Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dark Magic

Dark magic is a destructive force that draws power from the oldest and greatest of emotions; fear. A dark mage cats their spells from a mirror, which holds the fear and turns it into dark power. The simplest spell is to release all the power within the mirror at once, in a burst of destruction. It is similar to an explosion, but for the lack of concussive force or fire; the black burst simply obliterates anything it touches. With practice, the mage usually learns precision and control, enabling them to mete out energy and utilize it more efficiently, perhaps focusing the release into a narrow beam with longer range or multiple projectiles.

To gather their power, a mage must gaze into their mirror and focus on what frightens them. This perverse form of meditation will never seek to overcome or learn to live with these fears, for if they do so then power will be lost. Instead, mages simply fixate upon their fears and paranoia, warping their minds and twisting their souls over time.

There is no upper limit to how much fear a mirror can hold, but the more it is given, the harder it will be to control. Like filling a wineskin, it can stretch but will start to leak, and when you pierce it the contents may come gushing out when a more controlled stream might have been preferred. Mirrors will also leak when left idle for too long with power inside, becoming tarnished and shadowed. It is for this reason that most dedicated mages will keep a polishing kit along with them, as it takes much more focus to use every iota of darkness each day than it does to simply clean the mirror regularly. Some say that when a mirror is completely consumed by this darkness, it changes into a new metal, a black silver that has special properties. There isn't much evidence behind this however, and the mages themselves are unwilling to confirm or deny these rumors.

Most dark mages either come from or were trained at the white palace. Built of polished sandstone, it lies near the edge of the northern desert. The entire building is white, so that no dark magic can be hidden there; despite their many powers, no dark mage can create light. They are paranoid, distrustful, and violent people overall, and there are plenty of stories involving an unlucky traveler or villager being slaughtered for any small slight or even nothing at all.

The order of Light’s Shadow comprises the largest organized group of mages, though organized seems a stretch. They control the white palace, using it as a meeting center as well as a place for training new mage apprentices. They currently work with the kingdom of Orisria, centered in the jungles to the south of the desert. This is how they have access to the fine silver used to make their arcane tools, though the specific power structure of the order is quite hard to pin down due to frequent backstabbing and mysterious deaths.

Seppam the gnoll is a dark mage from the deeper deserts, near the famous volcano of the sands, who uses a mirror of obsidian. Some say her mirror can hold more power than others and never tarnish, but she is not part of the order, and refuses to share her secrets.

Sir Markim is a knight errant who is rumored to be a dark mage, though he does not carry any mirror openly, or keep a polishing kit. He’s even known for using a spell that creates a sword of darkness, but mages look down on personal combat as brutish and needlessly hazardous, while most warriors see mages as weak and paranoid, so it’s unlikely that someone would put the two together.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Magic item: Saddle of Flight

This saddle will allow you and your horse (or other mount), to fly at high speed. It does not however, prepare the animal for this in any way, causing it to panic and requiring that you keep it calm and try to stay steady while flying.

In a roleplaying game, you could fly at a higher speed than your animal runs, but require handle animal or similar skill checks in order to remain on the animal. Maybe it could even grow accustomed to it over time, and require less difficult checks, or develop a desperate fear of heights and get even harder to stay on each time you lift off. Story-wise, it would be hilarious and terrifying, and probably create some tension depending on how everyone feels about the animal.

Friday, September 22, 2017

First Date

The bitter taste was overwhelming, uplifted only a little bit by a tinge of sweetness, and it would only get harder to swallow as it warmed over the course of the night. With a grimace, she remembered why she hated wine. “I actually hate wine,” she blurted out, then blushed and looked across at her date.


One of his eyebrows was raised as he set down his own glass, “Oh yeah?” he replied, “I prefer a good beer myself.” That only made her groan internally. Most beer was flat out gross.


With an absent nod, she noticed the waiter approaching. Finally! She thought, sitting up straight. As he set the plates down, the waiter gave a customary “Please enjoy your meal,” and she said “Thanks you too!” as her date said “Alright, let's eat.” The waiter turned to go and she pictured herself banging her head against a wall, knowing, just knowing that the waiter thought she was a total weirdo.


