D&D Half-Races

WotC is getting rid of half-elves and half-orcs. This is good. They claim they’re doing so to fight racism. This is bad.

Mixed race characters are a cool idea and one that makes a ton of sense in the ever-more metropolitan world of D&D. Back in the mists of the 1970s, being an elf or a dwarf could be a character’s defining trait. That was a sufficiently cool defining trait, and one with enough support in foundational work like Lord of the Rings, that it became common. By the 80s, elf and dwarf had moved from being character classes to the new category of race and could have classes of their own. Gary Gygax hated Lord of the Rings and wanted to play Conan and Elric instead, so he added a bunch of passive aggressive restrictions on so-called demi-human characters to try and discourage them, but it didn’t work.

It was perfectly common for humans, elves, and dwarves to be in the same adventuring party as one another, and because players generally assume that adventurers have a normal experience of the world (which is barking mad, but also comes up with regards to things like the value of money and how many class levels a random bartender has), the assumption was that humans, elves, and dwarves hung out together all the time. Elf-only and dwarf-only kingdoms were still a thing, but major cities were assumed to barely have a human majority with significant demi-human populations. Half-elves, originally added because Elrond is a half-elf and D&D nerds were the kinds of people who knew and cared about this kind of deep Tolkien lore, took on new connotations of not being the result of some rare contact between opposite worlds, but of being a naturally common occurrence anywhere human and elf territories (usually allies in the first place) bordered one another. Half-orcs got added in as a half-measure towards people who thought orcs were cool and wanted to be one without actually adding orcs to the adventurer coalition.

By the 90s, when Drizz’t was rising to fame, rogue members of traditionally evil races started gaining traction, and the popularity of WarCraft II and especially III mainstreamed (within the context of fantasy nerd culture, at least) the idea of shades of grey in your standard elves vs. orcs conflict. This made fewer inroads towards actually adding orcs to the adventurer coalition, probably because the source material still depicted orcs as consistently opposed to humans, just also that their own coalition was an equally valid perspective. It’s probably not a coincidence that this coincided with 3e’s explosion of poorly balanced monster races, with the goal of making just about anything sapient playable.

It didn’t catch on, but considering how well the return to that well went in future editions (especially 5e), it’s probably because the weirdest and hardest to balance races were also given the least attention, seen as an afterthought. Trolls were technically playable, but the balance on them was a nightmare. Their abilities were massively overpowered, and they were smacked hard with level adjustments, which totally failed to solve the problem because while the troll’s natural abilities might make them equivalent to a 6th-level Fighter, a troll with one level of Fighter is not equivalent to a 7th-level Fighter. The abilities you get at 7th level are worth way more than the abilities you get at 1st level. The exact breakpoints for when this monster with that class was hideously under- vs. overpowered varied for every single monster and class, but in general, playing a monster with a level adjustment was a sucker’s game. This prevented the population of the generic D&D city from getting any weirder, but only temporarily. People clearly wanted bizarre races, 3e just failed to deliver.

5e remained as reluctant as ever to include orcs in the player coalition, reserving them for expansion content and giving them otherwise unheard of stat penalties, but petulantly holding out on orcs, specifically, didn’t change the fact that dark elves had fully migrated into the player coalition, along with dragonborn and tieflings, mostly breaking down what few barriers remained to what might be considered a “standard” adventurer race. The infrequent nature of expansion material in 5e also led to the general assumption that it was all core. Whereas earlier editions had new books coming out so frequently that to declare that all of them would be allowed was to invite chaos (which is not necessarily a bad idea because some groups like chaos, but most GMs like to worldbuild and don’t like having the party consist exclusively of expansion races from obscure sourcebooks they don’t own, haven’t read, and never even thought about while building the setting), the slow release of 5e books led to the attitude that books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything are effectively core – including Volo’s Guide to Monsters and its drastically expanded list of options for player races.

At this point, it’s assumed that most major D&D cities not only have significant populations of elves, dwarves, dragonborn, and tieflings, but that obscure races like tabaxi and tortles are considered unremarkable even if they’re few enough in number to not show up in demographic breakdowns. So-called “monster races” like goblins and orcs are regarded with, at worst, mild suspicion, and are frequently treated as uncommon-but-unremarkable just like the tortles. Major cities are jampacked with all kinds of bizarre creatures. So it’s becoming simultaneously much harder not to notice that elves and orcs are, for some reason, the only races that breed with humans (and non-human races never breed with one another), and also much, much harder to write stat blocks to change that. The solution of cutting the half-elf and half-orc is the best one – the alternative is to write a system for combining any two races that is begging to be powergamed to death. Add a sidebar saying that mixed characters can pick the stats of one ancestry or the other. This is completely reasonable if you want to keep normal sexual reproduction as a trait of most creatures (personally I favor the “humans have babies, everyone else does something weird” approach, but that’s probably never going to be popular).

