The Hump

Sometimes I sit down in front of the PC with the intention of playing a game, but then just…stare at the screen, or scroll around on Twitter or Le Plus, and in the end just realize I spent a bunch of time doing absolutely nothing. Other times I think “man, I paid for that PS4, I really should use it!” but don’t bother to move anywhere near it.

The weird thing is, once I actually make that effort to get started, I usually just keep going. Like this weekend, with nature swaffling the hell out of the North East again, I stayed inside. I thought that maybe I should get back to Dragon Age: Inquisition because it seems like people have either finished it, or are just starting it. I’m somewhere in between, and will be unless I get my ass in gear, sit down, and do it.

So I did. Several cumulative hours later, I’ve done more content than I think I had done previously. I killed a dragon (well, a wyvern to be exact, but it’s a cousin), lost Haven, gained Skyhold, shooed bandits, drained a lake, killed undead, sealed a butt-load of rifts (official measurement), figured out who “The Elder One” is, met the main character from Dragon Age: The Second One People Didn’t Like As Much As The First, and am now attending a ball in Orlais where I have to figure out who lives, who dies, and who gets to sit on the throne.

Once I get started, it’s difficult to stop. I only quit because my couch is terrible to sit on, I threw my back out shoveling snow, and my ass was tired of sitting there. The ravages of old age. But I found that I was having a lot of fun, which really shouldn’t be a surprise since gaming is about fun. I’m thinking the search for more fun is dampening the fun we’ve already got, sometimes, and just getting back into that groove is what’s needed to be reminded of that.

Into the Cavern

Back in the days of Levelcapped, I’d provide a recap of our Thursday night Dungeons & Dragons 5E game. It was one of the few regular post series I enjoyed, so I’m picking up here where we left off*.

Trust me, that’s the most benign title I could have given this post

The party had returned to Greenest and had rested and gained a level, making their asses badder than before. In addition, they lost a cleric to AA, but gained a druid in the process.

In what can only be described as deus ex machina, the wayward half-elf monk Leosin stumbled into Greenest about a day or so after the players had returned themselves. Worse for wear, he proclaimed that he had learned what he could from the dragon cult, with one exception: he didn’t learn what was going on in that cave.

Being heavily armed, Leosin offered to pay the players more gold to go and investigate. The party was apprehensive: they had just escaped from there, and weren’t eager to return. However, this time they had the lay of the land and decided that they’d get all stealthy, checking out the camp from the canyon ridge before heading in.

Silence. Darkness. The smell of something foul smoldering. The camp was abandoned. The druid proved his worth by changing himself into a snake and slithering through the camp, verifying that yes, everyone had packed up and left. Just to make sure, the party hung out until dawn.

At daybreak, four hunters strolled casually into the camp, laden with a dead buck. While they were carving up their prize, the party took a chance and boldly strode into the canyon. The hunters couldn’t have cared any less, and even chatted briefly with the party. The raiders had moved out an hour after Leosin was discovered missing, except for a few holdouts who were staying in the cave. They were paying the hunters to provide them with food, but other than that, the hunters had no particular love for the raiders.

A discussion was had about potential methods for getting into the cave, but in the end, the old SWAT method was used: flank the entrance, kick down the door. Round two for the druid who cast Moonfire (?) on one of two dragonclaw cultists loitering in the cave, setting him ablaze, while his companion panicked in the face of this sudden immolation. Unfortunately, the ranger wasn’t able to hit either one with an arrow, leaving the task up to the monk and the warrior. When all was said and done, the party seemed to have escaped detection.

A quick search of the cavern entrance revealed nothing of note, so the party headed towards a set of stairs carved into the rock that lead down into a field of luminescent fungi. As fate would have it, no one thought to check for traps, and the ranger tripped the mechanism that collapsed the stairs and sent him sliding face first into a copse of violet fungi, semi-sentient and deadly mushrooms that managed to deal necrotic damage to the prone wood elf. The bard lit one of the fungi on fire, and subsequent attacks by other party members resulted in a cavern full of spores, but no further damage.

*   *   *

We didn’t spend a lot of time with the “getting to know you” phase that might have been expected in taking on a new party member. We didn’t convene last week, so folks were itching to get moving.

The cave was one part of the camp that the party hadn’t actually gotten to last time, and when I was preparing for the session, the further I read the more I cringed. This was the first “dungeon” in the module, and it’s really “old school”, complete with all that “old school dungeon” implies.

I am hoping that the players will step up the game aspect. We’re playing pretty fast and loose with the system, bouncing between tactical and non-tactical gameplay mostly by accident, but the use of the out-of-combat game mechanics has been pretty sparse. Skills and checks aren’t being used without prompting, and prompting is being done at the insistence of the module itself. Ideally, the players will be on point, using PERCEPTION and STEALTH and other relevant skills at appropriate times.

I’ve been reading up on the Fate game system, and one of the core concepts is that players can do whatever they want — if they can explain a plausible in-game justification for it. I really like that idea, because it fosters player ingenuity and makes a more collaborative game. I’m hoping that this cave experience can help kick-start the “tabletop mentality” after years of “MMO mentality” that I think we’re all still holding on to.

* I’ll be importing the other posts as soon as I have time.

Call of Cthulhu

I’ve had Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop for years but only got to use it last year when I conned a bunch of people into letting me run them through a Dungeons & Dragons episode. Since that time we’ve moved on to Roll20.net, but I still have a fondness for FG because of it’s all-in-one design and top-down customization options.

Yesterday, I learned that the Call of Cthulhu ruleset was on sale. A ruleset for FG consists of the game system, along with all of it’s associated data tables, character sheets, and errata. It’s like buying the source book, but in electronic reference format that allows searching, and it means you don’t need to spend time building or inputting creature stats. This package also came with four full adventure modules and some pre-made investigators for playing with people who don’t want to waste time rolling their own.

