Saint-Sebastian Vol. 2, Issue 2

I still have a lot of computer game stuff to get off my chest, so skip right over this and go to the comments.

Closing Time at the Bar of the Mind

As the clock hands begin their inescapable sweep towards their union at the top of the dial things both fall apart and the fragments sometimes reform into more meaningful configurations. Situations are like day dreams with a terrible and tangible sense of logical. Like a sliding piece puzzle finally revealing its true image time ticks away and the origami unfolding of the game continues.

I have been left to my own devices, my own devices are to buzzed out of my tiny mind on whatever comes to hand and then spend as many hours as possible in front of a computer game. “Playing” is the wrong word, initially I am indeed playing but after a while most games come down to a repetitive mediation like state of cracking.

I used to get disgusted with myself when I behaved like this. Thinking fondly of the great deeds I could have achieved in those lost hours. Of course now with the wisdom of only a few years I realise that I was just kidding myself there. What was I going to do in those sixty or so hours, cure cancer?

The latest subject is Neverwinter Nights (NWN) the last in the unholy CRPG triptych that includes Morrowind and Dungeon Siege, both of which I have written about here before. NWN is a frightening total conversion of D&D 3e to a computer. It is astoundingly faithful, even using all those little rules that seem pointless in the tabletop version like Flat Footed and Uncanny Dodge etc. Its ambition reaches far beyond this though, NWN does not just want to construct a simulationist’s nirvana it also wants to provide a toolset for creating endless new games for the product and provide a way of playing online in a seemless visual environment. In terms of ambition there has never been anything like it which, I think, helps explain the heaps of critical praise it has received in the computer press.

In these respects the “game” is breathtaking but also highly ambiguous. Just what the fuck is it? Is it the toolkit? The modules that have been pre-generated solely for single player use? The game engine? It is as hard to pin down what it is as it was hard to define what an RPG was when they were first published.

To those who state a preference for the “conventional” RPG: beware computer programs like these tend to shake up what you think you know about what an RPG is.

The Other Side of the Fist

The world would be a fantastic place if we could be judged solely on our intentions and our ambitions. After all as I’ve already said I would have cured cancer – several times over – on that basis. You would all have read my brilliant novel and I would be even more an object of your envy, lust, desire and murderous rage than I already am.

The trouble is most people prefer actual achievements over ambitions. In that respect I do have to sadly report that NWN is stinking piece of bug-ridden rubbish that I could not possibly recommend buying until the inevitable expansion pack and “Gold Edition” (for which you should read “Fixed Edition”).

NWN crashes on my fairly common hardware setup roughly every 45 minutes, usually requiring a soft reset and sometimes requiring the full reset and Windows Scandisk routine. It has to been the most unstable piece of software I have ever used for any period of time baring the alpha GUI software we sometimes have at my workplace.

The sad story here is that it is game that was released far too early. It does work well on its reference platform I believe but for everyone else – go hang. It is clear what the thought processes were in its release. Having got a version of the game that reviewers could play the management clear panicked after the release of Morrowind and Dungeon Siege.

NWN is an eerie blend of both those games. Graphically it is very similar to Dungeon Siege having some pluses over it such as resolution and background variety and some minuses such the lack of main character variety and variable clothing.

Gameplay wise it is almost exactly half-way between Morrowind and Dungeon Siege. It has a linear main plotline but allows free exploration within a game chapter. Despite Morrowind’s freedom to explore a lot of the game quests are actually just Fed Ex work, take this to so and so, bring that back, steal the blah from the ring ting and so on. NWN only allows you to explore small areas of the gameworld at a time (and in that respect is actually far more limited that its distant predecessor Baldur’s Gate I & II) but generally has a far better variety of quests and missions.

Of course to pump up the all important gameplay hours stat NWN has more than its fair share of utterly mindless dungeon crawls. Run, open door, check for traps, detrap, kill monsters, loot, repeat for three levels, solve puzzles, swag the ultra loot, teleport back to start. Morrowind, to its credit knows that there is only so much a player wants to go through before they get tired of a formula.

So then NWN is still not ready but Morrowind and Dungeon Siege are both already out there and collectively are eating NWN’s metaphorical lunch. So, you release the game, relying on people’s almost non-existent expectation of software quality to allow you to put out (at the time of writing) 12 patch releases. A game that needs 12 patch releases in the month after it is released is not so much being fixed as still undergoing development.

God Bless Technology

But this is “Internet time”, “cutting edge technology”, where “early adopters” are privileged to have “exclusive access” to “Preview Products”. The users (and I include myself here) are cretins, the manufacturers know this, they know the suckers want the game to work and therefore they happily pay their phone bill to download patch after patch in the hope that the bugs might go away and the promised game might suddenly appear. All hail! It is the True Game! Revealed to the faithful!

