Lost in the Dark

Elite Dangerous: Beyond Chapter 4 released yesterday. It contains a host of things, all minor enhancements in the grand scheme of things. I left off in Elite some 5,000 light-years from the “bubble” of settled space, exploring. So the overhaul of exploration was of some concern. Would my existing exploration-related modules work or just disappear?

Inconveniently, returning to Elite after an extended absence (I’d been out more than a year) can be a little bit of a project. Updating the game is effortless thanks to Steam, but I also had to update Voice Attack and the voice pack (which I had to contact HMS to do) and do the tiresome HOTAS setup again. I’m flying with the relative cheapie Thrustmaster T-Flight, which lacks all the hats, switches and buttons you’d want for Elite but at $50 is priced at a level commensurate with my level of involvement in this type of game. It is probably more accurate and efficient to use a mouse and keyboard, but the HOTAS adds immensely to immersion, and immersion is what Elite does best.

All this done, I got back in before the patch but didn’t have enough playtime to get back to settled space before the update hit. So I was concerned that I’d just be stuck out there with no usable modules and nothing to do except head back.

This turns out not to be the case. It is a thorough overhaul, but the old Discovery Scanner functionality has become a general ship function (supposedly people with the module got refunded its cost, although I didn’t check that,) but that activity is radically different now.

System scanning pre-update was basically binding the scanner to a fire group and then holding the button down in the system. This revealed, assuming you had the most powerful scanner, all bodies in the system on the system map, which you could then look at to figure out which ones you wanted to fly out to and explore. This no longer happens at all.

Now one enters a special Discovery Scan mode, in which you get an overlay atop your surrounding space. You execute the system scan and learn the system ecliptic and some number of “signals,” which could be bodies or other weirder things. Scan waves pass over this space, briefly revealing highlighted patches, which you then have to match up to spectrograph signals to reveal the system’s planets and other bodies. Only stuff you have scanned in this way shows up on the system map, unless (maybe — I’m not totally clear on this) that system has already been explored by someone else.

The Detailed Surface Scanner still exists as a module, but it functions very differently. Used to be you get close enough to a body and point your ship in 9its direction and wait for the scan to finish. Now, at a presumably similar distance, you enter a surface scan mode in which you have a map of the planet in front of you and you launch micro-probes (of which you have an unlimited supply) at it. Each probe will map the planet’s surface near where it hits, and can reveal surface features that only seem to be present on some bodies. If your probes map 90% of the surface you’ll get a “mapped by” tag for the planet.

Particularly in systems that are either large or contain multiple interesting bodies, this takes much longer than the old push-the-button system scan. It will vastly slow down the speed of exploration, and will definitely change its tone, with explorers skipping over the abundant but genrally unprofitable M systems in favor of G and K starts that have a larger change of having interesting planets. Very probably some players will not like it, and players who aren’t (or who don’t aspire to be) fairly serious explorers probably won’t learn it.

Provisionally, though, I like it quite a bit sor far. Now, I haven’t really explored the Codex (another new feature,) have only monkeyed with surface scanning a little bit, and haven’t yet turned in my (fairly large) bank of current discoveries, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but right now it feels more like exploration and is more immersive. Which is, after all, the best part of Elite Dangerous.

Blizzcon Thoughts: WoW Classic

I was never a hardcore player of MMORPGs. I had trouble setting into each and every one, and the only ones that I stuck with for any serious length of time were Vanguard, EVE Online and World of Warcraft. Of those, I got the most serious about WoW, reaching the level cap in the Lich King era, doing some of the “endgame” stuff, running lots of dungeons and even joining a guild and doing some light raiding. Casual or not, though, I spent years and a couple of novels worth of words on this blog trying to feel out what makes MMORPGS good. I don’t know that I ever settled on anything firm even for me, let alone for everybody else.

Since I played most heavily during Lich King and came into the game just before Burning Crusade, I never really got much “vanilla” experience as such. But while WoW continued to evolve the whole time, the massive revamp to both world and mechanics were still a ways off by the time I stopped playing regularly. As a leveling character, Azeroth in the BC and LK eras was still very like it was back before expansions happened.

Frankly, the game at the time was slow and often frustrating, even aside from the various technical glitches. Classes varied radically in how fast they could level or how useful they were. It was easy to mis-spec, and respecs were costly. It was easy to die, especially in leveling content and especially for certain classes like the Warrior, where an extra add could spell certain doom. Death itself was costly in terms of time spent running back from graveyards — and occasionally getting lost on the way.

