The Faerie Tiend

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by...

Visiting the Fey

First up for today, it’s another question…

For those of us who have never heard of it could you give us a link to something on the Tiend? I tried a google search and got not much that looked trustworthy. -Burning8Bones

The Faerie Tiend – or Tithe – is a medieval notion.

Once upon a time in folklore, Fairies were terrifying quasi-deific creatures. Even the Seelie Court – the “Good Guys” – were notable for riding their steeds through houses, enchanting passers by, and riding to the wild hunt. The Unseelie “Bad Guys” kidnapped children, drove men mad, and inflicted terrible fates on those who disturbed them. The Faerie became the “Fair Folk” because talking about just how unfair, unreasonable, and downright vicious they could be might offend them. The fey were nature spirits – but nature is often pretty unobliging when it isn’t outright dangerous.

While Christianity was working it’s way into a position as a fundamental explanation of everything in the world in Europe, a lot of older beliefs were given (thoroughly unofficial) quasi-Christian explanations by their believers – and so wound up as folklore.

Christian theology had no real place for the fey (or anyone else) as independent powers – so they wound up being “explained” as angels who hadn’t taken a side in Satan’s rebellion or as wandering souls of the dead who weren’t good enough to achieve heaven or evil enough to be automatically drawn to hell (a fate sometimes seen as a way to let such souls continue to act in the world until they qualified for one or the other). More rarely they were considered a hidden race of men with special magical powers to weave illusions to remain hidden – or even as the descendants of children that Eve had hidden from Yahweh, and who had been cursed by God to remain as soulless creatures trapped between heaven and earth. (That last one was a particularly bad fit with Christian beliefs however, and so isn’t that prominent).

The fact that you could never catch them, or even see them more than briefly, and so on, was simple enough to explain; they had to have powers of trickery and illusion or at least to were protected by such powers!

OK, it might also be that they didn’t actually exist, but we are talking about beliefs here.

Of course, since magical powers of trickery and illusion were not of God, they had to be related to Satan – and to Satan’s ability to grant magical powers and dominion over the physical world. The notion of the Tiend was pretty simple; Satan was demanding a more-or-less token price (depending on how you valued souls) from the fey in exchange for granting them their powers, protecting them with his own powers, or just for leaving them alone. After all, if their powers really were independent of his but similar, they were potential rivals. That tithe might be extracted by blackmail, or (in darker sources) it might be an offering of fealty or payment for Satan’s protective services.

In any case, Satan was already a master of the physical world, commanded vast magical powers, and had limitless wealth – which meant that only souls or services were truly of value to him. Ergo, the Tiend consisted of a periodic offering of faerie (possibly of faerie children) or – preferably (at least from the faerie point of view, and perhaps from Satans) – humans. There aren’t really enough sources on the idea to be sure whether or not the individuals offered in the Tiend ever returned, or whether they were killed, or were held as hostages by Satan for a time (perhaps to keep the Fey from acting against him), or whether it was simply a “you owe me a labor tax” arrangement.

A fair number of sources give “seven years” as the interval, a few imply that each offering consists of seven persons (although more say only one and most do not specify), and a very few say both. Why seven? Well, seven is often seen as a magical number. In many cultures it was the length of an apprenticeship, the time a child might be fostered out, the term for holding a political hostage, the length of a magical cycle, or long enough to declare a person legally dead. It was the length of time of a sojourn in Faerie in the 13’th century ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.

That does bring up the question of what those abductees were doing in Faerie… being adopted? “Dying” to the mortal world to become faerie? Being apprentices?

Oh well. That’s an entirely different topic.

In any case, the Tiend is currently popular in fantasy literature involving fairies since it provides a nicely dark, edgy, threat to hang over the characters. It appears in a lot of versions because it’s folklore (and not especially popular folklore) to start with, and – as folklore is prone to be – was neither consistent from version to version or explained in detail where it did appear.

The earliest formal source (and there aren’t very many) may be the Ballad of Tam Lin (Below, in the oldest extant version I’m aware of). The original ballad, however, goes back to at least 1549, since it’s mentioned in “The Complaynt of Scotland” from that year.

Tam Lin

Child ballad #39A: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898 by Francis James Child

(There’s a version with some translations and notes over HERE).

