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Things were good for a while. Too good to be true.
And they were.
I have a received another postcard from Death, except that this time it isn't just a postcard. It is an invitation. I am hoping to courteously decline, of course, but ultimately the Surgical Hospital of Helsinki will find out how to best do that. It could be nothing (okay, oral necrosis hardly counts as "nothing") but it could also be something really, really bad. In any case, it will hurt like hell and I will be miserable in January. I am now on the waiting list for surgery and the invitation to pain and torment should come in a few weeks. So if you find me a tad depressed over the next few (dozen) days, this is why. I've resolved not to give up on any activities and will push ahead with the Spanish Basics so that I can have my Bachelor's Degree by the New Year's Eve.
I hurt, therefore I am.
My present contract with Sanoma Media ends in the beginning of December. I still expect December to be quiet on the job front but nevertheless, Burger Games is open for business and frankly, I could use a distraction. Just let me work mostly from home after the surgery, okay? I could have trouble speaking but there is nothing wrong with my brains or my fingers. Besides, industrial-strength painkillers can really stimulate creativity. :)
I have been doing some heavy-duty adventuring in Skyrim (level 30, woo!) and now that I have trained my fingers to use the less-than-optimal control setup, I have to say this is one of the best games I've ever played and comes close to being the very best. What game is the best at any one time really depends on the mood, you know? In any case, Skyrim is so good that it is actually making me consider trying Oblivion, even though my friends say this is something no sane person should ever attempt without extensive modding. We'll see.
Speaking of fantasy gaming, I should really arrange a second meeting with master Hiltunen. The previous impromptu meeting was good enough rekindle my interest in fantasy adventuring after a dry period that has lasted for years. And then Skyrim landed and that place *is* the realm of Angar in Jaconia, mark my words. Now that there is also a slight hint of rain in the dry air of the wasteland that is the Praedor franchise, I would really like to do something more for the Praedor roleplaying game.
Especially when there is this slight chance it might be the last thing I do...
No, they have nothing to do with each other.
FSCONS is free software and culture convention held in Göteborg, Sweden. I was as there as part of the Electronic Frontier Finland (EFFI) delegation and at first fearful of it being just a bit-tech event. I could not have been more wrong: the free culture tracks in the programme were very strong and Richard Stahlman's presentation actually made me feel like a traitor to the cause. Many of the companies I have worked for or have been my clients belong to the opposite camp, albeit most never make a big number out of it. My spouse, Leena, thought there were plenty of women around this time. I did not think so but it is true that in these events anything more than 3 women counts as "a lot". And don't you male geeks look so smug. Excluding half of the human race is the biggest weakness of the entire information technology scene.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable event. Actually it was incredible and I will go there again, if they let me in. After all, the number of tickets on sale is very restricted and go on first-come, first-served basis. FSCONS simply does not want to outgrow its present premises. And I guess they don't have enough Ubuntu Cola to go around. On the downside, Leena is now yearning for a 3D printer at home...
Once I got back, I gave Skyrim a go.
I am becoming interested in fantasy again, largely because of Petri Hiltunen who showed me some "stuff" about two weeks ago, or about a week before Skyrim came out. Somehow, somewhere, the developers got the word and decided to make a fantasy CRPG just for me. This is no small feat. I rarely like computer roleplaying games and haven't liked an electronic fantasy RPG since the Amiga days. Besides, my previous experiences from the Elder Scrolls series are bad. However, the developers of Skyrim sent out their spies to find out what particular region of Jaconia I was becoming interested in and set the game right there. It's a fucking bullseye.
The latest game in the Elder Scrolls series takes the player to the far north of Tamriel, the game world of the series. Here is the land of Skyrim, a region of snow-capped mountains, deep forests, wind-swept tundras and gushing waterfalls. It is a place of harsh and staggering beautry, with changing daytimes and even seasons (winter is coming). The art direction mixes the High Middle Ages/Roman flavour of the earlier ES games with Scandinavian and Old Rus elements. The result is closer to Conan than Tolkien, even if there are elves, cat-people and lizardmen about (dwarves too, at least in the form of relics from a long-lost race). And instead being the usual pointy-eared jailbaits of AD&D, the elves of Skyrim are alien enough to be a distinct people of their own.
The story rocks. Skyrim, long part of the Empire, is in rebellion after Empire's peace treaty with elves outlawed the worship of their primary god. As legionnaires and stormcloaks are battling it out and the society as a whole is eroding around them, dragons, always thought to be mere myths, choose to return and wreak havoc on everybody and everything. But when there are dragons, there is also the dragonborn, the hero who can defeat them absorb their souls to awaken dragon powers within. I can already shout many things in draconian, including an icy breath blast on par with that of the ice dragons. Some dragon locations are scripted but they also roam around, resulting in epic battles as they fly through a storm of arrows to set fire to cities and towns.
Me? I am a praedor. I scour the deep and forgotten corners of Skyrim is search of gold and ancient treasure and could not care less of the war. The world is a huge sandbox and I explore, explore, explore... together with storyline and stand-alone quests there must be a hundred hours worth playing here. And best of all, it really lets me play as I want. So I am a praedor, a warrior and mystic but instead of casting fireballs about, my magic is in alchemy and enchantments woven into the engravings of my armour and into the depths of soulstones. This is exactly the kind of magic that I like. Slow, ritualistic, low-key and yet powerful. Although spells exist in Skyrim, bashing the mage's teeth in with my improved and enchanted dwarven axe will cut that mumbo jumbo short.
Never have I seen a levelling system this good in a computer game. You get levels as in most fantasy RPGs but what you really want are skill increases. Those you can only get by using the skill. Do sneaky stuff and your sneak will increase. Swing those axes and one-handed weapons increase. Master the IMHO too difficult timing of the shield blocks and blocking increases, etc. Levels give you stat increases and the option to choose perks for skills you have reached a sufficient level in. For example, I do 60% more damage with small weapons and my armour penalties to sneaking are halved. Among many other things. Yes, it is a level system but boy oh boy, does it feel realistic? Or not realistic, really. Genre-realistic. Just.
Oh yes, unmitigated praise. So I am going to rate the game very highly, then?
I would. But I can't.
I am left-handed and usually configure my movement and action control keys into the numpad on the right side of the keyboard. But surprise surprise, Skyrim does not let you do that. Numpad keys are hard-coded to quick action/item slots. I bound my keys to the arrows and around them but really, if this was a reflex-intensive shooter, it would be unplayable.
But it gets even better. Firstly, some keys are can be bound only partially so that in game screen they do something you have configured them into and in menu screens they retain their own functions. For example, you can move left and right with the arrow keys but without mods, moving lockpicks left and right when unlocking doors is still done with A and D. A user-made mod fixed that but there are other examples. The fact that Bethesda developers are complete idiots compounds the problem even further. Instructions on what key does what are hard-coded all the way to graphics. So if you change your jump function into, let's say CTRL, the game still instructs you to press Space whenever it is relevant. Bethesda's explanation for this was that they did not want to load the entire keyboard into memory every time the player enters the inventory screen, as the characters are shown as small images. In short, they think it is better to give out false and confusing information in all the HUD screens rather than use just character keys instead of those stupid images.
