Some random braging

The Settlers II was one of my favorite games when I first started playing videogames as a 12-year old. And now I’ve finally beaten it, over 20 years later!

The whole thing took me about 80 hours over a whole month, and somewhat strangely I can conclude that it’s not a very interesting game anymore and I really don’t recommend it to anyone. This effort was done entirely based on nostalgia. But still. Beat it!

I’ve started to love the Darkest Dungeon

When I first got Darkest Dungeon about a year ago, I had a really hard time with it. I’m the kind of player who never uses potions and hoards all the money because “I might really need them later”. And then never using any of them even in the final fight. This became a big problem and led to me getting almost completely stuck. When I tried to get back into the game, I went to look up for advice on how to really play the game, and I learned two very important lessons. “Don’t waste money by trying to make all your characters recover immediately after a run.” I always spend almost all my money on recovery. “The most important thing is to use all your money to upgrade skills and equipment.” I never put any resources into unlocking equipment or any money into buying equipment. My reasoning was that any weapons and armor I bought would be lost when that character dies and all the money wasted. And this is the kind where it’s “when the character dies” and not “if the character dies”. But it seems leveling up a character does not actually increase the stats, or at least not in any substenntial ways. Increasing stats is done through upgrading weapons and armor. So yeah, I was trying to play the whole game with effectively level 0 characters. It explains a lot. Now that I learned my mistake I actually managed to defeat my first boss in week 81 and it’s all been so much easier from there.

Now that I am no longer treading in place, I got the chance to finally fully enjoy the things other than the combat that the game has to offer. It’s actually a fairly simple game without any plot. I think you could describe it as somewhere halfway between X-Com and Rogue. Pick your team of four characters from your barrack and send them into a dungeon to get money to buy upgrades and level them up, while every so often some of them die and have to be replaced with new recruits. Until at some point you can form a party powerful enough to beat the Darkest Dungeon. But a lot of praised has been heaped on the game for its presentation and I think it’s entirely justified. It looks great, and it sounds great, and it actually has some very interesting worldbuilding going on. This game does not have “lore” in any way that I have discovered yet like an Elder Scrolls or Dark Souls game for example. There is no history, no characters, no places, and things like that. Instead it has the kind of worldbuilding that consists of consistent repeating imagery and symbols, and various simple rules of what is what in this world. It’s not even terribly original. It’s basically Lovecraftian Gothic Horror. But the way it’s put together is very appealing to me. There is very little substance, but it’s all so evocative that it forms into something much bigger in my mind that keeps me deeply engaged.

The first story I want to share is that of Stafford Jr. After my first couple of runs through the dungeons, I recruited my first character of the Leper class. Who happened to be named Stafford. The leper is perhaps the most one dimensional class in the game. He hits really hard with his big sword and seems to have high resistances, but can’t do much else and doesn’t even hit very consistently. But when he hits, it’s massive. I really liked having Stafford in my team but unfortunately he was in my first group that got completely wiped out in an attempt to fight a boss. Every single one of them died, and it was such a grueling and epic fight that Stafford was done in by a heart attack from massive stress. It was awesome, but also sad. So when I recruited a new leper a bit later, I gave him the same brass and red armor style and renamed him to Stafford Jr. Stafford Jr. ended up becoming even cooler than his predecessor. From his descends into the maddening dungeons he gained a couple of quirks. First he decided that he would refuse any kind of stress recovery except for praying at the chappel. He also started to believe that he is possessed by demons that make him touch strange and highly dangerous things the party finds in the dungeons. It’s all randomly generated and was in no way planned by the developers. But it just so happened. A man in a decaying body covered in brass armor, who carries a massive swords and spends a lot of time in prayer at a church because he’s convinced he is possessed by demons. I normally very much support the advice that you shouldn’t put any of your characters from games into your stories, but I know I just have to use Stafford Jr. in some way.

Another thing I love about the game is the Occultist, which is perhaps my favorite type of wizard I’ve ever seen in a game. An occultist was one of the very first characters I recruited in addition to my starting crusader and highwayman and I stil have him around as one of my highest level characters. Unfortunately he has a strange name that I don’t recall right now. The best thing about him, as I said, are his spells. I primarily use him as a secondary healer, using his wyrd reconstruction spell. Perhaps the oddest but also most awesome healing spell I’ve ever seen. Any time it is used, it heals between 0 to 13 points of damage, and in addition the target has a chance to suffer a bleed effect, regardless of the result. This is interesting because all his other powers consists of cursed and summoning tentacles that attack your enemies. There is no lore about this power, but it’s clearly implied that there’s some kind of barely controlled body horror going on. It can end up not healing any damage at all and even causing additional damage through bleeding, but it also has the potential to heal a lot more damage than the healing of a priestess. Or it heals a lot of damage and also causes continuing bleeding at the same time. This kind of implied worldbuilding really works for me.

