Tenfold Hate

Peculiar Blast From the d20 Past
December 1, 2008, 1:47 pm
Filed under: Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy

If you played D&D in the eighties–or picked up an issue of Dragon magazine during that era, you’re probably familiar with this man’s work. Though the name David A. Trampier might not ring any immediate bells, you’ll recognize his distinctive fantasy illustrations if you were an RPG player back in the day. I’d love to find a solid online resource of his work since judging from this article, we won’t be seeing any printed anthology anytime soon. I found an old Angelfire site with an archive of the Wormy series he did for Dragon, but the links were dead. And god only knows who owns the rights to the artwork from all those old TSR rulebooks (Wizards of the Coast, presumably?).

I did manage to find a post over at Loth Beg with some nice examples of Trampier’s classic work for the unindoctrinated.

His work brings me back to a time when I had little more than a weekly allowance and my imagination to get me through the day. I bet a lot of these guys don’t realize what value their work had to younger people during the post-information highway age. Makes me wanna take a white crayon to a four-sided die…

Static Worlds Kill RP
November 28, 2007, 12:22 pm
Filed under: Fantasy, Gaming, MMORPGs

Static worlds kill role-playing. I’m not talking about spewing Middle English in group chat or the slew of other silly stereotypes many a modern gamer equates dismissively with RP. Ideally in an RPG, you can do anything within the realm of possibility (and in MMORPGs, within the constraints of game physics): incorporate elements of your environment into a brawl, dig a ditch or sack a city, plant rose bushes or hack down a forest, become a noble cavalier heralded by the peasants or a murderous cutpurse hunted by the town guard.

Donkey Kong was never considered an RPG. Your avatar in Q*Bert or Crystal Castles never evolved or left any real footprint on the game world outside of advancing from level to level until you got bored or ran out of quarters. You followed a scripted course of play to save said princess or clear said board of adversaries. Sound familiar?

In an RPG, your character not only advances in level, but you “write” his or her story alongside your fellow players. You create a character, not a cog. You are adopting a role for the two or three hours you spend in game, not simply racking up dancing cherries or in the case of MMOs—blue or purple items. Did all the level 60 magic-users in your pen-and-paper campaigns parade around in the same robes? Nope. Because everyone was not pushed and prodded down a near-identical path.

Single player games have given us glimpses of the types of worlds we can leave a stamp on. It’s just a matter of time before our video cards and processors allow for this on a massive multiplayer scale. I for one would forsake multiple continents and vast oceans for a smaller game world if it indeed felt like a world, not the façade of a movie set. But will game studios be up for the challenge, or should we brace ourselves for another decade of hovering yellow question marks and grinding repeatable content?

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The Savage Keyboard of Conan
November 15, 2007, 11:51 am
Filed under: Age of Conan, Fantasy, Gaming, MMORPGs

Funcom production director Jorgen Tharaldsen was interviewed at QJ.NET this week where he chatted about the much-anticipated MMORPG Age of Conan. One of the elements of AoC that has caused quite a stir is that the gameplay will be single player before introducing you to the “massive multiplayer” side of Hyboria at level twenty.

Personally, I’d prefer to have access to other players from the get go. For me, it makes the world that much more alive and massive. However, there may be something to letting players test out their training wheels and become comfortable in their pixelated skins before unleashing them on the general populace. According to Tharaldsen:

“We have changed a bit on the concept of the single-player aspect through our beta, as many MMO gamers gave us feedback that they wanted access to other players sooner. So now you will play alone all the way to the first city, but there you can meet other players for the first time and do ‘limited’ multiplayer group gameplay with them.”

Tharaldsen goes on to say that AoC players have the ability to solo to max level. Though I prefer the social, teambuilding aspects of grouping, the ability to flexibly enjoy a game according to your personal play style is not even a subject open for much debate at this point in time. Sometimes we simply don’t have the time to group.

There’s no reason players should not have the ability to PvP or dungeon crawl with a party for hours on end if they want to–and also be able to hop on casually in between real life responsibilities and still have some sense of accomplishment. After all, MMORPGs are about options, right? So why should this exclude the possibility of solo–or even single player content? As long as reward is relative to risk and investment, and there is a convincing transition from the single player to the multiplayer “chapter” of the game I don’t see too much harm in Funcom’s approach.

The benefits of grouping in a game so focused on player-built cities and siege PvP are pretty apparent. Plenty of games offer good, clean, soloable PvE, but I think it will be the group-oriented aspects of AoC, if they are executed successfully, that separate this title from the pack. Some argue that games that are too solo friendly breed a sort of anti-community that tend to be unacccustomed to group dynamics and lack social etiquette when they’re finally spit out at max level looking towards the raiding and/or PvP aspects of endgame–both of which are very socially focused, group-reliant activities.

Heck, Funcom is even introducing a mercenary option in PvP so guilds can “hire” other players to help them square off against their adversaries. Providing an outlet for the greedy, the antisocial, and those just in it for the blood and money is a great twist to incorporate into gameplay–actually adding to immersion if pulled off correctly.