But this perfectly reasonable ditching of a legacy mechanic that’s long outdated in the modern hyper-cosmopolitan world of the D&D default is not striking a blow agianst racism. In fact, if it’s a purely narrative decision rather than a mechanical one, it’s actually pro-racist. Not Nazi-grade or anything, but removing mixed-race characters as a mechanical option does add slightly more friction to playing them, and while there are no real half-elves to worry about, there are people who use half-elves to evoke the experience of being, like, half-American half-Mexican or something. You can have a D&D backstory that evokes that same experience while mechanically being either a human or an elf, and you could also have a D&D backstory that evokes that experience by being mixed between two human ethnicities, which obviously provides a better parallel, but in fairness it is a fantasy story and sometimes you want to add an element of the fantastical to the experience.

All this to say that removing half-elves and half-orcs isn’t at all a pro-segregation move if you’re doing it for mechanical reasons, that’s just an acknowledgement that you can’t keep up with the number of potential mixes you’ve introduced with all these new ancestries so you’re giving up and people will just have to fluff stuff. But drawing attention to banning mixed races as a culture war move actually does come across as pro-segregation.

Like, OSR projects are sometimes run by normal people and are sometimes run by racists. If I heard about some obscure OSR project but all I knew about it was some mostly-generic title like “Monsters Down Below” or something, I wouldn’t assume they were racists based on that. And if I heard they weren’t including half-elves and half-orcs, I would default to the charitable assumption that it’s because of the mechanical issues that these imply half-dwarves and half-halflings and half-dwarf/half-elves and so forth, and they didn’t want their race section to sprawl with all these fiddly pairings. But if I heard they made a point of banning half-elves and half-orcs to make a statement on real world race issues, I would at that point guess that yeah, these guys are racists who don’t like having mixed-race characters as part of the default good guy coalition.

The only reason this move comes across as racist is because they went out of their way to frame it as a race thing.

The Forest Abandoned Its Coolest Ideas

In the Forest, you are a dude with a survivalist TV show who gets in a real plane wreck on an island off the coast of Canada that’s overrun by cannibal mutants because of some Lovecraftian science project gone wrong. The island causes lots of plane wrecks and yet no one’s put up some kind of advisory to stop flying over it because of all the electrical interference caused by the Lovecraftian science going on. It does have an explanation why you in particular are special, though: Your survival skills allow you to do survival craft-y basebuilding stuff that other survivors could not, which gives you a fighting chance where everyone else has basically got to join the cannibal mutants and succumb to cannibal mutation or else die, either at the hands of the cannibals or the elements. The game makes use of this premise in at least one nifty way, where the first time or two you black out, you awaken in a cannibal camp in their creepy victim storage cave and have a chance to escape.

If you read my April Humble Choice post, you know this game went into Regrets. I took a stab at playing it back before I was trying to get through my backlog and ultimately gave up before finishing it. That was a common enough thing back then (I started doing the backlog for a reason), and I put it on the backlog and even kept it there through a few revisions. But every time I look at it and consider playing it as my next main game after finishing Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel, I hesitate. I hesitate for two reasons.

First, the game is hard enough that you have to reload saves multiple times to build up enough skill to win. I’m already about half-ish way through this process – in my previous playthrough I’d gotten far enough to confront, but not reliably defeat, the elite mutant bad guys who have like seven legs and stuff, and the only thing harder than those is the end bosses. So it’s not like the skill cliff is insurmountable, but I have to keep reloading saves in a way that isn’t very immersive, which runs deeply counter to what I want from a game that simulates dragging chopped down logs back to your camp in a sledge to build a wall.

Second, while the game initially wanted to have finite enemies, they never actually implemented this, and enemies respawn indefinitely. Caveat: Enemies do eventually run out, but the respawns are reset if you load a saved game, which basically eradicates this as a usable feature for everyone who isn’t marathoning a multiplayer instance of the game in shifts over the course of an entire weekend. That sounds like fun, but come on, the logistics are never going to be practical, so if that’s what the devs meant by “finite enemies” then they’re basically lying. My assumption isn’t that they were lying, though, but that they were planning on having finite enemies in a practical sense but never got around to implementing the feature properly, and the version we got is a vestigial remnant of an abortive attempt to do so.

Part of the game’s mechanics is that if mutant patrols detect you (including if you kill them), they start to figure out where you are and will amass an army to wipe out your base. Combined with a finite number of mutants, you have an asymmetric game where you are playing as one particularly dangerous fellow whose limbs are in the optimal configuration and knows how to build booby traps, and the mutants have tremendous but finite numbers and can overwhelm you in a straight fight, so you have to be all sneaky and such, picking them off one by one. But they never actually implemented finite mutants, so you still have to abandon bases as you get chased around the map, but you can never win the war in the other direction, you just have to deal with mutant spawns for the whole game, and if they find your base in the corner of the map where your current objective is, you have to do the tedious work of luring them to some other part of the map before you can get back to your main objective. Weirdly enough, the vast majority of enemies in caves stay dead, even though the Lovecraftian science causing the mutations is located down there, so if there was anywhere it made sense to be continuously restocking on mutants, it would be the caves, not the surface.

Third, and this is a much more minor complaint, but the game has a big emphasis on exploring cave networks, and originally all the underground cave networks were supposed to be linked together, making it possible to cross the map underground. This got dropped, and in the actual game there’s about a dozen cave entrances and about eight fully separate cave networks, with only a handful having multiple entrances. This isn’t really a huge deal, but it would’ve been neat.

