“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]

[WARNING: SPOILERS INCLUDED IN THIS ARTICLE.]

I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

Gameplay
I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

Conclusions
I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

Patreon Planning Update

As I continue to plan for a launch of my Patreon at the beginning of the new year, I want to keep you apprised of the details so that you can determine whether this is something you will be interested in. A few changes or additions to the plans in previous posts:

(1) I intend to have only one Patron level instead of three to simplify delivery of “the goods.” This level will be $5 per month; I’m anticipating a $50 per year alternative if you’re the kind of daring soul willing to take a risk up front.
(2) I am establishing an account on WorldAnvil, which will be used to organize content for your reading pleasure. It’s my understanding that access to WorldAnvil can be synched with Patreon, providing some nice compatibility on that front.
(3) I have been working to write, compile, revise and codify existing worldbuilding material for Avar Narn, with the intent of having a ready reserve of material to post to hit promised monthly quotas. However, I’ve decided it’s better on all fronts for me to open with as much material as I can muster by the end of this year and to devote myself to new material when the first month begins. This way, you’ll have some background on the world to explore from the second your Patreon becomes active. Some of this will be rough works in progress (particularly the long history of the world), but some will also be focused write-ups on particular topics of importance to the setting. I believe that I currently have somewhere around 25,000 words of material to begin from, and will be working as furiously as I’m able over the course of this month to increase that number as much as possible for launch. I’m also working to have a new map of Altaene (the islands that are home to the “Seven Sisters” cities and the setting of Things Unseen) by launch.
(4) 10,000 words of new setting material (or equivalents in maps and visual design work) will be the bare minimum I strive to deliver each month. Additional features beyond that amount will include: new short stories, early access to revisions of the Things Unseen novel in progress, development toward a complete roleplaying game using my own developed system–Patrons will be encouraged to playtest and provide feedback once the ruleset becomes workable, and behind-the-scenes commentary on my work progress and methods. It is my intent for the Patreon to provide broad access to the world of Avar Narn, however you want to interface with it–whether that is enjoying fiction, becoming immersed in the lore and history of the world, or leading and taking part in your own adventures within the setting.
(5) It is my intent to pour all proceeds from Patreon back into the setting itself. Funds will pay for maintenance of the hosting and other costs of online material, the purchase of books and tools to enable me to better expand the materials available for you and, if possible, the commissioning of third-parties for high-quality artwork, maps, and layout/design for the compilation of materials into books and other media.
(6) As previously mentioned, I will also be establishing a Discord for Patrons to dialogue with me and others, pose questions about the setting and generally engage in a developing community around Avar Narn.

More to come soon!

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – a Strange Nostalgia

I haven’t quite finished the game yet, but I’m far enough in I think I can give a good review. Here it is.

First, the ugly. Feel free to skip these minor rants if you’d like.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed games. I love the historical aspects of them: running around in reconstructions of places I’ve studied but can never truly visit, hearing at least a palatable effort at ancient spoken languages (the Old English of Valhalla being the one I’m most familiar with, as it happens), and living an adventure–if overblown and grandiose–in another time. But I hate the framing device in which all of the Assassin’s Creed story takes place. If there weren’t so many people out there trying to peddle some version of historical belief in ancient aliens (an idea I find to be demeaning to historical peoples and often invoked as a matter of racism), I might not mind it in my fantasy games. But there are, and I do.

I’m also not a huge fan of the use of Templars and Assassins as factions for what is (at least in part) supposed to be a “good versus evil through history” struggle. Both factions are too nuanced and problematic for such use, and employing them in such a way, I think, plays too much into the conspiracy theories about them. From the narrative perspective, it’s sloppy writing to resort to them. From the historical perspective, its dangerous pseudo-revisionism thinly guised by fantasy. At best, their use makes unintended assertions about history that, while placed in a fictional environment that logically has no bearing on actual history, blends enough of the semblance of history into the setting to make that easy to forget. This is only partially side-stepped by the fact that the factions we’re dealing with in this game are the “Hidden Ones” and the “Order of Ancients,” the precursors, respectively, of Assassins and Templars.

