Jun 252012

This review is based on roughly ten hours of game play, and will therefore have very little in the way of spoilers, but I will spoil something right from the get go; this is not a glowing review. If you have played the game to its conclusion and feel that my opinions are less valid due to only playing the start of the game, I’m going to have to side with Charlie Brooker on this one. If a TV show (in his case Dollhouse) doesn’t grab you in the first three episode, it’s failed. Saying that you should stick with it because it gets better later is so much poo; why would a TV show punish us by making us watch three hours of tripe before getting to the gooey center of loveliness?

This was very much how i felt about this game. A little background on it first I think. It’s based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, as was the first PC only installment, and I have heard some very positive reviews of both books, and they have made it onto my pile of stuff to be read. Said pile is in fact an entire book case full of stuff, but it’s on there nonetheless.

In the game itself, you play the eponymous Witcher – named Geralt of Rivia – who is basically this big scary dude with scars, who has a couple of close combat weapons, some spells, some bombs, can cast runes and lay traps, throw knives at dudes, mixes potions to drink or rub on things and also exists in world where the NPCs have never seen a Hong-Kong action movie. because of this they don’t have the ‘run up and attack once at a time’ mentality most RPG gamers are used to (I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed).  For this reason they all to decide to attack on mass, which is much more effective and a bit more scary. So far so awesome, and I have to say I loved all the cool stuff you could do in combat to tip the odds in your favour, especially because if you don’t do them, the odds are stacked so high against you, death is inevitable.

Plot wise, from what I saw, is nothing too inspiring when considered from outside the game, but when playing it, makes for some damned fine writing. Kings and bastards, with traitors all around, and only the Witcher – whom no one seems to like in the slightest – being one of the few guys trying to right the wrongs of the world. As I say, doesn’t seem like much, but the details are in there and once you get into it, the rewards are some killer writing hooks.

I can hear my readers scratching their heads in puzzlement right now, since this seems like a much more positive review than they were led to expect. ‘There must have been something that made him take the disc out and go back to playing Skyrim‘, I imagine you all saying, a quizzical look making you all appear even more attractive than you already are, if such a thing is possible. The best way for me to get across my dislike of this game is to imagine it as an old fashioned pen and paper RPG (‘old fashioned‘? the kind of gaming I still do on a weekly basis).

This game is run by a GM with a near legendary reputation for running games. The world he has woven for you is beautiful, every tree he describes is fixed in your senses as a sight to behold. His NPCs are better rounded than some of the actual player characters, each with their own personality and full of insightful things to talk about, just as you walk past them! When he runs combat, it’s a joy. A challenge every time, with so many options, but all of them used so intuitively, they seem like the most natural things in the world. Added to that a genuine feeling of consequences if the combat doesn’t go your way. It’s quick, but immersive, and even the NPCs act like they’re playing to the same system as you, not just going through predefined moves set out in a GM’s handbook. As mentioned above the plot is wonderful, such a simple idea made wonderful through subtle twists and turns of characterization and larger social ideas. Why then, did I not stick with it?

Because the GM is a dick. harsh, I know, but by giving an example re-imagined as an interaction between the player essaying the character of Geralt and his douch-tastic GM, as the trail of some bandits leads them to a sinister hideout;

GM: You’re told that they hangout at a graveyard to the east of the village.

Player: Cool, is there a graveyard on my map?

GM: No.

Player: Oh. Well I guess I just walk out the village heading east then.

GM: You have no compass.

Player: Oh, but I think I can figure out looking at the few landmark son the map, and just head out until I find out.

GM: Good thinking. You follow the path you think is the right one, and keep walking for half an hour, eventually ending up in a swamp.

(there was about twenty random encounters on the way to this point)

Player: OK, is there a swamp on my map?

GM: No.

Player: I guess I’ll head back and try a different path then, they did say the graveyard was only just outside the village.

GM: It takes about forty minutes to get back to the village. You get lost twice and twenty bandits attack you.

Player: For fuc… OK, can I just ask someone for directions?

GM: Of course you can, they tell you it’s to the east.

Now, imagine over two hours of this kind of thing, and I eventually give up and go online, finding dozens of people who had the same problem, but that you can actually see the gate of the graveyard from inside the village, but have no way of telling that it is actually a graveyard.

There were a dozen such problems like this I encountered playing through the second quest I found (something about  a troll), far too many to bore you with here, but all of them left me feeling like the game was run by the douchiest of GMs in the world. I know that games shouldn’t pander to players too much, but it should go without saying that the character will know things that the players doesn’t, and a half decent GM will take this into account when running a game.

