Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)

Between blogs, twitter, forums and podcasts I consume, on an average week, a considerable quantity of RPG material (it’s one of the few bonuses of having two hours of commuting per day). One of the topics that keeps coming up time and time again is that of railroading and how it is a bad thing under most circumstances. Which I agree with. It’s just the definition of railroad that gets to me, as I regularly see posts (or hear episodes) that insinuate if the GM comes to a session with any plot / plans then they are railroading the game. So let me just get my opinion out there,

Having plot is NOT railroading.

Simple as. It’s only a railroad when the GM forces the players onto that plot and forces them to follow it in the manner the GM expects. If I, as GM, come to the table with plans for the game then unless it’s the start of a new game it will be based on the actions of the previous session. I might have expectations on where the game will go and will plan accordingly, that doesn’t mean I am railroading the players, merely that I am planning ahead based on the direction the game has already taken. No, it may not be a truly sandbox game but even if I were planning a sandbox game I would still expect to come to the table with some plans on where the session might go, the only difference is that the initial plot hook would have come from the PCs as opposed to me dangling it in front of them as an option. They’re free to ignore that hook, go off and do something else instead. Hell one of the most enjoyable Demon Hunters adventures I’ve ever run was triggered by one of the players seeing a plot hook in what I’d intended as a mere background description. That was five minutes into the session and resulted in me throwing out my entire plot, calling a beer break so I could come up with a new plot (based around the aspect that had grabbed the players attention) then continuing in the new direction.

So I still had a plot. And I still wasn’t railroading. What I’m saying is that it’s only a railroad if I force the players onto a particular path and shut down their options when they deviate from my plan. Having a plot, that’s just saying to the players that “hey, there’s something interesting over here if you want to take a look.”

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Interview With Perijove, Creator of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

Reblogging because it’s cool.

Interview With Perijove, Creator of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover.

Zooooooom… zoom zoom zoom

This story over on the BBC News site (and various over technology sites) pipped my attention recently, as it points once again how we simultaneously move closer and further from a traditional cyberpunk future.

Wait what? Close and further?

Yup, both at the same time. Basically the report is on the development of contact lenses that include a telescopic zoom function. At present they require a set of polarising glasses in order to switch between regular and zoomed view, as developing both variable lenses which function on that scale and a (probably wireless) control unit are both still a long way off. In and of itself the concept is pretty cyberpunk, a technology that boosts human function on a scale that is small enough to be, in essence, a part of you.

The deviation though is one that has become common with technology, in that while technology is becoming smaller and more powerful we’re shifting towards wearable gadgets rather than implanted. Now obviously one of the main factors in this is that we’re still not at a point where we can easily send signals into the central nervous system. We’re getting pretty good at detecting signals being sent out from the brain which can then be used to control prosthetics but routing signals back in is still a long way off and that’s before we even start thinking about adding non-natural sensory inputs.

With that in mind where does it leave a modern vision of cyberpunk? If we keep the inclusion of augmented humanity then there is obviously the need to include wireless technology. The biggest example of this in gaming is probably Shadowrun, which, with its 4th and (upcoming) 5th editions has worked to incorporate wireless technology into the world. But what if the use of neural augmentation never becomes commonplace? Arguably the baseline then shifts, with devices such as smartphones and tablets taking a more central focus. Watch Dogs, due to be released later this year, takes this approach, with the central character seemingly reliant on his smartphone and it’s ability to hack the many wireless objects dotted around Boston. Going one step further though we’d probably add in wearable technology, such as the contact lenses that prompted this or the recently released (in a limited fashion) Google Glass.

The final shift that may be required for a modern version of cyberpunk is that of Corporate power. While corporations arguably know more about us than ever before (if they didn’t then the US government would have never bothered with PRISM) they still lack the ability to dictate the law in the way that classic cyberpunk envisioned. There are no corporate military forces tied to software firms (though there are of course numerous military contractors aka mercenaries) nor are there runners there to break into facilities or abduct VIPs.

Or are there?

Cyberpunk has always focused around those on the edge of society, those who see and experience what most people would rather keep quiet. With that in mind it would be easy to imagine that, for most people, a cyberpunk world appears much the same as our own, with espionage and corporate wars kept quiet from the masses.

After all ignorance is bliss.

It’s also control.

The Seven Virtues of Bushido

(This is here as a quick reference for my L5R players)

The Seven Virtues of Bushido are:

  • Gi (Honesty and Justice) – Set lies aside. A samurai does not make honesty or justice a matter for debate; he knows that there is only truth and falsehood, justice and injustice.
  • Rei (Polite Courtesy) – A samurai is neither a bully nor a brute killer. He must treat his enemies with courtesy.
  • Yu (Courage) – Only fear of death can destroy life; the samurai replaces it with an understanding of danger.
  • Meyo (Honor) – Praises and curses are not what defines honor; the samurai reserves his judgement for himself.
  • Jin (Compassion) – Just as the farmer does not grow crops merely to fill his own belly, the warrior does not fight for himself alone. A samurai must be constantly aware of the duty to protect others.
  • Makoto (Complete Sincerity) – A samurai’s words and his actions are one and the same. To ‘promise’ would be redundant.
  • Chugo (Duty and Loyalty) – Actions and their consequences define those who take them. The samurai’s loyalty to those that he guards for is unshakeable.

