Aug 23, 2016

Advanced Adventures with AD&D 1st Edition: Part 1

The fairy chimes of nostalgia don't just sound for bits of our lost childhood. Just as often, they ring for the childhood we wished we had. I might not have been around to play Dungeons and Dragons in the 80's, but I can now that I'm an adult with a modicum of disposable income and free time. Two years ago, I rescued a set of First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons handbooks from a used bookstore. These are the books responsible for kickstarting a fantasy renaissance and codifying the imagery of sword and sorcery in pop culture. As someone baptized on third edition, these old books are a familiar, if foreign, land, like Idaho or most of the south. Until now, they've merely sat on my shelf.  It's about time I opened these tomes to see just what all that satanic panic was all about. 

I cracked open my copy of the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, copyright 1978 by Gary Gygax, the master storyteller himself. There’s a sticker on the front announcing “The original, uncut player’s handbook in TSR’s attractive new cover”. The back contains one of the least exciting quotes you'll find, from the author himself, no less: “A wealth of information for the AD&D game player”. It has an odd chemical smell, the kind that old hardcovers acquire after sitting too long in the back room of a library.

Gygax might have been a great storyteller, but he's not a great technical writer. Frankly put, this book is a mess. Important bits of information are scattered about the book like secret passages in a dungeon. Sometimes it's listed in an easy-to-spot table, other times it's buried in paragraphs of text. While modern editions of D&D group all details relevant to a class under a single section, this book forces you to go on a scavenger hunt to find basic info. If you want to find what weapons your thief can wield or how much gold he starts with, you'll have to flip around for it. If it's not hidden, it's at least complicated. For some reason, Gygax separated the price, weight, and AC score for armor across three different tables instead of combining it into one

It's also remarkably incomplete. In later editions, the Player's Handbook tells you how to play the game, while the Dungeon Master's Guide tells you how to run the game. Here, the PHB contains about half what it should. Basic information like how to generate ability scores or how combat works are squirreled away in the DMG. That book is copyrighted a year later, so I have no idea how players managed back in the day.

The DMG is somehow organized more poorly than the PHB. Gary scatters information about almost at whim. The chapters are ill-defined and organized by moon logic. To find anything without the index or chapter listing, you'll have to adventure across all 240 pages. I imagine veteran players would memorize the location of important tables by feel, the way an old baptist instinctively can open a bible to any minor prophet. I have no such experience.

If you do have to venture through this book, you'll find lots of keep you company. It's filled with tables and charts to help a DM simulate every aspect of a fantasy world. There are rules here about how to plan a spying mission, how much it costs to hire a blacksmith, and how to keep track of time inside a dungeon. This stuff fuels my imagination. No, I don't actually need to know how many feet of hard rock a hill giant can mine in 8 hours, but I'd like to write an adventure that does.

There are lots of oddities in the rules. For example:

  • Initiative determines which side goes first, weapon speed determines which character hits first.
  • Most monsters find their to-hit score on a chart by cross referencing their level with their hit dice.
  • Similar to the monsters, each PC finds their to-hit score on a class-specific table (something AD&D streamlined into THAC0).
  • Encumbrance is measured in gold pieces, with 10gp equaling 1 pound. There are conversion tables to turn your equipment weight into gp.
  • Shields have finicky rules. They don’t count if you’re being flanked, and they can only block up to 3 attackers at once. Everyone else get to hit you minus your shield AC.
  • Weapons do different damage to different size classes. A hand axe does less damage to a large creature, a long sword does more.
  • Similarly, some weapons have a different to-hit score based on the target AC. For example, a long sword gets bonuses to against low ACs, but penalties against high ACs. It's not always a consistent curve, either.
  • The character sheet has a box for “scarring and maiming”, listing the injury, date, and explanation (I love this idea).
  • There are no ability modifiers. Instead, every ability has a table telling you what it modifies and by how much. Don’t expect to get any bonuses unless a score is 17 or more.
  • Each race and gender have different maximum ability scores.
  • Characters with high abilities scores can earn bonus XP.
  • You earn 1XP for every gold you earn.

I rolled up a few characters to get a taste for the game. Early D&D has a reputation of having you roll your ability scores straight across and seeing what classes you qualify for. This edition doesn't. In fact, it states that you'll likely go through many unplayable characters unless you manually reassign the scores yourself. Using the standard 4d6 method, I rolled up Hemdal the Dwarven fighter. At 10 HP and 5 AC, he's a stout warrior indeed. Next, I rolled Merdoc the Mage (or, "Magic User", as the book blandly describes him). I rolled better for his ability scores, but I'm worried for poor Merdoc.

