Tekumel!

Tsolyani

At last! I have decided to revive this blog, at least temporarily, to get myself writing again. Much has occurred since my most recent post, nearly a year ago. I have finished a grad program, and I nearly have my license to teach elementary school in Massachusetts. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in a few weeks. Indeed, many great changes are occurring!

But in the midst of all this, I finally have more time to devote to other things I love. Namely, writing, and immersing myself in other worlds. While I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for escapism (although I did wrap up a long-running D&D campaign). In recent months I’ve gotten back into Jack Vance, and now, the works of M.A.R. Barker, which will be the primary focus of this post.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, and known as “Phil” by friends and family) is the creator of the world of Tekumel. It is an exotic science-fantasy setting that the Professor has been developing for most of his life. He was a friend of the original designers of Dungeons and Dragons, including Dave Arneson, who was an occasional player in his games. The D&D crowd at TSR decided to publish Barker’s setting, along with an original RPG rule set, in the “Empire of the Petal Throne” box set in 1975. This original edition of the game was one of the earliest tabletop RPG’s ever published, and featured the first complete setting paired with rules.

TekumelBoxSet

(The original 1975 boxed set)

Barker was a fascinating guy. He passed away in 2012 unfortunately, but he left behind quite a legacy as a writer, linguist, gamer, and builder of worlds. Much like the revered J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a linguist, and created numerous constructed languages to go along with his setting. The most developed of these is Tsolyani, the language spoken within the default starting region for Tekumel games. Unlike Tolkien, Barker studied South Asian and Native American languages rather than European ones, and his setting is an interesting amalgamation of the cultures and histories of those places. Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne itself, feels like equal parts Indian, Aztec/Mayan, and Persian/Arabic. Rather than settle for a pseudo-European fantasy world, or a sword-and-sorcery pastiche, Tekumel features rich, ancient cultures steeped in history and hoary tradition.

Barker as a worldbuilder is also strongly influenced by the trends in fiction that came before him. He was an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from Jack Vance and corresponding with writers like Lin Carter. I tend to think of Tolkien as fitting into a category of “mythic fantasy,” given that his world and invented cultures are based on a tradition of mythological storytelling, with gods creating the world and so forth. Tekumel is based on the science fictional premise of a futuristic world populated by humans, and many other alien species, which is then cut off from the rest of the universe by a mysterious cataclysm. Related to that disaster are actual god-like beings, and actual magic which flows from another dimension. Tens of millennia after this event, humans and other species now live at a level of roughly bronze-age technology, with ancient sprawling empires, magic, gods, and a general sense of unchanging tradition and ritual.

I have been aware of Tekumel since my college days, although I don’t remember how I stumbled across it exactly. I used to actually trawl through lists of published RPG’s on Wikipedia, to get a more complete picture of the hobby, so that could be it. I remember thinking the world was interesting, but also somewhat inaccessible. The odd-sounding names and constructed languages seemed off-putting I guess. Also, there wasn’t a lot of easily available material out there, except for the recently published version of the game in 2005 by Guardians of Order, which I wasn’t willing to buy. More recently however, there has been a small Tekumel revival, coinciding with the “Old-School Renaissance” for D&D inspired games. First off, the Tekumel Foundation which manages Barker’s intellectual property has started publishing the old books on DrivethruRPG. A new RPG called Bethorm was also recently published, with an old-school feel meant to evoke the original game.

Choice of Games, which I have written of in earlier posts on this blog, also released a game set in Tekumel a few years ago. It was this that got me interested in Tekumel again more recently. The game didn’t get amazing reviews, but I thought it would be a good way to re-introduce myself into the setting. “Choice of the Petal Throne” does indeed have issues, namely some flat characters and a rushed ending, but got me excited about the world again as I had hoped.

From there, I purchased “Swords and Glory, Vol. 1” from Drivethru, which is considered to this day to be the Professor’s most comprehensive sourcebook on his fictional world. The book is fascinating and immersive, but also challenging in some ways. Written in the early days of the hobby, the text is dense, with very few illustrations, and an odd sense of organization. It covers dozens of cultures across a continent the size of Asia, and details everything from histories and religion, down to the minutiae of silverware etiquette. There are no maps, and until the new PDF’s were released, there was no index. It took me weeks to read through it in small bites, but I feel like it was worth it. Anyone looking to really dive into Tekumel should check out this book.

Swords and Glory

Another good way to get a feel for the setting is to read some of Professor Barker’s own fiction. He published five novels over the course of his life, which were set in Tekumel. I recently finished the first two, “The Man of Gold” in 1984, and “Flamesong” in 1985. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, and was pleasantly surprised at Barker’s ability to tell an intriguing, complex story, and create some sympathetic characters as well. Fair warning though, Barker’s style can be just as dense as his gaming material, and the frequent exposition drops can get a little ridiculous. He wrote the other three novels later in life, and they are apparently not as good as the first two. They are also out of print and difficult to find, but hopefully will be released in PDF by the Tekumel Foundation sometime soon. I plan to read them if I can find them, mainly for the descriptions of other parts of Tekumel.