  1. O I forbid you, maidens a’,
  2. That wear gowd on your hair,
  3. To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
  4. For young Tam Lin is there.
  5. There’s nane that gaes by Carterhaugh
  6. But they leave him a wad,
  7. Either their rings, or green mantles,
  8. Or else their maidenhead.
  9. Janet has kilted her green kirtle
  10. A little aboon her knee,
  11. And she has broded her yellow hair
  12. A little aboon her bree,
  13. And she’s awa to Carterhaugh
  14. As fast as she can hie.
  15. When she came to carterhaugh
  16. Tam Lin was at the well,
  17. And there she fand his steed standing,
  18. But away was himsel.
  19. She had na pu’d a double rose,
  20. A rose but only twa,
  21. Till upon then started young Tam Lin,
  22. Says, Lady, thou’s pu nae mae.
  23. Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet,
  24. And why breaks thou the wand?
  25. Or why comes thou to Carterhaugh
  26. Withoutten my command?
  27. “Carterhaugh, it is my own,
  28. My daddy gave it me,
  29. I’ll come and gang by Carterhaugh,
  30. And ask nae leave at thee.”
  31. Janet has kilted her green kirtle
  32. A little aboon her knee,
  33. And she has broded her yellow hair
  34. A little aboon her bree,
  35. And she is to her father’s ha,
  36. As fast as she can hie.
  37. Four and twenty ladies fair
  38. Were playing at the ba,
  39. And out then came the fair Janet,
  40. The flower among them a’.
  41. Four and twenty ladies fair
  42. Were playing at the chess,
  43. And out then came the fair Janet,
  44. As green as onie glass.
  45. Out then spake an auld grey knight,
  46. Lay oer the castle wa,
  47. And says, Alas, fair Janet, for thee,
  48. But we’ll be blamed a’.
  49. “Haud your tongue, ye auld fac’d knight,
  50. Some ill death may ye die!
  51. Father my bairn on whom I will,
  52. I’ll father none on thee.”
  53. Out then spak her father dear,
  54. And he spak meek and mild,
  55. “And ever alas, sweet Janet,” he says,
  56. “I think thou gaest wi child.”
  57. “If that I gae wi child, father,
  58. Mysel maun bear the blame,
  59. There’s neer a laird about your ha,
  60. Shall get the bairn’s name.
  61. “If my love were an earthly knight,
  62. As he’s an elfin grey,
  63. I wad na gie my ain true-love
  64. For nae lord that ye hae.
  65. “The steed that my true love rides on
  66. Is lighter than the wind,
  67. Wi siller he is shod before,
  68. Wi burning gowd behind.”
  69. Janet has kilted her green kirtle
  70. A little aboon her knee,
  71. And she has broded her yellow hair
  72. A little aboon her bree,
  73. And she’s awa to Carterhaugh
  74. As fast as she can hie.
  75. When she came to Carterhaugh,
  76. Tam Lin was at the well,
  77. And there she fand his steed standing,
  78. But away was himsel.
  79. She had na pu’d a double rose,
  80. A rose but only twa,
  81. Till up then started young Tam Lin,
  82. Says, Lady, thou pu’s nae mae.
  83. “Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet,
  84. Amang the groves sae green,
  85. And a’ to kill the bonny babe
  86. That we gat us between?”
  87. “O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin,” she says,
  88. “For’s sake that died on tree,
  89. If eer ye was in holy chapel,
  90. Or christendom did see?”
  91. “Roxbrugh he was my grandfather,
  92. Took me with him to bide
  93. And ance it fell upon a day
  94. That wae did me betide.
  95. “And ance it fell upon a day
  96. A cauld day and a snell,
  97. When we were frae the hunting come,
  98. That frae my horse I fell,
  99. The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me,
  100. In yon green hill do dwell.
  101. “And pleasant is the fairy land,
  102. But, an eerie tale to tell,
  103. Ay at the end of seven years,
  104. We pay a tiend to hell,
  105. I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
  106. I’m feard it be mysel.
  107. “But the night is Halloween, lady,
  108. The morn is Hallowday,
  109. Then win me, win me, an ye will,
  110. For weel I wat ye may.
  111. “Just at the mirk and midnight hour
  112. The fairy folk will ride,
  113. And they that wad their true-love win,
  114. At Miles Cross they maun bide.”
  115. “But how shall I thee ken, Tam Lin,
  116. Or how my true-love know,
  117. Amang sa mony unco knights,
  118. The like I never saw?”
  119. “O first let pass the black, lady,
  120. And syne let pass the brown,
  121. But quickly run to the milk-white steed,
  122. Pu ye his rider down.
  123. “For I’ll ride on the milk-white steed,
  124. And ay nearest the town,
  125. Because I was an earthly knight
  126. They gie me that renown.
  127. “My right hand will be gloved, lady,
  128. My left hand will be bare,
  129. Cockt up shall my bonnet be,
  130. And kaimed down shall my hair,
  131. And thae’s the takens I gie thee,
  132. Nae doubt I will be there.
  133. “They’ll turn me in your arms, lady,
  134. Into an esk and adder,
  135. But hold me fast, and fear me not,
  136. I am your bairn’s father.
  137. “They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim,
  138. And then a lion bold,
  139. But hold me fast, and fear me not,
  140. And ye shall love your child.
  141. “Again they’ll turn me in your arms
  142. To a red het gand of airn,
  143. But hold me fast, and fear me not,
  144. I’ll do you nae harm.
  145. “And last they’ll turn me in your arms
  146. Into the burning gleed,
  147. Then throw me into well water,
  148. O throw me in with speed.
  149. “And then I’ll be your ain true-love,
  150. I’ll turn a naked knight,
  151. Then cover me wi your green mantle,
  152. And hide me out o sight.”
  153. Gloomy, gloomy was the night,
  154. And eerie was the way,
  155. As fair Jenny in her green mantle
  156. To Miles Cross she did gae.
  157. At the mirk and midnight hour
  158. She heard the bridles sing,
  159. She was as glad at that
  160. As any earthly thing.
  161. First she let the black pass by,
  162. And syne she let the brown,
  163. But quickly she ran to the milk-white steed,
  164. And pu’d the rider down.
  165. Sae weel she minded what he did say,
  166. And young Tam Lin did win,
  167. Syne covered him wi her green mantle,
  168. As blythe’s a bird in spring
  169. Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
  170. Out of a bush o broom,
  171. “Them that has gotten young Tam Lin
  172. Has gotten a stately-groom.”
  173. Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
  174. And an angry woman was she,
  175. “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,
  176. And an ill death may she die,
  177. For she’s taen awa the bonniest knight
  178. In a’ my companie.
  179. “But had I kend, Tam Lin,” said she,
  180. “What now this night I see,
  181. I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,
  182. And put in twa een o tree.”

Just as a bonus, here’s Thomas the Rhymer (13’th century):

  1. True Thomas lay oer yond grassy bank,
  2. And he beheld a ladie gay,
  3. A ladie that was brisk and bold,
  4. Come riding oer the fernie brae.
  5. Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,
  6. Her mantel of the velvet fine,
  7. At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
  8. Hung fifty silver bells and nine.
  9. True Thomas he took off his hat,
  10. And bowed him low down till his knee:
  11. ‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
  12. For your peer on earth I never did see.’
  13. ‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says,
  14. ‘That name does not belong to me;
  15. I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
  16. And I’m come here for to visit thee.
  17. ‘But ye maun go wi me now, Thomas,
  18. True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
  19. For ye maun serve me seven years,
  20. Thro weel or wae as may chance to be.’
  21. She turned about her milk-white steed,
  22. And took True Thomas up behind,
  23. And aye wheneer her bridle rang,
  24. The steed flew swifter than the wind.
  25. For forty days and forty nights
  26. He wade thro red blude to the knee,
  27. And he saw neither sun nor moon,
  28. But heard the roaring of the sea.
  29. O they rade on, and further on,
  30. Until they came to a garden green:
  31. ‘Light down, light down, ye ladie free,
  32. Some of that fruit let me pull to thee.’
  33. ‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says,
  34. ‘That fruit maun not be touched by thee,
  35. For a’ the plagues that are in hell
  36. Light on the fruit of this countrie.
  37. ‘But I have a loaf here in my lap,
  38. Likewise a bottle of claret wine,
  39. And now ere we go farther on,
  40. We’ll rest a while, and ye may dine.’
  41. When he had eaten and drunk his fill,
  42. ‘Lay down your head upon my knee,’
  43. The lady sayd,  re we climb yon hill,
  44. And I will show you fairlies three.
  45. ‘O see not ye yon narrow road,
  46. So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
  47. That is the path of righteousness,
  48. Tho after it but few enquires.
  49. ‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
  50. That lies across yon lillie leven?
  51. That is the path of wickedness,
  52. Tho some call it the road to heaven.
  53. ‘And see not ye that bonny road,
  54. Which winds about the fernie brae?
  55. That is the road to fair Elfland,
  56. Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.
  57. ‘But Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
  58. Whatever you may hear or see,
  59. For gin ae word you should chance to speak,
  60. You will neer get back to your ain countrie.’
  61. He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
  62. And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
  63. And till seven years were past and gone
  64. True Thomas on earth was never seen.

Kevin, in this Federation-Apocalypse session log, was simply taking advantage of the fact that – in the Manifold – even minor stories have some power. On the other hand, all the demons who were capable of making it to faerie and were powerful enough not to get tossed out on their ears immediately had much better things to do than to fiddle around with the Fey trying to collect a few temporary servants. Kevin, on the other hand, visited the place a lot – and he could technically claim to be a demon, and thus entitled to collect the Tiend. Ergo, he used the old story to “rescue” a few of the oldest changelings.

Game Testing and the Thinking Designer

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Testing Your Games Isn’t Optional

I suspect that the ability to actually recognize what’s already good and what still needs improving is just as rare as determination. -Thoth

Recognizing it at first glance is tough.

But we have a lot of tricks. The first is to simply play the game and remember what was annoying. It takes some effort to remain attentive, but not much. The second is to get *other* people to play the game.

This goes to a much broader question. Everything which can be tested should be tested. If you’re smart, very experienced, and paying attention, then yes – you can guesstimate. Yes, the master craftsman has a pretty good idea of his work and others and the local market. But anybody can test. You don’t need to be exceptionally smart, organized, or experienced to manage. Sure, we may be somewhat insulting ourselves to say that, but isn’t honestly accepting that we’re not always as bright as we pretend better than staking everything on pride?

