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I am about to head north, to the very edge of civilization. Since I won't be back until next month, this the last entry for the summer. Not a bad summer, although it could have been a litte sunnier. Well, maybe next time. Stalker is on page 192 right now. That is 20 new pages on top of those gained from layout changes. I am still planning on 20 to 30 pages more but we are finally getting there. That's the status update (minus yet another praise for my lead artist but that will have to wait). Unless I die or something the game is out by Christmas, although I still don't have a clue regarding the printing arrangements.
Meanwhile, I have made this curious observation of no importance whatsoever. Since there is nothing better to write, I'll share it with you. Mike has just released a game built around a J-pop band or girl bands in general. Last year, Miska released a Heimot soundtrack packed with techno-flavoured ambient. I have no clue what Eero is listening to but my personal playlist blares Motörhead, Kotiteollisuus and epic film soundtracks when I'm writing Stalker. Now if you look at Mike, you can see he is definitely an emo guy and I can visualize him actually listening to the music Tähti is about. Miska is the buff sports dude with a short-cropped hair and abs to die for, born for a hot night at a club (beat for dancing, ambient of cooling off). And I... well, I am the stereotype of your aging heavy metal fan, complete with long hair, poorly kept beard, a black t-shirt and a waistline that would feed half of Africa. It's denim, leather and the devil's mark.
I wonder if these differences also show up in our games?
According to game reviews, Bioshock is the Second Coming. Unfortunately, it now seems to have turned into the Anti-Christ. Both the demo and the retail version apparently install a rootkit on your computer, so it is a class A information security hazard. On top of that, you only have five installs with the retail version before the DRM locks up the game (so don't borrow it to your friends) and it also monitors whatever else you're running, with no way of knowing what will be communicated to the SecuRom servers. Or so they say. Damn, I was SO going to get this game. Now I am not touching it with a ten-foot pole.
After the CD copy-protection fiasco by Sony, I find it very hard to believe that anyone, let alone a game publisher, could be so stupid. We all know the arguments against videogame piracy and they're real. My salary is on the line with that. But here are some arguments FOR videogame piracy, courtesy of 2K and their DRM scheme:
I think that the fight against videogame piracy starts between the developers' ears. If we fail THAT, it doesn't matter what we do later on. And from the look of things, we are really fucking it up. Too bad for Bioshock, though. I hear it is a brilliant game.
Dear NCsoft management:
You must surely have abducted and murdered Richard "Lord British" Garriott so that you can claim he is the lead designer of your upcoming sci-fi MMORPG, Tabula Rasa. On the behalf of all computer roleplaying game veterans out there, I humbly ask you to return his body to us for a proper burial. We will do this for free and behind closed doors so that your marketing campaign featuring "Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa" will not be disrupted.
The scenario I ran at Ropecon was named "Red House" and it was aimed for five newbie players whose characters had never been to the Zone before. Not knowing what to expect and this being my second session of Stalker in its complete form, I had thought up what I thought to be a pretty basic scenario.
The characters are petty criminals, fugitives. A disgraced scientist, an ex-mercenary... all ready-made characters. In the end they were perhaps a little too criminal but what the hell. They all had a common contact in the underworld, a snivelling dealer called Nike. Now Nike had arranged them a gig from an Institute researcher, John Walton. His field team had entered a building named "Red House" a little over a kilometre from the Zone border near Toulouse. They had all died there for undisclosed causes (actually it was an Inorganism but the Institute guy wisely cropped that part off from what he showed to the characters, claiming that the team was already dead when the camera activated) but a videocamera-turned-transmitter caught one of them coming into contact with a seemingly innocent-looking dark metallic bar and coming back to life. Clutching the bar, the newly resurrected field team member crawled into a corner and just sat there, shivering.
Their lead researcher, monitoring this from their base outside the Zone, wants the bar, and preferably also the guy, brought in. He no longer has a field team and he is not going to tell his superiors they all got killed unless he has something extraordinary to show for it. An artifact that revives the dead fits the bill and he'll pay 25,000 euros for the guy and another 25,000 euros for the bar, but only if they bring the bar. If they bring just the guy, he is not gonna pay (that was the plan, I somehow mucked it up when explaining the conditions of payment).
Nike meets the characters in an abandoned houseboat in Bordeaux. Then John Walton, the Institute guy turns up with a CVhevy. He shows the footage on a laptop and then smuggles them past the guards near Toulouse in a space he has cleared among cardboard boxes in the back of the Chevy. The team dismounts at the "base", set up in an old sports bar now surrounded by thickets growing on what used to be a set of football fields. They are introduced to Papillon, a real stalker guide for this trip, and off they go. In the first session, the trip was arranged into a set of puzzles. First they must cross the Burnt Field just across the border. Thickets end, revealing an open area of churned-up ground. Columns of steam travel up and down, burning and cracking the ground as they go. Mud is boiling in some of the puddles. Parts of the field are treacherous and some characters get stuck and have to be helped out of "quicksand" by teamwork.
Blue Forest is a collection of dead trees, with a strange blue haze between them. It is as if eletrical currents were running between the trunks but leaving roots and treetops clear. Throwing something metallic into it sends it flying around, pushed and pulled by unseen forces. Some characters climb the treetops to get over it. Others crawl underneath (the easiest way). One stripped naked and held his gear up in his hands, walking through the blue haze. He got nasty bruises from burst blood vessels but survived. The road that followed was the easy part: old luxury houses, crashed vehicles, cracks extending from the river as the bank is slowly giving away. They wanted to steal a brand-new looking Ferrari but it was in a bubble of toxic, non-oxygenated air.
They found the Red House, its red walls alive with somekind of blood-red mist. Ground beneath it had partially given way and the earlier team had blasted a hole through the concrete floor of the basement, entering the building from below. Inside it was pretty normal, except for wisps of surprisingly solid-looking smoke emanating from a column of roiling black vapours piercing both floors. They found the artifact and the guy upstairs. He was alive but looked like his flesh and skin were a few sizes too big for his bones and now hang down from his face and what little they could feel of his limbs. The artifact was in his hand and stuck in it and the hand was just a lump of flesh grown around it. One of them disrupted the smoky wisps and they had to make a quick exit. They succeeded in getting out alive and the journey home began. It was getting dark. Just as they were on the Burnt Field, nearing the edge of the thickets, the Nokia ringtone rang out in the thickets and was abruptly cut. One of them managed to sneak up on the guy with the phone as he was trying to flee and it turned out to be Nike, who is not supposed to be here and who was a little incoherent in his explanations as to what he was doing...
At this point we were interrupted by the next game booked to that table, so the session came to an end. Players said they enjoyed it but what else would they say? I wasn't all that happy about it. I didn't feel like I had made a very good job of portraying the atmosphere I wanted and the Zone part had been more frustrating than fun. There was no depth to the mission or any reason to contemplate the motives leading to it. On the game mechanics side, Flow makes it very easy to grade various levels of success when you have not decided on pre-determined difficulty values. However, without them, drawing the line as to when the character will fail (as opposed to "barely succeed") on the fly was difficult. Some of them did fail, usually due to circumstances rather than their own actions. As the players were also new to this system, I could have done a better job at encouraging them to describe their characters' actions more but for some reason this was not as big of a problem as I had expected. Apparently you can judge the roleplaying value of an action fairly easily even if you don't get some oral prose to back it up. Maybe I talk too much?
My preparations for session #2 nearly failed because of the aggravating Roleplaying Theory in Practice panel but in the end I did get some thinking and writing done. I had outlined the main changes as:
New set of players, some new notes on a graph paper and off we go, late in the Saturday evening. I know one these guys from the #praedor IRC channel, so if I muck it up, I'll hear about it. No female players at all this year. A shame.
This time we start right inside the Chevy, when it is being stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint on the road to Toulouse. Nike was at the wheel and John Walton was waiting at the sports bar. The intro into the adventure is like going through what everybody in the van is thinking, closing off with each player doing a brief intro about his character. I was told afterwards that the way characters are made in Stalker felt like it gave the players a lot to chew on for roleplaying purposes, even on a short notice. And the format makes it easy to digest. Now, Walton was at the sports bar and shows clear dislike of Nike, with whom he obviously associates with only out of necessity. He gave the breathing inside the sports bar but just as the group was about to take off, a fancy-looking car screeched to a halt outside the bar. Papillon, their lady stalker guide, hid.
It is Mario, John's associate for this project. He was against the idea of using stalkers to retrieve the bar. Instead, he thought they should have reported the Red House incident to their superiors and face the heat. The heated exchange between the two scientists showed John Walton's fiery ambition, culminating in Mario threatening to expose them all right now. The merc character drew a gun on Mario and for a moment there was dead silent. Then Mario made a sudden move and got a third eye from a .44 Desert Eagle. John was shocked (but he would have shot Mario in the back the moment Mario had turned to his car). The group drove the car into the thicket. They then took the corpse with them to be dumped inside the Zone.
The Burning Field was there just like before but it was not a challenge. It was just as a demonstration of the Zone's effects, a caution that had nevertheless cost lives and machinery for the Institute. No puzzles here but they heard a chopper coming and lay flat in the churned-up ground, hoping a heat column wouldn't hit them. A Seaking chopper flew by, missing their immobile shapes in the deepening dusk. Then it started hovering and firing on something else. They could see the muzzle flashes from a door-mounted machinegun. To the south, across the field, was a humanoid shape. Bullets tossed up dirt around and it fell, only to get up again, moving slowly and clumsily. Firing continued and it fell again, obviously hit. And got up again. The chopper got the hint and veered away on full burn, pilot obviously panicking. The shape stumbled on, out of the zone and into the thickets. "Just a Living Corpse", Papillon said in a dry tone. They're harmless.
Blue Forest was the same challenge as before and was solved pretty much the same way, although more people chose to crawl this time. There was an accident when an overpacked backpack touches the blue haze and most of the equipment goes flying. Anyway, the carrier survives. They reach the road and find it easy to traverse, although there were some peculiarities to distract them (like the Ferrari, this time in a bubble of hard vacuum). Then they saw some kind of whitish growth coming at them down the road, a boiling mass of white foam that left behind a chalcy tube-like structure as it bounced this way and that like it was drunk. They hid and took cover, except for one who would have been hit if another character had not suddenly tried to grasp the thing right behind the boiling head. He screamed as his hands got stuck on it. Another character tackled him and pulled him clear but the tips of his finger broke off to the first joint and stayed with the structure, turning into the same chalcy substance. The foamy head altered course and missed my intended victim but it did not turn back to attack. It kept going and after a while the structures it formed came crashing down, crumbling to dust before their eyes. It was quiet again. Somewhere to the south, even deeper in the Zone, they heard an engine running on idle.
Red House looked the same as before, except that they could see red light emanating from the windows on occasion. Lights seemed to be moving. Entering the house from the hole in the basement, they reached the boiler room and began exploring. This time there were red points of light moving about, trailing an almost solid-looking wisps of black smoke. The party scattered, some exploring the lights (while looking for valuables in the wealthy home) and others going upstairs in search of the survivor and the artifact. Upstairs, the ceiling was lost behind a wall of black smoke. Dozens and dozens of red lights darted here and there like insects. They found the artifact and the guy in the corner as before, with the same ailments. Then one of them disrupted the smoke trails downstairs. The ceiling came alive and dozens of red lights streamed down along the walls to attack them. Getting out became a hell of a struggle as the smoke itself turned out to be a some kind of semi-substantial tentacle. They left the survivor behind (ripping the artifact off him) and trampled their own in a mad dash to get out. Through sheer good fortune (and I am not talking about die rolls) they got out. Little afterwards the oil tank in the boiler bloom exploded when pierced by red lights, destroying half of the house and any chance of finding the survivor again.