They'd ordered a spiral pasta with spicy red sauce (no meatballs), and a dish that just sounded just like any other grilled chicken to her. The pasta was hers of course, her favorite food, though she had to wonder what kind of guy got grilled chicken on a night out at a relatively nice restaurant. When she noticed his fork pointed her way, she looked up and listened. “Why'd you just get pasta?” he asked, and she forced a smile, “It's my favorite,” she said simply, and he grunted before going back to his chicken.


After a few minutes of enjoying the pasta, she looked up, “You know something interesting, in Japan it's considered polite to slurp your food. It shows appreciation to the chef!” she liked thinking about differences in culture. “Huh, that's weird.” he said simply, and she realized her mouth had been full. She swallowed quickly, a little too quickly, and had to take a drink to wash it down. The taste of the wine caught her off guard, and this time she did gag, hoping he hadn't seen. When she looked up he was texting.


“Hey, have you seen that new MTV show?” he asked a few minutes later. She shook her head; she didn't really watch tv, or even have cable. “It's about like, they rent out a whole hotel and fill it with these crazy chicks who hate each other, and they just go nuts for like a whole week!” he said with a chuckle. “Do they... make them clean it up at the end?” she asked, wondering what the point was. His brow furrowed as he thought for a moment, “No, what do you mean?”


She waited for the waiter to pass by and asked for a glass of water, which caused Adam to raise an eyebrow. The cup on his side of the table was already empty, but at least he hadn't asked for a refill. The leather seats were making the backs of her thighs sweat, and she kept shifting her legs to try and keep them a little cooler. Honestly she'd never understood the appeal of leather, cloth seemed so much more practical, especially for clothes and chairs.


When he finished his chicken he started talking about that show again, recounting an episode where one of the women had left a used tampon in the bed of another. Focusing on the meal, she tried not to think about that and just enjoy her pasta. As soon as that pasta was gone she asked a waiter for the check.


It was set on the table between them and Adam pulled out his credit card. Holding it up he looked over to her, “So, we splitting this?” She just nodded without thinking and reached for her purse. Wasn't the guy supposed to pay? Otherwise, why would she bother to go out? She didn't say anything as she placed her card next to his. As they were leaving, he put an arm around her shoulder and awkwardly tried to hug her at the door.


“So, do you wanna…?” he asked in a weakly suggestive way, inclining his head toward where he'd probably parked.


“Sorry, I've got a meeting tomorrow, gotta try and look professional,” she said after a brief hesitation, hoping the lie wasn't too obvious.


“Hey it's no problem,” he said, and she started to relax before he continued, “I can take you home early in the morning, or even tonight,” he suggested, totally oblivious.

With an awkward smile she took a step back and shook her head, “Nooo sorry, I've really gotta go, thanks though,” she said, not really sure what she could possibly thanking him for. As she ordered an uber she remembered that she'd told him she was available for the next two days, when they'd been planning the date. Desperately hoping he wouldn't remember (but sure he would), she climbed into the car and headed home.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Followers of the Shattered Path

Many have heard of the New Map, the enormous library of records and charts kept by the Markers of the Shattered Path. You have likely met a Walker of the Shattered Path, travelling on a Shard to add to their tales. But few realize the full scope and history of the faith.


The story begins with their origin. It is said that the makers created our world, and when they had finished, devised the First Map. It held record of all things in this world, including the hidden road to paradise. However, the Unwalker refused to leave mortals with the First Map, as it could only travel where we have not tread, and so it stole the map so that it alone could know the path to paradise. When all things are discovered, the last Follower of the Shattered Path will find the Unwalker, and will guide all mankind into paradise with the First Map.


Those who seek the Unwalker are known as Walkers of the Shattered Path, and are known far and wide thanks to the inquisitive nature of the sect. It is possible for anyone to become a Walker, so long as their heart is free and their life is a journey, but there are a few simple rituals required to become an official member.


One begins their journeys as a Seeker of the Shattered Path, travelling with an elder Walker on one of their Shards. When the journey is complete, the Seeker will then record it in the New Map, writing their story and crafting their maps. Here they decide whether they will go on to become a Walker or Marker.