So yes, I stopped playing. I have since shared this concept of GMing dickery with people who loved the game, and stuck with it through the opening tripe. Every one of them has not only agreed with me – they were also pen and paper gamers too, to be fair- but have given me other examples of this kind of dickishness running throughout the game.

If you disagree (and I bet there’s a lot of you who will), please post underneath that I’m wrong, and why – you may even change my mind, but you’re going to have to try hard). On the other hand, if you have had the same reaction to me, please share your crappy GMing stories, they’re great fun to hear.

Jun 192012

Anyone interested in gaming culture this week will know that the biggest stories have been about the treatment of women within the hobby. It seemed to start with trailer for the latest Tomb Raider game, which contained a pretty damned lazy plot point that quite rightly had people up in arms. To be fair, a lot of them were pissed just because it was pretty shoddy writing; why does rape need to be alluded to, to show a women in a weakened state? A total cop-out and very poor short cut in this writer’s opinion.

Around about the same time, it was brought to light just how fucked up a lot of the comments posted on female gamers’ blogs could be. I’m not going to go into the details here, mainly because it’s just down right depressing, but also because people with a lot more interesting things to say on the subject have already said them with more power to their words than I could wring from mine. If you’re interested though, Felicia Day is someone whom I would point you towards.

My take on this is more as a tabletop gamer, console gaming being something I am relatively new to, having picked up a controller for the first time in a decade only a couple of years ago. So, does this same kind of ridiculous thinking pervade my hobby too? Sadly, of course it does. It’s rare – thankfully – but I have seen it with my own eyes.

My main socializing time spent with RPGers is thankfully devoid of such petty mindedness. The society actually has (as far as the hobby is concerned) an above average split of male/female players. It still comes out as close to a 5/1 ratio, but as I say, this is in a predominantly male hobby. With these numbers, with women drastically outnumbered by men, it seems like we do pretty well with the menfolk not treating their opposite number as anything other than respected equals. There are a few reasons for this.

Probably the most important is that there is no anonymity in the society, we meet up in a pub where everyone else can listen to what you have to say by just walking past, so anybody better be prepared to defend their opinion against some very rigorous arguments. Is there a chance that some of the guys I hang out with weekly are misogynistic twats the rest of the week? Of course there is. But when they’re surrounded by other people, everyone is nice as pie. There have been exceptions to this, but those people are swiftly kicked into touch by another reason there is so little sexism in HUGS. One of our longest running members – and most prolific participant on the executive board – is one fearsomely strong lady, in every sense of the word, and she brooks no nonsense on any such matters. She’s also a rugby fan, so kicking people into touch gives her great pleasure. (I’m remembering an instance of extreme racism with an ex-member of the society who was swiftly informed that he was no longer welcome at our weekly meetings, starting immediately. Whenever I think of this person I can’t help but paraphrase the great Garth Ennis, “Why is it the greatest champions of the white race are always the worst examples of it”?)

There is another fantastic side to the feminism story within HUGS, that involves a certain member, who for now shall remain nameless. They turn up fairly regularly in very fetching skirt and corset combinations as a way of highlighting their own opinions on feminism. If I can, I’ll get them to add something in the comments, as I would only be regurgitating their own ethos, instead of letting them speak for themselves.

That rules out HUGS for a lot of gaming based misogyny, but I have still seen it. I’ve been in a game when it’s happened in fact. It is annoyingly easy to let it slide occasionally and put it down to someone’s messed up sense of humour (my own running to the darker side on occasion), but that’s really no excuse. Especially when it’s not even funny, just misinformed, hurtful, outdated and frankly makes one wonder how these people ever formed a lasting relationship.

The comments I’ve overheard are just pathetic. Who the hell still thinks that it’s a given that if a woman wants to play a ranger, she will be all friends of the earth, with a cute little fluffy bunny as a familiar? Sod that, she had a hawk that was bloody useful for scouting and ripping people’s eyes out! I could go on here, but that would do nothing for the argument. No matter how enlightened the group you’re in, I’m sure any RPGers reading this have had similar experiences. Playing Vampire:the Masquerade? “So the girl will be playing a Toreador then”? Fuck off! This happens a bit too much for my liking.

