Solo RP: Microscope RPG

Microscope RPG is a tabletop roleplaying game described as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories.”

I picked it up a really long time ago, sometime back in 2011-2012, when the only place it could be found digitally was an indie RPG store – Indie Press Revolution. You can get it now direct from Ben Robbins’ Lame Mage Productions website store, which is probably the best route.

It’s designed for collaborative storytelling – its systems elegantly make use of the human players in each game as the main randomizer for a shared narrative between that group of players.

In the last couple of years, some (probably aging) RPG enthusiasts who find themselves with neither the time nor inclination to drag a bunch of friends to sit around a table (virtual or otherwise) and talk to each other for 3-4 uninterrupted hours have developed a spin-off variant of the roleplaying hobby known as solo or solitaire roleplaying.

The great grandfather of this style of play (at least in internet time) was an unassuming little document that showed up on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG called Mythic Role Roleplaying. The paradigm shift was introduced in the set of rules that have been separated out into its own product – the Mythic Game Master Emulator.

Essentially, it split up the role of the GM – which is to answer a player’s questions as to what’s going on and whether something succeeds (taking into account dice rolls) – and delegated those duties out to a randomizer (dice and tables) and the solo player’s imagination/judgment (after taking into account dice rolls.)

It gave us the concept of an Oracle. The player asks some questions, the Oracle tells you ‘Yes’ or ‘No.”

Variants abound these days. Some systems like Mythic vary the chances of Yes or No occurring based on how likely or unlikely the player judges the likelihood to be. Some systems insert “Yes, but…” “Yes, and…” “No, but…” “No, and….” for added narrative complication.

Complex questions are answered by throwing two words together from a set of tables, serving as thematic word prompts for the player to interpret creatively based on the question’s context.

My go to resource for quick rolls is www.rpgsolo.com– a handy little website with a bunch of buttons to make dice rolls as needed.

Blend the two together, with enough time on my hands (a truly hard thing to find) and you get my first ‘serious’ solo playtest/gameplay session of Microscope RPG.

I stole some ideas off this solo play report – Under a Lens by chance. Essentially, it would be a two-player Microscope game with me and an imaginary “Random” player as simulated by a randomizer.

I discovered that I could get a little confused over whose ‘turn’ it is, so don’t expect a faithful rules-perfect recreation. You can go buy the original rules for that. Think of this as a variant that I was inventing for my own amusement

The first step of Microscope RPG is to lay out the initial setting premise.

Big Picture: Magic returns to a sci-fi space opera world.

Normally, this is a discussion among all the players playing, but since it’s just me, I went with what I felt like exploring. (Yes, I’m still on a Shadowrun bender. I just decided to kick it out to an even more extrapolated future.)

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The Palette is usually where players in the group discuss what they would like to see appear in the game and what they definitely wish to ban from the game. This can range from placing a moratorium on serious topics like rape, sex, genocide or whatever, to just being tired of hearing about the zombie apocalypse or the latest X-COM game and declaring “no zombies” or “no aliens.”

Again, since it’s just me, I know very well what I’m okay with covering and not covering, thank you. So instead, I decide to experiment with random spins from TV Tropes…

…In my opinion, this turned out to be of varying degrees of usefulness.

I like the reminder that I should try to get baddies to go up against each other. I have no clue whether it will ever be possible to insert something significant involving language drift. Bonus feature failure is probably going to be a failure… unless we count the inclusion of this somewhat useless Palette as the useless feature! (Boy, this got meta in a hurry.)

I have no clue how to interpret war for fun and profit, because I actually -like- wars as a narrative device. So I decided I’d avoid ‘cheesy’ wars where one-note villains like Emperors and Dark Lords decide they want a war just because. If I have a war, it’ll be for other reasons besides fun or profit… such as ideological ones, and so on.

I wasn’t a fan of numbers anyway, so the numerical motif one was a little odd. It only affected me once so far, by perplexing me on the number of some significant objects that should exist, and I got around it by rolling a dice for it. No significance to the number there, if it’s random!

Figuring out the Sister Ship trope was equally confusing. Apparently, this is where all your main characters decide to hook up together in relationships within the clique. Seeing as I’m not writing fanfiction but a timeline spanning eons, this seemed fairly safe from a rational perspective of “any main characters are probably separated by epochs and won’t get together,” but I decided to be safe and tried to avoid any ‘obvious’ answer of love and relationships as a motivating factor between characters in lieu of something else.

And so we begin.

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Bookend Periods are the start and end of the history that we will be exploring in the game. I rolled a random dice to decide whether they were Light or Dark periods.

I had no idea where I was going with these.

