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The Hollow Pilgrim
Yes, it is out! On Kobo, iTunes and Google Play!

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Talk25-Nov-2014: Winter Stalker, part 1

I am still enjoying Far Cry 4 way more than I thought I would. But Juhana Pettersson was right to point out that the treatment of endangered animals in the game is stupidly brutal. The Kyrat Fashion Week quest chain, which is about hunting down and killing rare specimens of many species to complete your crafting upgrades, really made me feel like an asshole. It is true that I've killed a shitload of wildlife in Skyrim, but with the mods I have it was either for self-defense or FOOD. In Far Cry 4, I have to kill a one-of-a-kind rhino for a gaudy handbag that can hold a little more ammo than my previous one. Which, by the way, was sown together from the skin of three(!!!) endangered tigers! Damn it, I like rhinos, even if they don't like me back. The game makes the lamest excuse for it ever by claiming that Kyrat has a serious problem with the overpopulation of rhinos. Unfortunately the game wouldn't allow me to skin the NPC who said that. He would have made a great necktie.

I want to run a Stalker RPG adventure using a combination of diceless and diced rules. I also want to make a fresh start compared to all the earlier campaigns, so I dug up more detail about Zone Russia, the verdant anomalous wilderness that is also my tribute to the Zone as it was presented in Tarkovsky's movie "Stalker".

And it is here. (Google Earth required)

Zone Russia is in the southern half of the autonomous region of Dagestan in South Russia. When I looked up information on the region, Dagestan turned out to be an interesting place already, like a piece of Border Region without a Zone. It's on the no-go warning list of almost every other country. It has its own and very active branch of Al-Qaeda (Shariat Jamaat and the more vaguely defined Caucasian Caliphate movement) that averages one terror attack (that we know of) per week. There are 35 different ethnic groups, 12 different languages and clan loyalties supersede laws and regulations.

The local government (led by the reactionary Ramazan Gadzhimuradovich Abdulatipov, who in 1993 supported the attempted coup against Yeltsin), is hopelessly corrupt and rarely sticks its nose outside the regional capital of Makhachkala. There is little attempt by the police to suppress  either the local paramilitaries or the bandit gangs and criminal organizations that plague the countryside (and are often indistinguishable). The locals rely on their paramilitary groups for security, which adds fuel to both the on-going Islamist insurgency against Russia and the infighting between the traditional muslims (strongly influenced by Turkic and shamanistic traditions), Sufist sects and Salafist extremists. Under Putin, Russian military has undertaken antiterrorist operations within the region, with a particularly heavy crackdown just before and after the Sochi Olympics.

To the north, Dagestan is bordered by Chechnya (a veritable embodiment of peace and stability, finally re-annexed by Russia in 2003 with a mock referendum), among other things. To the west lies Georgia and its rebel province of South Ossetia (where Moscow sponsors a full-blown rebellion against the Tbilisi government). To the south is Azerbaijan (a dictatorship by Ilham Aliyev and various oil barons). To east is the Caspian Sea. Islamist fighters from Chechnya and counter-insurgency forces loyal to the current Chechnya's pro-Moscow puppet Akhmad Kadyrov frequently cross the border to both mingle and clash with the local armed groups. The southern parts have a considerable Azeri population, although whether the state of Azerbaijan has any pull with them is unclear.

The whole region is notorious for kidnappings, long thought to be the work of criminal gangs and religious extremists. It is now known that many of the industries in Dagestan, particularly the brickworks, rely on slave labor, so besides asking for ransom the involved parties have apparently been selling their captives to slavery. For something like this to happen in an industrial society means the corruption and neglect of the authorities has been taken to a whole new level. That said, the law enforcement is clearly doing something as human right activists are accusing them of using torture to extract confessions from suspected rebels and then killing them by burning them alive in cars so their deaths can be written off as accidental.

And that was just the reality.

*Plop!* Here comes the Zone, nearly 4000 square kilometers of anomaly- and mutant-infested overgrown wilderness. Besides the mountains and ridges, it has swallowed three large river valleys strung with villages, towns and auls (a traditional hilltop village). Moscow has abandoned the whole of South Dagestan to the Institute, who is determined not to get drawn into either the Islamist insurgency or ethnic infighting. They are even bribing gang bosses, petty warlords and heads of various criminal and terrorist organisations in return for some peace and quiet. However, when the carrot doesn't work, the Institute's application of stick is deadly and its modest border security guard is frequently beefed up with security contractors. Outfits like Blackwater just love an environment where there are no rules of engagement, effective laws and or the Geneva Convention. In addition and unlike in other Zones, the sanctioned xenology research projects here are allowed to have their own security detail. These are often the very same contractors used by the Institute, creating frustratingly complicated conflicts of interest.

Rather than monitor the entire length of the near-impassable border, the Institute guards accessible routes into the mountains, particularly the entrances of the river valleys leading into the Zone. Because of the rugged terrain, movement outside the established routes is so difficult that setting up fences is not worth the cost. Nevertheless, "doors" into the Zone exist, ranging from smuggling paths to old mines and Cold War -era tunnel complexes built for the military. Knowledge of them is jealously guarded, even if the people who once lived there may have been forced to flee north, or to the Caspian Sea coastline. It is not known whether Zone Russia had any refugees but if there were, they weren't many and were dealt with by their relatives and clans outside the Zone. Institute attempts to track them down have failed, even if there are occasional spottings of mutants.

Zone France has Toulouse, Zone Canada has Harmont, Zone Japan has Sapporo... and Zone Russia has Derbent. This 5000-yeard old city from the Unesco World Heritage List has become a hub of clandestine xenological research and stalker activity. Located well outside the 10 kilometer quarantine area and thus conveniently ignored by the Institute, the Dagestani authorities still wouldn't touch Derbent even with a 10-foot pole. The real power, besides the agents of the various regional and foreign factions, resides in the luxurious yachts bobbing at anchor just outside the city. They are guarded by stone-faced Chinese thugs sporting various Triad tattoos. Curiously, these same "powers" are often also financing the sanctioned xenology projects around the Zone. As with all things Dagestani, sanctioned and clandestine xenological research have congealed into an intangible mess.