So, I try to skip through those parts of AC games (though not all the Order hunting–I’m not a philistine) and focus on the “historical” portion of the games. Thankfully, they historical portions are by far the greater part, and I’ve only really had one cut-scene of the present “Animus” framing device in many hours of play.

Gripe #2: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has no singlehanded swords for player use. Given that the early medieval sword (those that fall under Peterson’s typology rather than Oakeshott’s) is an iconic image of the Viking, it is nothing short of a travesty that they are missing from the game. This is exacerbated by several factors: (1) many enemies use a single-handed sword, so the assets and animations are at least partially present, and the “why can’t I just pick one up” question looms large; (2) you are given several ahistorical two-handed swords to use; (3) it’s just such an obvious oversight.

A further comment about the two-handed swords (with the caveat that I’ve mostly been using one in the game): my supposition is that the choice not to include dedicated one-hand swords arose out of a perk that allows you to use large weapons in a single hand (thus pressing the two-handed sword into service as a one-handed sword). Yes, it’s a video-game, but that choice strikes me as dumb anyway. From a mechanical standpoint, it reduces the value of choice of weapons, with the realism sacrificed for the “cool” value a bit over the line for my taste (which I admit is a personal matter). From a historical perspective, it pushes the problem of the lack of historicity even further.

You see, there really weren’t two-handed swords in the 9th century (when the game takes place). There are several reasons: first, the metallurgy of the time was not a precise science by any means, and making a durable blade of two-hander length wasn’t likely enough to succeed to be worth it. Viking blades, like katana, were created through the “pattern-welding” process of steel-making, which relies in turn on “forge welding.” In forge welding, several slats of metal are heated until they begin to fuse and then wrapped and twisted together into a cohesive whole, where the flaws of one original piece of metal are hedged by the presence of the other pieces. Because of the differing carbon content in the finished piece, a blade could be acid-etched to reveal the patterns in the twisted metal. The result is what the Vikings purportedly called “the serpent in the steel” and is often mistaken for Damascus steel.

There are a handful of photos sometimes claimed to be of archeological finds of two-handed swords, but these photos make their argument based on the length of the grip. That itself is problematic for two reasons: (a) these photos are not of complete weapons in useable condition, and it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to know how much of the blade’s tang that would extend into the pommel is being touted as space for a hand, which it is not; (b) without full provenance and scholarly descriptions of these blades, the photos aren’t really that helpful anyway. The second and third reason two-handers weren’t common are related to the style and nature of early medieval warfare.

Valhalla never demonstrates this (missing some interesting mechanics, I think), but battles in the 9th century (and surrounding centuries) were largely fought based on the shield wall (as since ancient times with Romans and Greeks before them). For the shield wall to work, your shield is responsible for protecting part of your body, but also part of the body of the man standing beside you. That means that everyone in the rank needs to carry a shield. That leaves no place for two-handed swords.

There are anecdotes about brave warriors moving in front of their shield wall, exposing themselves and demonstrating that bravery, while throwing spears, collecting the gear of a fallen enemy, or undertaking other exploits, but it is the fact that this is extraordinary behavior, not common behavior, that makes these descriptions part of sagas (with parallels in Celtic literature and probable other cultures’ tales of the same period).

The two-handed sword largely (but not solely) developed in the high and late middle ages for a single reason–plate armor. The reliability of plate armor meant that a shield became unnecessary as a weapon of war, and that new weapons were needed to confront the threat. The acute-pointed, two-handed blades of the late 14th and the 15th century were a response to changes in armor, allowing a weapon that could be “half-sworded” to find the chinks in an opponent’s plate at close range and that could be wielded with greater speed, power and precision generally.

There is debate (and perhaps some consensus that the answer is “no”) as to whether a single-handed sword can break through the riveted maille used by Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it doesn’t, though the force exerted by a blade hitting mail can break bone and cause significant internal injury (of course, a padded gambeson was worn under mail to help resist this). Regardless, the single-handed sword (as well as spears and axes) where largely seen as sufficient to address this problem (or the metallurgy issue trumped all in preventing two-handed swords).

