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Thoughts on A Game of Thrones

I watched some Game of Thrones.

I was … greatly discomforted though I do admire quite a lot about it. I was discomforted by the same thing that turned me off the books, but more so.

I’m routinely faced with bad things happening to people almost more to set the tone than anything else. And it’s almost always worse for women.

I’m not comforted by allusion to history or realism. Sometimes I want something to make the show a positive experience without having that thing crushed and brutalized, usually literally. It becomes it’s own self-contained cliche. Is the character flashy and witty and badass? They’re going to be crushed. Is the character feminine? They’re going to be broken. Is the character vulnerable in an interesting way? They will be exploited, hardened and then crushed for daring to harden.

But I knew what I was getting into there; as I said, it already turned me off form the books. It’s not my thing. No surprises.

But the extent to which the show uses rape as wallpaper to fill out blank spaces is just disgusting.

I appreciate … the result of it’s attitude toward nudity, to a point, I will say; it’s one of the few pieces of mainstream film-making that wasn’t absolutely terrified of showing penises, and the idea of nudity being acceptable in any scene where, in a book say, it would be mentioned is nice. But some of the ways in which the nudity is framed fit into the ways in which sex is framed, for obvious reasons, and unfortunately that gets bad quickly.

There is a fine and difficult line between presenting darkness and taboo and unreasonable exploitation of the audience, the characters, and the greater social systems. I feel like this show’s treatment of rape crosses that line several times over. I don’t know if it’s a thing that has gotten worse over time (I’m watching around the time of the wildling incursion and just watched The Mountain … ‘scuse me (vomits) be cartoonishly evil in a world that wants me to believe it’s gritty and historical and also be gross. Ahem. Sorry. Tyrion just had his second trial by combat. Maybe it wasn’t as bad earlier on but it has gotten bad at the point I’m watching and I’m not ok with it. I don’t expect to watch any more of it.

It’s interesting to me, because as a fan of Apocalypse World and related games, I’m quite used to the idea of success with consequence driving a fiction beautiful terrible places. Watching people’s lives fall apart and relishing it. But they get something. Little victories, at least. Success with consequence. The world does it’s dark terrible things and sometimes the characters help; but it is only dark and terrible in the ways you want to allow it to be. You don’t have to mercilously slaughter all of your darlings, only to bring the fiction as established to conclusions that make sense. You must follow through but there are always many ways to do that. At the end of it, you have both a distance and a control that bring meaning to even the most cruel twist of fate and you can always fall back on your friends to keep the experience positive—not necessarily happy and sunshine-and-roses-y, but in some way an overall positive. Here? We don’t have that control or that trust. We ride the roller-coaster and cannot converse with it’s creators directly across a span of only a few feet. We can’t express that we aren’t enjoying this anymore, and that while we like the whole loss-as-a-curated-experience thing sometimes right now, right here we just want this character to be alive and damn motives and excuses and logics for both outcomes. We can’t make Lines and Veils. We can only watch.
I don’t feel like Game of Thrones is interested in understanding the limits of that relationship. I think it’s just interested in being gruff, cruel and violent in as pretty and well-honed a way as possible. And it is very pretty and very well-honed and very gruff, cruel and violent. And I can’t for the life of me now, having attempted both to read and watch it, understand why that’s a good thing.


Mass Effect: The Apocalypse World Hack (or at least one of them)

The following is an over-long post as part of this discussion on Story Games specifically regarding this Apocalypse World hack.

Ok! I keep putting off digging into this in favor of other things, but I finally found a moment that felt like a good time to catch up. This is going to be a fair number of words, so I hope you don’t mind if I end up doing more than one post. I like where this is going! I’m saying that now, because I have a tendency to come on a bit strong when I critique, but I really do like what you’re doing and it has me quite excited and my brain’s a-buzzing with ideas.

I’ll start with Loyalty


Can you give orders to a PC with no Loyalty? It seems odd that your ability to deny a position of authority is a limited resource.