Man of Gold

You would be hard-pressed to find a setting more deep and fully-realized than Tekumel. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a role-playing game (I got my copy of Bethorm a few weeks ago). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post, if I can actually get a group together!

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Our Steps, To the Night

TheBannerSaga2

I’ve been wanting to write another game review recently. The Banner Saga is one of my all-time favorites, both in story and in gameplay. The designers who created the first game, Stoic Studios, have at long last put out a sequel, the Banner Saga 2! I pre-ordered it, and then kind of did a marathon run the week that it came out. After waiting two years, it’s kind of hard to eat your dessert in small bites. Now I’m doing a second play-through with my fiancee (we play hot-seat), and my thoughts on the sequels pros and cons are coalescing a little better. My review is going to focus primarily on the story, but I’ll cover the gameplay a bit too.

First off, there are going to be some big *SPOILERS* for those who haven’t played the first entry in the series.

The first chapter of the Banner Saga ends with a climactic battle, and the tragic death of one of two central characters. That character then becomes the leader of the first game’s caravan in TBS2. This makes at least two playthroughs kind of mandatory, because your choice of protagonist makes for a very different experience each time. So, you have Rook’s story, and Alette’s. With old man Rook, the story is more about the grieving process, and trying to find other reasons to go on with your journey. You get to deepen your relationship with other characters like Iver and Oddleif, and continue to be a leader (and renowned hero) in the eyes of your caravan. *MORE SPOILERS* My favorite moments of Rook’s story (in highlight-able text): the dream conversation in the forest, saying goodbye to Iver in Fiskivik, the Godstone Lauga (finally!!!).

So if Rook’s story is about being a hero trying to find his way after losing the reason to fight, Alette’s is about becoming that hero, and filling in her father’s shoes. A lot of the characters who are present for Rook function as either emotional support, or backstabbing enemies who can’t be trusted. These characters maintain that role for Alette, but also play the part of guides and teachers. It’s up to you, as Alette, to choose who you’ll listen to and allow to influence your journey. I still haven’t finished Alette’s story, but if the young heroes’ tale is more your kind of thing, then I would recommend choosing her as your first main character.

bolverk

The third protagonist (although in any game he would be the second) is an interesting new character who was introduced at the very end of the last game, Bolverk. This broken-horned Varl berserker is the leader of the Ravens, an amoral, hard-bitten pack of mercenaries who serve the highest bidder. The Ravens represent their own caravan separate from the main one, that split to follow a different route early in the game. Bolverk’s chapters feel very different, since you’re a cutthroat mercenary and you have to keep your warriors in line. Your choices tend to be much more morally gray, and sometimes downright despicable. But there are things that Bolverk cares about, and as I came to understand those things, I felt more of a connection with him and his Ravens. He values keeping his promises, maintaining the reputation of his band, and he cares about his men (although he would never reveal that to them).

folka

Most compelling of all for me was the complicated relationship with his second-in-command, Folka. She is an all-around great character for so many reasons. First, she’s a shieldmaiden, and that’s badass. Second, she provides the moral and human element to Bolverk’s story, which would otherwise be kind of bleak and hard to empathize with. She’s the one who questions your orders and decisions, she’s the one who keeps asking you about your feelings (faen humans), and when things start to change for Bolverk later in the game, she’s the one who worries about you when no-one else does. And in spite of all that tenderness and vulnerability, she’s still an incredibly competent warrior and leader, who never flinches or hesitates when things are tough. It’s beautiful to me because Bolverk is kind of a monster in some ways (and for the record, he is not actually human), yet she clearly cares about him. She sees the person inside the beast that he usually presents to the world, and recognizes his pain and loneliness. She herself is no stranger to those things, so he’s kind of like her perfect soulmate. Except that he’s from an all-male race of brooding giants who don’t understand relationships and can’t reproduce, so… there’s that.

This is clearly a story where the greatest strength is in the characters, but I loved the twists and turns of the ongoing plot, which concerns the end of the world, the dangers of magic, and a really big snake. We get to see new parts of the setting that were referenced in the previous game, and meet some new characters, the Horseborn (centaurs!). I loved most of the story, and I found most of it really compelling, but there were some holes here and there. I will list them briefly *MORE SPOILERS* –

  • While I loved the Horseborn, I wish I could have learned more about what was actually going on with them. The Horseborn in your caravan only barely speak your language, so you don’t learn that much about them. You get the sense that their race is very fractious and war-like, and they’re probably dealing with the same upheavals in the world that everyone else is, but you really have to read into things to get that part of the plot. Also, their role in the ending was kind of confusing.
  • The ending itself is definitely going to be tough for some people to swallow. I personally thought it was cool, but they introduce a lot of ideas and developments rather suddenly, and you’re left with some big questions. People you thought were friends turn out to be enemies (I think?) or at least a source for complications. The ending probably would have felt a little less arbitrary if they had spent more time exploring the characters of Juno and Eyvind, who (of course) play a really important part in everything.
  • Also on the subject of the ending, there isn’t really a proper final boss fight, like there was in TBS1 against Bellower. This might feel like a let-down for some players. My guess is they felt like Bellower’s legendary difficulty was too much, and didn’t want to go through all the fan rage with another really tough boss. Personally, I only found Bellower to be unfairly tough on Hard mode, but maybe I was just lucky.