Further, it does not matter whether it’s an MMORPG, a shooter, or the next version of Dungeons and Dragons. We interact with the game in different ways but for the same goal (fun), so we can and should test the game.

Shamus Young took a quick look at this in his blog, the inestimably-valuable Twenty Sided. The article is located over here:

The short version is that the more playtesting – and more inclusive of people outside your company – the better. Insiders have it way too easy, because they know. They made the thing, and that makes it tough to have an objective eye. Thoth and I have a devil of a time seeing our own personal spelling errors. Case in point: Spelling in the preceding sentence originally went down as “sapellign“, because I’m an awful typist. I don’t easily *see* it, because I made it. I see what I meant to have happen, not what actually occurred.

And that’s with a very specific, noticeable, error that everyone knows is wrong. It’s a lot less easy with a wide, complex system like a game. Shamus or Jay Barnson of The Rampant Coyote blog, I believe, wrote of a story from one consultant testing a game. She saw the players were going down a blind passageway and falling into the insta-death pit.

The game designers thought the players were just being stupid. They wanted to know why anyone was going down that way at all! They didn’t realize the obvious: that their own definition of “obvious” was omniscient. They forgot just how much knowledge they’d developed over the source of building a game for the last year. They KNEW that passage was a trap, and couldn’t see that everyone else didn’t magically share that info.

Or in another anecdote, Final Fantasy 12 features one of the most egregious abuses of sanity in games. In order to get one particular weapon, you had two options. First, you could not open four unidentified, perfectly normal chests. Then the spear would appear when you finally went to one end-game area. Or you could run that dungeon thousands of times for a random drop. The spear’s existence was known, since it was listed as an equippable item. But the fact that those chests had anything special was not mentioned and was completely impossible to determine from the player’s perspective. In fact, everything the game did pushed you to take the items. And this kind of nonsense is hardly unique: just look up the article on “Guide Dang It” at tvtropes. Dozens of entries include all kinds of weird puzzles which no reasonable person could solve, and only were solved because thousands upon thousands tried.

What’s both best and most frustrating about this is that it often requires only simple fixes. Much of it involves taking things out, or at worst adding small items. It’s *easy* to do. At the same time, it’s not popular. Companies don’t like having anyone not under a non-disclosure agreement, or who hasn’t been specifically invited by the marketing, department touching the game. They definitely don’t want people giving bad feedback, because those people might give bad word of mouth.

They’re over-thinking and under-thinking it. Games don’t sell well because somebody didn’t talk about them. Old bad publicity is a lot less important than new good publicity (because your game rocks when it’s actually released). When a new Blizzard game arrives, everyone forgets how much it sucked to wait for two years while they perfected it.

Unfortunately, the games industry in particular is a hotbed of terrible, terrible business practices. I mean, it’s bad. It’s embarrassing. They venture into madness that no big, established corporation or a small, eager startup would dare conceive, let alone implement.

There is one absolutely clear reason for this: game companies are curiously isolated from their customer base and are often started by people with little business experience. Further, growing industries can paper over their flaws, and games are still a growth industry. In short, they have an awful record of responding to customer patterns and a worse one for predicting them. More often, they ham-fistedly chase patterns which may not exist and security they can’t really have.

The big genres see years of repetitive releases, precisely because publishers are flying blind. They constantly fret over their established markets and often want to discard innovation entirely, leading to a narrowing of genres and styles (a crisis equaled only in the pharmaceutical industry which operates under unimaginably tougher conditions). This is one reason Indy companies have risen to become serious concerns themselves – the big publishers are already sclerotic and risk-averse beyond all reason.

I recognize that like Hollywood, it’s an industry where output quality (how good da flick be) is always somewhat random. But it’s also a  great deal more controllable. Once you start making a movie, the situation is largely out of control. It succeeds based on your ability to quickly adjust to challenges and how well you’re prepared; once you start filming, you can’t really change anything. Once you stop, re-shoots are a pricey last resort. It’s far more feasible to tweak an existing game and incorporate feedback, especially during production. And once it’s “finished”, you can always delay a month and polish accordingly. It’s only an issue if you schedule your release for Christmas and delays might miss the deadline (which is a very good argument for September targets or no target at all).

So, in short, the games industry is laughable in terms of skill. Management is mostly by rank amateurs who may be trained for something entirely different, and have no concept of HOW to manage a project. Now, it’s pretty well established that business school doesn’t teach you to manage. Don’t listen to any of the schools’ declaring otherwise. It does help you understand what kinds of things you need to do. The games industry is so young and fast-growing that it can skimp on that. It can have no decent appreciation of customer service, force dubious legal concepts on customers, and often get away with abusing their suppliers and/or customers directly. It’s a great time to be incompetent, or a jerk, or both.

On training: Harvard MBA’s do well because they get all the connections who also went to Harvard, not because they’re especially well-taught. It’s been more or less mathematically demonstrated as much as anything can be. And if any Harvard grads read this… tough. The data is quite clear. Connections, training, and even academic intelligence have almost nothing to do with managerial competence. What that can do is introduce ideas. But what people get is more in line of an opportunity. They must choose to make the most of it.

 This is why to me it’s not surprising that Guest Writer Daniel at The Rampant Coyote talks about how wearying dealing with customers is. Towards the end he notes that “You just lose heart, and stop reading forums. There are a few who soldier on, taking the flak, and trying to get to the bottom of the feedback. There are even those BioWare hired to do so. But most developers eventually lose heart and just tune it out.”

Tuning it out is a mistake. It’s a huge mistake, and it probably explains why Bioware has made some titanically stupid decisions in recent years. Fortunately, they haven’t been fatal yet, because the company still has strong foundations. If you’re not listening, you’re flying blind.

There’s an old argument about whether games are art. Some of them can be, but not every game can or should be called art. It’s a group product, and artistic sense is less important than making a fun game. If you’re not listening – if you’re not sucking it up and trying your hardest to split good feedback away from the useless or trivial – you’re not doing your job. You will always have nitpickers. They’re not important. What is important is polishing before you dump a product on the market. Dragon Age, which Daniel is justly proud of, still had hugely obvious flaws, which could have been easily corrected. It’s sequel is much, much worse.

The internet is a problem, true. Game designers love using the internet themselves – they just don’t want their detractors on it. You get angry forum posts and customer complaints. Who wants to sort through those?

You do.

Tuning out the bad silences every voice which could help you, when you’ve never had more powerful tools for feedback. Consider that in the 80’s and 90’s, pen and paper and video games often shipped with postcards inside just so designers could get some kind of feedback or understanding.

People tend to be a lot more pleasant when they think you’re listening. Second, on the internet, you can actually get responses. It shouldn’t surprise you either that Blizzard takes a keen interest in their forums. They often read deeply into long threads, and I guarantee those forums have gotten a lot more posts than anything you’ve ever produced. And they listen. They really do. If enough people demand something, Blizzard will oblige, or resolve the issue with another solution. If they decide not, they’ll usually explain their reasoning and why they think it’s either necessary or the best practical answer.

No, customer feedback isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the answer to everything. It’s rarely very innovative. But it contains a wealth of information about your weaknesses, even if it’s often less clear on how you resolve them. I recently read some articles on how Bioware collected statistics (poorly, and obviously not using good statistical methodology) on Dragon Age: Origins. Of course, rather than admit the obvious – that the game had a weak Ostagar area and dragged too much in what should have been the real opening – they simply decided that people “didn’t like numbers” and tried to simplify DA2. And not surprisingly, their claimed statistical results don’t actually back them up, because they failed to clearly identify cause and effect.