I think the move works even though it’s complicated. If Apocalypse World can have two moves that are essentially the same just to provide different questions for reading people and reading situations, ME: TAWH can have one move with variable stats. That said, my temptation is always to simplify where possible. I’m also not sold on Dig In. I like the idea, but given the specific way Dig In works, I’m not sold. Act Under Fire has a much more universal 7-9 than Dig In does. I really like Dig In’s 7-9, but I’m not sure it’s very satisfying to fail to dig in, or partially succeed to Dig In in this circumstance–and that’s an important part of the *World system. Success at cost and Failure is always just as interesting.

As for the new ideas in your second post: Not liking this much at all. Giving XP provides much better incentive than giving loyalty . Effectively, loyalty is a currency you can use to resist orders. Which you get by following orders. Well, if I want to disobey orders, I’m not really being incentivize to obey by being told I can more effectively disobey in the future, am I? Or for that matter by being told I can more capably give orders to you in the future (if I’ve got it backwards)? The flow goes like this:

Sorry about the poor quality. Point being, its a bit complicated either way, but that complication is hopefully masked by satisfying payoff and a satisfying connection to the rest of the game. With loyalty generated by the move itself, though, it feels too self-contained for how complicated it is. I might be misreading exactly who can spend the loyalty gained this way (as I’ve alluded to), but just in case I’ve thought about it both ways and I still don’t like it.

Support Your Team

I love the move, but the name doesn’t quite make sense. You’re biting the bullet, trading their danger for your own. It’s a great move, and it belongs here–but it’s not really “Support Your Team.” Maybe “Draw Fire” or “Take the Hit” or “Bite the Bullet” or … any number of more accurate names.

As to the +1 forward, I’m iffy just as you say you are in the post. It’s based on the team not being hassled actively–but what exactly does that mean would happen if they were neither supported nor hassled actively? How does the relative benefit of this move play into other moves and deciding when a thing is a move versus something that just happens? I think if nothing else, this move needs a different initiation than “when you dedicate your efforts to aiding your team.” You can do that without being anywhere near them! To work otherwise as written, I feel it needs to clearly relate to taking attention off of the rest of the team, and possibly even be more specific than “your team.” What if various players/characters are doing various things against various threats in various places? I love the core theme and mechanic of the move, but I don’t see the larger picture–and this is a basic move so the larger picture is really important. This move needs to be triggered better.

One final word on this move: you say the “implication” is that you’re not trying to decimate the enemy or keep yourself safe. The later is clear to me from the move as written. The former is not. Something to consider.

Bold Aggression

Bold Aggression leaves me a bit confused. A 7-9 seems better for the enemy than it is for you, and that isn’t often appropriate in a Basic Move. Escalate their threat above and beyond? That sounds like a hard move!

The 10+ is also a bit odd. I like the idea, but “put yourself in a spot in the process” is a bit … narratively awkward? If you completely put your foes in their place, what ways can you be put in a spot? I can think of quite a few, but it’s tricky to think of things that are a) directly relevant to the move being made and b) just as threatening while enemies are completely in their place and c) tweakable to different kinds of situations. There’s getting trapped … but that won’t always make sense without feeling a little too contrived.

Last, a question: if the assumption is that you’re plinking away at each other, that means the default shooting action is simply harm-for-harm as established, right? I’m trying to get a feel for the balance of power here. Clearly, you can make foes as tough or weak as you like so it’s quite adjustable. Conceptually, though, harm-for-harm is very lethal. In AW, you have a lot of ways to inflict harm that aren’t harm-for-harm, as well as to avoid harm.  Even “look through crosshairs” and harm-for-npcs guidelines aside, AW characters are tough as nails; add those two elements in and you’re all badass forces of nature. Harm-for-harm, alone, is quite lethal though. Is this move supposed to preserve that relative lethality, give players an equalizer to reduce that lethality, or what? As a player, I think I’d hesitate to take this over harm-for-harm or Support Your Team (letting the team attack while I lay down cover fire, for example). It sounds scary.

