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February 2020

The Impossible Choice

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So a few weeks ago on Critical Role (Campaign 2, Episode 93) the Mighty Nein faced the age old impossible choice. In their circumstances it is an evil entity making them choose between happiness of one for the misery of another. While a bit unfortunate at least it seems pretty cut and dry. Sometimes the impossible choice is far more esoteric in nature, leading to broad and sometimes incomprehensible consequences. In any case, while I will not reveal the specifics of the short term outcome of the encounter, it was a great D&D moment.

The impossible choice is a trope in entertainment as far back as stories go. As I DM I want to put my players in that situation. Not to stress them out or make them uncomfortable but to help them define their character and perhaps learn a bit about themselves. Grunt the half-orc is the hardest barbarian you’ve ever encountered, but how does he react when he is forced to choose between his son and his soul mate? Will he accept the Axe of Corruption knowing he might succumb to it one day? Will he trade the hag a piece of his soul for eternal glory in combat? I wonder…

Is it fun to be put in those situations? Perhaps, perhaps not. I wonder though… I mean it has to be in some way. Entire pen and paper games revolve around worlds where your options are to choose between awful and horrible. Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are great examples.

Call of Cthulhu pits you against a world where Loftcraft’s Old Gods exist and cause the madness captured in his works. Your role is that of an investigator and generally leads you into cases where you find evidence of things humans are not meant to know, let alone study or investigate. You are constantly hounded by things you can scarcely comprehend let alone defend against. All the while you slowly go mad simply trying to survive. The only way out is to run and never look back, leaving it all behind and hope it doesn’t find you again. Running usually means leaving friends and loved ones to die, driving home the harrowing corner of life you have chosen to experience.

World of Darkness, specifically Vampire the Masquerade, the subgame with which I am most familiar, releases you into a world you generally know nothing about. The world is filled with rules you could not know nor understand at the start of your rebirth into unlife. You have to be taught by those older than you who seem to want to use you for their own ends no matter the personal cost to you. That just hits the tip of the iceberg as vampires whose ages can only be guessed use everyone to play their ancient and nearly incomprehensible game. You live a mean existence that demands you choose between your very humanity and surviving as a ravenous beast within you rages against your will in an attempt to be released. Indeed, should it be released it will simply slink back to it’s cage to rest while you are left to deal with the fallout of its actions. Difficult choices followed by difficult choices interspersed with impossible ones.

Games are generally used to vacate your own personal life for a few hours. Some decide to play that out in a world with an unbelievable amount of stress. Perhaps imagining these places gives us perspective. Maybe it reminds us that things could be much worse and the piddly problems we worry about each day are so inane in the grand scheme of things. Or is it that humans just love conflict? Maybe it’s all three or neither.

Personally, I enjoy it in the moment. As a DM being put on the spot when players do something you don’t expect is fun and interesting. It makes you think and come up with a solution. It’s an odd feeling for me specifically because I am an anxious person and prone to drastically overthink decisions if I have too much time to dwell on them.

So, are they fun? Or is it something you would rather avoid in your recreation?

Nostalgia Train: Everquest

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Everquest marked the beginning of the popularity of the genre. It by no means was the first MMO, but it was the first of these games to have a true three-dimensional environment. This innovation helped EQ outpace other MMOs in population to the point that many people are unaware that Meridian 59, The Realm, and Ultima Online came well before it. The virtual world of Norrath was no flash in the pan either. The game lasting over twenty years and the death of Sony Online Entertainment to maintain a very consistent player base.

What was great about EQ?

  • The world was brutal and challenging. Mobs were tough, even those of the same level and that difficulty became more steep as you progressed. Surviving combat meant you need other players, so grouping came naturally.
  • You could get absolutely lost. With no world map to hold your hand, some zones could be terrifying to traverse. This caused you to have to learn the different zones by heart, which was immersive. I remember large landmarks in other MMOs, but nothing in comparison to the detail that I retain about Everquest zones.
  • The “Ding” sound when you leveled was epic. Levels were difficult enough to achieve that it deserved the loud triumphant blast of noise. Players who never played EQ sometimes still say ding when they level.
  • Open Dungeons. Having to interact with other players while you crawled through a dungeon added a new layer of play that I took for granted until it was taken away by instancing. Being trained, competing for mobs and sometimes having to deal with openly hostile people could definitely been seen as negative, but it brought life to the game.
  • Itemization was simple. Items certainly made a difference, especially for warriors, but having a full set of gear did not make your character overtly powerful. This would be changed as the game evolved, but the simplicity was definitely one of the pluses for classic Everquest.
  • Quests were not click and go. Many quests required you reading everything an NPC said after a “Hail.” Often the bit of text to get the next step for a quest was hidden in something they said or gleaned from another NPC. It made you stop and focus on what you were doing and really become familiar with some of the story.
  • East Commons Tunnel. If you wanted a certain item in the game and you could never get it to drop, you could buy it. There was no auction house however, only other players. The tunnel between east commons and the nothern desert of ro was a nexus of foot traffic and it quickly became the recognized place to sell trinkets to other players.

What was terrible about EQ?

  • The game was unfinished. Many of the zones lacked a good range of mobs and camps to sustain leveling for players. Some dungeons were populated, but lacked itemization to attract players to them. Most problematic of all was the severe lack of mobs between levels 42 and 50 to level on, this created a bottle neck for players to cap out.
  • Balance. There were classes and races that were far more powerful than the others. It caused many players to abandoned their class and start over or to choose a race more suited to their play style rather than what they wanted to play.
  • Race/Class experience penalties. Some class or racial choices took as much as 40% more experience to level. This penalty would also factor in to group experience, so getting groups as a paladin, bard, ranger or shadow knight could sometimes be tricky.
  • Terrible Pathing. Some Mobs behaved strangely when running away or trying to pursue players. This often led to death when a mob suddenly fell through a floor or clipped through a wall bringing back all his friends from the depths of the dungeon when it returned.
  • NPCs healing through walls. Just like players NPCs could heal, unlike players they did not need to see their target to heal them. Fights that should have been simple turned into slogs or death when an unwanted do-gooder mobs bent the rules to win.
  • Friendly NPCs were sometimes the most dangerous. Have your attack or spell bound to a key? Accidentally press that key while turning in a quest or banking and you could be dead almost instantly. Some bankers could quad for 120s and the banks were littered with hapless victims.
  • The grind was painful. Leveling in EQ could sometimes be more work than your job. Especially in the hell levels. Levels 30, 35, 40, and 45 took three times the amount of experience to progress than the level before them. Most players would not be able to cap their characters for several months.

What do you remember?

Everquest was not my first MMO, but it was the game that sealed my love for the genre. It is a game that I revisit from time to time on progression servers or at Project 99 and unlike other old games, I always relive a bit of that first experience. Sure the graphics don’t really stand the test of time, and the game itself is clumsy compared to its descendants, but it has a substance that I cannot explain.

What do you remember from your time in EQ? or Who? When did you start playing and how old were you?

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