Yes, it’s a lot more work. That’s the price you pay for endless reams of data and a hundreds of thousands of customers. My heart just bleeds for your troubles.

Eclipse Character Traits Explained

Fortitudo, by Sandro Botticelli

Well, nobody's perfect

There have been a couple of questions about the Character Traits option in Eclipse.

Now, that particular section assigns scores to pairs of personal qualities – such as Valor and Caution, or Patience and Restlessness. Those scores are linked; each pair always totals twenty-one – and no score ever goes below one.

Some of the common misconceptions popping up in questions about the character traits include the idea that some of those traits are virtues, while others are vices, that they force you to play your character in a particular way, and that giving up a point from one quality (and thus automatically gaining a point in its opposite) is somehow a penalty.

Is valor a virtue? Yes, it often is! Is caution a virtue? Yes, indeed it is! Too much valor can lead to suicidal idiocy, while too much caution may lead to getting nothing done. Patience is good sometimes – but you can also have too much patience. Some of those traits are less admired than others, but all of them have their places – especially when you want to survive.

If, in the face of a horrible monster, you roll Valorous/Cautious and wind up with a “Cautious” result – yet you go ahead and nobly defy it anyway – you’ll lose a point from “Cautious” and gain one on “Valorous”. That’s not a penalty; it’s just a reflection of how you’re developing your character. He or she is defying his or her cautious nature.

If a character is played as being Valorous 90% of the time, his or her Valor score will soon be hanging around 18. By design, the Traits may wander up and down by a point or two on a regular basis – but they’ll wind up in accord with the way that the character is actually being played, rather than the way in which he or she is described. In that way Character Traits are simply a tracking system – and quick-reference way of judging a character on their prior actions and stands in which there isn’t much room for argument.

Really extreme scores in character traits represent a major behavioral commitment – which is why the Character Traits come with the “Granted Powers” section on the next page; with that system in play characters who are actually played in particular ways, and dedicate themselves to particular ideals, can get rewards for it.

Play your character as an treacherous schemer, and you may get bonuses to your treacherous scheming. Play as a noble warrior of the light, and you can get bonuses to those activities as well. That encourages grand passions – and those are always a bonus in a role-playing game. Blandly expedient uncommitted characters tend to be dull.

As far as the mechanics go…

  • The usual trait roll is simply  (1d20 + Trait) +/- (Wis Mod +1) at the option of the character. Since the base DC is 21, if you have a trait of 19+, you’ll always succeed if you want to – but if you don’t keep living up to that trait, it’s value will soon start decreasing in accordingly.
  • If you’re torn as to what your character would do – will he wait out the long boring lecture in hopes of some useful bit of information, or will he go for a meal? – go ahead; roll for “Patient / Restless”. It comes up under “Patient”? Wait. Over that? Now you’re in “Restless” territory; leave. You feel you know what the character would do?  Then you have no need to roll – but the Game Master is free to note it, and shift the relevant trait a point, if you happen to have claimed to have “Restless 19” and yet are hanging around the lecture without checking. In that case, you’re simply announcing that your character doesn’t really have “Restless 19”.
  • Now, if the granted powers rules are in play, high-value traits do provide the character with bonus abilities – at the cost of having to live up to those traits to keep them high. You don’t want to bother? You can pretty much ignore the traits, and they’ll all wind up at about ten. Dull, but functional.
  • Now, the game master may sometimes require trait checks. Where those relate to an active character decision, the player is always entitled to override the results – and thus change his or her traits to reflect the way the character is actually being played.
  • You, were offered a bribe, rolled Principled-Expedient, and it came up Expedient? Well, you can take the bribe (although whether or not you honor the deal later is another matter) – or the player can override that check and shift the trait pair one point in favor of Principled.
  • All that roll is telling you is that – given how you’ve described your character, and his or her past behavior – he or she would be likely to take that bribe. If you decide that’s not how your character really is, then you’re just putting it on the record that your character is more principled than he or she has claimed to be – or is developing in that direction.

Sometimes a character is not entitled to override a check, since it’s not representing their decision. Most often that’s because it’s representing how something else responds to them. Occasionally it’s when they’re trying to use the trait to accomplish a task – in which case the player can’t “override it to stay in character” for the same reason that they can’t override a failed strength check to stay “in character” as a brawny barbarian. The most common such checks:

  • Relate to artifacts, entities, and effects that only respond to particular personality traits – in which case the game master is effectively checking the characters history, but actually has a value he can check in a moment rather than a vague recall of past sessions and a set of logs and notes it will take hours to review. If only a character with Valor, Leader, and Honesty all at 18+ can draw the sword from the stone than that’s the way it is.
  • Relate to a situation where one action is clearly correct but where the character might do otherwise thanks to forces with the player is not experiencing. This can’t be overridden for the same reason that you can’t simply opt to ignore a “Charm” effect because it’s not in character; those undesired actions are a result of the fact that the character is experiencing something that the player is not. The classic example (as used in Eclipse) is the Test of Orpheus; asking a player to decide if their character is nervous enough to fail a major quest doesn’t usually work out well. A will check doesn’t always work either. Should a Will check determine whether or not you can impress the king with your raw enthusiasm when he can easily see through your diplomacy skill? In this case, the player doesn’t get to override the die roll because it’s not really dictating his characters actions, all it’s measuring is whether or not his character succeeds in a task.
  • Relate to an opposed check. If one character has decided to remain in his stronghold until he’s sure it’s safe to leave, and the other has decided to remain lurking outside until the the other emerges, and both state that they’re not changing that decision for ANYTHING – you have a problem. I can pretty well guarantee that simply announcing that both die of old age will not be appreciated by the players. The warrior may want a fortitude save to decide the issue, to see who can tough it out longer. The mage will want to turn it into a contest of wills – or decide the issue with opposed concentration checks. There will be good arguments for each position. It will also be a colossal waste of time. Traits will let you just roll opposed “Patience” checks, and see who gives up first.

Thus, as noted in Eclipse:

Character traits are for games where the game-master wants psychological tests and temptations to actually mean something. They describe a character’s personality and act as a set of general guidelines for roleplaying, a way to measure a character’s level of attunement to whatever higher or lower powers a world may boast, a way to tell if a character is “worthy” of wielding particular items, and provide something to roll against when a player is in doubt or when a character is faced with a psychological test. For example, taking a blow unflinchingly requires a Valorous check, using a Healing Cup requires Merciful 15+, and resisting the temptation of Orpheus requires a Steadfast check. In general, the player may apply the character’s (Wis Mod + 1, 1 minimum) to such checks to modify them up or down as desired. The GM may also modify the basic 21 DC based on circumstances; it’s easier to resist a small bribe than a massive fortune. Player characters may, of course, defy the results of a trait roll, but this will cost them one action point or the loss of a point from the trait in question. Traits come in linked pairs; if the value of opposed trait is desired it can be calculated at (21-Value, one minimum). Traits may either be selected by the player, or rolled like the other attributes – in which case the trait rolled for in each pair is up to the player. Any trait at 15+ is quite noticeable… Magic affects traits roughly twice as strongly as it affects the more definite attributes. This is best used with caution; a ”Ring of +8 Valor” could be a boon or a deadly curse depending on the circumstances.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

Eclipse – Spellcasting Modification Feats

First up for today, it’s a quick answer to one of the more common Eclipse questions – how a spellcaster can modify how particular groups of spells work.

