Cthulhu didn't save the world

Just finished the third installment of the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness and it was good. Even though I’m not particularly impressed in the faux 16 bit graphics, the mechanics were solid and the game was enjoying to play. With that experience in mind, I tried playing Cthulhu saves the world, which comes from the same developers and I got disappointed. The game is missing all the improvements that made the RSPoD game enjoyable and just turned into an annoying grind. I tried playing in hard to have a challenge (because in RSPoD normal was too easy for me) and quickly found out that hard in this game doesn’t mean more challenging encounters, it merely means one needs to grind more to proceed. I just spent 1 hour sitting in one spot in the map and doing random encounters until I realized that the game is just not interesting enough to worth doing that. The battle is not even as interesting as RSPoD. Half the time I didn’t know why I lost, and that, combined with the fact that you can actually lose the game and thus from minutes up to hours of play as well (if you forgot to save and didn’t have “continues”.)  Combine that with the fact that mana points carry over from one battle to the next and first town was so designed that I needed to travel one minute to refill my MP, and it was just an exercise in frustration.

Perhaps the game would be not so annoying had I not played in hard, but if your only difference between the modes is how much grind you need to do, then that’s bad design right there. I hope they reuse the engine of RSPoD to more games because the ones they had before just don’t grab me in the slightest. Not in gameplay, nor graphics not even story.


How can we design an engaging dialogue system in computer Role Playing Games?

Can we ever make dialogue a meaningful part of RPGs, rather than something which can easily be ignored?

This post was inspired when I was writing about the dialogue system in my first impressions of SWTOR. There I mentioned that I liked the idea of the NPC dialogue with multiple players involved, but felt that it looks like so much lost potential given that the results of the dialogue are decided with a simple random roll which has little relation to how strong personality a character has, or how skilled in social relations they are. A misanthropist Sith has the same chance of affecting the dialogue progression as a charismatic smuggler.

It is perplexing to me why role-playing games don’t introduce their usual set of mechanics into social aspects as well. Why are skills only relevant to how well you can shoot or protect yourself, and not how well you can convince or manipulate? Sure, some role-playing games have tacked on some traits  which can affect dialogues, but the functionality of those is not engaging in the slightest, and they feel more like a random roll, rather than a sustained and challenging process.

And I’m not talking about silly mini games like the Oblivion wheel, I’m talking about making dialogue more like combat. But of course, before we see how, we need to look into what makes combat in role-playing games engaging and interesting.

Combat is not presented as a simple attempt at an attack, but rather a sequence of such attempts, using a variety of skills and tactics to overcome an enemy’s defenses. In most RPGs, an enemy’s first line of defense are their hit points/shields (i.e. how many successful hits a player needs to defeat them), but just HP are usually boring as the player feels like they’re just fighting a punching bag. So dodge chances, covers, armor/shield reduction/penetration, magic resistance and a host of other subdefences are added to different enemies, forcing the player to adapt their strategy in order to find the weak spot they can exploit.

The trick here is that while enemies of the same level as the player always take more than one simple attack to take down, if the player ends up with an enemy who is resistant against his usual attacks, and the player does not have a way to exploit their weaknesses, then it can suddenly become a very difficult battle, forcing the player to struggle with it or even lose. This created the rush of excitement which makes combat so engaging, as players move from enemy to enemy looking for more such rushes. This is why “boss” enemies exist, along with various “lieutenants” who suddenly spike the difficulty and force the player to stress, think and adapt.

And then, there’s also the dynamism of combat, where you don’t simply stand around whacking each other’s head with a club until one falls down  (OK, in some games you do, but those are generally considered very boring) but rather run around, jump to cover, throw fireballs and grenades and generally have a lot of activity peppered with special effects and explosions. In short, mindless action fun!

These two combine to make combat something which keeps the player engaged, from thinking about their next move in split second times, to looking at the beautiful effects their previous action achieved and how brilliantly they outplayed their opponent. Thus combat in RPGs stays fairly interesting throughout the whole game, simply by incremental additions to strategy and difficulty.

