Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 13, 2021
 
Reverse Backstory

This weekend I'll play a new character in Dungeons & Dragons, with one of my friends running his first D&D campaign as a DM. I'll play a hexblade warlock, because this is a class that has always interested me very much in 5th edition. The challenge is to make a warlock that is both reasonably efficient in combat, and reasonable interesting in role-playing. In a previous campaign with a different DM, but the same group of friends, we had one player (who didn't play with us very long) who managed to get a warlock character very wrong on both of those counts: He played him very inefficiently, and with a very simplistic "as a warlock I must be evil" personality.

The core concept of the 5th edition warlock is that he has very few spell slots. Yes, they regenerate on a short rest. But up to including level 10 you can only cast 2 spells between those short rests, while other spellcasters have 15 spell slots at level 10. Even if your group takes two short rests every day, your warlock still will cast a lot less spells than a wizard or cleric. To play a warlock well, you need to use your few spells for effects that last for some time, and which support your fighting style for the turns in which you don't cast spells. For a regular warlock that might be casting Eldritch Blast cantrips, while for a hexblade that might be attacking with a weapon.

Good warlock spells are for example Hex at level 1, or Darkness at level 2. Hex adds damage to each of your attacks. Darkness, combined with the eldritch invocation Devil's Sight, creates a zone through which only you can see. Obviously you need to be careful not to blind your own group with it, but the radius of the darkness zone is only 15 feet, so that is doable. Bad warlock spells are for example Arms of Hadar or Hellish Rebuke. Because you don't make an attack roll, they don't count as "attacks", so the damage of Hex isn't added. And with so few spell slots, using a spell just to deal a bit of instant damage is kind of a waste. One exception would be a spell like Scorching Ray (if you chose the Fiend patron), where the damage of Hex is added to each of the three attacks you make.

But even if you can make your warlock efficient, how do you make him otherwise interesting as a personality? The key here is obviously the very special relation that the warlock has with his patron. The patron isn't necessarily evil; but even if he is, the warlock doesn't have to be evil too. Unlike a cleric and his god, the warlock is far more likely to be at odds with the goals of his patron. The warlock might be like the character Faust, not fundamentally evil but ambitious, and willing to compromise morality for the sake of power.

For my warlock, I made all the choices that affected gameplay first, and created the backstory afterwards. I'm not saying that this is how you have to do it, it depends on your style, and the style of the campaign you are playing in. I play with people who enjoy tactical combat, so making a character that with a very interesting story, but who isn't very useful in combat, wouldn't have worked. Warlocks chose their patron already at level 1, and with me being a human hexblade with the polearm feat, my patron obviously needed to be a sentient magic polearm. So for me the backstory needed to explain how my character ended up making a pact with a sentient weapon, and what that weapon was. One important thing to consider with any backstory is that it needs to be sufficiently open, as you will want the DM to be able to build it into his campaign.

The patron I created was the Halberd of St. Matthew (because I found a picture of a saint with a halberd on the internet). But I made St. Matthew an evil saint of the god Bane, the Faerunian god of tyrannical oppression, terror, and hate. And I decided that rather than an evil saint wielding the halberd for tyrannical oppression in the name of Bane, it was rather the evil halberd that used that cleric of Bane. Having chosen the "criminal (smuggler)" background, I decided that a contact of mine had hired me to smuggle him and something he stole out of Waterdeep. Before the rendezvous my character heard that the Halberd of St. Matthew had been stolen from the temple of Bane in Waterdeep. Then I found my contact dead, with the halberd splitting his skull. Trying to make his body disappear before the priests of Bane found me, my character touched the halberd. And the halberd spoke to him, promised him power, and basically forced him to return the halberd to the temple. (Because, hey, no DM will allow you to keep a powerful artifact you invented yourself in your backstory at level 1).

So this gives me all the backstory elements for my character that I need, and that my DM needs. The character is not evil, but he is an opportunist and didn't turn down the magical power the unholy halberd promised him. Now the halberd will try to further corrupt him towards tyranny, terror, and hate. At the same time my character is also on the run from the priests of Bane who could reasonably be after somebody involved in the heist of one of their artefacts, even if it was returned. All this gives the DM a number of possible hooks, both positive (the Halberd of St. Matthew promised to help him find other powerful halberds to wield) and negative (with the priests of Bane possibly being after him). And for me the story not only gives an explanation of how my character became a hexblade, but also creates interesting possibilities for ambiguity, with the morals of the patron not being the same as the morals of the character. How much evil will the character be forced to do in order to gain more warlock powers? If the campaign goes on for longer, and DM cooperates: Will the character at some point be powerful enough to wield the Halberd of St. Matthew? And if yes, how does he get it back from the temple of Bane?