Dig In

I like Dig In and it partially answers my questions about Lethality. Combat IS lethal, but you can keep your head down very effectively meaning it’s only as lethal as you are impatient/inExperienced. I have a tactics question though: obviously poking your head up to take potshots at the enemy isn’t staying focused on your own safety. But assuming you aren’t under a veritable hail of gunfire it might be focusing on your own safety to take a shot at the guy coming around the corner you’re tucked behind or similar. How do you imagine that sort of thing working? What happens when an enemy advances without advantage on your entrenched position, and you’re focused on personal safety? I like Dig In just fine, and my questions about it come more from it’s surroundings in than from the move out.

Enact a Crazy Plan

I like the list idea less than the Savyhead-like “you’re there with what you need” thing. In some ways Q&A feels more like planning, but at the same time, being given information doesn’t feel as much like planning as just straight-up establishing. On the third hand, neither evokes the feeling of quad-to-the-wall bravery and hijinks the name implies. This is the problem I ran into while trying to write a similar move from my Sprawl hack I was working on until I found the lovely The Sprawl–it’s hard to capture the spirit of coming up with a Crazy Ivan in a move. It’s usually just better to let the players try to pull off a crazy plan more naturally. Here’s what the Sprawl does instead:

Basic Move:

Manoeuvre (Mind)
When you attempt to gain a tactical advantage over an opponent, through advanced planning, careful positioning, or clever manoeuvring, roll+Mind. On a 10+ hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 1. You may spend 1hold per roll for:
• Inflict +1 harm.
• Take -1 harm.
• Receive +1 forward.
• Receive +AP forward (see Weapon Tags in Chapter 7: Assets).

Having a plan gives you a bonus! Is it a crazy plan? Maybe! Does it work? Maybe not! But just by having an attempt to gain tactical advantage in a way the MC deems appropriately attempty, they get a bonus. This increases both the number of cool tactical things players do and stupid, nutty “so crazy it’s gotta work” things they do. Either way it’s a win for the table and the players.

Playbook moves for the Soldier:

Here’s the plan: When you plan a Mission, everyone to whom you assign a task takes +1 ongoing while they act on that task according to the plan. Anyone who rolls a miss or goes off the plan loses their bonus for that mission. If you get paid, mark experience.

I love it when a plan comes together: At the start of a mission, roll+Edge. 10+ hold 3, 7-9 hold 1. During the mission, spend hold 1 for 1 for the following effects:
• You have that piece of gear that you need, right now.
• You appear in a scene where you are needed, right now.

On a miss, hold 1 anyway, but your opponent has predicted your every move. The MC will hold this over your head until the worst possible moment.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together is a lot like your sketch of Enact A Crazy Plan, but nicely limited. It doesn’t let you prepare too generically. It sets  guidelines. Whatever such guidelines make sense for your move, make sure to have them. This makes the move less paralyzing, makes it feel less overpowered, and makes players feel more “clever” when they use it. All of these are important.

“Here’s The Plan” is a rock solid leadership move that worked out beautifully in play. It created this lovely tension between getting a string of +1s by following the plan and doing what you really wanted to do given changing circumstances. It also had this lovely psychological effect whereby losing the +1 by failing a roll in the execution of the plan usually caused players to decide that the plan had gone to shit and it was time to just wing it and to crazy stuff or bail. Lys and her player would be annoyed, of course, but the easy response was “it’s not like I get +1 anymore.” Also that Xanatos Gambit on-a-miss clause? Sexy stuff. Love it.


Survey a New Planet

I like the Survey a New Planet move. Simple in play, but with a cool switcheroo on a miss. Giving players constrained control over the setting is always nice, because it’s not as intimidating as the MC’s job but it’s just as rewarding and produces nice results because players are often a lot better at this sort of thing than they realize.


Not a lot to say, since these are very rough sketches, but I like them for what they are. An idea for Turians, though:

Turians are Disciplined, Hierarchical/United and Imposing.  Everyone knows what they’re capable of. They’re respected. They have one of the more powerful militaries in the galaxy, they’re physically imposing, and they tend to stick together–Turians are expected to fall in line but in turn, they protect their own. Especially since they’re also one of three/four council races, all of that means badassery of the individual aside you want to be extra careful when you fuck with a Turian.

