buy 'kiai points', which in turn can be used to boost actions (or improve stats). Each character also has a selection of 'fates', which describe their motivations, often involving other player characters in some way.

A lot of emphasis is also placed on the structure of adventures, dividing them into acts and scenes, with 'intermissions' where technical stuff involving aiki/kiai/fates happens. Speaking of adventures, the game is actually intended primarily for individual one-shot scenarios rather than long campaigns (though nothing's stopping you from running lengthier games either, of course). The book often makes use of theatrical comparisons, likening a scenario to a 'play', in terms of scope and structure.

All in all, it's pretty fascinating, though of course it is very difficult to judge how well some of the more exotic concepts will work in practise. And, naturally, with all the games I'm currently playing there might not be a window for testing it any time soon... Of  course, particularly since I've paid actual money for it, it would be cool to try it some day. The PDF format may be a slight hurdle, though. I'm not the best at memorizing stuff, and I'm used to being able to browse rulebooks during game sessions. And with the size of this book, printing everything necessary wouldn't exactly be... practical. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I do much prefer my RPG books as, well, books... But I'll have to settle for what I can get.

While I've written about various RPG systems and settings before, this may be, to the best of my memory, the first time I've actually 'reviewed' a tabletop game. I expect I may write similar posts about future game acquisitions... Till next time!

15 April 2013

Birth of the Soar Engine

In a blog post last week I mentioned I was, against my better judgement, jotting down a few ideas for a RPG rule system. I have now named it the Soar Engine. (Or SOAR Engine. I haven't quite decided on the best typography.)

Concerning the name, 'soaring' is, of course, a type of flying. I'm using it figuratively (although there is of course no reason why games couldn't involve flying), as in letting one's imagination soar. But it actually came about with me toying with various words in my head, trying to think of a cool acronym. The words that, in the end, made up 'soar' were 'situation oriented action roleplaying'. Which, basically, means very little... (I also debated for a while between 'system' and 'engine'. 'Soar System' would have had that nice alliteration, but I eventually decided it looked too much like a typo'd 'solar system'. In any case, I like 'engine', because the rules are meant to drive the narrative, not define it.)

It's a very minimalistic set of rules, but with a twist or two. One of the main ideas is that there are no hit points. Rather, action is more goal or situation oriented. You decide on an action. You either succeed or you don't. You move on to the next obstacle, or try a different approach. What you don't do (hopefully) is get stuck in a loop taking turns punching each other. It's intended for heroic characters, the kind who routinely take out minions with one hit and walk away from failures saying: 'It's just a flesh wound.'

Of course I have no idea if it works in practise at all like I've imagined it. I hope to run an alpha test adventure sometime this spring or summer. It'll be a long time till I make any material public. If ever.

This thing has been... kinda like an earworm. The idea keeps bouncing around in my head, and I just need to get it out of my system. A couple days ago, I spent an evening designing a character sheet. I guess that means I'm somewhat serious about it. Although I've made a lot of stuff like that over the years that has never been used, at least there is some actual potential for making use of it now. I'm fairly pleased with the end result, too. It's the first time I've made a fillable PDF (yeah, I know, so modern).

Welp, if anything worthwhile comes out of this, I'll undoubtedly blog about it some day. If not, well, one more unfinished idea for the archives...

The Mass Effect 2 Post

Late last year I, at long last, played Mass Effect when the trilogy box was released for the PS3. (Here's the review blog post I wrote.) After finishing it, I, naturally, immediately started playing Mass Effect 2. However, stuff happened (trips, illnesses etc.), and I got sidetracked for several months. Last night, however, I finally finished my playthrough. And it was... fairly awesome.

If you're not familiar with Mass Effect, I suggest you start with my post about the first game. Much of what I say about it is also true for the second. In this post I'll focus mostly on the differences, of which there were some.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, in case of spoilers. Suffice to say that commander Shepard is still around, the Reapers are still out there, and the authorities still aren't taking the threat seriously. One interesting feature of the trilogy is that you can import your save file from the previous game. Choices you made earlier will have an effect on events in this game as well.

Gameplay remains quite similar. However, there seems to be a slight shift in focus away from RPG elements towards tactical combat. Most notably the inventory management, which played a large role in the first game, has been basically removed entirely. You still get equipment upgrades, but these are one-off things which usually benefit your entire team from that point on. (This, I think, was probably a good move, since managing the upgrades in ME1 was something of a hassle.) The characters also have fewer talents to level up.