Markers are the scribes and recorders of the order, scribing the journeys of every Walker in their Shards, adding to the New Map with tales and maps of every exploration. They are reclusive, though it is not unheard of for one to journey in search of their own Shard, even after finishing their Seeking, it is considered uncouth to do so repeatedly.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Skyrim: Special Repetition

Well, Skyrim came out again. They're calling it a “special edition,” and a “remaster,” but the truth is that it's barely even retouched. They marginally improved graphics in a way I personally don't even notice without a side by side comparison, and they even left many obvious, well known bugs in the game. So I figured I'll give my criticism, but I'll also give as many ways as I can think of that they could have and really should have improved things.


The Open World


Bethesda’s chief concern when designing games seems to be the ultimate “open world,” specifically a sandbox game where the player can truly go anywhere and do anything at anytime. However, if they want to make this accessible to the mass market, that means they have to make sure that no area is unbeatable, even for a brand new character. Designing a world this way means that essentially, they've made a game of starting areas; because they don't want you to have a bad time anywhere, even from the start, which means that they can't put any specifically designed challenges anywhere, they can't make one area tougher than another, and they can't have special rewards hidden throughout the world, because a new player can't have something too powerful. By trying to give the player freedom, Bethesda has limited their own options.


The simplest way to solve this problem is actually very old, it just requires giving up on the idea of a “totally open” world. Sometimes, structure is preferred, most certainly in games, where the entire experience literally is the structure. Maybe they should restrict parts of the game artificially, but there should be places the player clearly should and should not go at various points throughout the game. This has been done since the very first Legend of Zelda, where the entire overworld is available to you right from the start, but there are places that can and will kill you very easily. Skyrim should be like that, there are many places that are supposed to be deadly for anyone who just wanders in unprepared. The game designers just have to, you know, design a game in Skyrim.


Quick, Save


When an adventurer dies, that's the end of the adventure. When a player dies, that's a mistake that should affect them, but not prevent them from continuing to enjoy the game. Skyrim tries to reconcile these two ideas by making it so that death erases all progress, but only since your last save. The problem here is that you can save at almost any time whatsoever. Essentially this means that the player is setting their own checkpoints, which means that death is a punishment based on how frequently you save your game. The result is that you either save infrequently and have to replay portions of the game (especially in the overworld, where autosaves are rare), or you save whenever you make progress and all tension is lost.


In an open world, checkpoints are even more important than a linear, stage based game, because the positioning of the checkpoints lets the game designers decide how much is at stake, by making checkpoints closer to or further from a given challenge. This save and reload system really gives the impression that realism comes first, and fun was considered afterward, leaving us with lengthy death animations and frustrating loading screens. Leaning towards realism seems odd in a game where you can become a werewolf, punch dragons to death, and read lizard porn.


The dragonborn is supposed to be a legendary, mythical hero. In fact, they actually have justification for you to respawn right there in the lore; dragons cannot be truly killed by mortals, and you play as a humanoid with the soul of a dragon. There is currently a story justification for you to be unkillable, and the current system actually seems more awkward and inconsistent with the story. Instead, death should lose some of your equipment and/or expertise points, and revive you at a checkpoint, perhaps towns or special shrines. Maybe you could even set up respawn camps, but make it take time and cost something, so that the player can't just infinitely save and reload. Death needs to carry some consistent tension, not just be a huge bother to people who don't quicksave or a meaningless time waster for people who do.


Combat’s Effectiveness


Much like in Minecraft, melee combat in Skyrim is mostly a test of endurance. Sure, you have shield bashes and power attacks, but they don't usually add much to a battle, unless you get specific perks that make your damage numbers higher for certain moves, which just shortens the encounter slightly.


This is one area where Bethesda’s obsession with making the game pretty rather than functional is really a problem. Enemies are so over animated that it's often hard to tell when the attack is even hitting, and the difference in speed between weapon types is almost negligible, making it so that they feel identical, just with slightly different numbers attached. This battle system needs very little tweaking to improve, but even a little work would make it so very much more fun to fight an enemy, it could easily be an exciting portion of the dungeon, rather than an annoying diversion between looting chests.


The point of melee combat in video games is to make combat encounters feel more weighty, more personal, maybe even more immersive for the player. If you wanted to make a game where characters wave lumpy sticks at each other and deal damage at an indeterminate distance, you could just make a first person shooter. Of course, they have done that, but that's no excuse to let their real claim to fame fall by the wayside. It often seems like everything about combat in Skyrim was designed to make it feel as imprecise as possible, from the way weapons are hefted laboriously through the air, to the way health slides slowly off of an unmarked bar at both ends.


