Diablo III: Betrayal and Forgiveness

Does this look like a face that would lie to you?

Does this look like a face that would lie to you?

I have a gaming conundrum that has morphed into an ethical conundrum.

Recently, with the console release (re-release?) of Diablo III, I started playing again. Instead of holed up in my mother’s basement on a PC, I instead played on a couch, with friends, like a not-lonely shut-in loser. While it has its rough edges, some of which couldn’t actually be filed down, local co-op Diablo III is a breath of fresh air. It definitely captures that old school “Gauntlet” feel, without some jackass shouting about how Red Wizard is hungry again all the time.

This has led to a creeping desire to play Diablo III again, beyond the exploitation of my friends’ game system purchases. There’s a definite part of me that would like to buy the console release (re-release?) of the game so that I could play non-local co-op with them from the familiar comfort and safety of my mother’s basement.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to do it. Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I bought a game called Diablo III. It was a stunningly beautiful game; nothing since has really compared to the environments and animations in terms of sheer quality. Like any good game, the animations and light bursts and sounds nicely balanced between being big and flashy but not covering up important details for survival. Little touches, such as when my monk kicked a dude off a bridge and he fell to his death, abounded. Even the scripted events retained a bit of interest, because they were so well done.

Diablo III Character Classes

Anyone who is Inferno-viable take one step forward… not so fast, most of you.

Then I played this game called Diablo III, and discovered horrible truths lurking beneath the veneer of beauty. After spending hours upon hours upon days upon days in Diablo II, the mechanics and setting of Diablo III were shallow and unrewarding. First, permanent and unpenalized skill mutability meant there was no such concept as a “build.” Tired of using Skills A, B, and C? Switch them over to Skills X, Y, and Z, and keep going. All characters of a given class were functionally identical, once you swapped out the right skills. Second, there was no reason to grind anything but gold. Since the game had a built-in auction house, trading and loot runs no longer mattered. You just optimized your GPH and bought what you needed. Or, if you were insane, bought what you needed for real-world money. Third, and what dealt the game a fatal blow, was that all but one of the character classes was not viable at the highest levels of play.

Think about that for a moment. Blizzard was once the company that famously balanced three distinct races in Starcraft. Here, they couldn’t manage to make anything but a Barbarian viable in the early days of Inferno. Sure, you could play a different character class, but your kill speed (and, thus, your GPH) would be so much lower than a Barbarian that it’d be folly to continue to play. And that’s assuming that you weren’t forced to switch into the few skills that were viable in Inferno.

Time passed. The Auction House is now dead and buried. Difficulty levels have been made more granular. Loot distribution has been changed, becoming somewhat of a system of “welfare legendaries” from bosses. But since you can no longer trade (everything’s BoA after you leave a party!), welfare is the best you can do. The Diablo III of today is not the Diablo III of launch.



The fact remains, however, that I paid for the game once, and it was a combination of broken promises and broken mechanics. I’m still, in a melodramatic way of putting it, hurt by that. I find it difficult to make the decision to buy (re-buy?) a game that once held so much potential, and delivered beautifully broken promises. I find it hard to believe that, despite the changes to the economy, balance, and difficulty, that once I scratch the surface again I’ll find little more than dust and ash below. Will it hold my attention even without a couch full of friends to drive me forward?

Diablo III has an answer for you: “Yes. We’ve changed so much,” it says, “buy (re-buy?) us and come back.”

I’ve heard that before from girlfriends and employers. Problem is, how do I know this isn’t just another promise waiting to be broken?

The New Normal

There’s an old story about the good-old days. Men would go to work in suits, women would go to work in dresses. Loyalty would be rewarded. You would work your job, come home to your spouse, and be rewarded after twenty years with retirement and a gold watch.

Today was the last day of the quarter. That meant it was layoff day. 100% of the people who showed up to work this morning did not get to go home to a happy spouse. They got to go home early, and let them know that, on Friday, they’d be receiving their last paycheck. Something less than 100% of those people were directly responsible for the circumstances that led to their layoff.