I really love Call of Cthulhu. I had played frequently when I was younger, and this rule set was always on my wishlist for rules to buy for FG. I have since lost my original source book (all of my original source books, sadly), so when this was on sale I figured it would be a no-brainer to have, even if I never got around to playing it.

Last Blog Standing

So I wasn’t entirely honest when I said I was getting out of the blogging biz.

Cedarstreet has been my central domain for quite a while now. I branched out to Levelcapped.com because the name fit better when talking about games than “Cedarstreet” did. I eventually spent more time over there than I did here, as I was keeping this as my general purpose dumping ground.

The problem being that I wasn’t really talking about much general purpose stuff. Most things I wrote about were gaming related, with the occasional odd post over here. I tried re-purposing this space for public sounding-board on writing topics, but I don’t want it to entirely spiral down that drain.

But I’ve kind of lost interest in video game blogging. Most of my recent stuff has been about recaps, the things I’ve been playing and what happened. I’m not super interested in reading that kind of thing, so I wasn’t super interested in writing that kind of thing. I’m tired of the weekly controversy that we seem to become embroiled in on cue, so I didn’t want to write about that kind of thing.

I want to write about interesting stuff. Stuff that other people want to read. And I wasn’t feeling that I had tons left to say on the subject of gaming, or at least not enough or frequently enough to warrant having a blog dedicated to that and only that.

So Cedarstreet is the last blog standing. I’ve deleted Levelcapped.com and Flying Blind. All the files and databases are gone.

I’ll be using this space for pretty much everything going forward, then. That means video games, tabletop games, media, non-gaming subjects, and all kinds of other things. I’m still going to try very hard to maintain a positive bent, so no politics or religion or stuff like that.

However, I’m not sure I’ll be advertising this on the social networks. I might just keep this on the down-low, manually throwing out posts as I see fit. I’m not looking for a following. I’m just keeping this space as a place to write.

Escape From Camp Crazytown

When we last left our heroes, they had been captured by the vile Dragon Cult and were chained alongside other prisoners such as Leosin the half-elf, Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later, Doug, Trisha, Larry and Biff the Unfortunately Slow Gnome.

The cleric had been able to free himself from his shackles and was left wondering how he, a cleric with no personal security skills what-so-ever, could hope to free his comrades. Also, should he just make a run for it. Much to his companion’s relief, he managed to assist the monk to freedom, and those two friends helped two more friends, and those friends helped more friends, and soon the Important People In This Story had been freed.

This was not without incident, however. The first attempt at freedom was to Charm Person one of the two guards that were holding occasional and distracted vigil nearby. The bard “faked” a panic about how the bloodthirsty elves were out to get her, and that she needed to be taken somewhere safe. Three times the cleric attempted his Charm Person, but he had a piece of parsley stuck in his teeth, which rendered him anything but charming. The guard merely went away with a headache and a rational hatred for gnome bards.

Once the monk was freed, however, his well-maintained dental work was able to Charm Person a guard who identified where their gear was being held. The party was able to convince their new friend that he and his other guard friend should go get their gear for them. Problem: the tent that held their stuff was guarded by Olaf The Humorless, supposedly a mountain of a man who hadn’t laughed since the year 823 (he’s also very good at ice dancing, but Olaf the Ice Dancer was already registered, oddly enough). Ned, the charmed guard, convinced Kors, the charmless guard, to distract Olaf while he rummaged through the tent. Kors apparently had a beef to settle with Olaf, and agreed without actually wondering or possibly caring about why Ned wanted the prisoner’s gear after having talked with the prisoners for a good fifteen minutes. That’s why he’s know as Kors The Isn’t Really All That Bright.

While Olaf and Kors engaged in noisy fisticuffs, the party packed up to leave, taking Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later, but leaving Leosin who refused to budge. He claimed that he had more to learn from the dragon cult, and asked the party to take a message to his paladin friend should he not meet up with them later in Greenest. Rather than waste time arguing (against the judgement of the bard), the party slapped Leosin on the back, bid him good luck, and made that “he’s crazy” gesture with the whirling finger at the temple when he wasn’t looking. They stealthed out, leaving Doug, Trisha, Larry and Biff the Unfortunately Slow Gnome utterly confused that their chain-mates had suddenly vanished into thin air.

On their way back to Greenest, the players stopped off in the canyon to check on the poor raider they had tied up and promised they’d return for. However, they found not trace of the guy. Good deed done for the year, the party felt liberated and ready to wreak havoc with a clean conscious from here on in.

The Governor and Escobert were eager to hear what the party had to say about the raider camp, and the young monk who asked them to find Leosin was sad that his friend hadn’t returned, but figured that he might have pulled some crap like that.

It was at this point that the party settled down for a Long Rest(tm), and enjoyed the benefit of reaching the end of the chapter which was a milestone granting them all another level.

*   *   *

Having looked ahead in the module, I had determined that this session would be short for a few reasons. The first was that it was the end of the chapter. The second was that because we’re using the “milestone method” for advancement (not tracking individual XP, but leveling at “checkpoints” in the story), the players needed time to examine their leveling options and discuss what would be best for them and for the party.

More importantly, however, is a lineup change. Our cleric-driver has bowed out of the game, leaving a gap in the five-person party. We were lucky to pick up @Sh4x0rZ as the party’s fifth person, Unnamed Character Who Will Factor In Later. He didn’t have a character ready, and needed to be brought up to speed on what’s transpired so far. A full party presence will be needed for the next chapter.

This was a kind of “crisis-lite” because as a DM, I’m not interested in killing the party, or in letting them get themselves killed unless it makes sense. I’m not a fan “dumb bad luck”, where an army just happened to be wandering by where the party is hiding, or necessarily that the players will become overwhelmed simply because they’re outnumbered on paper. That’s not to say that I’m interested in letting the party coast along in the interest of keeping the story going; there have already been several close calls, but they’ve been rational situations where the odds hadn’t come up in the party’s favor.

