Through Azeroth, to Paragon City, I’ve played a number of MMORPGs in my life. All of them adhere to vaguely similar rules; create a character, run through a huge open world and do some quests. Get coins, do a few professions – If you’re a fan of MMORPGs, you’d know the drill. I’ve played so many, that I was trying to look for one that could potentially replace the massive void that World of Warcraft left in my heart. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I picked up Elder Scolls Online – But what did I make of the world of Tamriel? Read on to find out more, along with a screenshot gallery of my journey.
Grief, anger, denial, frustration – There are many emotions that go into a character who has fallen from grace. These are the men and women who have done something bad, when they’re not supposed to be bad. These can also be the people who have lost their way, forgetting their purpose. These are the sad, heart-wrenching characters who help you invest in a story. We’re all human, we all occasionally forget what we’re fighting for – And this is how I’d portray them in writing.
For the past eight or so months, I’ve been pretty much devoted to Tekken 7, a game which has rekindled my love for the fighting game genre as a whole. So, when I heard there was a mobile version, you can imagine exactly what I said…
“This is going to be dreadful! How can I get my beloved combos on a tiny phone?!”
So, uh, I went in with pretty low expectations for the fighting game franchises first foray on mobile – a hard platform to do any form of video games as a whole. However, what I experienced ended up being something I genuinely didn’t expect… And hey, it’s free, so let’s read on!
This will be a short story, it is quite late as I write this, and I am also beavering away at some of the other projects that we have going on in the background. Book layouts are not as fun to play around with as you might think.
After about six years in retail I have passed the point of putting on a facade of normalcy, and instead encourage my customers to see things from my perspective. Aside from the fact that I am sick to death as being treated like some kind of subhuman, shambling manservant – good for heavy lifting and raising lightning rods – encouraging people to see me as human actually sparks some great conversations. (more…)
Since the dominance of the sandbox, railroading gameplay through linear non-divergent story and specific plot paths has become something of a faux-pas in game design, and was never looked upon favourably in tabletop roleplaying. As a player you seek agency, and often that comes from such simple things as choosing which path to take to the same inevitable end, and not following the obvious trail of breadcrumbs laid out for you. These days we laud games for open worlds, multiple endings, and the ability to approach one problem a dozen ways, to play it your way.
All but gone are the days of the 3D platformer, and the rail shooter, technology and computing power has given us the power to create actual worlds and weave beautiful stories into them rather than just telling a story and dragging you by the nose along it.
But is it so bad a thing that we’re better off entirely being rid of it, and casting away the strictly linear narratives of old?
There are times when actually taking your players by the nose and dragging them to the plot is not necessarily an unforgivable act. Here are a couple of examples of uses for, and in defence of railroading your story.
Here’s a nice easy one to get this started off. When beginning a campaign, or game, or whatever interactive experience your trying to share, you’ll usually have a few fundamentals to share, basic bits of information to share that’ll allow the player to understand the experiences to follow. A little bit of railroading aids “showing not telling” like the opening test chambers of Portal encouraging thinking with portals. Obduction drives you down a path in pursuit of one of the world-shifting seeds, and leaves you in a small bubble that tells you everything you need to know about the transition mechanics you’ll be playing with.
It’s a form of tutorial, but done right it’s so subtle that you barely notice it every replay. We’re guided through set pieces that leave us without doubt about where we’re going or what we’re doing for the rest of the game.
There are occasions where your story takes a turn that irrevocably changes everything. No turning back, and no matter what you have done up to this point this moment was unavoidable. Moments like the time-shift in Guild Wars, where the entire “tutorial” felt like an open world in it’s own right, only for everything to change in a single moment. Transitioning from one Mass Effect or Witcher still leaves you with a short period in which games are identical, no matter the decisions you’ve made.
Now, actions and decisions made before this pivotal moment can alter the events that follow, but all paths lead here ultimately. Most games use this kind of narrative, the storyline quests that so often get ignored in pure sandboxes, but there are times where that epic moment changes everything to the point where there’s no going back or wandering off to finish that sidequest you’ve been ignoring.