Fourth, and similarly to third this is a more minor issue but it is just one more cool thing that never happened, there was originally planned to be a mechanic where decreasing sanity would unlock the ability to make creepy heads-on-pikes style trophies that would deter small mutant patrols from the area, but they never got the unlock prerequisites working so now you can make the heads-on-pikes the second you get out of the plane wreckage. It does at least interact with the whole “mutants scout for your base” thing, although without the ability to thin mutant numbers, I find that mechanic more annoying than cool.

Remove all that, and what do you have? Yet another survival craft-y game that only stands out because of some particularly creepy enemies. Do I want to sink 20 or even 10 hours into that? Not really. I really want to play a guerilla campaign against the mutants, but that feature never made it, and I really shouldn’t be spending time playing a game that at one point planned to be something I would’ve enjoyed.

May Humble Choice

It’s the first Tuesday of May as I write this, so the new Humble Choice has dropped. What’s in the box?

Warhammer 40,000 Chaos Gate: Daemonhunters is a turn-based tactics game about Grey Knight space marines fighting some kind of Nurgle infection. Grey Knights are about the lamest part of the 40k universe, a Mary Sue faction with no new ideas but which tries to make itself specialer than the rest of the setting by fiat. The Grey Knights are just a space marine chapter and don’t need to be anything else except that, but their writers try to elevate them by making them a top secret branch of the Inquisition and use in-universe mouthpieces to talk about how much better the Grey Knights are compared to other space marines without actually coming up with anything they actually do that sets them apart. They’re space marines, they walk around in powered armor with chainswords and bolters and shoot monsters from heavy metal album covers, just like every other space marine chapter. Daemonhunters came with the bundle and it seems like it might be kinda like XCOM, so I will give it a try on the grounds that XCOM is great so a game trying to be like XCOM at least faintly has its heart in the right place, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out garbage. Particularly since it’s not clear how much influence the strategic layer of the game has, which always makes a big difference to how much I enjoy turn-based tactics games, and this one is already on notice for starring the Grey Knights.

Spiritfarer: Farewell Edition describes itself as a cozy management game about dying. It is a Sad Game, and I’ve heard that it’s good at it, and I’ll definitely give it a spin to see for myself.

Bendy and the Dark Revival already has one strike against it, which is that it is a sequel to a game I haven’t played. I’m not vitriolically opposed to jumping into the middle of a series, but generally only if there’s some major tonal or gameplay shift partway through (the Far Cry series starts at 2) or something. It’s also a lot easier if the game is less heavy on the overarching plot between games. If I feel like playing a Zelda game or a Final Fantasy game I’m happy to pick up whatever looks coolest right now and don’t particularly care if I’m playing them outside release order or especially if Final Fantasy X is technically a prequel to Final Fantasy VII in a dumb and convoluted way. But the Bendy games are telling a continuous story, so if I didn’t play Ink Machine, I already don’t want to drop into Dark Revival.

And on top of that, there’s a reason I didn’t play Ink Machine, and it’s that I don’t like mascot horror. I respect the first Five Nights for making an intense experience out of a minimum of assets, the second and third games polished up the formula and developed the lore to provide greater context to why these animatronics are so spooky, but even by the third and fourth games there were severe signs of aimless sprawl for the sake of keeping a profitable thing going and by the fifth its gameplay was completely dedicated to freaking out Markiplier live on camera and its story had disappeared completely down a rabbit hole of convoluted lore whose primary purpose was to bait MatPat into making Game Theory videos. And Bendy saw how much money that was making and decided to get in on it. It’s not devoid of creativity (I don’t know if it has anything to say about 1930s-40s era animation, but at the very least it has some genuine fascination with it), but its primary goal is to be consumed not by its end audience, but by content creators who will make Twitch streams and YouTube videos about it.

Operation Tango is a co-op puzzle solver and while its aesthetics look kind of cool, that is not a genre of game I want to play.

Windjammers 2 is advanced Pong, which is kind of hilarious but not something I’m super interested in sticking into the backlog. I might end up toying with it a bit as a time-waster when I’m too tired to work but don’t want to boot up something heavy like Yakuza or Borderlands, but I’m not even going to try to finish it.

Builder Simulator, like most of the Having A Job Simulators that come through the Bundle, is something I’m sticking in the backlog for when I run out of Far Cry games to play while listening to a podcast in the background (only two left!), but may or may not stick with depending on how well it hits the zen vibes in practice.

Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery looks like another one of those games like Gris or Where The Water Tastes Like Wine where it’s selling itself purely on its aesthetics with the only contribution of the mechanics being to either temporarily impede the unfolding short film or else to make it possible that you will accidentally choose an unsatisfying ending to the short film. Probably it should’ve just been a short animated film, but people who want animation expect to get it for free from YouTube or television, whereas indie gamers expect to buy their indie games. The mechanics, from what I can glean, are about being a painter and you go out into the world to find missing colors so that you can return to your studio and do some of what is essentially paint-by-numbers. It’s not like the game would’ve been better if it said “buy a tablet and learn how to make real art, asshole,” so I’m not complaining that this is unrepresentative of the real creative process, but I am complaining that it sounds like the gameplay was tacked on as a vehicle for the story and theme in an experience that didn’t really need or benefit from being interactive at all.

