RELEASE: Home of the Brave

Greater Spirit Games (me) has just made its first commercial product available for sale on DriveThruRPG. Home of the Brave is available for $1.99. It’s a humble 13-page game based around playing Presidential Candidates in the fictional Republic of Amera. You use cards and 1 ten-sided die in order to roleplay the day-to-day narrative of the campaign trail. Each News Cycle of a game will introduce its own Theme and Political Issue, and the candidates use their playing cards, the political parties they’ve chosen to be part of, and the issue and theme they’re tackling to make humorous political speeches and earn points. At the end of the game there is a final Presidential Debate after which the highest-scoring character wins the Presidency!

The game is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND so you can share it with your game group, but every copy helps support me and my future endeavors. Every little $1.99 counts at this point! In addition, buying through DTRPG will keep you up to the minute on any Errata I have to issue or content updates, delivered absolutely free with your purchase. So if you’ve ever wanted more of my whacky ideas in a small purchasable package, now’s your chance. May the 24-hour news cycle be with you!

Categories: Fluff/Inspiration, Funhaving, Humor, Meta, News, Other Hobby, Other Systems, Products, RPG | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Communities And People In Conflict

Jokingly, a lot of people commonly reduce D&D to the phrase “kill people and take their stuff.” This has sort of become an expected description of the game — both from people who like it, and who dislike it. For a long time I myself uncritically accepted it. D&D worked best to me when there was less “fluff” in the way. Who cares about the social structure of the elves? And it’s true, D&D sort of works best this way. The game is at its smoothest and most efficient a vehicle to fight all sorts of different people and ultimately abscond with their goods, so you can fight the next batch. Consequences of these actions are best reduced to “which group of people is mad at you for what you did, and how will you defeat them and take their stuff?” You start with Kobolds, you work up to Orcs, then Trolls, then Giants, and you then leave your universe and fight the red people in the City of Brass in the Plane of Fire. This is kind of unsettling to me, and it has been for a long time. I just tried not to acknowledge it much. D&D as a whole just kinda screams at you to turn your brain off so you can enjoy it properly. But lets think.

D&D in essence is a game about working outside of community and dismantling it.

Not your community though, because your characters never really personally have a community. Your characters are always special outsiders who are wise in the ways of surviving the unending onslaught that constitutes existence in the world of D&D. You can fight off the wild-life, kill off the “bad races” and survive on your wits and strength in a way that 99% of the population cannot. You’re not “the peasants” and in fact association with the peasants is considered a very filthy theme in the minds of gamers — it is a sign of dullness and weakness when the glorious D&D character can only do something at an “average” level of proficiency (of course, the level of proficiency of an average person is wildly underestimated, such that “average” is actually “completely helpless and incapable” and “good” is “60% success rate”). Even in the old days when D&D characters died from the same amount of stab wounds as the peasantry (one or two) they were framed even more strongly as unfamiliar and asocial outsiders. D&D characters must always exist above the mean in some way. They’re like weird aliens.

So you don’t have a home, and if you do then you don’t really have any point of commonality with its people. You live in a different sphere from the rest of them, and you always will. And there are precious few people who share your lot — you can probably count them in one hand and indeed you will probably meet them and go adventuring, this being a requirement of the game. When you do, you will inevitably go around dismantling other communities. D&D doesn’t really have “good communities.” It’s at best got some benign monarchies and at worse it’s a lot of gleeful feudalism and fascism. I once told a friend that it was interesting how many third party products for D&D I saw that took it for granted that slavery just happened all over in D&D, and that furthermore it would be a moral dilemma for the characters whether to respect the law or free the slaves. D&D creates a lot of situations where the best answer is to burn the world and make a new one. And even when the community is benign you don’t really have mechanisms to leverage this. Maybe shop prices will be a little bit lenient. But since your characters are never borne out of a culture or community and are set apart by working outside it, there’s precious little gain from a “good community” in D&D. The game, as a whole, encourages characters to live outside community, to not think much of the people within community, and if community gets in their way, to destroy it.