I’ll skim over this because this one’s more of a cheap trick, somewhat less acceptable. False choices are the doors you walk up to that suddenly slam shut and lock you out, or those decisions that immediately kill you or end the game. Arkham City did that with Catwoman’s story at one stage, where she had the option to simply walk away with loot in pocket, but because the game needed you to save Batman the game simply ended there. Sorry guys, given a real choice I’d have taken the money and run.
A Good Story
Halflife, Telltale Games, Psychonauts, hell most games will railroad up to a point. When your story is good and worth telling there’s nothing wrong with taking agency from the players in terms of narrative direction. In the drive to create bigger and more incredible games let’s not lose sight of a good story and the ways in which we can tell them, putting the player into the hazard suit of a mute scientist as he weaves through supersoldiers and alien parasites to reach the incredible conclusion of his epic tale (that will have been stuck on a cliffhanger for ten years this October) or filling the boots of the intrepid archaeologist as she shoots her way through adventures far more thrilling than any actual archaeologist would ever encounter.
I consider myself a world-builder first and foremost, so I’ll advocate for the ability to wander aimlessly around the whole world and delve its deepest corners and unveil every shred of lore, even if I have to sit and spend time that should be shooting down killer robots reading books on killer robot maintenance. But sometimes when a moment needs to be shared, or an idea is so stunning that it simply must be seen, there’s nothing wrong with putting the plot on tracks and asking everyone to enjoy the ride for a while.
I love a good side-quest, to the point where whenever I make a tabletop campaign, or work with modding tools, I add in side-quests. They’re fun and they build upon a story beautifully. Recently, I’ve been replaying through Final Fantasy IX, my favourite game in the series and remembering all of the incredible minute details it presents. Join Timlah as we discuss the importance and the joy of side-quests and what makes a game linear.
When is big too big?
A story should grow as it develops, but too often a story can peak too soon and then the climax that follows ends up feeling… well, anticlimactic. Can you have a war in the middle of the book only for the final showdown to take place between hero and villain in a cave somewhere? The stakes could be higher, but the grandeur is lost. When you’ve bested a dragon, can rescuing the princess from the stumpy lord who you passed her onto be just as awesome?
Scale can be an important thing to plot ahead of time when preparing any new piece of work, be it the dramatic impact of a scene, the ramifications of a particular deed, or even working out how to leave yourself somewhere to go when you still have a long way to the finish line.
In any narrative with multiple dramatic moments there should be peaks of excitement and tension separated by lulls of recovery. You simply can’t keep building tension, fear or whatever emotional pinnacles you’re pursuing, your audience will get bored of the constant rising drama. “Oh, somebody else has died? Who’s nex- oh her! And now everything’s on fire. Great.”
In between there must be time to process each event as it passes, a release of tension so that the viewer/player/reader can be built back up, and perhaps further this time. Horror films, slashers in particular do this exceptionally well, each kill is followed by more of the confused and terrified teenagers trying to work out what’s going on in that mysterious old diamond mine, as shadows creep along the wall, strange creeks, plans are made that will inevitably lead to one person being separated from another, or an ominous door to be opened and then BANG! Or possible crunch.
This kind of story structure is essential, and not because it’s a familiar and safe format but because the contrast of rise and fall makes each event so much more incredible, and the “come down” gives us a brief moment to feel satisfied before we start the cycle again.
Level 1 is practically the same in any fantasy RPG. Goblins, kobolds, giant rats, basically nothing much taller than waste high for a few levels until you can take on something as big as you are, then on to the dragons and whatnot, the big scary things with glowing weak points. The largest thing you’ll face at that stage is another person. Now here we must surely be able to make a few changes. Escalation in terms of threat needn’t only be represented in terms of size, but in terms of cunning or the threat represented.
For example, when you’re faced with a dragon your choices are fairly obvious. Point the biggest, meanest, most damaging thing you have at it and pull the trigger. But when your nemesis is little more than a face in the crowd with the power to bring a nation to its knees, you can’t be so forthright in your approach.