1st ed AD&D basically dares you to play a magic user. It taunts you by making half of the PHB a list of badass spells. However, they have a hit die of 1d4 and can’t wear armor. The rules as written don’t let you assume a max roll, and there’s no constitution modifier to help you out. Merdoc has 1 HP, 10 AC, and a single spell. Oh, and he requires 25% more XP to level compared to Hemdal the fighter. His only hope is to stay in the back and fling darts at enemies, praying that nobody sneezes near him. Playing a mage is basically hard mode.  

Tomorrow, I'll roll up a solitaire situation and see how this beast actually plays.

Jan 28, 2016

Twenty Years of Quake: Why It Still Holds Up Today

This year marks Quake's twentieth anniversary. It’s more than a progenitor of the genre, it still stands out after all these years. Rebind the keys to modern WASD controls, add proper mouselook and it’s incredibly playable today, all nostalgia aside. It's not just the fast-pace and high difficulty that sets it apart from the shooters today, it also demands that the players be far more aware of their surroundings.

Quake almost entirely lacks hitscan weapons. Every enemy fires some sort of projectile that you can evade or a melee attack you can dodge. This makes the battlefield much more spacialy interesting as the player has to keep track of the rockets, nails, and grenades bouncing around. This is far more complex than modern cover-centric games which simply require the player be aware of which enemies are currently exposed.

Now that you’re tracking all the projectiles, you also to deal with the enemies themselves. Placement is key here. A great example is the Ogre, who tosses bouncing grenades at you from a distance and slashes you with a high-damage chainsaw up close. To fight him, you want to stay in a middle distance, move laterally and be aware of how his grenades bounce behind you (which requires that you know the layout of the entire room, not just the 90 degree slice in front of you). The Death Knight is similar, but instead of grenades he fires a spread of fireballs which you’ll have to weave through as you keep your distance from his nasty melee attacks. Now dodge the sudden and devastating leap attacks from a Fiend or two and you have yourself a situation that requires more than just ammo to get past.

The zombies are particularly interesting as they can only be permanently killed with explosives. Explosive weapons have splash damage that can hurt the player, so in close quarters, killing them can almost be more dangerous than letting them live. You not only have to be aware of the enemies attacks, but also your own response to them as well.

Quake demands a level of spacial awareness almost unheard of today. Even so-called retro shooters like Painkiller and Serious Sam really boil down to herding groups of enemies into more manageable groups and running in circles. Quake might toss fewer enemies at you, but it makes each one so much more interesting to fight.

Compare this to a modern shooter where the enemies all have hitscan weapons that slowly plink away at your health until you take cover. Occasionally someone will toss a grenade that'll force you to change to a different piece of cover, but that's it. Combined with a slower pace, they're more accessible but lack that sense-of-space that makes Quake so stimulating.

Put all of this in a unique setting that mixes sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, have Trent Reznor do a creepy atmospheric soundtrack and you have a stone-cold classic. Happy twentieth Quake, may your axe always be rusty.

Sep 22, 2014

Final Fantasy X: The Bad Kind of Retro

With the power supply in my PC dead, and its replacement DOA, I have to find my gaming needs elsewhere. Since my local Gamestop has been having ridiculous clearance deals on PS2 stuff, I've decided to try Final Fantasy X again. I first played it a few years back (when I first got my PS2), as it seemed quintessential to the era. After 25 hours, I decided I had better things to play and moved on. Now that this is pretty much my only option for a deep, immersive gaming experience, I've dived back in again, only to discover that there's pretty much no way you can play this without cheating.

Case in point: Jecht Spheres. About half-way through the game, you discover old recordings of Tidus's father. Besides giving backstory, they also unlock Auron's Overdrive abilities. However, the evil part is that half of these collectables are in previous parts of the game. To find them, you'll have to wait until the end of the game when you gain the ability to backtrack and search through THE ENTIRE GAME AGAIN. Or, you know, just look it up in a strategy guide. I'm fine with well-hidden collectables, but hiding them in previous parts of the game is just dirty.

Even better are the ultimate weapons. They play out like a particularly obtuse Everquest quest chain. First, you gotta do things stupid thing to get a useless item. Then you do another stupid thing, and it magically changes useless item into... another useless item. Now you have to do a huge chain of random, stupid things to get each weapon, each of which stop you from gaining experience, making them... useless again. However, if you use the first useless item on each useless weapon (and two additional magical things you've maybe collected), they become the most powerful items in the game. SURPRISE! Good luck figuring that one out on your own. 