Left with the artifact and the promise of 25K, dissention now broke among them. Walton was not too trust-inspiring and one of the characters wanted more out of this thing. Eventually the argument was settled by a rifle-fired grenade and two characters killed in the blast, although not before one of them had stabbed the other with a combat knife. Those alive began the journey back, only to be greeted with the Nokia tune as before. Two guys rushed into the thicket and hid, only to see some rather strange looking people with nightvision goggles coming out of the sports bar. There was no sign of Walton but they did see Nike talking to them. Gangsters from the Mediterranean, from the looks of it. One character, the artifact bearer, tried to follow Papillon first north along the Burnt Field and then into thickets. There Papillon offered to get him out of here in exchange for the artifact. He refused and decided to try his luck. Curtain closed on him.
The two others guys fled back into the Zone and all the way into the Blue Forest, unsure as to what to do as bullets from silenced rifles snapped into the trees around them. They were found by a friend of Papillon's whom she called when things went south. He offered them a deal; he was going to inspect another location by the riverbank and could use extra eyes and muscle. The two agreed and although they didn't know it, they had just been recruited into a real stalker group that Papillon was also part of. The scenario ended with our one hero, the artifact bearer, waking up in an Institute cell, rubbing the spot where the sleeping dart hit him last night. The door opened and an Institute agent came in with two nasty-looking guards, telling him that they needed to talk about the murders of John Walton and Mario Frazata.
End of session.
The second run felt much better to me and was praised by the players. Although we got it to a proper finish and had time to add a little extra (we played over four hours, of course), I think adding the human interaction part, the conflict between John and Mario into beginning, was the best new move. It gave everybody a whole new perspective into the adventure and after witnessing a murder and taking part in hiding a body, the Zone wasn't "the bad guy" anymore. It was just a place, no matter how awe-inspiring. It also helped to cut down the number of puzzles and introduce transit scenes where anomalies were present and dangerous things happened, but were not a party-stopping problem to be solved. The only two puzzles left were the Blue Forest and the Red House. The party spent almost as much time between them, curiously exploring their newfound freedom (whereas in the first session the four consecutive puzzles had taken all their energy).
Human angle. I really have to stress the human angle in the design of adventures for Stalker. The Zone is cool and all but a modern, experienced player is not going to send his character there just for fun. The motivations, goals and long-term suspense have to come from elsewhere and that requires people. That requires the human angle.
Actually this is just feedback that Eero Tuovinen emailed me after reading Pelintekijän käsikirja. He gave his permission to publish it:
Kävin maanantaina ostamassa Fantsusta Pelisuunnittelijan käsikirjan, kun se oli loppu Ropeconissa. Luin sen sitten saman tien.
Kirja oli varsin mainio! Jokaisesta yksittäisestä asiasta olisi tietysti lukenut mielellään enemmänkin, mutta mukaan oli mahtunut ainakin minulle myös uusia ja hyödyllisiä ideoita. Esimerkiksi projektin konseptivaiheen, resurssoinnin ja speksaamisen (so. pelisuunnittelun) erotteleminen selkeästi erilleen näyttää kyllä selvästi hyödylliseltä. Samaten aion jatkossa jakaa pelitestipalautteen ehdottamallasi tavalla prioriteetti-kategorioihin, se helpottaa varmasti materiaalin seulomista. Nähtävästi siis olen kivasti kirjan kohderyhmää.
Yllättävän paljon analyyttista teoriaa muuten kirjassa siihen nähden, mitä sanot aina teoriasta. Määrittelet esimerkiksi genren oleellisesti samoin kuin vaikkapa minä, eli ihan asiallista postmodernia kirjallisuusteoreettista ajattelua ;)
Läpi kirjan mukana ollut erilaisten pelien suunnittelun samankaltaisuuden teema oli myös inspiroiva, ja pelisuunnittelijan roolin selventäminen pelintekijän, konseptisuunnittelijan ja pelisuunnittelijan käsitteiden erottelulla oli myös hyödyllistä kamaa.
En siis toisin sanoen käsitä, minkä takia tästä on urputettu. Harvemmin menen ostamaan kirjan ja olen jopa tyytyväinen ostokseen luettuani sen. Tartu vain tilaisuuteen, jos pääset kirjoittamaan aiheesta jossain vaiheessa lisää.
It is always nice to get good feedback from someone who is actually making games. After this Ropecon Eero is definitely one of those thanks to his apparently ingenious zombie game (which I haven't read yet). I am especially pleased that he wants to use some of the ideas in the book in practice since was it's whole point. And no, I don't think anyone can truly understand the bitchers and moaners (my best effort at translating "urputtajat").
Ropecon'07 has come and gone. Upon writing this Dipoli has still five minutes before the doors close but there is nothing to do there during the last few hours, so I left early. Besides, the closing ceremony has always felt like a wake to me. I have no idea of the attendance or whether there were major disturbances. Despite some "Rapecon" advertisements for rowdier behaviour and a girl asking me if I wanted to try "a hardcore LARP" with... well, let's not get into details here, the whole affair was quite tame. There were no naked girls under my table this time and even the party dresses seemed more modest than before. Of course, I did not get to see half of the programs I intended but what I did see, was mostly good.
On Friday, I first attended the Tähti publishing event (Mike's roleplaying game about a futuristic mutant teenage girl bänd) which was quite fun. Then there was the opening ceremony complete with the Loveboat Theme which was also good except when the lead organisers first told people sing the Ropecon song and then left the stage instead of leading it. Then became my Stalker session #1, which I thought was mediocre but the players said they liked it (do they ever say anything else?). I'll talk more about Stalker sessions later on; they were pretty important. When it ended, there was still the Climatepunk workshop by Mörötti, which I unfortunately couldn't watch the whole way through. It was very scientific and extremely interesting. I later learned that they came up with a scenario of a small town in a future Spain-turned-desert. The players could be cops defending the community and when the society is in a free-fall they would have make difficult choices regarding their loyalties. That'd make a good novel, a movie or a videogame.
On Saturday, I mostly hang around and looked through the new larger but also harder to access Kaubamaja (shopping area), until the Roleplaying Theory in Practise-panel came up. I was one of the panelists. Four minutes into the panel Markus Montola was kind of enough to remind me why I don't get along with these people. To put it briefly, I am a "bad" person for writing shallow crowd-pleasers instead of "innovative" and experimental titles that "open new horizons" and "take the hobby forward". They think I have a moral obligation to do it and then judge me (rather than my works) because I won't. What can you say to that? (Well, you can say exactly that. Thankfully the audience picked it up so I didn't have to do the arguing). Eventually I hugged Montola so that the discussion could move forward but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. My policy for accepting all Ropecon programme invitations outright is at an end.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the anonymous (I didn't catch your name) Praedor fan who approached me just outside the main doors on Saturday night. I was trying to calm down and cheer myself up for the upcoming Stalker session and he came to thank me for a great RPG (Praedor) and asked for my signature. I wouldn't have bounced back in time for the session without this guy. He wasn't the only one to approach me during the 'Con but his timing and method were perfect. The Stalker session went very well, even in my jaded opinion and got a lot of praise from the players. It was all very inspiring and I hope this wind can carry me all the way to the finish. I made some changes to the scenario based on the first session's experiences and they really paid off. Session debrief and later sitting down with Robin D. Laws in Keltsu were a blast. If it hadn't been for the panel, my Saturday would have been perfect.
Sunday is always a slow day at Ropecon. I bought a miniatures game and listened to the first half of Ego's lecture about killing, then went to give a speech at the game design event in the indie room. Eero wanted to hear if videogame designers have the same kind of community as RPG designers have (and boardgame designers are trying to come up with). Unfortunately the answer is no. We can't really share information and while many of us read certain websites and keep tabs on the same kinds of industry news, there is no real community out there. After hanging around with some people for a little while more, we finally called it a day and went home via Grilli Toro, thus ending yet another successful and for the most part extremely enjoyable convention.
My next entry will dig into the Stalker sessions in more detail. I have never before gotten this much information out of playtest sessions at Ropecon. I am also amazed at the quality of players you get these days. It was a very different story back in the nineties.
After an agonizing wait (during which I only got to read quotes from the book review), Roolipelaaja #10 finally came in the mail. Now this is the first issue published by Riimukivi and not H-town, as well as the first where Juhana Pettersson is the lead editor. The cover, a photo of a girl with a katana plus anilin texts has divided opinions but I liked it a lot. It's much more trendy than the fantasy art pics we've had so far. Also the change of materials was definitely an improvement. The magazine is now printed on a good glossy paper that makes it easier to read and has better colour reproduction. Layout was good but I don't know if it was really better than before. Overall, it was visually very pleasing.
As for content, the first point of interest is the letter from the editor. Juhana shows welcome enthusiasm but unfortunately one can read between the lines that the magazine has not been a successful venture. The idea of Riimukivi doing better than H-town is apparently founded on blind optimism, even if all other RPG mags in Finland have failed. Roolipelaaja is the best shot yet but nobody knows if it will be enough. I would probably try a slightly different concept and angle but talk is cheap. Riimukivi is putting its money where its mouth is and I am going to support them every step of the way. It may not be enough but if we don't have a hobby media, I could just as well hang up my tools.
Lots of stuff here. The magazine feels thicker than before. There is a definite emphasis on Finnish roleplaying culture and larping is prominent since that is what most events here are about. I was also very surprised when I looked at the reviews. Back in the old days, Roolipelaja ratings did not really tell you anything as it was either three or four stars no matter how crappy the product (CP v.3, anyone?). This time they went from one extreme to another and the review of Roolipelikirja was really written with venom (one star). I don't know if the book really deserves such a trashing but the point is that the trashing happened. So when they say nice things about my book and give it 4 stars out of 5, they really mean it. I was also positively surprised when I saw that Pirinen wrote the review. That guy knows his games.
The five-page story on Tähti was a little surprising, especially since Mike is one of the owners of Riimukivi. You might say this seriously jeopardizes their journalistic integrity but then again, if you are going to be a selfish bastard, it is best to be open about it. And who am I to complain, in my non-comment-option blog? Anyway, it wasn't a bad article and Mike made a very good point about the lack of female RPG authors. I have often wondered about that myself since we have female gamers in plenty these days. In related news, I just heard today that Mike got his first novel deal signed. Congratulations are in order but what the hell took him so long? He always looked like a real author to me. Anyway, he'll be scooped up by the games industry before long so he'd better push out two books a year before that happens.
Sam Lake and I were interviewed by Helsingin Sanomat today. Photo session in Fantasiapelit was awkward and I think our conversation was an incoherent ramble. However, Ahlström is a professional and I'm sure he'll make something out of it. I'll be seeing the text portions tomorrow and the finished article, complete with a goofy picture (if I'm in it, it's goofy!) should be out on Friday. It is the Ropecon theme story of the year. This is what I mean when I say I get more exposure. Actually, I would have liked to have Petsku, the Recoil game designer, with me today. He has had absolutely nothing to do with RPGs and would have been an excellent counterweight to us two geeks.
