Saturday, 28 February 2015

Steve Versus Homeworld

I've been gaming for quite a few years now, but I have actually been playing video games far longer than I have been playing tabletop games. I didn't play my first tabletop game until about 1993, maybe 92. In contrast, I played my first video game on the old Vic 20 computer system in the early 80's. In honour of my long video game history, I am going to discuss my experience with a single game: Relic's 1999 RTS classic, Homeworld.

Steve's (Lack of) Skills
First, some background on my video game abilities. Despite many, many hours of dedicated play, I am pretty bad at most video games. Over the years there has been 1 or 2 that I played enough to be passable at, but I have never been a top skilled player. The reasons for this are varied, but I will focus on a few highlights. Reason the first:I am a clumsy, uncoordinated sort of person. I don't excel at sports, music, dancing, or anything that requires grace or timing. This carries over into my fine motor skills. My so-called "twitch" reflexes are always a little behind.Playing any sort of game that requires twitch reflexes ends with me losing, especially if I'm playing against other humans. Reason the second: I have a bad habit of engaging in "non-optimal play". My competitive spirit seems to be a little lackluster, so instead of finding the optimal way to win a game, I tend to pursue a strategy that matches my mood. I know this is non-optimal, and I just don't care. Winning is just not important enough to me for me to ruin whatever "idea" I have in my head for what a game should be. These reasons, combined with several others, are why I prefer tabletop RPGs.

The Damned Game
Homeworld released back in 1999. I was in my 3rd year of college. I remember the advertisements for Homeworld in the pages of gaming magazines from the time (magazines made of real paper!). At first I was confused at what Homeworld was, then I became skeptical, and then finally excited by the hype. How could I not?
This is from 1999. It still looks pretty damn awesome

I pre-ordered Homeworld, upgraded my computer to run it, bought it on release day, and dived into its brilliance. The game blew me away. Its music is still with me, with its beautiful choirs and haunting melodies. The voice acting matched the music, with awesome chatter for combat ships, and subtle, nuanced voices for major characters. The game had a graphical fidelity unlike anything I had seen in 99, and ship designs were excellent.

That just leaves gameplay. Homeworld is a 3D real-time strategy with spaceships. You collect resources, build units, and wage war. The game has a limited resource bottleneck, forcing you to make tough decisions about which ships to build, how to employ them, and how much you are willing to risk. After each mission, surviving members of your fleet can carry on to the next, making risk management even more important. The other thing to note: It's tough. Homeworld has no difficulty settings, it has a set difficulty for you to overcome and it sets the bar high.

Repeated Failures
I love Homeworld, but I have never beaten it. I tried first in 99, and then again maybe 2 years later. I forgot about it for over a decade, but I found an old copy on Amazon back in 2012. I was surprised when the old game worked on my system at all, but I was most surprised when things went even worse for me this time around. I am terrible at this game.

Non-Optimal Play
So let's talk strategy. Why do suck so bad at Homeworld? The answer is I'm playing it "wrong". I looked at a bunch of strategy guides, and they all recommended the same optimal strategy: Don't kill enemy ships. First you damage them a bunch, and then send in your salvage ship to steal them and re-purpose them. Build your fleet up by stealing the enemy's and making it your own. This alleviates the resource bottleneck, and allows you to build a large and powerful fleet. 

Fuck. That. Noise.
I am not playing this game to wound and salvage the enemy. I'm playing to kill him and avenge my people! (the story of the game puts me on solid ground with this one). Wounding and stealing enemy ships gives me ZERO satisfaction. I want blast my enemy into space dust. Apparently, this desire to engage in this fun but non-optimal play style cripples my chances at beating this game. Well, I don't care. I am in this to destroy my enemies, and that is exactly what I will do.

Last Chance to Dance
This extended rant comes on the heels of the HD re-release of Homeworld. It's a beautiful remastering of the original game, and I am looking forward to playing it one last time. Will I play the game differently? A little. I will be more careful about ship losses and how I spend resources. I will quicksave frequently and not be afraid to lose progress to try something over in a better way. But I will not abandon my non-optimal play. Doing so, despite the higher probability of success that it will bring, would make the game un-fun. I do want to win, but I want to win on my terms. Anything less would be cheating. It would not be cheating the game, but cheating myself, and that is something I cannot do.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later. Right now, I have a fleet to command and enemy ships to destroy.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Creative Construction

After a long absence that I will not be explaining for once, I am back. Let’s just dive right in.

My weekly 5th Edition game continues at the local game store. Life does obstruct this game from time to time, but I persevere, and my players are seeming to have a good time. Today’s blog is about last week’s adventure, and specifically, the monster I put in it. 

Quick back story: the PCs are working for a powerful church in the hopes of earning a resurrection for their dead comrade. While on a mission, one player used a very unreliable artifact to save the day. The side-effect was the opening of a sealed gate to some demon dimension or other. The players had to then travel to gate and close it with the same unreliable artifact. Problem in the way: Something got out.