Next session, though, will be a test. Without giving away spoilers to those who don’t know the module, the players will return to the roots of D&D. This is going to require a more structured adherence to the character sheet than everyone’s been dealing with now. The players will need to be conscious of using their skills and abilities to navigate the chapter, or else they’ll end up suffering for it. The module is very specific in this regard, with DC checks in almost every other paragraph. It’ll be a bit jarring, as up to this point we’ve played this less as a “game” and more as a loosely bound RP experiment, but I’m looking forward to the next chapter to see if the players have really hit their stride and become comfortable with the 5E rules and the use thereof.

Into The Dragon’s Den #AdventureCo #DND5E

Not the literal dragon’s den; we haven’t gotten quite that far, although you know in a module entitled “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” that there’ll be a showdown with dragons at some point.

We’d been on hiatus from our campaign for quite some time due to the holiday schedule and erratic results of adulthood, so it was quite a chore to remember where the party had left off last time. They had picked themselves up after what bards are already calling the “Siege of Greenest” and didn’t skip a beat when Governor Nighthill and his sidekick Escobert the Red asked them to track the departing raiders and find out what their ultimate plans were about. As a side-quest, a frantic monk asked them to keep an eye out for his teacher who went missing during the siege. Supposedly this guy was obsessed with studying the dragon cult, and may have gotten swept up in his zeal as his body had not been found within the town the morning after.

The raiders weren’t difficult to track, as scores of mercenaries and kobolds carrying sacks full of loot are bound to make an impression on the landscape they travel through. This brought the party to a rocky ravine where they encountered some laggards who thought it was a good idea to take their breakfast in the seclusion of some boulders. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t even get to taste the bacon before the party dispatched all but two: one died of his wounds very shortly, but the other lived long enough to spill  his guts (!) about the rear guard the raiders had left further along the ravine.

Despite knowing this, the party wasn’t able to use the knowledge to their advantage. From their perch above the ravine floor, the rear guard was able to get the jump on the players, harassing them from both sides of the canyon. Careful use of the blocking power of boulders allowed the players to drive the cultists and mercenaries into advantageous positions, and soon they had whittled the enemy down to a lone mercenary. Seeing as how mercenaries are a self-absorbed lot, this one traded his (relative) safety for some information on the raiders camp, and how the players could gain access, although it wasn’t at all glamorous. He suggested they could just…walk in.

Last night, walk in they did. Amidst the confusion of returning raiders from other avenues, the players were able to simply merge with the throng of cultist, mercenaries, and kobolds and found no one was any wiser as to their presence. The mercenaries were enjoying their adrenaline high with some drinking, gambling, and brawling, while the cultists limited themselves to their enclaves and gave thanks to Tiamat for being allowed to do her work.

Recon was in order. The players integrated themselves into several crowds, listening in on several conversations and being careful not to ask questions that might out them as new additions to the camp. In a rather brazen moment of debauchery, the bard of the party set up her hurdy-gurdy case close to the largest — and most heavily guarded — tent in the camp and played her own account of the Siege of Greenest, earning 17 silver for her performance.

The tent was an enigma: surrounded by four guards and four guard drakes, it exuded an aura of fear and command. There was something — or someone — important in there. Adding to the mystery was a cave beyond the tent where raiders could be seen dragging heavy sacks that the party assumed contained the spoils from Greenest.

One of their tasks was to locate the missing monk. Using subterfuge, they found nine prisoners chained to posts along the south wall of the canyon, but were warned to steer clear of the elf. Mondath’s orders were that he not receive any food or water. The ranger of the party managed to slither his way through nearby shrubs to get close to said elf, and managed to identify him as the monk they had been asked to find.

As the sun began to set, the camp began to wind down. Guard patrols formed once the influx of raiders slowed considerably. Cultists and mercenaries settled down beside their campfire and talked in low tones. The players set up a tent of their own, blending in and giving themselves shelter where they could discuss their next move.

As luck would have it, however, their tent was invaded by a patrolman who claimed to have received a tip from another raider that the party’s own monk had been recognized as having been in Greenest — on the opposing side. Quickly, the bard Charmed the guard, and though him learned that Rezmir, Mondath, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath occupied the large tent, and that the prisoners were sent into the cave to do some kind of work that he wasn’t privy to. The information extracted, the ranger delivered a swift blow to the back of the man’s head, which turned out to be a liability as his compatriot entered the tent in search of his wayward friend. When opportunity presented itself, this second guard was knocked unconscious.

With two raiders lying unconscious in the tent, the players were on the clock. They quickly moved to secure these two bodies when — wouldn’t you know it? — a third guard poked his head into the tent to see what was keeping the other two.

Seeing the party in the process of binding the guards, the third mercenary raised the alarm. Dozens of cultists, mercenaries, and, yes, even kobolds, emerged from their tents, torches held high, and ringed the player’s tent. The party attempted to slip out through the back, but their back was literally against the wall, and the raiders were able to close in on them, disarm them, and bind them.

In the worst case of wish fulfillment ever, they were brought to the clearing outside of the camp’s largest tent. Two figured emerged: a short-haired woman dressed in purple, and the half-dragon Cyanwrath. The woman was identified as Frulam Mondath, the one the mercenary from the rear guard had identified as the camp’s leader. Cyanwrath needed no introduction; indeed, he immediately recognized the party’s dwarf who had faced off against him in Greenest. He and the dwarf continued to stare one another down as Mondath interrogated the party about their identity and the reason for their presence, but none of them provided information that satisfied the cult leader. She ordered them to be chained with the other prisoners until morning.