Yippee! After so extremely different reviews I was really nervous over what Roolipelaaja would say about Pelintekijän käsikirja. The book obviously divides opinions so either extreme could have happened. As it turns out, Roolipelaaja, the voice of the scene, gave it four stars out of five and called it "excellent and inspiring", among other good things. They listed some weaknesses, one of which was the vast scope of the subject material which meant that no particular issue could be explored very deeply (although they also noted, correctly, that this would have made the page count explode) and that the book would benefit from some illustrations. I agree on the latter part. I had hoped for something from Aura Ijäs (she drew the previous header picture of this blog and has been known to draw BTJ these days) but the publisher decided otherwise.
One other thing I would change is the back cover text. It states that I am the "most accomplished and varied game designer in Finland". It was written by the publisher. I offered them a more moderate version but they wouldn't take it and I dropped the subject. Maybe I shouldn't have. While it is always fun to see idiots pissing blood over something so trivial, the back cover text has also provided plenty of entertainment for my coworkers. Many of them have been doing videogames for as long as I have been doing roleplaying games. Besides, mobile games do not really compare with the big guns even if the numbers are good. It is kind of embarrassing, although it is also true that I do have more exposure than most of my colleagues. They just somehow vanish into their respective companies. Sam Lake is the only exception.
Assembly'07 happened over the weekend and I survived, once again. Actually I like the event a lot, although it has its slow moments. This time 4kb demos wiped the floor with 64kb ones and I predict that the latter will eventually disappear. Universomo had a recruiting stand complete with booth babes. They were trying to staff their soon-to-open-office in Helsinki (curiously, nobody at the booth could tell me where the office was; they first said Katajanokka and then Punavuori, so take your pick). F-secure was also recruiting. Pelikone.fi rocks and if I eat one more hamburger I'll die. I have previously had mixed opinions of the lead organiser "Abyssi" but this time he really climbed a couple of notches in my respect-o-meter. When he could have (and back in the old days would have) bitched and moaned about trash lying around, he instead organised a humorous cleaning event culminating in him singing a cleaning song while people on the arena floor took stuff to the bins. Finally the whole effort was rewarded with a lottery of some free tickets to next year's event. It was a brilliant number and it got the job done, at least within the arena. I think the first floor corridor (especially near Hesburger) was already a lost cause.
Seminars were a letdown this year (they have never compared with those of Ropecon anyway). The two exceptions to the rule were the first two presentations on Saturday, first about working for the games industry abroad and then next-gen game design (given by my immediate boss at Recoil). Axes Denied concert of old game tunes with modern instruments was cool but I still think the C-64 tunes suck (Turrican ftw!). I bought a new flash memory stick for my keyring and new earphones (the bloody Koss Sportapros always fall apart on me). Leena got a real fancy-schmancy keyboard but I think I'll cope with my old for the time being.
Yesterday I printed out 150 pages of Stalker and today I took it to Yliopistopaino for a tape-back binding and cardboard covers. I need a book to run the game at Ropecon and it will be cool to see what it looks like in a semi-final format. I already have a suspicion that my margins are too narrow and a change of font might also be in order. I'll know more when I get it back tomorrow. It is now about 70% of the final thickness and already looks as thick as Taiga.
On a less pleasant note, I dropped in at Fantasiapelit today to get a sneak peek at my book review and got a nasty shock right at the doorway. You could no longer see any games! Instead, the shop had been taken over by humongous shelves of manga (which retarded youngsters kept calling it anime for some perverse <hentai> reason). Roleplaying games had been pushed all the way to the back wall, pressed tight and cut down. D20 stuff was still there but practically everything else had taken a hit. If you want to buy something other than D20, WoD, the new Warhammer RPG or Battletech, I suggest you do it right now. This is not Fantasiapelit's fault. They are a business and quite a few people live on that store, so they have to turn profit. They are simply adapting to the market and remember...
...we are the market.
I usually don't take music to Ropecon and I doubt this time will be an exception. However, when playing at home I do have music. I compiled a soundtrack for the test session of Stalker and it was fucked up. I had taken bits and pieces from things I thought would fit the theme: the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game soundtrack, GSC fan music contest, various pieces of ambient and new age music, the Tarkovsky soundtrack etc. Well, the game and fan soundtracks were an outright mistake. Tarkovsky soundtrack wasn't bad but he uses music in the movie "Stalker" in a very unconventional way. The reason you either love or hate the movie are the long sequences of non-events, during which the haunting soundtrack plays out. I think it rocks but it does not rock that well in a game. We sure as hell don't have long pauses while we are all just staring at each other.
Next time I am going for something with a little more melody to it. For some reason I have an obsession to play "Kuolemajärvi" by Kotiteollisuus when writing the con-scenario. It does not really relate to the game in any way, shape or form but there it is. Mysterious are the ways of the arts. By the way, there is a very Stalker-like chorus in the song Helvetistä Itään by the same band.
Älä vanno mitään
Of course, the song itself has nothing to do with Stalker. Since we are talking about references, take a peek at this. Espoo Cine has it in the schedule and I guess I really, really, really need to go and see it. While mutants are mentioned in Roadside Picnic, they are never described. I've had so much trouble writing them that seeing what somebody else might have thought about them can't hurt. The previous Stalker-related item was the Stalker play by Circus Maximus a few years back. For some reason it got really bad reviews from both professional critics and my friends alike. I liked it, although I do recognise that some of the actors there kind of... sucked, for the lack of a better expression. There are rumors of a western-style Stalker remake being in the works across the Atlantic. Sounds bad but then again they did a surprisingly okay job with Solaris, so I'll give them the benefit of a doubt.
Mike has been posting stuff about his upcoming Tähti-roleplaying game onto various forums. This pic here is a shameless rip from the pages of majatalo.org. It is the cover image of the game.
Yeah, it is certainly something new and I really hope it hooks up the gazillion anime fans who've been flooding the floors of Fincon and Tracon lately. If that happens the future of rpgs in Finland would be secured for the time being as enough of them would eventually migrate to the spec-fic games. They might also bring with them new play methods and approaches to gaming. Much more so than the Forge or... hey, did anyone see where all the manifestos went? Nevertheless, for an old RPG nerd like me the instinctive reaction to Tähti is along these lines.
Now that we got to that guy, I just have to advertise a little bit: I have been playing Silent Hunter III for a couple of years but only now I have accomplished these two things: learn to survive in the post-1942 Atlantic and commanded a type IX U-boat (it is the largest of the attack boats; Milchkuh-tankers were even bigger). As for Silent Hunter 4: Wolves of the Pacific, it is still gathering dust on my shelf. I really hope somebody does a SHIII mod for it.
Well, not really. I did submit the GM application form with the times specified in the previous entry. If you're lucky, interested and reasonably quick, you might actually get a chance to see me struggle with a diceless system. So far the scenario is only in my head but that's something I'll have to rectify come weekend. And why is that? Because Assembly is next week and I am so there. I really like the place. Geekery, technical gadgets, the great hall of the arena is simply breathtaking with all those myriad lights and computers about, the pizzas and hamburgers are overpriced but good and if I get lucky with the weather, I can try getting a tan lounging outside between the seminars. Assembly is also an opportunity to meet people, especially old co-workers from Rovio Mobile (towards whom I will always have a soft spot).
It is kind of sad that such relationships do not actually exist for Ropecon. Sure, there is plenty of people I say hi to and some of those are personal friends. But I have more fingers in one hand than I have colleagues in the RPG scene. Yes, doing your own games on a commercial level really is that special. And even with those who do it... we are all lone wolves, doing our stuff our own way. There is really not much opportunity (or point) to chat about our experiences along the way. I hope Petri Hiltunen is there. Stories and writing... that is something both of us understand! Still, I do like going to Ropecon. It is well organised, loaded with programme and packed with people. My people. Roleplayers. I'll skip the final line of doom and gloom out of respect for a wonderful event.
Working in the games industry has taught me a bad habit: hiding things. There is so little I can say about my work that I am getting secretive about my hobby projects too. If there's money involved, there might a good reason not to spill the beans but most of the time there's no real reason for it. And while I can more or less understand Recoil Games' stance on this with its multi-year project plans, the secrecy around mobile game development always struck me as a bit funny. The development cycle in mobiles is so fast that even if you were loud about your projects early on, nobody could cash in on the idea faster than you. Oh well, that kind of openness is not going to happen.
So, just that you know: I am still working on Stalker. It is on page 150. I am just wrapping up mutated beasts and going into the Zone tribes, mentioned but never shown in the novel. It has been slow going since it is all extrapolation of very little source material and digging up differences between Zone creatures and your average monsters has not been easy. They can still be abused quite badly but at least I tried. After finishing the tribes there will be the whole Xenology part, namely artifacts and monuments and that is the end of Gamemaster's book. Depending calendar, I may have to go light on the Zone Book but it looks like we are looking at least 200 pages or so in total. You could easily add another 30 pages by compiling lists, charts, sheets and classifieds. Stalker will be about the size of Praedor 1.1.
Ropecon programme has finally been published (ABOUT TIME!!!) and I am faced with the task of deciding what to see, what to skip and where the heck am I going to put the eight hours of Stalker I need to get my free ticket. This year's theme is romance and interpersonal relations. I feel a pang of guilt for not having Towers of Dusk ready for it but I just couldn't. Not with the book, Stalker and my job pressing down on me. Stressing out and having my summer vacation ruined by stomach problems were the last straw. Now I am just glad if I can prepare a Stalker-scenario for Ropecon in time.
Going through the programme, I listed stuff I might want to see:
In addition, sometime in Sunday there's supposed to be a some kind of game design thingie somewhere and I am supposed to attend. That is pretty much everything I know about it but maybe they'll tell me more. In any case, lots of overlap and on Saturday evening the RPG theories in practise -panel is a must since I am one of the panelist. Just WHAT am I doing there? The panel moderator must be setting us up for a fight.
Last year, Code/X proved to be the best con-RPG I had ever run. It was built for that kind of gameplay from the concept up and the bloody thing actually works. Like a charm, in fact. The idea was easy to grasp, the system was simple and everybody seemed relish in the environment. I was surprised at how equally competent gamers from different age groups seemed to be. Maybe the game and genre averted areas where differences might have arisen, or maybe I was just lucky with my batch of players. Either way, fun gaming ensued.
Stalker is more ambitious and less suited for quick one-offs. I am using the characters from the test session but the ability/drawback system embedded into the characters means there is more to learn in the characters right from the start. I am planning for two four sessions, both based on the same scenario (although when it is happening, I somehow always seem to modify the scenario for the second run, even if I didn't think there was nothing wrong with it the first time around). Now, when to have them? I'd typically have one session on Friday and another on Saturday. Oh boy, that is going to wreak havoc on my Friday schedule... Damn, I really would have liked to see Eero's zombies. But Climatepunk is an absolute must for a post-holocaust buff like myself.
