Part 1: Living In A Griefer’s Paradise

Whelp it’s E3 2018 which means that the hour has officially hit Hot-Take O’Clock.

What’s that you ask? If you don’t know already then you’ll be happier in the long run. Suffice it to say its a time of year when opinionated people everywhere like to crawl out of the woodwork to get some fresh air including yours truly.

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This past weekend I wanted to use my raw crisp oxygen to spew back out some opinions about Bethesda and the announcement of their newest game, Fallout 76. I had quite a few strong feelings about their chosen direction of MMO-Lite and forcing their once beautifully narrative driven series into unknown, potentially toxic, territory that all the Rad-Away in the universe couldn’t fix. I know plenty of people who are vehemently against the current shift away from single player experiences and while I understand the criticism I still cant bring myself to condemn it fully. As much as I crave deep and meaningful single player games I can’t deny that some of my favorite memories have happened online with total strangers, some of who became lifelong friends. Whats more is that in a well designed game with a good community the emergent experiences are something you will very rarely, if ever, see in a tightly controlled single player title. That being said its also important to remember that some of my worst gaming experiences have also come in these multiplayer spaces, not all of them certainly but some. Largely just a different flavor from the worst single player ones.

We could spend all day debating the overall merits of multiplayer versus single player but what I’d like to focus on is something more specific in light of Fallout 76: Griefing.

Griefing is something that has progressively become more and more a part of our online experiences and in some communities is seemingly so ubiquitous that people actively avoid getting into the games for fear of it. Often the reality isn’t quite as bad as all that but by word of mouth games and their communities can build reputations that actively discourage participation and growth. The jokes about “12yr Old CoD Kids” who will “Fuk ur mum” have been around so long that I think they’ve reached a form of gaming antiquity. The unfortunate reality behind it however is still alive and well in the gaming community itself although it has mutated a bit since the days when a simple mute was the best solution. If you’re curious for some examples that happen in MMOs like World of Warcraft you can peruse here. You’ll also notice that some forms of griefing that are listed there like Corpse Camping and Ganking aren’t even against Blizzard’s ToS on servers listed as PvP, they’re just a part of life in that environment.

I want to make it very clear here that I am not against this as a consequence of PvP centered gameplay because it is a reality of that game type. In the same way that we don’t play certain game genres because they don’t appeal to us the same consideration must be given when looking at PvE, PvP and, Co-Op style games. In addition there are certain kinds of griefing that are unintended by the developers, much like in the early days of The Division where because of collision physics people could block quest NPCs, data terminals and even doors. This resulted in players intentionally going idle while blocking doors not allowing people out or in early quest areas, halting progress for new players. For me personally that is the type of griefing that will make me want to snap my controller in half, the kind that is not in the spirit of the game but instead is all about someone else purposefully trying to waste my time and ironically, their own. This is made infinitely worse when this behavior is supported by lazy or outright poor design. I’m sure we all have particular flavors of griefing that bother us more than others but on the level none of it is particularly fun no matter what side you’re on.

In the context of Fallout 76 and it’s announcement I found myself marveling at how Todd Howard and Bethesda had seemingly built a game with new and exciting ways to potentially ruin their players experiences.

No, really.

I know it sounds like hyperbole but they decided to give players the ability to gain access to and then use nuclear missile silos so they can devastate large parts of the map. Admittedly Howard goes on to qualify this with the fact that it will be difficult to get the launch codes in order to do this so it wont be like the entire map will be engulfed in a constant nuclear firestorm, but still. These are the same gamers who back in 2005 purposefully spread a virtual plague devastating the populations of World of Warcraft servers across the globe. Which incidentally is one of my favorite memories of that game and not just because years later the CDC and epidemiologists used that debacle to study pandemic behavior. Gamers are industrious in that way that they will find any and every way to pervert game systems for their own entertainment. They’ll peruse every pixel or paw their way through thousands of lines of code just to find new and inventive ways to break things. In some cases for no other reason than to ruin other players fun.

If game testers are masochists then these gamers are the sadists of our various communities.

I will give Bethesda credit for trying something new and exploring the concept of multiplayer that the community has been asking for as far back as Fallout 3, albeit they wanted Co-Op. But whose counting? The decision has been made and with the games fairly imminent release we’re left dealing with this reality. During the presentation I alternated pretty consistently between actual excitement and disappointment as the game was described in detail for the first time.