And maybe those people were kinda shitty. Maybe the Orcs did do bad things and maybe to save one bad community you have to smash a worse community. But this is a conscious decision that could be changed — kobolds could eat way less babies and Orcs could enslave way less people (I’d like for it to be “none” on both accounts but I can’t always have my way I guess). The People vs People conflicts in D&D tend to look incredibly skeevy because the Orcs are a “race” upon whom you can make a blanket generalization that essentially advocates their elimination. Almost literally D&D can become a game about hunting people, whom you’ll refer to as “monsters,” like they were wolves who came in to eat your cattle. Better clear the mountainside because all wolves eat sheep; better destroy the Orc camp that just sprang up nearby because all Orcs murder humans.

D&D and its mechanisms choose, whether consciously or not, to promote these kinds of outcomes. Kill the bad guy is a simple motivation that can make for cathartic entertainment, but it becomes revolting when the Bad Guy is an entire race of people reducible down to the phrase “Always Chaotic Evil.” One of the chief ways that this is promoted is by oversimplification. Tabletop RPG writers struggle for clarity, simplicity and page space. It’s simpler to understand a phrase than it is to read about a culture. It’s easier to create that phrase than to flesh out that culture. And it’s even easier when the majority of your fanbase will scream about the fungibility of your page space if it’s not chock full of numbers they can add up to other numbers. “Orc Culture”? You could’ve written like 20 feats in this space! I know, because I was that guy. D&D helps us all become that guy. After all, you really have no mechanisms by which you can employ Orc Lore to do anything the game deems important. You could probably make something out of those 20 feats in the gameplay, even if it ultimately sucks.

This is why I think it’s important to work on culture and community as a basis for the human elements of a fantasy story or game. I think it’s okay to want to wargame, and I’m not against People vs. People conflicts in games. But I think they have to be much more thought out than they are right now. I’m really not okay anymore with games where the Orcs are just bad, because they’re bad. In Lord of the Rings there is at least a bit of a point to this — the orcs are people reduced to that level by a monstrous industrial movement that can literally make them out of dirt to perpetuate itself, so okay, whatever. In D&D Orcs are just Bad because their God is a Bad Guy who likes murder and hates the non-Orcs of the world and teaches his people that Might Makes Right. I don’t know why he isn’t also the god of most D&D characters, because they’re all very alike in a lot of ways.

People vs. People conflicts should, in my opinion, be either personal or petty. Not petty as in casual or thoughtless, but petty in the grand scheme of things, like a theft, or a disagreement. When someone hires assassins to get you, it should be personal. There should be motives. There should be names and histories. There should be commensurate consequences, for both sides. There should be something to think about. When large groups of people fight there should be more to it than nameless, faceless animosity. You can have a war, but put names and ideologies on both sides beyond memetic genocide. “Your God is a bad guy” can only get you so far in explaining why your whole history has been an exchange of depopulating events. Seriously think about (and think about it again, because your ideas might be offensive in a whole universe of ways that are not the focus of this post) what is happening and flesh things out. Fighting people should not function the same as hunting weird fantasy animals. When you’ve chosen to grant sentience to an adversary you should start thinking bigger.

People vs. People conflicts are a matter of context, and you have to provide the right cultural context for them. This does not just apply to the enemies. Characters should come from a culture. They should have a community. Community is not just a hindrance or a system of draconian laws that keep you from having fun. You’re writing fantasy, and D&D is a really goofy game that never correlated one to one with the time period people so fervently desire that it adhere to. You can think big here, and you can make cultures that they’ll want to participate in, protect, and share with others. However, and more importantly, this also requires you to make these things matter to the game. I can’t tell D&D how to do that, because it’s a massive undertaking that is currently, essentially failing in public to make much of a change or expansion. But other games and gamers can take it as a point of reference. Look at what D&D does about this — and don’t do that.

Categories: D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, Fluff/Inspiration, Legacy D&D, Meta, Other Hobby, Other Systems, RPG | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Kickstarters To Watch: Inverse World

Inverse World is a Dungeon World-based product featuring a unique new setting and many new playbooks. Inverse World has a few design tenets that separate it from common fantasy RPG tropes – for example, flight is not a feared, game-breaking ability, and there is no weird undertone of racial determinism like there is in a lot of other games, where your race will determine what roles you do well in. Instead, the races of Inverse World are all one people but with different appearances, but it doesn’t look as though it will play a role in mechanically pigeonholing you. While the Game was originally for Dungeon World, it’s now also offering a FATE system product that you can also pledge for, if you’re not interesting in Dungeon World.