My first vague imagining was that some kind of celestial-seeming being started appearing across spaceships and various planets, perhaps granting magic or bestowing gifts of superpowers to those that came in contact with them. We will see this concept subtly evolve in subsequent gameplay.

I end with destruction, mostly because I can.

Anyway, if I have angels, that’s pretty good cause to leave potential room for a Revelations-style apocalypse, right?

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There is a sort of pre-game turn where each player can add a Period to flesh out the history a little more.

For the random player, I dice roll for whether his Period is Light or Dark. I get Light.

Since I’m simulating his creativity, I roll a Complex Question from RPG Solo (Mythic, C.Q.) and receive the enigmatic phrase “Starting / Expectations” as a reply from the oracle.

I interpret this as all spaceships that start long journeys have an expectation that mages will be part of the crew. In other words, there is a kind of normalcy regarding magic. It becomes another kind of technology to help humanity – mages have their roles in society.

As the first Period, this obviously has to go in between the two Bookend Periods.

For myself, I decide to add a logical sequence of events. My ending looks like death, doom and destruction. What could cause that? I’m a big Babylon 5 fan and I want to throw in my own version of the Vorlon and Shadows’ massive planet-killer ships. I imagine them as robotic and metallic (which might run us a little afoul of Mass Effect’s Reapers, but we’ll see if we can diverge from that later.)

Why are the planet-killers launched in the first place? No clue yet.

We may discover that in time as gameplay goes on. Or we may not. Microscope is a game about exploring history in fractal form. We’ll move backward and forward in time.

There is a faint inkling that maybe some faction wants to genocide the mages, or maybe the mages have factionalized to an extent that they hate each other, but I try not to second guess at this point. We are explicitly told in Microscope not to do this; things are only set in stone when they land as cards on the table – everything else is only implied for now.

Now the game begins. One player declares a Focus, a topic of interest that everyone’s creations this round need to center on.

Focus 1: The robotic planet-killer ships

I put in robotic on purpose this time, locking that down. No alien organic bioarmor, thanks. Got enough of that in Warframe.

Players can choose to create Periods, Events or Scenes, and decide whether they are Light or Dark. I random roll for it most of the time.

Dark Event:

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I blame the prevalence of PUBG for this. I was just trying to imagine “how the ship is made” and something in my brain insisted there needed to be a battle royale. Because I hate battle royales, I evilly decide that the guy who wins… doesn’t actually win.

Whether he becomes the ship, or the ship eats him, or something else, I don’t know at this point. But I do know he doesn’t get out. Mwa ha ha.

This Event obviously takes place in Period 3, where all the planet-killers start traipsing across the galaxy countryside.

(In my cleanup of my scribbled notes for this, I fractally add on more detail by naming things and making things more specific. The first planet-killer becomes known as The Raven at this point.

I found this made things more interesting and gave scenes more depth. After buying the Microscope Explorer supplement, I discover that this specificity is also recommended by the game designer. Good to know.)

Dark Event:

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I roll another Dark Event.

Needing a creative prompt at this point in time, I random roll a Complex Question answer and get “Trust/Fame.

I put two and two together. I need to talk more about planet-killers. I have magic in the universe and mages. Surely there is a trusted, famous mage that exists? An Elminster or Gandalf analogue?

It’s a Dark event, so welp… So long, famous mage.

Theoretically, the player who created the Focus can make two nested events for a structure that is similar to AABAA or just ABA.

At this point, I am already confused by the new rules and struggling to get through a round, so I call it there to start the end-of-round section known as Legacies.

A player chooses a Legacy – something mentioned in the previous round – that interests them and that they’d like to hear more about over the course of gameplay. They can keep a prior Legacy or choose a new one. They then create an Event or Scene about any of the Legacies in play.

The design theory for this portion, if I understand the designer correctly, is that it acts as a sort of safety valve when multiple players are playing Microscope. It lets players who are interested in a topic explore it, away from the constraints of the current Focus.

I’m not sure where I’ll take this yet, or how to adapt it for my solo playstyle, so I follow the structure for now.

Legacy 1: Mages

I’ve had enough for the planet-killers for now.

I roll a Scene for the Legacy portion. Crap.

In the normal game, this is where individual players choose and create characters, decide on a Location and then get involved in a bout of normal ad lib roleplaying that strives to answer the main question raised by the Scene.

Here I make liberal adaptations to the rules involving multiple players (for obvious reasons) – trying to roleplay Scenes, for example, don’t make sense when you’re alone. It makes sense that a group of players would want to roleplay it out, but if you try to do it alone, you end up as an author playing out predictable imaginary scenes rather than playing a game and being surprised by unpredictability.

So I treat it as half-Dictated Scene, helped along by Mythic answering questions for me so that it doesn’t turn into a novel-writing worldbuilding exercise out of my brain alone, and half-vignette creation writing exercise.