Circumstances notwithstanding, the players now found themselves alongside the elven monk they were looking for. Try as they might, none of the party members could escape their chains — except for the cleric, who never told the rest of the party he was double jointed. Slipping from his manacles, he…

*   *   *

I knew this was going to be a difficult chapter, but it didn’t turn out bad at all. In fact, I think it’s been my favorite.

The raider camp is a kind of free-form scene. There’s some points of interest, like the division between kobold, mercenary, and cultist enclaves, the large command tent, and the mysterious cave, and of course the prisoners, but aside from that there’s no real gameplay guidance in the actual module for what’s going on here.

I think one of the reasons this session worked better than I’d anticipated was because the group is rather laid back, and without swords at anyone’s throat, and without a ticking clock, and without me feeling like checkboxes needed to be checked, the players were really in the driver’s seat. I had a whole table of conversation snippets that I used for overheard conversations, and the Charmed guard turned out to be the party’s new best friend. The bard’s impromptu performance wasn’t even out of the ordinary; with the camp operating in party mode, it made sense that no one would think it out of the ordinary.

The two problems were that the monk was recognized via an early roll when the player’s entered the camp. The module asked for all players to roll CHA to “blend in”, and unfortunately the monk failed, but it was a delayed roll, not to be used until the “worst possible time” according to the module. The second (IMO) was the overzealous beatdown that the players administered to the guards who appeared in response to the monk’s failed CHA roll. The first guard had been charmed and knocked unconscious, and the second guard was 75% of the way towards believing that his friend had just drank too much to complete his rounds. Had the players let the second guard take the first away, I was prepared to let the blow to the head give him amnesia about the whole Charm Person thing so he wouldn’t have remembered having been Charmed. Sorry guys!

But overall I think the pacing and flow went really well. It was a combat-less session, which I expected to be harder to run because most of it would have been “on the fly”, but a lot of the results were due to letting the players drive the scene and responding, and pre-loading some bystander stuff into Realm Works “for flavor”. My goal was to let the players mingle for as long as they wanted, assuming they weren’t making it obvious that they didn’t belong.

The hard part, though, is for the only free player — the cleric — to figure out how to get the other players out of prison.

The One Thing I Want For 2015

I don’t do resolutions, because I try to go with the whole Zen approach to things, one day at a time. I have a retirement account, sure, but setting goals that can be thought up in a few hours means that they can be dropped and forgotten in half the time when they become inconvenient or when The Universe simply doesn’t want to make your life as easy as you’d hoped. I know that kind of sounds like a ready-made excuse for not having to try, but in the recent deluge of posts about New Years Resolutions, the one thread of advice that’s being repeated hasn’t been “go out and do it big”, but rather “make a habit of the little things”. When I think about the things that I regularly do (like blogging Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and think back on how I came to do them, this is the way they came to be: small tasks done with regularity until they became common practice in my life.

See, what I want out of 2015 is really the same thing I think everyone reading this wants: a better community. 2014 was probably the absolute low point in games and geekery for reasons we can all remember, and the only way 2015 can get any worse is if we continue to do things the way we did last year. There’s no “steady as she goes” about it: unless we all agree to make it a better year, things are going to continue to spiral deeper and deeper into Hell, and we’ll all be to blame.

That’s not a call to arms. This community is nothing if not over-dramatic. We’ve got a lot of templates to work from, not the least of which is “the hero’s journey” that makes up 98% of everything we consume around here. We’re a community of people who, until pretty recently, were outsiders who got a lot of shit for what we liked, how we looked, and what we did. Now that we’re a Big Deal around the world, we’ve gained a swagger: many folks around here believe that we’ve done time in the trenches, and now it’s time for reparations that are due us. It’s still a Wild West of sorts, with vacancies to be filled for the traditional roles of spokespeople, taste-makers, and influencers, and thanks to the egalitarian nature of our hobby and the Internet, every Tweet is an application, and every blog post is a campaign speech. See? Overly dramatic.

What we don’t need are people telling us all to “stop talking and start acting”. That just sounds to me like people are preaching a full-fledged riot as the only way to solve our ills. Instead, what we need are individuals who want to make this community a better place, because the only way that can happen is if we take care of our own, individual houses before we start trying to clean everyone else’s. Look at your own attitude in 2014 by thumbing back through your Tweets, Facebook posts and Likes, blog posts, and behavior in-game. Are you happy with how you appear to your fellow geeks? I suspect that most people will say yes, because why not, right? You’ve got nothing to prove to this wall of text, and your opinions are your own and form the foundation of your identity. Maybe there’s a few here and there that look cringe-worthy in hindsight, but by and large you spoke your mind and you stand by your public face in 2014.

Think on this, then: in 2014, how did you make the community better? I mean really better. I don’t mean how you think you made it better, with your rants in the name of truth, or all those times you called people out for their mistakes and shortcomings, or the pride you took in flinging sarcasm around as a weapon in an Internet battle. Those things don’t help build a better community. Those kinds of activities only allowed you to feel a bit more superior, and maybe to become a bit more noticed by the people we want to be noticed by: other community members.

See that link right there? We behave the way we do because we’re looking for appreciation from the people whose opinions matter to us. We want to be thought well of by a particular segment of the population, so we Tweet what we think will get re-Tweeted, or blog angry because we know people like reading and leaving their own angry comments, and we call that “interaction” and “community” based solely on traffic we generate in response to what we put out there.

Are you helping to build and repair the community through your actions and attitudes? Or are you subverting the community through negativity and snark in a bid to improve your own self-satisfaction?

What really gets me, then, is that games and geekery are ways of life devoted to enjoying things like video games, board games, cosplay, anime, science fiction and fantasy, books, comics, action figures, and stuff like that. No one joined this community because they have a burning hatred of what we’re about, so why, for the love of gawd, do so many people spend so many electrons being negative about it? And before you answer that — in the comments, or just in your own head — ask yourself this: who does your answer really serve? Are you going to say that negativity is a reflection of how fed up we are about the controversy du jour? Are you going to claim that you’re just “being honest” and insinuate that your rant is a universal truth? If you believe that you’re doing the community a favor by being negative or cranky all the time, then you’re not doing the community a favor; I submit that you’re profiteering off of the attention that negativity brings, or else you’re aligning yourself with a specific bandwagon for the anonymity being one among many provides.

