Gaming history: a bit more about Phoenix Games

After the Little Tin Soldier went out of business, people in the Twin Cities gaming community held our breaths: would someone else take over? Would one of Don Valentine’s former employees buy the business from him? Would we all need to shift permanently to some other FLGS? It was a nervous few months.

In the end, Neil Cauley, a former employee of Don’s, bought the store. Rising from the ashes of the Tin, Neil dubbed his new store Phoenix Games. If I remember right, it started at 909 West Lake Street and eventually moved into the 901 West Lake Street storefront when Woodcraft Hobbies went out of business.

Neil did a pretty good job of making the store friendlier and more customer-centric than the Tin had been. He actually got rid of games that had been accumulating dust for years. I remember him going out of his way to order things that customers wanted. I think he banned smoking in the store, or at least cut down on it, because I remember Phoenix being much less cough-worthy than the Tin. (Perhaps the Phoenix had grown tired of fire and smoke.) A big deal was that he cleaned up the basement and made it into pretty decent gaming space, so much so that I remember folks actually preferring to use the downstairs space over the upstairs.

I went away from the Twin Cities for many years. When I finally came back, a decade or so later, I naturally visited Phoenix again. I discovered that the gaming space had again changed configuration, with long gaming tables (almost entirely devoted to miniatures gaming) running parallel, on either side, of shelves containing many, many landscapes for wargaming. Lots of folks playing Warhammer — seemed like every time I got to 901 W. Lake, there was some kind of Warhammer tournament going on. Or maybe it was just lots of people painting together, and that all runs together in my mind.

My favorite thing about the Phoenix of this era — the later 2000s — is that the store had a great selection of used games. A huge grab-bag, to be sure, with long boxes (of the comics variety) crammed tight with a very random mix of different old games. But the prices were great, and there were some real treasures to be found. I could be nearly sure to find some wonderful old supplement, adventure or just weird geegaw for a few dollars, which was especially great because that’s often all I had to spend on games at that time.

Eventually, Neil closed the 901 West Lake Street location. But as I mentioned before, Phoenix did not go out of business. Neither are they purely online. As their website notes, they have open tables for gaming. I visited their location, in Minnetonka, a few years ago. It was fairly small, with probably about a third or a quarter as much space for gaming as the Lake Street location had. Nonetheless, a pretty pleasant place for gaming; they’re quite thoroughly in business, and from what I’ve seen, probably one of the best FLGSs in the western Cities.

PreGen PCs 3: A whole sheet of NPC bandits

I have already published a full sheet of disposable NPCs in The Bandit Map. But one can never have too many. Here is another whole band of bandits, with a little variation in equipment and ability. Each has a suggested name, and a little personal detail or quirk, to inspire on the fly. I imagine these as a rag-tag group, driven to banditry by hard times — but some really just like thieving and fighting.

This is copyright by me, but feel free to photocopy it for reasonable personal use. Hopefully it’ll be useful for your B&C games.

Disposable NPC bandits

Bundle of Holding: Catalyst series

A current Bundle of Holding is a very nice one. This iteration contains the CityBook series, which has long since been one of my favorite supplements for fantasy RPGs. Each book is a really nice slot-anywhere book of encounters, structured around businesses and other locations one might find in a fantasy city, or in later books, other locations in a fantasy setting. There’s a pretty wide variety of encounter types, and each location has some really nicely described NPCs associated. There are also some nice suggested scenarios for the encounters, some of which are easily full campaigns in themselves. Everything is presented in a way that is actually pretty system-agnostic; NPCs have only two ‘stats’ at most (fighting prowess and magical ability), but have copious background descriptions. The series is one of the neatest things Flying Buffalo has published, in my opinion.

Cover of CityBook 1: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick MakerThe presentation here is also very nice. The PDFs are clearly scans, but the text for the CityBook series is all selectable, meaning searches for text strings work and things can be copy-and-pasted. The illustrations (many by Liz Danforth) are really nice, too.

The CityBook series makes a nice entry in the fictional nonfiction genre. Each encounter is rich with possibilities, and suggests stories without necessarily forcing a specific narrative.