All I can say is that , if it worked for both Fallouts, it would have worked here.
Then there are bugs. Certain quests seem impossible to complete when the final boss has sunk into the graphics. The game seizes up and crashes on occasion. The companion AI is bad and even your own pathfinding is atrocious. You often have zig-zag up a hillside because of what appear to be pieces of invisible wall scattered around it and it is never clear what hill is climbable and what is not. If that is a feature and not a bug, it is an idiotic one. Graphic bugs occasionally have people reaching out to me through walls, teleport from one place to another float up into the air (okay, just once).
So, is Skyrim worth the effort? Depends if you are into fantasy or not. Three weeks ago I would not have been and Skyrim would have had little value for me. But now it hit me like a bullet between the eyes. If the control issues weren't there and there were less bugs, Skyrim would be on par with Deus Ex Human Revolution as a genre-defining masterpiece. And it still is a genre-defining masterpiece that will also change the way I see praedors as RPG characters. However, that control issue is and will remain a huge, steaming turd in the history game development and design.
Final Grade: +3
It is a very good game but PLEASE Bethesda, fix those damn controls!
Yep. I am 38 years old. Have been for a few days now. And nothing seems to be working out. Life feels like I am trying to grab hold of water and it just keeps flowing through my fingers. For such a barrel of lard, I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
I suck as a student. Having done all the translations and excercises for the University Spanish A, I still feel like the course material is pulling ahead, its lead to my more slowly improving skills growing with every lecture. Studying is a young man's game but sometimes I wonder if I ever was a good student or if the university just let me in by some clerical mistake back in the day. And if Spanish A fails this winter, it will push back my BA by a full year or more.
I can't run, or rather schedule, a roleplaying adventure even if my life depended on it and should probably stop pretending to be a roleplayer anymore. Weekend after weekend goes by with me having to host birthday parties, fight the flu or going on trips abroad. Nobody has time or inclination to play on weekday nights. Either I am home too late because of those fucking Spanish lectures or someone else has something else equally frustrating.
The English translation of Stalker RPG is stalled. The proofreader is busy (and oh boy, does it need one!) and I can't focus because of everything else that is happening, including an impending 6-month stint abroad sometime next year.
I always expected HAX to progress slowly but not this slowly. There are many reasons, most of them involving not being paid and having to ration our spare time but the main problem is that our programmer resources have been cut in half. So even without all the other drama the time would have doubled anyway. As the lead designer it is my job to watch after the team motivation but frankly, it is the lead artist who is drawing a storyline mission comic after another who motivates me. We are in the Valley of the Shadow of Project Death, where the ground is littered with bones of failed games and the ghosts of vaporware howl in the freezing wind. For a garage developer like Wirepunk this valley is long and deep and there might be nothing more than an unsellable prototype waiting at the other end.
I haven't been able to get any creative writing done either. Of course, some of the stuff I've written for my clients is pretty darn creative but it won't pass as literature. I have these scenes and pieces of plot threads for my novel bubbling in my head but it is so cold and dark in here right now that the spring of my creativity is freezing over.
The winter is coming and it is going to be a harsh one. Regardless of weather.
Bit of a gap in the blog since nothing blogworthy has happened. The Alternative Party 2011 came and went and was probably the last one in its current format. The theme this year was Soviet Union and mock-old-school communism. It worked really well and the only thing missing were the Soviet mechanical arcade games from the late 70s. Linnanmäki had some of those and I remember playing a submarine-shooting game that worked on strings, gears, plastic models and cardboard torpedoes. Ironically, real arcade videogames of the time were not any more sophisticated and the submarine shooter graphics blew them away... since it really was a mold-cast diorama and not a pixelated screen image.
HAX is still being worked on. All schedules are off, though. I will be adding some new pictures to the HAX Facebook gallery soon. I don't know when it will be finished but we will never stop working on it. Let's just hope that we can have the release party before my retirement. It now seems likely the development must continue during my potential absence next year. How to organize things from abroad is still a bit of a mystery to me but you learn by doing. Necessity is a great teacher.
So where is the English Stalker? Both me and my proofreader have been lazy but it is moving forward. I am trying to get my part done soon and hopefully the whole thing will be over before the end of the year. I don't know how fast the PDF version gets accepted into relevant stores and in the worst-case scenario the physical version will have to wait for my return, which would be sometime next summer. Such is life. Scroll back five months and I never would have guessed I would be working as a freelance design consultant. Now the gig seems to be continuing for the foreseeable future.
My proseminar synopsis was accepted by the University as my Bachelor's Paper. That's two down, two to go. The final essay for academic writing is underway (I have actually done mine already but we were divided into pairs and have to proofread each others' works; I am still waiting for my writing partner to get his done). Once that is done, all that remains is Spanish I. If I clear that, if I even pass that, no matter by how close a shave, it is over and I can finally close the doors of the University behind me. Not many of the people I befriended in the English department back in 1994 graduated. Some, but not many.
Somehow it feels shocking to think that I will probably never visit the English Department again.
In Facebook, my old friend and fellow roleplayer Markus Drake is trying to explain to me the justification for graffitis. Personally, if I caught one of those tag-painting idiots in the act I would empty his spraycans into his stupid face. However, Markus is convinced that there is not only a reason but also a justification for spraying tags and all the rest that I see as vandalizing public property. Granted, some of the big works I saw in Amsterdam were great and this "street art" would piss me off a lot less anyway if it was any good. But no, these idiots are painting their shitsmears over train windows, bus schedules, official placards and traffic signs. Even natural-colored rock, which is not a crime only against humanity but against nature as well.
From the observations I made during my bicycle trips in the summer, I'd say the tags also have some kind of a corrosive effect on things. Once somebody tags a bus stop, typically the route maps or the schedule because that's where it would do most damage to the rest of us, the next night someone else breaks half of the glass panels and scatters broken glass all over the walkways. Tags and graffitis do not just reduce the monetary value of things but the social value as well. They break the ice, enabling the poo-flinging of other stupid monkeys to take over.
Yeah. I am not really sold on this idea of a noble anti-capitalist crusade by tagging. And one of their pet arguments is that graffitis give life to the dull concrete surfaces. Sorry kiddo, but I've been to Tokyo. I know what a clean and tidy city looks like. And I really liked what I saw. Call me a hypocrite but I prefer my post-holocaust in the telly, on the computer screen or as blots of ink on paper. Living it for real would kind of suck.
It took me 17 hours to finish RAGE, making it very good value for the money. Still, I'd wish the ID Software had attended some of my game design lectures in KAJAK. They would have definitely benefited from the part where I explained the use of the dramatic arc. RAGE ends up very abruptly, like someone had pulled the plugged from a machine going on full power. There is no catharsis, there is no sense of reward and it leaves me fille with this sense of abject frustration. It is a rookie mistake of the worst kind, preceded by an incredibly lame "bossfight". Hint: When you are in the Dead City for the first time, savour that one special moment. You are going to miss it. I am contemplating replaying the game so that I would never leave Wellsprings. That first hub city is definitely the best. And one would think this is a game for which it is easy to make DLC for, although none have been announced.