No community or industry is perfect. There’s always a lot of work to be done to make things the best they can be, there’s always room for improvement, and often times that does mean identifying what’s wrong and bringing it to the attention of those who can fix it. We can and should identify the things that are broken, and work towards policies and practices that make this community better for everyone, be they consumer or be they the producer. But we have to do it in a such a way that we don’t feel that the only route from problem to solution is to mow down our fellow community members, or put our own desire for “Internet fame” ahead of the reason we claim is behind the “why” of our actions. In no line of business is progress made by being angry, foul-mouthed, sarcastic, and confrontational unless you’re easily fobbed off with any excuse given just to make you go away. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

And yes, I am aware that there are times when we get frustrated and angry at something we can’t redirect or repair, and we often take to social media to vent to those who we know and trust, and who we believe can help us regain our composure. So in the offline world, so in the online world, but even constant venting has repercussions: on morale, on perception of you and of your subject, and since words written in the haste of irritation often miss the nuance necessary to let people know that you’re venting for the purpose of taking a time out, it’s easy to be seen as the blogger or followee who only has negative things to say about everything. Just as we can feed on the happiness and excitement exuded by people in the community, we can become infected with an ever-present buzz of negativity, no matter it’s reason.

I’ll just say it again in closing: I want 2015 to be the year we actually start working on making this a better community by focusing less on being angry, less on taking action for our own self-satisfied reasons, and more on finding enjoyment in our hobby and subsequently talking about the things we like. Every post and Tweet is our opportunity to evangelize the reasons why we love what we do and to help make the community better. Let’s spend our energy working to repair the damage we’ve done to one another in 2104, and build on that to make things stronger among people who all love the elements of gaming and geekery. I don’t think it’s a tall order, nor do I think it’s particularly difficult thing to accomplish. We as individuals just need to take it one post, one Tweet, one comment, one interaction at a time by asking if the next thing out of our keyboards or out of our mouths is going to help build this community or not. I truly believe we can make it happen.

 

Update: Thanks to Brian Green for bringing this Slate article to my attention, entitled “The year of outrage 2014: Everything you were angry about on social media this year”. This is exactly the type of article I like because it’s not so narrowly focused on one or just a handful of elements. Rather, it’s a retrospective that takes the whole year in review, analyzes it, and extrapolates the overarching trend.

While this is a games and geekery blog and the focus is on the games and geekery community, the Slate article shows us that this element of cyclical anger and sarcasm is by no means limited to this community. It seems to have become a way of being in this dependence on social media as the growing “correct way” to interact with one another. I would suggest we get back to the “old ways” of thinking about our interactions by simply not saying anything that would get us punched in the face, but I know that there’s a generation behind us that’ll never know life without the anonymous interactions that social media provides, and will never have to meter their responses to situations out of fear of getting their ass kicked in person.

But to that end, we are in control of ourselves, threats of reprisals or not, and can and should think of our “public faces” when we’re addressing the world. Our voices reflect the types of people we want others to know us as, and the sum of our voices within this community is the face we present to one another, and to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the book/movie “Contact”, which I think sums it up perfectly for anyone who thinks that we can never get past the rising tide of outrage, anger, and snark:

David Drumlin: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

A Tough Decision #DragonAgeInquisition

Saturday evening I got to spend some time with Dragon Age: Inquisition for more than just an hour. I’ve moved the PS4 back to the computer room TV so I have all the time I want with the system, except that the TV is mounted a bit too high for my comfort, and my neck and shoulders end up hurting if I play too long. That’s not the point of the post, I promise. It is spoileriffic, although only from a point “early” in the game.

When last I left, I was ready to head out to Orlais and start the Val Royeaux junk, but I made a detour in the Hinterlands (again) to finish some business there. I busted up the red lyrium smuggling ring to the south and ran into (SPOILERS!) darkspawn down in the caves where the syndicate was harvesting the stuff. The Alpha Hurlock is a pretty tough customer, but I plowed through them and somewhere along the line I took out the smuggler that I was supposed to and finished the mission.

The initial foray to Val Royeaux cracked me up* when the Templar’s arrived, and as I was laughing out loud my wife asked if everything was OK. I didn’t stick around in Orlais, though, because I had a tough decision to make.

As those who have gotten past this part — basically, everyone I assume — knows, we have to make a choice between checking in with the Templars, or the Mages in Redcliffe. The Templars seem uncharacteristically hostile and lame at the same time: they don’t want to work with the Inquisition, nor do they seem to want to do anything about the rift. Cassandra thinks that’s kind of weird, as she claims to have some previous dealings with the High Seeker, and his behavior seemed off. Of course, on the way out of Val Royeaux, we get stopped by the leader of the Mage rebellion who claims that she’ll listen to the Inquisition, if we want to visit her in Redcliffe. The group consensus is that the Mages aren’t organized well enough, and that could lead to “herding cats” or an unreliable alliance.

I went with the Templars mainly because I agreed with the assessment on the Mages. The Templars are organized, although erratic for some reason that bears investigation. The Mages — at least the rebel factions — might be together for convenience of fighting their former hunters and caretakers, the Templars, but not much else at this point in time.

I thought the Templar branch was kind of interesting. You have to “collect” some Orlesian nobles who act as your political battering ram to earn you an audience with the High Seeker. Unfortunately, as soon as you meet the High Seeker, he pulls you in the Fade, which was creepy as hell. The minutiae was pretty convoluted, but the idea was that an “envy demon” who had originally taken over the High Seeker opted to try and take you over instead. The trip to the Fade showed you vignettes of what the envy demon planned should it be able to masquerade as you and wield the power of the Inquisition. Not pretty. You’re helped by a spirit named Cole who just…shows up…and gives you the mental fortitude to escape from what is essentially your own mind.