So, if the Friday session starts at 18.00 and ends 22.00, I've got it covered and can even grab a bite before the session. As for Saturday... Starting at 20.00 and ending at 24.00 would be give me one hour to recover and stop the bleeding from the RPG theory panel. It is going to be a late session and I'll miss Play like a Girl. Damn it, again.
I could avoided all this hassle by offering up a presentation on something like my book; hosting a programme event gives you a free pass for the whole convention. Unfortunately I didn't think about in due time since I was still writing it back then and it is geared more for the Indie videogame crowd anyway. Maybe I should write another book on RPG development some day? Oh, I am sure certain people would say it is not even worth the paper for lacking all the fancy words they make their living on... but for some reason you get games that way. Strange, ain't it? ;-)
Looks like I can postpone my gloomy visions for a while. Roolipelaaja.fi has just announced the existence of Riimuahjo (literally "Runeforge"), a brand-new Finnish RPG publishing house that will not only take over the Roolipelaaja magazine but also Mike's Tähti-roleplaying game, for starters. Founded by Juhana Pettersson, Mike Pohjola, some guy from H-Town and Mikki Rautalahti, the outfit is too young to have its own, sloganized website yet. I'll link it (with banners) as soon as there is one. I'd also love to tell you that Burger Games is somehow cooperating with them but in all honesty, what the hell would they need me for? Anyway, this is major good news regarding the Finnish RPG scene. Sure, there is myself, Ironspine and Arkkikivi.net already but they are all more or less single-man shows with no regular output. Riimuahjo needs to be a real company with employees and all just keep Roolipelaaja rolling. Awesome stuff and I am sure we'll be hearing more from these people at Ropecon.
By the way, I'm really beginning to miss the programme schedule for Ropecon by now. I am supposed to attend the admittedly ill-advised RPG theory panel and the Game Design Day on Sunday, then run two sessions of Stalker and now I think there will be a bunch of Riimuahjo-related programme I want to be watching. I need to plan it all out and I can neither do that nor sign up as a GM unless I get my hands on that schedule. Ropecon is only three weeks away, people. Time flies!
A week ago, Burning Empires won the Origins Award for being the best RPG of 2007. Didn't notice? Yeah, me neither. And the game is not to blame; I'm told that Burning Empires rocks and I have no reason to contest that. What I am worried about is that almost nobody noticed and more than half of those who did probably won't care. Will the award have any effect on its sales? Probably yes but very little. D&D3.5 is the only game with significant sales out there anymore and I honestly think that CCP Games saved the White Wolf's... tail when it bought the company. It has been suggested to me that the next edition of D&D will flop, sales-wise. I am no oracle but my gut says it's true. I've seen print runs of new games drop from 10,000 to 5,000 to 2,000 to 1,500 to 1,000 (and in occasion to 500) and that, ladies and gentlemen, is for the global market. By comparison, the opening run for Stalker will be 200 copies, just like with Praedor. And that is for the Finnish market. I doubt it is really true but sometimes the numbers work out like Finland would represent a good share of the world's RPG sales.
As for PDF books, don't make me laugh! You might buy one or two of those but to use them? Very few people go through the trouble. It is like all the expenses and work for developing a real supplement but fewer sales and no real effect on supporting the franchise, even if you save the printing costs. Then again, I don't really have the right to criticize other peoples' supplement support, do I?
The Dragon magazine is gone. Who gave a shit about it anyway? Well... quite a few people, actually. Without its own media, the global scene will wither and even RPG.net looks a little worse for wear these days. Of course, reducing non-WOTC content next to nothing was the beginning of the end for Dragon already long ago. Still, Dragon was a big influence for a very long time. I am really glad that we have the Roolipelaaja magazine. When Stalker comes out, there will be a review. It might be bad but at least about a thousand people (or whatever the subscription base is atm) will know it is there. Globally, there is no way to get a word out right now, no matter who you are in the industry. The Internet just won't cut it, apparently.
I have this disturbing vision from the future where Eero Tuovinen, myself and (apparently immortal) Kauko Nieminen are standing side by side at Hietalahti Square. We are all promoting our self-published books and the average bystander cannot tell any difference between us. Fortunately some grizzled old RPG theorists come shopping so that they'll have something new to talk about back at the Pensioner's Home. Although the baffled nurses beef up their medication every time they do it, so far the business has been good...
I hope it is just a machine configuration issue and other submarine captains out there have better luck than I do. Every time I have tried SH4, it has turned out to be a keel-hauling. The original retail version did not work in any way, shape, form or function. It was a drastic example of how niche-simulationists can be ripped off because they are starved of games and buy anything coming their way. In my experience SH4 was completely unplayable but this of course depends on what you count as playable. So I gave it a rest and waited for better times; version patch 1.3. to be precise.
Dowloaded, patched and off we go.
Choosing Asiatic Fleet instead of the Pacific Fleet is actually choosing between a playable and mind-numbingly boring game, even when it works. The Pacific Ocean is huge and you pretty much have to turn the "unlimited fuel" option on if you are going to get anywhere from Hawaii. The Asiatic Fleet starts with a crappy S-type submarine but at least it is based in Manila and the whole Imperial Fleet is bearing down on you. Enemy has total air superiority, so you stay down by day and cruise around at 7-9 knots during the night. There is a fair amount of shipping to be caught, so it does not look too bad in the beginning.
Target in sight! Seas are a bit heavy. So heavy that my torpedoes are actually flying in the air half the time and the target destroyer is fully submerged on occasion; while waves like this do exist, I get the feeling that scaling of wave motion to the objects is a bit... off. I've never seen a map view implementation this bad before, either. It is impossible to get any sense of scale and what you see in the scope and on the map do not match when it comes to perspective. Or that is the general impression. Anyway, locked, loaded and firing tube one! After an agonizingly long wait (roughly three times that of a German submarine but maybe that is realistic) the fish is out, swimming... err... flying towards the target, leaving a white wake in the air between the waves. As usual, the auto-TDC is off and my fish is barely hitting the stern of the enemy but there is definitely an impact. KABOO... *CRASH*
It turns out that hitting a ship with a torpedo has a roughly 50/50 chance of crashing the game. Now that's a new twist and there is a limit as to how many new twists I can take. Pisses me off, really. That and a million other tiny details. All buttons are always yellow, so you can't see which options are on and which are off. Unless you are using quick keys, selecting a new crew station does not actually take you there unless you then click a station-specific "go" function button. Target distance and speed have to be brought up separately in the scope view and there is no easy way to get any meaningful stats out of the torpedoes or the guns I am carrying. And finally, if you are going to do the crew management page as badly as it has been done here, it is best not to have crew management in the game at all.
Oh well. I guess it is back to the waiting list for patch 1.5. or something. Playing the hell out of my good old Silent Hunter III in the process. Did you know that as an Axis U-Boot Kapitän you can actually cut the Mediterranean in two by blocking the Straits of Sicily?
wstryder (whom I would like to thank by his real name but I don't know that) has come up with Praedorator, a nifty browser-run application for Praedor. I have also linked it from the Praedor website, in "kirjasto" section. Praedorator lets you create quick and dirty NPCs from any creature template in the rulebook, tweaked according to the desired power level (Joe Average ... Conan). You can even create multiple individuals at one go. What can I say? As GM help applications go they don't get much better than this.
Few things have pleased me more over the years than the Praedor player community. The RPG is still being actively played seven years after its release, people are developing their own system and setting mods and I still get feedback (and occasional fanmail) from both old and new gamers. That is the best kind of gamer, really. As a single person doing this on my spare time I can't really provide the kind of support that an established game company could. My time is limited and my interests are shifting, so contributions by the players themselves have always played an important role in keeping the RPG alive. I owe this guy a T-shirt if I run into him at Ropecon. I hope he wears XL.
He turned out to be Lauri Rantala. Thanks, Lauri. From my past experiences I can only conclude that Lauris are universally useful people.
Actually, I've been at it for a week already. Just came back from Amsterdam. Remember a couple of years back when I got yelled at for suggesting that Irti Huumeista Ry. might be a good partner for Ropecon? Well, since Cannabis was apparently such a good stuff and I was just a victim of narcophobic brainwashing by the government, I had to try out space cake (chocolate cake laced with cannabis). I tried it on two different occasions and both times the result was the same: no effect whatsoever. Except that the stronger cake had a funny aftertaste. Others in the group contemplated whether or not Cannabis made me sleep late the following morning but I was sleeping late all the time so I don't think it counts. In short, the experiment was a glorious failure. I still don't have a clue as to the positives and negatives of Cannabis, except that chocolate muffins with "magic ingredients" cost three times the normal. Just like alcohol.
I am not kidding. After a near-disasterous binge-drinking incident at the age of 14, I have been reluctant to touch alcohol and remained a tee-totaller until I turned 30. That's when my father tricked me into drinkig sweet liquors. All the while, people have been telling me about the "alcohol high", when you are supposed to feel relaxed, social, comfortable, you know the drill. It is in the schoolbooks. Well, sweet liquors count as candy for me and I do like the refreshening effect of Absinthe, but on the whole, I have noticed only two alcohol-related effects: Drinking some makes you sleepy and drinking more gives you vertigo. As for relaxing or having some kind of "high" by drinking alcohol, it has never happened with me. Oh yes, it can also make me feel like I had fever and turn my already red face to an even brighter shade of crimson.
Apart from failed drug experiments, Amsterdam was a great place and I am looking forward going there again next year. It is also very nice that such a place exist; where one can actually try out soft drugs for the sake of curiosity. The city is clean, safe, not too expensive and the Red Light District doubles as a body art gallery at night if you are not interested in "buying". Wonderful museums too, although the Maritime Museum being closed until 2009 was a disappointment. Somebody might consider the level of service in most restaurants appalling but hey, coming from Finland it felt right at home. By the way, I didn't stay in a hotel. We lived in a ship.
Of course, I went to a game store called The Gamekeeper. Although it still retained its resident RPG expert, the RPG shelf was about half a metres and I was told that roleplaying games were a dying breed in Netherlands. There has never been a Dutch RPG (actually, the Internet begs to differ but I haven't been able to find solid proof of this) and the scene has been eaten alive by MMOs. This is interesting. In Finland, the two scenes co-exist and overlap to a great extent. In short, a person playing MMOs is more likely to be also a roleplayer than a person who does not. I view MMOs as a potential bridge between the mediums, bringing new people into spec-fic entertainment and thus within the reach of the more popular RPG genres. There is some interesting stuff afoot regarding arcade roleplaying, so stay tuned for further updates.
While I failed to get stoned in Amsterdam, my long-time fan and scene activist Erkka "Sterle" Leppänen has rolled up his sleeves and started his own company: VASKIKIRJAT is a book publisher with its focus on translated speculative fiction and occasional domestic works. Vaskikirja starts out with famous fantasy novels but are planning (and I am hoping) to expand their selection into science fiction as well. Let's see if I can talk them into a book deal sometime next year. Congratulations, Erkka. I wish to see you kicking ass and starting out with Leiber's Thieves of Lankhmar is definitely a step into right direction.
Jari Lindholm dedicated a whole entry into responding to my Games vs. Movies entry and he wrote it well. So well, in fact, that it warrants a civil response. He agreed that comparisons between the two mediums (movies and games) are not sensible and correctly pointed out that he didn't start it (which I had noticed but for reasons beyond human understanding failed to make clear in the entry). He also makes valid points about our two disagreements.
