Just as I was in the midst of returning my life to normal after late nights hooked to crpg Dungeon Siege, a wise pre-order with good old evil corporation Amazon ensured that a new packet of game crack landed on the doormat just as there was a chance of reform. Seeing as it arrived the Friday before a Bank Holiday I figured that there was no point in attempting to resist.
To my mind first impressions matter nowhere except computer games. Since the beginnings of games are the most thoroughly played (apparently amongst the paying public only 5% or less actually complete a computer game) and tested, you tend to get the very best at the start and things have a tendency to drop off thereafter. It was frustrating then that after a few minutes playing Morrowind it would crash. An hour or so spent on the Internet revealed that the problem was an interaction between the pixel shaders on my graphics card and (allegedly) my amd processor. Knocking off the pixel shaders got me going again but having to switch off £100 of graphics technology left a sour taste that lingered long and spoiled the opening stages of the game.
The game comes with a fantastic full colour map that is a ‘proper’ roleplaying map. Each location, down to the castles and temples, is drawn in with exquisite care. You look at the map, see an interesting ruin and you walk there and bingo! A genuine three-dimensional ruin that looks just like the one on the map!
The interplay is practical as well; despite having a pretty good and handy in-game automap (that helps prevent the player get disorientated in an unrealistic way) it can still be hard to plot a course between two relatively remote villages. The map has all the paths and track ways accurately recorded and is easier to consult while marching along.
In general the interaction with npcs is pretty good— for a computer game. The npcs have the majority of their dialogue driven off a local database (a city or a village for example) so that when you ask an npc about something they tend to give you the same reply. Some characters also have profession-driven conversation topics to reflect additional interests like running a shop or being a mage. Other key npcs are the ones that offer quests, jobs or important information. These ‘employer’ npcs are usually key figures like the commanders of forts or the heads of guilds and so on.
My definition of roleplaying in computer games is a great deal more lax than in conventional games due to the inherent limits of the technology. In general I tend to think that roleplaying starts and finishes in crpgs with decisions that do not materially affect the game but make a difference to the player. Suboptimal choices if you like.
As an example I present changing shirts. Morrowind makes your character a virtual doll with every change in armour or clothing being reflected in the game. The game camera can be spun around your dawdling character revealing their outfit in every detail. This leads to you asking stupid questions such as ‘do I look better in blue or red’? Sometimes you see a nice shirt in an outfitters and buy it; you wonder whether you get what you pay for when you spend sixty gold on a pair of trousers.
Apart from the smaller decisions like these there are obviously the choices you make in terms of the jobs you undertake. Here, though, there is a slight flaw that means that sometimes you get caught up doing something you don’t want to do. The trouble is that many of the ‘quest paths’ are linear; some are well coded and allow you to give up on an individual quest, but most require you to complete the current mission before moving on to the next job. In the early stages I was given a Fighter’s Guild mission to retrieve a code book. The book turned out to be in the possession of a Thieves Guild member. Mistakenly I had joined the Thieves Guild early. This meant having to choose between the Guilds, or rather having to simply not do the mission as there was no option to reject the mission once embarked on.
The amount of background and detail in Morrowind is astounding until you discover that there have been five previous games set in the game world. Nonetheless the game writers have been busy and there are countless books and tomes about the world and its history including sets such as a five volume history of the Empire, at least nine chapters of a novel and seven of a biography of a queen.
The chief game designer is Ken Rolston who has a lot of wfrp and AD&D writing under his belt as you will no doubt know. Employing such writers seems to pay off, though, as it ensures that there is a pleasant richness to the world. Tracking down all the parts of a multi-volume work can also be entertaining—another one of those optional irrelevant-to-the-game decisions.
I also notice that there seems to be a sly reference to Pavis (a city in Glorantha) in the holy city of Vivec. The city’s temple possesses a ‘Puzzle Canal’ for adventurers to explore. I have yet to visit it but the reference made me wonder how much influence the rest of Glorantha may have had on Morrowind with its Imperial Missionary Cults and occupying Legions. Not much I decided in the end.
For the most part the situation in Morrowind is comfortably familiar and yet suitably distinct.
As I mentioned at the start of this article I am not getting the full-on Morrowind experience due to the lack of pixel shaders. Despite this the whole thing is pretty good; draw distances are poor and the engine suffers when too many actors are marching around, but there are a lot of things it gets right. Water is lovely in both rivers, lakes and sea. Transparency is sometimes a bit odd when swimming underwater and the surface is glass smooth but it does flow appropriately and you can see to the bottom of the bed in clear water.
The weather and environmental effects are spot on; sand and thunderstorms burst out occasionally and the thunder is perfect, with environmental sound available. It even occurs after the lightning! Mists and fog spring up from the water in the morning and the nights are often alarmingly dark. The sun moves across the sky, rising and setting, leading to some beautiful moments when it slides over a hill or from behind a castle. Shadows seem to work properly, getting longer in the evening or if the object is at an acute angle to the sun. Night replaces the sun with a unique star system (allegedly you can see constellations and your character’s birth sign on a clear night but I seem to lack the requisite patience to find them) and two moons that follow their own orbit across the sky. To have both in conjunction on a clear night is an amazing thing. It does have to be a clear night, though, as the game has a complex cloud system with a variety of types high and low. Cloudy nights really are dark.
Morrowind is great game for dipping in and out of. Unlike Dungeon Siege, which kept you in a pretty constant state of agitation as new abilities, monsters, maps and items turned up, things can be fairly sedate. The game engine does not seem capable of getting more than three or four creatures to attack you at once (five is the current maximum but that was a scripted moment) and it is entirely possible to run away from or sneak round any encounter if you want to. With the lack of any immediate threat or reward it is possible to start the game up and kill ten minutes or so. Try marching up to the nearest intersection, examine some ancient ruins, take a swim, practice flattering people—then leave.