Okay, enough of that.

My third issue really has nothing to do with the game proper, so I’ll keep it short. I am concern about the idea of the “modern Viking.” I’m seeing an increase of clothing brands using that kind of terminology (on them or in advertising) in soliciting buyers in the tactically-minded, survivalist, or militia-type categories. This disturbs me because: (1) Vikings were not people to be emulated; (2) our society has no place for the kind of behavior for which Vikings are seemingly idealized; and (3) identifying oneself in such a way (except for a very small minority of people, perhaps) is not realistic. Even where it may be realistic, I’m not sure that it’s healthy. It’s essentially saying “I’m someone who thinks violence is the best answer.” I cannot disagree more. Alright, that’s done and done.

Now, what do I actually think about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? A few things, in fact. Is it fun? Yes. Is there a lot of content to play through if you want it? Yes. Is it a beautiful game? Yes. If you liked AC Origins or AC Odyssey will you enjoy it? Absolutely.

All of that said, I have some reservations about Valhalla as an “Assassin’s Creed” game. This game has added some great elements to enhance the Viking side of things, but I think that this comes at the cost of the “Assassin’s Creed” heritage. The Raiding mechanic (in which your longboat crew assists you in attacking and pillaging monasteries to steal supplies and materials used to build and enhance your own settlement) is fun and, at least on a stereotypical level, emblematic of our ideas of Vikings. Likewise, references to holmgangs, weregilds and althings help immerse one in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The reliance on tales of Ragnar Lodhbrok may lean too heavily on the recent History Channel (which, ironically, isn’t usually that great in its historicism, preferring in both documentary and fictional programming to serve entertainment over accuracy).

As an admission, I’m playing on “Normal” difficulty. I tell myself that this is because I don’t want to devote the additional time required to play at a harder difficulty level, but you’re free to substitute whatever rationale or psychology you’d like. On normal difficulty, there quickly becomes little reason to resort to stealth, as you become powerful enough to wade into even the most heavily-guarded fortresses and take out everyone without breaking a sweat. Very Viking saga, yes, but not very assassin-y.

Overall, the game has a lot more in common for me with the Witcher 3 (although less well-written, less complex, and generally less interesting than my travels with Geralt) than with the early AC games. Gone are the desperate roof-top escapes from guardsman in a world where everyone is inexplicably a parkour master. Gone are the hit-and-run tactics. Gone is the aching for the time when you unlock the second hidden blade to take out those pesky pairs of door guards. Do I really miss those things? I miss the Florence of AC 2 and the pirate shenanigans of Black Flag, but I’m not sure I miss the stealth gameplay as a whole. It is, though, notably deficient. Again, a higher difficult mode may sufficiently remediate that problem–at the expense of no longer feeling like a powerful Viking warrior in a saga. But, given my complaints about historical accuracy above, maybe I’m just not someone easy to please, and the fault lies more with me with the game. As you know from my last review, I just came off of playing Watch Dogs: Legion, so maybe I’ve been stealth game-played out for little while. Or maybe that’s just not my style of game, much as I’d like to think it is.

But there is an aspect of the game that leaves all of the rest by the wayside and has kept me coming back to sink hour after hour into it: the setting itself. If you’re a frequent reader of the blog, you know that my own historical study has more to do with the late medieval and early-modern periods than the time of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. But I took a semester of Old English in grad school; I’ve read Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, some of the sagas and the Norse mythologies. I know enough not to think of the 9th century as a “dark age.”

As with both Origins and Odyssey, the ways in which the culture, art and architecture of the setting are brought to life amaze me and put me in awe. In addition to the pure pleasure of dwelling in the setting for a while–what I’d argue is the game’s biggest draw–it’s actually helped me discover and think about some flaws in my own historical conceptions.