There’s a lot I would like to say about NWN. There’s a lot that it has got right. Taken as part of the Triptych there are a lot of implications for the future of roleplaying, indeed the very nature of roleplaying. But I feel as Jules Verne might have if he had been able to see the sleek, brutal cars of tomorrow scything their way through our polluted and litter strewn streets – I have seen the Future, but it’s shit.


Lee Gold, Tantivy, #323

When you read the electronic A&E, do you find yourself doing so in the order the files were attached (vaguely alphabetical) or in the order they’re listed in the ToC, within any given set of zines?

I read approximately six or seven of my favourite zines and then start reading backwards from there. For example (and this is not meant to be indicative of any judgements on people) for #324 I read Fluxus, Tantivy (it’s an obviously place to start), then Robert Dushay’s 323 zine following the Vance mention and then Robert Dushay’s 324 contribution.

I normally save all the zines for an issue onto a directory so the order of attachment is not normally an issue. I don’t generally read the etoc document either, unless, bizarrely I would agree, I want to know what Jonathan Tweet’s zine is called this month (so far “jot”, “nr”, “tweet”). The order is normally: Fluxus, Tantivy, my favourites, the zines my favourites comment on, new zines that issue.

“People email their zines, the zines are then emailed out again.”

Umm, there’s this intermediate step when I proofread them and correct typos.

But you don’t do it for PDF’s do you? So would the editor of a hypothetical EAPA need to do that? I think I made a mistake of mixing up my views on the real E-A&E and a theoretical EAPA last time. I can appreciate that A&E perhaps doesn’t need driving onto an electronic platform but that does preclude a possible EAPA and any benefits and negatives it might accrue.

I think the E-Editor would not need to apply their particular idiosyncrasies of editing text to the ezines. They would just need to say whether a zine was “good enough” or needed more work.

As a separate point though I regard a good editor to essentially be a partner in and chief critic of an article. The proof-reader’s job is something different.

Lee Gold, Tantivy, #324

Ever since 9/11, I wince when I see low-level planes.

Well in most cities you would consequently have the appearance of a twitching, gurning wreck. The first few planes that flew low over the city to land did give me an uneasy feeling as I imagined them failing to bank and plowing into the earth.

Since there are probably over seven of them each day over my flat alone (and from my window I can see them land at a rate of roughly one every fifteen minutes at dusk) I soon felt stupid for ever having had any concerns. Four planes crashing is such a small amount of the total air traffic.

Of course if I was at a Russian air show I might join in your nervous tic’ing. Do you suppose Afghans wince at the drone of a B-52 or the scream of the F-22?

I’ve been trying to visualize a baby centaur

I think of them as foals, that arrive essentially fully formed but folded up and are able to run around within minutes. Their human-like intellect I see as developing as a secondary aspect of their essentially horse-like nature. The older a centaur gets the more “human” they seem.

The idea that there might be something like a human baby on a horse’s body seems inappropriate somehow, rather literal rather than mythic. Or possibly just comic instead of majestic.

Did the Middle Earth Role Playing System have social class?

It was essentially Rolemaster so the short answer is no, the PCs tended to belong to the amorphous and egalitarian “adventuring set”. Digging out my copy to confirm whether my recollection is accurate or not reminded me of what a bizarre game RM was. Its only leading design principle seemed to be “three charts for every one in AD&D!”. I haven’t read the new edition but MERPS at least introduces a false kind of equality, even in the Fellowship there were clear hierarchies.

Perhaps [Jonathan Tweet] will explain why he didn’t find the Ars Magica’s background’s social class system unpalatable.

An excellent question and one I second as the grogs are clearly portrayed as being inferior in almost all ways to the henchmen and the wizards. Not just in terms of their abilities but also in their inherent quality of character.

Joshua Kronengold, Random Access, #46

I'd want to convert them all to text files that I could drop onto my Palm and read at my leisure

Y’see I see that as the job of the reader not the collator. I used to convert all the zines in A&E to PDF but now I don’t see the point. Better to take everything in its original format.

if one that would be difficult to turn into a profitable endeavour

The dollars! The dollars! I forgot about the dollars! How could I have been so foolish!

I think the goal of any amateur production should be to drive costs to zero. The generation of profits is one of conscience and market forces.

What games do you find are best played in NCG format? Shadowfist certainly isn't one -- the YOTD decks are mediocre to good dueling decks, but fairly uninspiring multiplayer decks [since most of them don't have many big characters or other things that let them punch through three other players’ worth of opposition], and once you've played each deck a few times, there's not much more that you can do.