Scene: What prompts the mages to fight it out, instead of escaping from the ship? (Dark)

Location: Interior – a ship’s cell, we see a captive mage wake up groggily as the cell door automatically slides open.

The captives stumble out and come face to face with each other. Seeing each other’s robes, markings, sigils and tattoos, they realize they are from different factions and eye each other uneasily. One more tense and hostile individual starts verbally blaming a rival faction mage. That mage puts up with it for a while, then another is drawn into the argument. Attempted violence ensues, except they realize with a shock that they are all drained of magic and down to mere mortal human power.

A disembodied mechanical voice announces from the ship’s speaker the rules of the battle royale. Each eliminated mage will award the victor a little dribble of magical power. The last survivor that holds the prize will win their freedom and regain all their power. We fade out as the realization sinks in, and the mages scatter / grab makeshift weapons and chaos breaks out inside the ship.

Later, a group of mages do try to break out with what magical power they have, but as they blast and cut through the ship’s metal walls, they end up staring down a labyrinth of even more twisted metal and tunnels and ship’s corridors. The ship has them locked down deep inside somewhere… or is also somehow magically keeping them trapped…

I confuse myself again at this point, and roll again for the other player’s input. (I believe that one Legacy item is all that is actually needed. But this round has two, just because.)

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I decide to give a reason for the mages to belong to different ideological factions, in order to plausibly wind up in a battle royale against each other. Who dumped them onto that ship as captives though? That’s a question for another day.

Mercifully, the self-confusion of the first round ends and I start my second foray through the same rules with round two.

Focus 2: The survivors of the planet-killers

I decide I want to know more about the death, doom and destruction portion of my timeline.

Specifically, I want a Scene answering this burning question in my mind.

Scene: How do the survivors survive on a blown apart planet? (Light)

Location: Exterior -on a wrecked planet, darkness, the sun blocked by dust clouds in a “nuclear winter” type of scenario. We fade in on a junk heap of scrap metal and rubble, and a scavenging child clambering precariously across the ruins.

The child is on the thin side, but not scrawny or skeletal, clothing torn and dirty but not primitive. We see the child turning over bits of junk, foraging for bugs and insects, which he stores in a container on his belt. He uncovers a small motherlode of mushrooms and smiles, harvesting them and storing them in another pouch.

Movement catches his eye and he sees a rat staring at him from the top of another heap, whiskers twitching. He looks at it, considering his chances, as he moves a hand slowly to a slingshot. He attempts a shot and misses, the rat takes off and the chase is on -if a little half-heartedly on the part of the child.

We see why in a couple seconds, the rat moves too quickly, and the child slips and slides on a loose stacked heap of rubble. As he tumbles, he grabs at various items for purchases, some of them tumbling loose as well. He hits the bottom with a bone-jarring thump, catching his pained breath for a couple moments, before he notices something odd and glowing with a soft white light, obscured somewhat by the dust of his landing.

An expression of hopeful wonder spreads slowly across his face and he scrabbles towards the light, clearing away chunks of stone, trying to uncover it. He shifts a flat piece of dark metal, and the glow blossoms into the full and warm bright light of an almost-mini sun. It’s a mini-version of an “angel,” a seed almost, which floats upward, slowly rising in cherubic defiance of gravity. Stumbling back, shading his eyes, he stares at it in awe.

A hand grips his shoulder, and we follow it upward to see an adult mage, dressed in grimy robes. “Good work,” he says as he raises his hands and begins a chant to manipulate the small ball of warmth and light.

We subsequently see the mage move the mini-angel through the locale and down into a series of tunnels and caves. They come to a stop in a large underground cavern, lit by the light of several mini-angel suns. This is where their small community of survivors is growing food for themselves.

Ok, I confess this Scene didn’t turn up fully formed like that. It went through a couple revisions before the blog post.

The child, the mage, the angel bloom and the underground cave farm were there in scribbled draft 1.

I also blame the cave farm idea on Minecraft. The thinking went along the lines of “With no natural light, maybe there is magic light.” “I remember Minecraft where I grow trees and crops with magic light.”

A Google search for food sources in nuclear winter revealed some interesting (if icky) articles where some researchers speculate that certain species will remain alive through a lack of sunshine. Insects are a decent source of protein. Apparently.

All the ideas get thrown into the fictional Scene as grist for the mill in the cleanup draft.

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I realize the Scene as written above doesn’t quite fit into our existing eras. I also felt it was special enough to give it extra significance. So I make a Period and squeeze it in between our old Period 3 and 4 to become a new Period 4.

Now we have a bit more Dark and Light balance.

The next random roll is a Light Event.