Some of these are part of our general culture, I think–our movies and books tend to conflate the material culture of the late medieval–knights in shining (plate) armor, palace-like fairy-tale castles, etc.–with oversimplified cultural concepts derived more from the late Viking age and early medieval.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, in parallel to playing Valhalla, I spend some time re-reading through The One Ring roleplaying game books (impressed again at how well this system in particular captures the feel of Tolkien’s world without layering on other fantasy ideas and fandoms) and watching the Hobbit trilogy with K (we also got halfway through LotR, but some unexpected demands–mostly work in my case and football in hers–prevented the completion of the second trilogy). They reminded me how much Tolkien’s world should be conceptualized in light of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than later medieval ideas. The armored characters should be in maille, not plate, wielding Carolingian or Viking-style weapons rather than later-medieval ones. The Rohirrim embody the Anglo-Saxon feel within the films fairly directly (aside from having stirrups and cavalry), but that aesthetic, or riffs upon it, should extend far further. I wonder whether and hope that the impending Lord of the Rings reboot will follow that tack.

Since the films released, Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, relying as it does on elements of Kallervo from the Kalevala in the story of Turin Turambar, serves as a reminder that Middle-Earth belongs in the early-medieval more than the late in terms of material culture and style.

That, ultimately, is what I’ve come to love about AC Valhalla: that it makes me feel a nostalgia for a period of time I’ve discovered that I find far more enthralling and fascinating than I previously knew. I guess I’m going to have to start looking for a Great Course on the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, or go back to reading Tolkien and Norse sagas.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of review you were looking for–with its diatribes and digressions, that’s perfectly understandable. But I’d like to conclude by saying that I think the praise I’ve given here, that the game immerses one in an amazing historical milieu, is about the best I can give. Except that, if you haven’t played The Witcher 3, for God’s sake, go play that first. Then you can play Valhalla. On the other hand, if you’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, Valhalla makes for an easy entry point, if one that won’t prepare you for the early titles in the series.

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Review: Watch Dogs: Legion – Good Timing?

I picked up Watch Dogs: Legion on something of a whim, if I’m to be honest. I played the first one but passed on the second. What piqued my interest and put me over the edge was the fact that there is no “chosen one” central character and that you recruit your resistance against the forces that have overtaken near-future London from the general populace.

I probably spent as much time recruiting characters to DedSec as I did actually playing through the story. Certainly, I devoted much more time to recruitment than I did to side missions–about halfway through the game I decided I just wasn’t interested enough to spend that much time playing.

The situation in London is bleak at the beginning of the game; a terrorist group calling itself Zero-Day (or maybe lead by someone calling themself Zero-Day, this wasn’t quite clear to me) uses a spate of synchronized bombings across London to allow the city to largely turn over authority to a private military company, ironically named Albion. At least it’s leader isn’t named “Arthur.”

This puts London in a condition that represents some of my worst fears for the direction the U.S. is headed. I should mention that my father lived outside of London for about two years while I was in high school, so I spent a good deal of time in the city and, being too young to drive in the States, I learned to navigate the Tube long before I learned how to navigate Houston’s congested highways. So, in my mind, there’s a personal link between London and my own experience that perhaps made its familiar places (I always knew I’d gotten myself lost in the West End when I found myself walking between the adult-themed shops of Soho) feel like a strong link to my present concerns.

If you’d like it laid out for you, here are some of the aspects of the collapse of London’s (the country as a whole is rarely mentioned) democracy in the game: Albion patrols the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with the kit expected of a warfighter, not a peace officer (blurred as that line is in the U.S. right now). Normal people are stopped and harassed as the already-prevalent camera system and the personal data captured by our smart devices turn London into a surveillance state. The vestiges of British democracy–the Home Office, the Parliament, etc., still exist, but only to provide cover for the authoritarian leanings of those really pulling the strings (the game explains that Parliament has been suspended and that the Queen–no indication of which Queen that is, mind you–has not been seen for some time since the bombings). Albion is disappearing its detractors left and right, the news stories that come up in your feed are often manipulated propaganda rather than reporting with integrity, and the current administration has formed unofficial alliances with the city’s largest criminal organization to facilitate its ends.