More info: http://l5r.wikia.com/wiki/Bushido

Savage Problems

Savage Worlds is currently one of the most popular systems available, having seen a rapid rise in popularity since its release. Partially that’s down to the cost (the explorer’s edition of the core rulebook comes in at under £10), the wide range of available settings (central to which is the rebooted Deadlands setting) and the ease with which the system can be picked up.

All in all it’s a good system but having now had a chance to play it I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’s not a system for me.

Before I continue I will point out that I’ve played the game extensively, to date I’ve run it once,  played in a couple of one shots and most recently just finished playing in the first part of a Deadlands Noir campaign (which will be shifting to Cortex Classic when we resume it). It took all of that for me to get a proper feel for the system, and then work out what bugged me about it and in the end it came down to two interconnected issues.

Target number of four

One of the central tenets of Savage Worlds is that the basic target number for any action is 4. Apart, that is, from when it isn’t. Rather than having suggested difficulties Savage Worlds relies heavily on situational modifiers that can greatly raise or reduce the difficulty. On it’s own this isn’t a massive issue, the problem is that the numbers seem to vary so significantly that I just can’t get a handle on working out what I need to roll. Now part of this could be alleviated by the GM stating in advance what the difficulty is but even having that knowledge would only partially help. The reason it would only partially help is that once target numbers get above 8 (which seems to happen fairly regularly) most characters can only succeed with the aid of an exploding die.

And once explosions become a requirement rather than a bonus I (personally) just can’t keep track of my chances.

Combat

My issues with combat in Savage Worlds are mostly a continuation of of the target number four problem, complicated by the Shaken mechanic. The target number issue is as before, however, in combat target numbers seem to soar even higher. Parry, the “to hit” target number typically ranges from 4-8 (the highest in the Deluxe rulebook bestiary is 9) before inclusion of any modifiers but it’s toughness where the numbers get silly, with values often into double figures. That this can then be boosted by armour and that initially you need to get 4 higher again in order to cause a wound rather than a shaken result just takes the piss.

As a gamer with an interest in game design I suspect that this was a deliberate choice, meant to emulate pulp action scenes. For example take Indiana Jones, when he gets into a brawl with a tough opponent he lands plenty of blows that do nothing (hitting but failing to beat the toughness) before landing a few spectacular punches that floor the opponent. In a movie this works, in a game it’s just frustrating to land the attack then be told you’ve not done any damage.

I mentioned shaken being another bugbear of combat in Savage Worlds. This is a much simpler issue, being shaken takes reduces player involvement by preventing them from taking actions and players who can’t do anything get bored. Once again I understand the desire to emulate the genre but it just doesn’t translate into a workable mechanic. I suspect next time I run Savage Worlds I’ll house rule Shaken, turning it instead into a -1 or -2 penalty, that way players still have a chance to do something useful on their turn.

So there it is, my issues with Savage Worlds. They’re not big issues and certainly not ones that would prevent me from ever playing the system again but for the moment I’ll be heading back to Cortex, simply because it’s a system I grok.

Review: Remember Me

This review was originally published over at Nearly Enough Dice

Remember Me is the first release from French studio DONTNOD and is available now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

rememberme1aSetting

The game focuses on Nilin, a memory hunter fighting against Memorize, a corporation whose digital memory implants have transformed the lives of everybody in Neo-Paris. As you might expect from such a setup the game exists within a cyberpunk (technically neo-cyberpunk given the wireless nature of the technology employed) setting and opens with Nilin having her memory forcibly extracted. From there you take on the role of Nilin as she struggles against Memorize to recover her identity and understand why she was fighting them to begin with.

From the start it is clear that DONTNOD get cyberpunk and its aesthetics. Neo-Paris is a beautifully designed dystopian city of high tech, high living built upon a dirty, cobbled together underworld that still maintains a colourful (and often neon) way of life. Visually the world is not only stunning but thought out, stylistic choices are both consistent and logical, building together to make for an extremely believable city. Similarly Nilin is presented in a fairly realistic style, her main outfit isn’t some futuristic one piece, its jeans, a plain top and a jacket. Yeah they add some future tech such as her boots (which have some sort of exoskeleton extending from them) and Sensen memory tech (which visualise as holograms around one arm and on the back of her neck) but the core of her outfit is, like the rest of the world, built on a believable and, for want of a better description, normal look. It is this grounded yet developed sense of normality that makes the game world feel alive, something which is often overlooked in other similar settings.

