On Fiasco

This is one of several posts written as part of a module at Abertay. They are being archived here for prosperity

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So my group have finally sat down and played through a session of Fiasco. Our time spent weaving a tale of intrigue, scandal and murder through suburbia helped to reveal some insights into the game and I came away with a few thoughts.

First, the character creation system is excellent. Moving gradually around the table, each player either creating or adding to the relationships and details really works very well. It gets everyone involved with starting to make the story. The fact each character’s relationships are only with the people on each side of them is good helping to keep the complexity of the overall game down, without it turning into a mess of trying to work out how everyone relates to everyone else. In addition, each relationship has its additional details which lets you slip in the maguffin items or the general motive of each relationship. Most of the time these make sense but they can occasionally end up with bizarre details that just get ignored in favour of the story.

I also really liked the tilt and ending sections. Both of these take the dice on the table and uses them to setup the vital middle section or say how the end of the story plays out. The pile of tables and dice rolls forces you to bend the narrative to fit around the sudden twist which sounds horrible but does work out quite well in practise.

So flaws – you may notice I wasn’t a fan of either of the acts. This comes down to the way the scenes play out, with a player improvising or acting out a scene before taking/being given an outcome dice. At this point, the dice’s value plays no part, only its colour having any bearing on the situation. Each of the scenes were not that great to create and play through, knowing that one person’s definition of a good ending can be very different to someone elses’. To make this more interesting, I think it would make sense to merge the ending dice mechanic with the tables used for working out the ending. Being given a black dice with a value of six tells you that this scene has to wrap up very, very badly for the character in question.

The greatest issue of fiasco is it requires everyone playing to have at least a certain level of skill in improvisation or acting. Unlike in D&D, where players can be attracted by either the mechanical side or the story telling side and get equal enjoyment (dependant on a decent DM etc). Without the mechanical side, the game suffers if someone has no interest in the improvisation side. What’s worst is if any player is loosing interest or doesn’t especially want to act the part then if affects everyone.

As part of this, the game has no games master or DM, which means you don’t have the a player keeping things on track or carefully hiding issues under the rug. It can be great, letting the story play out naturally but can also lead to the game taking a very large amount of time to play with story threads flying off in different directions.

To conclude, Fiasco has some great ideas and was entertaining but I think it also has some flaws that stop it from being a game everyone should play. Its perfect for someone who likes to practise improv but not for anyone who finds the loot drop, beat monsters aspect of RPGs to be the most interesting bit.

Narrative in Wargaming

This is one of several posts written as part of a module at Abertay. They are being archived here for prosperity

A chunk of lead on the tabletop or the heroic Imperial Guardsmen about to deliver a wall of gunfire?
A chunk of lead on the tabletop or the heroic Imperial Guardsmen about to deliver a wall of gunfire?

Something I’ve always loved since about the age of 8 was making plastic model kits. Long before it was the PC keeping me up until early in the morning, putting bits of plastic together and leaving them to rest would fill my room with the fumes of poly cement (plastic glue). Most of these models ended up in mock battles on the kitchen table. My dad and I would make up rules using six sided dice, playing cards and tape measures before whiling away an afternoon in tiny conflicts. These conflicts would soon come to an end before the table had to be used for making the evening meal but the piles of different rules and the series of actions that played out stuck with me for a while.

Like PC strategy games, war-games have an ability to create stories you don’t see otherwise. The expensive (in terms of points) sniper who always seems to full his to hit roll or the squad of conscripts that somehow manage to bring stomping robots or giant creatures stick in your head (and quite often your opponent’s minds). I’m lucky enough to have a small group of friends that also enjoy buying and painting up figures so a good bit of time can be spent every holiday playing through a quick skirmish before sitting back with a beer to laugh about the insanity that just played out.

Miniatures war-games brings this narrative to an even greater level of involvement that PC or counter based systems as you have the ability to theme your models even more closely. I played a game over the Christmas break that had my team of human soldiers facing off against my friend’s Space Marines. When I came back for another game against those guys, I noticed one had suddenly gained an Imperial Commissar’s hat perched atop his backpack. That is an extreme example but marking tanks with kill rings or adding little trophies to a model’s base is so common but helps to add to the narrative that comes from playing these games.