Once back to your normal self, however, you find that the envy demon AKA High Seeker was feeding the high ranking Templars red lyrium in an effort to break down their defenses and allow them to become twisted puppets. With the help of a senior Templar who still had his wits about him, you gathered some of the remaining high ranking lieutenants and some red lyrium, held off a demon incursion, and eventually had to fight the envy demon in it’s true form in the real world.

Heavy stuff.

Between starting out and completing the Templar collection quest, I found Blackwall, the only remaining known grey warden around. No one knows where the rest of them went, so in the absence of any darkspawn, Blackwall joined my crusade. I stabled him. Cassandra is doing just fine at the moment. I also got the intro to talk to Iron Bull, but haven’t done so yet. I think that’ll be next on my agenda. I do really need to recruit some non-warriors though, especially rogues. Varric, despite being the most interesting companion, is limited by his love of his crossbow. Everyone else has geared up appropriately, but he’s lagging behind.

 

* Also, the plaques under the statues in the initial entrance to Val Royeaux made me laugh out loud as well.

Rewards Versus Goals and Level-Locked Content

On Wednesday @Stargrace posted about the frowny-face she makes when she sees that a game has level-locked content. Levels are the ages-old mechanism by which a game tells you that while your skill at playing the game might stay flat or only incrementally improve over time, your dedication to the game is rewarded with progression of a sort.

The idea of a level-based content drip is the game industry’s version of “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”. If you got everything the game had to offer the moment you logged in, what’s the point in playing? Level based content comes in many forms: gear, zones, fluff features, dungeons, and raids.

I know it’s kind of a subtle difference, but level-locking content feels like the design is offering the content as a “reward” when in my opinion, it should be designed as more of a “goal”. Take housing in Wildstar. You don’t get access to it until level 14. Housing was a major selling point for people, and I’m sure many were disappointed that they had to “slog” through 14 levels of other stuff just to start with housing. As @Stargrace wisely indicates, Everquest II allows you to get housing from the get go, making it more attractive to those who are really interested in that system (and many people do play these games just for those kinds of systems…designers).

It’s true that knowing housing is a level locked feature makes working towards level 14 a “goal” of sorts, but consider the extent of what we get in other games, and how we get it. Notice how in some games you get a new ability every other level? That was a reward: You don’t have to wish for it, or plan for it, you just have to keep on playing.

One way to substitute level-locking is money-locking. In EQII, while you can get a house from the start, it’s pretty empty. You need to either build, buy, or earn furnishings for your house. Having more than one avenue for acquiring these aspects turns it into more of a “goal” game than a “reward” game. With so many money sinks, players need to prioritize their finances so they spend the money in respect to their goals. Buy one four poster bed now, or save up and buy a whole bedroom set? Buy furniture now, or save up a nest egg so you can also buy a mount and pay repair costs? You can also complete missions to give furnishings, or work on your crafting and unlock a whole range of building opportunities.

To me, the goal method is more engaging because it’s putting the player in the driver’s seat, whereas the reward method is simply holding back content until a player has played for a sufficient amount of time. It’s kind of sleazy in a way, since I’m sure that withholding perks based on levels is a tactic designed to keep players playing if they know something they really want is on the (eventual) horizon, but personally I’d stick with a game that starts me off with the initial bundle, and then allows me to prioritize other aspects of the game to get in line with what I want to achieve with my game time.

Ultra Throwdown: Your Video And Streaming Options

Man, I apparently have a love/hate relationship with streaming my games. On one hand, I don’t have the time to put together a regular schedule, cultivate a following, and promote the process, but on the other hand, my ego would really like me to get involved in some kind of production. Streaming live gameplay is a good, low-cost way to get oneself out there, and I really like the notion that even when playing single player games, they can become multiplayer games in the same way that my friends and I used to sit on the couch and watch a person playing a console game. The comments, suggestions, and hilarity of a mob participating in what was never meant to be a participatory endeavor can be fun and comical.

Thanks to the explosion of Twitch as not just an outlet for amateur videographers but also as a respectable means for companies and events to reach the masses, streaming is the Next Big Business, judging by the number of companies that want you to share your experiences through their pipes. Which to choose? What features do the major players offer? Let’s look, shall we?*

 

The Leader – Twitch

TwitchBalloonIf you’ve ever had any inkling to stream, you no doubt first went to Twitch. Like Jell-O, Kleenex, and iPod, Twitch has become the defacto pronoun for a wider market of services.

The best reason to choose Twitch is that it’s ubiquitous. Events happen on Twitch. Companies stream stuff on Twitch. eSports happens on Twitch (and elsewhere, but it’s Twitch, so…). When people want to find a stream to watch, they lazily roll over towards Twitch and search for what they want.

When you want to stream, Twitch has you covered. You can stream from a PC using third party software, or you can stream from a current gen console (XB1 and PS4). Some games on the PC have streaming to Twitch built in, meaning you don’t need anything other than an account to get started. However, console and integrated streaming is limited; you can’t do the fancy overlays and presentations that you see a lot of users doing. For that, you need a PC and a copy of OBS, XSplit, FFSplit, or one of the sideline participants like Shadowplay, Raptr, or Overwolf.

Twitch’s biggest draw is also potentially it’s biggest problem, as a new streamer is the model of a small fish in a big pond. Unless you have a large social network following or some kind of gimmick or ultra-slick presentation, having people find your League of Legends stream is going to be an uphill battle.