The series isn’t perfect, of course. Some of the encounters imply almost a bit too much background, making them perhaps difficult to fit into an existing campaign; and the tech level tends a bit more toward the high end of the scale for my taste (there’s a fair amount of renaissance tech implied), which could also make them hard to use in some games. Some of the encounters are clunkers, with stereotyped tropes. But mostly they’re quite good — inventive, inspiring, fun, flavorful.

This Bundle of Holding also contains the Grimtooth’s Traps series, which is fiendishly fun (though if any GM actually tried to use the traps contained within in a game I was actually playing in, I would take it as a good sign that I should walk briskly away). And the fuller collection includes Flying Buffalo’s slightly goofy but kind of nifty modern/pulp action RPG, Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. (The PDF of MSPE doesn’t have searchable text, but the rules are all there, at least.) All in all, a very nice deal for the money.

Management Og

A while back I had another great session of Og. The cave-people started a forest fire, made some fish paste (which they wore very tastefully), and managed to get abducted by an alien boy-band scout. Typically brilliant Og silliness.

It reminded me of another long-term idea I’ve had: Management Og. Rather than cave-people, the characters are managers in a medium-size modern day corporation. This is still just not very fleshed out, but I don’t think much would need to change. The main thing the game would require would be a new vocabulary list. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. Optimize
  2. Synergy
  3. Utilize
  4. Going forward
  5. Proactively
  6. Impact
  7. Grow
  8. Integrated
  9. Outcome
  10. Core competenecy
  11. Engagement
  12. Game changer
  13. Mission critical
  14. Leverage
  15. Disruptive
  16. Big Data
  17. Coopetition
  18. Push the envelope
  19. At the end of the day
  20. Best practices
  21. Downsizing
  22. Onboard
  23. Win-win
  24. Verisimilitude

It doesn’t quite work to say that players can only use their words when communicating, but I think it would work well to just say that anything not on the list above needs to be mumbled to near-indistinguishability.

Not sure what the classes would be. Caffeinated? Go-getter? Liberal arts major? Sales manager?

I think that, going forward, as long as we’re all on the same page, this game could optimize available resources to maximize synergy that capitalizes on Og’s core competencies and results in a win-win-win-win. Just thought I should run that up the flagpole and see if it sticks to the wall.

Details and knowledge

Another passing thought, inspired by conversation elsenet: When players tend to turn every offhandedly-mentioned NPC into the most important thing, pretty often it’s not because they like latching onto insignificant details and running off to do random things. Instead, it’s often because what seems to the GM like a random thing is, in fact, a pretty important detail in the players’ eyes.

A key question here is what gets reified. Realistically, when you’re playing the game, you have very limited window into the game world. Oftentimes, the GM has a vastly better idea of what’s going on than the players do. A big part of this is by design — it’s often not as fun to know who the murderer is at the beginning of the movie, and not everyone likes to read the last page of a book first. But another big chunk is just that, in many a game, the GM has had to think through a bunch of subtle, complex details about the game world that may never come to light for the players.

There is a strong incentive for GMs to detail everything in the world. If you can’t explain how door hinges work in this culture, whether or not it’s possible to make gauss rifle ammunition from scratch, or how it is that any given FTL drive isn’t also a world-ending kinetic weapon, then the game can crawl to a halt when those questions come up in play. If you don’t know why Ferid the Ever-Hungry is ever-hungry, the players may become hungry for that information.

Clock gearsAnd because the players often know so little of what’s going on, it’s really easy for it to feel like any insight they manage to get into the gears behind the clock face is superbly valuable information. It can get to the point where every trickle of knowledge from the GM is something to be treasured, and clearly something very central to what’s going on.

So when the GM does mention how it seems like the dagger is missing a gem, or gives the greengrocer an interesting backstory, or describes how the sun has a certain glow today, it’s pretty reasonable for the players to latch onto those things as important information.