Still, in most places the Visitation and everything that followed lead to an economic, security and social collapse. But in South Dagestan, some locals argue that things have never been better!  

Talk20-Nov-2014: Grand Theft Elephant

So what do you do when everybody else and their cousin is at Slush but you are home down with flu? In my case, the choice was obvious; try out Far Cry 4, of course. A little bit of history first: I still rate the original Far Cry as one of the best shooters I've ever played, even if things got out of hand towards the end. Then Crytek stopped messing with the franchise and Ubisoft had somebody else make Far Cry 2, which is the only first-person-shooter that made me hate it within the first 5 minutes of gameplay. Anyway, they stuck to the formula and developed Far Cry 3, the Bullshit World Game extraordinaire. But while I hated many things about it, they also got many things right: the writing was good for a first-person shooter and whatever they smoked during the character design, I want it. As the bad and boring parts are starting to fade from memory, Vaas and other bright spots from FC3 stick to mind, making it feel like a much better game than it actually was.

True to Ubisoft style, the sequel, FC4, is so close to FC3 that any other company would have released it as a DLC. But as we have seen with the Assassin's Creed games, this is just how Ubi approaches its brands; touch-up and go, touch-up and go. That said, FC4 is a much better deal than AC Unity appears to be. Everything that worked in FC3 is still there, a good deal of the bullshit world gameplay is also there... the characters are not such an LSD trip as they were in FC3 but perhaps they are slightly more believable because of that. Once more, you side with the native rebels against bad guys, climb up old shrine towers to hijack the local radio waves and conquer enemy outposts to win more territory. I am nowhere near through the game yet but this time your character also hails from this place, making the struggles of the unwashed natives actually feel relevant. But still, it is FC3 again to the same extent that ACs copied each other before AC4.

Oh yes, the skills make a comeback too, divided between Tiger and Elephant trees, effectively offense and defense. However, it is just a skill tree screen with icons; I find myself missing the growing Maori tattoos of Far Cry 3.  

With all that said, I find myself liking Far Cry 4 a lot more than I did Far Cry 3, the laser-eyed T-Rex DLC notwithstanding. First of all, it looks gorgeous and even the water effects work (something really funky was going on with those in FC3). Second, although Kyrat is yet another a third-world shithole, it blends its rural ghettos with majestic and sometimes exquisite displays of oriental architecture, so it feels more varied and aesthetic. Second, the mountainous scenery is magnificent and being a fan of mountaineering documents (something that my lungs would prevent me from doing even if I could drop all the excess fat right now), I enjoy looking at them and can't wait for the high-altitude sections up on the Himalayas.

There is, again, a lot wildlife out there and much of it hostile. However, their placement much better, with possible exception of those fucking eagles. Damn! Even the ornery honey badgers give me a warning if I am intruding on their territory but those man-eating eagles just come at me. I'm told they can actually haul animal carcasses away but that hasn't happened to me yet. I thought Haast Eagle was only found in New Zealand and went extinct in early 15th century but apparently they all moved to Kyrat instead. Animals are also larger, better animated and often blend beautifully into their surroundings. There are also elephants and once you get a certain skill you can ride them and use them to attack things. This is no joke, an elephant is a tank and a charge can send a car flying. Releasing a captured elephant inside an enemy camp is an almost assured way to kill everybody but the heavies.

Animals are a big part of the gameplay. As before, you can't carry more ammo or money unless your ammo belt is made from two rhino asses and your wallet from the nutsacks of three tigers. I am not a big fan of the crafting system but hunting and skinning animals also gives you chunks of meat to be used as bait. This works like a legal exploit: it is really fun to sneak into an elevated enemy base and throw meat down at them, because every bait lures in a predator and if you are lucky (and they are bears), you can actually liberate an enemy outpost without ever seeing the enemy. Of course, wandering tigers sometimes had the same effect in FC3 but I guess developers found it funny to make it a feature. And they were right, it is fun as hell.

But most importantly, while the Bullshit World stuff is still bullshit, it doesn't feel as in your face as it did before. The Outpost Mastery missions are just plain stupid and the arbitrary time limits on supply drop runs can go fuck themselves but other than that the mission system (which basically creates the mission content into a small patch of real-estate and you auto-fail if you venture too far out) bothers me much less than I thought it would. And here is an anecdote I'd like to share with you:

An enemy supply truck is speeding along the winding mountain roads. I am chasing it with a pick-up and try to get close enough to shoot the driver with my sidearm. I almost have him when he crashes into the oncoming traffic and spins a bit but I only manage to shatter the windshield. He takes off, with me in hot pursuit and we keep driving like madmen. Then he suddenly swerves on a perfectly straight road and I see he just dodged a god-damn rhino! I ram it and with an angry howl the beast throws my pick-up clean off the road and onto its roof. I can already picture myself skewered on its horn but when I crawl out of the wreck, I see the truck driving off into the distance with several tons of angry herbivore running behind it. By the time it gives up the chase, I am already well out of range. It was the single most enjoyable mission failure I've had playing videogames.     

Final verdict: +2 (would be an easy +3 without the Bullshit World issues)

Truth to be told, I am only 10 hours into what might well be a 50-hour game but I am in no hurry. It has been stable as a rock for me, with frequent Alt-Tabs working without a glitch. Curiously, I think High graphical settings look even better than Ultra, because I like having the sunlight bright and crisp in the mountain air. As a result, I haven't had any visible frame rate issues either, even though I am playing at 2560 x 1440 and the game is certainly pretty enough.   

I think this music video by Miracle of Sound captures the game quite well.

Talk17-Nov-2014: Choices, choices...