For example, in retrospect the 3% vs. 97% comparison I made was stupid, since I was doing exactly what I had just criticized and I'm not any less vulnerable to the difficulties involved than anybody else. I do maintain that Renoirs, Bressons, Kurosawas and Lynches all fit into that top 3% of all movies but I also suspect that Jari has a better taste for movies in general than I do. Being an anti-intellectual, I willingly watch all sorts of crap either for amusement or for genre research. You can also catch me in the closet watching Almodovar. Seeing an art movie is always a gamble but sometimes it pays off. Mini-movies too! Ukkonen!
Jari also points out, again correctly, that while games are intended to make money, there is a flourishing sub-culture of art movies where financial return is of secondary importance. I'd love to disagree but the only strictly non-profit premium game that comes to mind is America's Army. There simply isn't a comparable financing system or clientele for art games. Should there be and how would that come about? Now that is the question. I am not sure if non-profit-oriented films equal "taking the medium forward", as opposed to "providing a thought-provoking alternative if you're interested". It is probably good that such things exist but can you really say that they are better movies? Crowd-pleasers still outsell them by a factor of 100 and every ticket is a vote for that movie and style. That's why I don't think the movies as a medium have gone anywhere from the crowd-pleasing days, even if the margins are a bit wider.
I'd also like to note that videogames are not written just for profit. Every developer wants to do games that he likes. While the cost-induced risk aversion often forces us to compromise, almost any game out there is also a labor of love (unless you are in sub-contracting and it can as easily be a labour of hate). Furthermore, the lower end of the budget and more recently the growing casual gamer audience leaves wriggling room for "artsy" titles, few as they are. Introversion Software springs to mind (not that Defcon has much of a plot; I don't know about the other two). Finally, the East European/Russian game development scene seems worth watching. Lacking money and sometimes skill, they make it up with ideas and enthusiasm.
BTW, I do like Max Payne games and would not call them a banality (although I have also seen my fair share of games that I would). I thought the story in MP1 to be good enough for a shooter, even if it was quite gamey. Then Max Payne 2 came and really grabbed me by the throat with its un-gamey story and a serious stab at character drama. It was all very complex and non-linear, which apparently alienated ordinary gamers but I really liked it. If that makes me shallow, so be it.
Finally, we disagreed on the quality of story writing in old adventure games and again, I shot myself in the foot by making a Hollywood comparison. But even so, I am willing to give the old adventure games more credit. They were, mostly, faithful to their genres and usually found the good in them. I admit that to make one into a movie you would have to select a specific order of doing things and dramatically intense sequences of puzzle-solving successes, failures and chance. It would be a very different experience but I think they would still be great. Note that I am not an adventure game fan myself. I got the best kicks out of them by watching someone else play and perhaps participating through commentary or suggestions. Maybe I felt so strongly about their stories, events and characters because I did not have to worry about the gameplay or interactivity.
Whew! A long and rambling response. Now that is all said and done, browsing through it makes me wonder if it all boils down to a matter of taste in the end. This is probably an unsolvable debate between two people. And I just noticed I could have written it all in Finnish into his blog commentary. Oh Hell. Maybe we can keep it to the comments from now on.
While I don't like making comparisons between games and movies any more than I like making comparisons between fish and boats (the only things in common being mobility and water), everybody else does. There is no way of ignoring it. I personally think that movies or television series have more in common with books than they have with audiovisual games but we are victims of marketing; either believing they are like movies or being at the financial mercy of those who do.
Every now and then (and this time by following a link from Jussi Ahlroths blog), I run into these claims that while movies have moved forward and become an established form of art, games are still in the level of the early silent films regarding storytelling, character depictions and human emotion. It is not entirely baseless claim but I have always wondered about one thing: Where the hell do they get this idea that movies would have progressed either? While it is true that the top 3% of movies beat pretty much anything I've seen in a videogame, the top 3% of videogames also beat the crap out of the remaining 97% of the movies. On the whole, I think the two mediums are pretty much equal. Now a claim like this is sheer poison to movie buffs, but bear with me.
Games differ from movies by, well, being games. That means interactivity and player-dependent action measured against standards or goals. This requires choice and choice begets more choices, which in games are often forcibly restricted. But even in a most railroaded game, like Gears of War, where the dialogue is unchanged whatever you do, you can still play the gameplay sequences any way you like and most of them would suck if presented in a movie. But it is interactive and it is your own doing, so you won't get bored. You might even enjoy it more than if it was a movie scene and directed by someone who actually knows what to do. How to best describe this... as a movie, it would be like a Jerry Bruckheimer film where the action scenes are directed by complete morons. Having excellent dialogue and scripted character drama in between can't really save it. Besides, however much the lead character sucks in the action scene, the dialogue does not really make a reference to his performance because that would lead to the choice-begets-choice scenario that games must avoid. In short, while you can have movie-like scenes and even chop up stories from movies into a game, some things are out of reach, while you can do some things that movies cannot.
There are very good game stories out there. Adventure games have wiped the floor with the most of Hollywood screenwriting for ages and the stuff that you can do (or just seems to come together) in the better player-driven MMOs is way beyond anything you can achieve on a screen. Action games have been ridiculed for their inane stories but in the best of them you don't have a linear narration but instead are given story elements, perhaps in no particular order and you get to create your unique story as you play through the game. Awesome things happened to me in Far Cry without scripting and I'd be hard pressed to create anything that cool intentionally. System Shock, Far Cry, Deus Ex, Thief I & II, S.T.A.L.K.E.R... are they examples of good stories? Or narratives?
What is a story in a game? How do you define the story in an interactive medium? Ultimately, it comes down to user experience as games cannot have stories at all without user participation. In My Humble Opinion, of course.
Of course, this is not to say that the game stories on the whole could not be better. All of the games named in the previous paragraph have one thing in common: they are small-scale productions, high-risk ventures or sleeper hits. If you look at the blockbusters of the gaming world (by budget and intent), you get a list like this: Doom 3, Gears of War, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Quake 4, Need for Speed: Carbon, GTA... Now, the last game does not count, being mostly what you care to make of it but the first five are bad enough to make a grown man cry. Doom 3 is one of my pet hates in every regard and Quake 4..., well, I enjoyed the military scifi feel of the early levels but it deteriorates quickly and the storyline they began in Quake 2 has never been strong. Wolfenstein is a special case in craptacularity since that game tried to look like a movie. If it was one, I'd give it 1.0 at IMDB. Undead, Nazi bimbos, medieval curses and not even a speck of humor. Smaller budget games tend to fare better in this regard, just like movie experts tend to rate small-scale films without a vast special effects budget higher than the summertime blockbusters.
This was a good day. I got to read a glowing review of my book the first thing in the morning:
I am especially glad for this part:
"...teos on helppotajuinen, vauhdikas ja onnistuu alle 200 sivussa kertomaan, kuinka pelintekoprosessi etenee ja mitä pelintekijöiden on hyvä tietää."
Now that is precisely what sets Pelintekijän käsikirja apart from its competition and why you should read it instead of the 1000-page bricks. If I have really managed to pull that off, the book is a winner. Just because it is a factbook does not mean it cannot be entertaining.
On second news, I have just learned a new term: illusionism. It is supposed to be a bad thing according to the Forgers but by to this article here, my next roleplaying game (Stalker) is actually instructing the gamemaster to do it, as it makes it easier to handle large action-intensive systems such as the Zone (or Borvaria in Praedor). Then again, I am thinking this from the viewpoint of the story and providing the players with a seamless Otherwhere-experience. I wonder if that is simulationism? But even more importantly, I am wondering why I am wondering about this shit? Sometimes reading the debates at majatalo.org can endanger your sanity.
Mike's upcoming game, Tähti ("Star") has aroused some disbelief on various forums. Some people can't believe it really is a game about futuristic mutant teengirl popstars. For myself, I don't doubt it for a second. While we still have to wait for a month and a half to get a look at the game, I find the publishing method intriguing. H-Town Oy is the outfit that publishes Roolipelaaja-magazine (among others, the common term here is "pelaaja"). The game is of the same size and print quality as the actual magazine, making it very easy for H-Town to publish the game as a special issue of Roolipelaaja. How do they handle rights? Does Mike retain the rights to the IP or is it an H-Town product after that? Because if the author would retain rights to the IP, I could approach H-Town myself with several Code/X titles.
But let's see how this "Tähti" turns out first.
I just noticed that my favourite desperate roleplaying theorist Jiituomas has also gotten his hands on Pelintekijän käsikirja. He has given it pretty much the same treatment he gives to everything associated with me. Not that I would treat him any better, mind you. My favourite line from his review is:
"In a country like Finland, apparently any hack can call himself a game designer and get away with it."
Is being a "hack" a step up or a step down from being the "the most vocal anti-intellectual in the Finnish RPG scene", I wonder?
Since I got a press release about it from H-Town (from two sources there, actually), I presume it is not that secret anymore. The full text is here but the core concept is summed up nicely by this:
Kustannusosakeyhtiö H-Town Oy julkaisee kesällä lähitulevaisuuden mutanttityttöbändistä kertovan roolipelin Tähti. Tähdessä pelaaja eläytyy teinitähden elämään keikkailun, fanien, treffailun ja julkisuuden pyörteissä.
Mike is also offering previews of the game setting and genre in his blog. Check the menu in his left sidebar; he has really given it some thought. The idea of a girlie-punk band from the near future may sound completely non-sensical to an old skooler but there is a method to his madness. Mike is trying to bring new people into the hobby and by... hmm... going boldly where no man has gone before can actually accomplish that. To be honest, I am skeptical about a pop band RPG having the right pull with the right crowd but if I am wrong, so much the better! I applaud his guts and versatility in taking on game writing challenges. I was just wondering why the girls need to be mutants? Tähti will be published at Ropecon and to my knowledge does not have its actual web pages yet.
Anyway, I was very pleased to hear about this. We have
all (myself, Mike, Miska, Eero) talked shit about
reaching out to new audiences and making roleplaying
games as a hobby more approachable. I have my concept of
Arcade Roleplaying (so far rather poorly represented by Code/X) and
Miska lists Ready To
Play -game concepts on his website. Mike is the only
one who has actually done something real about it. Burger
Games will never do an RPG about girlie punk bands. I am
much too Old Skool and Hardcore for that. But I will, at
some point, make a roleplaying game targeted at beginners
and non-roleplayers. When it happens, I am going to study
Tähti quite a bit as to how it is done. Mike
has not only opened new frontiers for the scene but also
given the rest of us something entirely new to build on.
The rest of the world is having Father's Day today. For some reason Finland is different but working in a mostly English-language industry, you tend to notice these things. That got me thinking about fathers in games and I did a little survey. You may remember my Greatest Monster In Games -entry, where I marvelled at the horror a 50-year old woman causes in game developers. On the other hand, videogames are suffering from an overabundance of 50/60-year old men, namely the characters' fathers. They have an annoying tendency to get dramatically killed and thus need to be avenged, or vanishing while the player character was young so that they need to be found now that he is an adult. This must be the single most common emotional theme in videogames. Not that it would be exactly rare in adventure films either.
Rune, Hard Truck Apocalypse, Aquanox 2, G-police, Lost Planet, I-war 2... and the latest game in the series of father troubles will be Fallout 3, according to some hype leaked by Bethesda.