Have you ever noticed how most of the DLC out there has been crap, even when they are made by studios supposedly far better at it than ID Software? The Missing Link DLC for Deus Ex Human Revolution is coming out next week and it has not exactly set the world on fire either. Of all the DLC I've encountered, Point Lookout and The Pitt for Fallout 3 are completely in a class of their own. I think this goes beyond bad design and that there must be something wrong with the current development model for post-launch downloadable content. The alternative model, which was "episodic content" is not doing too well either. SiN episode 1 sucked so badly that no further episodes are to be expected and Half-Life 2 - Episode 3 is no effectively vaporware. I am sure they have their reasons but something is broken.
I am getting hands on my STALKER English proofreader tomorrow, so at least that will get nudged forward a bit. However, there is no chance of having it ready for any of the events this Fall. All in all, working for the Evil Empire and trying to wrap up my studies for Christmas has worn me down worse than I thought. I guess the takeaway from this is that being a student is for young men (and women in non-Islamic countries. So stick to it when you start so that you wont have to try to pick up the pieces again when you are approaching 40. Thank God it is all down to a couple of months now. And by now there is also an absolute deadline to it.
It is looking increasingly likely that I will be working from abroad soon. Nothing is confirmed yet and indeed won't be until mere days before the departure. But when and if it happens, I will be gone for 6 months or more.
If you want to sell me something, dress it up as post-holocaust. That is an immediate -1D to the sales pitch test right there. I love the genre to an unhealthy degree. It is the very embodiment of my fascination with adventurers from outside the society and done properly it stirs such powerful emotions of dread, awe and longing that I am in tears. Because of this some of the crappiest movies ever made are epic masterpieces to me and I will defend the creative and artistic values of Mika Kaurismäki's Last Border to the bitter end.
That said, my growing collection of post-holocaust flicks does highlight the inescapable truth that the majority of the genre is rubbish even by my standards. While I am grateful for the few gems in my collection, the rest of it should not be handled without gloves.
In videogames, the post-holocaust is often referred to but actual post-holocaust videogames are rare. Still, they may be few but they are giants: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Trilogy, Metro 2033, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. And by the virtue of its sales figures, Borderlands.
The latest candidate for this esteemed elite cadre of rust and dust is RAGE by ID Software, a developer better remembered as the creators of Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and the first-person-shooter genre in general. However, in recent years ID Software has become something of an industry joke. The dream team behind the original Doom has long since split and from Quake 2 onwards they've been struggling. After Doom 3 nobody could take them seriously anymore. Their founder John Carmack has famously said that stories in videogames serve the same purpose as stories in porn flicks. As the FPS market then evolved towards plot-driven or down-right RPGish titles, John Carmack and his team were seen as something of a throwback, a bunch of knuckle-dragging neanderthals that modern people could point and laugh at in the trade shows.
My relationship with RAGE got off to a rough start even before the game was out. It was a cross-platform AAA post-holocaust game so I knew I was going to get it, even if only to stimulate the creation of more games in this genre. The trailers offered a glimpses of a game world that looked like a concept art painting for Borderlands. It had some interesting vistas but ID dropped the ball (a solid-iron cannonball, apparently) right on its toes with the gameplay trailers. The brief, chaotic glimpses seemed to offer exactly what the ID games had been in their worst: waves of spawned enemies, monster lockers opening behind the player, under-powered guns and illogical, immersion-breaking boss monsters. Many gamers were pre-disposed against RAGE long before it came out.
I should know. I was one of them.
At first, RAGE seemed to meet my sub-zero expectations. I do not care about the lack of configuration options for PC graphics which seem to rile up so many others in the Internet. No, my pet hate in the game is the controls setup that fucks up the numpad keys. If you are a left-handed PC gamer, the numpad keys are your life. WASD just is not an option for the left hand and as modern games tend to have lots of stuff you can do, even the arrow keys often fail to deliver. But RAGE would not let me set functions to some keys and blatantly ignored functions set to some others. Luckily my RAGE was a digital download: a physical disc might have come to a sad and fragmented end at that point. In a fit of rage, really.
After finding a control setup that both me and the game could grudgingly agree on, the game started with the unskippable cutscene I had already seen a few times because of the many, many attempts to get the controls working. The backstory is really on par with porn flicks: a giant asteroid slams into Earth and the best and the brightest are cryogenically stored in Vaults... sorry, Arks, so that they would survive and one day emerge to build a brave new world and repopulate it in a one massive orgy (okay, maybe this was not the plan). Of course, things don't go as planned and as you defrost, you find that you are the only survivor of your broken Ark. Outside is a world of ruins, trash, tribal gangs and the Enclave... sorry, the Authority.
If the backstory smacks of Fallout, the rest of the game borrows heavily from Borderlands with its rugged wastelands, beat-up vehicles and junky towns. All connected via a network canyons and passages with constantly re-spawning threats. Yeah, maybe we are beyond borrowing here, especially when you look at the art style. It also looks surprisingly crap. RAGE uses a technology called megatexturing, which Carmack claimed to have invented (they have renamed their tech "virtual texturing" since then) although it has been used in gamesat least since 2002. Instead of using patches of paint to give textures to polygons, the entire landscape has been painted into a single image file. This has some technical advantages but the downside is that if you move your head, textures in your field of vision take a while to load. As RAGE is a shooter you will be moving a lot. While the scenery is beautiful if you stop and stare, the jumble of unfinished and finished textures makes it feel like you were playing some cheap Indie title with serious graphics budget issues. It was quite endearing actually but I doubt this was the effect the ID Software was going for.
Ignoring the Borderlands rip-offs, the art direction is excellent but megatexturing constantly tries to screw it up. I have read that since console gamers are much less mobile than us mouse-and-keyboard wielding PC-gamer badasses, the texture pop-in is not visible to them. Once again, the PC gaming technology is too superior for its own good... That said, I have to give the devs credit for the characters. Lanky, ugly, cute but not pretty. And very, very human.
Well, I am not a graphics nut and neither the megatexturing issues nor the lack of graphics setup options were game killers for me. So even though RAGE appeared every bit as bad as I had feared, I sat down to give the stupid thing a go. Eight hours later I realized that I was still playing the stupid thing. And even more strangely, I was hoping that it would never end. What the hell had happened?
For all Carmack's denials, RAGE is Borderlands in all but the story. However, the original Borderlands was also a flaming pile of ass and failure. That Gearbox fiasco is a monument to lost potential at such an epic scale that even writing about makes me angry. If I were Stalin, the entire Gearbox dev team would writing a remake of their game in Siberia right now. In reality, they are doing Borderlands 2 and it better be good. They have a lot to answer for.
Somebody at ID must have felt the same way because even though they ripped Borderlands off in every way imaginable, they also ripped the Suck right out of it. Many of the things that aggravated me in Borderlands have been fixed in RAGE and the immersion grabs you by the shirt (not by the throat like with Deus Ex HR, or by the balls like the Fallouts or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. do). The game world consists of two theme parks (tightly controlled sandboxes). These have any number of shooter dungeons for footwork and a hub city (and possibly a couple of villages) for dialogue, mission vendors and shopping. Finally there are the wastelands in between where motorised bandits are waiting to pounce on you every bloody time you drive by.