On the contrary the Year of the Dragon decks are superb for my purposes and almost precisely because none of them have the big punch (although X and Y have some good characters that can be a pain to deal with if they spend too long in the game). This means that you have to change your strategy, diplomacy has always been important in the games we have played. If someone gets a killer character out it is in everyone’s interest to destroy it before it steamrollers everyone else. Similarly you want your opponents to tear chunks out of everyone else but you have to be careful not to let them get on a roll and start stealing sites. This means that quite often you intercept and sacrifice on behalf of the other players, sometimes to the detriment of your own position.

I think Shadowfist is an excellent NCCG because it has the vital interaction element (to stab or to not to stab?). You need to keep every player in the game until you work out how you can build up a play that cannot be countered. There are all kinds of tactics, for example allowing another player to demolish another position before blocking the killer blow yourself and then moving in to complete the attack in your go. Another is to try and encourage another player to blow a lot of cards taking your “weak” position. When your deck runs low you have less bargaining chips with the other players. It’s pretty interesting in a way that I think a “killer” deck wouldn’t be. I find it interesting that in this kind of fixed game that you are often willing to endure a lot more pain to keep people on your side than in a conventional deck builder game. There you are often essentially stalling your opponents until you can get your “combo” out.

Other games that I have quite enjoyed are Kult, Rage, Vampire and to an extent the Random selection version of Magic. The latter is simply where you have one hundred plus cards drawn from a pile at random and then create decks from that selection. It still has that deck building element, which is maybe why I am equivocal about it, but the results are always unpredictable and both slightly more generic and often unusual and interesting. The common thread running through the other three is that each one has a strong identification between deck and a game “character” whether that be a demon, tribe or clan. Since it is kind of unsatisfying to see a Malkavian running around with a bunch of Ventrue there is less time spent deck-building anyway. The theme and essential content of a deck is pre-determined allowing for a focus on the game. Which is what we are after with a NCCG.

Lisa Padol, This Isn't The Zine You're Looking For #133

I can see why people would like computer rpgs, but I still don't care for them.

That’s one of those dangerous open-ended comments. Computer RPGs are becoming increasingly sophisticated and indeed in some ways more like conventional RPGs. If you play elements of your games over the phone, as I believe you have said you do, then you are going to have look at what way that is different to using a computer.

The release of Neverwinter Nights really marks a few milestones in CRPG. For example people who play with battlemats and miniatures might well be better off using the PC to run the combat since it can churn out massive combats in minutes and yet does not require the days of preparation required to produce floorplans and paint minis. People who love hack and slash are also well-served by computers. More interestingly the use of computer generated world finally offers the beginning of a solution to the “linear GM” problem. Namely that all interactions with NPCs and the game world must be directed through the GM who can only really handle one set of player queries at a time. With computer assistance the PCs can be in many different areas, talking to many different NPCs simultaneously.

Computer graphics also make describing a seen very easy, if you think about a lot of descriptions of places and people in RPGs then they are highly truncated almost sketch-like in nature. Often a person is described in two or three traits (armour, sword, angry) and then we’re off again. As a GM I know that this kind of shorthand is invaluable in maintaining the pace of a game. On the other hand it can have the effect of making a game world very drab and generic. The new breed of games might allow either for a scene to be explored interactively or simply a static shot to be taken and reproduced as a handout. Either way a picture contains far more visual information than can be with ease imparted verbally.

Impossible or non-natural places are also far more easily conveyed in computer form when space (although flattened out to 2D) is very flexible. Things like ringworlds, Cthulhoid blasphemous paradoxes and floating palaces all look better when rendered into a life-like scene.

The thing about CRPGs is not so much what can they do now as given what they can do now (which in the case of NWN is both recreate an entire rules system and provide a way for that rule system to be manipulated by a “DM” figure) but what will they do in the next few years.

Three things I think CRPGs are not going to be able to do. Firstly, they will never be able to recreate the intimacy and immediacy of the gaming group around the traditional table. Secondly, they will never appeal to the computer phobic. Thirdly they are never going to be a simple to use as the basic pen, paper and imagination format and its amazing, endless possibilities.

Apart from that though I would not like to put too many bets on what will and will not be happening in the near future. I recently bought a copy of Hârn Manor, a supplement that comes with an accurate yet time-consuming method for produce accurate and engaging feudal villages. If people have time for this then think about might happen if they invested the same amount of time into a computer system that makes the spreadsheet aspects of RPG simple and allows the human element to concentrate on the executive decisions?