It's just a flu. Just a flu. Just a flu... because in my case the risk of it spreading into the lungs and becoming a Postcard from Death is all too real. The timing is terrible, though. I was supposed to meet with my publisher and then attend two industry events today. Instead, I am stuck home with a dripping nose and a throat that feels like someone was trying saw his way through it. What a waste. I should be networking and hunting for gigs but giving everyone I meet the flu is not a good calling card. My symptoms appeared soon after the most recent Praedor roleplaying game session. I hope my players are okay.

Even before the flu, I was stuck at home with a heel spike and with only intermittent business this fall, I've had plenty of time on my hands. Idle hands are the tool of the Devil, they say, and the Big D has been tormenting me with a choice: I have already written the first few paragraphs of a sequel to The Hollow Pilgrim. The working title and quite possibly also the final title will be The Green Room and given the context, you can read every possible meaning and then some into that name. Then again, I could put that into the desk drawer and do a Finnish translation of The Hollow Pilgrim, as it already has a publisher and there has been some demand to see it in print. Common sense tells me that I shouldn't but I am intrigued. More than one reliable person has told me that THP is my best novel and at least for now the ratings seem to bear that out.

I used to do translations in my previous incarnation but very little of that was fiction. However, having studied English literature and with many friends doing fiction translations, I have a fairly good idea of what that entails and I find the concept of translating the ideas rather than the language intriguing. Laymen, or whoever translated the Protocol Productions edition of the Finnish D&D, think of translation as a mechanical process soon to be eclipsed by machines. But as far fiction is concerned, that day is far off. Language is only the surface of a deeper pool that also contains culture, values, historical perspectives and worldviews. Moving stuff from one pool to another without losing the actual message is a far more creative process that the poorly paid translators are ever given credit for.

A Finnish translation of The Hollow Pilgrim would be an opportunity to try my hand at that. Take the title, for example. The direct translation of it would be "Ontto Pyhiinvaeltaja" but in the English language the adjective "hollow" is absolutely loaded with hidden meanings and connotations. Not so with "ontto" in Finnish. This is, of course, old news to all my English department alumni friends but I hope the rest of you get the point.  

One thing that I did write was this: an EBB rules supplement to Stalker RPG, untested except on paper and on Excel. I am going to run a Stalker adventure using it. If it works, I'll make an EBB ruleset configured for Rovers and we'll see where we can go from there. This version is actually lacking a couple of tweaks I wanted to make to the enemies but that'll be a task for another day. Ditto for explaining the mathematics behind the rules. 

Talk08-Nov-2014: Note to Self

"You are getting depressed. Watch that shit."

I had a long email exchange with my publisher on what they are doing with The Hollow Pilgrim. They are actually doing quite a bit that I had no clue of. Apart from a slight disagreement on how ebooks should have been presented during the Helsinki Book Fair, I have been really unfair to them in the past few weeks and for what? Poor sales of an obscure e-title a month after release? It ends now and I am forever grateful for the reality check. The Hollow Pilgrim is done. It is out there. And I've got the next 20 or 30 (hopefully) years to figure out the best use for it. 


As much as I like to rant, sometimes I wish someone would just stop me from writing stupid shit. This is not the first time I've let my petty frustrations override my better judgement (I think the medical term for that is "the Gamergate Syndrome") and it won't be the last (you are all here to see me rage, aren't you?). But as nights grow longer and my thoughts grow darker,  little self-moderation and a reminder to work on my impulse control are in order. I can be an asshole all year round but it always gets worse as we head into the Black Box, otherwise known as "Late Fall/Early Winter".

Speaking of stopping me, I am seriously considering moving over to the Goodreads blogging service. I don't have an RSS feed here and apparently these days all the cool kids have one. As I have understood it, RSS is basically an alarm service notifying people when a blog they are following has been updated. I hate to break with tradition, though. Designer's Notebook is over 11 years old. I've been writing it since 2003! It was reasonably popular at one point but these days no one gives a shit, really. People don't read blogs anymore, or much of anything that doesn't fit into 140 characters. I keep writing it mainly because I like the sound of my own voice and the good folks on #praedor occasionally give me feedback.

Because of the poor work situation and to some extent a heel spike (is that the proper term for the ossified malformation caused by plantaris fascitis?) that's nailing my foot to the floor, I've been having way too much free time on my hands. Idle hands are the tools of the devil and the Big D made write Miekkamies with the latest EBB rules. Beelzebub is supported by a cabal of old Miekkamies fans on #praedor and a secret society of fiction cartographers, supplying me with inspirational maps of Arleon and the Successor Kingdoms. I have also been very much impressed by The One Ring RPG and its various sub-systems. So far, Miekkamies 2.0 has been a chaotic mess of ideas but order is finally emerging from chaos. It'll be pretty cool stuff if it all works out. Take that, the First Law of Thermodynamics!

(And if someone now explains how the Second Law of Termodynamics applies to my writing, I'm going to bite. Hard.)

Hmm, anything else? I have the sequel to The Hollow Pilgrim in my head (yes, that picture is a hint).  The smart thing to do would be just to write the damn thing. Someone will publish it and the options are still open, despite rumors to the contrary. I also have the first third of a new Praedor novel on dry-dock, although after reading Kirotun maan kulkijat I am not sure I want to put it out there. This is Finland, people love to follow rules and whatever Petri or me say about Praedor is considered canon on the IP.... aaaand I am deathly afraid that my story won't be as good as those... Finally,  I've been sitting on an ebook release of Vanha Koira for a while out of sheer laziness. Ought to move my still-fat ass.

Games-wise, I really liked Might and Magic X until the middle of the second act of the story. Then something goes wrong with the balance. Maybe I am making fundamental errors in character advancement? However, I still liked it so much that I am now going to give Legends of Grimrock 2 a try next. Even HAX is moving forward again, so everything is fine, except that I wish I had made more money and injured myself less during this year. 