Those who remain will breathe a sigh of relief, because they survived. There’s no point in being reactionary about it and scrambling to print resumes on high-quality paper that will end up in an recruiter’s trash can; moving to another job just shifts you from one Sword of Damocles to another Sword of Damocles. The honest truth is that, even if you avoided today’s headsman, eventually, the falling blade will catch you. Some day, the demands of staffing and profit and change will mean you’re the one who’s drawn their last paycheck.

Ten years ago, I sacrificed everything in my life for my career. I moved away from someone who loved me dearly, drifting away. I ignored my youthful wanderlust, missing out on experiences that I can never recapture. All of that was a fool’s errand. Because to work hard, to be loyal, did not sway that Sword. The stroke was sudden and final, and I suddenly found myself with nothing. No life. No love. No job.

This is the new normal. There’s no job utopia. Work your minimum, go home, and live a life. The sword will fall and kill that part of your life; do not aid it in killing the rest.

Why I Don’t Post to Facebook Anymore

These days, I mostly use Facebook as a messaging tool. I have to admit, it’s a really good tool for that purpose. I can setup group chats, I can setup individual chats, and the app integrates nicely on my phone. It saves the trouble of having to deal with email addresses, spam filters, and a few other hassles that once plagued me communication via email. My parents can’t quite figure it out, but 9/10 isn’t bad.

I don’t make much in the way of posts anymore, though. It’s not really because of any sort of protest against Facebook’s relentless marketing, or the experiments they run on their users, or even as a defense against the shitposting that fills up my newsfeed before I can block another set of sites running “Which thread count sheets are you!” quizzes.

It’s because I have nothing anyone would want to say.

There are two options when posting to a social network. You can make it a highlight reel, posting the good things, ignoring the bad. Or you can post everything (to an extent), letting the waxing and waning of your life be known to the masses of people who are ostensibly your friends. I don’t think the latter is all that honest. You don’t have to post everything but posting just the good is more akin to a lie. It’s the modern equivalent of Joe on the corner, whose wife is an alcoholic and son is a drug dealer but Joe keeps a fresh coat of paint on everything. It was a lie back then, and it’s a lie right.

So why don’t I post? Because if I’m going to not be a liar, there’s a whole lot more waning than waxing. And no one wants to read that.

The Risk of Plot

There's an epidemic of chug behavior in America's railways.

There’s an epidemic of chug behavior in America’s railways.

I’ve heard this several times before from GMs: “I’ve got this great plot for my game. I’m really hoping the players enjoy it.”

My next response is typically something murmured under my breath so that I appear as a crazy person and don’t accidentally get invited to play in this game. If I was invited to play, I might actually accidentally say “Yes” and then I’m going to be stuck.

Stuck in your terrible personal fan fiction.

There is a strong myth about the “storytelling” that a GM must do in an RPG. It might be the second-most persistent myth about RPG games. And time after time I’ve seen GMs create these elaborate plotlines, with linked adventures and combats and happenings. And here’s what happens: They never work out.

If you want to write a fan fiction about a troupe of adventurers that combat the darkness encroaching upon the kingdom by unraveling the corruption inside the system, narrowly saving the lands from disaster, go ahead and write that fan fiction. Go look at all the terrible novel posts I’ve made. There’s where you should be. Sit down, put (virtual) pen to (virtual) paper and go to town. The characters and plots and events are yours to control, and the end result will be exactly what you hope.

When you’re running an RPG, you’re not doing that. Your job as a GM is to provide a universe, provide a conflict, and let your players and their characters deal with that situation. Sure, they might go ahead and unravel the corruption. But they might not. And suddenly, your carefully crafted chain of plot events looks to be under imminent collapse because the characters didn’t find the Prince of Ambiguous Designs all that compelling, and you as a GM drag them onto the SS Railroad, in order to keep all your hard work from evaporating.

Don’t do that.