Is this something to be avoided? I don’t think so, or at least not necessarily. It can conceivably lead to more work for the GM, but only if you consider worldbuilding to be ‘work’. Or it can lead in the other direction, with GMs winging everything and letting the game just play out from the players’ choices. Again, not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The only real problem that comes to mind is when the GM gets actually, seriously disappointed that the players aren’t following ‘the plot’. This often seems to be a form of nerd self-loathing — frustrated authors who really view their players more as beta readers than as equal partners in forming the story, who view gaming as something that’s only valuable if it leads to a publishing deal. If that’s what’s going on, then the problem does not lie with the players, shall we say.

If the players go off on random tangents but everyone has a fun adventure along the way — well, really, that’s no longer a random tangent. That is the adventure.

Blade & Crown: Characteristic and skill combinations

Another observation brought on by gaming with my ongoing Blade & Crown group: It can be quite fun to have players choose the combination of characteristic and skill with which they’re doing a given skill roll.

B&C is meant to be pretty flexible in how a character does a given task. Usually, trying that will use a single combination of characteristic + skill, so for example, climbing up a wall will be Climbing + AGL. But as I said in the original rules,

…in a different situation, the GM may rule that a different set of characteristics or skills may apply to the task at hand.

So, for example, it’s easy to imagine situations where something climbing-related could be Climbing + STR or END. And other, weirder combinations are certainly possible.

There was something implicit in that statement that I probably should’ve clarified, though: While the GM can specify what characteristic + skill can apply, it can be considerably more fun to have the player specify them.

In our monthly sessions, we pretty often have situations where a character is trying to do something for which there is no obvious combination of characteristic + skill. Last session, one character tried to manhandle an NPC onto a travois for traveling; normally, this would be automatic, but there was combat going on at the same time, so it was challenging. Later, another PC was trying to do a sort of prayer to the forces of the forest — mysterious, definitely not usually very friendly to humans, and not the sort of thing that Divine Favor would apply to. In fact, the forces of the forest often seem directly opposed to the human gods.

Both times, I asked the players themselves to decide what combination of characteristic + skill they were using. For the travois-schlepping, the player very reasonably suggested Physician + STR. Not a combination one would normally think of! But, in the situation, completely reasonable. For the forest prayer, the player settled on Folklore + ELO. Again, not a combination we’d normally think would occur, but here it seemed totally reasonable. (Another players suggested perhaps it should be ELO – DF! A very interesting idea, but alas not one that works with the rules.)

There’s certainly some tendency for players to choose skills and characteristics that their characters are good at. But while this could be ready as cheat-y, in another way it’s often very logical. If you’re trying to maneuver an unconscious person into a stretcher, but your arm is currently injured, you’ll probably try to figure out a way to do it with your other arm, or your legs, or something. If you’re trying to impress someone into doing what you say, but you’re not especially eloquent, you might try to just be physically imposing instead.

Allowing the players to choose how to combine characteristics and skills, when multiple possibilities are available, nicely aids immersion. It encourages players to think about how their characters would try to approach a situation; and it encourages them to explain that to everyone else, which helps all at the table stay in character. (Contrast this with games where, say, every social interaction is handled with a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever. Regardless of how you’re going to do the task, you’re going to roll the same way, so there’s no mechanical encouragement to think of different approaches, or explain them to the other people playing.)

Expertly-balanced rocksInterestingly, we’ve often had situations where a PC could’ve done a task multiple different ways, and each way would’ve resulted in the same amount of dice to roll (say, with a lower skill and higher characteristic here, and a higher skill and lower characteristic there). Yet the player still thought a little about how they wanted to do it. To me, this shows that the players were getting into character: thinking through how their PC would just preferentially approach a problem, regardless of what’s easier or harder. (This applies, too, with games where you just have a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever’; but I feel like the mechanical encouragement in B&C is overall still better.)

Also, viewing tasks this way tends to make them less railroady. If the hurdle to overcome is just ‘get the NPC back into the travois’, there could be a dozen different ways of doing this. Just like situations in the real world, problems in a game can usually be overcome from many different directions. Framing a problem as necessarily requiring only a single combination of skill + characteristic discourages player ingenuity.

Not every situation allows such a wide range of approaches, of course. Pretty often, climbing a wall is just going to take climbing + AGL, no two ways about it. But when a task can be approached from many directions, give the player choice here. The game will be richer for it.