Meanwhile, the role of cover in combat is emphasized even more than in the first game. They have also limited ammunition, which may force you to switch weapons should you happen to run out (though this happened relatively rarely for me). Exploration has also been changed somewhat. Instead of just hitting a button, you now have to manually scan planet surfaces in a mini-game. (Which, honestly, is pretty boring.) The storytelling and the game's dialogue system, on the other hand, remain practically unchanged, and still play a crucial role.

Visually the game has probably improved a little from the first one. It's still maybe not one of the most detailed around, but the graphics worked well enough for me. (The game also felt considerably less buggy than the port of the first game.) If there was one disappointment, it was maybe the way certain 'hub' locations were presented, particularly Citadel, which just felt much more confined and less impressive than in the first game.

ME2 is a pretty lengthy game, too. I finished ME1 in under 30 hours, whereas this time the game's clock read close to 50 hours. Even though I did relatively little additional exploration, maybe even less than in the first game (the game still doesn't really give enough incentive for it), I probably played through a few more optional missions. Many of the game's missions are related to characters on your team, which made them a little more interesting than much of the optional stuff in ME1. The trilogy box version also includes several missions originally released as DLC, which easily added maybe ten hours of play, and were, actually, pretty cool and interesting.

Some of the changes took a moment to adjust to, but basically everything that made the first Mass Effect game great is still present, and, occasionally, maybe even improved. The games have a great balance of intense storytelling, fast action, dialogue and exploration. And I'm really looking forward to playing Mass Effect 3 next...

11 April 2013

Once More, without the Books

In yesterday's blog post I talked about my common yearning to read new RPG rulebooks. Particularly when I'm supposed to be focusing on another game... But there's also another way to procrastinate in RPG land: designing your own rule systems and settings.

I've worked on a whole bunch of RPG systems over the years. Some never leave the idea stage. Some I've used on occasion for a one-shot or mini-campaign. None of them proved to be particularly revolutionary and  all were soon forgotten.

Although on some level any creative work can be seen as a positive endeavour, there is really little more point in designing new systems than there is in browsing rulebooks you're not planning to use in the immediate future. For one thing, the issue with time an opportunity is still the same. I cannot possibly run every interesting game out there... But there's also another important issue, which is the fact that, as I've repeatedly said recently, I really do like reading quality RPG rulebooks. And should I run a game designed entirely by myself, I'd have even less opportunity to do so...

Regardless of all this I just spent a little time jotting down notes for yet another RPG system. Something I'd hope was a little different. Something that would accommodate things I enjoy, like epic, fast, video game like action...

I honestly don't know why I bother.

10 April 2013

The Grass Is Greener (In the Other Rulebook)

I get these moods when I really want to dig into a new RPG rulebook.

Often it happens when I'm supposed to be preparing for a game. I enjoy reading rulebooks, but when you have to do it, well, it just becomes a chore, and you... procrastinate. I guess I'm also a rather restless person at heart, and like my bit of variety.

Right now, while my next game sessions already loom on the horizon, there's no acute rush. However, for the past few days I've been suffering from a slight cold, which is another good excuse for procrastinating and a sure way to get your mind wandering and looking for filler to fight the boredom.

It is not really a rational desire. I already have many games in my shelf that I've never played. And I'm already participating in several games, so the likelihood of having a chance to try anything new any time soon is fairly slim. Sure, you could maybe squeeze in some one-shot adventures, but to be honest, I'm not really too crazy about one-shots. Seems like a lot of work, getting to know the rules, creating characters etc. just for one evening... Reading RPG books without realistic potential to play them in the foreseeable future does seem a little... hollow. But this knowledge seems to count for little when I get the mood.

The problem, however, is finding those new books to delve in, me not being made of money and all that. Even if I could afford some particular book, I'm not one to buy a 'pig in a poke', so to speak. I've discussed some free games in my blog before, but finding new genuinely interesting and high quality material for free is... well, probably unsurprisingly, pretty challenging. And, superficial as it may sound, I do like my RPG books high quality, with lots of lovely art etc. The aesthetic experience is an important part of gaming for me.

Currently I'm still quite interested in Monte Cook's Numenera. But that won't be out for a good while yet, and still costs a lot of money. Another game that has caught my attention on a few occasions already over the past few months is Tenra Bansho Zero. Japan has its own RPG industry, but very few of their games make it to the west. This translation has been a fan's labour of love lasting many years, and from what I can see on the website, it looks fairly impressive. It's now available as PDF, with a print book available for pre-order.

The PDF version of Tenra Bansho Zero currently costs $14, which, I guess, is actually a pretty reasonable price, all things considered. However, I'm not sure I'm mentally capable of paying even that much money for something that I can't hold in my hands. Plus there is the 'pig in a poke' factor. Yet without access to the book itself I can't actually learn more about it. Do you see my dilemma?