Whew!  Hope that’s helpful. 🙂

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire: Love in Mass Effect

Mass Effect 3 is a compelling ride so far. I haven’t finished it, but I love it. There are some things that just don’t quite come together, and while this is not surprising, it’s unusually disappointing to be hit with awkward dialog and non-sequitor character reactions when so much is so beautifully executed. I’m so invested in these characters, cliched and housed in Sci-fi channel level plot as they may be. As with almost all Bioware games I’ve played, the core of each character is superbly captured in the line-by-line writing and the relationships between characters (romantic ones with the PC aside) are also superbly realized and nuanced (and the plot is bonkers as shit). Characters in Mass Effect are visually compelling and voice acted superbly, too, which helps to no end. The zany, crappy plot I can forgive here more than elsewhere because I’m used to Sci-fi this unbelievable; the emotional ups and downs are delivered well once you allow for the rules of this haphazard fiction, because I care that the characters care–I don’t need any other excuse to care, really, unless something as fictionally awful as the final boss fight in ME2 happens. That about sums up where I’m approaching Mass Effect from overall and now onwards to the heart of the matter: love in mass effect and how it’s worked out so far.

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Falling with Style, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider

A Tomb Raider Review

Tomb Raider is an odd game for me. It very much comes out of the CoD generation of games with it’s efforts to ape films, the splashes of water and blood onto the third person camera lens from time to time, the regenerating health system, the familiar “rpg elements”: simple weapon upgrade system, XP and simple character upgrades. I’m by no means a proponent of the Old School or Bust crowd finding plenty of tediousness in a lot of older titles, but I’m not a particularly big fan of the generic, soupy, sloppy feel than most of these shiny, cinematic games have and I hate that they feel like they play themselves. I’m fond of linear games, adventure games, IF games and a host of other sub-genres that limit player agency but I simply don’t enjoy the way these “new school” games do it. I did, however, enjoy Tomb Raider. Let’s look at why.

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A Brief Note on Project: Awakened

By way of RPS, I’ve been introduced to a Project: Awakened, which on the surface looks like one of my top five futuristic dream games. It’s a super-powered affair in which you create a character with any sort of power combo you want from the palette of abilities the developers create. You then go through what sounds like a semi-open world single-player campaign as your custom-tailored, super-powered badass.

The catch being that I don’t think it can possibly work. A single-player campaign that accommodates arbitrary power combinations in a balanced way while still allowing each combination to feel unique? Challenges with multiple paths that feel adequate for the staggering tactical possibilities this game brings to bear? It’s possible … but not with $500,000 via Kickstarter.

Happy New Years, Also a Temporary Message for Google+

There’s been a substantial gap in my recent posts due to school, but I intend to post a few reviews here over the next couple of weeks. I’ll be learning how to play Dota 2, digesting six months of Roleplaying Games in blog form, and discussing game design.

That’s always the plan, though, isn’t it? We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, Happy New Year. May 2013 bring you many games.


P.S. A temporary message to the folks at Google+. I would very much like to have my name (Gwathdring) accepted. I recently set up an account and supposedly proving ownership of accounts to which your name is attached is helpful in smoothing the name acceptance process. To that end, here is a link to my Google+ account.

I don’t know how much of your service is automated, but if you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll find the name Gwathdring associated with this blog and it is in the signature of every post. I’ve also directed you to my profile on Rock Paper Shotgun.

You can only expect so much “established” identity from individuals who do not have large social networks in the first place. I do not have a very large social network and thus can only substantiate my identity so far. I’ve gone by Gwathdring for a number of years and I have done so in public spaces on the Internet. Gwathdring is not a made up character I pretend to be, but I name I go by in many communities across the web. I’m not using it to hide anything or make myself difficult to find. Quite simply, I’m most interested in being found by the people who know me as Gwathdring; I have other ways to communicate with people who know me by other names and there really isn’t much overlap in those communities. According to the literal wording of your policy, this should be perfectly sufficient. If your policy is mis-worded, and this isn’t good enough for you because it is not my full legal name and there is no documentation associated with it, than I’m simply not interested in your web service.