Sometimes that’s merely special effects, and so doesn’t actually require a power; it simply requires the consent of your game master. You want all your spells to have a “green flame” aspect to them? That doesn’t really do anything? So be it. These are fantasy games. Looking cool, exotic, outright weird, or appallingly evil, is all free.

A lot of characters, however, want something that actually makes a difference.

  • They may want their fire spells to operate underwater – call it Phosphorescent Mastery.
  • They may want their ice spells to briefly paralyze those they damage – call it Glacial Wind.
  • They may want to be able to cast spells that normally require plants to work and have them grow their own plants – call it Green Thumb.
  • They may want their fire spells to actually set things on fire and to leave clouds of smoke – call it Incendiary Mania.

They may want hundreds of different things.

Fortunately, in Eclipse, that’s really, really, easy to set up.

Practically any modification you want on a spell can be produced by one of the Metamagical Theorems. Buying the ability to apply a couple of levels of free metamagic – enough to tweak the spells in a particular category to do something unusual – is straightforward.

Purchase the appropriate Metamagical Theorem (6 CP) and two levels of Streamline (12 CP). Specialize and Corrupt both of those items to reduce the cost; only to apply a specific +2 spell level modifier to a particular – and relatively narrow – group of spells.

That will suffice in the vast majority of cases – and at a net cost of only 6 CP, the same as any normal feat. So go right ahead. Give your spellcaster some interesting specialty or option. Make his or her favorite spells a bit more powerful – and make both him and them thoroughly distinctive. Don’t make playing pieces. Make CHARACTERS.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

Eclipse Abilities – Immunity, The Fourth Wall

via Flickr”]Y2D079: A Terrible Thing

Players do request the oddest things sometimes… This isn’t an ability I’d normally allow at full strength. At that level it would pretty well eliminate the role-playing aspect unless (perhaps) the character started routinely arguing with – or even outright defying – the player.

That might be fun for a little bit, but I suspect that it would start to wear very VERY fast.

On the other hand, if I had a player who totally refused (or was unable) to keep player and character knownledge seperate, perhaps I’d insist that they buy their character some level of this ability, just as an annoyance tax on their character points…

Oh well. Players are, in general, free to buy whatever they like as long as the Game Master is OK with it. Ergo, to buy this, take:

Immunity/The Fourth Wall. That’s Very Common (practically all the time in fact), Minor (it is only information) – but it’s potentially information from all kinds of sources, which is probably Epic (sure my character knows chemistry, physics, the contents of the Monster Manual, the secret names of demons, etc, etc, etc…). That’s 36 Character Points (CP) for the straight-and-unrestricted version.

  • Now, if it’s just some genre-savvy plot-awareness and making snarky comments at the gods / “audience”, that’s not nearly so important – and so will be far cheaper.That’s Common, Minor, and Minor, for a mere 4 CP.
  • You want to throw in a justification for pop-culture references and phrases like “the true gods wouldn’t put a pit trap like this without an escape somewhere!”, that’s Common, Minor, and Major, for 6 CP – the cost of a normal feat. Go ahead, call it “genre savvy” and buy it if it amuses you. The rest of the characters may be utterly mystified by your monty python quotes and in-jokes, but at least they’re no longer out of character.
  • You want to be very well-read and informed of the details on various monsters, devices, spells, and classes? As in “I-get-to-look-in-the-rulebooks” well-informed? That’s expensive. That’s back to being “Very Common” again, and it might be Great or Epic, depending on how much the game master relies on sourcebooks versus private notes and inventing stuff on the fly. If he or she does a lot of inventing, and thus the stuff in the sourcebooks is throughly unreliable, that’s Great (at best), and so costs a base of 24 CP. Still, we can probably count it as Corrupted since you’re only gaining access to d20 rulebooks, not to all the worlds libraries and whatever the player can find on the internet. That brings it down to a total of 16 CP.
  • Those books are mostly accurate? And you’re allowed to read the setting book two? Now we’re definitely in Epic territory, for a base cost 36 CP before that rulebooks-only Corruption, and 24 CP after it.

It’s still not really an ability I’d recommend allowing in your game, but – like pretty much everything else in Eclipse – you can build it.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

The Endowment of the Dark Gods

The skull and crossbones, a common symbol for ...

Yes. we're talking about you

Dark cults, evil secret societies, and hidden orders of killers are a standard part of most d20 settings.

Yet it’s very hard to say where they come from. These are d20 universes here. You don’t have to join a dark cult to obtain mystic secrets, and any library holds out the promise of arcane power. Why bother with a secret society when you can just move to an evil realm where your activities – however heinous – will be regarded as tame? What evil order of killers has ever been as effective at killing as a party of adventurers?

Most of those evil organizations seem to have no real POINT outside of being stumbling-blocks and experience-point mines for parties of adventurers.

So where do they come from?

Gods have a very hard time gaining experience points. Finding a suitable challenge that you can go after WITHOUT upsetting a lot of other gods or wrecking the universe gets pretty awkward at that power level.

Fortunately, as demonstrated by the creation of magical items, there ARE ways to transfer experience points around, even if they aren’t very efficient.

When you’re a god, there are always options.

Thus the Dark Imbuement – a type of intangible artifact.

When a suitably evil mortal is granted – or “finds” and accepts – a Dark Imbuement, he or she is granted an incredible surge of power, gaining (1d6+14) levels.

If said mortal opts to spend a month or two investing some of those levels into followers, he or she gains followers with a total number of levels equal to (the number of levels given up x 12) – although none of them may have a total level exceeding one-half that of their boss.

So if Yondar the Pestiferous (a sixth level evil sorcerer) takes up a Dark Imbuement, he might gain eighteen levels (and become Yondar the Malevolent, twenty-fourth level Dark Lord of Khadath).

Not knowing what to do with himself (and not wanting to be worth that many XP until he gets level-appropriate equipment) he invests eight of those levels into minions to go out and get him some money and equipment. Besides, as the Dark Imbuement will instinctively inform him, when heroes kill one of his minions – provided only that they’ve been in his service for at least a few months – he’ll get one-half the experience that the heroes do.

So that’s (8 x 12) = 96 levels of minions, who can each be of up to level eight since Yondar has a current effective level of sixteen.

Call it eight of second level, five of fourth level, two of sixth level, and six henchmen of eighth level.

Now, as minions get killed, the power that’s invested in them will return to Yondar – either to be reinvested if he spends a few months recruiting or to boost his own effective level again.

For example, when he’s down to 48 levels of minions, he’ll only have four levels invested in them – and the Dark Imbuement will be granting him fourteen levels on top of the extra XP he’s getting.

Given that that XP is going to his base level of six, that can be pretty useful.

Now, when Yondar does eventually fall to some pesky heroes, the God who created the Dark Imbuement will gain one-half the experience that the heroes got for killing him – and can reclaim the Dark Imbuement to pass it on to some other suitable candidate.

Yes, that’s D&D: the Evil Reverse Ponzi Scheme! You too can make a profit by exploiting your deluded cultists!

Do you need to track this in detail?