Want to get a few more powerful aeons before you defeat Sin? Well, first you'll have to go through each of the temple trials again and make sure you collected each of the secrets. The secrets work by taking a special sphere and placing it in a seemingly-random slot. Collect all five of those, then go to a secret place on the map and fight a boss battle. No, none of this is ever mentioned, or even hinted at in game.

Now, all this stuff IS optional. They're not mandatory to finish the game, but they sure do help when you face those insane final bosses. I know that Final Fantasy has historically had tons of this stuff, but this seems like 80's game design. Garbage like this was how I ended up missing Vincent when I first played VII. I didn't even know he existed until I read a strategy guide.

 On the other hand, GameFAQs basically means scores of free strategy guides, so it could be worse.

Nov 17, 2013

Impressions: Gotham City Impostors

Behind Gotham City Impostors lays a fascinating premise. When Batman leaves Gotham, gangs of impostors come out and do battle. What you get are psychopathic vigilantes who attempt to honor the spirit of the ‘Bat by stapling cardboard batman logos to tee-shirts and loading up with assault rifles. Meanwhile, lunatics with white face paint don whatever green and purple rags they own and do the same thing as imitation Jokers. The result? Lots of really fake super hero knock-offs running around trying to gun each other down, and it’s a lot better than the free-to-play moniker might have you expect.
He's the hero that Gotham deserves, just not one they
ever wanted to see.

Lets just get this out of the way: on a very basic level, it’s Call of Duty. Not just sorta, it IS Call of Duty. You get five pre-made loadouts with stuff you haven’t unlocked yet, and five you can customize. Each loadout lets you select primary and secondary weapons, a gadget, and various perks. Every weapon comes with a variety of mods, like red dot sights and extended mags, all with dozens of different camos to select. You compete in team deathmatch, domination, capture the flag, and kill confirmed, only by other names. See what I mean?

And yet, there’s actually some special sauce here. The trick is that each player can also select a unique form of movement. The grappling hook works just as you’d expect. There are inflatable shoes that let you charge up a huge leap. Jetpacks let you take to the sky on your own power. The wings let you soar and swoop down for a dive bombing attack, and the roller blades let you zoom around at high speeds and even hit jumps.
I prefer to think of this as a Joker/Bane hybrid.

When you start adding it up, you realize that it’s the class customization of Call of Duty with the movement of Quake or Tribes. That might sound derivative, but it actually manages to find its own state of existence. With no falling damage, the game encourages you to play vertically and zip about the levels in all manner of creative ways. The maps heavily use this, with jump pads, stake ramps, and platforms dotting every level. Only chumps stay on the ground; real heroes fly about and punch evil-doers from the sky.

However, there’re really not that many weapons to choose from. I could be wrong, but there doesn't seem to be any new weapons available since launch. There are three assault rifles (the auto, semi-auto, and bolt-action), two shotguns, and three heavy-machine guns. Now, there’s plenty of other things to unlock and customize, such as different body builds (trading off speed for bulk, for example), and psych profiles (giving you bonuses for certain actions, and penalties for others). It makes me wonder if Impostors has been a financial disappointment for WB Games, because F2P titles like these require fresh content to keep players dropping cash. Also, every other game mode but TD is deserted, which is sad.

I think I'm on fire here.
The monetization isn't bad, either. It’s not difficult to unlock things as you go, but a $3 starter pack will get you the basics right away. You can either keep slogging away for free, or you can just plop $20 on the table and essentially buy the whole thing with the Professional Pack. The nice part is when you spend cash, you actually know how much gameplay you’re getting, unlike most F2P games. At no point will you feel pressured to drop another $20 to negate various bogus energy or repair costs. Emphatically, this is F2P done right.

Free-to-play games don't have good reputations. They tend to be derivative, cheap, and unfair. Yet, Gotham City Impostors is surprisingly unique. It has fun with the Batman universe in a dark-yet-light-hearted way, is built on solid mechanics, and has a movement style that’s been lost since modern war games have dominated the scene. Hopefully the recent Humble Bundle will breath new life into this almost-forgotten game.