Similar things are going on with the environments and enemies. Again, the enemies are nothing really that new. There are a lot of skeletons, bandits, and various tentacled thing, and then there are also various typed of humanoid pigs, which are encountered on runs into the Warrens, one of the four main dungeon types in the game. There’s also a normal dungeon with mostly undead, a creepy forest with bandits and mushroom men, and a watery cave with fish men and various sea creatures. Where the narrator once gave this awesome line after I successfully finished a run.

At last, wholesome marine life can flourish – if indeed there is such a thing.

This game knows where it’s roots and inspirations lie. But I find the warrens to be the most intriguing ones as the implied worldbuilding goes. Visually it’s a generic dungeon, but the majority of enemies you encounter are pig men. And the entire time you’re there, you can faintly hear them squealing in the distance. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds. Al ready a good start, but then I noticed this line from the narrator at the start of exploration missions.

To prosecute our war against the Swine, we must first scout their squalid homes.

“War against the swine”. As far as I am aware, this is only a throwaway line with no narrative meaning. But I find it really evocative. The raids into the dungeon are a war? Somehow this makes me imagine a really different type of background story than a simple dungeon crawl to get loot and level up. It’s such a tiny thing, but it implies a much bigger and detailed world than there really is. Which I don’t consider cheating at all, but as a fan of horror techniques as really very elegant design. What you feel that probably should be there is always much more fascinating than anything you could ever actually spell out. Darkest Dungeon is really good at that, or at the very least it really manages to put out just the right hints that get my own imagination racing.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

Where Blizzard went wrong

I first played Diablo and StarCraft very late. Diablo a while after I had played Diablo II at its release, and StarCraft only when it was already over ten years old. I found Diablo to be somewhat simplistic but still a lot of fun playing through it once. StarCraft on the other hand is an awesome game that has aged really well. It’s just as playable today as it was 20 years ago.

But when StarCraft II came out, I couldn’t really get into it. I only finished the Terran campaign after the Zerg campaign was released, and I only got a third through that one before I lost any interest in the game. Diablo III I never really felt like playing from all I’ve seen about it before and after its release. The problem with these games for me isn’t gameplay. From what I can tell, gameplay in StarCraft and StarCraft II is identical. Not a fan of the main base menu and dialog cutscenes addition, but that’s something that can be breezed throught quite painlessly without disrupting the actual game much. And Diablo III at least looks like it plays the same as Diablo II.

These days I’ve started to realize that the main problem I have with these games is their overall style, or perhaps more fittingly their feel. StarCraft II and Diablo III just don’t feel right. They look wrong. WarCraft III is one of my favorite games that I think I played almost every year since its release. The graphics took a bit to get used to, but for the slightly quirky fantasy setting, it worked. The same colorful cartoony style isn’t working for StarCraft and Diablo. WarCraft has always been colorful, but these two had graphics that were grainy and dominated by washed out grays and browns. I wouldn’t say they are pretty, and in fact I’d even say they are kind of ugly looking. But the games had a clear visual style that is matching perfectly with their dark themes and stories. The new cartoony laser beam spectacle creates a feel and overall style that is quite different from the older games. It’s hard to say which one came first, but the new graphics are matching the new tone of the stories. Blizard games have always been somewhat pulpy, but Diablo and StarCraft were very earnest at being grim and gritty. The cutscenes in the first Terran campaign had some campy humor to them, but that quickly disappeared as the story progressed. WarCraft III on the other hand is overly dramtic, but at least in a somewhat charming campy way. But in these recent games, this aspect is lacking. Instead of being more sedate, the stories and cutscenes turned out to the point of being cheesy. Overall this leads to a completely different appearance, in which drama and spectacle take center stage and genuine gloom and bleakness are thrown out the window.

Fantasy cliches I don’t like

There are good reasons to not dismiss something out of hand simply for it being commonly regarded as a cliche. Something being a cliche does not come from it’s inherent flaws, but from the flaws of numerous inferior immitators. Every cliche once started as an original idea that served a meaningful role that was highly important to the work it appeared in. But that being said, there are still real problems with making use of cliches. When an element is included in a fantasy work because the creators believe that it’s expected and a default component, then you have exactly the situation where the element is present without any context that makes it relevant and meaningful. Even more so, when you keep doing things the way it’s commonly expected, you end up just retelling the same bland generic stories that have been worn down to be without any distinguishing features. And so, back when I first started to create a fantasy world, I made a couple of choices what common fantasy elements I really don’t want to include. Not for the lofty goal of being original, but to protect myself from blindly going with the flow and end up in places I never wanted to be.

