20 YEARS OF QUAKE.

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A little late, yes, but I wanted to be sure and add my own drop in the quad bucket in tribute for probably the most influential (both inspirational and technical) first person shooter ever. And here’s looking to twenty more years (with id’s Quake Legends multiplayer game on the way, and a possible single player title from MachineGames — who on the day of Quake’s birthday this year offered up a custom episode for the original game) of gibs and glory to come.

The Dark Future of Modding.

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I’m checking my email every couple of hours or so, after having put in a request to be in on Bethesda.net’s tenuous venture to bring Fallout 4 mods to my Playstation 4. Unlike the Xbox platform, which runs on Windows 10 and can use native files, the PS4 has its own file formats and must have mod files converted in order to be applied to any games its running. Bethesda started a closed beta to get help in setting up this process, and I’m sitting on my hands ready to pitch in. It’s not that I’ve been unhappy with the huge amount of DLC they’ve provided (and will be continuing to provide over the next couple of months) for the relatively cheap $30 fee of my “Season Pass”, but there’s something about the freedom of being able to modify a game to my own rather odd tastes that I’ve missed for a while. In fact, one of the major reasons I’ve ever been interested in games is because of this.

Way back in 1995, I was slipped a copy id Software’s The Ultimate DOOM, and my life changed. Not only was I presented with one of my all-time favorite game experiences, but, as I learned from that burgeoning source of information known as “the internet”, I was also actually able to create my own DOOM content as well. Mind. Blown. Right? Soon I was knee-deep not only in the dead, but also in a world of linedefs, sectors, vertices and monster spawns. The only thing more engrossing and challenging than testing the growing number of fan-made “pwads” was spending hour after hour crafting my own.

The following year brought Quake, and my little map-making mind was blown yet again. Here was a fully three-dimensional world of warped science fiction and quasi-Lovecraftian madness, and a quickly growing community of fellow mod enthusiasts at the ready to expand its borders in their own particular ways. I was quickly introduced to a number of amazingly talented and generous folks from all over the globe, some of whom I still manage to stay in contact with to this day. Many of them have been involved with many of the games you’ve played on PC and consoles, as game developers quickly realized that not only was modding good for extending the life of one’s product, but also provided a stable of viable game-creating talent. When Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington created Valve that same year (1996), they brought with them a number of Quake mappers and modders to realize what would eventually become the first Half-Life. I’m sure this is already well-known, but even the tremendously popular Valve game Team Fortress 2 is based on a Quake mod made popular online shortly after the game was first released.

The modding communities for games have since become vital components to several popular franchises, even going so far as to creating product on par with those of the developers. This of course brings us to the current time, and some unsettling situations that have threatened the long-standing relationship between developers and their communities. Last year Valve tentatively tried charging for mods via their Steam Workshop, which quickly proved to be a major debacle, and now Bethesda’s burgeoning Bethesda.net site is having growing pains, trying to make Fallout 4 PC mods available to console gamers without providing proper credit to their creators. The threat of monetizing fan-made content without supporting the effort (which Valve tried, and many suspect Bethesda is ultimately wanting to try) is dividing the game makers and their biggest fans. Instead of making these situations easier for both parties involved, more obstacles are being thrown in the way.

Whether mods will end up being monetized or not (I’m hoping for the latter, for reasons), their future use across the board obviously needs to ensure that the creators are not only properly credited for their efforts, but that those efforts are able withstand the constant patching of the game software and endless combinations with other mods available. This will require a great deal of patience and diligence by both sides, not to mention from the users of said modifications. As it stands currently, the best vendors for mods are those outside the realm of developers, such as the marvelous folks at the Nexusmods, who provide a solid support team, forums and chatrooms that provide a free flowing interaction between the users and creators of mods for their supported games. Both Valve and Bethesda could learn a great deal from them, as they have gone out of their way to make modding a painless process, by not only keeping users up to date with new versions of mods, but even providing a installer which takes the ever-present question of “Where Does This Thing Go?” out of the equation. Until all of these bases have been covered, the future use of mods — especially those currently being applied to console versions — will be held in contention.

That reminds me — I need to check my email again…

 

My Dark Tower Rip-Off Game.

