Monthly Archives: June 2011

Top Ten Stories in Video Games (Spoilers)

What’s a story, and what does it mean for a videogame to be a medium of storytelling? The purest definition I’ve heard of a good story is one that invokes an emotional response. The following games all effected me emotionally on one level or another. Some spoilers follow, but major plot twists are left out.

10: Red Dead Redemption
It’s more than just Grand Theft Auto in the west. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar created a western sandbox game that oozes historical and setting flavor, and brings you into the world. The NPCs may be caricatures at times (well, all the time), but the game never lets up of it’s central conflict: can you escape your past?
What really nails this game down though, it the post endgame content. After beating the game, you still have access to roam free throughout the map and pick up any goodies you might have missed, but there’s one last mission to do. It’s subtle, but it drives home all the themes of the game in true Western style.

9: Psychonauts
Psychonauts is an ingenious platformer, with your character delving into the subconscious of various characters, each one it’s own themed level with different rules (some favorites include the Milkman Conspiracy, which involves twists of perspective and gravity and use of props to fool men-in-black, the Napoleonic Warfare boardgame level, that involves shrinking down to different areas of focus (and at the smallest level, you can see the largest level through a window), and the kaiju level, where the scenery is a city and you fight tanks and planes as the ‘giant monster’.) In addition to fantastic level design, there’s a few cathartic easter eggs hidden about- each person’s subconscious has their own secrets locked away.

8: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy’s first outing on the Playstation 2 was a strong one, with great graphics, game play, and story. While a little odd in places, the essential themes of familial tension, sacrifice and loss make this one a winner.

7: Dragon Age
The Bioware brand of console roleplaying games are much more interactive than the traditional JRPG railroad. (Final Fantasy X, above, for example, offers minimal ability to affect the plot, and only in minor details.) Your choices are legion, their affect on your ending, massive. There are also a fair number of choices that have in-game consequences (most notably, your choices in the Dalish/Mage’s Tower/Orzammar affect your end-game troops for the battle sequence, and you have life or death control over your followers). Dragon Age also has strong dialogue between the various secondary members of your party, which is always enjoyable and rewards tinkering with different groups. The different Origins allows one to explore the setting from different angles, and there’s a strong sense of accomplishment in being the most badass person in Ferelden.

6: Dead Space
The survival horror sci-fi game Dead Space succeeds due to its strong environmental cues that hint at goings on, and the player’s ability to piece things together. The scattered logs, the communications from the other members of your team, and the tension of knowing you’re going to have to go into a very, very, dangerous place make this one a hair raiser. A horror game should keep the tension high as much as possible, and Dead Space knows how to make that happen.

5: Planescape: Torment
Torment is the model by which dialogue-driven games need to hold themselves to. Set in Planescape’s city of Sigil, Torment embraces the weirdness and wonder of the City of Doors, and gives us an unusual protagonist: the Nameless One, who cannot truly die, but has forgotten his previous lives. The greatest joy is discovery of yourself and your character’s history, discovering the things you stashed away for yourself to find, and learning the stories of your companions (which are tragic, and your fault.) Also, the end boss can be defeated by talking to it.

4: Bioshock

Bioshock’s central twist is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in video games. One minute you think you know everything, the next, your entire world has been turned on its head. This is a game that must be experienced to be appreciated. And it doesn’t hurt that it has beautiful level design and great gameplay.

3: Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI stands strong to this day as Final Fantasy at its best, gameplay and storywise. More recent titles have successfully shaken up the core mechanics and have improved sound and graphics, but FF6 is solid from top to bottom. Featuring emotional lows (the Opera performance, the destruction of the world), and emotional highs (reuniting with long lost friends, getting your airship) this is a game that knows how to pull on the heartstrings.

2: Mass Effect

Another Bioware title, where Dragon Age establishes you as the most badass person in Ferelden, Mass Effect establishes you as the most badass person in the galaxy. The essential emotion of Final Fantasy VI is loss, the essential emotion of Mass Effect is triumph (and there’s a lot of it.) From the very first mission, it’s established that the stakes are high, you can trust no one, and that you get the job done.
Coupled with that is good party banter, good gameplay, hard choices (that have callbacks in Mass Effect 2), and a great ending sequence (the elevator’s broken, so you make your way on the outside of the space station on foot).

My number one game is going to come as a surprise for a lot of people. It’s not of a genre typically associated with story-telling; when we think storytelling and videogame, we tend to think ‘RPG’ and either Final Fantasy or Bioware. It’s completely linear; there’s absolutely no impact of the player on the plot. But the story is a damn good one, and the interactivity of the medium puts you right in it.
It’s a story of a heroic last stand. To me, the heroic last stand is the best story that can be told: the doomed hero who stays behind to save the day. This is why Wrath of Khan is such a great movie. (Cut out Spock’s death scene, you just have a good movie.)
Halo: Reach is the story of a doomed planet and the doomed squad of Spartans. It’s a story of not one, but four heroic sacrifices. The game puts you in the position where these sacrifices matter, which is why is stands as such a strong example of video game story telling. It’s a damn good story with emotional resonance, and its presented well in the context of the game.

