Apparently I’m working on a schedule which has me updating about 4 times a year. All righty then!
It was a rough end to the summer, a rocky start to the fall, and a long haul to get out the other side, but it’s kind of like pushing that damned rock up the hill when you’re in the throes of fighting depression (anti-depressants only go so far) brought on by a confluence of unfortunate events.
But that’s what was. Now for what IS.
At this point I’m moving ahead with development on a new roleplaying game under a new company, with some new partners. It’s not all that far along, mind, but it’s something I’m fairly happy with the basics of. This is the kind of work which goes on in my head and in notes and snippets for a long time (some might call it a very long time, but that’s just calling attention to my steadily advancing age) and then needs to get shepherded into some semblance of good order.
That herding of cats is well underway, and I’m working on business aspects in parallel. I anticipate being able to share more early in 2017. (Hey, just in time for my Winter 2017 update!) Hopefully at that point I’ll have something more concrete.
For now, just think dark fantasy. Think shared storytelling. Think easy action resolution.
Earlier this week I mentioned being a big role-playing gamer. It’s true. I have been for years, since first being introduced to pen and paper gaming in about 1980. I had my first experience at a slumber party during elementary school. There was a box, a blue rulebook, something called a halfling, and a scary hole in the ground filled with monsters. I was, of course, playing Dungeons & Dragons…
Literally the rulebook I played with that first night.
Workout for the Imagination
I was already a pretty imaginative kid by the time I stumbled into that dungeon (where I am fairly sure I ran away…it’s blurry, but I distinctly remember strong self-preservation instincts kicking in) but the addition of role-playing games to my life was a revolution. Now I could have adventures where there were ways to decide what happened when choice were made. It wasn’t all about arguing over what took place in a story I was making up with my friends, it was all about coming together with a framework where we could all see what transpired, and work together to build a tale. (Though in the absence of dice at school sometimes we had some moments of fiat as our impromptu Dungeon Master would declare something outrageous like, “you kill a god, so you become a god…”)
The stories I’ve told as a player and game master throughout the years have been both strange (the party—stuck in modern day California—visited Disneyland after becoming convinced that if there was magic to be found, they’d find it at the most magical place on Earth) and majestic (fighting off a demon horde led by the son of Orcus) and have everything to do with learning from an early age that it was possible to engage in shared story-building.
40 Years of Adventure
On a Sunday in late Jaunary 1974 Gary Gygax (co-creator of the game, along with Dave Arneson) invited people over to his home to play the game that would form the basis for Dungeons & Dragons. In the 40 years since, Dungeons & Dragons has spawned many editions of the rules (0e, 1e, basic, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, 4e, and soon enough, the new 5th edition called “D&D Next”) as well as books (*cough* Dragonlance), films, cartoons, comics, and much more. The popularity of the game may not be single-handedly responsible for the modern role-playing game, but it certainly played a huge role. In many ways Dungeons & Dragons is to the role-playing game industry what World of Warcraft is to online RPGs:
The biggest, most recognizable brand, that no matter what alternative you play, when you mention it someone ends up asking the question “oh, so, like Dungeons & Dragons?”
My personal experiences have included every edition of the game to some extent (though the 1e and 2e pen and paper versions were the ones I played the most), and many of the additional properties. Currently I can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unleashed online game on a regular basis, playing on the Ghallanda server.
A Family Activity
I’ve played in multiple games with people who were related. My brother and I were part of (him on again off again, me constantly) the longest running campaign I’ve ever played in. I’ve played with parents and their children. I’ve played with my spouse. I look forward to playing with my own kids in a few more years. (I was 6 when I learned to play, so it’ll be a while yet…thankfully there’s some pretty cool prep games out there to get the kids ready sooner.)
But the reality is that Dungeons & Dragons (and these types of games) are very social activities. There’s a false stigma lumped on the heads of people who play RPGs, that they’re not good socially and that they’re some kind of sub-class of people. The reality is that playing RPGs encourages a lot of different skills from problem solving to compromise to math and dozens of others people need on a regular basis.
So really, I can’t wait until my kids really are ready to let their imaginations take flight and play. (Though who knows what edition of D&D will be out by then given how quickly Wizards of the Coast is making new versions!)
Perhaps The Most Epic D&D Video Ever
It’s possible that there is a better D&D video somewhere, but for the purposes of a blog on a fantasy author’s site, this is about as good as it gets. Here’s about half an hour of an array of authors playing Dungeons & Dragons. (And not only that, but playing the classic adventure: The Keep on the Borderlands.)