No, not really. But now you know why evil bosses seem to rise to prominence overnight from nowhere, why they seem to have indefinite supplies of lower-level minions, why they trickle them at the heroes at just the right rate to have “balanced encounters” and build them up (since that – rather than using their resources effectively – gains them the most XP of their own), why they often seem to have no clear idea of how to use their power effectively, why they haven’t cut a swathe across the country gathering all the XP they need to reach level 20+,  why they seem to get stronger as their minions are eliminated, where those insane prestige classes that require that you kill someone else with the class before you can join it come from (from bosses who can grant levels in crazy classes to normal people and WANT them to die fighting), and why there always seems to be another evil boss around.

You want a true and lasting victory? Find some way to put an end to that Dark Imbuement.

The god behind it will probably just make another one, but it will be a lot of work – and he or she will be out all the power they put into the first one. Keep it up long enough, and you might defeat that god handily without ever getting into a direct confrontation with him or her.

Arcania: Gothic 4 Analysis

Arcania: Gothic 4

Image via Wikipedia

Here we have a contribution from Editorial0.

Today, a quick long look at designing games, particularly video games.

Today I’m going to discus Arcania: Gothic 4. This isn’t a review, although some reviewing will be involved. Instead, I’m going to look at the game and peel back what makes it the mediocrity it is. In any case, remember that this isn’t going to be some witty, cutting review filled with biting humor. First, I’m not that funny, and second, I’m not that witty. Some people are meant to be witty and social, and they are called journalists. Others are dry and depressed, and these people are called philosophers. Whether or not I am a philosopher, I’m still not funny.

I don’t like bad games, and I don’t like mediocre games. So today I’m going to look at separates the great from the good from the so-so. It’s not hard to explain. Great games are distinguished by a high level of polish, that often vague but easily-seen attention to detail. Polish ultimately boils down to a determination to excel.

I suspect that the ability to actually recognize what’s already good and what still needs improving is just as rare as determination. -Thoth

What, after all, makes Blizzard real-time strategy games bigger sellers than others? If you look at a list of features, they often come up short. Graphic-wise, they’re not much better than other games, and usually fail to use high-end hardware. Their plots are perhaps a little better than average, but they’re mostly focused on distinctive characters rather than on any really original story.

The answer is simply, “polish.” Oh, the games have a good foundation in concept. But what sets them apart is the quality of gameplay. Every aspect is carefully considered, developed, experimented with, tested, tweaked, and perfected. Blizzard makes mistakes, too, but even their mistakes tend to be on a very different level from those of other video-game companies. In World of Warcraft, people often complain that their ability usage isn’t quite interesting enough, or that they feel they aren’t being given *enough* perks to compensate for the disadvantages of playing a certain class. Compare this to past or even present MMO’s, which often had people complaining that their entire class basis had been crippled, often leading to whole swaths of the player base dropping out or even being forced out of the game.

In short, every aspect of that Blizzard game is smooth, helps you understand the nature of the game, and immediately puts you at ease. Look at other top sellers – Blizzard’s own Diablo, Valve’s Half-Life, and Nintendo’s Super Mario, and you see much the same. The gameplay is exceedingly simple, merely variants on a single central theme (click on monster, run and shoot, run to the end of the level). But all are extremely polished in all respects. These games can all be played quite effectively with a couple of action buttons and a direction control. All the complexity comes from the situations  and concepts that the player must learn, not from the interface.

Alright, we’ve shown what makes a great game. But what separates the mediocre games from the good ones? Surely, if great games have a high level of polish, good ones must have a decent level of polish, right?

Nope. Oddly enough, a game can be pretty good without much polish, as long as the core gameplay is sturdy. These games tend to be solid and even innovative. Yet, though they may push the boundaries they don’t always create a compelling gameplay experience. Think of games like Knights of the Old Republic 2 or Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. Both games sold well for what they were and offered a lot of game for the money. However (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved KotOR2) they both had many, many flaws and even crippling defects, some of which were built into the design from the beginning. The same innovation which made them unique also made them painful. Doing something new doesn’t necessarily mean that you do it well. Alpha Protocol may well be the single most innovative game in history, combining immense flexibility and variety with surprising control over the plot. It’s a game which lets you write your own adventure story. Yet it was also nearly unplayable.

Still, all those games were good, and a certain amount of ambition can often save a game from the bargain bin. With that in mind, let’s break down Arcania: Gothic 4.

As the title obviously suggests, this is the fourth installment in the Gothic series of games, originally made by Piranha Bytes and published by JoWood. Several years ago, JoWood and Piranha Bytes had some serious differences, and went their separate ways, or rather, JoWood did and took the franchise  along. Part of those differences may have been over the release of Gothic 3, one of those good-but-unpolished games featuring such awkward controls it was nearly unplayable – along with some… awkward balance issues.

For whatever reason, JoWood officially owned the franchise and kept the Gothic titles. Piranha Bytes went on to make Risen, a game which might as well be called Gothic-And-A-Half, since it’s basically the very first game done up in a different setting. (After the split, JoWood came out with an expansion pack called Forsaken Gods. In my opinion it’s among the most awful things ever created by man.)

Risen was a slow seller because it was thrown onto the market without much fanfare, but it did attract some attention for its punishing but fair gameplay, high-quality core of exploration and combat, and quirky retro style. The design was a little unambitious, but it could be a good fresh start and I’ll at least consider future titles.

Arcania: Gothic 4 is not Risen. In fact, it’s not even Gothic 4. It has almost nothing to do with the previous Gothic titles and – aside from minor, utterly trivial nods – doesn’t keep anything from the old gameplay. Nor do I yet understand why they call it Arcania, whereas Gothic was indeed a pretty gothic world.

Brief Recap: In Gothic, you took on the role of a nameless prisoner condemned to the magic ore mines of Khorinis. A seemingly chance demand from a fire magi, trying to get word to his brethren beyond the magical barrier which seals over the valley of mines, launches you on a quest to ally with a friendly “dark” wizard named Xardas, free the prisoners and destroy a terrible demon. A major part of the game is the punishing initial difficulty, but in its defense it directs you to some allies who help you gain experience and open up the three major settlements. Joining one of these is how you progress through the game, a feature the game would keep in Gothic 2.

Gothic 2 picks up literally a few weeks after Gothic. Xardas saves you and helps you defeat a horde of orcs, a flight of dragons, and then stop the terrible servants of the dark god Beliar. You quickly visit the town of Khorinis, which was one of the largest video game cities of its day and still stands out as being remarkably well-realized. In Gothic they paid a lot of attention to friendships and alliances, and in Gothic 2 your friends came back and your actions were remembered. While you usually couldn’t wall off any quests, people did recall what you did to them and theirs, and this could affect quests and events down the line. Sometimes you could solve quests simply by talking to the right people at the right time, giving the player the feeling that this was a living world with its own backstory and relationships. The cast of memorable characters was huge, and almost every interesting friend from Gothic made an appearance. It was good enough to spawn an expansion, Night of the Raven, which only took about about an eon to hit the English market.

Gothic 3 lets you explore the mainland of Myrtana. Some… odd design choices resulted in a less-than stellar experience. Controls were inelegant at best, and enemies of any level frequently stunlocked you because of the poor combat design and animation work. This, sadly, was almost the only element of difficulty in the entire game because most enemies were utterly trivial. Add in a freakish lack of women, re-used voices everywhere, and a dull and long-winded plot without much direction, and you had all the elements of a bad game. While numerous characters came back, they mostly shared models with about five hundred other NPC’s, which meant it was literally impossible to tell who was who. All in all, the game was mediocre and missing some key features, even though there were good ideas at the core.