This is the situation in which your resistance hacker collective is formed. In today’s day and age–not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Britain as well, where the specter of conservatism dangerously flirting with fascism and/or populism raises its frightening head as well–there is a definite catharsis to be had for players needing to sublimate the angst they feel at the current political climate into imaginary action. I count myself among those players.

That’s why the recruitment missions feel so powerful–the need to bring in allies of similar mindset, who confirm and justify your beliefs that there’s something wrong with the current situation that calls for action, even of the direct and aggressive variety–is something many of us feel right now, whether or not that’s a reasonable mindset.

There are plenty of reviews talking about how cool it is to search out the various abilities (or weapons) different characters have as you build your team; I’ll acknowledge that aspect of the system but not dwell on it.

I will mention that the game has an option for permadeath for your operatives, and I can’t imagine playing the game without this option. The consequences, the drama of recruitment and selection of a particular character, make the whole system of having no single protagonist worth it; if you can’t lose the characters you recruit, that system loses much of its narrative weight. I lost about a half-dozen characters in my playthrough, most of them being “specialist” operatives with better skills and equipment than the average recruit: I lost an anarchist (one of the best character “classes” if you’re focusing on less-lethal tactics), a spy (my particular favorite character), a professional hitman (I thought that an amateur hitman was just a murderer, but, lo and behold, I did later recruit an “amateur hitman”), a deputy director of the Met, and a few others. Their losses–especially in otherwise successful story missions–were keenly felt, and that was the point, wasn’t it?

Otherwise, the gameplay was nothing unexpected for a GTA/Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/Etc.-style of game. Less free-running and more hacking, but otherwise in line with expectations. Admittedly, I played the game on “normal” difficulty which, despite my losses, seemed easier than I should have selected for optimal enjoyment. If you liked the previous Watch Dog games, you’ll like the way this one plays.

Ultimately, the game’s narrative was less satisfying than I’d initially expected. I called the nature of Zero-Day a mile away, and the plot points of the missions hit a little too hard on the tropes and cliches of the genre: the THEMIS idea essentially rehashed Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, the Skye Larson plot played out the typical mad scientist trope (while sidestepping all of the actually-interesting philosophical and practical issues of mind-uploading by making her a monster), and Mary Kelley played an unnuanced criminal mastermind the likes of which have starred in many a poor detective story. The most emotional point of the story’s ending is immediately undone after the credits roll. Part of me liked that, but it was a cheap happiness to be sure.

Fortunately, the nature of the game itself, rather than the plot, brought some nuance with it. As with Watch Dogs 2 (so I’m told), the game pushes you toward a less-lethal approach to combat. You can only unlock less-lethal weapons for your characters (some recruits come with lethal weapons, but that’s the only way to get them) and even the “takedown” animations that show a neck being broken or the hitman garroting a victim to death are revealed to be less lethal attacks in the game’s treatment of them.

As a brief digression, I found the distribution of lethal weapons on recruitable characters–especially in London–to be ridiculous. It’s at least plausible that the Spy has a silenced pistol, or that the Professional Hitman comes with a pistol and assault rifle, but that’s not the half of it.

One of the first people I passed in the game was a “Tourist” with an M249 light machine gun. I chalked it up to satire of Americans, but then I also added to my potential recruits list a Chef with the same weapon. And then a University Researcher with a silenced pistol. As it turned out the number of people casually packing in dystopian London–heavy weapons no less–mystified.

But that aside, the game’s push toward less-lethal weapons made me continually ask myself about the morality of using lethal weapons in the fight. And this is particularly where I’d wished I’d set the difficulty to a higher level. As it stood, there where many missions where I could send in a Professional Hitman and run-and-gun my way through Albion personnel, stopping shooting to hack only when necessary. I wished that the difficulty had been higher so that the hero fantasy of blasting one’s way through faceless neo-fascist bad guys without a care in the world might have been less accessible, along with all of its accompanying problems. But, ignoring the moral question within the game, I continued to ponder the point at which armed resistance becomes an acceptable approach–it is never a “good” approach. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think violence can ever truly overcome evil–only delay it–and that thought reverberated for me as I confronted my programmed “enemies.”

