Thursday, January 10, 2019

How to Describe Your Setting

So yeah, I'm on a bit of a Conan kick. The game made it worse, it didn't start it. I've been re-reading the Howard stuff and Conan really feels like REH at the top of his game.

In fiction writing, especially for short stories, much is made of the vital importance of the opening sentence. It has to ground the reader in the story, explain what sort of story it is, and, most importantly of all, hook the reader into reading the whole thing.

The very first sentence of the very first Conan story published is this:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

How's that for an intro to a D&D campaign?

Ok, I cheated; that's two sentences. If you used them, you'd absolutely need to start the campaign in Aquilonia (as Howard sets his story there). The second sentence is the jewel riding atop the ring of the first. Your players will expect Aquilonia to figure importantly in the campaign early on with a set-up like that.

It tells the players that history will be important to this story; they'll expect at some point to come across the relics or even the ruins of "Atlantis and the gleaming cities." Likewise, they'll expect to plunder at least one spider-haunted tower of Zamora and a "shadow-guarded" tomb of Stygia.

The player who wants a paladin or knight already has an idea that Zingara might be a good homeland for their character. Likewise, the halflings and druids most likely come for Koth or Shem. For your own campaign setting, you'd probably want to touch on individual places that cater to specific fantasy archetypes, if not the character classes and races you'll be using.

You'll be sorely tempted to expand on things. The goal is a phrase for each kingdom, and the whole under 300 words. Howard only uses 104 here. Short, pithy, punchy, and hooky.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Conan: Exiles for cRPG of the Decade

So yeah, to my utter surprise, I’m finding Conan: Exiles to be the best computer RPG I’ve played since Ultima V. Granted, I should point out that I’ve not yet tried Divinity: Original Sin II, Planescape: Torment, or any of the Witcher games. The problem is, I’m not very likely to, either.

Oh, I may give them a shake, but I suspect I’ll have a similar experience to Dragon Age; the fights will get monotonous, the quests will shatter my suspension of disbelief, and the interactions will feel wooden and limited.

Not that interactions with NPCs are much to write home about in C:E; most just shout a battle cry and charge. But your interactions with the environment more than make up for the lack.

C:E isn’t officially an RPG; technically, it’s billed as a “survival game.” This is a new flavor of computer game where you’re dumped in a wilderness and must use the environment around you to survive. Being a Conan game, this means you start the game buck-naked and crucified. You’re rescued by the eponymous Cimmarian himself, and you start the game ripping apart bushes for plant material you’ll knot and weave into makeshift clothing before binding rocks to sticks to make tools and weapons.

The thing that makes C:E for me is the little details; kill a crocodile or a rabbit or a subhuman “imp” and it doesn’t drop a chest full of gold. Instead, you’ll get hide and bones and meat that you can turn into armour or arrows or a meal. Human foes might carry better stuff (though, alas, they rarely carry the weapons they’re wielding against you), but not always. And yes, you can totally butcher humans for meat as well.

Which is another thing I appreciate about this game. There’s no good-evil slider that moves because you picked the impolite conversation option. You can totally eat human flesh, or build an altar to Set and sacrifice human hearts to it, or club humans over the head and break their wills on the “wheel of pain” to turn them into your slaves. Or not, if you want to be all goody-two-shoes about it. You can instead build an altar to Mitra and craft healing ambrosia (though the manner in which that’s done doesn’t exactly promote being all peaceful and not-killy; Mitra is not a god for pacifists). Or go completely off the deep end and worship Yog to acquire greater strength from eating human flesh.

(Hard mode is, of course, worshipping Crom who gives you nothing but the opportunity to grow strong through adversity. He’s the honeybadger of C:E deities.)

There are stats you can improve, as you’d expect in a cRPG, but they’re not the usual D&D-esque basic physical and mental attributes. Instead they’re vague amalgamations of skill and attributes; the Strength stat encompasses both your muscles and your skill with melee weapons, while Survival is both your hardiness and your bushcraft.

But what really counts is your gear. You’ll start the game naked and alone in the desert, and “advance” largely by crafting better gear, building a hovel that you’ll likely expand into a castle staffed with numerous slaves, and wearing weapons and armour forged with secrets of the ancient races that ruled the world in previous epochs. And this feels incredibly organic to me. Here we have a game that’s not all about the magical ding that grants you more hit points. Instead, you get more powerful by expanding your influence and acquiring followers and crafting infrastructure like castles and forges and altars to the gods. You don't slaughter monsters and acquire insane (and largely useless) amounts of gold coins, but quarry stone and chop trees for lumber and build a smithy capable of forging supernatural elements into axes and breastplates.

Conan: Exiles is a game about exploring wilderness and ruins, uncovering lost ancient secrets, building a base (or multiple bases) of operations. There are fights, but they feel more organic as mostly it’s wilderness critters who are as happy to hunt other critters as they are you. And they’re not the end-all be-all of the game.

And finally, it feels like a Conan story. You’ll climb up a tree to escape a hungry crocodile. You’ll be stalking a rabbit or gathering wood when you’ll stumble across an enchanted monolith or ghostly apparition. You’ll fret over the state of your waterskin when you’re not gorging yourself on roasted meat. And when you do fight, you’ll hurl yourself amidst your foes, laying about you on all sides with your club or axe or sword, scattering blood and limbs all about. It’s a game that’s full of what feel like organic surprises, events that both fit with the game, the setting, and the source material. It feels like being inside a Conan story, and that’s about as high praise as I think I can give a game.