In Arcania: Gothic 4 you open (apparently) controlling the hero from previous Gothic games, now crowned King Rhobar the Third. This is actually an interesting opening, even if goes on too long. The use of sound and visuals to suggest madness – and even that someone is controlling him – works very well. But soon that ends and your real character awakens from that fake nightmare into the real nightmare.

Arcania features an entirely new nameless character, one who sadly falls into the “bland hero” category. His voice actor isn’t terrible, but doesn’t put much energy into it. Then again, the script doesn’t either; there’s no personality or flavor. The character simply goes along and does more or less whatever is asked of him. Sometimes you have two or three options instead of one choice in a way to proceed, but your “choices” have no real impact on the plot; all the options wind up looking almost identical. Considering how annoying most of the game’s characters are, I often wanted to pick an evil option, just to finish up. However that doesn’t actually get you anything. You won’t save any time or trouble, so you may as well do things the “long” way around. You face the same nuisances.

And annoying is how the NPC’s come off at best. Most don’t have enough character for me to remember names. What’s sad is that there’s some good material going to waste here. You can almost feel a bond between your hero and Diego at the start of the game. You can almost care about his fiance during the opening, even if she does look like her mom drank too much during pregnancy. But it’s all wasted because both characters more or less vanish and don’t influence things again. The game makes a titanic mistake in killing off said fiance. While in theory this would be the hero’s motive for a roaring rampage of revenge, nobody mentions it again and he has all the emotional depth of a brick.

I can’t help but compare this to the subtly snarky lead of previous Gothic games, who imbued the character with energy and a resigned heroism, willing to help but annoyed at the constant impositions, and willing to bargain and make demands when others were unreasonable. The old voice acting wasn’t any good, either, but it did have heart and energy. Arcania’s voices are technically competent (except for Lyrca, who stands out as hilariously awful) but completely dry. People complained about the voice actors, but they’re overstating it. The actors can read lines, but it’s obvious nobody thought to give them any direction.  Ultimately, I personally would rather have bad-but-fun voicework than merely “decent” voices.

The plot actually gets worse as you go along, spiraling increasingly out of control. I think the designers intended for the players to think that it was all a great destined event, but their craftsmanship is so hamfisted that it winds up playing out as a series of random, unrelated nuisances. The script does not help, because it contains all kinds of irrational, random lines and references to things the player does not know or care about, which are not explained, and which don’t make any difference. Worse, even THAT isn’t as bad as the idiotic questing.

The game almost apologizes for throwing up stupid roadblocks. They don’t even make any sense. You simply can’t progress until you do somebody’s annoying fetch quest, when often the only thing standing in your way is a pushy guard or an enemy orc. But they tell you to turn around, because no, we’re not letting you through (for no good reason) and there’s no way around that. That might be tolerable if the quests felt like anything other than useless busywork. But it’s all about fetching leftover junk that the NPC’s are too stupid to go and get. I’m not kidding: you have to get letters, banners, and even a straw hat. I found out why I “had to” get the hat, and it still didn’t make any sense.

Look, it’s not that hard. All you need for your quests is to put the player in charge. Even if the player has to follow along your plot, you have to give him a reason to do it. This means three things:

  • Your barriers to simply walking over and completing the game should feel like an organic part of the world. They shouldn’t break any rules, and that includes forcing the player to have a sudden attack of politeness. If the player must work to gain the help he needs to overcome a barrier, fine. But don’t just have the character up and volunteer for random tasks before some annoying, nameless guard will let him through, particularly not when the character is a monster-crushing killing machine. On the other hand, it may make some sense for the character not to wander into the midst of an active ongoing battle. If the character doesn’t have a boat, they may have no option save to pay the ferryman.
  • Give the player some choice. Killing eight Rats is fine for an MMO (if tired even there). And it’s not even that bad for a single-player game. However, you have to give the player some options. If you need a Gorgon’s Tear, and the only Gorgon is at the very end of a completely linear dungeon and the the only way to kill the gorgon is with a sword, then you’re not giving the player any choice. You know the one way through is to kill through every enemy and then stab the gorgon. If you want the player to kill eight rats, then give him a bounty for bringing in rat tails. This is an area where Gothic stood out. If you needed to get an item from a character, you could kill the man and take his stuff, steal it, buy another, bribe him or buy his, or see if you couldn’t find another item just like it while adventuring. By making those actions goal-based instead of method-based, it strengthened the player’s interest.
  • Give the player an actual reason to care. Arcania almost manages here at the start. But from then on you’re faced with a faceless assortment of tedious NPC’s with nothing of interest about them. They felt plastic and were plastic. Again, I don’t entirely blame the voice acting. Many reviewers hated it, but it’s the bland script which I object to. There’s nothing even to indicate your *character* cares – and when he later seems pleased to meet them again I wondered why he was so excited to meet obnoxious near-strangers, whom he had met once or twice and exchanged a polite greeting. This is bad writing, bad integration, and bad design. Contrast to this to earlier Gothic games. In Gothic 1, they established important secondary characters well. They gave you quests, helped you out, and fought alongside you for common goals.

Look at Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 or Martin Septim from Oblivion. Quality voice acting, aside, the characters weren’t annoying, they interacted with you a lot, and you got to know their fears and goals. Meanwhile, you weren’t expected to somehow fall in love with many other characters whose role in the story was minimal at best. For an example of a good minor character, look at Dr. Mossman. She interacts with you in a limited way, but she’s still engaging.

Once you finally do get going, you’ll find a game which also fails to live up to another Gothic staple: exploration. Gothic was extremely nonlinear. You could go anywhere provided you managed to survive the trek. It limited player movment by using gatekeeper monsters – in short, you had to prove you were strong enough to get into an area, but once inside the monsters were a bit weaker and you then grabbed all the loot and massacred the pretty chunks of experience. This was a fantastic way of doing things, because you had a lot off tools at your disposal. Taking too much damage? Steal or buy some armor and try again. Mobbed by sheer numbers? Hop on a rock and snipe them. Facing one enemy too strong for you? Use those scrolls. Or simply go to a different area or finish some town quests.

Yes, that was hard to get learn, but on the whole it worked really well. Once you understood how the game played you were encouraged to use your resources wisely and actively plan out your fights. Sure, by the end you’d be rolling money and potions, but you had a long adventure of carefully picking and choosing fights until you got strong enough to stomp your foes. The omnipresent feelings of challenge, advancement, and success mattered.

Arcania throws this out of the window. The game showers you with healing items, useless recipes, and endless loot, as you wander through corridors. This game manages to make open fields feel like corridors. Basically, you can jog along the narrow routes available, but there’s little to find and very little reward for anything. You’re going to go past it all anyway, eventually. No matter where you go, you can be confident knowing you will easily handle the challenge, so there’s never any reason to worry. If you do get hit pretty hard, you’ve got plenty of healing items to recover instantly.

About the midgame I had enough bandages to mummify myself. I have about a dozen recipes, but no reason to use them. Money has essentially no use except to buy more recipes I won’t use. It is nice that you can go out and craft things, but I’d need an actual reason to do so. Thus far, mages can get the odd boost from a crafted item, but I haven’t seen any point in the trouble. You’ll get better gear before you can blink twice.