On foot, you are playing a mostly linear FPS. But a pretty solid FPS at that. The combat has been derided as unrealistic but I would call it cinematic. Hit effects, explosions and even ragdolling have been exaggerated to Hollywood proportions and I like it. The enemies move really fluidly too. I don't know if their AI is all that good but the way they roll on the ground, take cover, vault over obstacles and sometimes send others to outflank me do create very enjoyable gunfights. I especially like the armour effects: my first head shot will probably send the enemy helmet flying. Other hits can send shoulder pads flying or whatever and those locations actually become more vulnerable from then on. Enemy toughness varies quite a bit and the choice of weapon and especially the ammo is usually the answer.
Most targets are funnily dressed humans but the monsters include apelike mutants that swarm you in great, wall-climbing numbers and call for good old-fashioned circle strafe fights, where I am reloading with one hand and decapitating mutants with flying bladed things called wingsticks with the other. Boss monsters are, well, boss monsters but this is a genre they actually fit in, especially when the rest of the combat is already so over the top. Then there are robots. Mostly spidery things with rapid-firing guns on them. I don't think I have shot any kind of an animal yet. The game constantly advises me to be stealthy but it is a gimmick. Sneaking in, you might get the few first kills easily but after that it is always run, gun and cover. Or circle strafing, if fighting mutants in a large space. I think I should be annoyed but even the mutant swarms are paced and balanced really well. Sure, they have the numbers but the whole thing really makes you feel like a post-apocalyptic badass. I wonder why they put this guy in ice in the first place? I would have thought the Ark program was for scientists and thinkers. Well, maybe the ending will reveal the answer.
In the process of fighting and exploring, you can also loot ammo, money, crafting parts and random junk which can be sold for money. The loot system feels a little tacked on and has none of the logic and elegance of Fallouts: you might have five gas canisters on a shelf but only one of them is lootable, so it is more like find all the bonus money thing rather than actual scavenging. Crafting requires finding blueprints and the right parts, usually acquired by looting. You can make radio-controlled cars that explode, even more wingsticks, certain types of ammo and meds but nothing really groundbreaking. Still, I'd like to see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. do something like this.
Having defeated the bad guys and bent double under the loot, you exit the dungeon and find your vehicle still waiting outside the entrance, curiously unmolested. You climb aboard and start driving back along the route indicator, usually pointing back at the hub city but you can make it point to another mission location if there are any. On the way, you are likely to be attacked by bandit vehicles and makeshift gun turrets. The former are held at bay with gatling guns and missiles and the latter mostly by ramming their base. Keyboard was never a good controller for driving and the racetrack missions are a pain in the ass. Out in the wasteland the vehicle combat works much better and the limited auto-aiming function makes these dogfights a decent experience, even if somewhat lackluster compared to excellent fights on foot.
The problem is that you will fight the same cars again and again. The wasteland is both a glue holding the sandbox together and padding the content to extend gameplay time. You will be travelling back and forth a lot, revisiting old sites for new missions. This is nothing new to a veteran S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fan like myself but the linear shooter fans in the Internet appear outraged. Personally, I just wish there was something more to find in the wasteland, other than the compulsory bandits and the shooter dungeon entrances. For a while it seemed like there would be a market for mutated flowers but no, the wastelands are barren and empty. You'll lose interest in non-mission related exploration pretty quickly and that is a crying shame. Play more Fallout, guys!
Finally, there are the hub towns, non-combat locations that make my mouth water with their visual design and ambience. There are all sorts of people here and while the incidental dialogue is nothing special, it really helps to set the mood. Some people offer hints, others offer missions and yet others have something to trade. So far, the economy has worked well and I have always had something more to buy: your goods, vehicle goods etc. Unfortunately the ID tradition of having completely a silent protagonist bites the immersion in the ass here. There are no response options or meaningful choices, even if the NPC monologue is written like it was part of a dialogue and sometimes I feel like a retard for not responding. Still, the hub towns work wonders for the immersion and I really did not expect ID to pull this off. This is something new for them.
The hub town gambling minigames are also worth mentioning. There is a holographic boardgame where you can bet on rolling enough hits on four dice to kill four mutants before they get your character. There is a reaction game for stabbing the table between your fingers (I suck at that). And finally there is RAGE Frenzy. It is an in-game CCG (collectible card game) that you can find cards for in mission locations and then play with them against local dealers. It is quite interesting and graphics are good. I would not be all that surprised if ID released it for real at some point.
Now that I am 12 hours in, I can safely say that RAGE is a very solid post-holocaust shooter with some light RPG elements. The running and gunning is spot-on, at least if cinematic action is your thing. And if not, this is the wrong game for you. The story may be a little lackluster, the wasteland a little empty, the looting and crafting options a little shallow, the vehicle races a little forced and your silent protagonist a little too silent. Yet none of it was the kind of disaster I was expecting.
As a game, this would be a strong +3 if it wasn't for the control issues. So for the record, I am going with +2. RAGE is definitely worth trying out, as long as you remember you are not playing an RPG this time. The shadow of the Fallout is long and can easily lead to false expectations.
Final grade: +2
My legs are shot. Again. The symptoms match those of plantar fasciitis, the inflammation of the so-called thick tissue on the soles of my feet. The pain makes me walk funny and bam! Despite wearing ultra-light shoes (the season for which is also ending right now) my calf pains are back. The soles of my feet hurt also on their own, especially at night when there are few distractions. There is no quick cure either. I am going on Atkins (and probably on a killing spree if my spouse is to be believed) next week to force a rapid loss of weight and have already been munching ibuprofein like it was candy. My feet are so soaked with liniment that even the bacteria are high on vapours. And when it hits, the pain imposes the all too familiar 200 x 200 metre grid on the world, as you optimize your walking trips for the shortest routes or best rest stops. And I bought a fucking new pair of shoes because it was getting too cold to wear ultralights and having arch support is one of the things recommended by doctors.
And for some reason my left knee is giving me trouble, with trouble defined as "the sensation of someone hammering nails into it".
On the plus side (and this is big fucking plus), I started a thread for Taiga 2.0 in majatalo.org and it has been going quite well. So well, in fact, that one of the #praedor regulars thought up a post-holocaust version of his hometown right along the Red Line and put it there, complete with a map and some adventure nuggets. Now this is a trend I whole-heartedly support. I am still working on the cyberpowers but already wondering if I should try to give a quick rundown of my current home town: the beautiful apartment block suburb of Myyrmäki in western Vantaa. South Finland is fairly intact, really. Helsinki in this fiction is a mixture of its modern self and the slums of Sao Paolo.