The setting, timeline and lore for this game starting with the earliest vaults to open after the devastation? I’m there. That is the bread and butter of these games as well as Bethesda as a publisher and it is what keeps me coming back over the years in-spite of buggy or broken games. The Fallout franchise has always been bursting with a style and flavor all its own even in a genre like Post-Apocalyptic games that can be at times, over-saturated.

New monster types including a huge irradiated sloth? Hell. Yes. Like a friend said while we were watching the conference, “I was afraid we were in for more Rad Scorpions.”. I couldn’t agree more, of all the mechanical or visual overhauls these games needed one of the things I’m most excited for is different enemies to fight to go with the change of scenery.

Then it starts to get shaky when Howard reveals to us that, “Fallout 76 is entirely online.” to which he gets the lukewarm reaction he was clearly expecting from the audience given that he follows up with, “I know, you have like a thousand questions and I’m going to go through them in order.” as he looks down at his watch. His speech is only thirteen minutes old. This is my first moment of real disappointment,

“First, of course you can play this solo.”

A lie, a lie that is repeated so often that I think as gamers we just don’t even register it anymore, it washes over us like a fart in an elevator we can’t escape from. I should be fair and point out that it isn’t a lie lie but more a lie based on a technicality. You can play these MMO-Lite games solo but only if you don’t want to actually experience the entirety of the game because there will be content that you cannot do solo. Whats more is that even if the content can be done solo it may take so long or be so complicated that you are likely to have other free roaming players stumble upon you while you’re in the process of doing something and kill you. Or at the very least interrupt your experience in some meaningful way that you have little say in. As we discussed above its a consequence of the game we have chosen to play and we know that going in but only if the developers are honest with their audiences. This aspect of PvP will not be optional in Fallout 76 at release which may be a tough pill to swallow for longtime fans.

Howard goes on to make a compelling statement that they at Bethesda love all of the single player aspects of their games and the stories that come out of that but they, like us, have always wondered how their games would be in a multiplayer setting. For my money though it is unfortunate that they decided to jump straight to the complicated world of PvP Survival Multiplayer instead of taking the slightly smaller step of an optional co-op campaign to warm up their playerbase to the idea of something more.

He does state in his presentation that death will not result in the loss of any of your stuff which means that even in a semi-hardcore survival game the punishment of death is ultimately nothing. It is there as an annoyance, a time sink but with no real threat to anything but your productivity, patience and, sanity. For some this will be a point in the games favor but for others this will be a knock against it for a combination of reasons including a lack of danger in a survival setting and meaning virtually no punishment for griefers. Even if someone harassing you in a game like this never actually manages to kill you the constant interruption of your gameplay still adds up and is a frustration all its own.

So where does all this leave me regarding this newest Fallout game? Not great to be honest as the core experience this game is built on sours the delicious candy coating we got a taste of prior to the conference.

That was, until I watched this.

Thank you for reading! Enjoy the the incredible work of Danny O’Dwyer’s NoClip Studio and I’ll be back to talk about insights from the documentary and where I think Bethesda went a bit wrong in their messaging to gamers.

Until then, happy gaming! And a Merry E3!

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Let’s Make a Deal!

Today I got a chance to catch up on the Stream of Many Eyes over on the D&D Twitch channel where you can find the VODs. There was a game run at the end called Jocks Machina with a cool lineup of some generally unorthodox players that I highly recommend you check out. If you’re not too worried about spoilers then head over to this video and fast forward to 9:34:20 to watch what I think is an important exchange between Mike Mearls and a man more commonly known as The Big Show.

They’re in the process of fighting some Death Knights and Big Show has gone in for the kill on one of them, unfortunately after three attacks he falls just a bit short which is understandably frustrating. For some these situations can be resolved using the “Rule of Cool” which essentially states that as long as something is sufficiently cool while at the same time bending or breaking some rules, let it slide. You can think of it like the Michael Bay School of Dungeon Mastering, it might not make much sense in hindsight but in the moment it’ll blow you away. Its a solid bit of reasoning because as we’ve discussed before your players are the heroes and we strive to make them feel like it even at the expense of some technicalities.