The Invisible Hand is a video game where you play a stockbroker and get ahead by breaking tons of laws. It sounds like it might have a reasonably astute critique of the modern finance industry, but its primary gameplay is spreadsheet management and its frame story is that you are a terrible person interacting with abstract financial instruments to make a variable representing your funds go up, and that is too nihilistic for me to bother engaging with even if it is a reasonably accurate reflection of actual attitudes in that industry.

That still leaves me at 169, a smidge under 170, although two of the three new adds are solidly mid-size games in the 20-40 hour range (Builder Simulator is shorter). Pace has been slow lately, mainly because Borderlands games, and especially Borderlands 2 with all its DLC, are real big and I’ve mostly been playing those. Probably not about to accelerate much because I only recently started Borderlands 3 and also I’ve also started playing the Yakuza games, and even though I am unlikely to bother being especially thorough with all their little mini-games, they aren’t especially quick games even if mostly sticking to the main path. As usual, I am slightly concerned by the idea that there are games I want to play but will never get to, but there’s no cure for this except to play lots more video games (turns out you need money to live) or to accept fewer games on the list (but kicking them out of the list because number-goes-up doesn’t actually mean I don’t want to play them anymore), so, eh, whatever.

Far Cry 3 Has A Shockingly Good Opening

A good deal of the shock here comes from the fact that we’re talking about an Ubisoft game, but even in a vacuum, Far Cry 3’s opening is an example of how to do it well. In Far Cry 3, there is an opening montage of you and your friends partying in Bangkok and going skydiving, and then the camera zooms out and it turns out you’ve been kidnapped by pirates and Vaas is taunting you with your vacation videos. He has a really well delivered and not very long opening monologue that establishes that he is a pirate who has kidnapped you, and then your Army veteran older brother breaks you out less than thirty seconds later. Now the opening isn’t perfect because immediately after that we do have a tutorial where you just follow your older brother around for a while, but at least you can walk around, the environment is reasonably atmospheric and first tense then frantic, and it doesn’t go on for too long.

Far Cry 3 does then lose some points because it then smacks you with a second prologue and tutorial mission when you wake up in Amaniki Village and get railroaded through clearing your first radio tower. Since both prologues are relatively short, though, I’m inclined to mark this one less severely than other Ubisoft games with doubled up prologues like this, though, especially since the first one actually establishes character and setting quickly and effectively. Half-Life 2 has a whole lot of prologue, but it delivers a lot of worldbuilding with it, so I don’t mind. Far Cry 3 isn’t on that level, but it’s still good enough to cross the “this is okay, actually” threshold, which is especially shocking considering that it’s an Ubisoft game.

Borderlands Pre-Sequel: Handsome Jack’s Fall Is Bad

The Borderlands: Pre-Sequel presents us with the fall to evil of Handsome Jack, who is either a low-level programmer or a mid-level manager depending on who has their hands on the script right now. Overall the game suffers badly from different parts of the game being written by different people with little editing for consistency, or alternatively, from one writer who was unable to keep track of character traits and arcs from one day to the next. Feels more like the former, though, like the script is being written by people with a different idea of exactly who these characters are and where they’re going. Is the AI Felicity thrilled with murder or repulsed by it? Is Handsome Jack a low-level programmer or does he report directly to the Hyperion CEO? Once you finish one of the game’s twelve main story missions and move on to the next, these details get scrambled.

Jack’s descent into evil seems to have been written into the outline with enough detail to keep everyone on the same page, but unfortunately it’s just not very good. He commits a series of escalating crimes that starts with the level of violence required of a shooter game deuteragonist and ends with him killing four allies to guarantee hitting one traitor. That’s a good arc that brings him from the fairly heroic place he starts to one step before the violent megalomaniac he is in Borderlands 2. The problem is two-fold: First, we never see him take that final step, and relatedly second, while his crimes escalate over the course of the game, his motivations for committing them are all over the place, not tied to a specific drive that draws him deeper and deeper into evil.

Continue reading “Borderlands Pre-Sequel: Handsome Jack’s Fall Is Bad”

Borderlands: Vehicles

Borderlands has vehicle sections sometimes. The first game, for example, gives you a heavily armed, bulked up dune buggy pretty early on to help get from one end of the Arid Badlands to the other in a hurry. This is basically just a slightly slower than normal fast travel system at first, as the Arid Badlands is built around a road running east-west and the bulked up buggy is too big to be taken too far off that road, but then the next area, the Dahl Headlands, is much more wide and open, focusing heavily on vehicle combat. The game’s next hub area is the Rust Commons, which is about 70% buggy-traversible, and its final hub area the Salt Flats (though visited relatively briefly) is vehicle-focused like the Dahl Headlands was. The DLCs follow a similar pattern, with the General Knoxx DLC being heavily vehicle focused while vehicle combat is totally absent from Jakobs Cove and the claptrap areas.

