Category: Gaming (page 1 of 73)

The Magic’s Back

I really wasn’t expecting to get back into Magic: The Gathering.

I’ve been a Hearthstone player for a while, now. And it did a decent job of scratching that CCG itch that started back in ’93 or so when I first picked up my first starter deck of Magic. The Warcraft theme and some of the design elements of Hearthstone still hold some appeal, but I can’t deny I often felt something was missing. I play EDH (Commander to you young ‘uns) with my father and brother-in-law on the holidays, but that wasn’t often enough to clear up my feelings.

Then I got into the Arena beta, and everything started to click.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Hearthstone has its place. Mucking around in a Tavern Brawl or even playing a couple of games on the ladder is good while I’m waiting for coffee water to boil or if I’m sitting on the toilet. But knowing what I know now, I don’t think I’ll be playing it as often, nor will I be streaming it. It all comes down to a single word — interactivity.

I’m the sort of person who gets the most enjoyment out of a game when I’m working to anticipate the moves my opponent are likely to make. I want to set myself up for success. A non-interactive deck undercuts that enjoyment, and very few decks in Hearthstone feel interactive. I mean, it’s one thing for me or my opponent to have to work in order for a particular combo to go off; it’s another when I feel like I’m getting ground up in my opponent’s well-tuned piece of cardboard clockwork. Not to mention a few people I’ve played against in person who put together those sorts of decks have been incredibly smug about it.

To put it another way, there have been times when I’ve felt like I can just walk away from Hearthstone for a bit while my opponent takes their turn because there’s fuck-all I can do about whatever it is they’re doing or planning to do. Magic gives me the opposite feeling. In anticipating my opponent’s plays, and either having an immediate response in my hand or knowing I could be just one draw away from swinging the advantage back in my direction, I’m engaged from start to finish. I can plan ahead. My brain’s always working. And losses feel as earned as wins. “I have to watch for that next time, because this time X happened.” Sure, getting screwed or flooded by decks happens, but that’s different. At least, it feels different to me.

Among the other things that make me feel excited about the “fresh start” feeling I’ve been cultivating for a couple of weeks, the prospect of getting more into Magic, both in person and in Arena, has my brain aflutter with possibilities. Between setting up new decks to take with me this holiday and participating in more events locally, there’s something about Magic being a part of my life again that feels… right, for lack of a better term. Sure, it will take some time, and I’ll want to be more stable financially before I start making the more serious investments. But anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do right.

In the meantime, I’ll keep playing Arena and honing my skills. Even if that means I’m going to have keep playing burn for a while.

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

The Deep Mines of Published Adventures

I’d like to give you a bit of a peek “behind the curtain” regarding where inspiration comes from and how basic materials from other sources can lead to new ideas and new directions in storytelling. This past weekend, I put together a one-shot D&D adventure for Seattle fans of Critical Role. While I did re-watch some favorite episodes from the first campaign of the series, and read up on a good deal of material in the Tal’dorei Campaign Guide, considering this was a one-shot, I wanted to make sure that the adventure had direction and balance. With that in mind, I turned to my time acting as a Dungeon Master for the Adventurer’s League.

The two Adventurer’s League modules that I took as my basis were “The Waydown” and “The Occupation of Szith Morcaine”. They’re from the same season of the Adventurer’s League, the “Rage of Demons”, and thus had a lot in common. Both were delves into the Underdark, both involved strange beings to both interact with and fight against, and both were influenced heavily by the machinations and madness of the demon prince known as Graz’zt.

But the Adventurer’s League modules take place in the Forgotten Realms. This was an adventure in Exandria, on the continent of Tal’dorei. This lead to some questions for me, as the Dungeon Master: where is the Waydown on Tal’dorei? How are drow, duregar, myconids, and so on different in the world created by Matt Mercer? And what would Graz’zt want with Exandria?

I am, of course, not going to answer that last question here. This is going to be more than a one-shot, much to my delight. But I will say that, since these two adventures were related by the overarching “Rage of Demons,” it wasn’t difficult to tease a few bits apart, remove things that didn’t work, and weave them together into one coherent adventure with Tal’dorei flavor and and plenty of places for a party of adventurers to go.

One of the things that saw me moving away from Adventurer’s League was that in a short, two- or four-hour session, it can be very difficult to get into character, establish rapport with other players — or, if you’re the DM, any players. On the other hand, the published adventure modules are adjustable for all sorts of parties in terms of difficulty and rewards, and the through-line of start to middle to end is very easy to follow. With the change of setting and a longer session time, this flexibility made the matter of adding more narrative storytelling a straightforward one.

Now that the party’s established, and these initial adventures are completed, we can move on. While it can’t be called entirely original, considering the involvement of Graz’zt and the very nature of where Tal’dorei came from, the storyline and character hooks I have in mind are all mine, informed by my fantastic players and rooted in the desire to tell a great story woven through with emotion and character.

I also run a game on the occasional Thursday night, and we’re going through the 5th edition starter set’s “Lost Mine of Phandelver”. Again, however, this adventure has been transplanted from the Forgotten Realms to a campaign setting entirely of my own design. The world of Levexadar is my first real attempt at something like this, and as a result, I’m still tweaking things and looking to published materials. On top of the Phandelver resources, I’ve incorporated some adventure and setting trappings from the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons. You could say I’ve “filed off the serial numbers”, and I don’t feel bad about that. So far, it’s made for a good story.