Golly, I’ve spent this entire post talking about story (hopefully that tells you something). I found the gameplay to be excellent, but not that different from the first. It’s overall easier, because they’ve tweaked the “Renown” economy from the first game. While there are fewer fights (and no longer an option to go into a second round), you get WAY more renown for each one, and I never felt like I had a shortage like I usually did in the last game. You have more choices in leveling your characters (the cap has gone up to 10), and can now choose a second ability from several options, depending on their class. The caravan mechanics are also a bit different, and generally a lot easier. Clansmen are no longer useless food vacuums, as they will forage periodically to add to your supplies. You can also train them to fight as warriors, independent of story events. The “War” events are gone, so I wasn’t even entirely sure what the point of warriors and varl was, other than to protect the clansmen in story events. But those don’t happen often enough for it to be possible to lose the entire caravan, so IDK (shrug). I didn’t fall in love with the first game for its quasi-Oregon Trail gameplay, so I don’t care that much if it doesn’t gel perfectly. 

There’s a bunch of new characters, and thus new classes, and they all try to do something interesting and unique. I liked them all for the most part, but there’s a few disclaimers here. First off, many of the characters in Bolverk’s story are awesome, but they’re kind of hard to use effectively. Bolverk himself is great, but mainly because he hits twice. His abilities just don’t come in handy very often, and there’s also a chance that he’ll attack allies too (he is a berserk after all). Many of the new characters are like this, good in terms of stats, but hard to use the way they’re intended. The new “Skald” characters are really neat, but I hardly ever used them for this reason. My favorite newbies on the battlefield were the Horseborn, who make up for their lack of story flavor with being super-great fighters. In particular, the female javelin-throwers were amazing, and skyrocketed to level 10 before anyone else did. That’s all I really care to say about game-play, except for this; you can get a bear, his name is Spinegrinder, and I love him. He’s kind of a secret character, but I’ll give you all a hint for finding him. You’ll need Eirik from the first game, and when you reach the land of the angry bog-people, don’t worry about stomping all over their stupid traditions.

So overall, I found the Banner Saga 2 to be an excellent title, and a worthy successor to the original. An incredibly gripping story of war, community in exile, and the end-times, combined with a deep cast of characters, will leave you aching for the final installment of the epic trilogy. What’s two years to Banner Saga fans? We learn to endure, in longing and sorrow. Onward!

 

If Not Now, Then When? If Not You, Then Who?

Unknown Armies

THE TIME IS NOW. One of my favorite RPG’s, the occult horror classic Unknown Armies, is on Kickstarter, and there’s only 4 days left! I should probably mention that it’s hit 500% of it’s original funding goal, so y’know, it’s doing fine. But I want to geek out about it because it is such a good game, and I’m unspeakably happy that it’s getting more attention and love right now.

The Kickstarter is for the 3rd edition of the game. It was originally released in 1998, and now it’s experiencing a revival. The new edition will be released as 3 core books, with an additional two setting books released as stretch goals. I’m feeling slightly grumbly about the multiple books (cuz I’m poor), but also excited that fans will be getting so much material. The project is currently being helmed by Greg Stolze, an incredibly talented writer and game designer who was one of the two geniuses behind the original game. He has since gone on to create the One-Roll Engine, and several awesome story games.

This man is, in my opinion, the finest writer to ever work in tabletop games, period. He writes excellent fiction and fluff, but his real (and subtle) talent lies in writing text for the rules. Reading the rules for an RPG can sometimes be a slog. They’re often dry and abstract, but unfortunately they’re the most important part to study if you’re the GM. Stolze writes rules in a clear, conversational style that is always easy to grok, and often as much fun as learning about the world. Reading a rule book by Greg Stolze actually makes me excited.

So, one may ask, what makes this particular game so special? What is it even about!? The setting is the modern era, mainly in the USA. It focuses on a loose, disorganized “Occult Underground,” made up of weirdos and outcasts who compete for power and influence. Some of the Underground is represented by cabals of mystically aware people, or sometimes by crazy loners known as “Dukes.” In a typical game, you have a group of people who are exploring their own personal paths to power (and usually, corruption and insanity), and also coming into conflict with others who want the same thing.

It’s special because of it’s themes and influences, and it also features well-designed rules combined with a fun and unique system for magick (note the “k”).