Many years back I was (this will come as a shock, I know) a huge Dungeons & Dragons gamer. My friends and I played on a regular basis, and we even worked on our own rules for a game we called Warball & Chain. Around this time (the mid-1980’s when I was spanning late elementary and junior high) I first picked up another one of those books which helped shape my reading life. It was a story of a world destroyed, gods lost, and fearsome creatures returned. I’m speaking, of course, about Weis and Hickman’s classic series: Dragonlance…
A part of Larry Elmore’s painting for the original cover of Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
TSR’s Unexpected Hit
In the early 1980’s when Lake Geneva-based TSR (publishers of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games) decided to release tie-in novels for their latest campaign setting, they were anything but a literary powerhouse. The company released various books related to their games, as well as a series of interactive fiction books called Endless Quest. While certainly a company that had managed to get into the fringes of culture with their odd game which inspired love and hate in near equal measures, TSR hadn’t broken out in any real way by the time Tracy and Laura Hickman arrived in Wisconsin (where Tracy had just taken a job with the young company) with the idea for the Dragonlance campaign setting.
What started as an idea for a setting grew to a series of linked modules and expanded into the desire for companion novels based on the adventures. And so, the first volume of the Dragonlance series was written by Hickman and writing partner Margaret Weis, who had previously been involved in editing the Endless Quest series. In what was essentially a gaming group’s adventure dropped into novel format, the pair struck a kind of gold which has, to an extent, confounded critics and other writers ever since. (Partially, I suspect, because the first book isn’t nearly as good as the second and third in the initial series.)
By the 1990’s the books in the series never left print (something which no doubt contributed to their popularity, as legacy publishing has proven excellent at destroying their own sales by not keeping books available) and in fact inspired hardcover editions of what were originally paperback volumes. The quality of the writing, panned widely, was irrelevant to the readers of the series. Weis and Hickman had hit upon what most writers know (yet for some reason so often try desperately to ignore as they work to craft intricate twists and beautiful prose) …
The strength of Dragonlance isn’t in the sweeping narration or excellent construction of the saga. To put it bluntly, the writing is professional but no inspiring, and the tale is hardly breaking from the fantasy mold. No, the power of the series lies simply with the memorable characters and grand adventure as played out against a rich landscape. Rather ,it is the adventure at the heart of the Dragonlance series which is so compelling. Adventure and the depth and love with which gamers breathe life into their characters, put on full display in the pages of the novels, which makes the series so magnificent.
While more mainstream (if SF&F can ever be called mainstream) publishers in the space worked with some amazing writers throughout the 19080’s and 1990’s, TSR’s success as a publisher came from relatively few breakout writers (literally only R.A. Salvatore comes to mind) and much more from the understanding of what gamers want: characters they can relate to (even if just as being similar to their own alter egos) and a big adventure which makes for amazing escapist reading.
A series of three sizable novels with a sweeping story to them would have been enough to make for an impressive work. (It’s proven to have been enough plenty of times throughout the history of fantasy writing.) But the Dragonlance saga didn’t stop with that initial “Chronicles” series. It continued in “Legends” and “Heroes” and “Tales” and dozens of other volumes. To date there are nearly 200 full length works of fiction which make up the series. (That doesn’t count the numerous Dragonlance modules and sourcebooks.)
The world of Krynn has been detailed to an extent few other fantasy worlds have. The novels have looked across ages of the history of the land, and followed the greatest of heroes…as well as some of the most unlikely. Millions upon millions of words have been written on novels and short stories focused on Dragonlance in the past 30 years.
Worthy of an Epic Series?
And of course, I leave you with a video. This is the single animated film adaption of the series, covering the first book, released in 2008. It’s low quality, but it is the entire movie. It features the voice work of Keifer Sutherland and Lucy Lawless, among others. It is likely terrible. (You have been warned.)
The bigger question here is: does this property deserve a better treatment? It’s no Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) but it is truly epic…
Many, many moons ago I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this little card game put out by a local company that had been making the rounds in the Pacific Northwest looking for investors who believed in their quest to create some awesome new games. That game, which had come out as an “Alpha” at GenCon, would go on to spawn an entire new genre, and propel that little company to dizzying heights in the gaming industry. I’m referring, of course to Magic: The Gathering…
Since its beginnings back in 1993 (that’s twenty years, folks) Magic has enjoyed an amazing run of expansion after expansion. I’ll admit to having dropped thousands of dollars on cards (that I ended up “losing” in my first divorce) in the first years of the game. (In my defense I was single and in the Navy, plus I’d been stationed in Misawa, Japan…which loosely translates as “place of exile” or something like that.)