PROS

  • Popular
  • Many streaming software options
  • Video archiving (PC/Mac/Linux only)
  • Export to YouTube
  • Built into many games
  • Built into consoles
  • Hosting mode highlights other streamers while your channel is dormant

CONS

  • Super-populated means discovery is difficult for streamers, and views need to wade through a lot to find you
  • No archiving for consoles
  • Must meet certain criteria in order to form a team with other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Challenger – Hitbox

HitBox_Logo_BannerHitbox is probably less well known than Twitch mainly because Twitch is “good enough”, and was first. Hitbox is just as good as Twitch, and actually has some features that Twitch doesn’t have.

While there’s little on the surface that seems to differentiate Hitbox from it’s main competitor, there are some things to consider if you’re looking at Hitbox. First and most prominant is that the only (current) way to stream to Hitbox is from a PC using third party software. I’m not aware of any games that have Hitbox streaming baked in, and no console supports streaming to Hitbox. This means that you’ll be relegated to dealing with bitrate and other esoteric numbers in order to get the best stream. That’s also a plus, though, as some of the “automatic” streams (baked in and consoles) only give you conservative bandwidth options.

Hitbox’s controls are better than Twitch, IMO. Both dashboards allow you to set the title of the stream and pick the game, but Hitbox allows users to tailor the social media message that they can pump out, can push ads for the times when nature calls, and can create interactive polls and giveaway forms that show up in the chat window.

I think Hitbox is growing, and soon (if not already) discovery will start to become an issue if you rely on people to just drop by the Hitbox website and find your stream.

PROS

  • Dedicated dashboard window
  • Ability to create polls, giveaways, and push ads for a breather
  • Can form a team with no pre-requisites
  • Export to YouTube
  • Video archiving of clips

CONS

  • Lesser known than Twitch (Prepare for a lot of “Hitbox? Why not Twitch?” questions)
  • Only works with desktop software like OBS, XSplit, and FFSPlit
  • No in-game integration
  • No hosted promotion of other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Contender – Forge (Beta)

ForgeGGLogoForge is eschewing the traditional streaming paradigm of preparation and presentation in favor of ease of use, but also removes some of the features of Twitch and Hitbox which I suspect may be important to those who are attempting to build a brand.

Forge is aimed at those who are interested in the idea of streaming, but aren’t entirely sold on the whole setup and design and cultivation of an audience. Forge uses it’s own client which simply listens for a supported game to start, at which point it just starts streaming to it’s own website under your account. Super simple!

Whether it’s a downside or not depends on your needs, but Forge doesn’t allow streamers to archive their entire stream for replay later (it’s save for 48 hours, I believe). Instead, it allows streamers to extract 15 second highlight clips from the recording. This editing is handled through the desktop client, and the results are instantly (more or less) available on the website. Unlike the above services, Forge doesn’t have live chat, webcam support, overlay support, or microphone support (but they are taking suggestions and are super responsive to community interaction, so features are currently being evaluated).

Forge is also one part social network by allowing users to post comments in between the videos posted to their account. Again, this service seems squarely aimed at casual streamers or viewers who like to drop in/drop out without fuss, and for people who later smack their forehead and wish they’d recorded that raid boss take down.

Disclosure: I have received some promotional materials (T-shirt, sweatshirt, water-bottle, stickers) from the Forge team for being an early and active adopter/tester of their system.

PROS

  • Noob friendly for casual streamers
  • Always on; No forethought needed to start
  • Records everything, then presents the editor
  • Integrated social network
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Super responsive team

CONS

  • Currently in beta
  • Currently invite only to use; can be viewed by anyone on the web
  • No customization of stream
  • No chat
  • No mic input (there may be hacks available, like using a virtual cable, but I’ve not tested it)
  • Only short, user defined clips (~fifteen seconds) are archived
  • Power streamers or brand-builders might find it too limiting
  • Requires the game to be supported by Forge in order for it to stream.

 

The Guy Weezing At The Back Of The Pack – Plays.TV (Beta)

PlaysTVLogoPlays.tv is a recently discovery, and although it’s not really a streaming option, it deals in game videos so I’m including it here. In a nutshell, it’s tightly integrated with the Raptr desktop client, is always on once activated, and saves in ten minute bursts when you tell it to. You can then edit out 90 second clips for uploading to the Plays.tv website.

I’m not entirely sure which market Plays is after. It sits closer to the Nvidia Shadowplay end of the spectrum in that once activated, it records gameplay in a rolling 10 minute window that is written to disk with a keystroke. It doesn’t output to a live website while the game is being played, so it’s more of an on-demand 10 minute snapshot option, and eventually can save 90 seconds worth of gameplay that can be uploaded to the site.

I’ve had problems with Plays, though. One 90 second clip I made said it had uploaded to the website, but that was a few days ago, and I still can’t see it. Another video uploaded right after that one made it through OK. They

The good news is that the quality is really high, and the files are accessible on disk through the UI, so if you want to edit a montage of action footage locally, Plays.tv might be one of the better options.

PROS

  • Uses Raptr, which is a pro if you use Raptr
  • Saves files to disk and are easily accessible
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Excellent quality of local video files, and excellent quality when the files reach the Plays.tv site

CONS

  • Have to remember to start the rolling recording
  • Have to remember to save the clip when you want it
  • Spotty success in actually saving the clips to the website
  • Export to YouTube only exports at max 480 resolution

 

The Guy Handing Out Water Along The Route – Nvidia Shadowplay

NvidiaShadowplay Shadowplay is a weird option, mainly because it occupies a few different places along this spectrum. Natively, it records a rolling window of gameplay which can be saved to disk with a keystroke. However, it can also broadcast to Twitch.

The main benefit of Shadowplay is that if you have a supported Nvidia card (600, 700, or 900 series, with some ‘M’ editions supported) and the “GeForce Experience” software, then you’re already 90% of the way there. The popup window (desktop, not in-game) allows you to record locally or to stream to Twitch, set the quality, and be done with it. There’s no need for additional software except for the eventual editing of the files you’ve saved to disk (if you’re using the “gameplay DVR” option).