So now that we know what recipe makes combat engaging, we can immediately see the flaws that make dialogue distinctly less so. In dialogue as implemented in most CRPGs, it is a matter of simply selecting whatever option your character would say. On occasion there’s an option to utilize a “persuasion” skill, like threatening them, or charming them or whatever. This is done dryly, once off, and most of the time, using it or not, has no significant effect in the dialogue, except perhaps to give you some small reward. But game designers shy away from opening quests, or progressing currents quests through such skills, because if the player fails them, they would be left stranded and frustrated.

However this frustration does not exist when a quest progression is blocked by some enemy the player cannot defeat. Why is that? The answer is that even against an enemy that is too strong, the player is allowed to try, and if they discover in practice that it’s not possible, they can retreat (and death is treated in MMORPGs as a retreat basically, with some minor loss of wealth) and either grind for levels and better equipment, or purchase a number of strong one-use items to use specifically for this battle. Thus an impossible battle becomes simply very difficult but still within the capabilities of the player, who will have a nice challenge. And if they are defeated at this stage again, they can either replay it if they thought it was a close one, or go back to grinding a bit more. Whatever happens, the player does not feel frustrated by being thwarted by things they cannot control. Things such as random rolls on a statistic.

And this is the root cause why a dialogue loss based on a simple statistic such a persuasion would be frustrating if it ended up blocking progress in a quest. Not only does the player not have any skilled input in avoiding the loss, but retrying the attempt is either going to be stopped altogether, or be retried in such a heavy-handed way that it actually breaks the player’s immersion (for example, allowing the player to restart the conversation as if it never happened).

But what if instead of a simple skill roll to achieve the dialogue attempt, there were more than one. Not just skill rolls but skills as well. What if a player had different skills of persuasion and charisma that they can use in dialogue and convincing was not a case of a random roll, but a persistent attempt to sway the opinion of your opponent?

Lets try to see an example of this to see how it could work.

Let’s say you had a guard who was blocking your entrance to a compound you wanted to infiltrate. In most RPGs in the market today, the process would go approximately like this. You approach the guard and a discussion starts. She asks what you are doing there and you have the option to attack or talk further. If you attack, you get entrance in the compound but an alarm sounds so you get more enemies (i.e. failing the dialogue still allows you to progress at a higher difficulty). If you try to bluff your way inside, you will get a few options and (depending on the game) either you will convince her, or she will call your bluff and sound the alarm, at which point you end up at the first scenario anyway. If you manage to find the correct discussion path, you can enter without an alarm, at which point the game goes back to combat mode inside the compound, albeit with fewer enemies. If you have some ability such as Force Talk (or something), you might be given an option to use it in the dialogue, and if the random roll succeeds, you might either get in without going through the special dialogue path, or you might also get some small bonus, such as, say a key card to open some doors with extra loot.

Now lets take the same scenario, but in a game where the dialogue system has been advanced to be more engaging:

Of the three skill trees for dialogue, you have invested points in Quick Talking, rather than Charisma or Manipulation, so you’re well equipped for this scenario. The conversation starts and the guard asks for the reason of your presence there. As the discussion starts, you do not know much about this enemy, so you first need to understand their defenses before you can exploit them. So you select a Bluff attempt as an option and open up  with your bread&butter Quick Talking skill, the “Quick Bluff”. It uses no energy and the game informs you that you pretend to have important business with the leader of the compound. The guard’s Conviction bar takes a hit of 20 points and they now have 80 more left. If the guard was a simple mook, it would only take 4 more bluffs to gain entrance, so in this way it would seem like a normal combat, where you simply used your basic skills.

But lets assume that this is a more advanced guard as they are more important, and after the second bluff, they activate their defense skill, lets call it “Guard’s Caution” which damages your “Bluff Consistency” bar by 30 points. So now the situation is more urgent and you need to use some more powerful skills to overcome. So you bring about the “Force Talk” if you’re a Jedi, or you could see that the game has now revealed that the guard has the “loyal” trait (lets say that the more you talk, the more details you glean from your opponent), so you can fire up your “Military etiquette” skill from the Manipulation tree and exploit that weakness. If the guard’s defences manage to deplete your “Bluff Consistency”, your bluff is ruined and the guard can either raise the alarm, or become impervious to further attempts from you, forcing you to resort to weapons or sneaking (depends on the game).