There’s several levels of rewards you can go for. At the $10 level you get your pick of Dungeon World or Fate Inverse World PDFs, while at $15 level you get both at once. The $30 level is the first physical tier, though it also includes the PDFs. For $50 and $70 you get some physical goodies like post-cards, design commentary, thank-you notes and custom content for your own game. $100 gives you everything plus some artwork. A special $125 bundle intended for a group of four people comes with multiple copies of the game and some of the goodies, and baked-in international shipping, which is a good idea considering how much international shipping can be a bummer for both kickstarter backers and for the creators.

Inverse World is already funded, so you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’ll get it – now it’s all about what you’ll get out of it. The Kickstarter has currently accrued $9000 worth of donations. A number of stretch goals have been reached, such as an additional post-card and new Adventure Locations for the game. The next Stretch Goal at the $10,000 level adds an Instant Islands guide for DMs to quickly create new, interesting places; a $13,000 stretch goal adds vehicles and mounts to the game. Both sound like great values that could vastly improve the play experience.

If you’re a fan of Dungeon World or FATE and want a unique and tasteful new take on fantasy, you’ll want to back this. Already even the smallest tier is looking like a great deal, so give it a look.

Categories: Campaigns, D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, Fluff/Inspiration, Kickstarter, Legacy D&D, News, Other Systems, Products, RPG | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outdoourcing, Now On Sale!

I’ve started the process of writing expanded versions of the stories on my Literalchemy blog into ebooks. 

Outdoourcing is now up for sale in various venues!

Smashwords.

Kindle.

Nook.

The Ebook edition contains new scenes, expanded scenes, better editing and flow, and twice as many words as the original, all used to deliver more hyper-evolved jungle demon action, investment drama and good-natured hunting humor. Every purchase helps my ongoing endeavors, such as Literalchemy and this blog, which I hope to continue.

Next up, I plan to work on a completely original ebook-exclusive story called Gorgewings: A Consumerist Horror Story. It will feature the return of our favorite computer peripheral, the Kill-Slate 3G with KOS, aiding a brand new protagonist against a brand new foe in a brand new setting. Watch out for that too once it drops. I also hope to have a bunch of Ladybird stuff made into an ebook at some point, once I have few more stories (like Library completed, the one I’m planning after that, and the Ackley mini stories, as well as a few ebook exclusives). Look forward to that, as well!

Thanks for all your support so far!

Categories: In Real Life, Meta, News, Other Hobby, Products | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Belated 5th Anniversary, Spirits of Eden!

I know I haven’t been posting a whole lot here lately (or anywhere with great frequency, though I did write some prose yesterday) mostly because I haven’t been playing very many games (or looking at very many Kickstarters), but Spirits of Eden turned 5 years old on December 2012, and it skipped my mind completely. I’ve been having difficult times lately, with (several) failed job searches, the flu, money struggles, and other things. So it’s not a terribly happy anniversary, and there’s not much that I can do to celebrate. In fact it’s sort of gloomy, given how desolate the blog has been lately. I’m still posting from time to time but I don’t really have anything I can go to with regularity for the blog! Still, time marches on, and we’ve had good times and bad with this little place, so let’s hope the good times roll around again.

Categories: In Real Life, Meta, News | Tags: | 1 Comment

Kickstarter Red Alert: Channel A

I wrote about Channel A a while back, and I wanted to come back to that for a moment because they’ve got less than 48 hours to go to make around $900 in order to fund. Channel A is a card game about putting together a crazy  and funny concept for an anime and pitching it like it was a real thing. They are so close and it’s such a nice-looking game made by some great people that it’d be pretty disappointing if that didn’t manage to fund, so I wanted to put out the word on that again. Check out my old article if you want, and you can also check out Ewen Cluney’s tumblr where he’s posted a cool graphic made by Clay Gardner, the game’s graphic designer, with some Channel A card combinations based on Clay’s twitter friends (including me!). So check it out and see if it’s something you’d want to pitch in for, it’s got a small window left to get it over that last hurdle.