A passing thought: Medical campaigns?

A photo of a medevac helicopter from underneath.Cyberpunk 2020 introduced me to the concept of the medical campaign, where the PCs are medics. They probably all share an ambulance, and go around saving people from disease and injury and whatnot.

For some reason, this always struck me as kind of boring. How many times can you slap on a bandage before it starts to feel old?

I had a passing thought during today’s Blade & Crown game, though: My current campaign is, in some ways, a medical game. The PCs have set themselves the mission of saving various people — common folk, sometimes powerful nobles, sometimes other — in a time when things are starting to fall apart.

And it’s really been quite fun. Some of the best sessions have emerged out of goals the players set completely for themselves, out of a desire to heal someone. In order to bring an important NPC back to their senses, the PCs went on a dangerous mission into an eery magical grove and performed a quite beautiful ritual to defeat ancient forces. This could be framed as fighting a nasty beastie, but a better metaphor would be fighting a sort of spiritual sickness that was plaguing the NPC.

When the world is falling apart, healing can be exciting, dangerous, hugely meaningful, and very rewarding.

The ideal gaming con III: Membership

What is the role of attendees at a con? And how much should they pay for the privilege?

Emphasis on membership

The role of attendees at cons has has been an ongoing, but somewhat subtle, conflict within fandom. When you hand over some money to attend a con, are you buying a ticket? Or a membership?

It may seem like the two terms are just different labels for the same thing. Does it matter what you call it? Aren’t you just forking over money and you get to go to this cool place in exchange and who cares what you call the being at the con?

Well, sort of. Certainly, you can treat them both the same: it’s entirely possible to ignore the conflict and attend cons the same way regardless of what terms they use. But really, there’s a pretty important difference in emphasis.

Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be cons where the emphasis is on passive entertainment: sitting in the audience while movies, famous people, game trailers and dancing penguins put fun in your head. When I see that a con sells ‘tickets’, I expect that a big part of it will consist of waiting in long lines to pay for my Shatner autograph or to get into the Firefly panel. Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be ones where attendees don’t actually create very much of the schedule. They also tend to emphasize the ‘consumer’ aspect of fandom, with huge halls of commercial displays for the latest, niftiest product. And these kinds of cons tend to emphasize and reinforce geek hierarchies; in these, the place of the average fan is to throw adulation and money at people who are already rich and famous. The further down the hierarchy you are, the more passive and consumerist your role is.

In case it’s not clear, the more tendency there is towards the ‘ticket’ mode, the less interested I am in the con. I go to a con to meet and share with cool people of many sorts — people with whom I have a minimal, or nil, hierarchy gradient. I believe that the fun of a con lies not in the big-name, hierarchy-approved guests of honor; in fact, I sometimes don’t look at a con’s guest of honor list at all. For me, there’s a lot more fun to be had in interacting with my fellow fans.

A lot of smaller cons in the Twin Cities don’t sell ‘tickets’. Instead, they sell ‘memberships’. The idea is that when you’re attending this kind of con, you yourself are contributing meaningfully to the fun of the con. Programming items still tend to have certain people on the panel and certain people in the audience, but not nearly as much; you don’t have to be rich, successful (whatever that means) or famous to get on a panel. There’s a much larger expectation that the audience will also have useful things to add, and the programming becomes richer as a result. There’s an assumption that the fun will lie in hanging out with your fellow fans — that the fans themselves are the main source of the fun.

Obviously, the tendencies I’m describing for ‘ticket’-style and ‘membership’-style cons are not absolute. Lots of cons that sell tickets manage to allow a huge amount of the fun to be interactions with fellow fans. And there are tendencies towards fannish hierarchy at even the coziest of membership-based relaxacons. But it really does seem like the different styles of cons have different emphases. It seems like I often hear people saying that the fun of GenCon lies not in the con-sponsored, con-promoted Big Events, but in just sitting down in the hallway and reconnecting with friends, or in a pickup game of Diaspora, or whatever. And every so often I hear that someone has discovered that GigantoCon has a nifty programming track, but the con has put it in the furthest-away hotel, and the programming schedule is only available from a neglected bulletin board located in a disused lavatory with a sign on it saying “Beware of the Leopard”. Cons that sell memberships tend to put a lot more emphasis on the fan-generated fun, which is by far my preference.