It kind of makes me wonder what happened to all the mothers? Usually there is no mention of them, even when the father is well known. About half of them died at childbirth and there is a good-sized minority of mothers getting killed when mysterious attackers destroyed the lead character's hometown/space station/ship/whatnot. They are never found alive later on. In all the games I've played, I haven't seen a joyous reunion with somebody's mother even once. Not once. This is probably because they would be women in their fifties and thus monsters, according to the infallible game developer logic. For a bold and innovative industry, we game developers sure love to stick with our clichés. But someone else can fight this windmill. The last one already burned me out.
Publisher mailed me a copy of Pelintekijän Käsikirja. It is thinner than I expected and although it has plenty of free space on each page, the layout of the actual text still feels a bit crammed. However, something in the whole page setup does appeal to me. Not bad. And there is no denying it: I am proud to have written another published book. It is I also have a benchmark for your average softcover pocketbook. They are about twice as thick, so I make that 500,000 characters long. The next time I am writing fiction I am setting my sights on that. Unfortunately it is likely that the next time I want to get some of my fiction out I have to either publish it myself or take the long road with script submissions to publishers and all that. It is a long and rocky road.
Assuming there is no interference from book publishers, I might be doing a license game built on Code/X soon. That would be the first commercial application (or at least an attempt) to make an Arcade Roleplaying Game. The other alternative, if there is a snag with the license, is to go for a Stalker supplement, or rather, alternative setting IP. Vyöhyke 1910 (working title) is Stalker seen through the eyes of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. It has already been explained on this blog but one of these days I have to write a promotional entry. After all, I would own the bloody thing as long as I avoid the word "stalker" in it.
On a final note, I bought a 50-inch TV. The sea in Deadliest Catch is soon going to look a tad bigger than before...
It was made in Russia.
It has outdated graphics and terrible voice-acting.
The lead character looks, talks and acts like a retard.
It is from a niche genre.
It has a wonky concept.
It has a review score average of 47% across the 'Net.
And I haven't played anything else the whole week.
It is called Hard Truck Apocalypse and I bought it for 15 euros from Gamersgate. It might be the most well-spent 15 euros I've ever handed in for a budget game because I fucking love Hard Truck Apocalypse. It is a game about vehicle combat in a post-holocaust future, featuring several 5 x 5 kilometre regions complete with roads, rough terrain, off-road plains, trees you can knock down, villages, towns, ruins with loot in them, fuel stations and of course, enemies to shoot at. These come in three varieties: all sorts of vehicles, fortified positions and special monsters that I have only met once and heard rumours about another. HTA also features a branching storyline that I haven't fully explored yet. I don't know if the branches will ever even merge.
As if this would not be enough, HTA also features a trading system with a variety of goods. You can repair, upgrade, arm and re-colour your vehicle in many utterly perverse ways. You can (and at times should) ignore the storyline and play the game as an open-ended trading-action simulator. Little cash and goodies can do wonders for your survivability in the coming adventures. You can also loot destroyed vehicles, choose between different factions in the game world, gossip and accept missions at bars and explore the far corners of the world in search of rare weapons and items. Besides, the region map is filled in only as you go to places, so it is good to explore a little when you get to a new region. And finally, a good deal of the stuff in the world is destroyable. You can knock down trees and lamp posts, or smash through fences.
Viewpoint is similar to third person shooters, except that you are controlling a vehicle. I drive with the arrow keys and use the mouse to aim and fire. Weapons come in three calibres and can be mounted on hardpoints in the vehicle, with not all of them able to shoot in all directions. My current configuration is most effective against enemies attacking from left front sector. The HUD includes weapon displays showing their status, a speed meter, distance to objectives, damage indicators and finally a radar showing the relative position of nearby vehicles and fortifications. The range is short, so looking around with the Mk1 Eyeball is your best bet, especially since the viewing distance can be extreme. That is why speeds are relatively slow, allowing not just smooth scrolling but also time to look around and actually make planned moves in combat. Besides, the terrain is often hazardous, so you have to keep an eye on that while driving or fighting. You are not attacked all the time and sometimes you are just driving for minutes on end. Somebody might consider it a design flaw but I like the sensation of driving across a vast, wild territory on post-holocaust Earth.
Oh yes, the explosions are quite beefy too. It is very satisfying to see your four-barrell modified AA-gun hammer the enemy until it bursts into flames, blows apart and you see burning debris rolling downhill. Burning tires can actually get quite far. Especially at night, the view of a battlefield littered with car parts soaked in burning fluids can be breath-taking. Graphics in general are good and crisp. Nothing to write home about if you work in the industry but I like them. Especially some of the settlements and ruins fill me with a strange glow... Gameplay is good and controls are clean and responsive. I have rarely, if ever, encountered as well balanced difficulty progression and reward system but this may depend a lot on your play style. I explore, so I tend to have more money than if you would just focus on the storyline. Speaking of it, I've logged more than 20 hours. While I am now exploring the other branch of the storyline, I did not actually get to the end of the first one. There can be 50-100 hours of gameplay waiting for me here, especially since it is not all tied to the story.
So what's not to like? While I disagree with the reviews, I do understand that the initial impression can be off-putting. I can only guess that the developer, Buka, originally intended to have animated faces on all characters and then ran out of time. So they settled on an idea that the air is so toxic (even though vegetation, birds and even edible crops seem to be doing fine) that everybody wears a face mask. The two ugliest masks in the game are actually in the opening scene, yours and your father's. They don't look like masks but faces that were left unfinished when the decision to drop the animations was made. If you missed the intro part about the masks, you might consider those two retarded zombies. It kind of kills off any sympathy, immersion or interest you might have had for the character.
Later, when the decision about the masks was already made, the graphics artists have actually gotten around to designing masks that look good and fit the rest of the gear the NPC's are wearing. Unfortunately nobody thought to re-do the mask of the player, so he keeps looking like a retard all through the game. Other than that, the masks are okay for most of the time and absolutely great on occasion. So great in fact, that I am ripping off the idea of masks for scavs in TAIGA 2.0 if it ever gets done. I don't buy the toxic air for a second (especially after seeing the jungles of Sacred Grove). I can agree that people agreed to wear masks because they are so fucking cool but the lead character had inherited his father's crappy fashion sense.
Next, the sound designer ought to be shot. Explosions are good, gun sounds are okay and driving sounds I can forgive. My definition of Hell is a place where you have to listen to the HTA voice acting and soundtrack on repeat. Perkele! From discussion dialogue to threats and boasts in combat, the voice acting is... uninspiring and all characters sound tired and bored to death. Apparently somebody's death in combat is not a big deal and even the death screams are lame. If you are going to use voice-acting, you better do it right or it is an immersion killer. As for the soundtrack, oh Hell... I think the Ukraine representative for the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 sums it up best. People apparently listen to this kind of crap east of the border but it does not fit the game in any shape, form or function. You can go insane for listening to that for too long. I never thought music could be a game-killer but it is true. My strategy was to turn off the music entirely and play something else on the background instead. Type O Negative worked best, I think.
All in all, two thumbs up for anyone who loves car combat, post-holocaust or tinkering with the kind of cars that would not pass government inspection (or gun laws). Rarely has a budget game given me this much value in return and post-holocaust games in general do not grow in trees. Oh, something just went splat! on my windshield! Hey, it is... eh... was Auto Assault from NCsoft! We'll wash it off at the next gas station.
Here are some trailers.
I swear I had not planned this to coincide with my CP/P conversion entry but my publisher tells me that Pelintekijän käsikirja (or is that PELINtekijän käsikirja?) has come out of the printers. It is only a matter of days now before it hits the stores. As for sales expectations, I'll settle for 40,000 copies sold this year. Unfortunately the whole print run is less than 1000 copies (plus the Ebooks), so the publisher does not share my optimism. The back cover text about me being the most successful game designer in Finland and stuff is... err... a tad exaggerated. I did offer them a more modest version of it but they went for their own original version instead. Oh well, if politicians can live with hype like that, so can I. And it all depends on how you measure success...
As for the book itself, I am quite pleased with it. It is a grass-roots level guide to the game development process, marinated in the same kind of attitude you might have encountered here in this blog. It is written in such a way that even a moron can understand it (remember, I am the leading anti-intellectual in the Finnish RPG scene). It presents a funcional way of analysing existing games and gleaning lessons for your own and is packed with fun quotes and trivia, making it lighter to read and more interesting non-gamemakers as well. And while my coworkers may scoff at the whole "Project Management for Braindead Lemmings" -part, I have wanted to bash hobbyist game developers over the head with something like this for years.
Curiously, I am much less stressed about the reception of this book than I was about Vanha Koira. Of course, this is already the second time but you would think that writing a supposed factbook is more stressing than writing fiction and not least because it is supposed to be fact. I personally know dozens of people who have the required expertise to accurately judge whether it is all rubbish or not. But somehow, I am confident it is going to go well. Pelintekijän käsikirja might not be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but is the way I see and do things around here.
I've been really tired this week, probably because of problems falling asleep at nights. Hence, there's been very little progress with anything but this blog. Fortunately, the weekend is just around the corner and for the first time since... ever, it seems, I have nothing planned for it. I just hope it is also freezing cold that I can just sleep not worry about the beautiful weather outside.
Converting stat and skill values between the two systems is actually the easy part. Stat + Skill has an effective value range of 2-20 that comfortably matches the skill values used in Praedor. Of course, the skill levels do not match they descriptions but they never did that in the original system either, did they? So I don't think it is a problem and Praedor has probably a more sensible difficulty curve. To make things easy (and fitting for a blog), P2020 has the same stats and skills as CP2020, instead of the six stats used in Praedor.
If you are converting an existing character, double the stat value. That should give you a range of 4-20, which is just right for the purpose.
If you are creating a new character, roll 4D6 for each stat and reroll any result above 20. You can also reroll nine figures separately and then distribute them into the stats in any order you wish. The average stat value is 14, but hey, Cyberpunk characters are supposed to be tough (and real men use the Praedor-style stat rolling anyway...). Remember, that when using stats for figuring out non-profession skill points or initial wealth, halve the stat values (and round up). However, encumbrance rules, blood points and deep wounds are just like in Praedor, with BODY used both as VOI and TER.
There is one new sub-value: Initiative. This is the average of your INT and REF, plus Combat Sense if you're a Solo.
Lifepath is one of the great things in CP2020 and works just like before. You could screw around with the tables using D6 instead of D10 but honestly, why bother?
Skills are marked as N/Y, where N is the skill level and Y is stat/2 + skill level, rounding up. With existing characters that is actually the very same stat + skill total you had before. If creating a new character, the process goes just like before, except that the maximum skill level anywhere is 10 (and the gamemaster might want to intervene if you have too many of those). Most skills work as before. Adding Combat Sense to Perception when in danger makes Solos near impossible to surprise, though. The gamemaster may want to separate Combat Sense into its own "premonitions and vibes" roll. Use your head.
Cybers work mostly as before, except that bonuses to stats are doubled (the effect on skill totals is as before since the stat value is now halved before adding it). For example, each treatment of transplant muscle now adds +2 points (up to +4) to Body stat. The effect on skill rolls using BODY is only +1 because the stat value is still halved. We'll deal with damage and protection values later. Oh yes, double all EMP losses.