Talk17-Oct-2014: My Hollow Pilgrimage

Gods bless the Sanoma Corporation. They were there the day I became a freelancer and they are still there, even if this Fall has been so dead I am in mourning. Now they ordered a couple of bigger things and boy, am I happy to deliver! Technically, it is not more money in the pocket since they are digging into a stock of pre-purchased hours they acquired from me last year. But still, it was paid for and I'll do my best for my oldest customer and bask in the sensation of feeling useful. And if someone now comes along and says having the unemployed slave away at plantations for 9 euros a day is okay since the real reward is feeling useful, I'll fucking lynch them from the nearest tree.   

The Hollow Pilgrim is well-liked, if not particularly well-sold. Amazon is arbitrarily cutting off US customers for no reason and they are not obliged to give one. US customers can still buy from .de and co.uk branches of Amazon but you get the picture. Finn Lectura thinks it is basically their way to pressure publishers into their publishing programs by abusing their stature and I am inclined to agree. Technically, the whole thing is my publisher's headache but in reality, Amazon has a near-monopoly in ebook sales and the biggest English-speaking audience is obviously in the US. I don't so much mind losing the royalties here as I detest losing the visibility. I am exploring the option of having free copies sent to some literature bloggers, however that works in the ebook era. We'll see what happens.

In the end, I'd really like THP to do well enough to warrant a sequel. And truth to be told, I'll probably end up writing one at some point anyway. But whether it will ever be shown outside my immediate circle of friends remains to be seen. In a perfect world, the slightly re-edited ebook version of Vanha Koira will be out soon and Käärmeiden Tanssi around Christmas. By then, or whenever that last one is finished, I hope I know more of the possible sequel to The Hollow Pilgrim.  

In other news, The Hollow Pilgrim has had one unexpected (although it probably should have been expected) side effect. I kind of want to run Stalker RPG some more. Although I've had great fun when running it in the past, I've been reluctant to start new adventures or campaigns and it boils down to a problem in the FLOW system that I have finally come to admit: It is very taxing for the Gamemaster, even for somebody like myself who thinks and feels he is otherwise up to the task. The algorithmic resolution of it doesn't work unless you stick to its principles religiously and unlike with diced rules it is not a self-sustaining system into the late hours. If the game goes into places with lots of challenge resolving, it is very hard for the GM, or at least for me, to maintain my concentration both on the setting and in the fair appraisal of the individual challenges. In my case, the setting wins out and challenge resolution tends to become binary: if you have the ability and your suggestion is at least borderline feasible, you win. If not, you lose.

Even then, resolving a challenge based on player input and a fair, if still subjective evaluation of his chances is demanding. I've never felt so mentally tired than after running action-heavy Stalker RPG sessions. My recent play session at Worldcon was a case in point; I don't know if saying it felt like I had run a marathon is the proper term to describe mental fatigue but that's the gist of it. This has made me reluctant to start new things with Stalker RPG, even though it took a long time for me to admit this to myself. Is this a design flaw? I don't rightly know. FLOW works beautifully when properly implemented and ticks all the boxes I intended it to tick. On the other hand, it is kneecapping the whole process by demanding more bandwidth from me than I can comfortably give. It is safe to assume that I am not the only one with this problem, and given the high proportion of Stalker groups playing the game with a different rule system of their choice, this really seems to be case. So, I guess it is a design flaw. Just one that took its time to surface.

Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to write the two previous paragraphs? Going diceless with Stalker RPG was a big leap and I have defended that choice fanatically. I truly poured my heart and soul into FLOW and the instructions on how to run the game. There are great innovations and glorious revelations here and they will forever color my approach to rules design. Character creation, for one. I will be emulating that in all my work until the day I die. The Gamemaster's section of Stalker RPG is widely considered to be one of the best of its kind and it is praised in every review of the game. And whether people like the diceless system or not, few (if any) have ever disagreed with its goals.     

But now, thinking about running the game and finding myself reluctant to do it because of the strain that FLOW puts on me, I have no one left to argue with. I am going to run Stalker RPG again, soon or in the near future, but I doubt even I will be using FLOW for it. At least not as such. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you have seen me searching for a diced system as an alternative to FLOW, the so-called EBB. That was mostly for my clients' benefit. Now I am figuring out one for myself and it has to match my preferences and goals as perfectly as FLOW did. Lucky for me that I went for an algorithm-based system to begin with. All the mechanics are there. I just need a system to provide the values and the difficulty thresholds to match the scale. The EBB rules I wrote for Praedor last summer were already pretty good but they are too complex. I couldn't see that when I was comparing them with Praedor's original system. But looking at it next to Stalker RPG... well, pretty obvious, I would say.

Talk08-Oct-2014: For The Heck Of It

Something I doodled up...

Terminal Cover

Seriously, this is a fake, or at least not something you are ever going to get your hands on. A friend of mine moved back to Finland after a long while abroad and asked for a cyberpunk campaign. I decided that I am going to deliver and both test the new Praedor-style rules for Rovers and how much life I can actually breathe into the whole Terminal Complex setting. In any case, this game is not something anyone else will see (well, my players might get accidental glimpses of it on my iPad). Being an asshole, I just stole this image from the Internet without asking anybody. It was drawn by Laurie Greasly, AKA NexusRoky and his Tumblr gallery is fucking awesome.

Why did I choose this picture? Because so much of the cyberpunk art out there focuses on wrong things and sadly, this goes for the CP2077 game trailer as well (Deus Ex HR did some things right, yay!). They are basically gun porn, flying cars and scantily clad women with some mechanical parts on them. This, on the other hand, is like a snapshot of an alternate reality. It is a street scene, perhaps from an Asian block in Terminal. No posing, no bullshit, no nothing. And for me and my setting, this street artist painting a picture in old Japanese art style in the middle of it all is especially poignant. One of the themes in Terminal is that the global corporate monoculture is actively erasing all traces of the past, national and ethnic identities and cultures included. These things live on in the fringes of the society, as frowned-upon subcultures with their own 1%ers and radicals.