  • While most urban fantasy or occult horror settings feature traditional vampires, werewolves, and hermetic-style mages, UA draws influence from different genres. David Lynch, James Ellroy, and Tim Powers have all been sited as influences. While Grant Morrison or Robert Anton Wilson have not been specifically mentioned by the authors, those writers also do a good job of evoking the weirdness of the setting.
  • A central theme is human responsibility. There are no ancient alien gods, no shadowy monster societies that secretly rule the world. It’s all just humans. We are the monsters, we are the ones responsible for the world we live in, and we’re the only ones who can change it. I like the freedom and power this gives to players in the narrative, and the way it affects world-building.
  • The game runs on a pared-down percentile dice system. Think Call of Cthulhu, but much easier to learn and play with.
  • Magick comes in several different forms, but it follows a “postmodern” theme (syncretic, self-conscious, rebellious, deliberately different). My favorite are the “adepts,” who are so obsessed with a particular worldview that they can change reality. Every adept has a school, like Entropomancy (chaos magick), or Dipsomancy (alcohol magick), a set of ritual behaviors that help them gather power (for the above examples, taking crazy risks and getting drunk), and taboos that they must avoid to hold on to their power. These are built around the idea of risk and consequence. On the quest for power, you are going to take risks, and most likely lose a part of yourself along the way.
  • There are lots of other things that make the game unique and well-recommended, including a very influential system for representing and roleplaying stress and mental illness, brutal and realistic combat, and fast-and-loose character creation.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you’re interested in the Kickstarter, jump on board while you can. Better late than never after all!

(He said, writing this post at the absolute last second).

 

Conan, What is Best in Life?

Positive image from a scan of a Powerhouse Museum, Philipps Collection, glass plate negative
2008/165/1-192

Good news everyone! My days of toil and suffering have paid off handsomely, and my first written work as a freelancer has been published! WOOHOO! It is available currently on DrivethruRPG. Now that it’s released, I can talk a little bit about what I was actually working on. Months ago, I responded to an open call for writers that I found while trolling the forums of RPGNet. Soon after I signed a contract to adapt a short story by Menagerie Press’s artistic director, and thus, the Masks of Tzanti was created.

It’s supposed to be a full-on sword-and-sorcery adventure, complete with cultists, murderous barbarians, and skeezy rogues. I haven’t actually read much Robert E. Howard, but I like lots of other writers that are considered imitators, or part of the same family (Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock). It took me about two months of solid writing to complete, although I took occasional breaks from writing due to my intense work schedule. Here is the cover art, by the very talented Steven Catizone (who does all of Menagerie’s illustrations) –

Masks of Tzanti Cover

(This cover would make Frank Frazetta run off for a cold shower)

It’s a happy day indeed, and I hope friends, family, and the very few followers I have will spread the word (among RPG players at least). I will likely be working with Menagerie Press again in the future, as they are a young company looking to expand their list of products. I am also writing a conversion to 5th edition D&D for this adventure, so you can look for that in the next few months or so.

(Here are a few notes on RPG’s and D&D for the uninitiated. I wrote the story for the Pathfinder RPG. This is continuation of the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, published in 2000. When the 4th edition of the rules was released in 2007, it split the gaming community, and a lot of people rallied behind the company Paizo Publishing, who continued to release products for the game that used a modified version of the old rules (this was called the Pathfinder RPG). The company that owns D&D, Wizards of the Coast, recently published the 5th edition of the rules, in the hopes that they would unite the community again. I prefer Pathfinder to 4th edition, but I prefer 5th ed to Pathfinder. The rules are fun, and a lot more streamlined and easy. Wizards recently opened an online marketplace for PDF products called Dungeon Master’s Guild, and it’s really taking off. People can now write and sell their own 5th ed material under an open-gaming license. It was my idea to write “Masks” in 5th edition rules, since I think it’s just the right time. I may continue to do so if I write more stuff for Menagerie Press.)

So, what’s next for me you might ask? Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts on the blog, you know that I’m a big fan of interactive fiction games. One of the companies that remains consistently popular with that genre is Choice of Games, and I’m thinking that I should try my hand at penning some IF. I’ve dabbled in it before, and I got a good ways into a storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire. But this would be a bigger project, roughly the length of a short novel. To prepare, I’ve been devouring Choicescript games by the bundle, including Choice of Robots and Hollywood Visionary, both excellent stories in their own right. I don’t want to share too many of my ideas just yet, as I have a tendency to spew out thoughts and then not use them, or get bored with them. Once I get a bit more done, I’ll drop some details.

In the snippets of free time I’ve had (and March has provided more than usual) I’ve been enjoying some media that I wanted to gush about briefly. First is an excellent fantasy novel that needs to get more attention –

Baru Cormorant

This is the first novel by Seth Dickinson, and it brought me low with it’s sheer awesomeness. It’s about a girl from an isolated island community, living in a fairly traditional way. Then they get colonized by a powerful empire that controls the world through cunning, ruthless diplomacy and economic superiority (aptly named the Masquerade). She grows up in their schools, learns their twisted philosophy, and becomes a bureaucratic prodigy. She is then sent to the rebellious province of Aurdwynn to bring it under heel as the Imperial Accountant. Most of the story takes place there, and concerns the unraveling of conspiracies among the nobility of a strange and foreign people. The main character Baru Cormorant of course has many divided loyalties, and she has to lie to nearly everyone she encounters (especially herself). You wouldn’t think that a story about an accountant could be so totally riveting, but I couldn’t put this book down. I blasted through it, and I’m normally a pretty slow reader. It had excellent pacing, interesting mysteries and intrigue, and incredibly well-drawn characters. I really felt for Baru, and when she got hurt (and she gets hurt a lot), I cringed as I compulsively turned each page. Read this book if you find any of the following interesting –