Having wider, more open spaces traversed by vehicles helps give the game world a sense of scale, adds some variety to the gameplay, and gives the game a chance to show off its cool vehicle designs. Unfortunately, Borderlands’ vehicle gameplay sucks. Your vehicle is too fragile, it’s very difficult to effectively dodge enemy projectiles, and the only thing that stops the vehicle sections from being interminably frustrating is that aim is a crapshoot for both you and enemies, which means even though swerving around incoming shots is rarely reasonably doable, it’s also rarely required, as the majority of shots miss all by themselves.

In order for Borderlands’ vehicle sections to work, it needed more time and money, and this from a game that’s already clearly struggling to get things done in time to ship. The General Knoxx DLC was potentially a chance to do better, but without seeing the budget and the code, it’s impossible to say for sure (plus, it’s worth noting that General Knoxx did do better, just not much better, and not nearly realizing the full potential of the idea). So I’m not really suggesting the following system as what they should’ve done, because it’s possible the resources just weren’t there. But I am suggesting the following system as something that would be cool.

Borderlands is a looter shooter, and the premise behind its vehicles is that you can use hypertech digistructors to create new vehicles from thin-air at any vehicle station, so there’s no reason why its vehicles shouldn’t be randomly dropped loot just like its guns. You’d want vehicles to be relatively rare drops from regular guys, so that they don’t distract from the guns, but to reverse the odds for drops from destroyed enemy vehicles, so that the number of vehicles you’re looking at goes up when you’re in a vehicle-friendly part of the game.

Just like guns, different vehicles should have different damage, accuracy, rate of fire, shields, top speeds, acceleration, and maybe some other stats, and just like guns, these should be randomized but within a certain range based on their level and vehicle class. Some factors, like speed and rate of fire, are heavily impacted by vehicle class, while others, like damage and shields, are heavily impacted by level.

Continue reading “Borderlands: Vehicles”

Borderlands: Moxxi

I have two things to say about Borderlands related to the character of Moxxi, and they have basically no connection to one another except that they’re about Moxxi, so this is the Moxxi post.

The first is that Mad Moxxi’s Underdome sucks. It’s an arena DLC for the game where you fight off waves of enemies with steadily rising buffs to their HP and damage and so on, with randomized modifiers on the match like a certain type of gun doing more damage or everyone moving faster or enemies having regenerating health. The DLC is dogged by two problems: First, that finding the enemies in the arena can be a huge chore, and second, you don’t get any rewards worth caring about from it. There is no XP gain in the arena, enemies do not drop any loot, and while completing rounds does drop new guns, it’s a rate of 1 new gun per round and they’re not skewed especially strongly towards being any good. They do seem to be a minimum of green quality, i.e. not total trash, but at one gun per round, this isn’t nearly enough to make it worth the time. Coupled with how frustrating it is to actually find enemies and get into the fray, and the whole DLC is basically a bust except for introducing the character of Moxxi – but she gets a separate intro in the General Knoxx DLC anyway.

In a completely different game in the series, the Pre-Sequel, we learn that Moxxi is a mechanical wiz who talks with a redneck accent when “out of character.” As portrayed in the first two games, Moxxi is a show presenter/host who presents herself in a heavily flirtatious way with a healthy dose of apocalypse-glamor. She’s also the mother of Scooter, whose primary schtick is being a mechanical wiz, and you’d think they could’ve just let Scooter have all the mechanical wiz parts of the plot. Sure, that would mean the Pre-Sequel would have a lot of Scooter and not much Moxxi, but so what? Scooter’s a perfectly good character. Sure, I like Moxxi better and I imagine that’s a common opinion (half the point of Moxxi’s character is that she’s charming and charismatic, whereas Scooter is an obliviously crass redneck), but just because I like Moxxi doesn’t mean I like it when she’s wrenched out of character to do Scooter’s job.

They also could’ve used Janey Springs, although Janey’s not a particularly good character. She’s a junk dealer who lives out on the moon frontier with the scavs, and any time she’s sticking to that, she’s good, but unfortunately the game really wants her to be a gay disaster and is absolutely 100% clueless as to how to write that character. Whenever it portrays her interacting with men, it trips over itself to deliver Feminist Messages(tm), but then Moxxi’s exhaustion with Janey’s flirting suggest that either Janey is a sex pest who won’t take no for an answer or else Moxxi is a cruel gossip who doesn’t clearly communicate her lack of interest to Janey but talks bluntly about how much she despises Janey behind her back, and to random adventurers that Moxxi only met five minutes ago, no less.

Although, having written that, I realize that half the problems with Janey’s character are because the story spotlights Moxxi at her expense, and if we’re minimizing Moxxi’s presence in the story (or even cutting her completely), then that problem disappears. Touch up the writing on some of the other quests (the basic premise of her connection with Deadlift is fine, the joke just doesn’t land) and she’d be way better at Moxxi’s job in this story than Moxxi is.