May 23, 2012

The Voting Horde

I recently saw the film adaptation of 1984. I’d hold it up right next to Gilliam’s Brazil in quality. The slower pace and quiet, thoughtful moments reminded me of some of Ridley Scotts more atmospheric movies.  As chilling a story as it is, I don’t think it’s very relevant any more. While its themes of the human spirit and danger of power are strong, Fascism of that sort really isn’t a danger anymore. While there’s plenty to be wary of, I don’t think it’s Orwell’s image of dictatorship.

Orwell took our tribalistic nationalism and inverted it. Instead of being afraid of the other guy’s nation, we become afraid of our own. However in today’s democracy, that nation is us. Politicians might seem like the cause, but they only get away with it because voters seem very open to deception. If we are to put a face on our national problems, they are ours. Or, if that is too scary, perhaps the faces of those around us. The grating drones with their cell phones, the wasting drunks in the street, the mindless consumers in the aisles; Anybody who can or will vote suddenly becomes the enemy of rationality.

This is one reason zombies have infested our pop culture so much. It’s the fear that we, as a people, as a collective, are not just a mindless crowd swaying about, but a bloodthirsty one that will devour the rational individual with an animalistic hunger.

If 1984 is fear of facism, the zombie apocalypse is fear of democracy. The crawling zombie hoard is reality television. It’s viral videos and Jersey Shore. It’s fear of the mindless, destructive masses whose numbers constantly grow and who will always win in the end. After they eat everything they get their hands on, they’ll eat each other, until they themselves are consumed.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping a human face – forever”-1984

1984 will remain a classic. Its exploration of the human spirit will remain timeless, if not its politics. However, if you want an exploration of modern political nightmares, I suggest you watch The Walking Dead instead.

Apr 24, 2012

First Generation Kindle: The Verdict

A few months ago, I picked up an old first-generation Kindle cheap on Ebay. Now that I’ve been using it for a while, I can say for certain that I LOVE IT.

It’s a qualified love, to be sure, but when it comes to the physical act of reading, I’ll pick the Kindle every time. It’s easier to hold. I can lie down and read without having to turn over or hold the book awkwardly to get to the next page. I can eat and read easily without having to hold down the pages with the salt and pepper shakers. This might sound lazy, but it wasn’t until I left it behind that I fully realized what a burden reading dead trees can be.

More importantly, I’ve found myself reading much more than I ever did before. I find myself blazing through 600-page books in under a week, record time for me. An ideal evening now is a nice cup of Earl Gray and a few hours with my Kindle.

There are downsides, of course. First, it’s really hard to simply flip through a book. Sure, there are a lot of ways you can search a book. Beyond the handy “search” function, you can highlight passages (which are saved in a separate entry for easy access) and you can dog-ear pages. However, the simple action of “seeing how many pages are left in this chapter” completely eludes the Kindle. Want to find a specific story in a compilation? Good luck. In both cases, you’re better off reading it straight through and just stopping whenever sleep overtakes you because it's easier than slowly flipping through the pages manually.

Another problem is vanity: I love physical books. Not necessarily reading them, but I love hunting for them in dusty bookstores and displaying them like trophies for everyone to see. I like having that huge collection of Erikson dominating my shelves, so that guests can look at their intimidating size and know that I conquered that. But pride aside, physical books can hold more than just printed stories. I like thumbing through my worn copy of Return of the King and remembering when I carried it on that backpacking trek through Arizona. I like remember that compilation of Alexander Pope I found in an airport bookstore on my way down to see my future Wife for the first time. Ebooks just don't hold that.

Ideally, every physical book I find buried in a used bookstore would contain an ebook, so I could read one and display the other, but perhaps that violates the principles of cake eating and having. 

Mar 28, 2012

Review: Yesterday

My review of the recent adventure game Yesterday is up on The Adrenaline Vault. It's telling that a terrible game can still be a pretty good example of the genre.

My aunt lives on a farm in the middle of the Wisconsin countryside. Like Keepers of the Citadel, innumerable cats run around, performing secret but essential tasks. As needed as they are, no one’s taken care of them in years. Once you could wonder into a barn and be greeted by a furry tribe of cuteness, but now you find a swarm of hideously inbred monsters. Adventure games are like those cats. Leave them alone in a vacuum for a decade and what comes out is a sickening mixture of all the recessive genes of 1990s point-and-clicks. Yet, where there’s a will, there’s a market. Some studios actually manage to craft fun games out of inventory puzzles. Adventure vets Pendulo think they can straddle the line with Yesterday and still deliver an approachable yet hardcore classic adventure game. Wrapped up with the styling of a horror thriller, is Yesterday a cute and cuddly kitten, or a mangled, inbred beast?