While I’m posting things from this week’s Sunday Papers:

If there is a reason that people find my games to be memorable, it is that they have grace. Just a little bit. It’s why people are moved by The Fabulous Screech or inspired by The Infinite Ocean. Alphaland is all about a moment of grace, and it is the central theme of Arcadia, too. And if there is a way out of the Museum of Broken Memories, it is through grace.

Even Traitor, my most mechanics-heavy game, works primarily because it remembers that revolutions, as ugly and inelegant as they are, are deeply related to grace, because grace is itself a revolution against the meaninglessness of the world.

This isn’t how we’re supposed to talk about game design, and I’m sure someone is going to come along in a moment to tell me I’m pompous and pretentious. Seriousness is frightening, after all, when it’s not used to confirm the simplistic cynicism that fuels the adolescent egos that make up so much of the internet.

Jonas Kyratzes (<— go ahead and read the rest)

I appreciate the sincerity of it. I particularly appreciate the assertion that allowing emotional seriousness to enter into the discussion does not make one pretentious simply because others choose to read less emotional content into the medium of games.

Whether or not grace is the word for everyone, surely most gamers can recognize the feeling of transcendence and attachment in their favorite games and can appreciate a design style that puts that genre of sensations above bullet-point features or the much-touted “fun.” In particular, I think this is a nice antidote to the idea I’ve encountered often in gaming forums–that story doesn’t matter or shouldn’t be the focus of a game.  But grace can live almost entirely in the tone and narrative of a game such as Bastion rather than in the mechanics of play. If we value grace, then, we cannot dismiss gaming narratives as tacked-on remnants of older mediums.

It also highlights something that makes getting into AAA games rather difficult for me. So many of them seem to be designed from two ends–the artistic side and the acronym side–that eventually meet in the middle somewhere. “It will be an FPS that has [specific features] that tells the tale of [what-have-you] in the land of [some place].” This is not necessarily the wrong way to design a game, but it often lends itself to asynchronous experiences where the story being told doesn’t match up with the buttons being pressed. This is especially disenchanting when both pieces feel incredibly well designed yet conflict with one-another.

All that said, I have to quibble: “But authors don’t spend all day talking about verbs and adjectives […] .”

Many do, in my experience. In particular the one’s seeking this grace Kryatzes speaks of. I agree with the general sentiment about how the games industry is more rigid and robotic and feature-oriented than other creative industries, but I think grace usually requires a good deal of mechanical effort and “engineering” as Kryatzes called it. There are always artists who run on raw inspiration, but those who run on honed craft are no less likely to have this quality of grace in their work.

But that’s just a quibble. Go read it if you haven’t followed the link already. It’s an elegantly written idea, if nothing else; and I think quite a bit else.

Edit: Seems there wasn’t meant to be a dichotomy set up between the engineering and the artistry of games in this article. Which is a tad confusing, as it certainly reads like there is supposed to be one. But we have it from the horse’s mouth and so I formally retract my quibbling and replace it with mild confusion.

What’s in a Game: Defining Mechanics

I tend not to intend jargon when I talk about media. This can cause problems as it does not prevent me from using jargon. Matters get especially odd when I’m talking about games. Much of the time I’ve spent discussing various aspects of video gaming over on the RockPaperShotgun forums has been spent ferreting out confusions over language. Most recently, a discussion about whether or not video games were getting less intelligent over the years changed into a discussion centered on disagreements of terms like “mechanical depth,” “skill cap,” and a few others. I was a major player in getting the discussion stuck  on the terms rather than the ideas they were supposed to help outline.

Before I return there to try and fix some of my mistakes and help more productive posters keep the discussion interesting, I wanted to figure out just what on Earth our jargon is and how I can either use or subvert it in the least confusing manner possible. Let’s start with the basics.

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