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Ahh, Summertime. That time of the year when the midday air turns to the consistency of peanut butter due to the oppressive humidity, and going outside around sundown means frantically performing the Rite of Citronella to keep the insect world at bay. You actually look forward to it raining all day. Can this actually be my favorite time of year when I was a kid? Have I truly become the old man in the shorts and black socks pronouncing dread tidings for any who get on my lawn? Nah — I ain’t that bad, yet. Besides, I’m so allergic to most of the stuff growing in my yard this time of year I stick to the sidewalks and driveway, and make haste.

Needless to say, I have become an inside dog over the years, luxuriating in the air conditioning, and making a beeline to the inside of a waiting car for more of it if an excursion is demanded of me. And with a week free of scheduled work-days coming up, I plan on even avoiding that situation, if possible. With my sister and her two teenage boys being free the same week, my mind is drawn to the inevitable Family Game Time, those occasions highly similar to what the late, great Frank Zappa referred to as “enforced recreation”.

Not that I dislike the tabletop sessions in our massive kitchen; in fact I tend to look forward to them. The two boys, both of them now teen-aged, and for the most part enmeshed in their own prevalent social lives, are a joy to sit in on, their gleeful debasing of each other always making for solid entertainment. And their mother’s potential for competition in any venue is unparalleled, regardless of how much she tries to play it down.

You name it, we’ve played it. Clue, Monopoly, Sorry, Risk, Trivial Pursuit (even the Harry Potter version, which the boys creamed the old folks on), and card games like Phase 10 and Munchkin (both perennial favorites, especially Munchkin, which we’d stock with several differing packs and play up to level 50, doubling the value of monsters after level 25), even some basic D&D with the boys (I have yet to get my sister in on an adventure, hope to soon with the sandbox stuff I’ve been working on), when they could hack and slash orcs and hobgoblins to their heart’s content. I even worked up a homemade version of the old Dungeon! board game that we played relentlessly one year. In fact, it was its success that had me wondering if I could craft some other similar game that could satisfy all of our gaming needs.

I remembered having the old  TSR minigame Vampyre back in the day, probably found at the local five-and-dime place, which often carried an odd assortment of D&D products and related works (I vividly remember getting the old pasteboard “wooden” box with the original little books inside — I believe I’ve already mentioned this, and how I’d give my eye-teeth for it now). Vampyre was a quick little game based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with dice, paper markers and a dual sided map (one a hex map of “Transylvania”, the other of the Count’s residence). The players must hunt the mountainous countryside to destroy Dracula’s coffins (and avoid becoming vampiric or werewolf servants to the Prince of Darkness), then pursue the fiend himself to his lair. Unfortunately, I no longer own the game (or can find little to no semblance of its rules online), so it was pretty much sorted to the Mebbe Laters Dept. for the time being.

But soon another old memory pervaded the swirling, lattice-worked mist that is my consciousness. I remembered this marvel from way back in 1981:

My stepsister got the game that year for Christmas, and we played it voraciously throughout the holiday (and just about any time I could convince her to bring it over), thrilling to mini-campaigns of swords and sorcery. To be honest, I have yet to ask her if she still has it; if she does we’ll have to save that too for another blog. But what I did find online were the rules for the game, most of which I had forgotten over the thirty-five-some-odd years since I had played it. But for now, it didn’t matter. I had enough to work with to fashion my own Dark Tower scenario, using dice rolls to simulate the actions of the original game’s “electronic computer”.

After slapping together some dice table approximates around the bare bones of the original rules (which I supplanted with a good bit of dressing from my sandbox world), it was time for a playtest.

After four sessions of the game, many of the rules were tweaked (tables were adapted to make the magic keys more available, and getting lost and plagued less so), but all in all it was a massive hit. The best part was watching the lead players sweating bullets attempting the “Riddle of the Keys” to enter the tower (by rolling a 1-3 three successive times with a six-sided die) while the stragglers slowly caught up with them — it always made for a thrilling climax.

If you would like to try out the game for yourself, you can download this copy of the rules (in Microsoft .wps format), which includes the map piece I duplicated for the playtest sessions, here. Please feel free to change in any way you see fit — I would really be interested in your comments if you do.

Sandbox “Hooks” and Next Steps.