I want a source for the angel seeds.

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Dark Event, says the random roll. The next logical segue-in is, “What about the planets without angel seeds, what happens to them?”

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Nothing good, apparently.

Legacy 2: the planet Damocles

Come on, you can’t just name the planet and then walk away before we know more about it…

Scene: Is this harvest of survivors organized? / Who is doing it, aka preying on human flesh? (Dark)

Location: Transylvanian-style village with a mage tower in the background.

Rurik, a Van-Helsing type of hunter, arrives to investigate the rumors of human hunting/harvesting in these here parts. In usual fashion, he finds the locals taciturn and unwelcoming of strangers.

Heedless of warnings, he follows a group of hunting undead, which leads him right into the mage’s tower. The Lady Elaine is a necromancer that has sent her undead servants out foraging for human flesh for her.

It turns out that she is using the flesh not just for herself, but also to keep another mage alive. This mage is a rival that she has overpowered; she is busy trying to obtain the magical key/password to his tower from him.

Rurik manages to surprise and kill her. He marches up to the captive, who is hoping to be freed, but when a shotgun is aimed right at his head, the captive begs for his life in terror and offers up the key to his tower.

It doesn’t save him. Rurik splatters his brains all over the wall.

Rurik takes the key and walks over to the mage portal in Elaine’s tower. He seems to know his way around. He uses the key and crosses over to the captive’s tower…

… but something is wrong as we fade back in. There is a noise like that of an angry mob rioting. In the mage’s absence, his fief’s peasants have broken into the place and are looting and trashing the joint.

They react in a panic to Rurik’s sudden appearance – thrown rocks hit the hunter, and we see him go down under the boots and fists of a lynch mob…. The camera view lingers on one or two members of the mob, who appear to have shriveled human skulls hanging on their belt… as we fade out…

This is a more roughly-written scene than some of the above. Can’t win ’em all. It’s a game, I don’t want to rewrite and polish everything. It’s enough for me to know what’s going on.

Mythic helped to resolve some of the plot points above. The questions and answers were:

Does he kill the mage? Yes.

Does he spare the captive? No.

Does he use the key instead? Yes, but…. (Abuse/Exterior Factors)

That was good enough for me to decide that the hunter also doesn’t get away scot-free. As a bonus, I threw in the last minute insinuation that other people are also cannibals in this setting too.

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After two rounds, our timeline now looks like this. Quite some meat on its bones.

Coming up in a future blog post – Round 3 – There be Dragons in them thar hills…

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State of the Games

It’s Lunar New Year season, both online and offline.

Spring cleaning’s exhausting. There are a million and one undone errands. There are traditional customs and ritual celebrations that have to be prepared for and performed in the days ahead.

Adding on to the list of things on everyone’s mind over here: A very old relative just got discharged from the hospital after a big low blood sugar scare that had them comatose and kidney function that wasn’t terribly good to begin with going the wrong way. Surprisingly, after a couple days of IV drip and replacement of pretty much all necessary nutrients, kidney function returned, so the body can be an amazing beast, after all. Except now they have a bedsore to contend with, after the unavoidable hospital visit.

(Yeah, well, the whole family is already expecting this individual’s lifespan to be in the weeks or months. So it won’t come as a shock or tragedy. Said individual also has dementia and has been in decline for a couple years now. It’s just been making them comfortable and giving them as much quality of life possible, before their passing, for a very long time now.)

On a personal front, yours truly has also been on the tail end of one of those ubiquitous “winter” colds/flus/unidentifiable and highly annoying (but thankfully not fatal) respiratory illnesses that spread like wildfire through crowded offices and various forms of public transport.

After heroically attempting to brave it out with one’s own immune system and plenty of ginger tea and chicken soup, the darn infection proceeded to coat most of my lungs with thick phlegm of interesting colors and then spread to my eyes, presumably via the very clogged sinuses.

That would be the time I wussed out and headed promptly to a doctor’s for a whole bunch of antibiotics in eyedrop and tablet form, and mucus thinners, which fortunately, worked as prescribed.

It has, however, worked to create a bit -more- gaming time than normal, as being too ill and tired to leave the house or indeed, move from a seated or sleeping position, yields a whole bunch of sitting in front of the computer.

Which was good, because my previously nicely balanced trifecta of gaming – GW2, Minecraft and extra Steam game, sort of expanded suddenly this past week or so.

(Causing blogging to fall behind, but I’m trying to fix that with this whopper of an update post.)

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Guild Wars 2 – Time here has cut back down to mostly dailies. Dailies, and more dailies.