  • It’s a “hard fantasy,” without magic or fantastical beings. The focus is on politics,  intrigue, and economics (!?) yet it still features a fascinating world with well-designed fictional cultures and people.
  • It deals with important issues that are usually shied away from in fantasy: colonialism, racism, feminism, queerness, crappy economic practices.
  • It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an entertaining story, but it’s also brutal. The main character is a closeted lesbian working as a double (or triple?) agent for an evil empire that would imprison or torture her under any number of circumstances. She has a lot to lose, and you’ll worry for her.
  • Wonderfully realized, flawed characters. The story has a pretty big cast, and I feel like I’ll always remember each person clearly for who they are. There’s no glossary, and you won’t really need one.
  • If you like  – Ursula Le Guin (especially Left Hand of Darkness), Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, or Frank Herbert, you will go for this in a big way.

Seth Dickinson has a blog, and he wrote some really cool stuff about his design process for the book. It’s clear that he’s an intelligent guy who puts a lot of thought into his work. This post in particular is great, although it may spoil some things about the story. I also feel the need to mention that even though I compared Dickinson to G.R.R. Martin, there is one important difference. Seth doesn’t go for blood, guts, and sexual violence. I found this a relief honestly, as I’m no great fan of gruesome depictions of the latter myself. He explains it a bit more in that post, and my feelings on the subject are basically the same. It’s important, it needs to be acknowledged, but in fiction (especially fantasy) there’s no need to be gratuitous about it.

Anyway, check it out! And check out the thing I wrote! Until the next time when I have time and enough coffee!

Featured image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions

The Breath of December

Iceface

I thought I’d post a few more game reviews before the end of the Winter sales. After that I need to buckle down and get working on some of these freelance projects! Since I work at a public elementary school, I have a whole week of vacation going on. That means plenty of time to write, since we didn’t plan on going anywhere (my fiancee has to work). The weather has taken a turn for the bleak and horrifying, as a thin layer of wet ice coats all and everything. We had snow yesterday, and it seems, in spite of 60 degree weather around the holidays, Winter is here at last.

Thankfully Haymarket Coffee and Juice Bar is a short walk from my very cold apartment, and now that I have a cozy working atmosphere, and a nuclear-strength cup of coffee, I feel better-equipped to laugh in the face of the season.

So here are the promised reviews. I’ve already posted some in-depth coverage of the grand strategy titles from Paradox Interactive. Deep games deserve deeper reviews. These are some other titles that I fell in love with in 2014 and 2015, and I would be pleased if they received some more attention. Here we go –

BannerSaga

This was my favorite game of 2014, and if you haven’t tried it yet, I would heartily recommend it. It’s an absolutely beautiful game, with hand-drawn graphics and gameplay that could be described as a mix of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy Tactics. It also features a mind-blowing soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, the genius behind the music in Journey. Here are some bullet points for you –

  • The game features an epic story about love, loss, war, community-in-exile, all taking place in a Norse mythology-inspired world. Think of big, apocalyptic narratives like Battlestar Galactica, Watership Down, the Odyssey, or the Book of Exodus.
  • The battles are very challenging, but tied together with simple, addictive mechanics. Unlike FF Tactics you don’t have a million classes and special abilities to parse through. Each character has one or two very useful, simple abilities.
  • You also are responsible for keeping a caravan of innocent villagers alive as you travel across the known world, balancing the needs of your warriors with those of your friends and neighbors.

It’s an intense, emotional experience playing this game. It’s not perfect of course, the combat system can feel non-intuitive, and there aren’t many serious consequences for letting your caravan die (unless you count sobbing uncontrollably). But it’s something special, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s only $5 on Steam this week! There’s also a sequel coming out in February, so there’s never been a better time.

SunlessSea

I’ve mentioned this one a couple of times already on the blog. Let’s assume that you don’t already know that I’m obsessed with the browser game that this is based on. Sunless Sea takes place in the same fictional world, and it’s probably a better experience all around, just because you aren’t limited by turn actions. You play the captain of a steamship, given free reign to explore a massive, underground ocean. You will discover strange locales, interact with even stranger people and… things with tentacles.

  • It’s very difficult at first, but very rewarding, as you get the hang of surviving voyages and pursuing profit.
  • The writing is unparalleled. Seriously, the strangeness and mood of this world will infect you after you’ve played for a little while.
  • It’s highly replayable. There are some storylines that you simply can’t pursue until you have crafted a lineage of captains, with inherited money and resources. I’ve gone through about 8 of these captains.

I really can’t think of anything wrong with this game, but one possible turn-off for people is the pacing. Your ship moves very slowly, and the designers did this intentionally so you’ll feel lonely and contemplative whilst you are exploring the Unterzee. I like it that way myself, and if you don’t, I think there’s a speed mod in the works.