Only in Terminal and its Free Sectors, those wretched hives of scum and villainy, could something like this happen: a street artist painting something in a clearly Pre-Crash traditional style openly and unmolested. And every upstanding corporate citizen would secretly want one of those. This is not to say that the Cartel would not use aesthetics. Far from it; the need for beauty is one of the basic needs and while the streets have this banal urban neon-thing going on (most of it virtual light in my setting), I can easily imagine more elaborate and subtly more decadent styles coming into play as you move up the social ladder. Something akin to Art Deco architecture, the Chrysler Building in New York, or the Neo-Renaissance fashion of the elites in Deus Ex HR. Hmm, and Blade Runner. Anyway, cyberpunk games and settings tend to overlook these things, or they stops at sexy robots, chrome-colored tits and knickers drawn by Masamune Shirow.

I don't know enough about arts or music to truly appreciate their reach and impact in the society but to me, in the right circumstances, in the right kind of cultural atmosphere and crowd, something like the Rockers in CP2020 could actually be a viable character choice. But they wouldn't be superstars blaring synth-heavy metal. They would be counter-culture propagandists making outlandish music that utilizes all the new ways and sensory perceptions that technology has made possible. If disco lights were inspired by LSD trips, imagine what your personal augmented reality, hijacked by emotion-inducing art virus can do as de- or even re-programs the Cartel memetics and subliminal signals. It's fucking magic! And a fucking death sentence, if the corporate security ever gets a bead on them.    

How do I bring this all into a roleplaying adventure and improvised rules I don't rightly now, but I really like this cover and give myself bonus points for the green command prompt frame. Plasma screens FTW!  

Talk05-Oct-2014: Bullshit World Games

I have identified a new videogame genre: Bullshit World Games. They are games pretending to take place in a flesh-and-blood open-world setting but most or all of the causes and effects are pretentious and usually immersion-breaking gamey bullshit. I got a strong whiff of bullshit already when playing Far Cry 3, a game where you can’t find a decent-sized bag for your hand grenades unless you hunt down and skin the fucking Granddaddy Shark, which warps in and out of existence depending whether the mission is active and if, once having entered the mission area, you are leaving it too soon. But it is with Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor that Bullshit World Games are revealed in all their fly-attracting glory.

Despite the name, being a Bullshit World Game is not automatically a bad thing. Borderlands titles are just as bad at being open-world but when it comes to bullshit, they revel in it, throwing it up in the air and letting it rain down on themselves while laughing. It’s so stupid it is fun, or maybe it’s fun because it’s so stupid? I don’t know but either way, it works in Borderlands 2. However, when it comes to immersion, drama and a sense of epic, Bullshit World Gaming is in the diametrically opposed corner and should they ever meet, they would bitch slap each other.  

Middle-Earth: Shadows of Murder is the big fantasy title of 2014 (no, Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t count) and chronicles the adventures of Talion, a man-wraith from Gondor who dies when Sauron returns to Mordor from Dol Guldur and wakes up to unlife thanks to the ghost of a powerful… hell, spoilers. Well, it is all in Wikipedia if you are interested. As Tolkien lore goes it is a bit of a mismatch with the events leading up to the War of the Ring and the end of the Watchful Peace having a thousand year gap between them. But as a concept it works much better than I thought it would. After all, there must have been a reason why Sauron was called the Necromancer when he first re-emerged in Dol Guldur. Tolkien purists will object but I am willing to live with the backstory and setup.

You are in Mordor, starting out in Udûn and presumably later moving on to… darker pastures closer to Mount Doom. The place is pretty packed with orc patrols, orc camps, ruined fortifications, local mutually hostile wildlife and the occasional troll or ghul (whether those things have any basis in lore I have no idea). At this point, the open world thing almost works. The orcs go about doing their orcish thing and bullying slaves, while your objective is to assassinate your way through the ranks of Sauron’s army until you get to the superminions, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Sith Lords in another fiction franchise.  Talion De Salvatore goes all Assassin’s Creed on them, climbing, jumping, sneaking and backstabbing, with the added bonus of trying to find out orc captains’ unique strengths and weaknesses. Later in the game you even play them off against each other. The Nemesis system is a big part of the game and it actually works. Bonus points for having the orc captain level up if he kills you. It makes things strangely personal. I have mixed feelings about them sometimes coming back to life, though. Thankfully, they have pieces of metal stuck to their skull in the spots you hit them to remember you by.

Now, the interface is horrible. There are more controls than in a flight simulator and a cluttered HUD to match. Frankly, with this many icons on screen, I feel like I am playing Terminator. Nothing is explained anywhere, so for the first hour or so you’ll be stumbling around, pressing the wrong keys and wondering why some things first happen and then don’t. And why some orcs are colored differently in wraith-o-vision. In combat, you hammer away at attack and block keys and Talion seems content to do his own thing. Getting him to do something sharpish in combat feels clunky and slow because he insists on first finishing his animations and then making the wrong context-sensitive guess on what you are trying to accomplish. Like dropping down from a fucking ledge instead of trying drain a whole bunch of enemies all at once. Or pulling out his bow when you are actually trying to make the Cadagor you are riding on bite a downed orc. Basically, when the game does tell you what happens when doing XYZ, there is usually about 50% odds of Talion actually doing it. For some reason, I seem to have lost my ability to drain enemies just now. That is bad because dead orcs can’t give me intel on Captains.

The whiff of bullshit grows stronger with enemy respawns. I pull an all-out genocide on an orc camp site but as soon as I am out of minimap range, they are all back. Clear a small canyon and sure enough, you’ll soon have an orc patrol traipsing down from the dead end. Apart from the hierarchy of orc captains, you can’t change anything in this world. If the Nemesis system isn’t enough for you, the inevitable consequence is that you feel like you can’t achieve anything at all when all the slave camps you’ve liberated are back in operation five minutes later. Sure, this makes vast save files as per Skyrim unnecessary but this is not what open world games are played for!   

