Thursday, November 23, 2017

Things I Wish They Did More With, #2: D&D 4E & Video Games.

Hello again, all. Fortunately my long silence since the last post was not due to a freak bus accident, though the height of one of those death-wagons does make it feel like every other vehicle on the road is directly under the wheels when you have the perspective of a window seat. I've been busy with my second-to-last month in the semester, and all that that entails.

EDIT: By the way, I hit 3,000 total blog views earlier this month. You guys are swell. Thanks again for stopping by.

But I've come back to ramble a bit more about another thing that I'm a strange mixture of wistful and grumpy about.

This time, it's D&D 4th Edition.

Hold your cheers and/or righteous indignation a moment, Burrowers. I don't think any system is necessarily better or worse than any other, and I'm not here to spark another skirmish in the Great Edition War (despite the fact that simply acknowledging that the past arguments happened can in fact cause them once over). Though I will be picking slightly at one of the prominent ideas which came up in that debate circa 2008. Specifically, D&D 4E's similarity or lack thereof to certain video games.

It was commonly stated with wildly varying levels of convincing argument that 4th Edition's combat was designed to appeal to the video game crowd. Some even went a step forward and claimed that it was a direct attempt to compete with the MMORPG market, which then as much as now included the monolith that is World of Warcraft. I think that MMO argument is a little silly personally, because they're still too fundamentally different beasts for there to be a clear comparison between 4E and WoW. Unless you widen the conversation to include 4E-derived material, of course.

Hush, you. I'll deal with you separately someday.

I find it odd that besides Neverwinter the MMORPG, the majority of video games released during the high-point of 4th Edition support and popularity were re-releases or enhanced remakes of older games based on older editions, such as Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 or the Neverwinter Nights collection. The sole exception, to my knowledge, is Daggerdale.

Daggerdale was a real-time action RPG and hack-and-slash loosely based off of 4E the same way that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 1 & 2 were based off of 3E. Daggerdale included 4E-esque racial traits and class powers, as well as the Tier system which limited the initial "Heroic" level progression to 10, and would have ascended to level 30 if the game's planned expansions had panned out. They did not, apparently due to the game's poor reception and the subsequent closure of its developer, Bedlam Games.

The fact that Daggerdale (as well as Neverwinter) used real-time combat was a very odd choice to me, when D&D 4E was as tied up in the tactical, map-and-miniatures-based combat as it was at the time. You couldn't abstract combat or separate it from a grid of 5-foot squares in a very satisfactory way, unless you include conceptually similar game systems and pseudo-spinoffs like 13th Age. So why didn't 4th Edition games just go with what seemed to me like the most natural choice for a video game adaptation?

That natural choice--again, to me at least--was the classic Tactics RPG.

Though, probably a little less pixelated.

Both use grid-based movement, operate in turns, have oftentimes byzantine lists of powers and abilities which each character could use and keep track of, etc. Character orientation is often a component of TRPG combat, but that convention could be easily ignored in order to line up with 4E rules, since "facing" has been optional since 3.5E.

With a few considerations, the 4E ruleset could have been applied to a video game wholesale, serving even better to bridge the gap between digital gamer and tabletop gamer (if indeed that was the attempt). This could have produced a very good game for one, as well as potentially smoothed over some of the issues which had been caused by the rocky start of the ill-fated D&D Insider digital platform and subscription method. But trying to answer a bunch of marketing "what if"s is a little too far beyond what I'm capable of, so I'll leave it as one of the great unanswerable questions of the 2000s.

But I can at least plug a spiritual successor game which did an admirable attempt at filling the void left by that edition's peripherals.

Conclave was a TRPG created by the appropriately-named developer 10x10 Room and explicitly styled on classic tabletop campaigns. It included grid-based combat, an interesting story, scaling multiplayer with up to 3 other people, and the occasional out-of-combat plot branching which could be caused by Skill Challenges. I was especially fond of the satyr-like Trow, and the molten golem Forgeborn. Conclave hasn't received anymore content updates since its release however, so the base campaign is all you'll be able to experience. Still, the romp may be worth the $10USD, and the soundtrack was nifty.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Looking Southward and Backward: An Ethnographic and Historically-Minded Travelogue, Part 1.

((As I cling to the seat of a bus shuddering down 9W toward the only part of New York State which doesn't count as "upstate", two things occur to me.

One is a sense of bemusement born from a simultaneous gratefulness for the presence of bus wifi, and terror at an absence of bus seat belts.

The other is that I have never given sufficient thought to the importance, frequency, or severity of travel in the universe of the ITU.