LISA

Now for something very, very weird. Did you ever play Earthbound, back in the day? Do you remember its many quirks: the pop culture references, the weird characters, the New Age Retro Hippies? Most of all, do you remember its strong emotional impact? What if there was a game that had all of that, plus a really intense story that dealt with mature subject matter, and a classic post-apocalypse setting? That’s sort of what you get with LISA, the Painful RPG. It’s the masterpiece creation of one man, crafted on the now-ancient RPGMaker 2000 engine.

  • The story is brutal, and heart-breaking. One of the taglines describes the game as “the miserable journey of a broken man.” That’s pretty accurate, but the game is also hilarious. The jokes and the dialogue had me laughing out loud at times. When I was supposed to smile. I did, and when I was supposed to feel things, they were felt, hard.
  • The gameplay is real old-school, a lot like Earthbound’s turn-based combat. It’s just as hard, but just as fun too. You also have fresh new innovations like button-dial combos, and several different “magic” type abilities.
  • LISA is loaded with secrets and Easter eggs, and you’ll be addicted trying to find them all. Most notably there are something like 30+ characters for you to recruit and build a team from. Trying different combinations of characters is part of the joy.

There’s now an “epilogue” DLC called LISA the Joyful. I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the story by telling you about it, but it’s a great ending to the series. It’s more serious in tone than the base game, but if you liked that, you’ll definitely want to try the Joyful.

Pillars

A lot of these games I’ve posted about are kind of weird, and “niche.” But this one has gotten a lot of positive buzz. I just wanted to chime in and say it really is worth checking out. It was created by Obsidian Entertainment, and it’s one of the big Kickstarter success stories. It’s meant to evoke the feeling of classic old RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or my personal favorite, Planescape: Torment. BE AWARE that I haven’t actually finished playing it yet, but I’ve immersed myself enough to get a good feel for it.

  • The story and characters are well-written and interesting. It’s not really the cliched “save the world” type of adventure. You’re mostly just trying to learn about this curse your character is afflicted with.
  • The gameplay takes the best from old and new. Most of the classes and RPG tropes are quite familiar, but the designers do really interesting things with them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about Bards before!
  • It’s difficult, in a fun, strategic kind of way. It reminds me of my Baldur’s Gate II days, when I would die in almost every fight. How else are you supposed to learn your enemy?

Pillars of Eternity is part of a family of old school renaissance games like Wasteland 2, and the much anticipated Torment: Tides of Numenera. These are equally worth your time and attention.

That is all! I’ve been reviewing a lot of games lately, and when I return from the writer’s fugue that is surely approaching, I hope I’ll be able to share more about my freelance work. Until then…

Header image from State Library of New South Wales

 

 

Screwing with History for Fun and Profit

Ironclads

Here’s the next part of my Xmas game reviews. Last time I covered the marvelous complexities of Crusader Kings II, and now on to the sequel, Europa Universalis IV. I’ll also cover Victoria II, which is sort of the grand finale to a trilogy of awesome games (even though it’s the oldest of the three). Quickly though, I must address the question: why is this a good time to try these games out? They’ve been available for years after all, so what’s the deal?

First of all, they’re wicked cheap right now, duh. But also, many of Paradox’s titles are continuous works in progress. With each new DLC comes free patches and changes to the basic mechanics. They are always tinkering with their product, always rebuilding. And they listen to their customers (usually) and respond to what they like and don’t like. A Paradox game is a living, breathing experiment in game design where something interesting is always happening.

ALSO, if you’re not sold on the base games, the modding community is HUGE for each entry in the series, and they have done some stellar work. I wish I had mentioned it for CK2, but there are some mods out there that are arguably better than the basic experience. I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones mod. That’s true for EUIV and Vicky 2 as well, speaking of which-

EUIV

This one came out in 2013, I tried it out in 2014. This is kind of like Paradox’s big name game, or at least it was before Crusader Kings created so much buzz. It focuses on the time period from 1444 to 1820, a time of empire-building, exploration, the shaping of the modern world, and so on. It’s a grand strategy game like CK2 (real-time with pausing, lots of menus, a map composed of provinces). Here are some of the big attractions (for me) when it comes to EUIV.

  • It’s the most accessible of the different Paradox games. It has a great tutorial, and it’s usually pretty forgiving as long as you don’t pick a tough starting nation (in this case, DON’T start with Ireland). Hardest thing to pick up on are the battles. My tips, don’t lag on technology, and numbers aren’t everything.
  • The mechanics are very deep, mostly easy to learn but hard to master. I would say EUIV has the most interesting and detailed system for diplomacy that’s out there.
  • In spite of the title, this is a well-researched historical setting where you can play almost any country in the world from that time period. Sure the Europeans make for a rich and interesting play-through, but have you ever wondered what might have happened if the Native North  Americans had banded together and drove back the European colonists (successfully that is)? You can play to find out.
  • You can convert games from Crusader Kings II, making for an epic 1000+ years of alternate history.
  • If you try some of the DLC’s, you can create your own custom maps and civilizations, although they still play out on our familiar planet Earth.