 

In this case we have a situation where the rigid structure guiding combat in the game leaves it feeling stilted and unnatural. As it stands now Mearls has told Big Show that the attacks with his maul have staggered his opponent, for flavor, but ending the turn there feels bad when this seems like an opportunity to press your opponent for the kill. The rules dictate that his actions are spent so his turn simply ends. As it was pointed out in the game he could use his Action Surge but using an additional three attacks to finish off a nearly dead enemy doesn’t feel like a particularly good use of it as a resource. Especially in an already somewhat tough fight.

As a quick aside one of the things the designers of D&D changed from 4e to 5e was the action economy because in 4th edition they realized a common complaint from players was never having a reason to use their minor actions. Some classes could make use of them but not all and it feels bad to leave something unused in a turn, you want to feel like you’re using every avenue available to you in order to be effective. So in 5e they sought out more ways for players to use their bonus action so that more often than not players felt like they were using their whole turn, every turn for something substantive.

Looking at the pending anti-climactic end to Big Show’s turn Mearls’ reaches into the DM bag of tricks and exercises his freedom to make a little deal. He offers him a gamble, a simple roll of the dice, to see if he can finish off his target with the caveat that he’ll suffer disadvantage on saving throws for the next round.

Risk vs Reward.

When we talk about protecting player agency and putting the game in their hands this is exactly the type of thing that we’re talking about albeit possibly a lesser used example. In a moment where Big Show was facing having a triumph taken away from by the mechanics and action economy of D&D Mearls put the choice back in his players hands. Protecting their agency doesn’t mean just handing them wins or ensuring things go their way but rather giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves. Big Show takes a moment to consider it and, probably wisely, decides to back off and take cover instead of pressing his advantage. Whether or not he took Mearls up on the offer is entirely beside the point, the idea is that the decision was no longer being made by the game or the DM but by the player. Like I mentioned above with the change to Minor/Bonus actions its removing the mechanical limitation and instead allowing the players to choose whether or not they use it each turn. As soon as Big Show decides for himself to withdraw you can see instantly that his attitude changes and the round continues. Such a small thing can go a long way.

Some discussion could be had over how doing something like this may open the door to players expecting or even arguing for these little extras more often, which is fair. Much like handing down decisions as a judge the DM can set unhealthy precedence at their table by simply trying to be permissive. If you institute something like this its important to use it evenly among your players and not look like you’re favoring some more than others.  Even more important is to probably discuss the prospect with your players prior to implementing it and see if its even something they’d be interested in.

A while back I remember Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade talked about a rule he instituted in his D&D game when you missed a roll by one, which aside from rolling a natural one, is probably the worst way to fail. When a player missed a check or roll by one he gave them the opportunity to state a case for their success. If they could explain in some compelling fashion why or what they would do in order to overcome that one digit deficit he would give it to them. The reward for this was two-fold as the players got to  succeed on a hairs breadth miss and it also encouraged more creative thinking on their part to justify it.

Maintaining the flow of combat can be tricky especially in a group of newer players who may take a little extra time for their turns. In addition to the things discussed above the other way to help maintain it without adjusting or adding mechanics is to try and ensure a narrative continuity. Like the hiccup in Big Show’s turn where an excellent series of strikes concluded with stopping awkwardly with the kill just out of reach instead try to ensure it stops at a place that makes sense. A fluid choreography of sorts that also encourages and assists the players with narrating their own actions instead of just mechanically stating what skills they would like to use from turn to turn.

It turns –

“The Bandit Captain strikes at you three times rolling a—”

“14.”

Miss.”

“19.”

Hit.”

“16.”

Miss.”

“He hits you for a total of 6 slashing damage. Alright Jen, you’re up.”

Into –

“The Bandit Captain lunges point first at you with his scimitar for… 14.”

Miss!”

“You sidestep the lunge and pivot for the next strike as the Captain turns the edge of the blade towards you, draws back and strikes at your stomach for… 19. Jen you’re up next.”

Hit.”

“You try to parry the follow up but the blade sneaks under your armor, opening a gash in your side for 6 slashing damage. On the follow through he draws the scimitar back one final time and attempts to plunge it into your stomach for… 16.”

Miss!

“You use your longsword to parry the desperate overextended thrust down into the dirt at your feet, leaving him open.”

I’ve also found that using this style of combat description also helps prompt players into trying different things outside of straight attacking and defending. Like I know for instance that if I presented one of my players with that scenario the first thing they would do on their next turn is try to disarm the captain by stomping on the blade and then pressing their attack. This raises the level of overall player engagement, strategy and use of the environment during combat with little more than some extra description. It gives them something to play against  instead of what may as well be a straw filled training dummy for them to abuse.