Instead, build a setting. From that setting, build encounters. Each encounter needs to have a purpose, with a conflict driver, and once that driver is resolved, the encounter is over. Watch how your players interact with the world, what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy, and tailor the experience so that everything begins to drift toward a common middle ground. You also don’t need to always be reacting to your players: Two of the hallmarks of a living, breathing world is that events are going to happen “offscreen,” and can come crashing into the characters’ sphere of influence without them seeing the beginning or the end of the event, and that not everything happens as planned. Just because the normal response by the Prince of Ambiguous Designs to the characters’ insolence is to probably turn the Court of Things Happening against them and make live in the Kingdom of Dark Undercurrents difficult, maybe he’ll instead abdicate his position and throw everything into chaos.

At the end of the day, you’re probably not going to end up with the story you’d initially envisioned. Just as no plan survives contact with the enemy, no plot survives contact with the players. But by building settings and encounters, and letting the world live and breath instead of wrapping it in the chains of plot and desired outcomes, you’ll end up providing a better game, and the final product will be far better than any fan fiction you could ever write.

Out of Your Element

Zoltar’s Revenge

In a reversal of Big, the Tom Hanks classic from the 80s, your adult self is suddenly locked in the body of a 12-year-old kid. How do you survive your first day back in school?

You're out of your element, Donny.

You’re out of your element, Donny.

That’s creepy as hell.

No, seriously. There’s a steady progression in our lives: We learn, we mature, and we grow. There’s also a message that you can “never go home again.”

Think of the damage a 24-year old can do with the knowledge and experience cloaked in the body of a 12-year old. That 24 year old is most likely finishing or finished with college, probably in a committed relationship if not married, and most likely not a virgin. They’ve most likely experienced one or two life-changing events, traumatic or otherwise. Meanwhile, that 12-year old is just starting the hormone-induced dual hells of puberty and middle school, but still years away from having to make any sort of life-directing decisions.

You want to mingle those two groups together? Zoltar’s Revenge is one of horror.

Oh, sure, you could come up with some stupid navel-gazing about how the 24-year old can provide wisdom and guidance, but that would require, in addition to Zoltar’s magical body changing ray, a ray that also changed human nature. 12-year olds don’t care about wisdom. They’ll ignore it like you ignored it 12 years before, only remembering it as a wistful echo 12 years later when they’re stuck in a dead end job with their first child on the way. All of the posts you’ll see on this that state anything other than the horror and worthlessness of this change also requires human nature to change dramatically.

That’s the problem with these Daily Post prompts: They’re specifically designed for people who don’t live in our reality-based world. On a large enough scale, human nature is a remarkably predictable thing, and many of these prompts require you to completely ignore reality. What would you do if you’re given infinite money and a broken down country home? Umm… anything, since I have infinite money. What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning 200 years in the future? Umm… kill myself, because the human mind would be unable to cope. What would you do if you were suddenly a 12-year old? Umm… nothing.

Then again, perhaps that’s indicative of the audience that the Daily Post prompts are reaching out to: People who are readily able to ignore reality and talk to their own echo chambers.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of typing that on a blog no one reads.

A Novel New Plan

Some of you (note, this is no one, since no one reads this blog) might have noticed that my usual habit of posting Flash Fiction on Monday’s has tapered off. There is actually a reason for this: I’ve been spending a lot of time formulating a plan for a new novel. I’m not quite to the point where I can announce details—I might never be—but it’s been an interesting action nonetheless.

Ammatar MandateWhat I can tell you right now is that it’s going to be set in New Eden, the setting of EVE Online. I haven’t yet decided how much I’ll play nice with EVE’s Prime Fiction, in part because I’m not required to align with it but also because EVE’s Prime Fiction has stagnated badly. What I will promise is that—barring CCP buying it, which isn’t going t happen—I’ll eventually publish it in its entirety. Promises are also meant to be broken.

Some of you might be questioning why I’m working on something new, when I’ve got so much more material outstanding. For those who care about such things, I’ve got one complete novel that I’m working on revising, and two “stub” novels that need to be fleshed out. Nothing has been accepted by an editor, publisher, agent, or the Lord. Why, then, would I create more content that will just rot on the vine?

A wise man once said, “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.”

That’s where I’m headed right now. That’s one of the reasons I’ve resurrected this blog: To simply be able to create content. Not necessarily good content. Not necessarily publishable content. But just to create content. That fire hose of creativity that allows ideas, concepts, characters, and settings to flow. I can’t stop creating art because business isn’t keeping up.