Categories: Anime, Fluff/Inspiration, News, Other Hobby, Other Systems, Products, RPG | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bioshock Infinite First Impression

I’m not impressed with the new Bioshock, sadly. I was looking forward to the game since its announcement, and over time I saw things I knew I wouldn’t like (such as the Vox Populi) but I enjoyed the core gameplay and conceits of the original Bioshock enough to hope. I feel as though aside from the core concepts that the game promised, it lived up to nothing that the trailers and interviews promised would be in the game for a long time. It’s pretty incredible, actually, how few of those noteworthy hype-accruing features seem to be part of the product that I’m trying to play right now.

There will be spoilers, but I’ve not finished the game (12 hours or so going right now) and I’ll try not to spoil the bighuge twists of it. It’s possible that the final stretch of the game’s content will be different, but I don’t think it can redeem how unremarkable it feels when the game could have been pretty groundbreaking. This post won’t be a review, but rather a collection of my thoughts on the things that I felt the game promised, and could’ve done a lot with, but didn’t deliver.

Andbleugh Ryaugh

I’m going to focus mostly on the game mechanics in this post. But I did want to touch upon this subject due to what Bioshock was like. Compared to Bioshock, the ideology and its presentation in Binfinite falls pretty short. It’s basically just graphic and shocking set dressing, and its politics are very poorly thought out and lopsided.

I really hate how the Vox Populi were presented in the game and I feel that it is a huge disservice to the real history that the game used as a grounding for its core ideologies. They are such awful burn-down-the-house anarchist caricatures and such a hamfisted conservative’s nightmare. It feels like the hidden enemy the Tea Party would think wants vengeance on all the world’s privileged people. Whereas Comstock and the like are based on a history of racism and oppression in the USA, the Vox Populi are just a cartoon that makes Comstock also seem cartoonish in mutual association  Binfinite has a sad and honestly pathetic message behind the conflict in the game: that they’re all the same, the oppressor and the oppressed, they’re all as bad whenever they decide to hurt others despite context. It’s incredibly facile and childish.

Competent But Soulless Shooting

I’m actually a fan of shooting games. I’ve probably played every major shooting game that’s come out in a long time and I enjoy games like Call of Duty (and the original Bioshock). Binfinite is a competent shooter with a decent variety of guns, but that’s really all I can say about it. Enemies are very samey, and the setpieces aren’t distinguished.

The problem I have with it is that Binfinite isn’t scripted enough and it isn’t open enough. It doesn’t have the kind of action Bioshock had where it was a semi-open environment that allowed you pick and choose different tactics and had enemies of markedly differing toughness that you could pick your battles against; and on the other hand it doesn’t have the variety and spectacle that heavily scripted games like Call of Duty have, where every mission is a fairground of different weird things to do like the mortar shooting, the sniping, the AC-130 section, the helicopters, the straight-up firefights, the stealth sections, and so on that you do over the Modern Warfare series. It really fails to innovate in this space.

The downright best parts of Binfinite are the skylines. The most fun to be had with the game is to use the skyline melee as much as you can. You can spec your character with gear and vigors that make melee really good, and whenever a skyline is there you can go to town. It’s very spectacular and you’ll hate it whenever there’s not a hook around to use. And that’s a LOT of the time, sadly. Even the skyline has its bad moments though. There’ll be more than one time where a skyline won’t be vertical enough to attack enemies a tier above you, forcing you to the ground and to move up through staircases or buildings to reach their perches and fight them conventionally. It is very frustrating and it happens more often than you’d think it should.

Every other encounter is simply too stylistically weak and repetitive. There are very few enemy types and the game teeters between being too easy and being too difficult. The same enemies are overused throughout the game, to the point that the Vox Populi inexplicably gain the resources to have their own handymen and motor patriots later in the game so they can be entirely the same as Comstock’s forces in equipment and challenge, which was very absurd to me, but I guess necessary for the game. I’m not sure how much “1999 mode” can alleviate these problems, because when the game decides to be challenging, its difficulty spikes absurdly and its deaths are hilariously punishing and never seem to follow a concrete rule as to what you lose or what’s supposed to happen. Especially since you’re dependent on its checkpoints to respawn, many of which aren’t well handled. Either they’re too close or they’re too few and far apart!

In addition, the Bird doesn’t deliver. I don’t want to say a lot more because it’s a huge spoiler, but there are really no Big Daddy-esque elements to any enemies in this game. None of them wander, none of them chase, none of them have that element of ominous challenge. The Bird does not bring the tension anyone said that it would.

Elizabeth Is A Walking Item Dispenser

Hey do you remember all that cool stuff that Elizabeth was supposed to do, like team up with your vigor powers to do cool new stuff, and use her incredible magical radiant AI to interact organically with everything and everyone and dazzle you with how alive she seems? None of this seems to have carried over. Elizabeth is a walking item dispenser that makes you hit F a lot in combat. All of her powers are entirely pre-determined by the setpiece fights and involve you hitting F so she’ll spawn objects or health, limited to making cover, spawning robot guns, and making pickup barrels.

Elizabeth’s dimensional abilities are also entirely scripted, and never involve Booker’s vigors. In fights, enemies outright ignore her unless they’re scripted not to, at which point she’ll either be captured (so far this is the prevalent result) or kick them in the balls (she does this a single time). It is vanishingly rare that Elizabeth actually interacts with something or does something that isn’t about giving Booker stuff. Not even the “cutesy” moments made it in!

Outside of fights, Elizabeth’s AI interactivity is confined to leaning against objects and bending down near objects, as well as making frowny faces when Booker is listening to a voxophone. Outside from one scripted sequence so far, Elizabeth has done very little with the game’s environments that did not involve her rummaging for money, ammo and salts (magic) for Booker to use. She does, at a few points, get mad with Booker and turn her back to him whenever you stare at her, which is interesting, but nothing revolutionary. In fact I might be imagining that whole thing. Maybe it’s all just part of the AI that keeps her out of your firing line at all times. It’s frustrating compared to what was hyped up.

Elizabeth is the farthest thing I could think about from being an organic or living AI. She’s very clearly heavily scripted and working in routine, and the environment is bizarrely apathetic to her overall presence. I might be exaggerating, but I feel like Binfinite promised so much more than what they delivered with her.

Vigors Are Dull And Unexplained

Plasmids were fairly deeply involved in Bioshock’s story and many enemies made use of them, and you saw the consequences of having those powers and their origin. No such thing happens in Binfinite. Vigors are magical drinks that are readily available from vending machines but aside from scripted crow and fireball enemies nobody uses them except you, and they’re basically just there because Bioshock settings have cool magic powers.

But the Vigors aren’t terribly cool either.

Most of the Vigors are a poor fit for the strengths of Binfinite’s combat. Their range is poor, the effects are mostly uninteresting, the trap effects are fairly pointless, they’re unbalanced and they’re fairly finicky to land. In fact, you start your Vigors off with the game’s essentially strongest magic – Possession, handed to you for free, allows you to get free money, free allies, free guns. Salts are fairly easy to come by and Elizabeth will throw you more when you need them, and the advantage of possessing the correct enemies is so astounding you’ll hardly need anything else. Me personally, though, once I got it, stuck to the Charge vigor. It lets you essentially do a teleport punch with your grappling hook toward any enemy you please. Specced for melee, your character becomes quite ridiculous, and actually fairly entertaining mostly. Enemies are samey, and too easy, and all of your fights are the exact same routine, but your routine is to tornado punch everyone.

Unfortunately you get Charge like 4/5 through the game. New Vigors are very few and far between in the game, so you’ll be rooted even more closely to Possession. The character’s progression and the pacing of new upgrades and equipment feels very slow and poor.

One More Thing

This is not meant to be a comprehensive review but rather the things that disappointed me based on the trailer and interview hype, and how interesting Bioshock itself was in its time. I was looking forward to this from the trailers, though I knew I would be disgusted with the hand-wavey and somewhat cowardly cartoon centrism in the narrative. I played it, and I’m not finished, and I’m going back to see the ending.

But so far I haven’t enjoyed it as much as I wanted to. 12 hours in, I don’t think it’ll change.

Binfinite is a well-built and pretty-looking AAA game. I’ve found no glitches and I’ve never been entirely frustrated with the controls, the visuals or the shooting on a technical level. I don’t think this needs to be said, or dwelled on, because it’s a AAA game with a huge budget and technically competent studio. It was always going to be pretty and cutting-edge and a nice show of its hardware. But the game still lacks some soul, and does not live up to either its legacy or to its promises for me. It straddles many ideas of what Bioshock was, but lives up to none.

Categories: Products, Video Games | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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