Those who like Code/X and Praedor will probably find the system interesting. It is a Praedor Lite using 20 abilities and an infinite number of topical specialisations to boost the otherwise lower value levels to where they are with the vanilla Praedor. Finally there are the cyberpowers, falling just short of superpowers. Instead of having a 20-page gadget list, I wanted to outline about 20 great things cyberpunk players might want out of their implants. You can buy power levels to those effects and use them as a consumable if also somewhat uncertain resource during the play. Although not supernatural, the powers are superhuman and I have also tried to make them both fun and fitting to the genre, especially the way the genre is nowadays portrayed in videogames.
In IRC, we have have already joked that since this Taiga 2.0 is Free to Play, Burger Games should be offering micropayment features such as temporary XP and damage multipliers, money-to-game credit conversion services and special weapons and tools not available in the main rulebook. All in all, I am taking this less seriously than usual and it has been quite fun. I've even gone so far as to break the fourth wall and eplain design choices to the readers on occasion. Inspiration is contagious and if I can inspire others, all the better.
Speaking of post-holocaust games, RAGE was unlocked in Steam Europe today. I have to admit that the trailers and other information so far have not been exactly lighting my fire. Then again, it is a triple-A post-holocaust shooter from a big developer and the publisher who released the new Fallouts. Reviews have been mixed but Rage would have had to be a shit-covered crucifix before I would have given up on buying it. There just isn't that many triple-A post-holocaust action-adventure games around. Besides, The Lonesome Road, the last piece of DLC for Fallout New Vegas, turned out to be utter crap after a very promising start. I am not so sure the original Fallout writers are the best people to take the franchise forward anymore.
Wow. Now that took a life of its own. Taiga 2.0, although I should probably call it something that reflects its birthplace (an IRC channel). Damn distracting, really. I already have an idea for a novel in that setting. It also solves one of the practical issues which I have always struggled with in futuristic RPGs: by reducing the standard of living and social stability to somewhere between Mogadishu and Kandahar, there is a counterpoint to the technological advances and transhumanist daydreams. Sure, the Singularity, mind uploads and all that stuff are happening but not here and not to you. This regressive factor keeps the basic setting easily understandable to a modern GM who has not read his Robert Morgans twice over. And if you have, feel free to bring it on but you are not really losing anything here if you don't.
Sure, they have the first true AI learning at a geometric rate in some fucking nanobullshit lab of whateverfuckitistan but who cares when you can't get your fucking cell phone to work because the fucking stragglers from up north have stolen all the fucking copper wiring from every cell mast in Tampere again! Even though the last week's copper thieves are still hanging from the fucking lamp posts on the Tammerkoski bridge!
Oh boy. I really want to write this story. It is said that cannibalism is never more than three days away. I like that idea, albeit only in fiction.
In genre-related news, at the time of writing the big website launch for EA's new Syndicate is only 17 hours away.
And now, sports!
Burger quit the pelilauta.fi forum the day before yesterday because the moderators could not be arsed to implement the ignore function and Taustavoima wanted a place where he can badmouth Burger without his knowledge. In an interview by the long-dead ghost of the Finnish RPG press, Burger said that this way everybody won. He also raised a pint of Freeway Zero Cola(tm) in hopes of majatalo.org actually showing signs life again. They already have an ignore function and it seems to be working.
Fantasiapelit told me they are once more in need of more of Praedors and Stalkers. The latter I can probably deliver but the Praedor boxes are gone. I have to do hand-count on the shelf-copies to see if there is something I can do about this but it is not going to be a full delivery. Still, there are probably some I can spare. Where does this constant need for an 11 year old RPG come from? Even if it's almost a year since their last order of Praedor, that still means they are selling slightly more than one rulebook a month. Stalker has been selling at a steady pace of slightly under a book per week for a long time now.
But I am not shipping anybody anything until I have set the the financial status of Burger Games straight. Since I was laid off, I've been working through BG as a design consultant and as a result the revenues will explode this year. Unfortunately, they will also breach all the annual minimum limits for tax reports and entrepreneur insurance costs, so I have to take care of all that before writing another bill. Hint: I don't have a choice but if you are in a similar fix and know what's coming, try to do it at the start of the accounting year. Doing it in the middle is a hassle and also incurs extra costs. It's a tax on laziness, really.
Other than that, I really like being a freelance consultant. With some nest egg laid by the perturbed avians and no mortgage to worry about, working for three days a week suits me fine and now it actually looks like I might succeed in wrapping up my studies. If all goes well, I will probably continue my freelancer run well into the next year. Sure, there is always uncertainty but the games industry does not rhyme with job security even at the best of times. At least this way my prospective clients can be honest and upfront about it.
This is how it works. The intro is based on a setting idea I got two days ago when taking part in a discussion on an IRC channel. See how the whole creation process begins with the setting and the character role? The game system does not feature in it until the fundamentals of everything else have been sorted out.
Of course, the thing did not exactly pop-out of thin air. Much of the setting dynamics are based on a much older setting idea I named "Badlands". I transported it from Africa to the Arctic Circle and mixed in a heavy dose of Taiga and Berlin Zero. I don't know what to call this new game idea yet. Any suggestions for a name?
And Ironspine, you say that you are not plagiarizing Code/X with ENOC. I believe you. There is nothing that unique about mad Nazi scientists and zombies. But if you come up with an RTP that is somewhere along these lines anytime soon, you will be spanked. :)
A few years from now
The Second Russian Civil War ends with a bang. The Junta sets off a massive thermonuclear explosion in their last stand at Murmansk. The blast fries much of Northern Scandinavia and the Arctic coastline. Fallout, greatly boosted by the vaporization of the Soviet-era nuclear graveyards around the city, is still raining down. By some experts, the entire Fenno-Scandinavia should be evacuated.
The European Federation, already committed in the Oil Wars of Caucasus and hamstrung by any number of local and global crises, redrew its northern border. The Red Line runs from Tromsa to Lake Ladoga and beyond. Everything to the North and East of it is no-mans-land, beyond the reach of any national or transnational authority. The ERF Northern Guard struggles to hold the line but there is too much ground to cover.
There is no law north of Kuopio. North of Kajaani, no God.
But one mans misfortune is another ones opportunity. As governments retreat, corporations, anti-Federation terrorists and warlords born from the remnants of the Junta Army have staked their claims on the North. Bordertowns like Oulu, Kuopio and Sortavala are now wretched hives of mercenary scum and high-tech villainy, where private armies rub elbows with the Northern Guard.
Beyond the Red Line lies treasure. Mines, factories and power plants. Intact roads and ports to the Arctic. Untapped natural resources. Arable land if you dont look at the dosimeter too closely and free dumping grounds for toxic waste. There are no rules on pollution or the use of labor. No rules on human experiments and black tech. Even slave labor goes if they can get someone local to do the enslaving: bandit gangs, rebel warlords. Done right, manual labor sweatshops can still be cheaper than robots.
Of course, it is no walk in the park. The North was not a third world country. It was the backwater of one of the most high-tech societies in the world. Local militias, neotribal guerrillas and motorized bandits can put up a ferocious fight and not even all Junta relics have lost the faith. There are no rules on competition either and no one to complain to if someone with bigger guns jumps your claim. Even with the government off your back, pirate radio stations and webcasts can still do a lot of damage with exposés on the worst excesses.