Of course I have explicitly or implicitly explained the importance of movement and migration for the nomads and semi-nomads of the world, and perhaps that is in fact the norm at this time; the vast world has been disconnected for some time, with maintained roads and traveler culture long ago abandoned.

But now that a certain pasty academic has been temporarily ejected from his subscalanean office, the perfect opportunity arises for a few travelogues between now and his arrival at a certain dig site. For those of you who prefer his more researched articles, have no fear. Plenty of his parchments remain scattered upon the desk attached to his doorway, ripe for publication... after they've been sanitized of sensitive subject matter unbecoming of the publishing house of the ITU, of course.))

The Ivory Tower has become somehow even dingier, it seems.

Though we've left at dawn, with the sun's first rays highlighting the old city in full glory, the stains and crumbling patches along the tower's height are only more pronounced for it. An enormous sum of money has been reclaimed by the latest budget meetings by the Board of the Directorate to be put toward the restoration of the campus' namesake, but the estimated date of completion for these efforts numbers in the years, rather than months or weeks. In my first exchange with someone not tied to the University in several weeks, I heard the remark that some of the darkest patches closest to the tower's dilapidated top must date all the way back to the Rupture. I would scarcely be surprised if this were true.

Our party moves quickly to get the wains ready for departure, everyone but the Gertisch student being as unused to the cold as I am. Thanks to the generosity and relative bribeability of several professors not to be named, my study abroad has been furnished with three of my fellow undergraduates.

Ciudo, majoring in foreign languages and literature, shall be our interpreter during the times when Denerothi Ersuut will fail us, which I anticipated to be increasingly regular the farther south we go.

Shoring up our armament for the siege against the language barrier is or resident physician (technically only a botanist-in-training), Sarq. He is one of our precious few students of Nambarish stock, though unfortunately not of geographic origin. I must remember to inquire into the meaning and popularity of his name at a later date. I anticipate that it has its origins in the name of some folk hero, much the same way you might see ten thousand different permutations of "Haraal" walking the streets of Deneroth today.¹

Minoring in both historical ordination and Gertisch fencing, Hraela will be assisting me directly in the recording and analysis of everything we encounter leading up to and at the dig site. She has also elected to bring her training longsword with her, both to keep practicing for the semester's finals, as well as to ensure our getting along without any "man-made inconveniences" along the road. I am alarmed that Instructor Vogt has his pupils maintain their training equipment at shaving sharpness, and it is my hope that I never encounter anything which he would qualify as "battle-ready".²

We are joined by a hired retinue of ten porters, drivers, pathfinders, and other assistants from outside of the campus to ensure that we reach the Pach-Pahs in a timely fashion. What time that will be is unfortunately little more exact than the Board's estimate of Tower repairs, for the weather will play an adversarial role in our travels south.

Winter approaches Deneroth quickly. Even the Beige Trees of Citadel Grove have begun to lose their leaves in full this month, and a Denerothi winter is a wet and snowy one. But we must endure such hardships in order to reach the dig site, which is located beyond the first wave of peaks in the northern reaches of territory under supervision by the People's Anarcho-Syndicalistic Communes of Pach-Pah Yul (PASCOPPY hereafter). There, beyond the rain shadow of what we call the Near Pashels, the winter is quite dry. And in order to have an environment which is not bogged down in mud and influxes of breeding populations of Howler Ibexes, the locals must conduct their archaeological research in the dry cold.

Our wagons are just beginning to turn their wheels now, and it shall take some time and practice to get used to writing on the move. For now, I shall leave this parchment to dry and look upon the many tiers of our fair and introverted city before it is put behind us.

I feel a pang of affection for the city, and even for the University, as our path becomes set and irreversible.

Clearly I need another nip of Esgodarran Whiskey in order to wake up fully.

¹ Mind you, the total population of Deneroth is, as of last decade's census, scarcely higher than twenty thousand, to indicate the sheer inescapability of the name.

² It is a little-known fact that despite including it proudly in his resume, Professor Berchtold Vogt was never awarded the title of Éïsęnmễïster by any known or reputable school of fencing and swordsmanship in Deneroth or the sister cities of the Upper Lowlands. Nor is he known to have ever attended one.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Ekundayo (3/3).

Click here for Ekundayo 2/3.

The pale blue lights cast long, wavering shadows across the cemetery grounds. The grass was shortened but not removed from the earth, and many graves farther back in the lopsided rows were slowly, gently being overtaken by nature. Most mounds did not possess a significant marker beyond an erected piece of wood or stone, but several off to the left were highly conspicuous in this regard.