But a mature gamer is a mature gamer, whether they’re playing Whac-A-Mole or Civilization, a Gameboy or Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Generally, the depth a game offers dictates the type of gamer it attracts, each with their own preferences, biases, and playstyles. In-game culture in effect is created by the players behind the keyboards, not molded by the play style of the game.

Players’ maturity levels, communication skills, and ability to cooperate with others are shaped before the first mouse click; they are not spawned when they boot up their comp, whether the game they’re fiddling with is single player or multiplayer.

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Commerce and Creativity Clash on Ye Olde Virtual Battleground
November 14, 2007, 12:22 am
Filed under: Fantasy, Gaming, MMORPGs

Game designers are creative folk. They are our Dungeon Masters of the technological age, weaving vast exciting worlds for us to game in, socialize in, and explore. Pen-and-paper role-playing games are very grassroots by today’s standards. A group of friends, a bag of potato chips, and a handful of dice around the kitchen table. I don’t know about you, but when my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons, there was no talk of the bottom line or spikes in subscription rates.

MMORPGs brought a hobby spawned in the basements of the marginalized, the imaginative, and the misunderstood to our desktops. A passion that in our gawky youth provided respite from schoolyard scuffles or the dates we weren’t going on. Put simply, a creative escape from the typical monotony of being a kid.

Though perhaps not as crucial a lifeline as they once were, RPGs still have that magic ability to give us shelter from the storm, providing some adventure and socialization between those chunks of our lives spent sitting in a cubicle, or changing the kitty litter, or paying the gas and electric bills, or counting the weeks to our next vacation. In short, MMORPGs provide an entertaining, interactive distraction from the sometimes monotonous tasks of being all grown up at the dawn of the twenty-first century. But even with jobs, mortgages, and significant others, we’re still some of the most passionate hobbyists you’ll find.

As we’ve grown and evolved, so have the games. Just as we’re accountable to our bosses, or kids, or pets, or spouses, the game designers–our modern day game masters–are beholden to a third party that wasn’t present around the kitchen tables of our youths. The companies with the cash flow to produce the games. Folks who don’t deal in gamers’ passions, but spreadsheets and flowcharts and the dreaded bottom line. Aw geez, looks like the prom king who slammed your head into a locker eighteen years ago just got the keys to the basement. Hide the twenty-sided dice.

Accessibility and polish are not bad things, depending on how one defines them. However, as the MMORPG industry continues to grow, it seems like the gap widens between our vocabulary and that of the bigger game production studios. Countless seminal blues musicians remained penniless while their songs were repackaged and polished by safe, soulless teen idols. On one hand, what MMORPGs are going through now are normal growing pains (and markedly less severe than those of the real world), but that doesn’t make ’em fair or any prettier.

Certainly as seasoned, passionate gamers we can learn to change with the times without selling our souls or becoming crusty old relics sitting in our rockers talking about “when we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow for corpse retrievals.” Any successful entertainment endeavor must master that delicate balancing act between creative integrity and dollars-and-cents, even if we’re not talking “high art” here. But at the same time, what might the works of a Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson be like if someone had been standing over their shoulders barking about the ‘bottom line?’ Pretty uninspired.

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Robin of Sherwood
November 8, 2007, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Fantasy, Robin of Sherwood

Last month, the second season of Robin of Sherwood was released on DVD. Most cinematic interpretations of Robin Hood over the last 30 years–from the Kevin Costner debacle of the early nineties to the BBC’s current Robin Hood 90210–have filtered the character through the misguided pop culture sensibilities of the day. Robin of Sherwood, on the other hand, remains true to the character we’ve grown familiar with through folklore and Errol Flynn’s classic portrayal while adding a raw, beautiful modern edge, resulting in one of the finest pieces of fantasy ever produced–in literature or on film–during the twentieth century.

The series paints a gritty picture of Crusade-era England, adding a healthy dose of paganism and sorcery in with it’s historical fiction. As the first Robin Hood to introduce a Moorish swordsman from the Holy Lands into the fold of Merry Men (Nasir, played wonderfully by Mark Ryan), Robin of Sherwood dared add some unconventional new twists to the Robin Hood mythos that since have become canon. This series’ no-frills portrayal of England during the Middle Ages is tempered by the playful swashbuckling antics of Robin and his cohorts a la 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood minus the bright tights and dated dialogue. Creator Richard Carpenter’s Robin is equal parts archetypal trixter and real-world bandit, mentored by the sometimes ominous, sometimes fatherly wood spirit Herne the Hunter–another visionary addition this series brought to the table.

The actors and storylines in this series are second to none. Ray Winstone, who you might know from Sexy Beast and The Departed, plays the often rabid, fiercely loyal Will Scarlet. Judi Trott is Maid Marian, looking as if she just stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Clannad’s soundtrack, blending Celtic melodies with eighties synthesizers, never sounds dated, surviving the test of time surprisingly well. Like Ennio Morricone for new wave hippies.

Season two introduces Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon, who takes up Robin’s mantle after the catastrophic events of season one (no spoilers here, thank you). This often-missed gem which ran briefly in the U.S. on Showtime in the mid-eighties is a must-see for any fan of fantasy or sword-and-sorcery. Both seasons are now available in boxed sets with lots of bonus interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Rent it. Buy it. Love it.

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