By the time you get into your upgrades and gear, you can feel bullshit oozing from between your toes. You have a sword and a broken sword you use as a dagger in memory of your son. Then, you also have a bow. Well, not really. Whenever Talion wants to do some archery, he pulls an ethereal elf-bow out of his ass, goes into bullet time and sends a laser-trajectory missile onto the target. It kills regular foes on headshots but otherwise is more useful in triggering explosions and unlocking beast gates. You can use the bow a limited number of times and reload the charges by collecting ghostly elf-arrows, left stuck in various structures around Mordor for reasons beyond mortal comprehension.

It gets worse. Instead of finding better weapons (which would mean giving the game world an object placement layer), killing a captain drops a rune you can add to one of your weapons if you have found enough Mirian to purchase that extra runeslot and…. Oh Christ On A Bicycle, developers! Do you read your own design documents? How does one drop a rune? How does one add it to the sword in mid-game? How come it takes this weird in-game currency Mirian to unlock… what? More space on the hilt of the sword for the runes? And once you have selected your runes, how can you change them on the fly even in mid-fight? Do the orcs pull back while you chisel the old one out and hammer the new one in? Did it ever occur to you use those silver anvil towers (don’t ask, for Old Gods’ sake) for tinkering with runes since you already have hammer and anvil graphics?

Or just give me loot. By Valar, just give me loot!!!

Most of the learned abilities are gamey action bonuses related to kill streaks, reminding me of Borderlands but in a much less creative way. The ability to make campfires explode is fun, though. You get ability points from XP and unlock new ability tiers by mucking up the power struggles between Orc captains. However, upgrade system, which is about having more shots with the ass-bow and sticking more runes onto your things, depends on you finding Mirians. This strange in-game currency is never explained but earned through mission rewards and finding hot spots in wraith-of-vision because apparently money can have a ghost too. None of this has absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances I see Talion in but the game throws one arbitrary progression mechanic after another on me, constantly knocking me out of suspension of disbelief.

And then there are the quests and I am suddenly buried in bovine feces. This is where SoM and Far Cry 3 shake each other’s hands and fart in my face. Mission start is a location with a particle effect. You reach it, activate the mission and all of a sudden the reality itself changes. Archery missions are a great example. A tent grows a forest of elf-arrows from the floor and all the enemies around you disappear. Then hordes of one-shot enemies start crowding in on you and you have to, let’s say, head shot 10 of them within 30 seconds or else. Unfortunately they shoot back, so after needling my 10 orcs (it tells me to headshot uruks but all it gave me were snaga archers; a text bug?) I make a beeline out of the tent. However, since the 30 seconds had not yet expired, the game tells me I have failed the quest by virtue of leaving the location and asks if I want to retry. I didn’t know that by leaving the tent, those ten dead orcs suddenly sprang back to life? Then again, I spring back to life time and time again, so… we are all wraiths here?

In short, a mission creates a pocket dimension and superimposes it onto the game world. Creating these pocket dimensions also means warping enemies in and out of them, resulting in absurd events. In one mission, after I completed it, I witnessed dozens of orcs, cadagors, camp fires and whatnot materialize out of thin air all around me because the pocket dimension was erased and the usual world content was re-applied on that location. Lucky for me, the respawn dropped the beasts on top of the orcs and I was hiding in bushes while the previously eerily moonlit ruins became a battlefield. I remained there, crying over my shattered suspension of disbelief and the developers’ distinct lack of style.

I honestly tried to like this game. I am a fan of Tolkien’s and I also like the modern derivative works (yes, that makes me an uncultured barbarian). I am even a fan of stealth games and SoM does much better job at it than, let’s say, Dishonored.  The graphics are good and the animations fluid. Stealth-take downs are brutal and combat is lively. With the attack/defence oscillations it might actually be fun without the finisher combo bullshit. Sound design is excellent and the storyline concept is appealing, much more so than I would have thought. It also gives me hope for Witcher 3, because while I usually detest the third-person view, this time I was curiously unbothered by Talion’s fat ass and ugly mullet. Seriously, all 3D action games should be use the FPS perspective. I have heard the counter-argument for increased characterization but look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you want to highlight the character in an FPS game (and a much deeper character than Talion) or have scenes where it might be problematic not to see your feet, just switch momentarily out of it! Still, SoM proves that the third-person view can be less of a handicap than it usually is.  

But while I spent hours playing the game and occasionally really enjoyed myself, the bullshit kept piling up. Eventually, my suspension of disbelief broke under the strain, I ceased to care about the plot or the orc captains and I grew bitter over what could have been. Skyrim really wipes the floor with this game and does it with more authority than even I thought possible. As a fan of open world games, it annoys the hell out of me that something like Bullshit World Games exist. They represent a school of thought and game design that is probably going to become more prevalent since it is more console friendly and perhaps easier to design on paper. With Shadows of Mordor getting rave reviews, it is obvious that I am in the minority with my criticisms. The future belongs to Bullshit.

Final verdict: (+3…+2…+1…) -1

Talk29-Sep-2014: Steampunk Stalkers

This is not a new idea but it came back to me when I was reading about Sunless Sea. Imagine an alternate aftermath of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The aliens are presumed dead, killed off by Earth microbes. However, they brought some of their own. In areas they had time to conquer, alien influences are warping Earth life, creating jungles and wastelands of hostile mutants and toxic plants. And where alien structures are present, even the very laws of nature and physics seem fragile, spawning deadly anomalies and eroding the fabric of time and space. The biggest loss to humanity is obviously London, the "mother of cities". It is now a wasteland deadly anomalies, alien wreckage and mutated life.