The first and foremost change needed to make a battle feel like a battle is to make it very easy to tell the difference between the windup and the actual attack, as well as doing something to delineate the reach of the attack. This would allow some measure of skill beyond the occasional shield bash. On the other hand, the easiest change would to fix that awful health bar. Clearly it's supposed to look pretty rather than work well, but it really just looks plain. If there was a way to tell at a glance about how low it was, if it stayed up to date instead of draining awkwardly, it would be that much easier to tell how much progress you're making against a particular enemy.


An Axe In The Knee


Axes are different from swords. Obviously. You’re swinging a wedge of metal on the end of a long handle, rather than a long blade of fine metal. This gives you differences in timing, power, and even the type of damage being dealt. None of this seems to have been considered in Skyrim, because while the different weapons do technically have different attack speeds, and minor variance in damage numbers, they don’t actually feel any different. There are noticeable differences between one handed and two handed weapons, and dual wielding is kinda interesting sometimes, but a wider variance would only increase the depth of combat.


Also, it would be nice for any game to make dual wielding actually interesting, giving you the ability to use your weapons asynchronously and independent of each other. This would be somewhat difficult to pull off, but it would be better than how most games treat it, where dual wielding is basically just attacking with two swords at once, or just swinging one after the other. That of course, is just a general matter of preference, not necessarily something Skyrim should have done, but I digress.


Magical Spells


All too often, magic in Skyrim just plays out as a redundant form of combat. You have your weapons spells, your shield spells, your armour spells, spells that heal you, spells that summon things which will use their weapons and shields for you, and the occasional spell that does something interesting and unique to magic. But magic shouldn’t just be another way to hit things, it should be a way to do things you can’t do with mundane tools. The point of a role playing game, the thing that makes it different from an adventure game, is the player’s ability to dictate how their character develops, the opportunity to create a character that other people who play the game can compare and contrast with their own resulting character. The point here is that different options should yield different results, and I feel like the difference between mage and warrior is far too small.


Creatively speaking, the designer should strive for as many different options with mundane abilities, be it swords and axes, bows and arrows, or even traps and bombs, make a wide array of different options that function as differently from one another as possible. Then, once mundane options have been expended, use magic as a way of expanding on the various game systems even more, pushing your ideas past what is traditionally considered impossible and make the game impossibly fun! At least, that’s the ideal result. The point is, magic shouldn’t do the same things as mundane skills, but with cooldowns and mana costs. It should do new and interesting things that a more mundane character couldn’t do.


Unskilled Tree


Lots of people have complained about the Legendary skill system (and rightly so), but I’d like to go a step further, and look at the deeper functionality of the levelling system in general. Character progression is achieved by doing things. If you forge weapons and armour, you level up smithing skills. Sneaking around and hiding from others levels up stealth skills. Fighting enemies and monsters will level up stealth skills. Once you’ve levelled up your skills enough, you level up, increasing your choice of health, stamina, or magicka by ten points, as well as gaining a perk point which can be used to obtain special abilities or bonuses related to various skills. The interplay between systems allows the player to focus on skills they like, and improve them in more dynamic ways. Sound great right? You have to actively perform activities to become more skilled, and there’s a dynamic interaction between these systems that allows you to focus on whatever skills you prefer.


However, there are two major problems with this system of progression. First, the perks are crippled. They have been mechanically hamstrung by being limited by your skill level. This means that whatever skills you end up performing more often can push your level higher, and you’ll have to grind your preferred skills in order to keep them relevant. This results in a system that may be slightly more realistic, but could also easily end up being less fun. A simple fix for these issues would be tying the perks to character level, which would make it still possible to limit the player’s progression, but doesn’t restrict abilities based on your actions. It’s important to limit grinding as much as possible, even if the player wants to spend their time with activities other than waving lumpy sticks around.


However, a good game designer wouldn’t want to stop at ‘easy fix,’ but would also want to make sure that increasing your skill levels involves an inherently fun activity. Taking away all the numbers and external context from most skill activities, and you’re left with menu navigation. This could be remedied by simply turning crafting and dialogue, as well as other similar tasks, into simple minigames. Obviously it would be best for different modes of play to flow together and synergize seamlessly to create a cohesive experience that builds on its own mechanics in new and interesting ways every time you play, but Bethesda needs some baby steps for now.