Where size really matters is when your protagonist is concerned. As time progresses and situation demands, guns should get bigger, magic powers should get more epic. While in game terms your character may only be chasing larger numbers, it helps a lot if they’re represented by a bigger boom, making the development more abundantly obvious. Perhaps it isn’t their individual power that matters, but the influence they have over others, the size of their group, their army, or the power to change a nation, which brings me to my final point rather neatly…
Many times we see a story about one very particular and seemingly insignificant thing turn into something far more dramatic. Harry Potter can be held up as a prime example, the mystery of the Third Floor Corridor being so very Enid Blyton in its make-up, becoming a step along a path towards open and highly climactic warfare, with clearly marked levels of importance along the way. With each book something more important is at stake: The lives of students, an escaped convict, international relations, soon the very magical governing body becomes the focus of attention.
There are only so many times you can save the world. It’s ok to save the farm first, or even save yourself for now until you get the bigger guns to come back and save the world, the galaxy, or even time itself. As the drama increases, so too should the burden of responsibility on your characters, the amount of power they wield in terms of both combative strength and political sway contributing to the tension, the drama, and the scale of the plot.
Hello one and all, in this article I talk about the latest two episodes of GeekOut Plays Stonekeep, Episodes 22 and 23, where we’re making amazing progress. No GeekOut Plays Beyond Good & Evil this week, as I’ve been feeling poorly. Sorry about that! So, onwards with this weeks Stonekeep episodes!
Today one of my oldest gaming friends left town, and it looks like he’ll be gone for a long time.
This is a friend who I have spent the last fourteen years casually talking to about games, films, philosophy, one of the people who got me into Warhammer, and one of my favourite D&D players. Here is someone who became a verb, one that will stay with us for many years to come as new players come and go, and to openly mock and criticize one another over poor behaviour in games. (more…)
His hands trembled as he notched yet another arrow to his bow. Cowering behind a great rock column, he counted out his remaining flights in the dim light of the cave. Not enough. Behind him, the beast let out another gout of flame from its mighty jaws. The heat singed the hairs on the back of his neck, but the fiery breath was wild and untargeted, a burst of fury more than an attack.
He could see the bleeding, broken forms of his friends on the rocky ground. The once-proud warlock now lying shattered under a stalactite. The fighter, burnt by flames, groaning as he rocked in and out of consciousness. The gnome, buried under rock, struggling to breathe. The archer and the wizard, both trembling, frozen by the icy breath of one of the beast’s many heads. He was the last one left.
Of course, he could always run. There was nothing between him and the exit, nothing stopping him from beating a retreat. But then his dying friends would have no hope of survival. Worse than that, the beast would be able to escape into the settlement above. No. He had to stay and fight. He was the last line of defence, and he’d be damned if he left his post at a time like this.
His whole body shaking, sweat and tears mingling with the grit on his face, jolts of pain running through him from a dozen wounds, he spun around. And with those trembling hands he drew the bowstring back, stared into the eyes of the creature and with gritted teeth let loose his arrow…
What makes a combat encounter feel epic? Not just a fun game, not just a well-run session, but a truly awe-inspiring fight that you will end up remembering for years to come even though it happened with inch-high figures on a tabletop. It’s a question that all GMs should ask themselves at some point, as it’s the key to creating fantastic gaming sessions.
I’ve been a GM for nearly nine years, and creating memorable combat encounters was one of the last skills I developed. I think a lot of other GMs probably feel the same way. I’ve seen (and run) so many combats that immediately degenerate into a meaningless slog as the party cut down enemy after enemy in a way that can feel more like a chore than a game.
It took me a little while to work out the key to making combat genuinely epic, and the solution didn’t come from D&D or Savage Worlds or any other roleplaying game. In fact, it came from my experience as a martial artist. While sparring and rolling dice are completely different in many ways, they are similar enough that a nerd like me can learn from them.
See, the first question you have to ask when tackling this question is: “What do my players want?” The answer will depend on the type of game you’re playing, but in general the answer is success. This comes in many forms throughout a game, but we’re only going to look at it regarding combat.
When fighting enemies, the way players experience success is pretty obvious. They succeed when the bad guys are dead, imprisoned, have run away or are otherwise defeated. So far, so simple. The problem is, after a while victory becomes a given. As your players defeat dozens of villains, it loses its impact.
This occurred to me when I was talking to a friend about a recent martial arts session. I had been dumped on my head and mildly concussed by one of the bigger guys in the gym in practice. I realised that I only ever told stories about me getting hurt in some way.