Once in the compound via bluffing now, instead of passing onto combat, you simply have to bluff your way to the objective. So rather than fighting the random mooks in the state, you can talk to them, something which should be easier than the guard. In case of victory you could manage to make them leave the compound on some wild goose chase or just leave you alone. Finally you reach the “boss” and there you have a true challenge, where all your speech skills will be put to the test and you may actually lose. Losing might lead to combat, or death. But in the end, your success is actually in your skills, rather than one random roll.

Now the above scenario is simply a theoretical rule set for such game. It might not sound perfect but it’s just a sketch of just how such mechanics might work, while giving the player actual tactics to work with during such dialogues. This could then be combined with the group dialogue that SWTOR is using, to thus allow players to coordinate in tackling on more difficult opponents, by using their skills in combination. Or this could also be used to see who is going to speak in a conversation, by comparing perhaps the relevant stats of the players or allowing them to use some skill to take the initiative.

Now, it’s fairly easy to craft rule sets for such a system, but the largest problem in crafting a dialogue system that is engaging, is finding something to actually show to the player while they’re talking. As we said before, combat is dynamic and with a lot of sound, movement and assorted wow factor. Even the silliness of SWTOR where both sides just stand around shooting each other has a lot of pew-pew at least. Unlike that, a dialogue by itself does not have anything exciting to show, which theoretically might make people avoid it (not sure, it might be a great success that nobody expects. We won’t know unless some game tries it in practice), so the question then becomes, how to make discussion look exciting enough. Perhaps something like Ace Attorney, with a lot of strong gestures and flashing background might be employed if the style of the game permits it, but what else? Then there’s also the issue of sound. You can’t voice all such discussion without either being using an extreme budget, or using some way of cycling phrases, which will quickly turn repetitive. While the player tunes out or get’s used to blaster shots, explosions and grunts of pain, specific line of dialogue become very quickly recognizable (“Hold right there, criminal scum!”). I’ll admit that I’m really at a loss and I do believe this is going to be a strong block in implementing a dialogue system in RPGs that is engaging. Perhaps I’m wrong or perhaps someone more inventive than me can imagine something and implement it and revolutionize RPGs. I can only hope.

But certainly, if such an RPG came about, with a dialogue system that can be as useful and engaging as combat or stealth, it will have managed to add the aspect most RPGs are missing. Meaningful dialogue choices and play, which allows the player to stay true to their role.

How can we design a fulfilling moral system for a video game?

RPGs are the perfect art medium to explore moral issues. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can move towards this.

I recently started replaying Fallout 3 but this time with the addition of a few truly excellent modifications. I won’t got much into this other than to say that Fallout 3 seems to be 100% better when modded but the main thing that  struck me as I was going through the quests is how unfulfilling the moral choices and the relevant moral system is.  It’s nothing more than a Good/Evil scale which seems to telepathically travel around the world making everyone have similar reaction to your character.

I can’t help but be disappointed by it, especially for a game which for some reason has been praised for its wealth of moral options. I guess this is to a large extent due to its open nature and the number of side-quests to take which generally devolves to helping some person for free, helping some person for a reward, or killing them and taking their stuff. Much of this is caused of course by the limitations imposed by full voice acting but that doesn’t change the fact that one feels severely restricted.

Fallout does better than most still, you often have a choice on how to help them and so on, but then the arbitrary karma rewards/punishments come around and travel telepathically around the world which really takes away from the immersion. Fortunately I have a mod which can hide the Karma messages but I can’t escape their effects which makes it very weird when a village I’ve saved from certain doom starts being hostile to me because I murdered a tribe of cannibals and took their stuff, on the other side of the world.

