rpg

Strange Sunday – Animals!

“corgi rogue” by reiley

My love for furry, little critters knows no bounds. I grew up with dogs, owned a guinea pig and even a group of adorable rats. If it’s a mammal and has big eyes, odds are high that I want to hug it and hold it close. Not really manly, I know, but that’s just the way it is. I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who things animals are awesome, as their important role in fiction shows. Many authors and game designers go even so far to have four-legged mammals walk on two feet and have them act rather…well, human. Those strange people known as “furries” even go out of their way to make costumes to look like such a anthropomorphized version of a critter. Our love for animals and how we give them a place in our “art” seems strange to many, and that’s why I’m highlighting it in this week’s Strange Sunday, to discuss with you the stranger ways of using “anthros”

Heil Lassie
Alternate history is a popular sub-genre of fantasy, and it’s actually a genre where humanised animals haven’t been spotted all that often. A shame, if you ask me, because replacing humans with furry counterparts is a way of teaching people about history in an interesting way. As a kid, I rarely watched Alfred J. Kwak, a children’s cartoon that I absolutely didn’t care for back then. Years later, when I was in high school, I stumbled upon a few episodes and checked them out. And what do you know: there’s a crow in that show who turns out to be the feathered version of Adolf Hitler. It’s an interesting approach to show children such a villlain, and most adults will recognise him immediately.

Why not take this a step further? How about a Victorian era setting, in which the British Empire is run by two-legged collies, who struggle with the rebellions of the Persian cats? Or a game about a planet of highly advanced monkeys who...oh wait. Anyway, combining alternative paths of history with furry protagonists might turn out rather interesting.

My furry friend
Animals don’t have to be the main characters, of course, and their intelligent versions could just co-exist with humans. This is something that is explored in Exalted, where tribes of intelligent animals live besides or wage war with their two-legged neighbours. It’s also a core theme of the Ghibli highlight Mononoke Hime, where gigantic wolves and boars fight for the survival of their forest, while humans encroach on it.

Imagine a game where animals work together or against humans, and you’ll imagine a game with additional possibilities. Themes of racism and cross-species friendship become interesting plot hooks, and trying to place the intelligent animals in the setting becomes a writing challenge of its own. See if you can find out where a tribe of telepathic and magical mantis-people fit in…

That’s it for this weeks Strange Sunday. Now, if you excuse me, I have to look up that write-up to play a Corgi in a D&D campaign…

Story matters

As I ventured forth into the continent of Pandaria, curious to see what this new land had to hold for my warrior, I noticed that Blizzard decided to change the way quest achievements were tracked. Instead of rewarding you with some e-peen points after finishing a certain number of quests in a zone, you work off a list of quest “storylines”, and are notified as soon as you finish one. Once you have rounded up every storyline in the zone, you get a nice achievement, showing everyone that you helped all those in need in a part of Pandaria. It’s a nice change from the old way, but next to giving you an easier way to tracking your quest process, it also shows how even the behemoth company of Blizzard has laid their focus on storytelling in their flagship title.

Of course, this way of tracking quest achievements is just a minor part of their new focus on the story of Pandaria. The use of many cutscenes and spoken dialogue helps to immerse the player into the setting, making him a part of the story. I’m a big fan of this focus on the plot that many contemporary MMORPG’s show. Considering the roots of role-playing games, story is a big part of the role-playing experience, but for years, it was taking the backseat in most online titles.

A cynic might claim that this is nothing but a simple reaction to the demands of the market. While struggling with many other issues, the storylines of Star Wars: The Old Republic are considered the best in any MMORPG, and Guild Wars 2 also puts the personal story of your character into the center of the game. My favourite The Secret World almost drowns the player in symbolic and enigmatic storytelling, and looking at the positive reactions all these games get for their attempts at being more than just a grindfest, it seems like the people simply demand a good story.

I mean, who can blame them? Years of simply hacking away at monsters with but a notion of lore and motivation have dulled us, and we want to know why our digital alter egos venture forth to be heroes. We want to the stories we know from offline games online, to share them with our friends. We want to form our own band of daring knights and sorcerers, and fight against evil out of a strong, personal motivation. In the end, we want to know why we had to kill those ten rats, and how that helped achieving our character’s goals. This focus on story and the narrative aspects gives us the means to do just that, and I hope that it will be a part of MMORPG’s that will receive lots of love in the future.