Lunar New Year dailies involve a whole bunch of firecracker clicking and desultory Dragon Ball attendance (just to get the bare minimum of participation. The “wins” one is just insane and places stress on the wrong thing, imo. Especially when half the participants are ready to self-adjust and autobalance via quitting a losing match, and the other half has no interest in winning, are just here for participation, couldn’t care less to try, etc…

And don’t get me started on the AFKers, who have presumably developed the solution of “winning” through probability over a long period of time. Though how they eventually score a win is beyond me, since the opposing team tends to use them as free score punching bags, and the rest of their teammates quit, rather than fight an uphill battle – catching up is hard/impossible in Dragon Ball – or reward the AFKer with an improbable win.)

The red packet lottery itself isn’t too bad. For about less than a gold daily, I get a bunch of luck to up my magic find, some spare food and fireworks and stuff. I got the ram backpack on the second day, which was pretty lucky, I suppose, and that took off quite a bit of stress. Prices aren’t too bad on the TP either, I don’t think. The drop rates have been less insane for this particular red packet thing.

When I have time to kill, I pop over to the Silverwastes to score some additional magic find boosts before opening the 16 daily red packets. The difference between 300 and 500 magic find is probably mostly in my head, but hey, who knows, right? And Silverwastes drops champion bags and other loot, so the time ain’t wasted.

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Evolve – Yep, still at it for an hour or two a day, give or take.

My multiplayer experience has been more than a little shaky, lately.

I think part of it is my geographic region, which probably dumps me into an Asian matchmaking server or something. So one is likely to play with players from all over this region, many of which might not even speak English, and are probably half my age.

Ok, straight up, not being a bigot or anything, I can tell you, there are cultural differences between NA, EU and the Asian regions. You can feel this in FPS games, MMOs, MOBAs, the works.

I’ve always really liked playing in the NA region. NA folks, in general, are fairly open-minded and cooperative and more tolerant. Casual communities form pretty quick. My best Team Fortress Classic days were spent playing in some West Coast servers, when I was residing in the States. Organizations like TTS to gather, figure out and subsequently teach a bunch of randoms how to fight Tequatl and Wurm are NA-originated constructs.

EU folks, again speaking in super-general terms, I find, are also pretty decent. In fact, sometimes MORE than decent. They’re good. They’re pretty damn pro and serious about their games. If you like playing with /good/ players, the EU is worth seeking out, but they also tend to take on a certain slightly more closed-doors elitist mindset, possibly partially due to language differences. The French are over here, Germans over there (and maybe the Swiss and Swedes, or whoever) the UK represents over yonder, and Eastern Europe and/or Russia are somewhere else, and you get these little cliques. That get a little hard to break into.

And then there’s their ping, which is usually great within their own region, shakier communicating with the US (sorta like the difference between Asia and Australia, ~200ms) and absolutely total crap when you try and hook Asia and Europe up (~350-400ms.)

This keeps my interacting with EU folks pretty limited in general, but I remember pretty good times playing high difficulty Alien Swarm with a bunch of random Ukrainians, and really good times in a WvW guild zerg led by a semi-open to PUGs who listen and don’t die EU commander when I was staying up like an insomniac.

Conversely, one tends to want to cry when stuck only interacting with an Asian playerbase.

Games are just not taken as seriously or accepted culturally over here. They’re for kids.

While the number of adults that play games (and openly admit to playing games) is growing over here, it’s just not growing as fast as in the West. It’s ironic that the selling point used to promote the digital media and video games industry over here is that they are multi-million dollar industries. Say the word, “games?” Instinctual laughter. Say “$$$” and oooh, people listen. Welcome to materialistic Asia.

Oh, and the adults that do play games? They have to do it in between their work, whose regular hours can stretch to 9-12 hours daily. Weekend warriors? You bet. Ever notice how the quality of GW2 Silverwastes or other such maps suddenly goes to absolute shit on the weekends?

Basically, most of Asia plays like that, all the time. (With maybe some exceptions for still-schooling students who can afford to devote a ton of time to one game, like LOL or something.)

And you can’t blame them because duh, they just aren’t getting the hours in to practice and then play any better. That’s just life. That’s HOW IT IS.

Culture here doesn’t really use mics. Can’t blame ’em, I don’t either. It’s rough to disturb one’s family doing that, and oh, there’s that whole ‘game-playing’ stigma that talking to a monitor is not going to alleviate.

So… no to little communication. Add on the possibility of not understanding typed communication if the opposite number doesn’t speak your language (or have an Asian keyboard that can type or even see Korean/Chinese/Japanese characters.) Add on a competitive afraid-to-lose competitive culture.

And you get a delicious recipe for tears and rage in any kind of team-based cooperative game that requires a little more organization or strategic thought beyond point-the-gun-that-way-and-shoot individual rambo deathmatch.