That something was a nameless horror. It being nameless, I get to name it, so I shall name it Phil. Phil was a fun challenge for the PCs, primarily because they didn’t know what to expect. You can’t find Phil in any monster manual or guidebook. I made Phil entirely from scratch… or did I?

Phil is a giant, blind, enormous crab monster with dozens of spear-like segmented legs. He radiates fear like a dragon, casts magical darkness at will,  has 300 hp, AC 20, and a fun attack mechanism. His spear-legs tap their surroundings to echolocate their targets and then strike with such unerring precision that it’s a dex save to avoid them. Every round that a PC stays in range of Phil’s claws, more legs strike out, doing more and more damage as his targeting solution improves. For the record, I like Phil.

So why is Phil the way he is? Because he was custom built for facing the party. I designed him to take on all the PCs at once, inflict damage that got worse as the fight went along, and included multiple ways to get around him (which no one noticed or bothered to use). In the end, the party beat Phil down, but not before he savaged several of the PCs and dropped two of them to 0 HP.

Afterwards, one of my players, a young teen (most of my players are young teens), asked me how I thought him up. I didn’t give a very satisfactory response, and said something like, “I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years, and designing them for 5, I just kinda figured it out.” So young player (who is also an aspiring GM) here’s how I thought up Phil.

Time Crunch
I knew I was working with limited time. My game had to run in under 4 hours, and there was a lot of stuff leading up to Phil, so I had to limit the time allotted for the final battle. That means one big boss instead of a group or team of bosses. 1 boss means less book keeping, a simpler combat sequence, and less for everyone to keep track of. Despite the Phil’s heap of hit points, and high AC, running one big bad is faster and easier than lots. Also, Phil’s attacks were all saves made by the PCs instead of me rolling the dice. This meant there was even less for me to track.

Large Party
Phil needed to take on 7-9 PCs so to make a threat I need him to be able to do a lot in a round. He also needed to survive a lot of punishment, as I know my PCs can pour out buckets of damage. The first idea that came to mind was an octopus or other larger creature with lots of limbs. Phil got his armoured carapace (and thus high AC) from a similar monster in the first half-life video game, that giant spikey crab monster was terrifying then. I’m sure it would be now. So Phil can attack a lot, and he can hit every PC every turn. His armour class makes him hard to hit, and his high HP ensures the PCs won’t take him out with a few lucky hits.

Creating Fear
Phil is scary. He lurks in darkness,  and taps at his surroundings to “see.” I got the idea of an echolocating monster from a recent episode of NPR that talked about blind people using clicking noises to echolocate. I knew that knocking on the table like Phil’s claws would build tension before I revealed him. Phil had the magical fear spell to back me up on creating tension, but I knew it would be better to pull it off by making him menacing before the fear spell hit. Once the PC’s dispelled Phil’s darkness I tried to describe him as being as alien as possible, and tap into that innate human fear of things we don’t understand. I was aiming for something akin to a Cthulhu Mythos horror, I’m not sure how well that worked out, but the players seemed nervous and off-put, so I achieved at least some success.

Phil was not a true Cthulhu monster in that he could be killed, and he had certain built-in weaknesses. The biggest weakness, that only some of the PCs realized, is that Phil was immobile. They found him hulking over a vineyard structure in partially destroyed convent that contained the aforementioned dimensional gate (sidenote: Convent with demon gate is an idea straight-up lifted from a New Orleans ghost tour I attended the week before the game). Phil was stuck, though, he could lash out with his spear claws, but he lacked the strength to drag his armoured carapace anywhere. Several of the PCs realized this, held back, and attacked at range. Phil could only return fire with a relatively weak firebolt spell. Phil’s second main weakness was spin-up: he need  several rounds of targeting a PC before his attacks did full damage. If the characters had played smarter, moving in and then out of range of his attacks, they would have faced a much lower risk.

Ultimate Demise
Those who take great risk earn great reward when they succeed. One of my PC’s allowed himself to be impaled by Phil in the hopes of getting in closer for a better attack. Phil did his level best to devour this daring fellow, but failed, so when Phil’s HP got low, I planned to let this PC land the killing blow. As it turns out, the PC landed the attack that crossed the 300 HP threshold, so there didn’t have to be any fudging of the numbers on my part. Phil died and the PC’s then closed the breach. A good time was had by all, except for Phil. 

In Conclusion
I created Phil to fulfill a specific need in a very specific amount of time. I gave him stats that I knew would work for my game, and drew inspiration from science, Cthulhu mythos, aquatic creatures, psychology, legends, and video games. No part of Phil is truly original, but my blending of so many elements hopefully made him seem as though he was. By building my own monster I put all of the players back on their heels, creating the uncertainty and fear that people feel when they face the unknown. Phil fought, Phil died, and the PCs prevailed. 

Good game, Phil.
Rest in peace.