All that considered, is there anything to be done about? Take the lead of our kick ass rugby fan for a start, and just don’t put up with it (like I have done in the past – to my shame). Choose not to hang out with that type of gamer; if they want to make those kind of comments, sod them. If enough people leave them to it, it has to be hoped that eventually a pattern will become noticeable and they’ll do something about it.

Here’s an odd suggestion, but one I’ve tried with some pretty good results in the past (and will be doing again this evening in fact). Make a bunch of pre-gen’ed characters for your game and give them unisex names/handles, with the most androgynous descriptions and backgrounds possible. Whoever picks up the character plays it as they like; so the big brute of a solo could be a six foot African man or woman hacking into people with a machete; the shy retiring medtechie might be a chap or a chapette who keeps away from combat and just tries to help people.

I know, that’s a limited solution, but hey, every little helps.

I would rather my comments on this didn’t end up as a list of shitty things people have experienced during games (but hey, not gonna stop you), but rather some good stuff that’s happened during your own games, or even ideas to try to lessen the impact of sexist twats on the hobby we love.

Jun 182012

Typing the title of this blog into Google, or any other search engine you might use, and you’ll get plenty of websites with people in a similar predicament to you. They might want to play a specific type of game, with a certain type of player/GM, or people within a certain geographical area, but what they all want is to play. The thing is, even people who play with others already, with a small group of friends say, who meet once a week to carry on their four year long Rolemaster game, should be looking at these kind of sites too.

I’m lucky enough to be part of a huge gaming society, as are lots of people who play (not sure on the international scale on this one, but in the UK, there are quite a few massive societies that all turn up for the yearly Student Nationals), but if you’re not, you might be wondering why it matters. Why worry about playing with anyone other than your usual gaming friends?

Probably best here to share my own experiences with the society we call HUGS. It’s a pretty big society based on what I hear from other people at the Nationals; certainly not the biggest, but definitely in the top third as number of members go. On an average week we have six to seven games running with a GM and roughly half a dozen players. Round that up and call it fifty people turning up to a small pub in Huddersfield, taking over all the back rooms, the two extra rooms upstairs and most of the main bar. Safe to say, the landlord of The Albert quite likes us. The games we play start just after the beginning of the university term and carry on until the following summer – as I write this most full games have wrapped up – with smaller ‘one-offs’ filling in any gaps. People new to the society get first dibs on games that interest them – usually decided in advance with certain society members offering to run and posting details online – with everyone else putting down a series of choices and getting allocated where ever there’s space.

Our reasons for doing it this way are pretty simple, but more often than not lead to a small handful of people getting disappointed. We try to avoid this wherever possible, but sometimes in a large group, not everyone gets exactly what they want.

Firstly, freshers are more likely to stick around if they have a great first year with us, and so letting them play whatever they want is in the interest of the society. The reasons for not letting everyone else do this get a bit more complex and potentially troublesome.

Most importantly, you just can’t please everyone. Sometimes twelve people want to play in the same game, and there’s rarely a GM who’s happy with those kind of numbers. Then there’s the people who only want to play with same GM/group of friends each year. I’m going sound mean right now, but I would be happier just breaking groups like that up. If they want to play together all the time, see above. Get round to a mates house, dust off the old characters and go crazy. I’ve done this myself and it’s great; I hold it against no one who wants to do it themselves. In HUGS though, what we want is for everyone to get to know everyone else and experience new games.

The society came damned close to death a few years ago because of the problems described above. Groups just started playing together as opposed to with society, and because of that it was easier to abandon a regular meeting in favour of just going round to a mates house, especially when finding a venue became troublesome. The society split into three little subgroups, with a tiny handful of people who would game with more than one of the groups. The social aspect of the society was almost gone, with no real way to recruit new member since there was little chance of anyone reaching a consensus decision on how to do it. Even if we did get new people, and they ended up with one of the groups, they could hardly call themselves members of the society if they didn’t even know two thirds of it existed.

It took a few people bridging the gaps to get everyone back together, to get us at the university again, meeting people who would otherwise have had no option but to miss out on their hobby unless they were very lucky indeed (this being a bit before the internet was quite so accessible as it is today). We found new venues – a struggle we now go through constantly as the society grows – and made friends with anyone who wanted to game.

Now for the important stuff – the reasons you should find a big ass gaming group to hang out with. The friends made are still friends today; some of them have moved on, outside of our huge little town, but stay in contact, some even rejoining the old team each year for the Nationals. They’re best men at weddings, godparents of children, or maybe just the house mate who leaves a bag of sprouts in the kitchen for months until they become a green slush (you know who you are), but no one cares because it makes for a damned fine story to tell. They are people you go to gigs with because you found out you have the same taste in music, or just form a band with for the exact same reason. With them, you talk about books, films, comic books, and computer games, because in a big enough group someone will have the same taste as you, probably a whole heap of them will.

Why else should you want to game with loads of people? To play loads of different games of course! In HUGS we have GMs who are working on the third draft of their own RPG, built from the ground up to include a whole new world and system. Not to mention that other people also discover great new games that they bring to the society to try out that could become regular favourites. A quick example here is Unhallowed Metropolis – a small, not very well known system that has been used repeatedly now as it fits so well with so many players in the society. I could list literally dozens more games and systems here, all discovered just because of being part of HUGS, that I would never have had the chance play otherwise.

So what can you fine people out there do about this? First off, there are all the websites you can easily find to help out. On top of that, if you live in a university – or college, for  any American readers – town/city, check with the student union to see if there any gaming societies looking for members (trust me, if they exist, they’ll be looking to recruit). Find a friendly local gaming store (FLGS) and go and meet people there, they are often on good terms with the local gaming scene, maybe even offering discounts to card carrying members of the society, and if not they will usually be more than happy to help put you in contact with other like minded people. And of course the final option; start your own gaming group. Get the word out to FLGSs, register with the university and make your own page on any number of websites. The effort will be more than worth it when you get to watch the society grow as new gamers flock to you who would otherwise be lost to the World of Warcraft. (shudder)

So, message of the day; get out there and meet more geeks. they’re good people.

Jun 142012

So first a question; are geeks actually sexy?

I know what can only be considered as more than my fair share of people who are happy to identify themselves as a geek. I have been a member of my local gaming society for over seventeen years and almost all of my friends have been met through the wide and varied social interactions that are part of being in a large society. Within said society that are some absolute lookers. Chaps and chapettes who would knock your socks off (for the record I don’t consider myself as being in that number, resembling a skinnier, paler version of Tommy Steele – ask your parents, I had to). These pretty, pretty people do make up the minority of the society, but casting a quick mental eye over the rest, it’s not like I hang out at homunculii anonymous either.

No, what we have is just a cross section of normal people. That’s right, just normal people. So lets start this out right; being a geek doesn’t make you in any way socially awkward or less attractive, but neither does being socially awkward or less attractive make you a geek. Outside of any industry of lifestyle in which physical appearance isn’t a prerequisite for, you get people from all walks of life; does everyone at a yacht club have a chiseled jaw or a waspish waist? Nope, they’re made up of a group of people who are all individuals and look as such. And if you base your opinions on a group because of the way they’re portrayed in TV shows and movies; please, jog on.

So, why, you ask third paragraph in, did I title this blog in the manner I did if I disagree with the statement? Well first off, I have dated geeks all of my adult life. Not all of them are gaming geeks though. One noteworthy exception simply could not get her head around what I did as a hobby and kinda looked down on it. But she was a huge music buff and what she didn’t know about punk/two-tone/ska/ska-punk and countless other genres, simply wasn’t worth knowing. In short, she was just as big a geek as me, it’s just that her quirky little interest/obsession was a tad more socially acceptable. I did soon turn her round on the gaming thing though, once she realized it wasn’t what so many people thought of it as – small groups of loners poring over the latest players handbook checking if they prefer it to the last edition – but was instead about fifty people meeting up once a week in a pub and drinking it out of real ale on a far too regular basis whilst hanging out, gaming, talking and having a laugh.

When we weren’t at the weekly meetings, we were kicking back in other pubs, at metal gigs and fests, watching movies, drinking and playing in bands of our own. So, geeky? Yes. More than that? Almost every damned time!

So, what is it that can make a geek sexy? Owning it! That doesn’t mean walking round in cosplay outfits all the time, but just not hiding who you are because of societal pressures. You know tons of useless crap about Trek? Cool. But I bet you also just know loads of other useless crap that’s the staple of pub conversation starters simply because your mind works well when it comes to reading something and keeping it there, ready to be unleashed just as someone takes that sip Copper Dragon you’re about to make them shout out of their nose.

I have spent countless hours with my friends and have loved every bit of it, knowing that they’re all so damned sexy just because they can make me laugh while talking about the mini-map radar on Fallout: New Vegas.

Keep it up, keep it right up.