But at the same time it really did feel like there was a world there to explore. You had a direction but you could also run off the rails. Content left partially complete by the developers stayed in the world, leaving mysteries that would only sometimes be solved. Little nooks and crannies with neat stuff in them were all over the place. People weren’t afraid to try wacky things like swimming between the continents. And then there was the PvP that happened spontaneously in the open world, and raids on major cities weren’t uncommon.

That way of playing off the cuff, of saying “I never noticed that before… I wonder what’s over there?” has pretty much gone away in favor of a far more structured experience. There’s tons to do but it’s almost all rails, everywhere. The class mechanics are streamlined to the point of sameness, where classes no longer feel especially distinct. The communities that grew up around guilds and servers withered with the advent of the group finders and Battlegroups. Crafting became an unrewarding grind early on, where anything you made leveling was valueless. I was by no means the biggest fan or player of WoW back in the day, but even I felt the drift in the Lich King era. And — when we think about it — that very epoch, when there was some stagnation but the game hadn’t yet been radically changed, was when WoW’s subscriber numbers peaked. The game is indisputably much easier to play now, but is it more fun, or more rewarding?

I played on Nostalrius, before Blizzard shut it down with legal threats in 2016. No judgements there; it was within their legal rights to do so and the whole point of Nostalrius was to make available an experience that you could no longer get from Blizzard. And on Nostalrius there was indeed an indefinable magic that was missing from the game the last time or two I played it.

Which brings me to World of Warcraft: Classic, launching next summer. Based on the demo footage I’ve seen and the news out of Blizzcon, it’s looks like an attempt to exactly replicate the pre-BC experience, probably/hopefully minus all the technical glitches, even to the extent of gradually rolling out the post-launch but pre-expansion content: Onyxia and Molten Core at first, then adding Blackwing Lair and Zul’Gurub, then Ahn’Qiraj with its massive world event, then finally Naxxramas.

This itself raises any number of questions. How fast will this stuff roll out? After Naxx, is that it? Or will there eventually be BC and LK content as well? Will have have perpetual, parallel deveopment efforts?

As of now we don’t have those answers, but I wonder. WoW’s subscriber numbers were at their highest Wrath of the Lich King. The new expansion Battle for Azeroth didn’t bring them back up to those levels even temporarily. This is obviously much more copmlicated than just the degradation of the WoW experience… isn’t it? What if Classic brings the numbers way, way up in a year between expansions, when we would have expected them to be at a historic low?

I guess we’ll find out. As of right now, I may or may not stay, but I’m in when it launches.

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Winterfest 2018 Report

Here’s a pile of pictures and commentary from Winterfest 2018. This was the 21st year of the event but my first in attendance. I had a magnificent time and definitely plan to attend next year.

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Winterfest is a tiny event — this year it drew less than 30 — but for committed board wargamers it feels like a much larger affair. There’s usually a couple of big monster games at the center but a ton of smaller games, some of which are monsters themselves.

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There was also an enormous miniatures game, which ran twice in the day it was set up. I gather there is sometimes minis and sometimes not.

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I got to play Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, OCS Sicily II, GMT’s The Napoleonic Wars, Clash of Arms’ Close Action and a double-blind game of the classic Flat Top, which was a ton of fun.

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My personal acquisitions were GMT’s A World at War, Columbia’s Julius Caesar and The Gamers’ Black Wednesday from the idle TCS series. This is, nevertheless, not a shoppers’ event — there are no dealers and it’s pretty much all gameplay, but some stuff inevitably changes hands privately.

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As someone who (relatively) recently got back to board wargaming and has been looking at events for the past few years, I have to say that Winterfest was the best wargaming event experience I’ve had. Short of going to the CSW Expo in Tempe, it’s hard to think I could find a better one.

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The Great RPG Settings: Hârn

I first encountered Hârn as many did, through its memorable ads in old issues of Dragon and in gazing at issues of Encyclopedia Harnica on the shelves of the not-so-local game store. At the tender age of 13 or 14 I didn’t know what to make of those at the time, and I’m sure lots of other folks didn’t either.

I was really introduced to Hârn years later when I started playing Rolemaster in the early 90s. I’d gone over to the GM’s place to talk about his campaign, and Hârn was where it was set. The maps, details and color heraldry he showed me blew me away. Within a couple of years I had my own collection of Hârn materials and set out running my own campaigns in the setting.