It seems like all this should be even truer for a gaming con. Although recent years have seen the rise of spectator RPG sessions, and even at-con events where people play D&D or whatever in front of a huge audience, the thought of a gaming con where that’s the main focus seems somewhere between silly and abhorrent to me. Broadcast gaming sessions can be fun, for sure; and they’re a good substitute for face-to-face gaming if that isn’t available. (Or even just not your cup of tea.) But I don’t want to go to a gaming con to watch famous people play. I go to a gaming con so I can play.

Without you, we’d have no convention.Con of the North registration website

An ideal gaming con, for me, is one where everyone gets to play in, and contribute meaningfully to, a wide variety of games that they like. That seems, almost necessarily, to mean that a good gaming con should be membership-based.

Pricing memberships

This is a trickier question than whether to sell ‘memberships’ or ‘tickets’, I think. How much do you actually charge for that membership?

Clearly, the con should pay for itself. Unless you happen to have an eternally reliable wealthy benefactor, the price of memberships needs to cover all the function space, printing of program books, computer rentals, water dispensers, free food, bulletin board rental, insurance, supplies, and whatever else your cons supplies to attendees. If your con is supposed to raise money for some cause, that needs to be figured in, too.

Once the basic costs have been paid for, though, there start to be other, tricky considerations. The one most relevant here is, do you incentivize contributions to the running of the con with discounts on memberships?

Free memberships for being on programming or otherwise contributing to the con is a big issue for a lot of cons. If George RR Martin says he’ll come to your con and be on five panels in exchange for a free membership, do you say yes?

If you say yes, you’re effectively knocking all the work that other people put into the con. Someone who volunteers to runs the registration desk for the weekend probably puts in more work, and arguably benefits the con as a whole more, than any given programming participant. Giving discounts for specific kinds of contributions to the con means you either a) have to be okay with giving almost everyone discounts, or b) you suddenly have to start ranking all the work that various people perform. Not only is it difficult as hell to quantify this kind of thing, it is really easy for it to lead to severely hurt feelings (and with good reason), and it also has the effect of reinforcing the fannish hierarchy.

However, with a gaming con, while there shouldn’t be a gradient of fannish ‘worth’, there is most definitely a gradient of fannish work. People who run games usually end up putting in more work than people who don’t, and if you don’t somehow incentivize people for running games, you’re effectively discouraging the variety of gaming that you’re working towards.

There are some perverse incentives at work here. If you give big membership discounts for running a game, there’s an incentive to register to run games with the minimum prep possible, and then maybe even to forget to run it. I have certainly experienced both those things, though it’s hard to say whether the GMs were canceling or prepping poorly out of desire to do the minimum work possible.

If, on the other hand and as I said above, you don’t give any membership discount for running games, there’s no incentive to actually run anything. You could argue that the people who want to run games only if they get a free membership in return are not necessarily the people you want running games. But that doesn’t really deal with the fact that running a game can be a lot of work: designing a scenario, creating maps, doing pre-gen PCs, creating other handouts, maybe painting minis or finding props… Not every game calls for all that prep, and not everyone does that much prep. But some games do get that much, or need that much. If person A puts in more time preparing for the con than they do actually attending it, while person B puts in zero time, yet A and B both pay the same amount for their memberships, then A may feel, regardless of their commitment and enthusiasm, that the con is quietly discouraging their dedication.

You clearly can’t use fine gradations of pricing for memberships based on the amount of prep done. Some GMs can prepare an amazing game with 15 minutes’ work, while another GM might spend days of labor only to end up with something disjointed and bland. And trying to do something like ‘discounted membership based on how fun games were’ is clearly a recipe for headaches and hurt.