To conclude, miniatures war-gaming is a different type of interactive medium. It is more tactile then D&D and its ilk and in some ways the visual element of armies moving helps to futher its story telling. Combine that with a long term hobby element and you have a fine way of passing the time and entertaining your friends with tales gained from moving your bits of metal/plastic/resin around the tabletop.

Narrative Through Systems

This is one of several posts written as part of a module at Abertay. They are being archived here for prosperity

A 77 year old ninja? A great story waiting to be told
A 77 year old ninja? A great story waiting to be told

Games like the Civilisation series, the Total War series and Crusader Kings all have campaigns that do not sit with any exact narrative written by a script writer. Instead, they campaigns are focused around more general ideas such as the gradual progression of civilisation or the general overall politics of a certain time period. Their more powerful story telling instead comes from much smaller events discovered through gameplay.

In Hearts of Iron, a game similar to Crusader Kings but set during the period between 1933 and the late 1940s, I routinely play as the British trying frantically to keep hold of its empire while at home being absolutly hammered by the Axis. The most compelling story for me is keeping control of a small division right from their deployment to Egypt at the start of the war until their final mission somewhere in the Italian alps. They had fought through North Africa, worked their way up the heel of Italy, served time in a small invasion of Spain via Gibraltar (don’t ask) before finally finishing right on the Austrian border. I’d seen them change from reservists at the wars beginning, of their horrifying losses at the first battle of Tripoli, of their rearmament and retraining before the amphibious invasion. The fact that the name of the unit had been generated to that of my home county also played a big part in seeing their trails and tribulations through to the end.

Or in Shogun Total War 2, seeing a single general rise up from your recent recruits. Watching him win battle after battle, seeing him rise up in rank and gaining new hangers on. One of these possible additions to their party is a foreign officer, in my case a Frenchman. The image of a Japanese general sitting on the back of his horse as an army of recently trained western style troops marching in front of him while a French advisor is presumably relating tales of Napoleon is great image worth of any film. Of course, when his army is crushed a few hours later and he himself is slain on the field of battle then the film sadly turns into a tragedy.

Or perhaps the joys of seeing your troopers in XCOM, working their way from simple recruits up to majors or forcibly converting them into stomping mech trooper or genetically modified monsters. Seeing two troopers work alongside each other only for one to pass away a square away from his brother in arms really tugs at the heart strings.

To conclude, I’ve found much more enjoyment from these style of stories, the ones created by my own actions and lasting from sessions stretching across a huge number of hours, than from nearly any adventure game or any other 8 hour cinematic blast. And in a world of user generated content, this style of story is something that become more and more common.

Narrative and Call of Duty

This is one of several posts written as part of a module at Abertay. They are being archived here for prosperity

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So far from being an overexposed reused pile of rubbish that someone at Activision spits out every year, I think that Call of Duty holds a special place in the yearly release schedule. Ignoring the constant multi-player updates that hold people raptured for months, the single-player plays out like a popcorn action thriller, the type that Michael Bay and co produce to massive acclaim.

(Please note I can’t speak to the quality of Call of Duty Ghosts as I haven’t had the chance to sit through it but it sounds like it might be the straw that breaks the camels back for my argument)

Lets look right back at the start. The first three Call of Duty games (and World at War to an extent) set in WW2 were rote, by the book spectacles focusing on showing you exciting moments during that conflict. It focused on the plight of the every man, showing you as one soldier amongst many (admittedly in some cases one amongst a small squad of soldier) rather than as a single man blowing his way through hordes of enemies.

We then had Call of Duty 4. Modern Warfare kept the game feeling vaguely realistic and down to earth – while the US Marines were kicking in doors and fighting through the streets, the SAS were sneaking around the corridors of power, interrogating possible leads in a conspiracy. The main thing was that all the way through the player had a sense of power but didn’t feel like it was only them vs the world. There are always other soldiers alongside them and up until the last mission, no one ever says “Its all riding on you, only you can stop the terrorists!”. It feels for the most part like a slightly sub-par Generation Kill – small groups of soldiers doing their jobs. In addition, the plot line feels well told from the initial car ride through the atomic bomb blast sending your crew chief flying out the door and up until the Russian cavalry flies in at the end.