Let Me Tell You About My Sword

We're fighting giants, y'all, in an encounter that doesn't actually function given standard combat rules.

We’re fighting giants, y’all.

The Angry DM put up a good post regarding combat in role-playing games. You should read it. I’ll wait.

Pretty much all of his points are spot-on. I’m very much looking forward to his followup article.

I learned much of what he talks about in the crucible of GURPS, due to the nature and flow of GURPS combat. I learned, through necessity, that your game will not suffer if you allow your players to look for ways around and out of combat, and that you don’t need to let everything go on to the bitter end, taking full combat turns the entire time. Your players will have more fun, you’ll have more fun, and things are generally improved.

Let me tell you about GURPS combat: In D&D, if a goblin hits you in the arm with a sword, you take damage. If you take 5 damage, and you have 20 hit points, you now have 15 hit points. In GURPS, if a goblin hits you in the arm with a sword, you take damage. You might also have that arm crippled or severed. You might still be down to 15 hit points, but your sword arm might also now be useless for the rest of your life. It gets even worse when you play games with firearms and lasers. Being out in the open is pretty much a death sentence against trained marksmen.

The end result is that, in GURPS, even winning a combat means people on your side are wounded, maimed, crippled, or dead. And since in roleplaying games your side is typically made up of your players, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

What it did do for me, as both a GM and a player, is to drive home the fact that combat needed to be the resolution to a conflict, not the conflict itself. Because of the sheer lethality of that combat, a natural flow in the game developed. As the game matured, it became natural for players to question, first, the purpose of combat, strongly weighing the potential risks against the rewards. Should combat be chosen, it was then to the players’ advantage to setup a battle in which they’d have an advantage against their opponents. This forced me, as a GM, to work hard at developing encounters as opposed to developing combats. I could never count on combat breaking out, but if it did, my players always wanted it to break out on their terms.

The other characteristic of GURPS combat is that it’s mind-numbingly complex, meaning that it’s mind-numingly slow. There’s a spreadsheet developed by The Mook that helps guide you through the combat process. While it was originally developed as a playaid, it’s also a useful humor device at the overly-complex combat system. It’s 53 tabs worth of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style pathing (that is, you don’t use all 53, but they’re there!), and you’d run through that for every character’s combat turn. Oh, and it doesn’t even include sourcebook rules such as the quite-popular GURPS Martial Arts or the amazing GURPS High-Tech. That’s frankly absurd.

Because the combat is mind-numbingly complex and slow, it becomes mind-numbingly boring for the other 5 people at the gaming table. It’s even worse when GM-controlled characters are acting, since a huge amount of the time doesn’t involve actually interfacing with the players. As a GM, you need to have a great feel for this. All the complexity is somewhat subsumed when the combat is in doubt, and laser beams are cutting back and forth across a battlefield, and players are hoping a lucky (or unlucky) die roll doesn’t result in their head getting blasted off while they secure the shuttle landing spot. But as soon as combat becomes uninteresting, as the players are mopping up stragglers, that complexity will lose to cell phones with Twitter.

Again, what it did for me, as a GM and a player, is to understand when combat had ceased to be a meaningful driver for conflict. Wading through a 53 tab combat spreadsheet in order to mop up injured and retreating goblins that just watched a bunch of their comrades die isn’t fun for anyone involved. Yes, technically one of those goblins might score a lucky hit on the players as they mop them up, but actually that’s stupid. Recognition when the conflict has been resolved and moving on with your game helps keep things moving.

None of what The Angry DM said, or what I’ve affirmed above, is system specific. I learned my lessons from my experiences with GURPS because it was necessary for survival. A game where characters wade into every situation swinging swords and shooting arrows is a game where you’ve got a constant carousel of new characters, because the old ones are retiring maimed or dead. And if that game also includes the tedium of “complete combat resolution,” you’re not even going to have to worry about that problem, since your players will have long since moved on to more fun endeavors, like stabbing themselves in the thigh with a knife.