Equipment works nicely, except that power armours are out of whack. Avoid them, or if this is not possible, make the effective BODY values something like 20/22/24.
Use the Praedor difficulty levels and game system instead of the CP2020. Elementary, dear Watson. Well, not really. Let's look at the math:
CP2020 uses a linear difficulty system starting from 10 and going up in increments of 5. Your average stat is 7 and your skill for an average Joe making a living out of is +3...+5 (varies by skill). That gives you a skill total of 10...12. Roll of 1D10 has the average result of 6 (rounding up and open-ended rolls notwithstanding). That gives a result range of 16...18, which is enough to clear a Routine but not enough to clear a Difficult task. Still, the odds for the latter aren't hopeless.
Praedor has a probability curve where your average professional has a skill value of 11. That gives good odds to clear a Routine roll and even odds to clear a Challenging roll. The odds for clearing a Difficult roll suck outright. Range of results is greater but increasingly weighed towards the top of the curve as tasks become more difficult.
This gives us a rough conversion table:
The one weakness with the whole thing is that CP2020 likes to use roll comparisons. You can do those in Praedor as well but it is cumbersome.
Okay, the game system was easy. This is not. Praedor is based on action/reaction combat that fits melee combat best. CP2020 has a shooting system. Fortunately it is not too good either, so I think we can manage.
Initiative is not rolled. The guy with the highest initiative acts first, or not at all. Got it? Remember to add weapon bonuses, if any. If the other party is surprised, they lose the initiative automatically. Also, attack rolls are -1D easier.
Actions are usually done one at the time but if the player wants to combine more actions into his character's turn, everything is +1D more difficult per extra action. Also, if you want to fire two guns, that is +1D more to each attack roll. Use the lower initiative bonus, if the gun has any.
Hitting the enemy has a default difficulty based on range:
As a rule of thumb, indoors firefights have 3D and outdoors 4D as default range-based difficulties. However, indoors have so much more obstructions and cover that it usually balances out. You skill is skill total + weapon accuracy (including all accessories and martial arts bonuses), which can make the 4D roll not quite as hard as you thought. Circumstances give or take away dice. Basically, any major thing working for you (shooting at a car instead of a guy in a car, or trying to hit the enemy around a cover) adds or subtracts one die from the roll. Minimum difficulty is still 1D.
Automatic weapons can fire bursts of bullets. In close range, every 5 bullets fired add +1 to weapon accuracy. In medium range that +1 is every 10 bullets and beyond that there is no benefit except the potential for multiple hits.
If the target is hit when firing a burst, there can be up to three hits in descending degrees of success. For example, a 3rd degree success when firing burst would inflict 3 hits on the target, one at 3rd degree, one at 2nd degree and one at 1st degree. Hit location and damage effects would be figured out separately. If this is too complicated, just add 2 points of damage per +1 of burst fire bonus (or 10 rounds if the target is too far for accuracy bonuses). It is unrealistic but can save a lot of time.
Be creative: If the character is spraying bullets, any higher-level hit is likely to be multiple rounds impacting the same hit location but having the combined effect of a single multi-degree hit.
Melee combat works as in Praedor, except that cyberpunks rarely use shields, there is no penalty for wielding a weapon in each hand and high-tech weapons treat all non-high tech weapons as if they were brittle. For everything else, use common sense.
Jack hits Joe with a monokatana. Joe is parrying with a Fire Axe. Jack scores a 2nd degree hit and Joe a 1st degree parry. Jack chops the axe shaft in two and cuts Joe with a 1st degree hit.
Hit locations are determined as in Praedor.
Damages are a tough one, not least because they are so fucked up to begin with. The lower end does far too little damage and the high-end is completely off the scale. The Praedor system forces relative damages much closer to each other. So, how to do this?
Let's pick a high-end weapon to use as a reference point, in this case Kalashnikov A-80 Heavy Assault Rifle (6D6+2). It has a maximum damage of 38. In the Praedor system I would like to have it do a Deep Wound +6 or +7 on an average hit on an average Joe. Let's then pick a low-end reference point. BudgetArms C-13 must be the crappiest weapon in the game, with a maximum damage of 6. An average hit from a turd like that... lets make it Deep Wound +1. Looking at the Praedor rulebook that gives us damage values 10 and 4, respectively. Now we just need a mathematical formula that yields that kind of result: 2 + maximum damage/5, rounding up. Finally a house rule that a punch with a fist has a base damage of 1.
Note that shotguns have a base damage of 7 using this system. You might want to add +2 to damage for shotguns and explosive rounds in general but all armour value is doubled.
A stiletto has a base damage of 3. Remember to add strength bonus and that flexible armour have their protection values halved against edged or pointed weapons.
Armour piercing rounds are a pain in the ass and not just if you get shot. Hmm... lets give them a -2 penalty to damage (enough to drop one Deep Wound level) but all armour protection is halved. Worth the effort only when firing at targets with more than 4 points of armour.
Armour is another point where the systems are totally different. The goal of armour in CP2020 is to stop all damage, while in Praedor, preventing or reducing the Deep Wound level is far more important. Well, let's take a reference point. We would like a heavy kevlar vest (PV 20) to stop critical damage from a heavy assault rifle on a slightly better than average hit (target would still lose blood points, though). For an even chance we need roughly 8 points of protection, so 10 points should do nicely. That is half of the listed PV, so we try halving them all (and rounding down just to be safe... err... lethal side. Modern firearms are supposed to be deadly).
Ordinary kevlar vest = 5
Steel helmet = 7
Heavy kevlar vest = 10
Metal Gear = 12
Looking at these results, I'd say I can live with that.
Shock roll does not exist in Praedor but it does exist in P2020. If the hit inflicted a Deep Wound, even a DW 0, there is a chance of the victim going into shock. Default roll is 1D for every full 3 points of penetrating damage. Add any existing injury penalty dice and finally +1D for head hits or -1D for limb hits. Then roll. If the result is greater than victim's Body, he goes into shock. Just like in CP2020, a character going into shock is out of the fight, although if not already in shock because of sheer blood loss, he can recover about an hour or so later.
Our antihero has a BODY of 15. That gives him a Deep Wound level of 8. He takes an average hit from the heavy assault rifle (ouch) and we presume he is not wearing armour. Hit location is determined to be chest. With 14 points of damage in the offing, that is a Deep Wound +6. That is going to knock him flat but not into shock by itself. Then the shock roll. There are no previous injuries, so the roll is 14/3 = 4.7, rounding down to 4D. With a BODY of 15 he still has a better than even chance of making it. He rolls 13 and is still in the fight, although the splintered ribs hurt like hell. If he had been hit in the head, the roll would have 5D and he probably would not have made it. On the other hand, with a Deep Wound +6 to the head we would have never gotten to the roll anyway.
If he had been wearing a heavy kevlar vest, he would have taken 4 points of damage. That bruise will cost him Blood Points, but nothing more since the Deep Wound limit was not reached. On the other hand, Praedor uses explosive damage dice, so even an ordinary hit can run him through on a bad day...
Special weapons: Praedor already has rules for fire damage. Explosives are a bit trickier and taking a cue from CP2020, I would treat them as non-location specific hits (with chest protection subtracted from the damage) that do not have Deep Wound injuries but do have the Shock Roll effect. It is not realistic since the shrapnel effect is missing but so sue me.
Whew. That should get you started, at least. Hacking is an ideological choice rather than a question of mechanics and will be dealt with at a later date.
The international RPG media is actually faring worse than Finnish but even so, rumor has it that Cyberpunk v3 has not exactly set the world on fire. Overtly complicated rules system, moronic setting, copying most of the content from the previous version with little or no regard how it fits the new setting (not such a big loss, actually) and finally missing the whole point of the genre may have been to blame. Of course, making the rulebook the ugliest and most uninspiring premium-priced RPG publication I have seen in a decade can't have helped. Who an Earth came up with the idea of using photographs of action figures as illustrations? The effect is so bad that I first thought the book was a joke! Hmm... that would explain a lot, actually. Why Roolipelaaja magazine went to ahead to give CP3 three stars out of five, I will never know. You may remember my mini-review on one.
In any case, Mike Pondsmith has never had his head screwed on straight when it comes to illustrations. Have you seen the last English edit of the old Cyberpunk 220.127.116.11? For reasons best left to the Spanish Inquisition, he decided to replace the original graphics with drawings from the Italian edition of CP2020. As a result, every woman in the rulebook wears a swimsuit, with just different accessories tucked into it. I like watching long legs as much as the other guy but I'd like there to be some logic to it (Media? Well, that sure grabs the attention of the audience. Techie? In her workshop of sharp and sometimes spinning tools and machinery? Nomad on a bike, just waiting to feel the kiss of asphalt?!). If it wasn't for Cyberpunk v3, I'd say this is about as bad as it can get with RPG illustrations.
I don't know if the American release of CP2020 ever made that big of a splash but the release of the Finnish translation by FGH in 1990 changed the face of the Finnish RPG scene for good. We all have our memories of the game, goofy or embarrassing though they might be (we were young). It is now all too easy to poke holes into the rules and the gameworld logic but the Finnish CP2020 is responsible for perhaps the greatest influx of new people into the hobby in the history of the scene. Only Runequest comes close. More importantly, it allowed us to break away from the embarrassing (but often all too true) fantasy-buff stereotype. For a moment, it was possible to be a roleplayer without a social stigma. Of course, the militant LARPers in the mid-90's put an end to all that and made being a roleplayer embarrassing again (we still haven't recovered from that one), but for a while, it was actually cool to play roleplaying games. It was the first and in some sense the only mainstream alternative to fantasy roleplaying games in the history of the scene. Everything else was just a niche.
For such an iconic game, it is funny that when you look at the original version of the game, there is nothing special to it. It comes across a scifi-combat roleplaying game set in the near future. The Finnish translation really wipes the floor with the original. I don't know what Joona Vainio does in these days but with CP2020 he managed to... well, give the game balls, pardon my misogynistic expression. The English version tries that as well but runs out of steam (or backbone) in half-way. I don't really have words to describe it... it is like if the game itself was made by adolescent gun crazies with little or no understanding of the genre it is trying to emulate... and then some real scifi-enthusiast who DID know what the genre is about got its hands on it and rewrote everything he could without infringing the license. I doubt Joona has actually intended or even thought about it like that but in any case, the result rocks.
I have often pondered making a dark future game of my own and my contributions to Kalle Marjola's ingenious Syndicate have been that. People have asked and suggested a cyberpunk-themed game based on the Praedor game system. However, looking at the Finnish CP2020, the standard my game would inevitably be measured against, I can only draw the following conclusions:
Can I make a better game system? - Probably
Can I make a better setting? - Definitely
Can I match that attitude and style? - No Way In Hell
There you have it, folks. I don't think I could match, let alone beat, the Finnish CP2020 in the one thing that really counts. Even if the FCP2020 is long out of print and sold out, my game would get a bad rap because of it. I am not going to compete with a ghost. But having said that, I would really like to play something cyberpunk again one of these days. I have thinking about a CP2020 conversion rules for Praedor. You could use pretty much all the character creation and gadgets in CP2020 and it would all bolt into the Praedor game mechanics. That is going to be the second part of this entry topic.