So probably most often these moods of mine end with me cursing about not finding anything really worthwhile (or economical enough) to read... Life can be so frustrating sometimes...

5 April 2013

A Game of (Im)morals

Lately I've played many games that give players a fair amount of choice over how to handle events, both practically and ethically. Some titles integrate this in the game mechanics. Games like Mass Effect and Infamous have dualistic systems tracking whether you behave like a good guy or a badass, with your rating having an effect on certain elements of the games. Dragon Age has a sort of similar system, but tracks the individual approval of each of your companions. On the other end of the spectrum, sandbox games like Skyrim allow a great deal of freedom over how you play your character.

I think this is a Good Thing. You can play a badass with a 'tude, or a downright evil bastard, if you wish to. And this, in my mind, says nothing about what you're really like in the real word. It might even be healthy. We all need to 'vent' sometimes.

However, as much as I believe the above to be true, I generally seem to end up playing the good guy. I might not always have the greatest respect for authorities, but if asked to stand up for the little people, or defend ideas like tolerance, I'll be your champion, no question about it. And, like, probably be relatively polite to you while doing it...

This didn't stop me from completing the assassin and thieves' guild questlines in Skyrim. Or from running around pickpocketing everyone in sight in Dragon Age: Origins. But these are more exceptions to the rule. You have to misbehave a little. In the former there may have been just one or two killings that made me cringe a little, but the desire to progress the story was stronger. And, in the end, these questlines seemed less morally conflicting than some others, particularly the civil war quests (which I still haven't actually played, much for this reason). There is honour among thieves (and assassins), after all...

It is often said that the freedom of choice adds to replay value in these games. It sounds like a great idea. But, to be honest, I'm kinda scared of playing them again because I think I might just make the same choices over and over again.

What this all says about me and my values, I'm not sure. Sure, I'm very much a supporter of equality and human rights in real life, but I'm just not a 'doer'. Quite the contrary, really, I'm a rather lazy and selfish person. So maybe playing the good guy is, in its own way, a type of 'venting'... Or maybe, deep down, I'm just more of a naive idealist than I'd care to admit...

2 April 2013

Dragon Age: Origins

I just finished my playthrough of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. So yeah.

It's an epic fantasy RPG. The lands are plagued with monsters called Darkspawn. Every so often they rise and overwhelm the lands in what is called a Blight. But there is an old order of soldiers known as the Grey Wardens whose duty it is to stop them... Originality? No chance... The setting is highly conventional medieval high fantasy, with its elves and dwarves and wizards and dragons and lost heirs to the throne and etc. and etc... Oh, there may be a few twists, like the main religion being a monotheist faith modelled after Christianity instead of the typical high fantasy pantheons, but it still feels like a highly typical western RPG setting...

The story follows the exploits of a fledgling Grey Warden striving to unite warring lands and save the world from the Blight. Indeed, utterly original again... ahem. There's enough story and dialogue, though, to keep you occupied, even if it is a mite clichéd. The game's also geared towards a fairly mature audience, with plenty of blood, dark humour and dialogue touching on... shall we say 'adult' topics.

While the trappings may lack in originality, the gameplay was actually a little different from most RPG's I've played. You can have a party of up to four characters. Battles proceed in real time, with you controlling one character, while your companions are controlled by AI. You can, however, at any time pause the game to view the situation around you, select powers or items to use, switch characters etc. To play really effectively you need to both know the skills of each character and tweak the tactics used by the AI (neither of which I was any good at), plus keep a constant eye on what's happening on the battlefield. It's pretty fun and interesting, but also challenging, which I'll return to in just a moment.

You have a fair amount of freedom with the main character, choosing gender, class and one of six different backgrounds (each with their own prologue portion of the game). Throughout the game you're required to make both ethical and practical decisions about how to handle particular situations, which has an effect on how the story proceeds (I assume, though I've only played through the game once, so I can't say how much variation there is). The other controllable characters are more story driven, and often react to your decisions in accordance to their values and personalities.

Well, onwards to the Issues. Yes, I had Issues. My main Issues were with the difficulty. I started out playing on normal setting. For a while it was fine, until I ran into some really tough fights where I was greatly outnumbered. In end I became frustrated enough to grudgingly switch to the easier setting (called 'casual'). Only to be faced with a new problem: the game now felt too easy. So after amassing some more experience and gear I eventually switched back to normal and soldiered on through the second half of the game. Until the final boss, which again ended up frustrating me and I just wanted to wrap up the game...