It kind of feels like the Pre-Sequel writers were trying to make Moxxi a more complex character by giving her more than just her show presenter style? But if so, it was a failure. When we see Moxxi “out of character,” she’s still putting on a show. It’s just a show of being a redneck mechanic, like Scooter does. The presentation is much lower effort, because the showrunner Mad Moxxi persona is all about glamor and spotlight, that’s the whole job, whereas the Scooter’s Mom persona is about being grounded and competent, something you’d put on to inspire enough confidence in your mechanical skills to convince people to pay you to fix their truck, and then relying on your ability to actually fix trucks to turn that into repeat business. Or, outside a business environment, just angling your presentation towards how you like to fix trucks because you are proud enough of your truck fixing skills that you would like to lead with that. The mechanic persona directs people’s attention to a specific skill you’d like people to notice you have, whereas the showrunner persona directs people’s attention to the vivacious and fun-loving nature of the persona itself. A mechanic’s presentation is not the key skill to their business, but they do still have to get their game face on before going to work.

If you wanted to present Moxxi out of character just to make the point that her public-facing persona requires effortand can’t be maintained 24/7 (and I’m not even sure that’s the point of this rather than just lazily slapping an excuse for Moxxi to participate in the Pre-Sequel’s plot where she doesn’t othewise have a role, but assuming the point of the scene is actually that Moxxi’s persona can’t be on all the time), you don’t want to have her putting on another, lower-effort but equally focused persona. You want to show her in a hoodie and pajama pants trying to untangle a snarled schedule for next week’s fights or counting up income and expenses to see if putting in some new slot machines is a good idea or just watching Space Netflix to unwind, depending on whether you want to focus on how the Mad Moxxi persona requires behind-the-scenes effort or on how Moxxi is a regular person (I mean, she’d still be a Borderlands character, but Mad Moxxi is an exaggerated character even by the series’ standard) who has regular breaks and weekends and stuff between her performances.

Either one would’ve made Moxxi a much more interesting character with a twenty-second glimpse of her in a different model and voice than we’re used to seeing her with, exactly like we got in the Pre-Sequel as it is, but instead Moxxi seems even more unreal and cartoonish because she has this second, completely unrelated persona and skill set.

Borderlands 1 Plot Workshop

The first Borderlands game had a pretty generic shooter plot and got a bunch of attention for reskinning itself into one of the first magenta games. It didn’t go full magenta untilt he sequel, and I like the light sprinkling better than the more concentrated doses later games had, especially the Pre-Sequel (and I’m slightly worried about how bad it’s going to be in 3, which I have not played yet). I’m not here to talk about line-by-line dialogue, though. This post is about the tangled plot of Borderlands 1 and how it could’ve been much smoother without really changing anything except a bit of expository dialogue.

Borderlands has two recurring problems in its plot. The first is that it doesn’t tell you the significance of what you’re doing until it’s already done, with characters like Angel (whose motives for helping you aren’t even explained or even hinted at in this game), Dr. Zed, Marcus, and Patricia telling you what to do and then explaining how it gets you closer to the end goal of finding the Vault after you’ve done it. The first and obvious rewrite, then, is to move an explanation for why you’re doing what you’re doing to up front.

And second, which is that you are always proceeding directly towards the Vault, which means the path to the Vault is ludicrously convoluted. And although the Vault is talked up as the central MacGuffin, it and its Eridian creators are barely in the game. You don’t encounter the Eridian aliens who built the thing very much until the very end, just outside the Vault, and when you do encounter them, it’s not any more significant than as a new enemy type. It’s an interesting new enemy type and I’m glad it’s in the game, but you do not spend the finale learning ancient Eridian secrets. You spend it fighting the Crimson Lance mercenaries. The only Eridian secret is that they actually built the Vault to contain some tentacle monster, not to hold treasure, and that tentacle monster stabs the only built-up villain of the entire game to death to yoink the final boss fight for itself.

The actual gameplay of Borderlands isn’t about Vault hunting at all. It’s about defeating bandit chieftains and later the Crimson Lance. So rather than bothering with all this Vault key fragment nonsense in the first place, maybe it’d be better off to cast the protagonists as bounty hunters and mercenaries. The Vault is Patricia Tannis’ obsession, and Commandant Steele’s (Commandant Steele being the commander of the Crimson Lance). The player’s got a list of bandit chiefs to take down and that’s their MacGuffin, only dragged into all this Vault business because everyone else cares about it.

Continue reading “Borderlands 1 Plot Workshop”

Borderlands: Enemy Spawns

I probably don’t need to introduce Borderlands, y’know, the looter shooter game. I’m giving the complete series a playthrough from 1 to 3, including the Pre-Sequel but not Tales, unless I decide that some number of these games are actually Regrets. I like gun roulette and I like shooters, so probably even some really awful writing isn’t going to bring me down to Regrets, but I haven’t tried Borderlands 3 yet and the overall trajectory of the series’ writing is to get steadily more magenta over time, so we’ll see if it manages to cross the Regrets threshold despite its gameplay.