EUIV also has, at this point, quite a bit of downloadable content to choose from. Here’s what I think of each of them, using the three-star system I employed last time.

  • Conquest of Paradise (***) – Maybe it’s my American background, but this one just speaks to me. The added content and flavor for the Native Americans alone makes this one worth it. It also comes with expanded options for Colonial Nations (start your own Revolutionary War!) and a “New World Randomizer” which replaces the Americas with a collection of new continents and islands.
  • Wealth of Nations (**) – The expansion that focuses on trade. It’s pretty good, all around. The new features are fun, and are worth it if you’re planning on a mercantile sort of game. The basics of trading are already pretty fun though, in my opinion, and you aren’t missing that much if you skip this one.
  • Res Publica (**) – I kind of wavered with this one between one or two stars. It adds a lot of cool options if you’re playing the Dutch. There’s also a new government type and some national ideas, but that’s about it. If you’re into the Dutch, go for it, otherwise there ain’t much to it.
  • Art of War (**) – It is as it sounds, the war DLC. Honestly, all of the best features for this came with the free patch. The rest is all about stream-lining the process of building armies and giving you more diplomatic options to start shit with people. In terms of content, it expands the 30 Years War and the Napoleonic Wars to a greater degree, so that’s fun. But like with Wealth of Nations, warfare is already fun, and this expansion doesn’t improve on it that much.
  • El Dorado (***) – It’s kind of like Conquest of Paradise, but for Central and South America. It expands the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, and lets you do some fun things with them. It also comes with the Nation Designer, which alone makes it worth the purchase.
  • Common Sense and The Cossacks (?) – These are the more recent 2015 releases, and I haven’t tried ’em yet. They haven’t gotten great reviews unfortunately, although a lot of that seems to stem from a misunderstanding about new mechanics. Time will tell if they are worth your moolah.

Vicky2

Oh yeah! Look at Beefy Otto von Bismarck leading the way to victory! Victoria II is the timeline-sequel to EUIV, although it was released in 2010. It covers a span of history from 1842 (I think?) to 1939. You can play through the Industrial Revolution, and eventually get wrapped up in the World Wars. The graphics are a little more flat, but they also feel appropriate to the old-timey historical setting. Vicky 2 plays more like Europa Universalis, with a stronger emphasis on managing a complex economy (this is when Capitalism and Marxism both became a thing after all).

It’s a lot of fun, and you can pick up the basic game right now for $5. There are only two DLC’s, focusing on the American Civil War and the colonization of Africa. They both enhance the game is numerous ways, and I would recommend picking them up. Steam (and Humble Bundle, among others) will frequently release all of this content as a bundle, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Vicky 2 is, in some ways, the most complex of all the Paradox titles. But it’s also the most forgiving. It features an incredibly complicated system that simulates a world market, your country’s economy, and the political system that drives it all. But many of these systems are automated, so you can kind of let the game run itself, and then take over gradually as you learn more about how it all works. Even when you have (inevitably) pissed off your populace to such a degree that they rebel against you, it doesn’t result in much more than a changed form of government (socialism and communism, unfortunately, kinda suck). The warfare and diplomacy is a little more clunky compared to EUIV, understandably. But there are also some exciting possibilities that are specific to this time period, like the concept of Great Powers, spheres of influence, and global crises. And you get to build trains, SO MANY TRAINS!

So check it out, it’s not that much of a time commitment (although I would play the tutorial), and like the others, it makes for a rich playing experience. There is one other Paradox game in this “family” that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the Hearts of Iron series. This focuses on World War II, and it’s kind of all about… war. I tried the most recent one, Hearts of Iron III, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. There’s a new one coming out, and who knows? Maybe that one will be awesome. I will probably let you know if that’s the case.

Before the big winter sale closes up on Steam, I hope to post more mini-reviews of my favorite games of 2015, so my readers can have some recommendations for 2016. Until then.

Deus Vult!

Dunluce

Guess what? There’s a big sale on Steam right now. For those of you who are not familiar, Steam is an online marketplace for DRM-free games, and it has some unbelievable sales right around this time of the year. So I feel compelled to do some more mini-reviews of PC games, to better guide friends and canny bargain-hunters this holiday season. In particular, I’ll be focusing on two of my all-time favorite strategy games, Crusader Kings II, and Europa Universalis IV. These games are some of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive, a Swedish group of developers and publishers who are devoted to making deep, complex, interesting games, the kind that you can devote hours and hours to playing. But I realized something as I looked over the Steam page for both of them: there’s so much downloadable content, that even on sale at 75% off, they’re a bit pricey. So not only will I be addressing the worth of the base games, but I’ll touch on each DLC, and let you know which ones really enhance the experience.