Four oblong rises of soil in the earth were quite fresh, as were the offerings arranged around them as a group. Several sticks of resin incense still smoked, and the melted , slowly solidifying wax rivers of a few candles stood out against the dark earth. Bundles of fruit, spices, and salt were wrapped in scraps of decorated cloth, each marked by a piece of bark carved with some personal identifier of giver or goodwill, in place of an entire written message. The visual arts of the village were more robust than their textual.

Abeni looked upon these mounds with quiet, somewhat confused respect. Why was she being brought to see the dead first? Once more seeking the old man's odd-hued eyes, she looked up toward him.

Grandfather Corpse was already looking back down at her, his smile lessened somewhat. But it did not vanish.

"They been missin' you terrible since the fiah. Ya maam, pah, little Dayo too." He spoke of the girl's baby brother, no older than four years by now.

The confusion intensified, and then turned to worry, as she looked back and forth between the mounds and the old man. The corpses backed off respectfully, as if they knew that they would be intruding upon a very personal conversation.

Joints creaked and groaned as the old man set his staff down, altering the angles of the shadows again dramatically. He set his flat hands with long, steady fingers upon the girl's shoulders, and he exhaled. Just as it always did, his breath smelled faintly of smoked taba leaves. He seemed to be waiting for the girl to speak first. When she didn't, he nodded his head and glanced aside once more, as if he were seeing and listening to something which she could not detect. He nodded his head upon that thin neck of his.

"Ya gotta go to 'em, Abeni. Me know it be frightenin', we awl do. But it time." With that, his hands reached past her shoulders, and he pulled the girl in lightly. One hand patted against her back as he embraced her, and then in the next moment he was twisting away on his long, scrawny legs and standing back up, staff in hand.

Abeni lingered on the three mounds for a time. She approached them slowly. She looked over the fourth, nestled between the third and the soil heaped up against the base of the fence.

She turned back to the man, tears reflecting the light beneath her eyes.

"Please... tell yuh wife me said hello, one las' time?"

"Course, sweet'aat."


Before she went and laid down upon the loamy soil, she snapped a piece of red-colored sugar candy from one of the offering baskets and popped it into her mouth. It clicked against her teeth, and the wind rustled the scorched hem of her dress one last time. It wasn't as soft as her bed, but it was close. She felt tired finally.

The old man sighed, and canted his head at an odd angle to listen again. The smile renewed itself, and he turned away. Knocking his hickory staff upon the nearest hard surface, he brought the still and silent bodies back to attention. They lined up like soldiers at attention, and then shambled forward on his instruction, clamoring through the place of restful death until they found emptied mounds of their own. The old man followed after each, packing the earth down tightly once they had clawed it back over themselves, all to the rhythmic chants of joro, jara, and joro.

Once the last particles of dirt were settled back down, he ambled over toward the gap in the fence once more. The staff extinguished itself with an almost imperceptible sizzle. With his free hand, he lifted up a length of hemp rope which tethered one end of an ancient wooden box, long and narrow, with one end wider than the other. He shouldered it upon one sagging side with a soft grunt, and then he trudged forward, back out into the mist once more.

"Ya 'erd awl dat, lub?"

The coffin knocked once in response.

((Ending this messy little amalgamation of ideas, I hope that the end of the last month and the beginning of the new has left you each with an affirmation of life. You can't have one side without the other. Happy Día de los Difuntos.))

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Ekundayo (2/3).

Click here for Ekundayo 1/3.

The girl plummeted into the fog, and into despair. Surprisingly yielding under her weight, the near-skeletal arms which reached upward cushioned the worst of her fall, and brought her down quite close to the muddy forest floor. Hardly scratching her likewise, the chipped and gnarled hands of the dead grasped her only as tightly as they needed to, in order to keep her from struggling free from them once again.

Still, she screamed and fought and kicked her feet, completely unhinging one side of the jaw of one of the dead things after she had begun the work in their last encounter. Her thrashing went on for some time, in anticipation of what was to come.

But nothing came. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes tight, body going rigid and tense.

Still, nothing.

One hazel-flecked eye cracked open to peer around, and though she found the horrific stares of each dead eye upon her still, their owners had entered an almost placid stupor.

It then occurred to her that beyond the range of her attention, someone else had been shouting as well.

The shadowed figure strode forward in a huff, a hand deftly tossing and then choking down upon the length of a wooden staff, which then rapped admonishingly across the back of one bare skull among the huddled dead. The butt of the staff squelched into the mud again as they each groaned and turned their necks, and then a hand thrust into view. Wrinkled, mahogany-colored skin overlaid with dirt and grey-white patches of ash waved back and forth as a finger was thrust into the faces of the corpses one after another, like a mother scolding her children. A voice halfway between its natural state of measured richness and the quiver of the moment's excitement cut through the dead air.