When it comes to role-playing games, you can delve deep into the fertile veins of published materials and find all sorts of things to tell a story of your own. I find my thoughts turning to parts of the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover and materials even older than 4th edition as elements to use in one or both of these campaigns. The echoes of the familiar in unexplored territory can both comfort a player, and present an opportunity to surprise them. And if you manage to surprise your players, get them invested in the world and the story, and anticipatory of what’ll happen in the next session or even the next minute, you’ve got a great game of Dungeons & Dragons on your hands.

500 Words on Elite Dangerous

Courtesy Frontier Development

When I finally get home from long commutes down to and back from the home in which my start-up employer operates, I tend to be tired and mentally drained. It’s difficult for me to muster the juices I need to fuel my writing — a fact I try not to be too hard on myself over. Still, between the fatigue and my growing disgust over the situation in this country and on this planet, I prefer to wind down my day by going to space.

For a while, this was facilitated through Star Trek Online. Star Trek is one of my favorite sci-fi universes, and I’ve met some wonderful people there. However, I slowly came to realize that in terms of gameplay, I was unfulfilled. Like all MMOs, the world is mostly static; no matter how many times to beat up a certain enemy faction, the missions in which you do so never change. It’s hard to feel like you’re having an impact on the world around you. There’s still a hard divide between your reality and that of the game world, unlike something like Skyrim.

Then, I started playing Elite Dangerous.

Digging out my old Attack 3 joystick and G13 game pad, I quickly found myself immersed in one of the best space sims I’ve ever played. A few years ago I played through a few Wing Commander games for charity, and when I was younger, spent hours upon hours in Elite Plus and Wing Commander: Privateer. In addition to the nostalgic feeling of having my hands on a “throttle” and stick, the more I play the game, the more incentive I feel to keep playing. The galaxy is truly vast, with a plethora of options of how to play. Trading, combat, mining, exploration, even hauling tourists to exotic locales — all of these are profitable ways to make your mark on the galaxy. And you can truly make a mark; the game’s background sim and Powerplay functionality mean that if you choose to, you can influence system control, shifts in allegiance, and even the course of superpowers.

I’m trying a bit of everything. My Commander has made his way far from his home system, has joined up with a like-minded group of spacefarers, and I’m fictionalizing the journey. I’m finding more and more ways to make my time in space more rewarding, more immersive, and more challenging. I’m upgrading my joystick, adding voice commands, and I’m very much looking forward to earning enough cash to fund true exploration endeavors to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I also want to contribute more to the cause of Princess Aisling Duval, the only member of the galactic superpowers outspoken on the idea that owning people is inherently wrong.

The only drawback, so far, is a relative lack of roleplaying. However, I know that storytellers are out there. I hope we’ll run into one another eventually.

Space is, after all, quite big.

Which is why I can lose myself in it for a while.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

500 Words on Journey to Un’Goro

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Part of having more bandwidth for games now that I have gainful dayjob employment has included a return to playing Hearthstone on a regular basis. The latest expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, drops this week, and I’m quite excited to see what it will bring. It’s already had a bunch of coverage, some absolutely fantastic promotional materials produced, and a bevy of cute art accompanies the cards. As someone who both loves to build decks, and has an eye on competition, I already have some first impressions of what this set brings, and what it will mean to the game as a whole.

Adaptation

The Discover mechanic introduced in the League of Explorers adventure is one of the best things to happen to Hearthstone. Adaptation is an extension this mechanic. Allowing you to adapt to an opponent’s strategy lends a great deal of flexibility to your deck, much as Discovery has until this point. Hearthstone’s designers like to key into the notion of ‘delightful surprise’, and Adaptation is a great example of this.

Elementals

A new grouping of minions — known as a “tribe” in the parlance of this sort of game — is the Elementals. Like Dragons and Murlocs, Elementals synergize with one another in interesting ways. Shamans already had a couple of Elementals, but now there are so many that we may actually see Elemental decks that ramp up for huge finishes with big minions.

Questing

Questing is essential to MMOs like World of Warcraft, but outside of the player’s quests that reward gold or packs, this mechanic hasn’t been seen in Hearthstone until now. Each class now has a Legendary spell that lays out some criteria. Complete the task, and you’ll be rewarded with a powerful minion, a portal to another realm, or a spell that gives you an extra turn. As impressive and bold as these spells are, it remains to be seen what impact they will have on…

The Changing Meta

For a long few months, a scant few deck types have defined the meta of Standard play. It’s been difficult to try new decks or find new ways around very powerful, solid decks. With the new expansion and the change of available cards in Standard, it’s my hope, and that of other players, that the meta is finally getting shook up. But Standard is not the only mode…

More Wild!

I used to regard Wild as more of a ‘sandbox’ mode, focusing mostly on the Standard meta. However, with so many things being relegating to Wild, from staples of the last rotation like Reno Jackson to long-standing all-stars like Sylvanas Windrunner, I will need to play more Wild for sure in the Year of the Mammoth.

I will be cracking open my many packs of Journey to Un’Goro this Saturday, and I invite you to come with me on the quest for exciting new decks! You can find my Twitch channel here, and follow my Twitter for updates, thoughts, and shenanigans. I’m definitely looking forward to this!

On Fridays I write 500 words.

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