My top 3 favourite portrayals of martial arts in fiction

“Martial Arts in the Sunset” by MINORITYmaN

Ah, martial arts. These two words alone conjure a myriad of images. From the old, wise sensei teaching his students secret techniques, to the tough practitioners who turn their bodies into lethal weapons through rigorous training: everyone has his own image of the martial traditions in his mind. Martial arts are a by now a staple of fantasy fiction, and have been portrayed in different ways in the media. I grew up with mutant turtles trained in ninjitsu, and cartoons these days teach kids that martial arts give you the power to bend the four classic elements.

Of course, most of these portrayals have almost nothing to do with the real deal. The martial arts of our world, while often steeped in tradition, are anything but supernatural. Yes, to master them, one most devote much time to them, but seldom do they involve spiritual journeys and fighting demons from beyond. Two years ago, I started to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and so far, it hasn’t given me any superpowers (unless you consider a healthy lifestyle one). However, I’m a sucker for supernatural martial arts, and in this post, I want to share my top 3 portrayals of martial arts in fiction with you. So don your gi, sit down in the lotus position, and read this countdown patiently, grasshopper!

Number 3: Jade Empire
BioWare has this special touch when it comes to making great RPG’s. While recent titles received quite some critique, the older games are true pieces of art. One of these is Jade Empire, an epic RPG set in a medieval Chinese setting, where the fist and wicked sorcery rule the land. Characters in this game learn supernatural martial arts, to fight against the evil that threatens the land.

While the premise is identical to the hundred of Chinese action movies you can find in the discount bin of your favourite DVD shop, what made this game stand out was its fluent and impressive combat system. Shifting from one style to another was fluent and easy, giving combat a really dynamic twist. Additionally, the styles your character could acquire were really distinctive and creative. Each style had their own cool animations, and all of them really fitted into the setting. It was delightful to simply see your character pulling off those moves, and I will forever remember it as the single RPG that made martial arts look rad!

Number 2: Tekken 3
Back when I was a little Chindividual, Tekken 3 was one of my favourite PS1 games. While I never mastered the depth of it, it was good enough to vent your aggressions and to beat up your big brother in some way. Each character had his own distinct style, and they all played different. From the half-demonic Jin to the kung-fu cop Law, Tekken 3 even offered you a chance to play a fighting wooden puppet. Most of the martial arts portrayed in this game was actually pretty down-to-earth, except for some subtle lightning animations and special glows. Though I’m not a big fan of fighting games, Tekken 3 still knows how to knock me out with its fighting swagger!

Number 1: Avatar
No, I’m not talking about that boring movie. I’m talking about the cartoons The Last Airbender (please forget the horrible movie adaptation) and Legend of Korra. In both cartoons, martial arts are ways to bend the natural elements of fire, water, air and earth. People who have a knack for it can learn one of these styles, and are then able to manipulate their chosen element through sweet-looking moves.

While many people wouldn’t call the bending of the shows actual martial arts, their movements are clearly inspired by styles from our world. It makes me happy to see a bunch of creative people turning these into a something so spectacular. While the fists of the characters seldom meet, they use their martial arts to force their will upon the world around them, directing it as if their bodies were divine instruments. It’s epic, cool and simply entertaining to see, and that’s why it’s my number one on this list.

So there you have it, my three favourite portrayals of martial arts in fiction. Do you think I missed any? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Our thing for evil

“The Joker” by jossielara

Humans are bizarre creatures. Through the ages, we have established a set of rules regarding “good” and “bad”. No matter how abstractthose ideas are, we have done our best to come to an agreement of what is okay, and what just doesn’t fly. Love is great, but loving someone so much that you follow them everywhere they go is considered rather creepy. Being ambitious is also something our society considers good, but once you go over corpses it’s a completely different story. We do our best to enforce these ideas on every member of our society, and yet the people from fiction who defy these ideas are the ones that fascinate us the most.

Take exhibit A, Heath Ledger’s potrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises. Actually, just take any portrayal of the Joker. One of Batman’s most famous enemies is everything we as a society despise: he is chaos incarnate, and a sociopath to boot. He blows up hospitals just because he wants to lure out a single caped crusader, and burns mountains of money just to “send a message”. He even treats his greatest fan like shit, caring nothing for her emotions. The Joker does steps and spits on our moral and ethic codes, and then sets them on fire. And still, we deem him to be one of the greatest fictional characters ever.

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From simple to complicated – the evolution of ideas

“Evolution” by Ikurx

Ah, how I love Pokémon. My generation had the honour of growing up with the very first generation of these little critters, and just like all the other kids on the block, I loved to play every game that involved these monsters. I collected the trading cards, and I fielded a nice team of battle-hungry Pokémon on my Gameboy. The video game was just so addictive. From the moment you received your first Pokémon (Bulbasaur for the win), to the satisfying moment where you defeat the Elite Four, Pokémon offered tense and tactical battles with monsters ranging from cute to threatening. Every time I give a new Pokémon title a try, I’m overwhelmed by this sense of nostalgia and unfortunately have to discover that none of the new games satisfy my lust for the collection of pocket monsters.