But today I’m talking about enemy spawns. Using the very early part of Borderlands as an example, the starting town is Firestone, the first villain is a bandit captain named Nine-Toes, and one of the first quests is to go and clear out a bandit outpost just across the road from the gate into Firestone. Perfectly good little quest with one problem: The bandits respawn, so if you ever revisit that outpost for any reason, it’s inescapable that you didn’t actually accomplish anything. On the other hand, you don’t want all enemies to never respawn, because that both makes maps uncannily safe as soon as you’ve cleared them (because enemies never patrol or reoccupy cleared territory unless you want to write in an entire AI for trying to take and hold territory) and it means you can’t have the fun of returning to an area you’ve overleveled and obliterating the opposition (something the Borderlands series is already bad at, since it has a nasty habit of leveling enemies in old regions after breakpoints in the story – but doesn’t even do that consistently, so sometimes you get sent back to an old area that you’ve out-leveled by 5+ but sometimes you’ll find all the enemies just got juiced up to about your level).

If I were put in charge of a remaster/make/boot of the series, I’d give it four types of enemy spawns based on two toggles: Story flags and character level.

Some enemies would stop respawning after a certain story flag has been set. This is reserved mainly for named boss enemies, and the story flag is killing them. Once you kill Nine-Toes, he doesn’t come back. Some unnamed enemies also qualify, if the story makes a point that you’re clearing them out to get some tactical or strategic advantage. Those outpost bandits, for example, would stop respawning after the quest to clear the outpost is complete. The story made a point of clearing that outpost in particular to stop Nine-Toes from seeing everyone who goes in and out of Firestone through the gate, so it stays cleared. The story flag doesn’t have to be relevant to the main plot, necessarily. Zephyr Substation is a wind farm that the bandits have overrun which you visit while acquiring a key to a stronghold that holds a key to another stronghold, which is not amazing quest design, but the important thing for purposes of this post is that there is a side quest to get the wind farm operational again and the bandits occupying it should keep spawning until the side quest to reactivate the farm is completed, not the main quest to fetch a key from it.

Some enemies should stop respawning after you reach a certain level, regardless of what story flags are flipped. Borderlands is already one of those games that cuts the XP given by enemies based on the level difference, and about 5-10 levels over the enemies they stop giving XP entirely (there’s no hard cutoff, it just gets cut into a smaller and smaller fraction of the default until it rounds down to 0, so it can be 5 levels for one enemy and 15 for another, but 5-ish is about the point when enemies stop being relevant). They’ll keep respawning if you’re underleveled even if the local plot is complete and stop spawning when you reach a certain level even if the local plot is incomplete.

This category is for patrolling bad guys, like the bandits and alien wildlife you find moseying around the roads and trails connecting points of interest to one another. If they’re not worth XP, that suggests they’re also not worth the players time, so stop respawning them. These enemies are now so weak that the player can walk right past them while ignoring their bullets if they don’t want to go to the effort of mowing them down, so just don’t bother. Most areas have a level range, so when you’re right on the cusp of outleveling that area, it’ll despawn the lower end of the range as you outlevel it completely, but leave the upper end of the range, which is only 3-4 levels below you, which organically gives a sense of areas starting to thin out as you progress. It’s not directly tied to how many of them you’ve killed, but it’ll feel that way.

Some enemies stop respawning only if you reach a certain level and flip a relevant story flag. For example, some patrolling enemies I would normally give a purely level-based despawn are required for a kill-ten-rats kind of quest, and while that is also not amazing game design, you definitely don’t want to make it possible to softlock yourself out of it by overleveling until the patrols stop spawning. Also, the bandits in various bandit strongholds holding bosses like Nine-Toes and Sledge should keep respawning until you have outleveled them by 5+ and you’ve defeated the relevant boss. If you show up to the boss dungeon ridiculously overleveled, you still have to fight the whole dungeon for pacing reasons, and if you defeat the boss at a normal level (or while underleveled) you can still revisit the dungeon for level grinding purposes and/or for funsies for as long as the enemies there are powerful enough to be remotely relevant. Only after the dungeon has served its purpose in the main plot and ceased to be remotely meaningful opposition does the general bandit population stop spawning.

Finally, you want a handful of stray enemies who keep respawning no matter how overleveled you get or how far into the story you get. The bandit strongholds, for example, might have one or two rooms that remain fully stocked with bandits no matter how powerful you get, and while some of the absurdly hostile wildlife moseying about the map might stop spawning when you get too high level, others might continue to suicide rush you when they see you walking or driving down the road. This allows a player to do the whole “obliterate some low level enemies to see how far you’ve come” thing without obligating them to do so whenever driving around lower level areas (especially since both the first and second game have a few quests encouraging you to return to much earlier areas of the game).

Far Cry 4: Just Leave(tm)

In a previous post I talked about how Far Cry 4 is two really good games combined into a single just okay game. Here I’m going to elaborate a bit on how it could’ve been really good at just the one thing by editing the story a bit.

The game opens the same way and can retain the “wait for Pagan Min to get back” ending. If you don’t take that, you flee the palace with the Golden Path and end up in southern Kyrat. Your goals now are to inter the ashes of your mother at the shrine with Lakshmana, honoring her last wish, to kill Pagan Min and his lieutenants, honoring the last wish of your father as relayed to you by the Golden Path, and to get out of Kyrat alive. You can get intel on Pagan Min’s three lieutenants (Noore, de Pleur, and Yuma, all good enough characters to retain even if none of them are particularly spectacular) by completing side quests: Outpost raids, assassinations (including for the one CIA guy), destroying propaganda, hunting, you can even do the drug thing if you can find some excuse why Yogi and Reggie have dirt on Pagan’s lieutenants (and they do have some kind of connection to Noore). Some side quests are general purpose, adding small amounts of intel for all three, some side quests are for a specific lieutenant.