Then there is the post-blast environment itself. Choking ash clouds from burnt forests. The endless hungry wilderness where the northern taiga is still alive. Pockets of nuclear, chemical and biological fallout, some of them deadly even with the most advanced protection. Wildlife, both natural and engineered, as the Junta bioweapon programs are running wild. Death machines, autonomous killer drones still on patrol and attacking any and all human activity. Everything gets weirder and deadlier the further northeast you go.
Murmansk is the Heart of Darkness.
It remains to be seen if anyone is powerful enough to do anything about all this. Superpowers are on their way out. Corporations are at each others throats. The economy is a mess, there is a constant energy crisis and the civilization is crumbling before the Greenhouse Exodus. The whole world is going to hell in the handbasket and there is already talk of moving the Red Line south. It is not going to stop there.
But what do we care? The fixer just got back online and the gig is on! Exxon-Beers is sending a truckload of seabed drill core samples down from the Arctic and MexaCo is paying gold bullion (What? Euros? Who the fuck trusts credit anymore?) to make sure theyll never reach Oulu. And that fat colonel in the Guard finally agreed to turn off the no-flight-zone radar tonight, so weve got a high-speed insertion to the ambush point and then an overland trek back once weve secured the drill cores. Hmm, we better secure their transport as well.
Take-off in 30 minutes. Are you game?
As for the character roles, this is an adaptation of the HAX mercenary idea I toyed with before. You are playing mercenaries in a low-cyberpunk environment who have just arrived on this wild new frontier in search of adventure, small-team missions and phat loot.
And it all happens just a few years from now. Like in 2020. :)
It is year +87 after the WorldCrash.
Most people live in Hubs, corporate megacities that span entire continents, struggling to hold on to their niche in an increasingly stratified society. They know that beyond the Hub limits lies the Wasteland, the ghost of the Pre-Crash world, ready to devour those who fail.
Cartel, a global corporate alliance that emerged victorious from the chaos of the crash rules the world with an iron fist. It controls the global infrastructure, energy distribution and the availability resources with its network of off-world colonies spread throughout the Inner System.
Link is the glue holding the global corporate society together. An invisible network of light and data, it is connected to everything, from the augmented reality services or "virtuality" to media channels, communications, comms, security, finance and the very machines keeping the Hubs alive.
Without Starspine it would all crumble to dust. The orbital elevator rises 37000 kilometres into space and feeds the dying Earth with the riches of space. At its base is Terminal Complex, a port facility that grew to become the unofficial capital of the world.
Terminal Complex is also the only city on Earth to defy corporate rule.
Singularity, a godlike Artificial Intelligence that runs the Starspine, has declared itself a sovereign state. Unwilling to risk the elevator, the Cartel agreed and The Complex was divided into sectors. Some were claimed by various corporations, others by the enigmatic machines.
Between them were left cracks, blank spots and buffer zones. These are now Street Sectors, home to a bewildering array of gang turfs, tribal claims, free corporations and microstates of every size, colour and creed.
In stark contrast to the static corporate society, new powers are constantly emerging in the streets of the Complex. New nations, ethnicities and even gods. Transhuman cults are flourishing and even corporate citizens in the Complex enjoy more freedoms than their compatriots anywhere else.
The Hax used to be just another streetcult, its members expanding their minds by jacking into neuralnet processors via illegally modified brain implants. Today, they are an entire subculture of cyberwarriors, infothieves and data pirates, who can use and even alter the Link to their own ends.
The Hax community can wield enormous power but has no leader or ideology. Or perhaps that is the ideology. It is a virtual nation, a far-reaching secret order that only exists in the Link. In realspace, or rather "meatspace", they hide and blend into the societies and cultures around them. Maybe this is what kept has them off the radar until now.
The Great Game has gone on for centuries. Powers behind the throne, secret alliances, social and memetic engineering. For all its might and free market pretensions, the Cartel is a tool. Means to an end. But to what end? Behind the scenes a secret war is raging between various groups and factions seeking to dictate the fate of Humanity.
The Great Game continues and the Hax has stumbled into it.
The Hax has no agenda. Apart from some fringe groups, it has no great plan eiher. But by its very nature it has power. Some of the other players see it as a threat. Others regard it as an opportunity, or a resource to be claimed. While the Hax have always been pursued as criminals but its new enemies lack the restraint, limits and public obligations of its usual foes.
Controlling or destroying a network organization requires the capture or elimination of nexuses, usually individuals linking various social networks together. Some of them have just vanished. Others are pressed, brainwashed or tricked into changing sides, or even enslaved in the biomatrices. Taking out enough nexuses will either subvert the Hax, or cause it break it up for good.
If the Hax is to survive, it will have to do what it does best: Alter the rules of the Great Game.
This is what I call a setting intro. You can imagine it scrolling across the screen in Star Wars, or being narrated at the start of a videogame. This is the seed of my setting design from which everything else springs. The setting intro does not always make it into the actual roleplaying game, though. Especially my big, published titles may have begun as setting intros but evolved so far the intro has become redundant. However, my desk drawer is full of complete and incomplete setting intros. Every one of them is a seed, a synopsis from which the actual setting and theme of the game can explode forth.
If I cannot write a setting intro, the setting just won't happen. I may have strong mental visuals and thematic patterns thought out but if they don't mesh into a solid narrative on paper, it is not happening. NOMAD is a notorious victim of this effect. I think I have the whole thing mapped out and then when I try to put in on paper, it is just not happening. There are too many blank spots, too many questions I never realised had to be asked, or things that sound less interesting when read than when I first thought them up.
We've been iterating the setting of HAX in Wirepunk for years now. I wasn't surprised to see that come together. But the rest of it came together surprisingly easy as well.
The Hax Sentinel is a new concept and not everybody in the Hax approves of it. Still, enough do to make it work. They are meatspace assets, independent operatives supported by the collective power of the Hax as long as they serve its interest. It is a symbiotic relationship, if you can find the right kind of person.
The name "Sentinel" comes from the security programs that ceaselessly patrol the Link to protect the System Cores. For the Hax at least the parallels were obvious.
The Hax recruits from the rejects of the Great Game. They approach burn-outs who have lost faith in the cause, fugitives on the run from their masters, rogues who know being exposed is only a matter of time and even the corrupt who would willing to betray their own for the kind of power a Sentinel can achieve. They will never see a live Hax member butYthe presence and support from the Hax is very real.
Their enemies are distracted, their files are altered, their identities are protected or even changed on the fly if necessary. They will almost never run out of the local credit and the best cyberdocs in the world are calling about their pre-paid appointments to install top-of-the-line wetware. All arranged under false identities that even a DNA test cannot compromise. Never before have the Great Game rejects returned to the Game.
And that is the rule the Hax have rewritten.
The Hax Sentinels are perhaps the most advanced cyberagents in the Great Game. No other faction would invest so much in a single operative; then again, no other faction can do it with somebody else's money. And unlike all other minions, the Hax Sentinels are free to pursue their personal goals as long as they do not conflict with the interests of the Hax.