This laid-back freedom gives the game a fairly unique appeal in pc games. The player is left very much to set their own goals and find their own small pleasures. This aspect of the game is what crpgs will ultimately be like in the future. This is interesting because this freedom is part of the appeal of conventional rpgs (except for railroaders, plot hounds and fans of the authoring tendency of course); it is the idea that you can go anywhere and do anything that grabs your fancy in your fantasy world.
Of course the single-player aspect of the game is very different to pen and paper games. This is very much a double-edged sword; a good roleplaying group is a joy to be a member of but it can often be hard to spontaneously have a game (outside of specific circumstances such as shared houses or universities).
Morrowind seems to point to a new synergy between crpgs and their hoary ancestors: antisocial but ‘on demand’ crpgs and more social and traditional gaming sessions on a more restrictive schedule.
I have always said that roleplaying was important, not the medium it is conducted in. Imagination and conversation still seems to me to be both the most liberated and liberating medium but Morrowind certainly put up a challenge in some respects. The graphics engine, at least for exteriors, is not missing many features and simply requires the hardware power to make the environment ‘virtually’ real. The weather and environment is all there. A lot of the architecture is great: things like the temple that hangs in mid-air or Vivec’s ‘pyramids in the sea’ or the ruined towers that jut from the ash-blasted environment. The best of Morrowind buildings tend to come unexpectedly, like a pyramid suddenly appearing from behind the fog and then looming over you. As an alternative to things like tabletop models and diorama type scenery I think there is a lot to be said for computer-generated scenery, particularly because it is obviously not constrained by the limits of gravity and physics. The impossible structures of science fiction and fantasy are best rendered in the nullspace. Of course, unlike the old fashioned battle mat, players cannot simply get together and collectively look round a place, which is a serious limitation at the moment. However going forward I can see the logic of building a 3D environment of a place frequently visited by the players (like their keep or so on) and having it in a format that can be shared and viewed by the players at their leisure. It runs the risk of taking the imaginative part away from the shared idea as it would be showing rather than telling. On the other hand it could clear up misunderstandings whereby players have been imagining that their room’s balcony is three metres off the ground rather than three stories.
Morrowind gives the player a great deal of freedom, constrained only by things it can understand, and the limited but powerful set of controls make sure that it doesn’t have the player doing too much it cannot understand. But are these restrictions any different from the railroading gm?
A few months ago I bought a copy of White Wolf’s new frpg Exalted after reading reviews that said that it had a great epic feel suitable for recreating the ambience of the adventures of Hercules. I was quite impressed by what the reviews said and its wide-ranging magical powers sounded good for playing Gloranthan games with those who feel that the Hero Wars system has both of its feet firmly planted in the air.
Unfortunately there was a slight cultural difference I was slow to pick up in the American reviews. When I thought Hercules I was also thinking Twelve Labours, centaurs, Achilles and Ulysses; when they talked about Hercules they meant it more in the Xena Warrior Princess meaning.
Exalted comes with a game setting that is one part bland every-fantasy, one part manga/animé and one part World of Darkness. Since I was looking for a system rather than a background I put the book down for a while. I recently picked it up again when the ‘enemy book’ for Exalted, The Dragon Blooded was released.
It seems a fairly odd and unpleasantly commercially minded decision to release a main rulebook without the rules for handling their main opponents but on the other hand it is at least an interesting approach. With most of the White Wolf gamelines the opportunity to play an ‘antagonist’ character has usually been a poorly thought out addendum: take the Sabbat for example. It helps ensure that the factions in the game world are more thoroughly thought out than the normal ‘Bad Guys!’ supplement.
There is the basis of a promising Gloranthan fusion system since both game worlds use fairly extravagant magic that is divided into limited schools, cults, etc. A lot of Exalted is pure chrome built on the standard Storyteller System but it does use a lot of jargon that makes understanding how everything works mechanically speaking slightly harder than I expected. I am now reading through the background so I can understand what the rules are banging on about. The first impression is that it is interesting but hardly a D&D 3e killer.
Agone, though, seems to have an interesting background but an ancient rules system. It’s an English translation of a French game (Multisim I think). I have a soft spot for French rpgs as unlike British games they are rarely influenced much by American games. Or if they are it is often hard to understand how American A gave the inspiration for French B.
A Frenchman once tried to run Dragon Dreams (Le Rêve du Dragon in French I think) for a group of us. The concept is traditionally high and French—the whole world is an illusion, the dream of an ancient dragon. Magic and the like is performed by people who realise that they live in a dream and ‘jump outside’ the dream, manipulating its unreal quality. The super-talented can actually ‘plane walk’ by leaving their current dragon dream and entering another one. At this point my mind was in danger of giving out at the metaphysical implications of a dream thought moving around under its own volition. The introductory scenario, though, was terrible (or the language barrier way too high), the kind of thing that you would be embarrassed to palm off on Basic D&D, yet very strange.
Strange, a constant idea in my experience of French games, but usually interesting. That probably sums up as far as I have got with Agone at the moment. Its high concept is that the Creative Muses created the world and then after various conflicts left leaving behind the world and their collective child who seeks to rule the universe with the assistance of the Demon Prince of the Night. The rulebook is lavishly illustrated in a highly distinctive style that would make a 3e illustrator tear out their eyes with a knitting needle in shame. Layout, though, is odd, particularly as this was a multiple volume set in French that has been consolidated into one English hardback. That does not explain odd decisions like printing a map of the world after the descriptions of the regions or a timeline after the history of the world or indeed putting the summary description of the ‘Known World’ between the two.
It looks fantastic and . . . strange but I am nowhere near understanding what it is about yet.