However, what these new games also show is how a rather simple game can turn into something really complicated over different iterations. Pokemon Red and Blue (I will not mention Yellow here. Only the lazy, snobby kids who wanted all the cool Pokémon in their time played Yellow, and I was far too awesome to start a game with a lame Pikachu in my team) were, essentially, nothing but a glorified rock-paper-scissors simulator: certain types were efficient against other types, so the trick was to have a well-balanced team that was able to hold its own against different kind of Pokémon. However, the franchise was and is still milked for every penny it’s worth, and so generation after generation of new games appear. Fortunately, they are no carbon copies of the originals. In fact, they take the basic concepts of Red and Blue, and keep adding additional layers to the game. These days, trainers have to be aware of so many things next to their Pokémon’s type, and when I hear players talk about their team set-ups, I feel like I’m listening to football coaches and talent scouts talking about something I once knew so well, but that has become something so deep that I can no longer follow them.

Despite the fact this added complexity has caused me to fall behind, I understand that this is the ideal evolution (see what I did there) of a game: starting out simple to get players used to the ideas and concepts, and slowly change into something that still holds on to these core ideas, but that is also refreshing. It’s an organic and really natural growth, that in most cases gives the franchise a fresh breath of life with every new iteration. Pokémon is by far not the only game who has done that. Recent sci-fi RPG series Mass Effect might have kept the same awesome and thrilling storytelling through all three titles, but the actual game that was behind the cinematic drama changed significantly throughout the three parts. Each new Zelda title sticks to a well-known set of characters, but also tries to re-imagine the world of Hyrule every time. It’s progress at its finest, and in my opinion the best way to introduce innovation into the market.

The problem with many great ideas is that you have to get them into other people’s minds. This entirely new game idea might sound really great in your own head, but that’s no guarantee that your target audience will understand it. Instead of throwing everything at them at once, risking the chance that the complexity and “newness” of it will scare your audience, introduce them to it step by step. Start simple, but get them hooked. Take the best part of your concept, and put it in a nice package. It’s like writing a text, where your opening sentence has to catch the attention of the reader, or else they won’t bother reading your stuff. See how I lured you in with some talk about Pokémon, and how you’re now reading something about organic introduction of new game concepts? I got you hooked, and step by step, I’m introducing you to my ideas.

Once the audience is on one level with you, ramp up the complexity. Build on the foundation you have laid, and see how they react to it. Should you go into the wrong direction, you can direct this form of intelligent design into another, better way. You control the organic growth of your product, and react to the demands of the market. In the gaming world, it’s survival of the fittest, and whoever can adapt to his environment will come out a survivor.

So next time you start writing a game or come up with a brilliant idea, break it down into simple pieces. Start with the core idea, and turn it into a strong element that you can bring to your audience. Then, let evolution do its work and see where it goes. I’m sure that, in the end, you will even surprise yourself about the direction it took.

Love the people, not the game

“The Guild” by Irrel

A week ago, I wrote about my return to Azeroth. Currently, my brave little panda is having some aquatic adventures, and as I kill sea monsters and gather crab meat, I wonder what called me back to World of Warcraft. Many things have changed, but the two expansions that I’ve skipped didn’t add anything entirely new to the game. Also, there are several other MMO’s out there that are just as fun (and more up-to-date) than WoW (like my beloved The Secret World). So what makes me put so much time in this old love of mine? Well, it’s the people.

MMORPG’s are a social experience (or at least they should be). In fact, every game is a social experience. You can’t play Monopoly all by yourself, and neither can you have much fun playing football without two teams. While one half of the joy we experience during game comes from the quality of it, the other half comes from the people we play it with. The greatest MMORPG in the world could hit shelves tomorrow, but I wouldn’t linger long in it if I had no one to share my excitement with.

One reason I left Azeroth behind me after the Cataclysm was because of boredom, but that boredom was born from a lack of fellow players. My guild, in which I had experienced two expansions, had started to fall apart, and we all followed our own paths. Some of us had left WoW, others were busy leveling new characters, and the rest had moved on to other guilds. The social unit that I had called “home” was no more, and so there was no guild chat in which we could tell lame jokes and no Ventrilo on which we could annoy each other with our bad taste in music. Most of these people were more than pixels to me; I knew them in real life. I knew what they looked like, and I recognised the timbre of their voices. This knowledge made their characters come to life, and thus, I travelled across Azeroth with real, organic beings, with whom I shared victory and defeat. In a way, we were a digital band of brothers.