In my never-ending quest to make the world a batter place, I now call your attention to the grey sidebar on the left. It is exactly 100 pixels wide and has been there for four years. Despite having 200 visitors a day, apparently very few people have ever noticed it. This is regrettable because it actually does serve purpose. Although monotonous, the sidebar contains bookmarks into all the blog entries on the current blog page, followed by links to all the archived blog pages as you move down. On the bottom is a link to the diary of my now retired EVE Online character (which I should perhaps remove).
By clicking any of the bookmarks, the browser takes you directly to the related entry and shows a direct URL to it in the WWW-address field of your browser. Bold application of Window's Copy & Paste feature on this URL allows you to make direct links to the entry in IRC, your own blogs and whatnot. It does have the weakness that the links do get broken when the blog page is archived (usually at the end of each season) but if you are linking to an archived entry to begin with, it should work for as long as www.burgergames.com remains up.
Now, the second part of making the world a better place.
I have been asked (with a strongly negative pre-disposition), whether the plot of Roadside Picnic (the novel by Strugatskys that Stalker RPG is based on) really has enough to chew on for an RPG. Although some people might consider the question to be retarded and the person presenting it an absolute moron, I think it is a valuable contribution to the gaming culture, opening entirely unforeseen vistas into the minds of my intended customers and reinforcing my already strong faith in the Humanity as a whole.
Looking at my shelves for roleplaying games based on narrative media, I find Star Wars, Elric/Strombringer, MERP, Call of Cthulhu, Rune, Indiana Jones and who could have guessed: PRAEDOR. And it does not end there! Supplements like Hardwired for CP2020 and Robin Hood for Rolemaster also count. I must have missed some but that is already a hefty stack of books. Question: Looking at ALL of them, what do they have in common?
Answer: NONE of them are based on the *PLOT* of the narrative work.
I might also add that ALL of them are based on the *SETTING* of the narrative work. All non-interactive media and (to lesser extent) videogames suffer from a "keyhole effect" regarding the setting. The user can only see a very tiny portion of the setting, focused strictly on what author wants to focus on. There are hints and references to the larger themes, mechanisms and elements of the setting but if the author is not exploring them, neither is the user. This limitation is embedded in the nature of most media works and while the keyhole can be expanded by adding more content, options or variety, the cost for doing so is disproportionally high to the amount of user freedom gained. It is a familiar budgetary struggle for anyone who has been making videogames.
Unlike all other media products, tabletop RPGs by default do not have this limitation. This is precisely why my interest in them goes beyond playing. The players can go anywhere and do anything with their avatars. They can go explore their favourite settings and fill in the blanks left by the original story. The key selling point for roleplaying games based on stories is not the chance to be the main character, but the chance NOT to be the main character.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. The answer to the question is, of course, "no". The plot of Roadside Picnic does not have enough to chew on to make an RPG out of it. Which is why I am not even trying.
I altered the structure of the blog pages so that now all direct links to entry bookmarks will work indefinitely. Thanks for the advice, Leena!
Because of my job I have seen various TV shows, from the new Battlestar Galactica to Jericho. But to be honest, the one TV show that has me pining for more after each episode, is Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel. Although a cultural snob like me supposed to hate reality shows, I simply love this series, the people, the events, the incredible camera work and the downright epic atmosphere. However, explaining or spreading my enthusiasm to others has proven a tough sell.
"It is the greatest thing on TV!"
"Okay. So what's it about?"
"Crab fishermen in Alaska!"
"Aha... and what do they do?"
"Err... fish crabs?"
"I tell you, they fish crab. Sometimes they also move to places or visit the port to offload crab."
"So you're telling me you and those crazy girls spent five hours straight watching... crab fishing?"
"Yes! It was so cool!"
"..." *dials the emergency number behind his back*
It is all true, you know. The entire series is about fishing crab. However, there is a method to the madness. Each season of the TV series consists of two fishing seasons, the King Crab season in October and the Snowcrab Season in January, with around 5 and 7 episodes respectively. However, they are doing this in the Bering Sea. If you have never been there, count your lucky stars. With 45 ships going down per year, you could say it is top ship killer as seas go. The first season alone had a body count of 6, with one ship lost with a single survivor and one man overboard from another vessel. In the Bering Sea at Winter, survival time is counted in minutes. The series follows certain boats and crews from the start of each fishing season to the end, keeping tabs on how much crab they have pulled up. You get to know the boats, you get to know the people (in three years at least), you have your favorites and your pet hates.
It would all count for nothing if the people themselves would not be amazing. I tend to explain roleplaying game adventurers away as free spirits, conforming poorly to the same society as the rest of us. They choose the life of danger in exchange for freedom and wealth. I used to think that was rather poetic, something you can only have in tall tales. Well, I was wrong. There they are, coming to the Bering Sea two times a year to risk their lives. Rewards are great, as about half of my annual salary can be made in three or four days. But danger and death are also part of the deal and almost every year some ship fails to return. It is eerie to think back on a captain explaining the coiling of ropes when watching the debris of his ship bopping up and down on the waves. His body was never found.
How can this work so well? Well, the fishing season itself forms a natural story arc, from the launch to the cashing in and waving goodbye as the crews head for home. It is the Campbell's Hero's Journey every time. There are two such story arcs per season. The conditions aboard are like... hmm... Big Brother in a war zone, without the overabundance of cleavage and soap opera. These are real people, who are working really hard (burning about 10,000 kcal per day) in extremely dangerous conditions, with friends and families waiting and depending on them ashore. Having the Bering Sea itself be so beautiful, dangerous and downright epic is of course a big help but also the camera work, editing, sound direction and narration are first-class.
Maybe I am just an ignorant redneck but for me, Deadliest Catch is the best that's on right now. Discovery Channel in Europe has only shown the first season and part of the second. In United States the series is at the latter part of its third season and I am downloading the episodes from there. Together with some friends, we are watching them one fishing-season at a time. That's how you get up to 4 or 5 hours of crab fishing at one go. And it never gets old. As you may have guessed, Deadliest Catch is my inspiration for the asteroid miner game/campaign of Dry River. It's got all the right stuff.
Let's kick the Summer off with a personal triumph: I did pass the examination board review for Specialist Qualification in Audiovisual Communication, so I have at least somekind of professional degree or certificate under my belt now. The paperwork is taking its time but the board already congratulated me and I trust their judgement in this. To celebrate, I caught a summertime flu from my girlfriend, who, I'm afraid, failed to adjust to the sudden change of air conditioning parameters at Sulake office. I am also doing a bunch of other stuff, all of it secret, paid for, and unfortunately delaying Stalker a little bit. I am still pretty happy about the way the Gamemaster's Book is shaping up. Here is a combat example excerpt from the rulebook.
"Stalker pakenee kolmea
veitsellä aseistettua ryöstäjää pitkin Toulousen
syrjäkujia. Hän ei onnistu karistamaan niitä
kannoiltaan, mutta sukeltaa kadun poikki viritettyyn
vaijeriin ripustetun pyykin sekaan, niin että
näköyhteys hetkeksi katkeaa. Hän asettuu seuraavan
talonnurkan taakse väijyksiin. Suunnitelmana on iskeä
ensimmäistä vihollista lujaa, käyttää häntä
kilpenä ja saada muut tajuamaan ettei ryöstö ole
This is just one of many. I am fed up with writing use examples of FLOW, so I've decided that enough is enough and if there are points of contention, then the players and gamemasters are free to excercise logic and auteurism. And I'll stomp the foot of the first one to ask me about the designer's intent. Those of you who have seen me live know that this is not an empty threat... Anyway, the trouble of doing secret stuff is that since my work at Recoil is secret and now my sidejobs are secret, there is very little to write about. But I'll do my best.
I have also been larping a good person recently. My girlfriend inspired me to take a look at micropayment charities and sure enough, there is one service that grabbed my attention: http://www.kiva.org/. They are not asking for money, they are asking for a loan of a specific sum. If their request attracts enough lenders to cover it, they can raise their loan from the associated bank or institute. People screened to become part of the program are also expected to pay it back. Most of the people who apply are looking to start or improve their own businesses and you can browse them until you find a person and project you like. Then you can give them a loan via Paypal. Later, when they hopefully pay it back, you can invest the same money again to improve someone else's lot in life.
I think it is a clever system that actually activates and enables people to take care of themselves. I am looking for unorthodox business ideas, preferably by women in countries where the status of women could use some improvement. Today, I was glad to note that Mrs. Faasulu Eteuati from Samoa had managed to acquire enough lenders to raise her full loan of 850 dollars. For my part, covering 50 dollars of it all in May was an acceptable and manageable risk. That is the beauty of micropayment loans. Now in June, I have already loaned 25 bucks to Veronica Gutierrez in Mexico and I am still looking where to put my other 25 bucks this month.
On the videogames front, I've opened an account at Gamersgate. It is a game sales portal specialising in Indie/East European/Russian titles that are translated but don't have a deal with western publishers. Lots of crap, I am sure, but there might be real gems too, if you are not too keen on top-notch graphics. I am waiting for A.I.M. 2 with bated breath. The first one was an entrancing concept, albeit with a flawed execution. Other games that look really interesting to me are Parkan II, UFO: Afterlight (available at EBgames for more money, btw), El Matador and Hard Truck Apocalypse: Rise of the Clans. I am a bit dubious as to the production quality of FPS games since that is where the graphics hit the hardest (and Marine Sniper looks like shit), but El Matador looks good enough for me. Now all I need is time.
I have also opened a trial account at Vendetta Online to check out what it is like. So far I am not making heads or tails of it. I am quite sure this game can't have as steep learning curve as EVE did, but the tutorials suck. Also, for the life of me I cannot understand how a game with such an engine and execution can have so lame background story. I am still waiting on Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, the one and only chance for NCsoft to show that everything they touch does not immediately turn to shit (think AutoAssault).
On the Finnish RPG front the biggest news lately is that Juhana Pettersson, a long-time writer for basically anything gaming related, has been made the new editor-in-chief of Roolipelaaja magazine. Mikki Rautalahti has moved on to other challenges, which I hope will be better paid. While I do think Juhana's past work as controversial, I cannot fault his recent work in the Roolipelaaja magazine. Excellent stuff. If he can make the rest of the magazine match his recent standards, you won't hear me badmouthing him ever again. So, congratulations to Juhana. It just does not get any bigger than that in the Finnish RPG scene.
Speaking of the scene, there is something wrong with it right now. I press my ear to the ground and there is very little noise past the ruckus of the approaching Ropecon. I know that Miska is still working on his RTP game line (and I hear he just updated the Heimot minigame to match the RTP format) but where the Hell is everybody else? I'll be working on in this Rubik's Cube of a game called Stalker for quite a while still but isn't anybody else doing anything? I hope I just have a poor hearing, especially since the last time Parabellum came completely out of the blue. Yet I have this nagging fear that the post-Praedor wave of Finnish RPG releases is ebbing out. Sure, making an RPG is a lot of work with little or no reward but come on! My flashbacks from 1999 are painful!
I was just contacted by a well-known roleplaying game author who is doing something new and unique (aren't we all?) that will also bring new people into the hobby. More information should come already this week but knowing the guy my first guess would be LORDI - The Roleplaying Game