It’s really just my luck that I like games like that. Team Fortress. Natural Selection. Left 4 Dead… and now, Evolve.

Maybe my experience has been a little skewed because I haven’t been playing at peak hours for Asia either, but in the past few days, each attempted multiplayer game has either yielded an incompetent team of Hunters (where our medic ran off and got himself killed in all kinds of creative ways beyond our reach, despite our vain attempts to call him back to us) or less than a full team.

Whereupon I guiltily proliferate the problem and drop out as well, because if it’s just me, another random person I probably can’t count on and a monster player, I may as well play a solo game with bots and actually -enjoy- myself, rather than just feed the monster player’s ego.

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been playing Evolve super-heavily, which keeps my level at the very odd middle point of being in the teens, making it much harder to matchmake. (I presume the supremely hardcore and good quality players are already level 20+ and probably 30-40 by now.)

In which case, I just need to continue on my slow road to progress, playing little bot games until I get out of the baby levels and into more of the big leagues.

The bot games, anyway, are pretty enjoyable. One can actually hotswap between the various Hunters, so I can, say, possess a Trapper and trap the Monster in the mobile arena, then swap over to Support to back up the bots, and switch over to something else if I wanted more fine control, etc.

It’s also a good avenue to work on some of the weirder requirements to progress and unlock other Hunters, since an actual game with players would mean actually using all one’s weapons to full advantage, while a bot game means you can just camp say, a harpoon gun and work on racking up as much harpooning of the monster as possible, dps be damned.

I’d really love to get some friendly games in with people I know, but I suppose that’s for later, when Evolve actually drops to an affordable price for more people. (Aussies were apparently screwed over by the starting price, for example. Which -may- explain why the quality of the Asian server has been so shitty. Oceania tends to be my little haven of occasionally cooperative sanity in this region.)

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FORCED – Instead, my avenue for cooperating with known people has been this quaint little indie action-puzzler.

You know, for folks who miss the well-divided roles, the try-try-again aspect and necessity for communication of strategy and cooperation while implementing a plan of action, aka MMO raiding, they would do well to give FORCED a try and play it at a hardcore level.

Being that I’m mic-less and most of my friends are at a distinctly more casual level, we’ve just been dipping our toes into the waters and being just content with finishing each stage, rather than trying to beat any challenges or finish in record times.

It’s a fun game all the same. You can play solo, but you miss the added complications and give-and-take of playing with an additional 1-3 players.

So far, I’ve tried solo, 2-player and 3-player mode (the last courtesy of a game with Eri and another friend.)

There are four roles: a hammer smash damage melee type, a claw-wielding quick attack dps Wolverine-sort of melee user, a lighting bow ranged attacker with control and stealth options, and an ice shield control & tanky melee sort.

The goal of the game is to fight and puzzle one’s way through little arena rooms filled with both puzzles to complete and waves of enemies that get in your way of doing so.

You get a little ball-wisp-spirit mentor thing that each player can call around with Spacebar, and this wisp is crucial for solving various puzzles like breaking up or activating shrines, blowing up statues, interacting and pulling little crates around to fit on little pressure plates, rescuing you from enemy crowd control that pins you in place and damages you till you die, etc.

As -all- players can control this wisp, a certain amount of communication or situational awareness is crucial for making sure it goes where it needs to, in a good amount of time.

Our super-casual goes at it occasionally lacked this communication, which leads to amusing Magicka-like moments where the other players are more lethal to you than the computer enemies. Still, the unpredictability is part of the fun, I’d say.

I’ve mostly been camping the ice shield tank on my two cooperative goes at FORCED, but I do think the roles feel good and useful, without becoming codependent on each other.

The ice shield user has quite a lot of knockdowns, if not high damage, and tends to draw aggro when the character hits anything. This puts me in very comfortable territory as I race over and body block (there is collision detection in this game –  sometimes much to my dismay when I realize I can’t fit into the same space as two other people and die to an insta-kill laser) and push away enemies from my friends.

And it has a temporarily-turn-into-ice-and-be-immune-to-anything skill, which feels absolutely like a GW2 guardian block, insta-negating something painful. All kinds of tanky tricks like kiting and dragging around enemies to optimally place them appear to be very doable in FORCED.

The fire hammer is more GW2 warrior-like, more offensively focused. I could tell there was a distinct lack of damage in my two player game, as opposed to my three player game where Eri came along and was all hammer-barbarian on the various mobs.

It has a little charge-up mechanic where slow and steady swings deal hefty amounts of damage, and a number of AoE damage skills.