"Bad cawpse! Bad cawpse, all of ya. Treatin' a chil' like that what you be 'spose to help her. Now ya let the gal down, an' you make ya manners. Open ya hats now, boys."

As if by magic, each dead and vice-like grip on the girl relaxed immediately, and she felt her heels sink into the spongy earth below as she was at last let down. But the urge to flee was superseded by her sheer confusion, and there her bare heels remained for a time. She stared up into the darkness as she reached back into memory, and connected that voice with a name.

"... Gran'puh Cawpse?" She asked.

"Abeni, my sweet'aat. Forgive the old boys their behavior. Ya been so quick an' vexin' to us awl night, they gone an' got bothered... We been lookin' for ya." The sodden grass pressed to the sides around his knees as he knelt down before the girl, who was much shorter than him despite his hunched and somewhat shriveled form.

Just then, a light flared up in the figure's outstretched hand, opposite the staff of twisted hickory. It was a pallid blue light which emanated from little tongues of flame of that selfsame color, each clinging to a fingertip. They illuminated the scene immediately around them, and it cast long shadows upon the trunk of the old tree beside them. Sure enough, the familiar face of the old man with balding head and grey-tinged eyes was revealed, smiling apologetically at her. And flanking them, the old corpses now bowed their heads and groaned in unintelligible apology to the girl for getting so out of hand. She was sure of it now, one of the bodies had belonged to the old butcher's father, died last year.

Abeni had recently turned eight years old, and she'd known the presence of "Grandpa Corpse" in the village for the entirety of her life up to that point. He was the weathered old man who tended to the rites and the burial of the dead, both in her home and elsewhere. But despite his ubiquitousness across the edges of the mangroves, even to the edges of the cypresses, she knew little about him. Even the name by which she knew him was a title ascribed to the man by the observant and uninhibited youths of generations past. Of course he'd never objected. And now suddenly he was in charge of the undead, as well as finding lost children?

"Ya mam an' pah been worried sick about ya, Abeni. They ain't seen ya since the fiah, an' they clingin' to hope that you come back home 'afore sunrise, safe an' sound."

Her heart leaped in her breast as she heard mention of her parents, and she seized the old man's hand in hers despite the flames. They gave off no heat which she could feel, however. His lips split into a smile and he gave a chuckle in response, before nodding his head.

"A'right then boys, she be ready to come on back. Hngh..."

The joints in his knees and hips popped or ground softly, but the man rose back up onto his feet once more. The oxhide sandals he normally wore were gone, and his feet too were bare but for the mud on them now. The little candle flames in his fingers rose up like a group of fireflies briefly, before settling upon the end of his staff and coalescing to light the way forward. Hands held firmly, the old man led the girl forward, followed after by the quiet procession of the dead. One step at a time, they walked slowly, and the swamp gently opened up to them.

The trackless wetlands gradually became more and more recognizable, until at last they were on solid ground again, rising up past the edges of the flood boundaries where it was safe to build homes. The hard-packed road which connected their village to the next stretched out before them, leading them along the gentle serpentine suggestion which accounted for so many drop-offs or thick knots of vegetation.

She saw the whisps of smoke rising above the treeline before she smelled them. It blended into the fog almost perfectly.

At either side of the road, so many buildings had been torched nearly to the ground. Their wood and thatching had been damp the morning of, yet the stubborn spark which had begun the conflagration was persistent. Abeni saw the charred husk of her family's own hut, and the hazy smoke from its smoldering joined the smoke above. She gave a soft gasp and tugged at Grandfather Corpse's arm, and he obliged her a few steps toward that side of the path as they continued forward. Nothing remained recognizable within the hut's walls. All of their possessions were gone. But she didn't feel the pain of it, strangely- at least not yet.

Past that and other hulks they walked, until the fire's limits were surpassed, and the untouched buildings remained. They had been more widely-spaced, closer to one of the wells, and plain luckier. Abeni thought she could hear the snores coming from within them, as families swollen with homeless relatives staying the night tried to catch as much rest as they could manage.

And these too, they walked straight past. Abeni looked up at the old man's face as if to ask, but the old man's eyes remained trained on the space ahead as he gave the same assuring smile. He looked tired.

Finally, he came to a halt, and she did too. A moment later, after bumping into one another, the dead stopped as well.

They stood at the edge of the wattle and daub fence which marked the edge of the village graveyard.

((As you may have noticed, I couldn't hold an eerie note for long. But it was all for a purpose! Following up on Halloween, this post furthers the cultural mish-mashing by honoring the first "half" of contemporary Día de Muertos, so to speak. Happy Día de los Inocentes to all.))

Click here for Ekundayo 3/3.