Getting back to the topic of exploration, the game does offer up an interesting series of collection quests. In short, they’ve scattered a bunch of trinkets about the world, and finding them all nets you a rare and powerful item. I like this idea. It’s the execution which bothers me. First, go get a map online, because otherwise you will not find them. They’re often impossible to see onscreen, so unless you just randomly wander near one and see it highlighted you’ll never notice. Second, there’s not much reason to care. You’re never challenged, so getting more goodies is a pretty thin reason to explore. And I mentioned earlier, you don’t have many optional side areas and they don’t have much to find, so you’re basically looking for relics in the hope of getting a pointless reward way down the line.

I had more interest in completing my world map than anything else, and before I hit the one-quarter mark I began to think of monsters as tedious obstacles rather than interesting challenges.

Perhaps worst of all, in a game which tells you to explore every nook and cranny, you’re faced with something worse than monsters: invisible walls. Yup, our old friend the invisible wall makes a comeback, preventing you from getting onto boulders and cliffs. But only half the time, for no adequately explained reason. Sometimes you just seem to bounce off from things. And that’s still not enough for the developers, who made every rock you can get atop but aren’t “supposed” to climb into a literal slippery slope, which shoves you off at a slow clip. Of course, sometimes they’ll shove you off into the instant-death water.

It’s 2011. We’ve had swimming animations since Super Mario. If you’re game is so cheap that you can’t pay for swimming effects for a game on an island with a long bay in the middle, something is wrong. Risen had sea monsters who would eat you if you went too far from shore and still had different movement once you entered water.

The slow movement speed doesn’t help matters. Your character jogs too slowly. I wouldn’t care except that the teleport system sucks. It just plain sucks. Most games these days have a waypoint or teleport system built-in, so that if you can backtrack, you do so quickly. The idiots who made Arcania’s teleport system instead made it a bunch of linked teleport pairs. This means that when you unlock a teleport you can’t actually use for anything. Once you’ve advanced forward, you unlock just that pair. So you wind up unlocking completely useless teleports, which can’t take where you might want to go. This is among the most hamfisted implementations ever, since Gothic had a simple, effective system for getting around way back in its day. In Arcania, you can get enough magic spells to keep doubling your run speed, but it takes a long while to get to that point. So until then, you just have to suffer the nuisance.

Now that we’ve talked about some of the bad points, I’m going to qualify that. The game has a couple really good aspects, even if the developers didn’t build on them well.

First, combat is nicely fluid. If the enemies weren’t completely weak and stupid, it might even be fun. It’s fast, smooth, and far more controllable than previous Gothic entries, which often felt like trying to maneuver a beached whale than engaging in swordfights. And that’s no small thing in a game of medieval combat.

The design team did too much, however, to make the combat options equal – much too equal. Frankly, it hardly matters which route you specialize in: melee, ranged weapons, or magic. They don’t really distinguish themselves very well, and there’s not much thought in building a character since gear overwhelms your choices. That drastically limits replayability and ultimately makes combat even more shallow. I eventually switched over to throwing fireballs simply so the area effect would kill enemies faster. Furthermore, you gain enough gear to do pretty much whatever you want. I don’t mind being able to change my focus to suit. But the choices I made are almost irrelevant, which is very bad. (About which more later).

The other really great aspect is the scenery. The game is beautiful, and not simply because it has oodles of high-resolution textures. In fact, the graphics as a base are only average for today’s games. What sets them apart is the incredible level of landscaping. Outdoor areas look astoundingly real and dramatic, with green-lit forests, seas meeting white cliffs, and powerful fortresses towering above the land. So in short, the scenery stands out as impressive to wander, plausible to experience, and just plain “real.”

The only nitpick here are that underground areas (including every dungeon in the game) are painfully bland and uninteresting by comparison. The difference is as stark as night and day – a tepid grey mass you rush through to get outdoors again versus a colorful, real world. In fact, the only problem with the outside is that the scenery often doesn’t feel quite lived-in *enough*. The environment stands out so much that I kept looking a level of detail they can’t quite manage.

On a side note, somebody turned up the “waving trees” effect to Keystone Cops levels. You can sometimes see plants bouncing around like rubber. And it is hilarious.

Finally, the game is marketed as an action-RPG. But it doesn’t have much action or much RPG. You interact with the world solely through combat, which as we’ve mentioned comes across as shallow and often tedious. But the RPG elements are, if anything, worse. It’s not bad, but the system is so elegant that it’s irrelevant!

Let me explain. The game’s level-up system simply hands you 3 points when you gain a level, plus a little mana and health and stamina. (Stamina recharges so fast you won’t care abut it.) Each branch of abilities hands you a couple minor abilities, mostly not worth using, and a 1% bonus to two stats per level. So you can get a decent percent bonus to your health and melee damage, or health and stamina, or melee and stamina, or magic power and mana regeneration, or regeneration and maximum mana, and so on.

In a way, this works fine. You simply get better at what you like most. The problem is that the bonuses are so small they’re kinda pointless. The only slight stand-out is mana, because you’ll burn through your pool so fast that a high rate of regeneration is almost required. Still, you can just swap out your gear to get as much of that as you might need. Even a simple piece of gear can be worth many levels. If you dumped all your points into melee and decide you want to throw fireballs, you can manage. Trees mostly serve unlock new abilities, and most of them are neither useful nor interesting.

In short, Arcania is a textbook example of what not to do. Do not start with a mediocre script with uninteresting characters who mostly serve as an excuse for the plot. Do not put obnoxious walls in the player’s path. Do not use railroading to force the player to do things (unless you hide it really well and sensibly). Do not drop uninteresting sidequests in the player’s path with no real reason to exist except handing out pretty chunks of xp. Do not develop a huge assortment of bland dungeons with suspiciously similar design. Do not turn a large, open world into a single, linear stage. Give players some interesting and meaningful choices about what to buy or study. Do not substitute combat for meaningful interaction with that world. Do not make most of that interaction largely irrelevant to the actual plot, so that nearly everything you do in the game makes no difference until the last seventh of the game.

Yes, that is a tough list to manage. And yet, many games have handled it well. Morrowind, Saint’s Row 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Gothic 1, 2, and even 3 for the most part. In many ways, it isn’t even that hard. If you do the early aspects right and set up enough conflict, players tend to choose their own sides and often gloss over any rough spots. If you hand many methods of interaction to the player, they’ll come up with their own solutions. If you give them significant (but not impossible) challenges, they’ll then find their own ways to cope and succeed. In games like this, the very best possibility is for the player to come up with a bright idea, succeed, and walk away feeling pleased and a little guilty, as if they were almost cheating the system.

Because they are cheating – but only their own expectations. They cheat the same-old, same-old standards and gimmicks which create awful games like Arcania. They cheat designers who don’t want to let them really do something amazing. They cheat designers who want to shove everyone along their predetermined path. They cheat the author who put together such a tedious game. It’s not just cheating, it’s the best kind of cheating: the kind where you cheat the rigged game.

Video games really aren’t the focus of this blog, and I don’t play them much – so I fear I can’t say anything about Editorial0’s evaluation of Arcania, or most of the other games he mentions. On the other hand, the basics of adventure design are indeed much the same for both video and tabletop games. -Thoth