The final two regions of Eurychra to report in for Step 23 are detailed below. Some nudges toward the major storyline of the sandbox are given, I’ll just leave it up to the Gentle Reader to figure out which.

BRUNHEATH (The brooding, militant mountain dwarves will only take a party with much renown into their confidence, especially those members with considerable battle finesse).

  • The old smith Sverrir bids the players to travel into the Dread Mountains and obtain balmalmur, the legendary flaming ore, with which he will create them weapons of great power.
  •  Arvald II, King of Brunheath, summons the players for counsel over invasions to his realm from the west. According to his scouts the source of these ills is the peak of the Dread Mountains known as Nyx’s Crown.
  • The revered old warrior Tryggar Hjorhald has a dying request: to be buried with his favorite sword, Bandreth. However, he lost it long ago when campaigning in the Knollands (where it now resides within the hoard of Fornrjoth, the hill giant chief in residence at Stonewall (q.v.).

GILDUR (The city-state where wizardry rules supreme will offer all sorts of odd quests, it return will offer powerful magic items — possibly untested ones that may spawn their own storylines).

  • The Ridge-runners (the tribe of orcs known to dwell in the northern Spineridge Hills) are taking to the walls of Gildur again, and even the fiercest of magical wards cannot sway them. The Lord High Magister is up in arms, and eager for any assistance in ridding his city of invaders.
  • The lovely wizardress Kaitala Ilmallia (known as “Kite” to her friends) needs prospective gardeners to prune her garden, and will even offer a hefty sum of gold to do it. What may seem like an easy payday turns out to be a quite the chore, as the garden is filled with all kinds of poisonous and violent plant life.
  • The arch-wizard Grandarch wishes the players to test their mettle against the elaborate series of guards and wards which protect his tower and underground lair. He promises a hefty sum if they are able to pass, but cannot promise to be able to resurrect any who fail in the attempt.

Next up is drawing out quick maps of some of the major settlements. Even at this stage, it will take some doing, as most of these areas are large walled cities, but more than likely I’ll be submitting maps with only major landmarks denoted, leaving plenty of room to detail the particulars at a later time. All of them will be drawn from the past step, and surely some of the more political features will be laid to bare in the process. Until then ;D

D&D Sandbox Map Update (and Analysis).

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Sharp eyes will notice the number of changes to the map at this point (they’ve either been mentioned in past updates, or will be in future ones, as I still have one more regional “hooks” post to make), but I really wanted to focus this post on a couple of the overall mechanics this campaign seems to be following. The first of which could be derived by what most folks define as a “sandbox” campaign. While I seem to be giving the prospective players a number of areas to explore, the majority of the quest lines seem to be leading towards one specific path (not necessarily a blatant “adventure path”, which seems to be the norm for the current generation of RPGs), which can be accessed by a variety of means. This really excites me, since again I am not a big fan of “railroading” players towards goals they don’t feel they’re a part of. I’ve even concieved of at least a couple of possible powerful allies to help should they want to be taken on this challenge (which really at some point they will probably have to, but again, it will be discovered in a more or less deduced fashion), both of which are very much involved in their own story lines, but if those are solved to their satisfaction, and certain requirements are met, the players will have the opportunity to enlist them later on.

The second of these points, while somewhat concerned with the first, is the focus on location-based adventures, as opposed to story-based ones. A casual look over the number of “hooks” I’ve written thus far will probably clue anyone over to this. Once again, I’m not in favor of dragging the players across the map by reading long hunks of  pre-written background information, along with prescribing what their interest in it should be. Call it old-school if you want, but I will (at least for the forseeable future, as I haven’t even gotten to detailing any of these areas yet) leave these destinations as independent entities, either them immediately reacting to invasion, or possibly informed by the characters previous steps (in which case said denizens would take the expected amount of defense). Not only will this allow the players take each step in my “non-path” at their own pace (which could even lead to retreats and some strategic rethinking on their part), but will also allow me to address any of their ideas as we go along. Sounds great, hmm? Well, time will tell, but I seem to be on to something here.

Humanoids from the Deep (Roger Corman Cult Classics).