We’re putting all three of these lieutenants in southern Kyrat (in the game as it is, Yuma is in the north, so we’re moving her). The Kyrat International Airport is also down there, and at any point after the tutorial you can go there, steal a plane, and Just Leave(tm), fulfilling your goal to escape Kyrat alive but failing to honor the dying wish of either of your dead parents.

The revelation that your father killed your toddler sister and your mother killed him for it is being moved way up to the halfway point of the game, when you open up the bridge to northern Kyrat. The Lakshmana shrine is also going somewhere in this area (Pagan Min’s palace might get relocated here entirely, or maybe there’s a shrine near the bridge that the protagonist’s mother had some personal connection to, whatever). Pagan Min’s forces are running scared, the Golden Path are ascendant, and Amita and Sabal’s vicious sides really start to show.

In the game as it is, if you side with Sabal, he kills a bunch of people for vague sins against the gods to usher in his new oppressive theocracy, and if you side with Amita, she pressgangs a bunch of people into the Golden Path against their will, in both cases in an epilogue scene that is hinted at in a drug-induced hallucination/prophecy. Outside of this drug trip, there’s no strong indication that Amita and Sabal aren’t perfectly heroic freedom fighters (despite some differing values about the importance of Kyrati religion and whether or not drugs are cool). The game definitely isn’t devoid of hints that these two are budding dictators of their own, but it’s easy to reach the end of the game and feel like you chose the wrong leader, which obscures the game’s strongest point: The theme that you can’t wring a free and prosperous nation out of every war just by identifying the bad team and killing all of their doods. Sometimes there’s a side fighting for democracy, but sometimes there isn’t and in the latter case there is nothing you can do. You can’t impose liberty on people by force.

So in the revised version of the game, you go into northern Kyrat having already interred your mother’s ashes and knowing that your father is a child murderer, while Sabal and Amita are splitting off to fight one another and the Royal Army remnant still led by Pagan Min. You now have the option to Just Leave(tm) having fulfilled your mother’s dying wish, leaving your father’s unfulfilled, or you can fulfill your father’s dying wish by hoovering up more intel from both Amita and Sabal (further spotlighting just how evil both of them are in the process) to locate Pagan Min and kill him.

Key to the general vibe here is that you aren’t a major factor in the war. The Golden Path was already ascendant when you got here and continues to be throughout the first half of the game. Your connection to founder Mohan Ghale and handiness with a knife means you get assigned to kill some of Pagan Min’s lieutenants, and you can sack Royal Army outposts as a side quest, but the Royal Army can recapture sacked outposts and the Golden Path regularly captures enemy outposts without your involvement. Outposts stay captured long enough that you don’t get the Far Cry 2 problem where they respawn after thirty fucking seconds, but you are not repainting the map by attacking outposts, you are just shoving the front line around in a way that doesn’t leave a permanent mark.

Particularly in northern Kyrat, it’s now a three-way war in which (assuming you don’t Just Leave(tm)) you have to help both Amita and Sabal against each other for the intel on Pagan Min’s final hideout to track him down and kill him. You’ve got some targets to hit and a shrine to locate and if you’re following the objectives the interface nudges you towards, you can’t have any long term loyalties.

Once Pagan Min is dead, you have another chance to Just Leave(tm), or you can stay behind, pick a side between Amita and Sabal, and see the war through. You can also give up on finding and killing Pagan Min to side with one or the other of them by completing all of their missions in northern Kyrat and none of the other’s, and then choosing to give up on killing Pagan Min to side with one of them. This is a bad idea. Amita is a ruthless power-monger who doesn’t need the son of the founder of the Golden Path hanging around as a threat to her legitimacy, especially not one who’s a capable enough warrior to have won the respect of the troops (you might not be winning the war single-handedly, but you’re still a very deadly fighter). Sabal is a murderous traditionalist who thinks you’ve been corrupted by having been raised in the West and are on the list of people to be killed to purge Kyrat of its sins. If you help one of them win, the map is covered by their faction, they’re all hostile, and now you need to get to the airport anyway to flee the country. It doesn’t really count as Just Leaving(tm) anymore because you got chased out of the country rather than deciding you’d done what you came to do and departing.

The level of personal involvement of your family in the Golden Path is probably still too much to carry the theme properly, so this might be better off if, like in Far Cry 2, you’re a mercenary who’s being paid to kill Pagan Min/his lieutenants, or if you have some personal grievance with Pagan Min and are coming to Kyrat for revenge. A total revamp of the plot, without making use of much of the pieces of the existing game, would dramatically expand the length of this project and no one is particularly salivating to see the result, but doing this properly would probably require a major overhaul to the protagonist. Ultimately, “returning to your roots” is more of a vacation-y tourist-y kind of arc, more suitable to the Murder Vacation version of Far Cry 4 than the Murder Can’t Help version I’m laying out here.