I pretty much think of the green claw weapon-wielder as Wolverine. It’s very mobile, very quick-attacking, and can pump an AoE heal if the said skill is chosen. It’s very possible to melee kite in a circle with this character, dancing around the enemy doing a seemingly insignificant amount of damage just looking at one float-up number alone but hitting so many times it becomes the death of a thousand and one papercuts in short order.

It can also contribute to a team role by very rapidly putting on ‘marks’ on all enemies that allow for finisher skills to do greater amounts of damage.

I’m least versed with yellow-bow wielder, not having much of a ranged preference. It does seem to suit a friend that -does- enjoy being ranged, and seems to have a charge-up sniper sort of mechanic. Knockbacks and other such controls appear to be also a thing, and the bow user can also invis the entire team for stealth moments when desired.

I especially enjoy the action combat for being fair like GW2. Mobs have certain patterns of attack that can be avoided if you know how and/or are good at hand-eye coordination.

A bull-like Taurus will charge, so once you see it start its animation, move off sideways because it’ll go until it slams headlong into a wall and stuns itself. (Which rather brings to mind a certain fight in the Crucible of Eternity dungeon in GW2 almost immediately.)

A brawler has a heavy broadsword swing attack, so attack it, back off a little before it swings, and then attack again.

Cleavers, on the other hand, have a really nasty axe swing, and moving in to attack first WILL get you hit by this attack. So let -them- attack first, get their axe buried and stuck in the ground, before moving in to hit them, etc.

A spit-using imp has acid spit to be dodged, and a certain exploding knockback imp is pretty much a melee user’s nemesis unless I get my ice-immunity skill up in time… except there was once when my friend on the yellow bow managed to get them all first and quickly, and then I realized… Ooooh, look, team roles! The archer can actually deflect the pain of this enemy. (And presumably if I took a ranged skill, I might be able to deal with it too.)

Looking forward to getting a few more games of this, whenever people are free.

blackguards

Blackguards – I’m not sure what prompted me to install this and try it out. It was just another one of those games turning up in my ever-expanding Steam games list after buying one too many Humble Bundle deals and the like.

The blurb on the store page read, “What happens when the only hope of a threatened world lies not with heroes in shining armor, but in the hands of a band of misfits and criminals?”

And I went, hrm, I don’t know, maybe it’ll be fun to play a fantasy game where my characters are scum and villains, let’s see how this plays…

Turns out, not too bad.

One of the big hurdles, I feel, is that your expectations have to be set right with regards to Blackguards. It’s not a full-fledged heavy customisation RPG in the vein of Fallout and its ilk. It feels like a game that very easily can and will find its way onto a tablet or mobile near you.

That is, it feels a bit like an app game. Most of the in-between combat consists of a world map and a bunch of fast-travel points to click on to progress from stage to stage, or region to region. Sort of similar to Puzzle Quest, in that sense.

The story seems to be of average quality, the voicework so-so but conveys the plot and characters well enough that you’re not -totally- cringing at something that didn’t fit, but tends toward being somewhat corny in places. It’s interesting enough, in an “I want to know more, so I will keep playing” fashion.

Your character begins in front of a dead body, apparently framed for their murder, and thrown into prison. You bust out of prison with two unlikely allies, a dwarf and a southerner mage (somewhat reminiscent of the Forgotten Realms, which ain’t a bad thing in my book) with the goal to find out more about what’s going on and what the heck happened to you. Standard fantasy trope, really, but functional.

The fights themselves are… not horrible. They could, I suppose, be a little more interesting.

But in the early game, it’s mostly been alternating between normal attack and Power Blow attack (with lower chance to hit), with only one mage sporting a few more varied spells like a fire bolt, a fireball, a barrier and some buff and debuff spells – most of which you won’t be able to cast too much of, or run out of mana very quickly.

The environments are pretty enough, with occasional possibilities for interacting with objects mid-battle, with traps and mechanisms to figure out the purpose of.

I can’t help but wonder if there are other things I’m missing, so to speak. There seems to be some kind of cover system in play, where your chances of evading ranged attacks are better when you’re behind cover. There appears to be some kind of swarm combat bonus at work, but none of it is made terribly clear. Sometimes you’ll have 75% chance to hit someone, sometimes 45% and is it because of facing? Or maybe the armor the individual is wearing? Who knows.

But for a change of pace and a few turn-based encounters here and there, it’s decent enough… and I’d sure like to know what’s going on with the story, and so, I play on.

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Minecraft – I’ve been alternating between the Agrarian Skies and Wanderlust Reloaded modpacks rather frequently.

Ag Skies is my comfortable, established, so-called ‘mid-game’ factory/automation mod exploration goto, but occasionally it feels too safe and a little slow and boring to progress further.

Somedays, you just want to explore a big world and actually have procedurally generated land that you didn’t place block by block yourself.