Not all recruits are success stories and outright mistakes do happen. Still, the Hax rarely gets "no" for an answer. Quite often, the sudden appearance of a green, diamond-shaped virtuality icon is the target's only hope for survival. It is said that some Sentinels regard the Hax as a god.
In many ways, they are correct.
I have to admit that there are parallels between the Hax Sentinels and the birth of the Ghost Rider in the Marvel special "Ghost Rider 2095". But I don't mind. It is such a cool story.
I took three copies of Stalker RPG to Stadin Pelikauppa last Thursday. They have already sold two of them... via a web order to Hungary. How do I know? The Hungarian blokes who ordered them emailed me about it. They knew the games would be in Finnish and all that but curiosity and excitement about all things Stalker got the better of them. Can't say I blame them: Stalker RPG is a damn good game and the Finnish version is the closest thing to a preview of the English version. Which is still being proof-read, thank you very much for your interest. I've been studying, working and suffering from a terrible Mansean Killer Flu for the past week, so nothing much has happened on that front.
I am still a bit wonky at the lungs but tomorrow is the 10-year anniversary of Electronic Frontier Finland and if I am going to die, kicking the bucket in Finlandia-talo is one of the more stylish ways to go. It can also be my final protest against the idolization of Alvar Aalto in this country. Although not the worst architect and designer to plague this country, he has done by far the most damage. I hope he burns in a special hell where everything is designed by him.
P.S. I did not die. But I still hope Alvar Aalto burns in a design hell.
I've been working for the Evil Galactic Empire for a week now. Or 3.5 days, rather, as my contract with Emperor Palpatine specifies three months at 3,3 days per week (or two months at 3 days a week and one month at 4 days a week). I know I am woefully underpaid for an outside consultant but don't really care since it is enough to live on and leaves me enough spare times to attend to my remaining studies. I have signed up on all university courses that were missing from my Bachelor of Arts degree and no raise could compete with this opportunity. I want out of that University and I think it wants me gone too. Besides, I like not having to work a full week and can afford it now that the mortgage has been paid. Personally, I would be quite content to have this deal continue in the spring. Of course, regular full-time employment gives you a far better job security. I have no way to know what will happen when my present contract ends.
So what do I do for the Forces of Sauron? I haven't been burned out by game development yet but blog postings from people who are feel eerily familiar. Mine is exactly the kind of job a game designer can find himself in after leaving the actual game development behind. Think of me as a salesperson who sells game development projects by writing and pitching game and gamification concepts for non-game IP. If they catch, the actual development and a good deal of the design will be done somewhere else while I am already being thrown at the next potential target. I admit it lacks the glamour of real game design but almost makes up for it in variety. If you don't like making concept pitches this job is not for you. But I kind of like public speaking, especially when I get to pitch the concept rather than my own magnificence. A consultant usually has to do both.
On the downside, with both my work and studies starting on the same week, taking a few days off to recover was not an option. As the result, the Killer Flu of Manse I contracted from Tracon almost finished me off. To distract myself from the anguish and medicinal buzz, I undertook a small new project: writing a Mobsters-sized RPG based on HAX so I could run it to my fellow Wirepunks. Like most things begun in feverish delirium, it was all fucked up. Originally, my focus was on the Runners, drawing more than little inspiration from Case, Neo and Adam Jensen (look it up if you don't know what I am talking about).
The problem is that cyberpunk is a genre of lone wolves. Netrunning, or "ghost running" in HAX terminology, is even more so. And don't even get me started on all that post-human crap. The simple truth is that my design crashed and burned, big time. The system itself is nifty, a cyberpunk-themed Praedor-Lite that I am definitely going to use somewhere else. However, in my design principles (designer intention?) the setting comes first and the system is its slave. It took me a couple of days to realize that my rather orthodox approach to system design was not going to produce anything like the HAX the videogame or my incomplete novel "Raindance". Worse still, instead of sharpening my focus on player roles I was actually blurring them. I was trying to turn Runners into "jacks of all trades" and now the "master of none" part was biting back hard.
What should I do? One option would be to refocus on the Link, maybe even creating a game that was only about the Link, using a largely resource-based system (thanks for the idea, Sami!). Unfortunately we have had to compromise on many things while making the videogame and although we were very much inspired by Gibson's cyberspace visions, the Link graphics are rather plain and functional. I could perhaps use the concept to create an interesting Gibsonian cyberspace RPG but that setting would not be HAX. Maybe HAX the videogame can some day approach that level of content but we will be too far from that goal at launch.
Or I could keep the system and find something else that fits it. Something that happens primarily if not entirely in meatspace and supports group play as it is found in traditional roleplaying-games. The first thing that comes to mind are the Mercs, the Runners' natural predator #2. And that would remove the "punk" from "cyberpunk" with a chainsaw. Fucking glorified renta-cops. Trying to solve this riddle caused me two nights of anguish and the answer never came to me in my sleep. It came from looking at this picture.
Ever since the original Deus Ex (well, ever since the birth of cyberpunk literature or even Tyger, Tyger), you could not have a good dark future romp without conspiracies. HAX is no exception and actually the Hax itself is one huge conspiracy that unlike all its rivals has no leadership, centre or overall goal. Think Anonymous with the power level of Illuminati and you are getting there. We just had the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and people are still debating if it was a conspiracy or not. A particularly malevolent high-threat ghost runner could do a dozen 9/11s a day without ever boarding a plane. When even a part of the Hax agrees on a common purpose, it can wield immense power. All this makes the Hax an enemy and a rival to all the other, more centralized conspiracies out there. Ghost Runners and their associates are hunted down like dogs if the powers-that-be get wind of them and they have saying: "No matter who you are, in the meatspace you are just another meatball".
But would it always have to be so? A group of high-level Ghost Runners known even within the Hax only as Nemocracy decided to even the odds. Finding the right people was the first and the most difficult task. These were mostly casualties of the secret wars, broken and discarded tools of the other conspiracies. The Hax could bring them back: with cyborg bodies built by hacked assembly lines. Minds uploaded into high-speed neuralnet processors as ghosts. Although they would not and really could not be controlled, as long as they would serve and protect the interests of the Hax, the community would help and support them in return. They were named Sentinels after the persistent hunter-killer programs that protect the core systems of the Link.
Yes, any resemblance to the old videogame classic Syndicate Wars is fully intentional. They are doing a new Syndicate game, by the way. My wish for a cyberpunk boom in videogames seems to be coming true.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you HAX: Sentinels, a roleplaying game of cyborg agents in a world of conspiracies and high-tech intrigue.
And now I am going to snatch it away.
The Sentinels deal with the deepest conspiracies of the Hax setting. They get to see things you people would not believe and even ghost runners get only hints of in data found at the highest security levels. In short, the roleplaying game is loaded with spoilers and is therefore restricted to Wirepunks only. We are going to play an adventure or two in this world we all have shared for years and hopefully make new observations and create new content in the process. Other than that, I will be keeping this game locked in a safe.
There is no technical way to block a specific user from accessing otherwise freely downloadable PDFs (truly freely, there is not even user registration), so I have to imitate the copyright lobby and come up with new restrictions on the use of content that has otherwise been available for ages. All these restrictions are to be applied retroactively, of course (hey, if it works for Sony... didn't work for White Wolf, though).