The second major problem with the skills in Skyrim, what they lead the player towards. Of the eighteen skills, eleven of them are primarily used for combat, and there are only two that don’t have any use in a fight. Now, there’s nothing wrong with synergy and unusual utility, but that’s not what happened here. They set out to make a game where you can do anything, but the only thing they really wanted you to do is fight monsters. There are no skills that directly encourage exploration, and only a few encourage social interaction, in the most cursory ways. It would seem that whether you play as a warrior, mage, or thief, Bethesda thinks of an adventurer as an independent soldier with a few unimportant side skills.


Things are starting to get more esoteric from here, so it’s a bit more a matter of opinion, but I believe there are three general types of adventure: physical, intellectual, and social. This isn’t to say that these will all have combat utility, but rather that they could lead the player toward activities beside killing something or punching someone a lot. As a starting place, the player could have a cartography skill, drawing the map as you go. You could level up as you fill out the map, and then you’re encouraged to explore, and different kinds of maps could be rewards for quests, or as treasure. It would also be the most direct way to encourage exploration; literally rewarding the player for going to new places, and in a way that makes sense within the game world. It might not be incredibly easy to make a whole new set of skills with similar mechanics, but a company as massive as Bethesda has little excuse for making no real improvements within a five year span.


Crawling With Dungeons


For all the focus on battle, what does the player get for it? Usually just a word of power, which are essentially a less interesting and more limited secondary magic system. You’ll usually find one thu’um that you like, and the rest amount to little more than words on a list and a place to put your dragon souls. They have a big, fancy, uniform wall with lots of flashy but repetitive visual effects, but amount to very little in terms of actual reward. These are usually found in the draugr ruins, whereas dwemer ruins, caves, and castles don’t tend to have a common end-of-dungeon reward. So for now, let’s focus on the draugr ruins.


To start with, the draugr shouldn’t just automatically rise when you’re nearby, regardless of sneak levels, but that’s another topic for another time. For now, let’s go back to the topic of death and respawning. You’re the dragonborn, ancient prophesied hero of the Nords. Imagine if your reward for completing a draugr ruin was gaining access to an ancient nordic altar that can resurrect you after death, because you’re the immortal dragonborn. The reward for completing a dungeon would be worthwhile and unique, you’d have a system for checkpoints in an open world, and it still fits perfectly well within the story.


Artifacting


When a god reaches into our world and hands you their physical tool, the essence of their power in the mortal world, it should have a better ability than 4% chance of instakill. Or light damage to nearby enemies. Or preventing power attacks and shield bashes. And yet, these are some of the best daedric artifacts available. This is probably related to the issue from earlier, where they were designing everything to be accessible at any time, but then they set level requirements to get the artifacts, which feels like it was added later.


When you use mehrunes razor, the earth itself should scream as the unnatural blade rends the very soul of your victim apart. When you wield spellbreaker, it should protect against all the might of mere mortals, and turn their own blows against them. The tools of goods are held by the dragonborn, and they should have truly spectacular abilities, not a slightly unique appearance and mediocre power. Especially egregious, you can make better ones at home with high enough skills. Are we to believe that the player is more powerful than an actual god? That's nonsense, and makes it so that you'd be better off grinding Smithing and enchanting than doing the quests to gain these artifacts.


Conclusion


As we move further and further from the core design of the game, the ideas I present become more subjective, more designing a game that I would like to play than an objective improvement to Skyrim itself. I could probably give tons more ideas for game design, but this is supposed to be about Skyrim, so I’ll stop here. The overarching point is that there’s a TON of room for improvement in this five year old game, and they could have at least done SOMETHING to make it better before rereleasing it.

It’s important to note that Bethesda has made some of these improvements in Fallout 4, and that makes it a much better game. However, they have yet to implement these game design lessons in a fantasy game, so I wait with bated breath to see what they’ll do for the next Elder Scrolls. Maybe they’ve finally started spending some of that budget on game designers, instead of blowing it all on fleets of texture artists and 3D modellers. Eventually, Bethesda might qualify as a game developer, instead of a virtual set designer.