The problem is that “modern” roleplaying games don’t encourage such variation. D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder are all notorious for their “crunch” when it comes to combat rules, but they never reach the level of absurdity that will train people to use those rules sparingly. Rolling initiative becomes a Pavlovian response when miniatures are placed on the board, everything is hacked at until it’s dead, and if that accomplishes whatever it was that was supposed to be accomplished, good. If not, well, we get XP for it anyway because we killed things, right?


Why, Thank You?

What’s the best (or rather, worst) backhanded compliment you’ve ever received? If you can’t think of any — when’s the last time someone paid you a compliment you didn’t actually deserve?

Great Job

Great job! You did at least as well as a creepy disembodied head with floating glove hands could have done!

I’m terrible at accepting compliments. Absolutely terrible. So I tend to view every compliment as being either backhanded or the beginning of a joke.

For example, “Hey nice shirt,” will immediately be followed up with, “did you get dressed in the dark this morning?”

I come by it honestly, though. There’s an amazing dearth of self-esteem welded to a grandmother who was the master of backhanded compliments. Any time you visited grandma, you were sure to come away wondering if she loved you deeply or despised the interruption in her day. In truth, it was probably both, which is okay.

Writing When You Don’t Want To

We all go through moments of writer’s block. Either lack of ideas, lack of time, lack of motivation, or whatever bugs you will slowly creep into your life and prevent you from making the progress you need to make. This can be especially devastating when you’ve got an upcoming gaming session that requires your attention and brain, and all you can think about is how great a nap could be.

First off, take stock of what the upcoming session means to your campaign at large. I’m never a fan of outright cancelling a session. Cancelled games tend to be deadly infections. You cancel one game, and suddenly you’re cancelling two, and suddenly, you don’t play that game anymore. People will naturally find other things to do, and you’re suddenly not at the top of the priority. That being said, not all game sessions are created equal. The session where the party confronts the paladin of Torm who has been secretly aiding research into the creation of demonspawn is more important than a session where they’re mopping up the last of an isolated band of cultists who were hired for extra muscle.

Once you’ve determined how important the session is to your game, you can react accordingly. Combat encounters will fill more time with less GM prep than non-combat activities. In a typical game session, you can expect each of your players to take no less than 30 minutes to decide which action their character will take for the next 6 seconds, so with a typical party of five, you actually don’t have to write much, and might even get a nap in. If the session really is filler, having a set of stock combat encounters that you can use is handy: Just pull the card with the group of cultists on it, send them hurtling toward your party, and enjoy.

If that doesn’t fit your needs, however, you’ve got to find other ways to get around your writer’s block. One of my most popular adages is to remember that, “something doesn’t always have to happen.” There’s a tendency to consider the characters in your game somewhat like a virus: Whenever they enter an area, infecting it with their very presence, things start to happen. This is not only the hallmark of bad campaigns—I’ve played in several campaigns where actual, notable events never happened unless the PCs were there to see it—but difficult on you as the GM. Sometimes, it really is a quiet day in the city, and its up to the party to figure out what to do next.

Which leads into the second point of easing your tension: Exploration and discovery. These take remarkably little preparation, as you can simply create locations on the fly using your knowledge of the world and environment. Forcing the players to take the reigns to figure out where the next interesting piece of content is not only gives them strong feelings of agency and empowerment, but also prevents your world from feeling like a stage they’re playing on.

My final and worst option then, is the dreaded premade adventure. Let’s face it: Most premade adventures are pretty bad. And by “most” I mean “all” and by “bad” I mean “terrible.” But when you’ve not the time to write your own, they’re a safety net and an inspiration. As you gain experience as a GM, you should, without having to break through your own writer’s block, be able to avoid the long stretches of box text, railroading, uninspired and restrictive combat encounters, and contrived endings that most premade adventures feature, but again, all of these are still preferable to cancelling a game outright.

In the end, writer’s block strikes us all, but it doesn’t need to endanger the future of your campaign. With some practice and ingenuity and some player agency, you should be able to still hold a passable session, keep the game rolling, and hopefully find some inspiration to pick up your pen once more!