September 14, 2011

My Dear Dossier, Part I

In my first blog post, I said that my next blog post would be about high points in my gaming past (both board and video). Well I made a second blog post on a different subject, counteracting my statements made in the first blog post. If you are still following me, then know that in this blog post, I will attempt to go cover the original intended subject matter for what was supposed to be the second blog post but is in fact the third blog post. Got it? Phew!

I, like many here, have been a gamer for as long as I remember. Growing up in the early 80's was a fun time, as there was a plethora of board games floating around (from a mainstream standpoint) and of course the growing video game industry. Perhaps the best way to proceed is categorically, that is, to take a group/genre of board and/or video game and talk a little about it. I'll cover one or two categories per blog post. I don't want anyone to get too overwhelmed!

Down in the Dungeons and/or Pits in the Land of Roll and Move

Some of my earliest gaming memories, beyond the usual mainstream fare of Mouse Trap, Sorry, Chutes + Ladders, Monopoly, Clue, Chess, etc. was a little game called Shrieks & Creaks. It was a pretty funky roll and move game that featured, among other things, a talking tombstone that told you which terrible fate would befall you during your upcoming move. I played this game constantly. It seemed so deep and engaging at the time. I now realize that it's a pretty much random affair, true to most roll and move games of the time. Oh well, the board looked cool!

The next big memory was playing The New Dungeon! when it was released in 1989, and which I still own. It was a rather simple luck-based game but it was the first real dungeon crawling / quasi-RPG like game I had played. I still play it on occasion and it is still a fun. Although not to serious of a game, there are some big choices to make, namely when to press your luck and try to skip dungeon areas and head down to a lower level than you probably should. You gotta commit to your decisions.

Of course the New Dungeon cemented one of the gaming genres that would still be with me; action-adventure. I played a ton of, and still own, HeroQuest. I played (but didn't like) a number of similar games such as Key to the Kingdom and Dark World. I still remember getting sucked into the adds for Dark World. Unfortunately the game was kinda lame and the level of excitement was no where near what the ads depicted. Who knew!?

In the more modern era, two games in my collection fit this genre, Munchkin and Drakon (third edition). I like the latter better, but neither is a show stopper for me. They are fun on occasion when we're in he right mood. Incidentally, about a year ago or gaming group combined Munchkin WITH the New Dungeon, which worked surprisingly well. Or at least our creation, aptly named MunchUngeon, seemed pretty awesome through our beer goggles and laughter.

To RPG or not?

A few years after the New Dungeon a little game called The New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons comes out. I bought it (or the parents did). It was the first real RPG game I owned, even if pretty basic (essentially a very paired down D&D rule set). I was hooked. Except of course I never actually played it. I was however, so hooked that I proceeded to buy all manner of AD&D 2nd edition core rule books, monster manuals, companion books, dragonlance stuff, planescape stuff, and likely more stuff that I can remember.

Despite amassing a pile of books over two feet high, I never once played an RPG. I don't know why. Perhaps I never bothered to ask any of my friends if they wanted to try? I think I ultimately had more fun reading the books/rules than I likely would have got out of actually playing. Maybe that's because I knew I'd end up being the DM, and I had plenty of that taking the role of Zargon the Whatever in HeroQuest, which was still being played quite regularly by friends at the time.

This dabbling in RPGs was however my first foray into game design. At the time in middle-school, I was reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (the third book had just been released). It was a great story, although I admit that I gave up on the series somewhere around book 6 or 9. However, it inspired me to write my own AD&D rule set for a new character class, the "Channeler," inspired of course by the magic system from Wheel of Time. It was awesome. Except I had no idea if it worked or not because I didn't actually play AD&D, much less test my new creation! That was one early lesson in design ... test test test!

Digital killed action-adventure star

So during the mid to late 80's my parents had the good sense to start buying computers for the home. Obviously computers were meant for playing games. The Sierra Quest games, King's Quest, Space Quest, and my favorite HeroQuest, renamed to Quest for Glory due to trademark issues with HeroQuest the boardgame, were staples of my early computerized adventures. Good production, good humor, and engaging story lines.