Modern Warfare 2 is still a decent enough narrative but it does start to slowly unwind. Ignoring the idiotic idea of the Russians invading the Eastern seaboard of the USA, the rest of the story feels like a slick action thriller. The introduction of the game has you in Afghanistan and is a great start. The flow continues through the Taskforce 141 guys, having them creep around the airbase and then through a hectic chase in Brazil. The events of the rest of the game feel very much like a Michael Bay film (the section in the White House is literally the Rock) but that escalation, although exciting, comes at the cost of the realism seen earlier on in the series. The finale knife fight turns the game around the corner the rest of the series struggles to escape from.

Modern Warfare 3 is a major misstep- a game too focused on spectacle and not enough on it making sense. There are some slick moments (such as an jet fighter roaring down a street as you abseil down above it) but none of it has the same realism as the first Modern Warfare. This may be in part due to its focus on the special forces (Delta and Task Force 141 rather than standard soldiers). There are no quiet bits that gently bleed out the narrative as you trek around the tiny Russian village. The ending helps to show this – in a move that feels like an extension to the knife fight of MW2, a fist fight with the big bad followed by sitting back and smoking a cigar as your defeated opponent dangles in front of you feels like the game is now an overblown comic book.

Speaking of comic books, lets talk about the Black Ops franchise. It is literally a two part graphic novel taking full advantage of being ridiculous. With its historical basis (even with the future war stuff in the second) it starts off being serious, using the SOG teams of Vietnam and the secret world of the CIA as its starting points. It then throws in a mess of plot points from secret Soviet brain washing to the mystery of the number stations and back into the craziness of future war and mass hacker attacks organised by (of all people) a 1980′s drug kingpin. Its dumb but exciting with just enough action to keep the player from ticking over into boredom. Like the Fast and Furious films, the action keeps on going even if the plot isn’t too great.

One thing that makes up for all of this is the quality of the presentation. Every year, Activision consistently adds more and more to the production values. Bigger and bigger names from the acting world help to lend some credibility to the storyline even as the story loses it grip on reality. The spectacle may increase but the graphics to back it up also help out, even if it doesn’t keep it in track

So what does all this ramble mean:

  • Call of Duty has it’s role as a Hollywood Blockbuster popcorn thriller
  • The earlier games did a good job of pushing its narrative thanks to its believable nature
  • MW3 had an issue with spectacle creep – trying too hard to shock you without having some weight behind it.
  • While the Modern Warfare series tries to be realistic, Black Ops is an over-the-top thrill ride designed to take advantage of how much it can get away with while still sticking it paws into history
  • High quality presentation helps to override some subpar plot elements

Changing Circumstances

So for a while I’ve had two blogs running – this, which functions as an actual blog and detailing my personal life/airsoft/whatever I feel like, and my portfolio over at http://hntdaab.co.uk which I use to sell myself to advertise my experience to possible employers. This has been okay – party in the blog, work up front. All that is great.

The issue is now I’ve actually really started enjoying this whole programming thing. I’m working on a few projects, both alongside others and prototyping my own stuff out before looking for possible team-mates, and I need a place to write them up. My portfolio shouldn’t have that sort of in-progress chat on it – the idea is to present a finished look, with playable demos or video/screenshots of the finished product.

In contrast, the new dev blog I’ve created will be a lot less polished – a two/three line update with a single screenshot is the minimum I’ll aim for. If I do a chunk of work on a project, it will get put on the blog. Partially its motivation to do more, partially venting but mostly, its a good way of showing what I’m up to.

So what does this mean? Hopefully, more posts, more details and a little more organisation.

TL;DR

New blog at http://hntdaab.co.uk/devlog/ which will cover all of my current development plans.

This blog will cover anything not development related – so gaming opinions, airsoft and more.

Portfolio at http://hntdaab.co.uk will cover completed products with content to show.