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Published as a boxed set in 1983 by Columbia Games and originally authored by N. Robin Crossby, Hârn flowered over the next several years into one of the best-developed settings in the history of RPGs, and so it remains today. Not only because it’s a great setting exquisitely tailored to serve as a platform for roleplaying games, but because the maps and organization are second to none.

There’s a lot of supplementary material, but I’ll always recommend that folks start with the basic Hârn set, now titled HârnWorld, which provides an introduction to the whole world but focuses on the island of Hârn itself. There’s more to the world (a lot more, actually,) but it’s Hârn that is the most thoroughly developed and there’s enough space and detail therein to provide you with gaming for a lifetime.

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Hârn is a backwater island off the western coast of the Lythian continent, home to seven human nations and four major nonhuman cultures, two of which have kingdoms of their own. Superficially it’s a very low-magic place inspired by early Norman Britain, something that many commenters have noted. But beneath the surface there’s a lot of weirdness, too, much of it in place to justify aspects of traditional RPG play. You can stick to the populated areas and dismiss this as mere rumor and legend — the material is written that way — or you can embrace it and have a campaign that’s as high-magic as you’d want. Basically every style of fantasy gaming is well-supported by the setting.

The “low fantasy” label is accurate, as far as it goes — this is a world with a very Dark Ages feel, and fans of something like Game of Thrones will likely find it very welcoming. But that label is also superficial, since there are also justifications for all of the standard traditional RPG tropes: strange creatures, ancient artifacts, mysterious ruins, clerics with powers that work. It’s all there, and you can choose to dial these up or down depending on the type of campaign you want to run.

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On Hârn there is a place called Araka-Kalai that exists on two different planes. Here the God Ilvir dwells, shaping bizarre creatures as is his whim and setting them loose in the world. Here there are tribes of Gargun — Hârn’s version of Orcs — of several subspecies, brought to Kethira centuries ago by Lothrim the Foulspawner. There is wilderness populated only by barbarians and worse, sites built by an ancient civilization of planar travelers, chantries of Arcane Lore and Orders of Shek-Pvar, powerful but reclusive wizards dedicated to the study of the magical arts.

Hârn has, for all of its history, been system-neutral. Almost none of the materials provide any stats. However, a dedicated system, called HârnMaster, was released in 1986 and continues to receive support. Like the setting it supports many styles of play but it’s fairly complex by RPG standards and its combat is absolutely brutal, so many find it not to their tastes. I may do another piece about HârnMaster in the future, but it’s entirely optional and possibly not the best way to approach the setting.

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Personally, I’ve played (and run) in Hârn using both Rolemaster and HârnMaster, and have seen it run using RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery and of course multiple flavors of D&D. There’s official conversion material for GURPS. I’ve often thought that Ars Magica would be a great fit if so tailored, and Burning Wheel is a natural out of the box. So basically just pick whatever fantasy game system you like and run with that.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Hârn’s maps, which for all that they date to the early 80s have yet to be surpassed in both beauty and functionality. The regional maps are drawn in a cartographic style and are absolutely packed with information. The local and structure maps are just as useful. Screenshots do not do them justice — they need to be seen in the flesh to be appreciated. The “poetic” maps are actual in-world artifacts that you can hand out to players, giving them a very good idea of general geography but little clue of the dangers they’ll face on a long journey.

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Hârn is still published by Columbia Games, and they have an extensive array of materials available both in print and PDF via DriveThruRPG. A piece of advice, though, that I wouldn’t limit to Hârn: don’t get hung up on the supplements. The basic HârnWorld set gives you tons of info on the setting that’s high-level, but not too high, and is loaded with adventure hooks on virtually every page. You’re unlikely to encounter a situation where your players are more familiar with the setting and have more materials than you do — although I have a hunch that at least some of them will get hooked on the setting and seek out tons of product for it, as I did. Acquire and use this extra stuff as you need it — it won’t come up all at once.

The Hârn materials are organized in an article-based format that’s almost unique in RPGs. Others have tried to do this and have always failed, usually messily; the only other game product line I know of that’s made a looseleaf format work is Advanced Squad Leader. The basic idea is that there’s a core set that provides high-level details on the part of the setting you’re in, and then there’s articles that support that with local information about kingdoms, sites, gods and so on. The site articles are especially valuable, as they contain details on specific structures, NPCs, rumors and local legends that are ripe for use as adventure seeds. The older volumes were bound and intended to be cut apart and punched for insertion into a binder, but more recent products are sold looseleaf, sometimes with binders included — or you can buy them as PDFs and just print them yourself.