How to Run the Mountain Witch

Tim Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch is my single favorite roleplaying game. It has tight, focused rules, and great production values. It is rather underplayed: I feel it plays best as a two or three-session game with a GM and five or six players. It’s certainly do-able as a convention one-shot but loses some of its oomph, and its out-of-printness makes it hard to come by.

There are four acts in the Mountain Witch: Introduction, Rising Tension, Dark Fates, and the Climax. Each of these acts may be split into chapters.

Something that I have taken and made my own is “chapter requirements.” In the rules, on page 122, it suggests to the GM that chapter breaks be withheld until certain milestones are achieved, but it does not define those milestones. My technique has been to clearly define those milestones, and make the players aware of them.

Milestones can be mechanical, like “someone has to spend all their trust,” narrative-mechanical “everyone has to invoke their Dark Fate narration,” or wholly narrative “the group must split up and rejoin.” I’ll mix and match based on the experience level of the group, and my own whims.

In a one-session con environment, there’s typically time to only have four chapters, each at one hour each (and it will still run a little over your typical 4 hour timeslot.)
In the Introduction, the characters are introduced, and the rules themselves are highlighted. Typically milestones are: Each Player must use Dark Fate Narration at least once and There Must be at least Three Major Conflicts. The end of the chapter features the group meeting the walls of the witch’s castle.
In the Rising Tension chapter, the threat of the Witch is built upon. This chapter features lots of encounters with the Witch’s servants, and various group split ups and rejoins. A typical milestone is going to be everyone using Dark Fate Narration at least once. End of the chapter involves finding a safe haven in the fortress.
In the Dark Fates Chapter, the Dark Fates are revealed! Each player must reveal his Dark Fate, obviously. Remember that the reveal is to the players, not the characters. The end of the chapter is just outside the Witch’s chamber.
In the Climax Chapter, everything comes to a head. Everyone’s Dark Fate must be revealed.

For two sessions, I play 6 chapters. Session one is Introduction (1 chapter), Rising Tension (2 chapters), and Reveal the Dark Fates at the end of the first session. Session two kicks off with 2 Chapters of the Dark Fates, where the fates of the players are explored in depth. Having a week to think about it, I give each player two GM-driven scenes focusing on their Dark Fate to explore and highlight its issues, one in each chapter, and then the Climax.

With a two session game, you can play around more with gimmicky milestones, especially in the Introduction chapter: everyone has to have a chance at conflict narration. Someone has to use a Betrayal. There has to be a Duel. Forcing the issue early makes the mechanic easy to remember in the climax, where rules knowledge can be key.

Another change I institute involves the rules for death. By the rules as written, player death can be invoked as a stake on any roll with player consent. My change is that before the Climax and the resolution of the character’s fate, Death is never on the line. Once a character’s fate has been resolved, all bets are off.

Finally, a brief list of bangs I have. A Bang in the Mountain Witch is a little bit different than a Bang in other games. Normally a Bang is a situation with no one clear point of action. (“Ninjas attack” is a poor narrative bang, since obviously you fight the ninjas.) In the Mountain Witch, bangs are also an opportunity for the players to invoke their Dark Fate narration. A Mountain Witch bang should encourage the players to choose between cooperation and competition, and also involve opportunities to author missing details.

A small shrine on the side of the path. It’s traditional to pray to the spirits before a journey.
A rope bride, guarded by a sentry of some sort.
A scene of battle. Someone’s been killed!
Yukki-no-Onna’s cabin.
A large mountain temple.
A bunch of samurai, sworn to the witch.
Catacombs in the fortress, and the ghost of someone known to one of the ronin.
The Witch’s chamberlain, perfectly polite and reasonable.
Villagers in distress.
Evidence of the last ronin expedition to try to kill the witch.
A demon offering to make a deal with the ronin.
Secret communications from the witch.
And my favorite, a simple peach tree. There’s one fewer peach than the number of ronin.

Wayfarer’s Rest Caravan: Janus

A mercenary and wilderness hunter, Janus had no part in the conflict for free Urik, joining the Wayfarer’s Rest Caravan only for the promise of solid pay. A massive brute of a Dragonborn, he is physically imposing and a terror on the battlefield.

Janus’s most prized possession is his enchanted Maul, “Truth,” which is of exquisite craftsmanship.

Janus
Mercenary

Level 6 Dragonborn Barbarian Gladiator

Strength 20 +5
Dexterity 10
Constitution 14 +2
Intelligence 8 -1
Wisdom 10
Charisma 17 +3

Armor Class 20
Fort Defense 21
Ref Defense 17
Will Defense 17

Total Hit Points: 59
Bloodied Value 29
Healing Surge: 16
Healing Surges/ Day 10

Initiative +3
Speed: 6

Basic Melee Attack
+13 vs AC (Maul)
2d6 + 9 damage

Basic Ranged Attack
+11 vs AC (Javelin)
1d6 + 6 damage

Skills
Athletics +14 (+13)
Endurance +10 (+9)
Nature (B) +10
Intimidate +13

Racial Abilities
Skill Bonuses: +2 History, +2 Intimidate
Dragonborn Fury: +1 racial bonus to attacks while bloodied.
Draconic Heritage: Add Con modifier to healing surge value.
Dragonbreath: Gain Dragonbreath power.