With the military threat from the aliens gone, ironclad warships have forced their way up the Thames river, firing incendiaries at the altered vegetation and helping to establish a foothold in the docklands. Beyond that, there was little they could do and military excursions into the Altered London usually end in disaster. The admiralty is most concerned about reports indicating  organized activities or rebuilding of alien structures deep within London. Could some of the aliens have survived, or is there some other faction out there, far too cozy with the aliens by all accounts? Either way, there is no obvious military solution in sight and the Prohibited Zones, including London, are quarantined by Royal Decree.

Fast forward a few years. London is now lost inside a jungle of strange vegetation, blood-thirsty mutants and alien wrecks. The Imperial Quarantine Office, or IQO, is responsible for the security of its borders and whatever other alien relics the war has left behind. However, the office is complacent, inefficient and thoroughly corrupt. Cooperation with other branches of government is poor and the Royal Navy in particular views it with disdain, maintaining its own outposts along the Thames River. Elsewhere, life goes on. Brighton is the new seat of government and much of the industries have moved to Liverpool and other great ports. The post-war reconstruction effort has brought about an economic boom, amplified by staggering advances in science and technology.

Nobody is saying it aloud but alien artifacts have been finding their way into the hands of governments, generals, powerful industrialists and secret societies. There is a booming trade in altered biology for their real and imagined medical effects, while a high-budget cottage industry dabbles with xenotech weapons and tools. Very little of the alien technology can be replicated outright but finds brought back from the Zone are running steam-powered airships, walking tanks and articulated prosthetic limbs superior to their flesh counterparts. Not to mention the many portable applications of the alien thermal ray emitters. The War was not end of the world but the beginning of a new age and possibly a new war of unprecedented proportions, as many rival factions compete for otherworldly secrets.

All this is possible due to stalkers. These are courageous rogues of all manner and breeding, who either defy the IQO or bribe them to let them through and make harrowing expeditions into the ruins of London. They have brought back gold from the vaults of Bank of England, art from the British Museum and jewellery from the stores of Piccadilly Street but alien artifacts and biological samples are by far the most prized finds. Although this kind of activity is something that should be beneath those of proper breeding, many noblemen and ladies lost everything in the war. Now they participate in these expeditions under false identities to rebuild their fortunes.

Stalker expeditions are increasingly relying on xenotech to match the hazards of the Zone and some enjoy lavish sponsorship from secretive or outright clandestine sources. However, they are just a cog in a vast infernal machine of political rivalry and conspiracy that has sprung up around Zone London.    

Talk23-Sep-2014: Wasteland 2

You knew I was going to review that, didn't you? Well, I've got some good news and I've got some bad news. The good news is that this is a good game. It's a post-apocalyptic game in the vein of Shadowrun Returns and I mean that in a good way gameplay-wise. No magic or elves here. And it is 3D, not isometric, although at the zoom levels I am playing with you couldn't tell the difference (except when you have to rotate the view to see behind obstacles). Left mouse key interacts, right moves and middle rotates the view. Active objects usually have some sort of highlight on them but can still be hard to spot. Oh yes, the game is turn-based. Just like it should.

In a nutshell, this game is everything I wanted Krater to be.

Now for the bad news: despite claims to the contrary, this is not Fallout. Rule changes I can forgive but something else is missing too: charm, humor, a sense of wonder, something. I have quite a few gripes too but don't let it distract you from the fact that this is a good game. A Good Game. It just isn't a Great Game and thus it is not a real competitor to the old Fallouts.

In Wasteland 2, you are a Desert Ranger, a member of a sort of police force in a post-nuclear desert of Arizona. Starting out with a party of four, you can add ready-made members or try making your own. There is a fair set of attributes and stats available but pitifully few points to put into them, which of course leave space for scaling when you level up. The option to write a character biography is a cool idea. Most players won't use it but I got a kick out of writing character-specific idioms and quotes. The problem with the creation system is that the game is really bad at explaining what affects what, so you'll probably go down the same route as I did: do a shit party, play for a couple of days to find out how shit it is, and starting over with a much better understanding of the game and its mechanics.

The gameplay is split between two views: a high-level 3D map of post-apocalyptic Arizona. It is mostly featureless apart from some mountains and radiation clouds and but when you get close to a location, it sort of pushes up from the ground. There are random encounters too, announced with Fight/Flight pop-up windows. Your traipsing around the wasteland is limited by the amount of water you have. It can be replenished at oases and at certain locations, although strangely not at Highpool, which provides the other Wasteland settlements with most of their water. But I digress...

Once you enter a location, or fail to avoid a random encounter, you are taken into a gameplay map, a limited 3D area with foes to shoot, NPCs to talk to, boxes to open and mines to tread on. The actual locations are pretty well done but the small selection of maps used for random encounters gets stale fast. Since these encounters are supposed to take place out in the desert, I don't understand why they can't go down the old Fallout route and use a fairly plain map with some random elements and clutter. Sure, individually any of these maps has more elements to them but repetition actually makes them grow stale much faster.

Besides killing monsters and opening chests, talking to people usually grants missions and the Ranger command drops more on you via radio. However, the mission journal in this game is one of the worst I've ever seen. The devs have gone out of their way to avoid the impression of "quests" but as a result you'll have hard time keeping track of what has been accomplished, where it is rewarded and what goes on where. Passwords, codes and the like are not automatically stored anywhere either, so if you forget the safe combination from an earlier discussion, you have to scroll down the discussion prompt for minutes trying to find that conversation again. I guess that's old school for some. Fortunately, the distinct sidequest tasks dropped onto your lap by the Ranger command usually include a location on paper map but still, the "towns" can be confusing as hell when you are trying to figure out your mission targets.

When combat occurs, the game moves into rounds with rangers and foes getting turns to spend their action points according to their respective initiative scores. As always, you can't have too many action points in this game. Since there are no perks to offset the weight of the attributes (or personalize the character for that matter), I don't know why anyone would play anything else but a very intelligent circus acrobat. In combat, many things can happen and the injury system is actually quite extensive. Not as extensive as in the golden oldies but still, field medic and surgeon are separate skills and tool sets, but trust me, you'll need both.