Still, it’s good to have some kind of gradation for how much work people have done in running games or playing them. This is one thing I think Con of the North is probably doing just about right. They have three basic membership types:

  • Players: These folks only play in games and don’t run anything. This kind of membership costs the most.
  • Judges: These folks both run and play in games. There’s no differentiation by number of games run. There’s a slight discount on a Referee membership as opposed to a Player membership.
  • Referees: These folks only run games. They get a completely free membership, but can’t play in anyone else’s games.

Overall, I think the rates are right about what they should be. I’ve never felt like there’s much of a fannish hierarchy to the different membership types. It mostly just feels like the appropriate level of reward for doing different amounts of work to help the games happen. And while there is still some slight perverse incentive to, say, register as a Judge and then not prep well or to cancel events, the incentive is pretty small.

If I ran the circus con, I think I’d price memberships just about as Con of the North does.

Not too expensive, or charged per game

There are a few other issues that are worth considering in the same breath as memberships and pricing of them.

First is that the con shouldn’t be too expensive. If the only way you can make it work is to charge everyone US$500 for a weekend of gaming, it’s probably time to look at a different hotel, or a different city altogether. And even US$50 may be too much if it’s for a single day of gaming.

I also tend to strongly dislike cons where specific events cost extra to enter. I suppose that some things, like Magic tournaments or whatever, don’t work if participants don’t pay. But the idea of having to pay extra to get into the ultra-exclusive Sunday afternoon D&D game strikes me as wrong in a whole bunch of different ways. Hopefully, all games get treated equally. And hopefully, actually getting into games doesn’t cost more than registering for the con itself.

I suppose that some people might just want to wander the dealers’ room or whatever. Should they have to pay extra for games they’re not going to actually play in?

I like how Con of the North handles this. There isn’t much badging, except for people getting into games; at the beginning of a game, the Referee or Judge is supposed to collect tickets from everyone, and also to make sure that everyone is a correctly-registered member of the con. It’s pretty possible to just wander in off the street and look at the dealers room, though, if that’s what you want to do. The con doesn’t point this out as an option, because of course they hope that everyone will be full attending members. But it is possible to do.

Also, different games don’t cost different amounts. Registering for an eight-hour Civ game or a 15-minute Guillotine session costs the same, because membership includes any number of games you want to register for. There’s no feeling of being punished for registering for multiple games. Con of the North is effectively encouraging people to register for lots of games, and try lots of things, and contribute to the fun as players.

Encouraging membership by those who can’t afford it

Something cons have started doing recently (or at least something I’ve noticed recently) is putting together assistance funds. The fact is, even in the best of times, there are people who can’t monetarily afford to attend a con. It’s not just the price of membership; there can often be additional effectively-required costs, like a hotel room, dining at restaurants, parking fees or transport costs, airfare, childcare, etc. etc. Often, the membership is actually the cheapest part of attending the con. And taking the attitude that attending your con is a privilege, not a right, tends to enforce fannish hierarchies and social injustice. It cuts people off from amazing communities that they should be able to access. And it makes the con more boring, because it limits the pool of amazing people from which to draw members.

I think the Carl Brandon Society may have been the first group to create assistance funds for fans to attend cons (in their case, to help fans of color to attend cons, writing workshops, etc.). WisCon also has an assistance fund. Other cons are starting to do likewise.

It would be nice to see this happen for gaming cons, too. There’s no reason that attendance at a gaming con should be different from attendance at any other kind of con. The con benefits by having a diverse group of members, and many folks otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the amazingness that is a gaming con. Clearly, the ideal gaming con should have such a fund.

Taipei Game Show

The logo for the Taipei Game ShowI’ve been missing cons a lot here. So much so that last weekend, I went to the Taipei Game Show, which is a mixed industry-to-industry and industry-to-players trade show that happens every year at the Taipei World Trade Center. It was both very huge and very commercialized. It was also mostly about electronic gaming. Giant sculptures or electronic displays shouting about the latest FPS or whatever; long lines to wait to meet famous Twitch streamers; dancers and huge crowds and inflatable hammer giveaways for correctly naming which mobile app has the best characters; all that stuff.