Feats
Bludgeon Expertise: +1 feat bonus to weapon attacks with hammers or maces. +1 feat bonus to distance of push or slide effects from hammer or mace attacks.
Dragonborn Frenzy: +2 to damage rolls while bloodied.
Defender of the Wild: Training in Nature, Defender of the Wild “power”
Hide Armor Expertise: Use +2 instead of Dex or Int modifier for AC while wearing Hide.

Class Abilities
Barbarian Agility: +1 bonus to AC and Reflex when not wearing heavy armor.
Feral Might: Thaneborn Triumph: Gain Roar of Triumph power. Whenever you bloody an enemy, next attack by your or an ally against that enemy gains a +3 bonus to the attack roll.
Rage Strike: You gain the Rage Strike power.
Rampage: Once per round, when you score a critical hit with a Barbarian attack power, make a melee basic attack as a free action.

Inherent Bonuses: +1 enhancement bonus to attacks, damage, defenses.

Powers

At-Will Attacks

Devastating Strike (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
+ 13 vs AC
Hit: 2d6 + 1d8 + 7 damage.
Effect: Until the start of your next turn, unless you are raging, all attackers gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls against you.

Pressing Strike (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
Effect: Before the attack, shift 2 squares. You can move through an enemy’s space, but can’t end there.
+13 vs AC
Hit: 2d6 + 7 damage, and you push the target 2 squares. If you are raging, deal 1d6 extra damage.

Encounter Attacks

Brutal Slam (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
+13 vs Fortitude
Hit: 4d6 + 7 damage and you push the target 3 squares and knock it prone. Then one enemy adjacent to the target takes 1d8 + 7 damage.

Disrupting Advance (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
+13 vs AC
Hit: 4d6 + 7 damage, and you push the target 3 squares. Target and each enemy adjacent to the target at the end of the push are slowed until the end of your next turn.

Escalating Violence (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
+13 vs AC
Hit: 4d6 + 7 damage. Until the end of your next turn, all allies within 5 squares of you gain a +3 bonus to damage rolls against the target. If you take damage before the start of your next turn, you gain a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls for your next attack.

Dragonbreath (Minor, Acid, Close Blast 3)
Targets creatures in Blast
+8 vs Reflex
Hit: 1d6 + 3 acid damage.

Daily Attacks

Macetail’s Rage (Standard, Rage, Weapon, Close Burst 1)
Targets enemies in burst you can see.
+13 vs Reflex
Hit: 2d6 + 7 damage, and you knock the target prone.
Miss: Half damage.
Effect: You enter the rage of the Macetail Behemoth. Until the rage ends, whenever you hit with an attack, gain 5 temporary hit points.

Rage Strike (Standard, Weapon, Melee)
Special: You must be raging. Expend an unused Rage power and make this attack.
+13 vs AC
Hit: 6d6 + 7 damage (Macetail’s Rage), or 8d6 + 7 damage (Silver Phoenix Rage).
Miss: Half damage.

Silver Phoenix Rage (Standard, Rage, Healing, Weapon, Melee)
+13 vs AC
Hit: 4d6 + 7 fire damage, and ongoing 5 fire damage (save ends).
Miss: Half damage.
Effect: You enter the Rage of the Silver Phoenix. Until the rage ends, you gain Regeneration 3, and the first time you drop to 0 hp or fewer, you can spend a healing surge as an immediate interrupt.

Utility Powers

Bloodborn Menace (Encounter, Free)
Trigger: You bloody an enemy or reduce an enemy to 0 hp with a melee attack.
Effect: Each enemy within 10 that can see you grants combat advantage to you until the end of your next turn.

Defender of the Wild (Encounter, Free)
During your turn, mark each enemy adjacent to you until the end of your next turn.

Nature Sense (Daily, Free)
Trigger: You would roll initiative in a natural environment.
Effect: Roll Nature in place of your initiative check. In addition, you and your allies gain a +4 bonus to all defenses during the first round of the encounter.

Roar of Triumph (Encounter, Free, Close Burst 5)
Trigger: Your attack reduces an enemy to 0 hp.
Effect: Each enemy in burst takes a -2 penalty to all defenses until the end of your next turn.

Second Wind (Encounter, Standard)
Spend a healing surge and regain hit points. You gain a +2 bonus to all defenses until the start of your next turn.

Equipment

“Truth,” Maul +2
5x Javelins
5x Daggers

Bracers of Mighty Striking (Arms)
+2 item bonus to damage rolls of melee basic attacks.

Gauntlets of Ogre Power (Hands)
+1 to Strength and Athletics checks.
Power (Daily) Add a +5 power bonus to the damage roll of a successful melee attack.

Adventurer’s Kit
Desert Clothing
Supplies for 10 Survival Days

315 gp (mix of ceramic and metal coinage)