After dabbling with a ton of the other modpacks that have HQM (some of whom seem fairly intriguing), most of them end up too hard or too confusing for poor ol’ me at this stage of mod ignorance. Spatial IO? Ender IO? Buildcraft? Computercraft? Wtf are those?

A number simply presume a baseline level that’s set a little too high for me to fully grasp. When I struggle with the first few HQM goals, that’s usually a good sign that it’s way beyond me for the moment.

Yet others are simply too hardcore lethal. The vanilla mobs hold no more terrors for these established Minecraft players, and so they turn up mob difficulty to 11… (or 13.) Mobs that ride spiders…that fly…and are on fire… that shoot explosive poisonous arrows… Uhhh, yeah. I’m not -that- well-versed with all the mods and stuff that I can tech up in the space of one day before night falls and be ready for mortal combat with buffed out zombies and creepers and skeletons sporting way too many hearts.

Wanderlust Reloaded is the only other modpack that I’ve managed to find -with- a nice HQM system to provide little goals to follow and learn new mods, while not being out to murderize you every minute.

It contains a couple of different mods from Ag Skies, like Botania, which is nice since I can learn a few different mods, but also has some similarities like Minefactory Reloaded, Thermal Expansion and Forestry, so that it doesn’t feel too alien and I can fall back on what I know previously.

(I do miss Ex Nihilo and Ex Aquilo though. I just love being able to produce everything from nearly nothing.)

The world it rolls up feels pretty great, more complex but still recognizably Minecraft. Just with more cool things –  plants, ores, and all, inside it.

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Rollplay: Swan Song – Not precisely a game that I’m playing, but one that I’ve been finding really fun to listen to.

This has been my background accompaniment to playing around in Minecraft (since Minecraft’s audio/music sucks anyway after hearing it once or twice), having forgotten about it for several months and needing to binge to catch up with the storyline.

Man, it’s still good. And highly recommended.

Eavesdropping on a group of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells try to raise a burgeoning AI to not be a complete monster amidst a background of people perpetually dying after coming into contact with them and getting into serious trouble aboard the junker spaceship Swan Song, exploring a vast variety of planets created by the ingenious mind of Adam Koebel and the Stars Without Number tabletop RPG system, is great entertainment.

Stars Without Number: Swan Song

I’ve always liked tabletop roleplaying, but also always ran into the geographical problem. There’s simply not enough people I can find in physical proximity to get a game going, especially living somewhere in  freakin’ Asia, a continent or two away from where more people have heard of the concept.

Now there’s digital tabletop roleplaying – assuming you have a webcam, a microphone and a tabletop roleplaying program – but eh, I already find trying to keep to regular MMO raid times a headache, to say nothing of trying to schedule the SAME 4-5 busy working adults across weeks and months for long enough to have a decent story going.

Then there’s the effort of GMing – isn’t it always funny how the one with the most interest ends up taking on most of the work – and I end up concluding that trying to run a game in reality fits under the ‘very low priority desire’ category.

Instead, just like one realizes that one doesn’t have the time to play all the MOBAs in the world and just idly watches professional streams now and then, I’ve taken to watching someone else roleplay for me.

Or a whole bunch of someone elses.

JP McDaniel aka “itmeJP” on Youtube, runs a roleplaying games channel where his friends and him play through a broad range of game systems. He’s also had some very special guest stars joining in – Totalbiscuit on Dark Heresy, Jesse Cox on Numenera, and so on.

One of the more recent and fascinating game series that I would recommend is their current play through with the “Stars Without Number” RPG system (a free edition available through DriveThruRPG here.)

If you like science fiction, and/or are a fan of Firefly, where a gang of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells fly around on a spaceship visiting different planets and getting into interesting scrapes, you might like Swan Song.

This is Part 2 of the first episode, which gets right into the introduction of the characters, then the story portion.

(Part 1 is the character creation and involves lots of dice rolling and numbers and system talk, which may only interest a smaller subset of you.)

One notable player to look out for is Steven Lumpkin, who also happens to be the lead level designer for the Warhammer 40k: Eternal Crusade MMO. He’s more often in the GM role, but as it turns out, he’s also a very entertaining and artfully imaginative player.

The entire playlist is here.

As these “Rollplay” episodes are almost essentially audio plays, unless you really want to track every last nuance of their faces and dice rolls, I’ve found that they make good watching alongside a relaxing farming session in an MMO, where one can indulge in repetitive meditative motions while keeping the rest of the brain occupied elsewhere.

Now level 63 in Path of Exile, thanks to lots of Fellshrine Ruins farming and Swan Song!

(The item drops on Merciless do seem to be a lot more attractive, I’m accruing currency and skill gems at a decent enough rate.)