  • Save the World: This is the lowest common denominator of motivations. Seeing yourself killed and anything you ever loved destroyed is something everyone wants to avoid regardless of circumstances and context. It’s lazy, and that makes it bland. Also, once the world is saved, you really cut off any chance to continue from there in a satisfying way.
  • Dark Lords: Yawn. Vader is interesting because he’s a lackey. The Emperor is interesting because he’s so unassuming and his sorcerous powers come as a surprise. Lord Death Knight Demon Warlocj isn’t.
  • Demonic Invasion: There are a couple of cool ones, but I just don’t want to use it myself.
  • Chosen Ones: I find these intelectually offensive. The idea that a person is perfect and will automatically succeed because the powers that be decided it will be so is not just dead boring, it also implies that effort is irrelevant and some people are just better than others with no doing on their own.
  • Prophecies: There are two types of cliche prophecies. The one type that tells you in advance what will happen with complete accuracy and as such remove any hope of tension from the story. And the type that can only be understood after the the prophecised event has already happened and is therefore completely useless. I actually did end up coming up with an idea to make supernaturalinsights into possible futures interesting, relevant, and non-spoiling, but that came out of my wish to not do either of those cliches.
  • Lost Golden Ages: Like chosen ones, this one just doesn’t sit right with me ideologically. It’s the idea of “everything used to be better in the past”, which in reality always only means “I miss being previleged and getting unfairly advantaged over other people”. Not all development is automatically progress. But this feels way too close to wishing to restore a past that never existed in which the person felt previleged, so I don’t want to touch it.
  • It actually is post-apocalyptic Earth: Get out and never talk to me again.

Writing more interesting characters

The majority of all supporting characters outside of movies are really bland. “Barkeep”, “Guard”, and “Thief” are fully comprehensive summaries of their entire personalities. Even worse when it happens to main characters. And it’s not that movie are immune to it. There are movies with characters written like that. Generally bad movies.

But think for example of any other characters from Conan stories. If you are a commited fan, you might be able to give a name to “the princess in People of theBlack Circle” or “the sorcerer from The Tower of the Elephant“. But it would be close to impossible to describe them as characters instead of the specific things they did. The Lord of the Rings is even much worse. Describe anything about the characters of Legolas and Gimli in the book. One is an elf and son of Thranduil, the other a dwarf and son of Gloin. That’s about all their is to them. I think this is not just wasteful writing, but also lazy.

My solution to this is to draw up a character sheet for all characters that are added to a story. Not defining them by various numbers or parameters, but making a list of traits that could distinguish them from others and make them memorable in some way. Unusual physical features, iconic pieces of clothing, quirky habbits, notable forms of speech, a special weapon or tool. Anything that could make the audience remember the character as “that guy with the thing” instead of “the guy who did that”.

Awesome future novel idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds

Unlike previous awesome future novel ideas, this is one I actually plan to give a try very soon. It’s something I am still bouncing around in my head but intend to give a shot as soon as I have more of the basics figured out. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m impulsive and have a very poor track record of completing long term hobby works.

The idea is a synthesis of the conceptual work I did on the Ancient Lands and Dark World settings that also incorporates my love for the great neo-noir and wuxia movies from the mid-90s forward. At the center stands a world that is full of life, but hostile to people. A world in which the spirits of the land rule, with civilization confined to small enclaves along the coasts where priests and sorcerers maintain a tenuous state of stability. It’s a world in which the forces of nature are particularly powerful and unpredictable, as are the spirits who control them. Civilization is in an eternal state of siege and to keep the constantly encroaching wilderness at bay, the priests and sorcerers need to know what is going on beyond the borders of civilization.

Within this context exists a special class of scouts, who are knowledgeable in eldritch lore and accustomed to the ways of the barbarians who inhabit the lands of their wild gods. The scouts are not soldiers, though most of them are mercenaries of a sort, offering their skills and knowledg to the courts and temples for pay. They are a society of their own, at home both in the wilds and civilized lands, but set appart from either population by their delvings into esoteric things. Violence is not their trade, but alone among barbarians and magical beasts, they are highly skilled with spear and bow. Among each other, knowledge is the main currency of their trade and connections worth more than gold. Yet there is also great rivalry and competition and out in the wilds they are beyond the laws of either kings or tribes.

C6?

While it’s really well made, I’ve always been thinking that making a Conan RPG based on the d20 system was a really odd and unfitting choice. The extremely steep power gradient between 1st and 20th level just doesn’t seem right. But running the Conan game in an E6 variant? Now that seems like a really interesting thought.

The beautiful worlds of E6

At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.

But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.

But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.