Now, I have a new group of people who are exactly that. The people who dragged me back into a world I had almost forgotten are also the people I would have a beer or go to the movies with. Sometimes they’re silly, sometimes they’re childish, but they are always there with me in the game. It’s a feature no game has, but that you add yourself: friends and buddies, journeying with you into new adventures.

So, be thankful for all the gaming buddies you have. Next time you rage about their low damage output or their annoying habits, be grateful for the fact that they add something to your gaming experience. Because no matter how awesome a game can be, nothing is as demotivating as a silent, lonely guild chat.

I’m the Chindividual, and I salute all gaming friends out there!

Strange Sunday – Every Dwarf was kung-fu fightin’

“dwarf monk” by travistye

Starting today, every sunday will be dedicated to the ways we can use to break the mold and make our games more interesting. I will talk about things that have the guts to ignore the stereotypes, and that bring new things to our games. Today, I will take a closer look at my favourite fantasy race, and tell you why they are often as bland as my fair-looking nemesis.

The reason why I love Dwarves more than Elves is simple: Dwarves are more relatable. They are cheerful, they love to drink, dance and be merry. They grow extremely cool beards, delve into the darkest dungeons to find the rarest ore and fight enemies ten times their size without even feeling a sense of fear. They teach us a lesson: no matter how tall or tiny you are, with the right mindset and a cold beer, you can tackle every challenge.

However, Dwarves also lack a bit of diversity. In most fantasy settings, they live deep in the mountains, make the best ale and have long beards. It gets old really quick, and while I would always prefer a bearded stump over a fair and pretty Elf, I hunger for some new ideas concerning our short-legged friends. What would make them really cool? Well, below you’ll find a short suggestion that you can use freely to make the Dwarves in your games a bit more interesting, giving your players more than the usual blacksmithing, beer-brewing bubs.

The Masters of Dragondance Mountains
In the far north, hidden in the depths of the Dragondance Mountains, a war rages between the Dojos of the Dwarves. Since the dawn of time, each of these martial arts schools has focused on mastering one of the mountain’s elements through physical exercise: rock, lightning, storm and snow. Each Dojo, lead by one of the Arch-Sifu, has claimed to be the most powerful, and every year, when the sun kisses the highest peak of the Dragondance Mountains, the Dwarves gather at Dao-Zhin, the Fateful Grounds of Earthen Justice. Here, the strongest students of every Dojo face each other in one-on-one battles for honour and the righteousness of their ways. However, trouble is brewing in the depths of the Dragondance, as a fifth, unknown Dojo has emerged, harnessing the darkness of the deeps. Will the four Arch-Sifus unite their schools to fight a common enemy, or will they falter before the might of the Ebon Sword That Pierces The Sun?

Masters of Dragondance Mountains combines classic Chinese martial arts movies elements with a bit of The Last Airbender to turn Dwarves in the kung-fu masters using a set of alternate elements to enhance their martial techniques. Secluded Dwarf cities become monasteries, where the young students learn their respective arts. Stories could focus on the rivalry between the Dojos, or the united fight against a common enemy in the form of a mysterious, fifth Dojo.

You coul also drop one of these martial arts Dwarves in the middle of your campaign, surprising your players with a complete new approach to the Dwarven race. Also, what about members of other races training in one of the monasteries? Do the Dwarves keep the secrets of the elements to themselves, or do they give strangers the chance to prove their mettle? A whole campaign could be based on the idea of a human trying to become a member of a Dojo, struggling for recognition by his Dwarven peers and finally showing his competence in the fight against the Ebon Sword.

Well, that’s it for this week. I hope you like yourself a helping of roundhouse-kicking Dwarves. Check back next week, when we give another cliché a strange and new twist on Strange Sunday!

Why I hate Elves

Unlike many nitpicky party poopers out there, I really love Peter Jackson’s big-screen rendition of The Hobbit. It’s fun, action-packed and just great to see, even though it doesn’t stick entirely to the source and is spread out across three movies. However, just a few minutes into the movie, we meet Legolas’ daddy, the king of the wood-dwelling pointy ears: Thranduil. When he came riding in on his elk-moose thingy, I was reminded of one of my favourite aversions: Elves.

From the day I fell in love with fantasy fiction and role-playing games, I have always despised Elves. Something about them just really, really irritates me. Over the years, I have found out what it is about these often immortal, fair beings of the mystical places, and it saddens me every time an author or game designer portrays the pointy-ears in a way that incorporates those features. Wanna know what they are? Well, I have the urge to share my hate with you, so read on and bask in my animosity!