The only way I’ve figured I can immerse myself in such a game is to decide before hand what my alignment will be in terms of a few ambiguous moral rules and stick to them, come what may. For example in the current iteration for example, I’m trying to play a “the needs of the many overweight the rights of the few” kind of character, who is also extremely xenophobic in terms of “weirdos” (i.e. all that are not “proper” humans) and see where that gets me. This leads me to be very nice and fuzzy to humans but extremely callous and downright evil to everyone else. Karma can’t represent this in any meaningful way and thus I end up stuck in the middle as “neutral citizen”, while my relations to most people, human or not, are generally cold. This only is interesting because I keep the experiences of my character in my own imagination as the game does not provide me with any real effect from my actions and even then, the game insists on making things difficult.

For example, in the scenario with the Cannibals Raiders above, I managed to let me talk to their leader at some point but there was no possible combination of dialogue to make them hostile to me once they became friendly. Sure, I could choose between 3 different options to resolve the quest I was in peacefully (all pretty much similar), but none of them fit the personality I’d chosen for my character: The fact that I do not deal with freaks and especially cannibals. There wasn’t even a dialogue choice I could choose to tell them that I was about to wipe them from the face of the earth. I could only proceed to an unprovoked attack which more so ended up triggering a game bug making me fail my quest if I didn’t do it right.

So I started thinking how this could possibly be improved in some significant way so as to capture the more complex effects of my morality. I had a few ideas but then I found this video online and I noticed that it had expressed a part of my thoughts very concisely.

So obviously the concept of factions would go a long way to make the moral system more realistic. Just imagine if one faction asked you to perform a quest which went against the interests of another faction who, when you ended up causing them enough trouble, would mark you as KOS or something. Or if one faction improved their impression of you after word that you wiped out their enemies spread around. Fallout 2 in fact had this, where the reputation system kept track of how each settlement viewed you but in this third iteration, they decided to dumb down the game to the simple good/evil dichotomy.

But further than factions, I’m thinking that games are truly the artistic means where it’s the best way to explore moral issues. Books and movies can only give you a perspective but it’s limited by the ideas of the author and how much one can identify with the characters. However RPGs are made for identifying with the main characters and the freedom to explore paths we wouldn’t normally experience or choose allows for some really interesting thoughts.

Imagine for example, if instead of one Good vs Evil scale, we had more than one, not necessarily as a graph like the video above suggest, but rather as separate counters which moved to either side depending on your actions in the world. Lets imagine for example a gender equality scale where a new character starts in the middle. Depending on the character’s interaction with males or females of the world (i.e. you should get on occasion phrases which allowed you to marginalize particular genders, such as dismissing the opinion of a female or something) this counter would move in either direction.

Now lets say that you have started acting like a misogynist. Initially you would have a few dialogue options which would allow you to move your scale to ther misogynist side of the scale. As you started to move towards it, more and more of your dialogue options would involve being outright sexist, until for example, you wouldn’t be able to refer to females without calling them “chicks” or “bitches”, even to their face. Now obviously this should create friction in the interaction with the women of the world and even a lot of the males through their dialogue, making for example feminist storekeepers have higher prices, women companions desert you and so on.  On the other hand, you could make it so that the player who reaches the far ends of misogyny be eligible for special perks (like the one which is already in the game giving extra damage vs females), special quests and so on. The fact that the initial steps one made into misogyny (i.e. the dialogue options one selected) might not be obvious and yet eventually the player discovers him/herself having progressed towards it might be an interesting result for people who have not even considered how their words and behaviour can be perceived. Not only does this make an interestnig role playing experience, but it might provide people with a new perspective.

Likewise, someone staying in the middle of the scale, at equality, could also be eligible for a perk and might get positive reactions from similarly minded people or factions or negative reactions from sexists.

Other similar scales could easily explore stuff such as racism (even if that is limited to the fantasy races of the game like Super Mutants and Ghouls) freedom of personal choice, mutual aid, respect for property, charity and so on. Therefore, you would not have good or evil characters but you could have a more detailed map of a personality which would be really tough to claim as simply good or evil.