I suspect (or hope) that because it’s an option from the hardware manufacturer that it’s got some ace in the hole in regards to how it operates. Some broadcast software sits between the game and the video output and redirects a copy to disk or a remote location, I’m guessing that Shadowplay operates at the hardware level, using your video card to do the crunching. Ideally this would lead to lower latency with your gameplay since there’s no disk I/O involved, and you won’t run the risk of triggering anti-cheat warnings by having something sitting between the game and everything else (see the next entry about that little gem). But that’s just me; I have no idea how it really works.

PROS

  • Already available if you have an Nvidia card and the GeForce Experience software
  • Records locally in DVR mode, or streams to Twitch
  • Easy configuration

CONS

  • Requires an Nvidia card
  • No customization of stream

 

The Over-Hyped Booster With The Obnoxious Banner – Origin

EA_Origin_Logo_723x250 This is a corner case at best. Origin is EA’s digital storefront, and perennial whipping boy of people who like to announce how much they hate Origin and EA.

If you’re playing an EA game that was downloaded via Origin, you have the option to stream – to Twitch, of course – using the Origin overlay system. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, but from what I remember it works pretty well, is easy to configure, and does a serviceable job of accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

However, there’s a slight caveat. Like the next entry, Origin allows you to register a non-EA/Origin game with the Origin client. The icon will show up in your Origin library, and can use the Origin in-game overlay for whatever people use the overlay for. You can also do this in order to stream the non-EA/Origin game to Twitch. I tried this a while back with Defiance, but in short order I was booted from the game and banned for what I was told was a cheat/hack attempt. I managed to explain myself to Trion’s satisfaction and had the record expunged, but Origin seems to use the “slip it in” method of putting itself between the game and the lower-level operations – including network operations, which I assume is what tickled Trion’s anti-cheat warning.

Overall, it’s probably good for Origin-centric games, but otherwise there are much better options out there.

PROS

  • Readily available for Origin-bought/registered games

CONS

  • Specific to Origin-bought/registered games
  • Might be detected by anti-cheat software if you try and use it with a non-Origin game

 

The Dark Horse – Steam (Beta)

Steam_Icon

Although everyone is patting themselves on the back for “having called it”, I think it was never a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and that “when” is “now”.

First, I don’t think this is a game-changer by any means. It’s just another land-locked streaming option. It doesn’t stream to a known streaming outlet, although it does stream to the largest digital games distribution network on the planet.

If you have a game in your Steam library, this should work without any additional fuss. The most important setup option is to determine who gets to see your videos. Unlike the other services, most of the options for Steam Broadcast put the control in the hands of the viewer. The stream doesn’t actually start until someone starts watching it, which means that your bandwidth is safe until someone decides that they want to watch you play The Binding of Isaac.

Quality is decent, and you can watch directly in the Steam client (via their popup web browser) or on the web. You can even use the in-game Steam overlay to pop up a web browser so you can watch yourself in all of your narcissistic glory. I guess it can be used as a feedback monitor.

While it does have mic support, it doesn’t have webcam or custom overlay support. It does have chat support, but unless you have the chat window open (requiring the Steam overlay to be open), you only see a single line of text at the top of the game window.

Like Origin, though, you can add a non-Steam game to Steam and so long as you can use the in-game overlay, you can stream the game. I added Elite: Dangerous to Steam last night and was able to stream it through Steam Broadcasting. I have no idea if this will trigger anti-cheat software to raise an alarm, though.

Again, this is a “good enough” option. Most gamers have Steam, and most gamers have a massive Steam library. That means a lot of games are supported. You can add in non-Steam games to get the benefit of the service. But there’s no social media announcement feature and no easy way to direct people to the fact that you’re streaming or where to find you if you’re streaming to everyone (not just friends), no webcam or customization, and the chat requires that you “step away” from the game to read it in it’s entirety. It’s an option, but I don’t know that it’s a better option than one of the first three contenders on this list.

PROS

  • It’s Steam. It’s probably already on your system. Requires opt into the beta Steam client and then a reboot
  • Works with all Steam games
  • Works with non-Steam games added to Steam
  • Can control who can view the video

CONS

  • Land-locked to the Steam ecosystem
  • No announcement mechanism
  • No customization
  • Chat is awkward

 

Finale

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have the stamina of an ox!

This is by no means an in-depth compare and contrast of each nuance of each service, but is merely an overview. In truth, I wanted to write this to suss out which audience is targeted by which product, and for what reason, because while there’s some overlap in each, there are three distinct categories at play here:

  1. Live streaming for a brand: If you’re looking to make a name for yourself in the gaming community, want to interact with people as the magic is happening, and desire to make your channel reflect your public face, then Twitch and Hitbox are your best options.
  2. You’re already here, so you might as well: Shadowplay for Nvidia customers, Origin for EA users, and Steam for everyone else. All but Steam require the user who is playing to actively initiate the stream, while Steam allows the viewers to jump in at their leisure.
  3. Casual streamers with bragging clips: For everyone else who’s intrigued with the idea of streaming, but who don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into the process and aren’t interested in creating a brand, Forge is the way to go, assuming your game is supported. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, and you can keep those memories in fifteen second clips for later reminiscing.
  4. Local video for other purposes: While desktop apps like OBS and XSplit allow local recording as well as/in place of streaming, Shadowplay and Plays.tv’s rolling window of gameplay means you don’t need to dedicate your disk space to a massive file, nor do you need special editing software to tease out the clips. It’s the least social of the group, but if you use Raptr and remember to activate the recording, it can produce some nice quality local video for whatever purpose you need.

 

* This is merely an empirical overview and not a guide on how to maximize your followers or promote your video. I’ve had a total of five people online watching me at one time at the peak of my career, so I’m not one to help you get groupies.