First of all, Elves are perfect. Everything you can do, an Elf can do better. Think you’re the greatest archer in the world? Sorry, but that Elf over there just shot a penny from a distance of five miles while fighting off a group of Orcs. Thought you were the greatest wizard to ever roam these lands? Think again, because that smug-faced treehugger over there has been channeling cosmic powers since first grade! I just can’t stand this perfection most Elvish races in the fantasy genre have, because it makes all other races in a setting look kinda dumb. Yeah yeah, Dwarves have their blacksmithing and humans are somehow always the heroes, but that’s probably just because the Elves are too busy being utterly majestic.

Second, Elves are always pretty. Legolas is pretty, his father pretends to be pretty (he would be without that dumb crown), Drizzt would never say he’s pretty, but according to the fan girls he is, and the list goes on! Beauty is nice and well, but it’s just lame that all Elves are handsome. I’ll give a digital high-five to the person who writes a book with a really, really, really ugly Elf as the main protagonist. I’ll buy that book the moment it hits stores, no matter how retarded the plot is.

Finally, Elves always have some mystical power. They are either immortal, naturally magical or both at the same time. In the German tabletop RPG Das Schwarze Auge, Elves are so damn magical they sometimes craft items and enchant them without noticing. How stupid is that? Could you imagine an Elf making a beautiful necklace for her husband, but it turns out she wove a barkskin spell into it, turning her hubby into some kind of treant? That would at least explain why a large part of the Elvish population lives in forests, and why they care so much about their damn trees.

Really, the only setting that has made Elves interesting for me is Dragon Age. In the world described and shown in the BioWare games, Elves are a kind of gypsy-like race, who have to live in ghettos and who are almost extinct. They have to face persecution and hate every day, but they don’t surrender. They fight for their place in the world, and ally themselves with the forces of nature. They are an interesting race with many problems, but also with enormous reserves of hope and positivity. They’re not perfect, they’re not always magical and surely not always pretty. I salute BioWare, for showing the world how Elves should be.

Now, please excuse me, I have to get that image of Thranduil out of my head. Damn goldilocks with his pathetic crown…

Three physical traits my player characters (almost) never had

“Sokka, the real Fire Lord” by kyrio

Tabletop role-playing games are praised for teaching people creative skills and having them think in abstract ways. Trying to visualise ever-changing pictures in front of your mind’s eye certainly trains your fantasy, and it is exciting to pretend your someone else for a while. Of course, if you’re gonna slip into another skin for a while, that skin should obviously beautiful. It should be a muscular, intimidating orc who brings fear to his enemies without even lifting a finger, or a gracious elf, with beauty that is the stuff of legends. In a way, you want to compensate for the lack of perfection your own mortal coil holds. Such a being has no room for ugly warts, some nasty affliction or a strange hair colour, for that would ruin the Adonis your mind has chiseled from the stone of dreams. Why play something ugly, when for once, you can be the most attractive dude in the tavern?

While I understand that role-playing games offer a form of escapism that enables you to be more than you are in real life, it often saddens me when players describe their characters and they are just the most awesome example of their race. It seems like many players don’t want to take risks, and prefer to play the physical perfect character. Sadly, that means that many characters I have seen in my life (or that I have played, for I am guilty of this as well), can be summed up with the same clichés: beautiful hair, enchanting eyes, broad shoulders yadda yadda. Such descriptions make me long for things I rarely see under the header “physical description” on a character sheet, and in this article I sum up the three physical traits player characters of my players (or myself) almost never possessed!

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Tweeria – the lazy RPG of the social media generation

tweeria screenshot

Here’s a confession: I’m a social media addict. I check my Facebook account about a hundred times every day, and I’m more often on LinkedIn and Google+ than I’m willing to admit. However, there’s always been one social network that I never really got into: Twitter. Sure, I can understand why it is so awesome: short messages using lots of abbreviations and hashtags are an interesting way to tell the world about your daily endeavours, but the confines of the 160 characters per message always irritated me. Yes, as you can see on the right, I’ve embraced Twitter for the sake of this blog, but I still have to acquire its taste. One of the things that helps me doing so is Tweeria.

Tweeria is probably the laziest RPG ever created. You link your Twitter account to your Tweeria account, and every time you tweet something to the world-wide web, your Tweeria hero does something. By using the right words, you can cast spells and do other heroic things, but in the end, the actions caused by your short messages are rather random. However, the chaotic nature of this innocent game is rather charming, and earning a pair of boots for retweeting a celebrities’ update feels kind of cool.

Check it out, I’d say. The Chin needs some company in Tweeria!