For example. how would you label a person who is really strong in standing by and protecting his people but does not respect those who do not follow traditional values or are not human? How about the one who respects the individuality of everyone but sees all interactions with others through monetary exchanges? How about the one who believes that might makes right and that the more powerful deserve to rule but that one should always protect those who cannot protect themselves?

Most people would probably find a mix of good and bad aspects in each of these examples and the good about an RPG is that it allows you to Role Play such a character and see the world through their eyes. Sure, this is nonetheless limited by the developer’s creativity and possibly impossible to properly represent in the dialogue of a full-voice acted game but even so, you can still go at least halfway through a faction system plus specialised abilities and quests in case someone reaches an extreme moral value.

I hope we’ll see something like this in the future or even better, perhaps this is something that could be modded into the already existing games. Certainly when one can implement a scale for good and evil, one can also implement 3 scales for the moral values they’d like to explore in their game. One could even go for more, but as the video above mentioned, sometimes exploring only a particular moral value can be far deeper than a shallow good vs evil concept which cheapens the morality of the game rather than enrich it.

A break for gaming

Time to leave aside all the heavy socioeconomic and philosophical stuff and play some video games. I’m in the Demigod beta and Sins of a Solar empire is quite cool as well.

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I’ve toned down my blogging lately because my interest in gaming has been rekindled. As some may know already, I was a huge gaming enthusiast in my earlier days and now and then, the urge takes me once more and I dive into it for a short while.

This time my interest of choice has been Demigod, a upcoming RTS/RPG hybrid following on the succesful footsteps of DotA, which is quite a smart move as they get to milk an untapped market for this type of gameplay which has an already proven popularity. In Greece for example, the DotA popularity in Netcafes is immense. Day in and day out, people will tune in for this game and Counterstrike, both of which, incidentally seem to be more popular than their original game types (Warcraft 3 and Half-Life respectively).


I always wanted to play DotA but I didn’t have a copy of Warcraft3 available and I couldn’t be bothered to buy one just for it, so it was a nice solution that Gas Powered Games came out with a commercially developed game of this type since they also created another one of my recent favourites, Supreme Commander.

The good thing is that I could go in and join the beta simply by pre-ordering the game. This is a unique take on beta testing, which I think has a lot of potential, which is to allow everyone to join in simply by promising to buy the game. That way, you don’t have to rely on random selection and you insure that satisfaction is granted to those most excited about it.

So I’ve been playing the beta recently and I like what I see, although it still has a way to go before it is balanced and keeps up the interest for more than 20 games. From what I hear the beta testers don’t really see the whole enchelada so we probably see the the worrying trends resolved in the full version. Unfortunately we’re all eagerly awaiting the much advertised patch to fix the huge network issues that mutliplayer suffers from currently which make online play an annoyance more than anything else. After playing mostly against the AI for 1.5 week, I decided to wait until the patch comes out until I attempt any more MP.

So, as I was browing what Impulse had to offer, I noticed another game called Sins of a Solar Empire which seemed interesting although the screenshots didn’t really amaze me. Nevertheless I kept hearing positive things about it so I decided togive the demo a try.


I was hooked pretty quickly from it and as soon as my playtime expired in the demo, I bought the game through Impulse to continue. I won’t go much into details as you can easily find much more complete reviews of it if you’re interested but I’ll say that if you’re a fan of both RTS games and 4X games (Masters of Orion series, Galactic Civilizations etc) then this is certainly going to appeal to you as it merges aspects from both giving it an epic scale for an RTS and a fast-pace for a 4X.

What I didn’t like about it is the lack of a campaign mode, which although something standard for 4X games, is something always available for RTS’. I will try to work around it by playing on huge maps with lots of player but unfortunately this makes it a bit lacking as you only have the choice of 3 differents races to choose from and all of them have basically the same unit types (the only difference is that they get them at different points of the research tree). This makes the whole thing look a bit bland as you’re mostly playing a rock-paper-scissors game with your fleet compositions, since each ship type is basically designed to deal explicitly with another ship type.