As 2014 dawns on us, Magic: The Gathering has gone through a whopping 16 core card sets, with another due out this year. It has also featured 62 (that’s not a joke) expansion sets (typically broken down into three set blocks) and that number will reach 65 by the end of the year. In essence, the current model is for three expansions to be released every year, and the core set updated.
There are thousands upon thousands of cards in the game. While tournament rules generally restrict cards to the newer sets, casual play generally has far fewer restrictions, and there are even specific events which cater to collectors of older cards.
As you might imagine, the above was designed to serve as a preface to a point I think is vital when looking at Magic. The game is simply immensely deep. Even when you are working within the restrictions of a specific tournament type which cuts down the cards you can play, the reality is that with as many types of cards that exist and as many sorts of mechanics, there’s a depth to the gameplay that is at the heart of why millions of people still play Magic, and why Wizards of the Coast puts out as many cards a year as they do.
From tiny creature decks to those that sport thundering bruisers, you move to the realm of massive damage spells or those that chisel away at your life bit by bit. Then there’s the might of healing…or maybe you prefer to dominate your opponent with denying them the ability to even play? That’s just the surface.
While at the heart of it Magic is a card game, there are currently two Magic video games (and were two others which you might be able to find somewhere) which offer players the chance to enjoy the universe from behind their PC, console, tablet, or mobile phone. The first, Magic Online, came out in the early 2002 and underwent a major overhaul in 2008. It allows a fairly full experience, including virtual boosters that are purchased and played with. It focuses on matches between players, and generally has a few thousand individuals connected at any given time.
The second is more of a single player, limited experience when compared to Magic Online, but with the updated 2014 edition is moving closer to matching the full gameplay experience with including constructed decks. I’ll admit that while I haven’t bought 2014 yet, I do have the previous two (2012 and 2013) and the real sticking point for me was always the lack of construction. While I may be playing Heartstone for my card game fix at present, the 2014 Planeswalkers game might just woo some money from my pocket…
As always, I’ll close off with a video. This one is a trailer for the latest console, mobile, PC game which is likely a good bet for people looking to see what the game is like before making any kind of serious commitment. (And believe me, real getting into the actual physical card game is very serious in terms of money. Like I said earlier: thousands of dollars I spent in just a few years. I was dropping a hundred or two plus every month.)
I’ve already written articles on the best sequels and best original (gaming) IP this year. But in this post I’m going to run down a top 5 list of games that I enjoyed the most in 2013. Bear in mind that this means I played the games below in 2013, not that they were released in 2013. (This fact will also be relevant in years going forward as well. Unlike your run-of-the-mill gaming site, this is my place to chat about the stuff I play each calendar year. Even if it’s old.)
Without further ado, here’s number 5…
Number 5 — Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Just before Final Fantasy XIV came out in 2010 I got into the beta. Hours later I’d cancelled two collector’s edition pre-orders.
On a whim, I popped into the Final Fantasy XIV open beta earlier this year. Within hours I’d pre-ordered two copies. (Standard edition, but still…)
Put simply this is a game I wish I had more hours in the day left over for. I’ve been an MMO fan since before they started calling them MMOs (back when text was king) and I’m always on the lookout for a new fix. (I play about three a year on average.) FFXIV: ARR is a fantastic, fun game, particularly for people just enjoying playing it. (I’ve yet to meet an MMO that appealed to both the high level hardened core as well as the more casual gamer on release.)
I very much enjoyed the ability to play any class, and I was well on my way to getting all of my levels up by the time we stopped playing. (MMOs are immense time sinks. The monthly fee that goes along with many of them is well worth the hours you spend on a daily basis.)
While I doubt that I will ever become so engrossed in the game that it will become my primary sink, I do expect that I’ll feel like playing it again some day. For a game in a genre as crowded as MMOs, that’s a win. (After all, more start than shut down every year, and many are in constant development!)
If you like MMORPGs, you should give Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn a shot.
Number 4 — The Walking Dead
(Again, my rules say that if I played in 2013, it goes on this list. I know it released in 2012, but I didn’t get my hands on it until last Christmas, and I didn’t play until early this year.)
This is a game full of choices, and those choices affect the outcome of the story. Seems simple, but the manner in which Telltale structured the story is super phenomenally amazeballs. (Yes, that is English.) The impact of this title is in the narrative, and like the top two entries this year, it delivers big time. (Honestly, you cold roll the dice between The Walking Dead and numbers one and two and come up with reasons why each had the slightly better narrative.)