It was certainly the fact that the setting of the game resonated with current fears and concerns about the future of the U.S. that led me to all of these thoughts, and it was morality and politics that traveled through my brain while playing the game far more than any consideration of privacy or technology issues. Even now, as I write this review, I’m continually refreshing the AP’s report on 2020 election results, full of some hope for the presidential results but mostly dread at the stark divide in my nation, the number of people who seem to value their own economic prosperity (manufactured as that may be) over ideas of democracy, justice, equality, or any of the other things I see as the ideals that justify the messiness and difficulty of our political system.

I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or at least before I’m too far behind. I’ll conclude with this: I enjoyed playing through Watch Dogs: Legion, but it was far from an amazing experience. More important, I came away from this game wondering (in all sense of the word) how the cyberpunk stories and games of my youth seemed to be more prophetic year after year. As much as I enjoy playing games like Shadowrun, or Deus Ex, or Watch Dogs, that’s not a direction I would consciously chose. Which, in turn, made me a little embarrassed to play this game after all, feeling like I was turning my angst to video games rather than getting “out there” and doing something that might help incite meaningful change in the world. Do I feel like that’s even possible, or have I turned to a game like this because I’m beginning to feel powerless? Or is the coincidence of this game’s release with the 2020 election simply a serendipitous synchronicity of memes and fears as to put me in existential angst?

I don’t think any of that was what Watch Dogs’ creators intended it to be. But for me, that was my Watch Dogs: Legion: a self-inflicted reverie about my place in and responsibilities to the world. As I look back at this article, weird as it turned out to be, I think it reflects the course of my experience with the game–a journey from light-hearted escapism into contemplating much tougher questions and concepts. Was that worth my sixty bucks? Maybe.

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

Tom Clancy’s Division Tabletop (Fate) RPG

I’d been recently gearing up to run a tabletop game (using the Fate RPG) set in the world Tom Clancy’s Division. First, my potential players asked for more granularity than Fate usually offers, so I created the attached rules for weapons, equipment and encumbrance.

About the time of getting through the first draft of the rules for character creation (and the accompanying program), discussion among us turned to the fact that this setting might just hit a little too close to home right now to fully be the kind of distracting amusement we could all use. At the same time, two of the other people in the group both offered to GM–if we played D&D.

So, this project has been put on the shelf, maybe indefinitely (I have to admit that, if I had my ‘druthers, I’d have stuck closer to the Core rules of Fate without all of the added complexity). Nevertheless, this was a very interesting exercise for me in game design, particularly in pushing the boundaries of the Fate system’s intent without (hopefully) breaking it.

Anyway, the rules I’m including here are for character creation, as I hadn’t gotten to the rest of the rules (settlements, group combat, etc.) that I’d intended to write. They could be easily adapted to any higher-granularity modern military-style game; feel free to take what you want and leave the rest.

I’ve included a character-generation spreadsheet that will help calculate all of the weapon design and encumbrance matters for you, as well as some premade weapons and archetypal character builds to provide some examples for the system as a whole.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I can apply comments and criticisms to my future design efforts, whether for Fate or for something else.

Division Fate Character Creation Unfinished
Fate Division Archetypes
Fate Division Character Spreasheet In-Progress v2
Fate Division Weapon Premades

 

 

Faith, Fiction & Frostgrave: Laying a Foundation

The last few weeks have been a little crazy (hence a lack of posts), but I’ve managed to sneak in a little time on some projects–the one below and some other things that will make their way to the blog shortly.

If you’ve looked at my previous posts on Frostgrave, you’ll see that I have two warbands painted and some terrain under construction. Recently, I completed most of the construction work on the first level of the large square central tower I’m building for the Silent Tower scenario (and whatever else it happens to be useful for–I’m not sure whether the new edition of the core book coming out this year will mean a change in scenarios). It struck me that, given the design of the building and the idea that (at the time at least) I had no intention for making the levels separable from one another, I’d ought to paint and finish the base and lower level before adding more to it that would make it even more difficult to paint the lower areas. If I’d been smarter, I’d have done all of the brickwork painting on the inside of the building before attaching parts of the second-level walkway (as you’ll see, I caught myself before finishing that installation and diverted to the painting!). Live and learn, I suppose.