rememberme2As the game progresses it explores, in true cyberpunk fashion, the relationship between the two co-dependent halves of Neo-Paris while also exploring a number of other themes central to the genre (though to avoid spoilers I’ll avoid even mentioning which themes). It does this extremely well and as with the visual identity the story is tight, well written and develops at a sensible pace. Before moving on to the gameplay I just want to quickly highlight one other aspect, the soundtrack. It is, quite simply, brilliant and adds that final piece of atmosphere to the game. In particular its implied use of digital artifacts, moments where the music jerks or stutters, are truly inspired and really help in projecting an immersive digital world.
Gameplay

Remember Me is a third person action game with a mixed focus of unarmed melee combat and traditional climbing adventuring. Unfortunately, and in contrast to the setting development, the gameplay fails to come together into a cohesive whole with, severely detracting from the final experience. The first issue is the linearity of the game. After designing such an amazing world DONTNOD fail to utilise it, instead choosing to constantly direct Nilin into corridors or high walled streets that only go in one direction. Adding in larger areas, with more opportunity to explore would have greatly improved the experience of playing. You could have still had linear goals (ie get from A to B) but with multiple routes available climbing could have become more freeform while also introducing Deus Ex like moments of ‘do I sneak past these guards or take them on and risk reinforcements arriving.’

The second, bigger issue, is the combat. On the outset the approach is reminiscent of the combat in the Batman Arkham games but with a bigger focus on combo’s, which are managed through the Presens system. The concept of the system is simple, given a set combo (ie Square-Triangle-Triangle) you can customise the effect of the combo at each stage by assigning certain presens to it. The presens themselves are assigned to 1 of 4 types: damage boost, health regen, cooldown boost and chain multiplier. So for example you could combine 3 damage boosts together to generate a hard hitting combo or combine health regeneration with cooldown (which increases the frequency with which your special moves can be employed).

On the surface this is a great idea but like other aspects of the gameplay fails to come together as effectively as it needs to. The biggest problem is that the combat just doesn’t flow as well as it should. This makes the bigger combos unnecessarily difficult to pull off when fighting larger groups of enemies, either due to being hit or because you’re constantly dodging attacks. In theory it’s possible to continue a combo after dodging but I found this to be particularly difficult to do and therefore avoided using the longer combos during most encounters. Again a comparison with the Batman games is apt, where larger groups of opponents make it all the easier to flow combos together and where it is possible to dodge and simply continue the combo against a different opponent. Without that flow the encounters of Remember Me often become frustratingly difficult, which severely detracts from the game as a whole.rememberme3

Perhaps the most unusual gameplay element is that of the memory remixes, where Nilin alters somebodies memories in order to change their personality or outlook on life. It would have been easy for DONTNOD to have merely employed a cutscene for these sections but instead provide a mechanism to alter the scene by identifying memory glitches, which when changed impact on how the scene develops. While these sections typically boil down to trial and error (change a glitch, see what happens, rewind and try again with a different combination of glitches) the remix scenes are used sparingly enough that they don’t become boring and each instance provides a rather unique insight into the motivations of both the character being remixed and Nilin herself.

Wrapup

All in all Remember Me is an extremely difficult game to review, which explains how polarizing other scores have been (I’ve seen as low as 1/5 and as high as 4/5). It is, in the truest sense, a diamond in the rough, a game that has everything it needs yet one that also fails to pull it together into a cohesive whole. For me the setting and world DONTNOD has developed is enough to counter the deficiencies in gameplay but I can also appreciate how that won’t be the case for many others.

Final score: 3/5

Quicfic: Atmosphere

T-minus 30 seconds

She hated grav drops, hated them with a passion. It wasn’t the drop itself, 120km up from a suborbital spaceplane is one hell of a distance but after the first dozen everything had fallen into a simple routine. No what Jana couldn’t stand was the view. From this high up the world appeared as it truly was, dirty, polluted and spoilt. The ‘shopped landscapes, Corporate sponsored jungles and managed nature reserves were impossible to spot; sprawling city complexes, barren open cast mines and lifeless wastelands constituted the modern, industrial environment.

The plane itself was little more than a cigar tube strapped to a SCRAMjet, its stubby wings retracted almost completely into the body, minimising both drag and cross sectional size. Despite this Jana and her partner Ajax faced an unpowered grav-glide into the enemy territory, one of the few remaining options for a rapid yet covert tactical insertion. ‘Systems are go, life support is in the green,’ Ajax’s voice chimed in her head, her sub dermal comn unit cutting through the background whine of the engines. ‘and the pup is dreaming of steak. See you on the downslide.’ There was the slightest of vibrations as his pod detached, though it too would break apart once it had protected Ajax from the punishing ordeal of re-entry. Ten seconds and an unknown distance later it was Jana’s turn. As the pod began its descent she thought about the dozen or so decoy pods which were also being let loose, a further attempt to conceal the location of their mission. It was comforting to know that a heartless mega-corporation valued her skills enough to spend that sort of money on her, it ensured a sense of loyalty most employees would never understand.

Within the hour she’d be on the ground of another Corporate city, lining up her scope over the face of some nameless executive while Ajax secured their exit strategy. If everything went to plan they’d be back on home turf within 6 hours.

It sure as hell beat a desk job.