On the other hand, they’ve done a wonderful job of merging RPG aspects into the game as well, where your capital ships are absolutely impossing and capable of earning experience and levels, giving them more special abilities and the like. In effect, the Capital ships play the role of Heroes in Warcraft 3.

Unfortunately the graphics are not as good as I would like, but I think that may be because Hegemonia spoiled me


As it is now, I’m going to start playing with a huge map and try to act as if that is a campaign. There are expansions coming out (I already bought it with the first one) and eventually a campaign is going to be included in the first major expansion. Lets hope my interest is held until then.

Anyone up for a game?

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Penny Arcade RPG?

For those not in the know, Penny Arcade is one of the oldest web comics on the net (It started back in ’98) and, as most webcomics those days, is about gaming. It has evolved quite an elaborate kind of humor as well as some unique characters and it also does not shy away from profanity. In short, I like it.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised that a new game has just been released online, that is based on this  setting and follows the same kind of rules: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness.

The game is a CRPG with a Final Fantasy-esque combat system and with beautiful hand-drawn cartoonish graphics. It is novel in the sense that it is set in a weird 1920’s era and the two main heroes are versions of Gabe and Tycho from the original cartoon, as well the custom character you create for your use.

The storyline, as far as I have played it at least, seems interesting enough. Although the game, other than the narrator, does not include any speech, the dialogues are well made and, as expected, do not shy from profanity either. A welcome change for someone who is sick and tired of self-censoring games (like me)

As far as I’ve read, the game lasts around 5-10 hours but seeing as it’s the first episode, and you pay just €12  for it ($20) it does not seem a bad deal (at least for europeans).

And for the best part: It runs on GNU/Linux…natively! 😯

This was actually what made me decide to buy the game. Even though the game is still propriertary, the fact that they did not take the easy way and just use DirectX grants them my support and with the price like that, it was a pretty low token. Of course I do believe that for such a small and episodic game they might as well sell it for 5€ and double their buyers overnight. It will just not worth pirating it when you can get it online much easier.

In the end, I also think that they could just as well liberate the engine of the game and still suffer no problem. After all, the whole point of it is the artwork, music and story which are things you can keep under copyright control. However releasing the engine would make sense, as it would allow a much faster development and bug fixing process and plus, a whole lot of Positive Karma and support from the Free Software community.

And with that, this little review-of-sorts is finished and I leave you with a short trailer. If you like what you hear and see, head over to the seller and get it. Tell ’em I sent you 😛


Once more into the Night

We’re once again in business, the Evernight campaign I had put on hold 7 months ago is starting once more.
One player has left (I do not want him back) and two new have arrived, Konstantis and Elena. This brings us to 5 PCs which is the optimal number for this campaign. Now I can feel a bit more secure that the encounter won’t be too hard.

Problem is that Konstantis has started working on an internet cafe which means he has a variable schedule, which means he decides the day we will play. Since that is the case I plan to make him be the “Game Crier” (the one who takes phone calls to schedule the game).
As always he decided to play the combat monkey, creating a Red Knight when he found out he didn’t have enough money to create the double sword, double gunslinging character he wished. I allowed him to take an edge when he couldn’t and I’m afraid it might disrupt the game, however I am a yes guy and it would make him happy (and shut up about those 3 exp)

Elena decided to makes a rogue-like character. I tried to dissuade her but she doesn’t seem to want to play anything else. There are two problems I foresee with this.
A. She is very inexperienced and tried to make a kind of jack-of-all-trades character. Unfortunately that is not a very good tactic for RPG, especially for heroic RPGs. The player finds it hard to shine at one place and thus get into the spotlight. The end effect is that she may get bored. Everyone needs his 15 minutes of fame.
B. She is also too similar to another player, who has the street rat archetype. I hope to give her some alternative ideas she can follow. Right now I’m thinking of a tomb raider archetype. It fits with the world and is rogue-like enough.

I also would like to have Sideris play as well but he asked me too late unfortunately. If someone drops out however he will be my first choice.

I noticed yesterday as they were making characters that I had forgotten the rules almost completely. That sucked.
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