All Burger Games-related PDF files downloadable from this website can be accessed, distributed and used freely for non-commercial purposes. Creating edited versions or using as part of another product, commercial or otherwise, is allowed as long as the original source (either Burger Games or the URL of this website) is mentioned.
The sole exception to this license is Mr. Nestori Lehtonen, who is not allowed to view, download, use or even think about any of these materials or the source works they refer to. Should the aforementioned person be found in breach of this license, any tools, electronic devices or brain cells used to access the restricted files will instantly become the property of Burger Games. They may be returned at a much later date, wiped clean.
These restrictions will be lifted should Mr. Lehtonen actually buy a Finnish roleplaying game from its author or a commercial venture representing its author and thus actually compensate him for his hard work, rather than argue that he has the right to access the game materials freely just because he did not really give a shit about the author's vision and hard work to begin with.
I shall now retain the moral high ground by providing you with a link to Mr. Lehtonen's n20 roleplaying game rules, free of charge as the author has intended. According to him, this is the most worked-on RPG system in the history the Finnish RPG scene. I will not pass judgement on it because it has no setting and I am known to be heavily biased against anything that even remotely looks like the d20 system.
The fall is here and it kicked off with Tracon in Tampere. I can still remember when it was an intimate 200-people event of ultimate geekdom. Now it was an animefest with 4100 visitors, making it technically larger than Ropecon. Of course, roleplayers are a tiny minority here, struggling to stay afloat in a tidal wave of anime fans, cosplayers and bare underaged skin.
If we want to make a splash here we have to rethink our programme strategy. I have long treated Tracon as an extension of Ropecon and chosen my presentations accordingly. But if I go there next year, I'll do something that bridges the two. How about The Dark Future of Anime - the Japanese Cyberpunk Animation? In my quest to immerse myself in dark future entertainment to get ideas and inspirations for HAX, I have actually become fairly well versed with the primary (and many secondary) works of the genre.
Speaking of cyberpunk and anime, there are wild rumours that Tähti (by Mike Pohjola) has been selling again and the maestro himself, a guest of honour at Tracon no less, has considered extending the product line or exploring the world further. And why not? Tähti is the only commercially released Finnish cyberpunk game ever (Syndicate is not a commercial release) and it is more at home with anime freaks than most games that I know. And while I am not a big fan of the fortune-cookie based system, Tähti has some perks that most other cyberpunk games lack. But more about that in some later entry.
Despite being vastly outnumbered, the roleplayers had done a lot of things right this time. The sales tables were lining a part of the corridor leading to one of the bigger meeting rooms, ensuring flow-through traffic but not too much to be distracting. There was also one room dedicated for gaming but I don't know if anyone but Miska actually used it. With Northern Realms (Bliaron), Myrrysmiehet, Kalikos, Ironspine, Raggi, Koponen and Arkkikivi around and with myself and Mike Pohjola as visiting stars without tables, one could say that the whole present-day Finnish RPG dev scene was present and accounted for. Somehow the whole space felt homely and there was a strong sense of cooperation and community, far removed from the tiresome arguments we throw in the Internet. I liked just hanging out there.
Many of the games had short 15-minute demo scenarios prepared for them and you could play them right there on the vendor tables. This is a great idea that I have to look into in the future. The scenarios were short enough not to ruin anybody's schedule but long enough to give you an idea on how roleplaying in general and each game in particular works. Kudos to Sami "Sam!" Koponen for having made such scenarios for both his own game Pyöreän Pöydän Ritarit and the Northern Realm's game Bliaron. Both worked like a charm and helping the Northern Realms out was a class act.
Koponen is undoubtedly eager to know what I think of Pyöreän Pöydän Ritarit after having played in the demo scenario. Honestly, I am not a big fan of the cover art (okay, I think Fantasiapelit is right: it is completely unsellable). Mechanics-wise I can see how the rapid increase in the knight's combat power can become a problem with sustained play. However, the core concept is solid. It takes a step back from the usual level of detail and you get to make decisions like where do you lead your armies, what kind of terms do you want to dictate to the Saxons or if you should build a castle in this or that town. This high level of abstraction enables the game to have very simple rules (Might, Glory and Resources which will be depleted when used).
While Pyöreän Pöydän Ritarit may not be the introductory roleplaying game Sami (and apparently Eero) have been trying to make, the game they are trying to make might well be something along these same lines. Hell, it might even be this one if they toss the art and find someone to properly productize it. So far the road has been bumpy.
Bliaron guys snared me to play their demo as well. Short, sweet and solid gold, it was an evocative scenario of a slave that has long been promised freedom overhearing his master refusing to release him or even sell him to a wizard. Unfortunately for the master, you have just discovered some new friends in the spirit world and your confrontation with your owner, in the presence of the wizard, is the core of the scenario. Whatever the outcome, it will be quick and over in under 15 minutes. I used destruction magic to topple a bookshelf onto my master and then presented myself to the wizard. He was suitably impressed to charm my injured and baffled master into releasing me and I left the mansion for my new life as a wizard's apprentice. Granted, the scenario did not reveal much about the world and failed to convey the sense of it taking place in a Bronze Age civilization of the setting (this may actually be the gamemaster's fault). But it was was a beautiful demonstration of the rules, the magic system and the basic character concept of first finding your powers and then joining a wizard guild to learn more.
My third demo experience was a very introductory battle in a coming title called Vapauden Miekat, a game by Myrrysmiehet that will apparently be from somewhere between Final Fantasy and Mutant Chronicles. And yes, with proper production values this game has a real chance of making a splash among the anime fans. At least my character was exotic enough. The combat system had an ingenious twist. Instead of going for a target number, you rolled your ability in dice and the individual numbers and number combos enabled you to make a series of strikes, special moves and tricks on a varying number of opponents. Thus with a single roll of dice I might shoot at two shadow tentacles with my pistol sword while doing a riposte on the shadow demon itself, turning its powerful main attacks back on itself. It reminded me of a videogame and true enough, retreating behind a chest-high wall for a combat round well lets you recover some combat strength. I am very interested in seeing what Myrrysmiehet can make out of this one. But Vihan Lapset comes first, damnit!
(Why are the RPG authors always boys or burly old men? Where are the female RPG authors? Ladies sure like to play these games so why not write them too?)
I haven't had a real drive to write a roleplaying game since Stalker RPG came out. That game has everything. It cannot be topped and I know that anything I might ever do will pale in comparison. But things like these, the corridor community at Tracon, the sea of speculative fiction fans (even if they go under the anime subtext), they are inspiring. They have me looking at different possibilities and as of yet untried avenues of design. I've been asked for a HAX-related cyberpunk game using at least a derivative of the Praedor system. Would it work as a Mobsters-sized minigame? Can the rules systems be simplified to fit the template I used to call Arcade RPGs and what Ironspine has since then renamed RTPs? Can the concept of Tähti be somehow integrated into the HAX gameverse?
Without Tracon VI, I would not be thinking about any of these things. What a great event.
Here are the slides from my Institute presentation.