I’ve told people about the time I got choked unconscious, the time I got face-locked so hard it tore an inch-long gash in my bottom lip, the time a guy bit me and the time all the capillaries in my eyes burst. Those are the memorable fights I’ve been in. I rarely ever talk about the sparring sessions I succeeded at, because those don’t make as good stories.
So why is that? I think it’s because there’s a common factor in each one of those sparring mishaps: I succeeded despite them. The guy that bit me? I arm-locked him until he stopped. When I got dumped on my head, I kept holding on to my opponent and ended up securing a choke. Sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that I came back onto the mats after getting knocked out.
So, let’s get back to RPGs. How can all those little mishaps help your combat encounters? Well, I’ve started structuring mine in a similar way. If I have a session I want my players to remember, one with heightened drama and a feeling of epicness, I need to make sure they succeed despite the odds.
That’s really important. The best stories in the world are about heroes who overcome challenges they shouldn’t be able to get past. That’s basically the entire plot of Die Hard, and if you don’t think that’s one of the greatest stories ever told then you are a negative influence that I don’t need in my life.
I think this is where the stereotype of the GM who wants their party to die comes from. Well, actually I think it comes from bad GMs who want their party to die, but bear with me. Nobody competent actually wants their players to lose, but they want them to come close. Because when they’re inches away from total failure and succeed anyway, the feeling is fantastic.
So one key to epic combat is to ramp up the difficulty. You can do this in a number of ways. D&D is built around a kind of ‘war of attrition’ model, where difficulty comes from fighting lots of battles without the chance to rest and wearing the players down. Other games work better with single, more powerful boss monsters.
It’s worth being prepared to change the difficulty on the fly. If it looks like your party is going to tear through your boss without breaking a sweat, double its hit points. Or have it summon some other bad guys to help it. Alternatively, if the villain is knocking the stuffing out of the players then you’ll want to power them down a bit.
It’s not always easy to get the balance right. For the most epic struggles, you’ll want the entire party to get close to death, but you never want to lose more than one or two at most. Ideally, everyone will pull through. The only way to get better at this particular aspect is to play around with difficulty levels and keep experimenting.
But wait! There’s more. You see, great combats have another element to them besides the difficulty: a narrative. There should be a story to them, which is not the same as there being a story to the campaign.
For example, let’s say your plot has an evil warlord terrorising the land. Your party fights their way up to the castle and corners him on the roof. There’s your campaign plot – it’s why your players are there, fighting this particular person. But it’s not enough. There needs to be a separate narrative within the combat itself.
Let’s return to my martial arts experience. Remember the guy that bit me? There’s a story there: the opponent who wouldn’t play by the rules, but succumbed to courage and purity of heart. When I was dumped on my head but hung on anyway, that’s the classic narrative of brute force versus thoughtful technique.
I’m embellishing these of course – and making myself look like way more of a badass than I actually am – but you can see how there are themes to the fights themselves that are different from the plot. In an RPG, you have a lot of options to add a narrative to your combats.
In the example above with the warlord, you could have him destroy parts of the castle in a frenzied attempt to stop the players. He could try to run and have the players chase him down a secret passage full of traps. He could drink a Dr-Jekyll-esque potion and become a wild beast with the strength of ten men.
It’s not enough just to fight a villain if you really want the combat to be epic. I opened this article with a story from a recent session I ran, which I thought illustrated nicely how this works. In addition to the fact that the party was left with just one person standing (who succeeded in slaying the beast, by the way), there was also a good narrative running through it.
In this case it was that of the fearsome beast from beneath the ground trying to escape to wreak havoc on the surface. It’s a very simple story, but it transforms the combat from a simple fight into a last stand against a force of destruction.
There’s a lot more to creating truly memorable combats, and there is a lot you can learn about things like enemy types, use of scenery, open spaces vs choke points and other aspects of this part of GM-ing. But at it’s heart, the best fights are the ones you can tell stories about later. And the best stories are about overcoming the odds.
This article is a guest contribution by Joe Boyd. We’d like to extend our thanks to Joe for this brilliant article. The subject interested both of us GeekOut guys big time and when we read what he’d produced, we knew we wanted to share this with you all. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or over on Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to get involved as a guest blogger, why not contact us?