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From the Pleasant Diversion Dept., I thought I’d take a break from the relentless pace of my D&D campaign posts and kick back for a bit, while also reminded of a piece I’d been remiss to write for some time now. Shout! Factory‘s series of Roger Corman’s films from the late ’70s and early ’80s (which I first mentioned here ) have been a well to which I’ve returned several times, bringing back memories of those first films seen on late-night excursions into the premium cable abyss. Before the likes of Humanoids from the Deep, my tender eyes had never witnessed such nudity, violence or gratuitous Doug McClure (well, not since the Amicus and EMI pics he’d done, loosely based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs such as At the Earth’s Core, The People That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis).

For the unwashed (no obvious pun intended), Humanoids is at its heart a tale of both economic and evolutionary turmoil. The populace of Noyo, California make their living from the sea, which has of late been less than giving. The town wants to have a cannery to ensure stable work conditions for its residents, and cooperation with a corporation called Canco (not to be confused with their derivitive entities Bottleco or Boxco) seems to be the answer to their prayers. In addition, Canco and Dr. Susan Drake (played by perennial ’70s tough-chick Ann Turkel, who’s nonetheless referred to as a “great little scientist” by the town’s mayor) have introduced an experimental growth hormone into the local waters to likewise ensure plenty of fish.

Of course, we wouldn’t have a Corman movie if all this didn’t go to batshit. Turns out the genetically-altered sea life have been on the menu for a long-forgotten strain of coelacanth, or prehistoric fish. In doing so, they’ve taken full benefit of the situation and managed to become the aforementioned humanoid beasts. As the original hormone was based on that of frogs, these monsters have gone amphibious and started taking to the land. After first trying out the local canines (with disastrous results, just ask local fisherman hero Jim Hill (McClure) about his dog), the humanoids find their next evolutionary partners with human females. If this isn’t quality entertainment, I don’t know what is.

Almost as fascinating as this initial concept is the history of the film, which is quite bi-polar. Initially entitled Beneath the Darkness and helmed by Barbara Peeters, the production attracted the required level of star-power (which includes the late great Vic Morrow as local heavy Hank Slattery) and included what could be considered “principal photography”. This is due to the fact that when Corman saw the finished product, he was dismayed by the lack of female nudity. It turned out that Peeters, while sparing no expense of film when it came to the gruesome demise of male characters, often reverted to portraying those of the female characters offscreen. As a result, the producer had another, separate crew shoot additional scenes, with the specific purpose of adding a good dose of simulated rape, as well as comedic sex scenes (featuring ventriloquist David Strassman and “Chuck Wood”) and nude body doubles for those actresses who declined to shed their clothes during the initial shoot. It was this film that took the title Humanoids from the Deep, or simply MONSTER in some venues.

If that wasn’t impressive enough for one of Corman’s tightly-funded affairs, he also managed to get the likes of Rob Bottin (who basically re-defined what was possible with practical effects with John Carpenter’s The Thing) and Chris Walas (whose work has run the gamut from those adorable Gremlins to the uber-disturbing Brundlefly in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly) to design our favorite land-walking fishmen and their more unfortunate victims. Mind you, this was early in careers, when both were eager to work for next to nothing (knowing Corman’s history, it was more likely closer to nothing). Nonetheless, their work is effective and imaginative, especially when paired with editor Mark Goldblatt’s skill at making us think that three guys in humanoid suits were actually hordes of such baddies terrorizing Noyo’s annual festival parade. Throw in a sensitive, moving score from none other than James Horner (who would go on to supply the music for Braveheart and “Big Jim” Cameron’s Titanic, although his Krull score will always be my personal fave), and you’ve got one of the more quality products from the era (which seemed to begin after 1979’s Alien, and continued until such low-budget affairs were given the blank checkbook treatment once the likes of Schwartzenegger and Stallone were involved).

No, this isn’t a review. I’ve decided to not slap numeric values on films anymore, but rather to bring forth what I feel is awesome and (by some amount of perspective) not so great about them. Am I a fan of Humanoids of the Deep? Hell yes, even though it is something of a guilty pleasure of sorts. It’s the stunted stepchild of the more forward-thinking horrors and the exploitative drive-in features of years past, but a unique blend of unintentional humor and “mature content” which will always appeal to me. If that sort of thing even makes you curious, you should by all means check it out.