As a DM don’t be afraid to wheel and deal a little with your players if they’re just short of that truly triumphant moment. Give them the chance to take the risk if they want, to push their boundaries and be the hero.

Until next time, happy rolling!

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A Round of Villainous Applause!

I was reading an article the other day about the emotional investment of Dungeon Masters when it comes to their villains and ultimately being more important to be a fan of the characters, it’s great and you should check it out.

What I want to talk about is the fine balance to be struck here for DMs and how it is imperative for the quality of the overall experience. The advice that we should ultimately be fans of the player characters is very important because as much as we like to joke the people sitting at our tables are not our enemies.

They’re the heroes of the story.

Our goal is not to wring every inch of life out of them until they quit, as much fun as that seems sometimes, but rather we are there to facilitate the telling of great stories and the performance of amazing feats. In the pursuit of this I think it is important to remember that your villains and the challenges they present are the springboards off of which all of that happens.

One of the best overall criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the lackluster quality of their villains versus the overwhelmingly fantastic depiction of their heroes. Villains I think are often forgotten as the other half of a great story, they are the catalysts that drive our heroes on the journey to… anywhere, really. Whether it is a single BBEG, a shadow cabal of malevolent figures or just a roaming band of orc marauders the villains help shape the core identities of our heroes. When it comes to the MCU the best movies over the past ten years have undoubtedly been the ones with the best villains because they are the other half the necessary equation. Exposition is nice to tie the mechanics of a world together but conflict and tension is what drives our interest in continuing the story.

To pair it with an unnecessary analogy, any number multiplied by zero, is still zero thus any hero without a villain is not really a hero or more accurately is just an above average person. Naturally heroes are not defined only by felling demons, slaying dragons or massacring orcs but it is certainly one of their central pillars, and a damn bit of fun to boot.

So what does this have to do regarding the downsides of too much emotional investment in our villains? Well, I think that a certain level of investment is required to design and field villains who feel dynamic, important and become true obstacles for our parties to overcome in their travels. If our villains, especially minor ones, are only paper tigers for the party to shred like the occasional pinata then the victories themselves will wear thin. These moments are supposed to be meaningful, tense and whether or not they go the way you intended for them to is not the point, it’s that our investment equals investment by the player.

I believe the name of the real enemy here is: Attachment.

The time and emotion we invest in the design of our game from the world map, dungeons, towns, individual NPCs and villains directly correlates to the investment of our players. The key to all of this is that as DMs its hard to not become attached to things that we have placed that much effort into because their ultimate destiny is to fail and die in the face of our players. Many of us, including me, know from personal experience how hard it can be to see your players overcome a villain you put a lot of effort into characterizing and building up through a game. These moments can be more painful still if the fight ends up going much easier than you planned because you missed a small detail or the party just managed to see an angle you didn’t. In those moments it’s hard to remember that this was always the intended outcome albeit by a different path and that the exhilaration they feel is actually validation of a job well done by you.

Just remember to take a deep breath if you hear, “That was easier than we thought.” and know that sometimes our players don’t understand that words can hurt. But never forget that you can always remind of those words later on in the campaign.

Evil only thrives if good DMs do nothing.

Anyways, back on topic–

Something I was taught by my father many years ago I think would help additionally illustrate my point, while the concept wasn’t invented by him it was certainly helpful to hear.

You only get out what you put in.

This is the idea behind the need for our investment in every aspect of the games we run, in addition to being what we get out of our game our investment also equals what the players get out of it. While we may never see this elaborate battle mat, puzzle or enemy again after this one session the importance is that our investment in that single experience pays dividends for our players.

It is important for us to revel in their victories while understanding that it wasn’t at the expense of our investment but rather because of it. A lot of the ins and outs of DMing come from knowing yourself, your strengths and failings so you can design around them. For me even after all these years I still get attached to the NPCs I create and I really hate to see them go so it can be a struggle but I can’t say that I will ever stop investing the time to make them memorable because I see the value of it in my players reactions.

At the end of the day there are very few if any right or wrong ways to run your game except the one that works best for you. Hopefully this helped open up another possible avenue to take, until next time thank you for reading.

Happy rolling!

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