I should also mention that the world of Kethira, on which the island of Hârn is located, is also extensively well-developed, especially by the folks at Kelestia.com, founded by Crossby himself before his far too early death. Kelestia publishes exclusively in PDF but have done a lot of material for locations outside Hârn, in particular the vast Venarive region that lies nearby. Hârn also has great web support at Lythia.com, where there’s also a huge library of additional fan-created materials.

Hârn changed the way the I look at fantasy worlds, and I suspect it will do the same for others who haven’t yet been exposed to it.

Elder Scrolls Online Second Impressions

An MMORPG is optimally something that people stick with and come back to over the course on months or years, is a game of habit and rhythm – break the rhythm and it can break your sense of investment in the game. Personally I’ve had this happen over and over again.

But as I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online pretty casually for a couple of weeks, with a couple of different characters. I expected, based on my past history, that my interest would wither after a few days out of town on business. To my mild surprise that didn’t happen — when I got home I wanted to play ESO, even though it had to wait for a recovery day to pass. And during the travel time I watched a fair bit of video to get a better handle on ESO’s fairly baroque character development system and interface.

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One of the interesting things that system does, although it isn’t at all transparent when you start, is to largely divorce playstyle from the actual classes. The Dragon Knight, for example, appears tanky at a glance, but by picking the right stuff as you advance (or after a respec) you could also heal or DPS. Same with the other classes, all of which can also pick their own weapons, armor and other skills without any restriction. Only the three class skills are restricted to a particular class, and those represent only a subset of the combat-relevant skills. Class in ESO is meaningful but in a different way than it is in other games in the same space.

In terms of feel, in addition to the Elder Scrolls vibe that it tries (not entirely successfully) to embody, ESO also gives me hints of EQ2, Age of Conan and (perhaps most importantly for me) Vanguard. I am finding this odd melange to be more effective the more I play, despite the variances from single-player Elder Scrolls games and more conventional MMORPGs reading as off-putting at first. That I also prefer less twitchy games was also a barrier… but then, I did play a lot of Skyrim, and at least a little bit of that does carry over. I’m very slowly getting less inept.

Sooooo… does this mean that I am back on the MMO wagon? I will commit to nothing, but at this instant I am inclined to keep playing. Which means I will continue to write about it.

Exploring ESO

So I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online. I think there’s a fair bit to like in there, although as someone who ate Skyrim up, to me it also lacks a lot of the same feel. In a single-player Elder Scrolls game there’s a main story — that you can basically totally ignore if you want, in favor of unstructred adventuring and exploration. There’s room for some of that in ESO, but as far as I have seen thus far (and bear in mind, I’m still early on at about level 12) not nearly as much. It favors structured questing instead, which given the brand is disappointing.

Perhaps most annoyingly, I have a favored play style in Elder Scrolls games: the stealth archer, which is a character type that I really don’t play in any other game. This is effectively an invalid play style in ESO due to the combat mechanics, which are largely a reflection of its nature as an MMO.

On the upside, there is a lot to do in the game, the world has a lot of space, and you’ll in time get to see parts of the world that have been left out since Morrowind. There’s also solid, regular support and expansion, which Bethesda/Zenimax has probably done better with than anyone else.

ESO is also a lot better than it was back in beta, which is when I played it last. For now I’m still playing, and that’s a good sign.

100 Water Worlds Initiative, Day Seven: New Space Ahead

  • Newly Discovered Water Worlds: 20
  • Virgin Systems Fully Explored: 10

Zheng He and I are still trekking towards Scutum-Centaurus. Every jump now takes me farther from settled space. At the end of the day I was 2500 light-years out of Hilary, and over 4,000 light-years from Sol.

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It was a long day of jumping and scooping, and I’m still not yet where I want to be. But on the way I found a lot. A double Water World system, and then another big multiple-star system with no less than three Water Worlds. And later, and Earthlike.

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A few scattered other Water Worlds were found along the route. I also found my first Ammonia World on this trip; I’m not sure I have the knack for spotting them yet. This one had a set of rings and seas of liquid hydrocarbons.

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For a day of jumping 2500 light-years, I did very well: the current Water Worlds tally stands at 20. I didn’t do much additional scouting, so I didn’t fully explore any new systems, save for a few that only had a couple of bodies in them. But things are really moving now.