The Quest for Glory games (there were eventually 5), I feel were quite aways ahead of their time. Great story, great graphics (at the time), and a great combination of RPG + adventure/action elements. The first game was released in 1989 and the fourth and favorite of mine, Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, was released in 1994. They featured three character classes, although you could train up any of the skills regardless of your class. Combat was real-time. There were day and night cycles. There was humor and adventure. You had to sleep and eat regularly. You'd get encumbered carrying too much stuff. New things to discover. Oh My! I loved these games, and had played each (with the exception of #5) close to a dozen times.

The mid to late 90's. Now there are lots of other action-adventure-rpg type games that I played. Diablo (‘96) and Diablo II (‘00) fits the category, and I certainly played a lot of those games over the years. While I missed the boat on Daggerfall (also released in ‘96), I got into the The Elder Scrolls world through The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002. What an amazing game. Let's elaborate.

Morrowind was the first game that I remember playing (and it wasn't all that long ago) where I was blown away with how convincingly another "world" in its entirety was created for me to explore. I'm still amazed how many places there in the game world. It seemed that at every turn there was a little slice of life waiting to be uncovered. Of course its a sandbox (i.e. do anything, be anyone) type game, but it was the first game since the old Quest for Glory series that captivated me in the same way.

Incidentally, I see a lot of parallels between Elder Scrolls and Quest for Glory. I realized after the having added piles of mod's onto Morrowind, that all the tweaks actually made the game it work MORE like Quest for Glory. QfQ used a smooth leveling system where you didn't "level up" in a typical RPG fashion and then get to allocate your new skill/attribute points. Instead, simply doing stuff raised your skills, and as your skills go up, the associated attribute goes up. Want to get better at throwing? Go down the river, collect a bunch of rocks, and start throwing them at stuff until your throwing skill (and strength attribute) go up. To me, that makes the world immerse and real. Some people of course disagree. In any case, without thinking, I modded Morrowind (and subsequently The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006) to require many of the same things QfQ did. Eating a sleeping requirements, smooth leveling, more weight restrictions, etc.

Post-Apocalyptic Fever

By this point I was becoming a Bethesda fan and naturally started playing Fallout 3 (released in 2008). Again another oversight, but I had never played the original Fallout games. I did however get sucked into the world of Fallout 3 rather thoroughly. For as long as I was playing Elder Scrolls games, I kept wishing for a similar style of game set in science fiction environment. Incidentally I'm still waiting for a good sand-box style game set in a "high science" future (Mass Effect is pretty close, but not sandbox enough). But that's for another time...

I have a been a huge First Person Shooter gamer (more on that in a future post), and the combat in Fallout 3 left a bit to be desired. Plus, it needed the mods ala Morrowind/Oblivion to make me need to eat, drink, sleep, etc. I mean seriously Bethesda ... what were you thinking? You make a post-apocalyptic game dripping with survival elements, but very few survival mechanics were actually in the game? Huh?

After dabbling in a number of mods, I decided to create my own. I've always tinkered with my games, digital or physical, so I was on mostly familiar ground. So, I was borrowing ideas here and there and developing new features and content to transform the Capitol Wasteland into a truly harsh and unforgiving environment. What was created was Fallout 3 Wanderers Edition (FWE), which went on to become one of the most popular Fallout 3 mods (currently #6 on Fallout 3 Nexus). I learned a ton, met great people who joined the FWE team, and look back on the effort fondly.

What was really exciting about the FWE project is that a few Bethesda developers swung by our corner of the internet to give some positive commentary on the mod. Perhaps I'm over inflating my ego, but many of the gameplay changes that wound up in Fallout: New Vegas were uncannily similar those created by FWE, particularly in the survival aspects of New Vegas's "Hardcore" mode. Ultimately, the FWE team went on to work on "Project Nevada" which is FWE's much improved successor translated to New Vegas. I haven't been involved in the project much due to family commitments, but Project Nevada is enjoying a high level of visibility and success, making New Vegas an even greater game.

Where to next?

I'm still waiting for my sci-fi action-rpg-adventure game set in a sandbox environment. Preferably with support for dedicated (personally owned) multi-player servers (NOT an MMO!). In the meantime, I've been outlining board game ideas for a high sci-fi semi-cooperative "dungeon" crawler. Possibly with some persistent RPG elements to tie game sessions together. More on that in a future post.

The next "My Dear Dossier" post will examine another game genre that will likely include First-Person Shooter and Real Time Strategy games ... boardgamers beware!

This post was originally published on the Big Game Theory! blog on BoardGameGeek, here.

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