I am not exactly turned on by the story. The main plot leads you around the wasteland and forces you to make some pretty big choices early on. The choices and their consequences are something this game supposedly excels in. I can vouch for the first part but I am still waiting to see the second. The setting has... potential. Unfortunately, it is mostly unrealized potential. Where are old battlefields and easter eggs (apart from those fucking toasters)? Where are faction patrols, or at least the chances of encountering anything else but raiders and monsters out there? I'd like to see a trader caravan or some water refugees every once in a while. Maybe a religious procession too, since it is easy to see how the end of the world might have been a religious experience for some. Still, for the most part the internal consistency of the setting does hold up. I just wish they had come up with more living world. I can understand that there was only so much world-building you could fit into Wasteland 1 but those restrictions are gone now. Go nuts! Like in Fallout!

As you can see, I am constantly comparing W2 to the old and new Fallouts. I repeat, Wasteland 2 is a good game. Good but not great and those are the games I want it to be!

However, the biggest problem is something this game shares with the old Fallouts. It is the reason I don't usually like old-school computer RPGs: the ability to fuck yourself up. Make the wrong kind of party? You're fucked. Create the wrong kinds of characters (guaranteed to happen the first time)? You're fucked. Buy the wrong weapon? You're fucked. It would take a shitload of quicksaves (actually, it would take the three-slot autosave feature from Skyrim to fix 80% of this problem) to avoid this. As it stands, I am starting over since I now have a better understanding of how the game works, how the world works and what exactly you are supposed to do, at least in the beginning. I am sure the shitty journal system will bite me in the ass again and again. Many people look back on retro games with nostalgia but honestly, there is a reason why even the AAA games market back then was a fraction of the size it is now.

So, here we go...

Final Score: +2

It gets +1 because I am going to play the shit out of this game despite all its problems. It is a good offering in my favorite genre and I am willing to endure some serious pain for that. It gets the second +1 for giving me a massive inspiration on what I want to do next with Rovers. 

So, as a result of playing Wasteland 2, I officially declare that Rovers is off the shelf and back on the table, to be worked on whenever an overdose of fantasy from writing Taistelijan Kirja gets the better of me. Expect a full and brutal overhaul. Also expect delays on both projects since I am busy playing Wasteland 2.

Talk14-Sep-2014: The Book of Warrior

I'm back! Not that anyone noticed that I was gone but I was in Istanbul, Turkey for two weeks. Together with the previous trip I've been traveling for almost a month, with just five days between the trips. While it has been fun, I am honestly feeling a bit war-weary by now. Besides, Finland looks beautiful right now. I think I am going to stay at home for a while. Besides, I got a pneumonia from my first trip and while antibiotics seem to have done their job, I wouldn't recommend traveling with busted lungs to anyone. 

Istanbul is huge but the old city is about the size of the Helsinki center, so everything there is accessible by foot or tram. Although the city is built-up and modernized, the ancient walls of Constantinople still run around it and make for an impressive sight. It also gives you some idea of how formidable the city's defenses must have been at their height. While visiting Hagia Sofia was perhaps the high point of my journey, my Personal Conan Moment (I've been chasing that high ever since standing before the Golden Gate of Kiev last year) was provided by the Blue Mosque. 

Blue Mosque

Now that's what I call a temple!

Still, the interior of Hagia Sofia blew me away. A museum since 1935, the Turkish government has tried to restore many of the Greek Catholic mosaics and wall paintings, often by carefully removing the Ottoman-era coat of paint where particularly precious paintings are believed to be. The restored parts are fantastic and some of the retained Ottoman parts are equally fantastic and on the whole, visiting Hagia Sofia gave me a pretty clear idea of what a certain interior space central to Verivartio campaign actually looks like. It just needs more gold-colored metal.

Everybody else in the Finnish RPG scene seems to be having fun at Tracon. On one hand I am jealous but on the other hand I couldn't have made it so back-to-back with all my traveling and my lingering cough. Next year, perhaps. Anyway, with Astraterra and Myrskyn Sankarit, looks like the newbie and kid demographics are well served. The delightful pictures posted on social media really warm my heart. I know some people are already celebrating a resurgence of our hobby but honestly, we are light years away from where we were in the nineties. Still, it is an upturn and I'll take that any day over my own dire predictions. 

The fate of the Praedor RPG supplement is still up in the air. Personally, I am starting to have doubts if the next Praedor graphic novel will ever come out. It's not about Petri being lazy, it is about him needing to eat and feed his family. Compared to his contracted works, Praedor is peanuts, no matter how much I have tried to change that equation. Even the biggest Finnish fantasy franchise is still pretty damn small and to my knowledge even the LARPs centered on it are now over. Three cheers for Kirotun Maan Kulkijat by Osuuskumma but it did not set the world on fire. I doubt my next novel, or any novel for that matter, will either but I will keep striking the flint. 

As I have already said, Mike did an excellent job with the Hornankattila adventure module for Myrskyn Sankarit (just look at that cover; the forest and the green are not over-represented, they are the core elements of the story). It gave me an idea. I already have some supplemental material for the long-awaited and still-delayed Praedor supplement. I will chop that material into geography-agnostic bits, complete the writing and start publishing them as cheap, short and sweet PDF guides, complete with a topical adventure. Petri was too busy to even dream of illustrating them, so we agreed that I can use any existing Praedor art for illustrations, particularly the comic books and the picture panels from Vanha Koira. Praedor RPG fans have been asking supplemental material since time immemorial but now we'll see if there is any true demand.

The first supplement is going to be called Taistelijan Kirja and you get no prizes for guessing the theme. If the next Praedor graphic novel ever comes out, some of this material might find its way back into the printed format along with the geographical content. But until then, the geographical content remains secret knowledge that is shared only between Verivartio participants.