Monday, November 18, 2013

From Print to Digital (Part 1)

I recently played through a pretty big chunk of the free-to-play online game Card Hunter.  Ultimately, I found the progression a bit too slow and the fundamental mechanics kind of frustrating, but I don't really want to complain about it because I never spent any real money while playing.  What this tongue-and-cheek parody of tabletop gaming did inspire me to do though was go back and reexamine some of those old classics.  In particular, I want to focus on some early Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules.

I've mentioned the problem with video games falling into the copycat trap several times before on this blog.   Basically, it comes down to making copies of a copy and feeding them back into the machine over and over so many times the desirable elements have become washed out and faded.  By drawing from table-top gaming booklets, sometimes twenty or even thirty years old, we're able to see a much rawer form of design that (while lacking in polish) can still be applied to video games in this day and age.  Before I dive in though I should mention that these adventures were derived from other sources too.  However, given the time in which they were created it tended to be stuff like pre-CGI films and what is now nearly century old literature.

First up is a collection known as Scourge of the Slave Lords.  This series serves as an excellent example of linear vs non-linear design.  The first part of the game has players spending a lot of their time slogging through underground sewers (yes, one of those levels) fighting mostly orcs, ogres and some insect-like creatures.   Pretty much bog standard stuff, but once players have gotten about a third of the way through the module they travel to a new zone consisting of a stockade in which players have to use stealth and fast hit'n'run tactics in order to whittle down the opposition before the general alarm can be raised.  It's kind of like Metal Gear Solid meets Thief except the enemy strategy and overall layout of the area feel reminiscent of the castle stage in Resident Evil 4.

Keep on the Boarderlands is a classic example of outdoor adventuring.  Players find themselves at a remote outpost surrounded by numerous points of interest.  Bandits, monster infested caves, hungry swamp dwelling lizardmen, a mad hermit and his mountain lion plus intrigue in the keep itself are just sampling of the things that can be encountered.  Unlike most video games these events don't have to end in bloodshed.  Clever players might convince a faction or two to join with them or perhaps pit one against another.  Think Skyrim meets the original Quest for Glory (or perhaps I should say Hero's Quest), but with a much more flexible system of interaction.  No dialogue wheels here for better or worse.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits has the quintessential video game ending.  After defeating minions, slaves, guards and captives including but not limited to giants, drow, and kua-toa, players must journey to the 66th layer of the Abyss to fight their way through a cluster of compartments in the bowels of a huge mechanical spider.  This culminates in an epic showdown with the last boss, Lolth (no relation to Shelob or Ungolant).  So, basically the same as every big budget action/adventure/RPG video game to come out for over a decade except in table-top form.  All that is needed is some chanting music.  Winning this scenario is pretty tricky though considering there's no such thing as grinding in Dungeons and Dragons.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City features a jungle engulfed Aztec-style city ruin overrun with frog people (called "Bullywugs"), a snake cult (called the "Yuan-ti"), degenerated mongrelmen (called...well...mongrelmen), and tree climbing cat-goblins (called "Tosloi").  People versed in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs will immediately spot his influence here.  When it comes to monsters though the real treat is the Yellow Musk Creeper.  A plant that infests the mind of its victims slowly turning them in zombies.  Sound familiar?  If you've ever played The Last of Us it should.  If they ever make a Uncharted 4 this would be a perfect place for Nathan Drake to visit.  Alternatively, it would make an excellent subtitle for an Indiana Jones game.

Ravenloft is currently a setting in Dungeons and Dragons, but it originally started off simply as an adventure module with a significant number of key elements randomized, including the big bad's motivations and the locations of various treasure caches.  The medieval gothic setting speaks more to the writings of Bram Stoker than any traditional fantasy author.  Interesting when you consider that the module was authored by Margret Weis and Tracy Hickman, creators of the Dragon Lance series (a decidedly high fantasy universe).  Obviously, there's a lot of replayability here.  Even more than what you typically find in any video games outside of rogue-like titles.  That said it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the obscure PC title Veil of Darkness.

Well this is getting long so in going to break it into two parts.  Look for the second half coming soon.

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