Yeah, I'm sure this was largely a problem with my playing style. Micromanaging four characters in the midst of chaotic battles clearly isn't my talent. And I probably should have levelled up a little more, but to be honest, most sidequests in the game just seemed... rather boring. However, when one setting is frequently frustrating and one too easy, I think I'm entitled to ask whether there might actually be a real problem with the game's design... At the very least there could have been an intermediary setting between normal and casual...

On the technical side, I encountered a couple glitches, but rarely anything very major (once or twice I had to restart the game, though). Visually the game... consistently failed to impress me. Not that that's a real issue for me, I value story and smooth gameplay far more than eye candy. But still, I couldn't help thinking it looked kinda plain, even for 2009.

Oh, and speaking of issues, limited inventories? When did those have any other function than to greatly annoy players?

I can has EA bashing? There were a few annoyances that weren't directly related to the game itself. I don't actually know how much of this was from the developer BioWare itself and how much from the publisher EA, but whatever. Firstly, every time you start the game it tries to connect to a server and update a list of available DLC. Which takes up an annoying amount of time and is, of course, utterly unnecessary. You really think I'm not capable of looking up available DLC myself? The other issue also relates to DLC. In a couple of places in the game I ran into NPC's offering quests, but with a catch. First you'd have to get the DLC! The existence of DLC is one thing. It serves a function. But rubbing additional expenses in a player's face within the game itself like this is just... tacky and annoying.

One is of course tempted to make comparisons to the other major RPG franchise of recent years, The Elder Scrolls series. But honestly, in terms of gameplay the games are so different there wouldn't be much point. Dragon Age is a much more story and character driven game than the sandbox worlds of The Elder Scrolls. There is, probably unsurprisingly, much more similarity to BioWare's other major series, Mass Effect, particularly in the way you interact with the world and how dialogue is presented, though the combat system is fairly different.

So, bottom line, it was a mostly enjoyable 50-60 hours of my life, although, with the issues with difficulty, somewhat clichéd setting and story, and lacklustre sidequests, I'm not unhappy to finally be able to move on.

1 April 2013

Where Has All the Fighting Gone (Not an April Fool's Post)

(...nor does this post actually have any real content. Just me killing time. So ha!)

So, what's going on in my life? And, particularly, what's going on in gaming, which I expect most of you (whoever 'you' is) will be most interested in...

Well, after playing Skyrim's Dragonborn expansion, I was going to get back to the Mass Effect trilogy (my playthrough having been interrupted first by a Christmas trip, then delayed by illness, general laziness, and, naturally, Dragonborn). However, soon after finishing up with Dragonborn (btw, have I mentioned Dragonborn enough?), I happened to visit a local flea market, where I just happened to pick up Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3 for a bargain price. I found I was still somewhat in mood for fantasy, so, on a whim, I decided to give Dragon Age a try. I've been playing it over the last few weeks now and should be pretty close to beating it. I'll write a proper post about it once I do. After that, maybe Mass Effect 2 at long last...

On the pen & paper RPG front there's little new to report since my recent post about the joy of rulebooks. I'm still intrigued by Numenera. (And still in no position to pre-order.) Haven't found any new things to be also excited about, but I'm sure they're just lurking behind corners, ready to pounce on my nigh non-existing wallet...

I've recently been lamenting the lack of epic fight scenes in the games I run. There's a lot of reasons behind this. One is the challenges posed by timing. I usually like to keep my sessions as more or less cohesive stories, with clear beginnings and endings, kinda like episodes in a TV show. Naturally in most stories the logical place for a big showdown is the finale. However, it often seems to be the case that by that time we're either running out of time or energy, frequently both, and things need to get wrapped up. Another reason is often a lack of planning. (Yes, I'm a pretty bad planner, I have to admit. I tend to leave everything to the last minute...) And then there are, of course, the creative players who all too often seem to find other, ingenious ways around problems that don't involve tackling it head on... Which is, of course, a great thing in itself. But sometimes you just need a good bit of brain bashing...

Actually, finding the right balance of rules based action (namely combat) and storytelling based on character interaction has always been a big challenge for me, and I'm not certain I've ever quite succeeded in it quite to my satisfaction. The thing is, I'm actually quite interested in both. But mostly games of late seem to veer towards the latter... Which may be one reason I got so interested in Pathfinder a couple years back. All that potential for classic, nostalgic hack and slash action... However, even my Pathfinder games have been becoming a little less heavy on combat... And speaking of Pathfinder, my campaign has been on hiatus for several months again due to some difficulty in scheduling. I've been missing it a little of late, not least because thoughts on the above issues have been going through my brain...

Any other, random titbits and personal musings to share? No? Well, catch you again on another day then, I guess...