It’s been a long while since I’ve painted terrain, and I had–and have–a lot to learn and relearn. I took a lot of cues from the Black Magic Craft videos for the stonework (though my technique isn’t near as good as his so far), and I even followed his instructions to make my own terrain washes using Liquitex acrylic inks.

I’m giving myself a B+ for the results. It’s not as good as I’d like, but it’s still a terrain piece I’ll be happy to put on my table and play on. I may consider some additional accents, like vines on the walls and perhaps the addition of some torches or lanterns, once I’ve finished the other levels. In future works, I think I’ll be using some lighter tones for the wood, but I used here what I had on hand and I think it turned out just fine for a sort of cedar-look.

I’ve opted for a muddy coloring for the base earth for the terrain, as I wanted some color contrast to the stony grey that will be ubiquitous in the buildings themselves. I’m happy with how this turned out and I’ll be adding some embellishments to other pieces–puddles where the ice and snow has melted and pooled, particularly mushy and gross mud patches, etc.

I admittedly had some issues with the snow–at least to my taste. I was using the Busch snow paste, and the top of the container held a pastier type of snow easier to create ridges and textures with. When working on this piece and delving deeper into the container, I found that the component parts had separated out into the pastier part and a heavy liquid. Like an idiot, my immediate response was to stir everything back together, which gave me a flowy-ier, smoother compound that makes for fluffy banks but wasn’t so much the look I wanted. And, I realize I didn’t think about the effects of the direction of the sun in determining where to put my snow, but meh.

On the other hand, it was driving me crazy trying to figure out how the Busch snow paste is made so that I could replicate my own in larger quantities and for cheaper. The paste had an immediately-identifiable smell to me–spackling paste–but I wasn’t sure about the other parts. After some thought, though, I think I’ve zeroed in on enough of the materials to create something very similar. If I get good results, I’ll post my recipe for your use.

In the meantime, enjoy some pictures of the work so far. Helpful criticism is welcome–I’m always happy to learn better ways to do things!

Frostgrave Continues

I haven’t posted about Frostgrave in a while, and I didn’t want you to think that I’d given up on the project. With NaNoWriMo going on, the kids, and everything else, it had taken a back seat to other projects, but I found some time over the holidays to do some serious work on my terrain. (I also only made 10,000 words progress on my novel-in-progress in December, but that’s a lamentation for another time.)

Word has come out that Frostgrave will receive a 2nd edition this year, with a release around June. I’m going to try to work to have my miniatures (warbands and bestiary) and terrain fully-painted and ready to go for that release.

I’ve decided that my “main” board for the game will be a set of modular 1 ft. x 1 ft. tiles with some pieces of freestanding, smaller scatter terrain. It’s easier to store, easier to set up and take down, and easier to expand. The Proxxon wire cutter has made my projects much easier and more elaborate (if not necessarily less time-consuming).

After using some of Gerard Boom’s (at shiftinglands.com) arch templates and angle-cutting Proxxon add-on, I’ve recently ordered most of the rest of his Proxxon tools and I’m anxiously awaiting for them to arrive. The only ones I haven’t bought so far are the geometric shape cutter, the dome cutter, and the shapeshifter. I figured I’d work to get proficient with the other tools before I worry too much about those more complex ones. Already, though, I know I’m going to want them.  A new one will be available sometime in the coming months!

Spending some time studying techniques, combined with the new tools I have available, has allowed me to really “level-up” my terrain building skill. Below, you’ll see some progress shots and current-status pics of my latest work. I’m going to let it speak for itself rather than trying to put a whole lot more (digital) ink to (digital) paper for this post.

 

Of course, I’ve got lots of basing work to do (and a roof), and then it’ll be on to painting and detailing!