Crusader Kings 2

CK2

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game set in the Early to Late Middle Ages (the base game covers 1066 to 1453). Unlike most strategy games, you play the head of a dynasty with medieval holdings, anywhere from a small county to a huge empire. You play out your initial characters remaining lifespan, and then move on to their descendants. I picked up CK2 a few years ago around this time, because I was intrigued by the mix of strategy and role-playing elements. My first attempts at learning the game were… frustrating. It seemed really slow and the mechanics were totally obtuse. But I stuck with it, and once I adapted to the pacing and learned the rules, I was completely addicted. Here are some general tips for those who are thinking of trying this game out –

  • Accept the pacing– Sometimes you have to wait for things to play out: your kids won’t come of age until their 16th birthdays, that peace treaty won’t expire for another 5 years, my character just won’t die, etc. Play the game on the fastest setting, and familiarize yourself with the different characters and countries who live around you, and it’ll feel a lot faster.
  • Start with Ireland – That little island where my ancestors came from is a good place for beginners. It’s isolated, safe, and sort of its own little microcosm with almost every county being ruled independently. If you only have one county to start with, the game might feel even more slow, but just save up your resources for mercenaries, and things will start happening quickly. Good goals for an Irish game are to create the a-historical Kingdom of Ireland, and maybe even dominate the British Isles.
  • Accept and Enjoy Failures – This game has a tendency to generate wonderfully random and ridiculous stories, and a lot of these rise out of failure. I don’t mean the kind of failure where you lose a battle, and thus your entire kingdom (I find that kind of failure stressful). More the failure to grasp the subtler points of mechanics. My first game took place in Ireland. By the end I had really screwed Ireland up, and I didn’t really understand how or why, but it was awesome. My ruling dynasty was Norwegian-East African, half the island had converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and as a result I had a dozen factions forming that were divided on ethnic and religious lines. I also inherited about half of Spain at one point, don’t remember why, but I gave it up to my vassals.

So it’s a crazy game, and if you give it a chance, you’ll love it like no other. Now I’ll go over the DLC, because unless you have cash to burn, you don’t really need all of it. I’ll give each expansion a rating based on one-to-three stars. One (*)means skip it, two (**) means buy it if you don’t mind spending the money, and three (***) means it’s necessary for full enjoyment of the game.

  • Sword of Islam (**) – This is the Muslim expansion for the game. It opens up more than half the map for choosing characters, and it adds a ton of options for playing Muslims. It’s a good expansion, but it doesn’t really affect the game outside of the Muslim sphere, so if you’re not interested in playing those characters, skip it.
  • Legacy of Rome (***) – The Byzantine Empire expansion. This one wins three stars because of all the great features that enhance the base game. Retinues are a standing army that you can build up over the course of the game, very useful. The Faction System makes for more intrigue and plotting, always fun for everyone. Also, the Byzantine features are pretty sweet.
  • The Republic (*) – Play or create merchant republics, a la Venice or Pisa. This one just isn’t that great, the mechanics for a republic are not as much fun, and there isn’t really anything added outside of the republican play-through.
  • Sunset Invasion (*) – Adds a big event in which the east coast of Europe gets invaded by the Aztecs. I would skip this one, it’s pretty lame, and it makes playing Ireland a lot more frustrating (guess where the Aztecs land first).
  • The Old Gods (***) – A huge expansion that extends the timeline back to 867 AD, adding nearly another 200 years to a play-through. This is the best DLC, hands-down, and the reason that a lot of my friends have gotten hooked on the game. It’s the vikings, they’re too much fun. You can raid, get wrapped up in tribal feuds, and sacrifice enemies to Odin (including the Pope, if you’re lucky). It also opens up other pagan groups for play, and the remnants of the Zoroastrian faith hiding out in Central Asia. Don’t miss this one.
  • Sons of Abraham (**) – Adds a bunch of options for the Abrahamic religions, and introduces Jewish characters to the game. I really liked this one for the opportunity to play the Jewish Khazars, and the chance to create a medieval Kingdom of Israel (this was my favorite play-through). Still, it’s not essential by any means.
  • Rajas of India (**) – This one is kind of like Sword of Islam, but bigger. It opens up the Indian subcontinent, and allows you to play Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain dynasties. I didn’t find it to be mind-blowing, and is very India-focused.
  • Charlemagne (**) – Another giant DLC in the fashion of the Old Gods. It pushes the start date back roughly another 100 years to 769. It’s not quite as good as Old Gods, the time period is less interesting, and there aren’t as many new mechanics overall. An extra 100 years of gameplay might seem tempting, but trust me, the basic 400 years is plenty.
  • Way of Life (***) – This one gets 3 stars because it’s cheap, and fun. It adds some new lifestyle mechanics where you can have a “focus,” which means your character can pursue personal projects, seduce people, fight duels, and so on. It makes the slower parts of the game less slow, so that can only be a good thing.
  • The Horse Lords – I haven’t tried it yet! This one is about steppe nomads (the mongols for example). It adds a lot of new mechanics, expands the map, and you can try to control the Silk Road! It’s gotten great reviews, but it’s also not on sale, due to its recent release date.

Okay! I guess EUIV will have to wait for another post. In summary for CK2, the only expansions you really need, if you’re buying any at all, are Legacy of Rome, the Old Gods, and Way of Life. The Horse Lords looks good, but I plan to wait until the Spring when it will likely be on sale.

Image by Carlos ZGZ, no known copyright restrictions