The game is an unusual one as far as genre goes. It is an adventure game hybrid which basically only one developer is making. That may not sound like much of a recommendation, but in a world of clones of clones, seeing a fresh take on something is very appealing. While there are multiple titles from Telltale which utilize this formula, the truth is that it thrives on not being stale, and it exceptionally playable by pretty much anyone. (No super aim or ungodly twitch skills needed. No amazingly strong stomach. Nothing but a brain and some emotions.)
The game isn’t very long, but it offers sufficient playtime for the money. You won’t run around playing for 500 hours like with a PC copy of Skyrim modded to death, but you’ll definitely enjoy the hours you do spend in the well-crafted world.
Number 3 — Skylanders: Swap Force
I could just leave the entry at that and be done, and it would be enough to hit number three. We have a small box tucked inside of the mid-sized bin that we store all of our Skylanders in which allows us easy access to the dozen or so figures we’re currently using in the game. That was done out of necessity when we realized it took us 10 minutes just to get ready to play.
And we’re not anywhere close to having all the available figures.
Activision is all about new titles on a yearly basis for as long as they can capitalize. I don’t overly like the Call of Duty series (despite my deep love of the original Call of Duty) but I know there’s an entire subset of gamers who live for each new installment. In this household, Skylanders is perhaps a guilty pleasure (for me, at least)…yet it is a pleasure.
Swap Force has taken up plenty of gaming hours here. It motivated the Black Friday (on Amazon…not at a retail store) purchase of a new XBox 360 (fuck you, Microsoft) and has been on almost daily since the new machine arrived. The great thing about the game is that Bridgette and I can play it co-op, and the kids enjoy watching. That’s a rarity because Bridgette has a hard time with a lot of games (motion sickness…she didn’t play Descent) and there’s not much on the market that is fun enough for adults yet engaging for small kids. Combine all that and you’re in solidly at number three for me this year.
Number 2 — BioShock: Infinite
The end made me cry. (To be fair, I came close in The Walking Dead as well.)
But that alone didn’t land it at number two. No, it also offers a well-constructed story throughout (with some questionable…uh, answer-less questions) and excellent shooter gameplay. I’d call out BioShock: Infinite as being on par with HalfLife for combination of story and mechanics. (And that’s incredible praise. HalfLife is one of the greatest games ever.)
The only disappointment I felt with BioShock: Infinite is that in an age of open world games and free-roamers, it is an on-rails experience which offers merely the semblance of choice. Aside from a few completely irrelevant questions you answer and how you choose to dispatch your enemies, your method of play means nothing at all to the end result. (Aside from how many times you die, I suppose.)
But that is truly the only failing the game really has. Were it made a few years back before free-roaming became so much more prevalent and refined, this would be my game of the year. I can’t find much fault at all in how it plays, and I have to admit that I absolutely loved what Elizabeth brought to the combat experience. Superb story, amazing visuals, rocking combat—play it…just play it. If you can manage shooters at all, you have to play it.
Number 1 — Tomb Raider (2013)
There is a reason this game (‘s series) has gotten a Geekssential entry of its own, and was called out in the best sequels of the year post already. It is a truly fantastic game.
Not only does it feature an outstanding story which simultaneously gives the franchise a reboot and offers up a compelling origin tale for the seemingly unstoppable Lara Croft, it also plays amazingly well. The depth of the skill and weapon unlocks combine with a fluid combat system which allows for a taut, cinematic feel. Playing the game is like starring in a movie, but with the ability to stray from the plot in order to explore the beautiful world.
While you can’t make the case for Tomb Raider being anything like Skyrim, Fallout III, or Grand Theft Auto V in terms of open world gameplay, you can certainly put it head and shoulders above a game like BioShock Infinite. It’s possible that the story in my number two game is better, but Booker simply cannot explore the world in the same way as Lara, and it makes a difference to how much playtime the games offer up.
But one shouldn’t think the story in Tomb Raider is weak. I wrote that “it’s possible” BioShock wins out there, but aside from the big reveal in Infinite making me cry, I’m not sold on it being a tighter arc. I was more consistently tense and engrossed in the world while playing Tomb Raider. The game has a grit and reality to it that pulled me in and wouldn’t let go, and for all the mature subject matter of BioShock, I found Tomb Raider more visceral and disturbing. (Except for that damned Infinite reveal.)
In any case, Tomb Raider is an absolute must-play in my book. Anyone who likes action-adventure-suspense-puzzle stuff who has yet to play needs to get on that. So says me.
But don’t just take my word for it. Watch someone completely clueless take a swing at it: