Oct 212013

7203642580_30aee2d0d7So I have recently started playing the Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox 360 – I know, how current am I? – and it had me thinking about difficulty levels in console games and how they might translate to traditional table top RPGs. Basically because it’s a bloody hard game, and I’m not that great at first person shooters anyway. I have in fact come upon an impasse fairly early on in the game, and before I continue I’m going to have to lower the difficulty. To sum up, I am trying to break out of a prison, but there are guards and turret guns, and I’m at a point where I’m struggling to find cover while being shot at from three directions, by two turrets and one guard. I can take out one enemy, but then die before I can make it to cover.

This is not a complaint about the game, which I think is actually pretty damned good, in fact the way the level has been designed reminds me a lot of the way that a Games Master would approach a problem. What both the GM and the Games Designer (GD) want is to make the level feel as realistic and challenging to the player/s as possible. If it was me designing the level, I would almost certainly have done the same thing. The guards seem to have some kind of radio transmitter that means the turret guns don’t target them, but prisoners are fair game. They have also covered all corridors with fields of fire, and then had guards around too, just to make sure. What I wouldn’t do was drop a few convenient chest high walls into the place to offer some cover. I’m sorry to all level designers out there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re collapsed bits of rubble, fallen trees or the corpses of my enemies, they all look out of place and just serve to warn you that a gun fight is about to break out. So thank you to whoever rocked this level design for not making lazy choices and keeping the game challenging.

What the GD didn’t do though was give the player/s a chance to come up with different ways to approach the problem. I know that by now a lot of readers will be thinking that this is just another part of the continuing story of why table top RPGs will also be better than computer games. Although this is certainly true, I think it’s worth saying again, and looking at what we can learn from computer games about things that we shouldn’t do as GMs. The biggest of these is limiting the choices of your players.

If I was a player for instance, I would be doing my damnedest to drag a dead guard into cover somewhere to see if I could figure out why they weren’t getting peppered with holes from the sentry guns. There may very well be a reason why I couldn’t just rip it off the corpse and make myself a tiny bit less killable, but I would like to know that and have a chance to examine things and find a way round that wasn’t just about shooty death and his less popular cousin stabby death.

This to me is why no table top RPG ever needs a difficulty level. No matter how dangerous you make a scene or encounter, the players will have near limitless options in how they approach and deal with any problems you put in front of them. Quite often they will work ways round your little obstacles that you would never have thought of, and the game is richer for it. They also – in almost every game – have real reasons to fear death for more than the slight inconvenience of having to replay a few minutes of a level to get to the point that they perished. Dying in an RPG should mean something more than a slight pain in the rear, and that means players have even more reason to think about different ways to solve a problem other than the all guns blazing approach.

Aug 212013


So yeah, the new Batman: Arkham Origins trailer may not be an actual play trailer (which is what I was really hoping for), but in amongst the various set pieces, there looks to be a few clips that could actually be taken from game play. There isn’t really any way to be 100% sure, but being a pretty big fan of the first two, there just seems to be moments where the camera stops following the action from a purely cinematic angle, and hangs just over Batman’s right shoulder; exactly where it spends most of the time in the previous outings. Take a look and see what you think.

I know this is a table top role playing blog, and a few of you will likely be wondering why I’m taking about a console game, but I really do like the treatment given to Gotham City’s most famous sons and daughters in the last couple of games, and a lot of that comes down to the characterisations. In game play terms, it’s little more than a very pretty beat-em-up, but the plot lines are superbly thought out, and each character is brought to life with a rare passion. Add to that my opinion that I don’t think there has ever been a more faithful adaptation of the comic books in any other media than the games, and it’s my kind of game.

I’m sure those of you who played the last game will remember the bit the Joker does during the credits, but there are plenty of times during the game that had me just as invested in what was going on. I think all of us can learn something from this level of detail put into characters in a game. And I think even Batman’s most famous nemesis wouldn’t necessarily think of himself as a bad guy. If there ever was going to be an exception to that rule though, I think the Joker would certainly qualify.

May 202013

I’m a huge fan of Batman. (Fair warning, this post might not actually be that much related to role playing.) I have been ever since I was eleven years old and I picked up The Killing Joke graphic novel. I was totally sold from that first encounter with the Dark Knight. One thing that has repeatedly impressed me since becoming a fan is how often different media takes a shot at recreating the comic book in another format, and actually manages to do it well.

The Cartoon series from when I was younger was astounding, even if they really did have to make sure that it was perfectly clear that all the bad guys lived, just because it was a kids show, and they wanted there to be no ambiguity about the fact that it was all in good fun. It was timed perfectly for me as the Batman movies had just been given to Schumacher, and the neon glow reflecting off Batman’s latex nipples really killed that franchise for me. And then there was the current generation console games.

Arkham Asylum and City were masterpieces of storytelling and characterisation that just happened to have a pretty damned solid beat-em-up patched onto it. There was a whole lot there for both fans of brawler games and died comic book nuts too. So many little references that would pass most people by, but got a nerd’s heart all a-flutter. True, they weren’t perfect, and I personally think that Harley Quinn could have done without being so grossly sexualised, but these faults were few and far between. Of course there was Catwoman, but for my feelings on that, then by all means check out my podcast where me and my co-host struggle to get our heads around why Batman doesn’t just ship the career criminal off to Blackgate. It’s that thought that makes me very happy with the idea of a new Batman game coming out. The last flick left me a little disappointed to say the least, so right now I’m looking for another medium to swoop in and show us how it’s done.

You know, apart from comic books themselves. Well today we get another teaser trailer for the latest game. Sad to say, we still don’t get to see any game play, but I just hope it’s on the way.

Oct 082012

A few months back I looked at a console game through the eyes of a table top role player, and I must admit, the game didn’t come out too well. Sure it got rave reviews all over the rest of the internet, but in this little corner, not so much. Today I place that role playing eye firmly on another Xbox game that I’ve been playing recently: Borderlands 2. This will not be an in-depth review about its merits as a first person shooter, but more a little look at how it works when seen as a traditional role playing game. For a bit of background, it’s worth knowing that I played and loved the first game, and most of the time have been playing both of them split screen with my girlfriend.

The first bad thing about the Borderlands franchise as an RPG is the almost total lack of interaction your character has with the rest of the world that doesn’t involve shooting it in the face with a mind blowing variety of boom sticks. The most they seem to talk in the second installment is a few little quips when employing their special abilities - maybe half a dozen different lines which get old pretty quickly considering how often they get used – and little back and fourths between player characters as one heals another. This kinda sucks, but when I think back to some other games, it really isn’t that big a deal. Sure, Deus Ex, Mass Effect and the Dragon Age games give you conversation trees a-plenty, but sometimes you really don’t want to hear the voice they’ve given your character as it may very well be a voice that you would never associate with the way you imagine it.

What it does to make up for that is give the NPCs some killer interactions with the player characters and each other. If you find an Echo recorder and pick it up, try and pay attention to what’s being said; it is usually tangential to the plot, but even so, they’re well written and bloody hilarious. There are little bits on the player character backgrounds, as well as history of the world and NPC back stories too. Actual conversations are also worth paying attention to. Usually the only verbal interactions available are when collecting a job, and turning it in. This will almost always have a bit of monologue from the quest giver, and once again, even though you don’t need  to hear it, take the time to listen. They really do give life to the characters and contain some of the funniest writing I’ve heard in a video game.

Don’t get me wrong, the characterization for almost every NPC is pretty one dimensional. The bad-guy is bad, and every time he has something to say, it reinforces his stature as ‘evil-boss’ for the game. I would drop a few examples here, but I’m trying my best to keep this review spoiler free, and some of his best lines lead to some great reveals in the plot that I really don’t want to spoil for anyone. Handsome Jack isn’t the only bad guy in the piece, and all of the others are just as hammy when it comes to their lines and how they are delivered. Put it this way though, if you load the game up, take a look at the awesome stylized graphics and expected some subtlety to the characterization, you may not have very realistic expectations.

That is one of the strongest points about this game though; its writing and how well it all slots together to give a consistent feel to the world and the plot. Any GM knows that you can run a dark game and still throw in occasional bits of humour and not ruin the mood. The ‘GM’ for this game is running it for pure comedy, but knows just the right amount of ‘dark’ to slide in on occasion to keep everyone engaged with the plot and stop being nothing but a yuck-fest.

What else makes it a good RPG? Character advancement. The skill trees are pretty varied, and it’s easy to think of  leveling up getting you some hit points, an advancement in a skill and/or a feat. All of which are perfectly in fitting with your character, while also giving you the freedom to try out a few different things without ever worrying about stepping on another character’s toes. As an example, playing a Siren I can be kick ass with a sniper rifle, but will still never get in the way of the Assassin being the best at it.

My final point is a mild spoiler for people who have never played the first game, and maybe even a little bit spoilerific for the second. You get to meet the characters who played the vault hunters in the first game. In thus game they’re pure NPCs, and the writers have done what every good GM should take a swing at at least once in the same situation. If you have returning players to the same campaign world, but years after the last plot’s resolution, and bringing in all new characters, then what do you do with the old ones? Write them into the world. Make them a little bit epic, give them their own followers and show that their actions have had long lasting consequences on the setting. To me this is one of the best examples of how the game works as an RPG, a thought given to the consequences of the player actions that tie in with the larger setting, and it’s something that a lot of GMs can learn from.

As before, I invite people to make their own comments below, either on the game itself, or thoughts on how I viewed it.