There was a small section for tabletop games — which meant almost entirely boardgames and cardgames. I think I saw a boxed set of D&D for sale, but that was the extent of that. There was a separate space for Magic that seemed to be doing well. Most of the space was dealers and things to buy; there were tables for actual gaming, but it appeared to be entirely demos, with no open gaming, nor any scheduled games. Way too commercialized for my tastes. But then, it was a trade show, not a convention.

Maybe in spite of myself, I bought some cool stuff, including a couple one-sheet wargames set in historical Taiwan; a fantasy story-based card game; a couple issues of a local boardgame design magazine; and an expansion for The Wonderful Island. These were all at very small booths staffed by local, rather indie-seeming designers and publishers. I talked to some of the designers a bit more, which was nice, and I got a few questions about The Wonderful Island answered. It was an enjoyable time, though I’m still hankering for a real gaming con, and more face-to-face gaming here.

Back to Morrowind

I haven’t had much time to post here lately. Short version: Real life. And not much gaming as a result. My monthly Blade & Crown game is still going strong, but it’s on hiatus for a couple months due to scheduling issues.

Recently, I got OpenMW running again, and thought I should write a little about it. The game runs very nicely these days. That means that, in short order, I was back to playing my favorite level 37 sneaky archer in Morrowind. Who, unlike in Skyrim, is quite able to fly over mountains.

Morrowind is, of course, a much older game than Skyrim. The graphics aren’t nearly as pretty as Skyrim’s. No flowing waterfalls, no auroras at night. Trees don’t have many leaves; ground cover is just a 2d image of grass; round shields aren’t really round; textures get repetitious after just a short distance; the polygons are pretty obvious everywhere. The sounds are also a lot more basic; most NPCs have no voice recordings, just text interactions.

But other than that, I think I like Morrowind a lot better than Skyrim. One major factor is that not all the NPCs are hostile. In fact, most are pretty friendly. It feels vastly more realistic, and just plain less annoying to play in a world where the NPCs aren’t all either jerks or even actively trying to kill the player character. And in general, it feels like there’s more ways to interact with the NPCs than “kill ’em”. This makes the game feel more realistic, more dynamic, richer, and deeper.

In terms of sheer depth, I think Skyrim and Morrowind are probably about equal. There are hundreds of hours of things to do in either game. But the relatively variety in Morrowind — in that not nearly so much consists of “go to X, kill Y” — makes it feel a lot deeper somehow.

Also, the movement is much more freeform in Morrowind. Skyrim, for all its massive amounts of detail, has a lot of railroady bits. Trying to get up mountains, especially, quickly reveals how little of the game you’re actually meant to explore. Morrowind, on the other hand, is pretty much entirely open. With levitation or flight, there really isn’t anywhere in the game that you can’t go.

The default game can feel a bit empty at times. The flat surfaces and only occasional wild animals can make it feel underpopulated, or abandoned.

Also, with the save importer that comes with OpenMW, old game files result in most NPCs being dead. Hrm. Not pleasant.

However, that has given me a new mission: to resurrect all of Morrowind. It’s an odd duty, but an interesting one. And it makes the game feel a bit like the typical CRPG in reverse: rather than going around killing hostile NPCs, I’m bringing them back to life.

Also, with a few mods, the game becomes much prettier and a lot less empty. The default OpenMW water shaders are already better than in original Morrowind:

OpenMW water reflections

With mods, the surfaces become higher-res:

OpenMW Telvanni council house with texture upgrade

I’ve tried mods to add general wildlife to the game, but they end up slowing it down too much. However, a mod to adds birds works nicely:

OpenMW: Telvanni houses and birds

Mods that add plants also help make the place feel more lived-in:

OpenMW: Ground cover and netches

I still consider Morrowind one of my favorite CRPGs (the other being Darklands). The richness of play gets very close to the possibilities in tabletop gaming, and the worldbuilding is quite deep. When tabletop gaming isn’t available, Morrowind does pretty nicely.

There’s a lot I haven’t done yet in Morrowind. How much longer will I be playing it this time around? Not sure, but the game still has a lot to offer, and a lot to ponder.

OpenMW: Im-Kilaya, pondering