At level 1, my character just presents himself as a criminal on the run from a heist gone bad. He is willing to join a group of adventurers on their way into the wilderness in order to lay low. But he also feels that he will have to use his newfound warlock powers in order to grow them. I'll see how it goes from there.

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Sunday, May 09, 2021
 
What exactly is a sequel?

A reader sent me a scan of an article in the October 2004 issue of PC Gamer with a "first look at Baldur's Gate 3". It told the story of Interplay losing its license to make D&D games in 2003, scuppering the first version of Baldur's Gate 3. So the news in 2004 was that now Atari was making a second attempt at Baldur's Gate 3. That never happened, in spite of negotiations with Obsidian in 2008. Instead the game is now being made by Larian Studios, with an early access out since October 2020, final release date still to be announced.

Undoubtedly, the Larian Studios version of Baldur's Gate 3 will be considered as the "real" Baldur's Gate 3, because it actually went past the project stage. But the 20-year gap between BG2 and BG3 makes you think what actually *is* a sequel. Some of the people currently working on BG3 weren't even born when the original Baldur's Gate came out. And with a completely different development studio behind it, Baldur's Gate 3 frequently resembles Divinity Original Sin 1or 2 more than it resembles Baldur's Gate 1. Fire or acid surfaces on the ground? Not really a Baldur's Gate feature!

Baldur's Gate more or less spawned its own genre, with games like Planescape: Torment, Tyranny, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the Pillar's of Eternity series, the Divinity Original Sin series all drawing inspiration from the isometric style of Baldur's Gate. Other than having a D&D license, and thus using the same names of spells, Baldur's Gate 3 is just yet another game inspired by the original. There is no link to the story or characters of the original, it is just another game resembling it. Baldur's Gate 3 could just as well have carried another name. The only significance of the name is that it indicates that the game has an official license from the makers of D&D.

In a way "the next game by the people who brought you game X" is a better indication than "sequel of game X". Sequels indicate an aspiration, and are a marketing tool. But the gaming industry is full of sequels which fell far short of the original, whether it was the same studio or a different studio that made them. With RPGs the originals frequently were turn-based and had fixed camera angles due to technological limits at the time. And then some sequel years later is suddenly a first-person real-time action RPG, which plays totally different.

I think the lesson here is that you shouldn't buy a sequel just because you loved the original. Approach the new game as if it had a new name. Read the reviews, watch some gameplay, and decide whether you like the *new* style.

Friday, May 07, 2021
 
Glory

I now have a nice collection of Kickstarter board games, most of which are on the big and complex side. I mostly stopped buying new games now. On my recent holiday I brought some of those games, but ended up never playing them with my wife: There wasn't a really big table in the apartment we rented, and the whole setting up, explaining rules, and playing experience would have taken too long. I need something smaller and easier for occasions like that.

So I backed the Kickstarter of Glory: 2nd edition. Normally I would be a bit wary of games that don't fund very fast, but for a second edition of a game that got reasonably good reviews on Board Game Geek the risk of it being a scam is minimal. The game uses dry-erase markers to write on the various cards, which necessitates a relatively high quality of laminated cardboard; that makes the game a bit expensive for a relatively simple RPG, which is probably why it isn't more popular. But I watched it played on YouTube, and quite like it. It fits my requirement of being fast to set up, easy to explain, and not too long to play. While still being a fantasy RPG experience, and not just something abstract.

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Thursday, May 06, 2021
 
Worthless

Yesterday my new iPhone 12 Pro Max arrived. Setting it up by transferring the data from my old iPhone 7 Plus was very simple, mostly automated by bringing the 2 phones in contact, and scanning the image on one of them with the other. I then moved my SIM card to the new phone, and everything is working fine. I had already bought an original Apple Magsafe charger, and a third-party stand for it, so I know have a very nice magnetic stand and charger on my desk to keep the phone when I am at home. So only one problem remained: What should I do with the old iPhone?

After a bit of research, I found that Apple is actually offering trade-ins: Send them your old phone for store credits. Obviously I didn't want to trade in for a new phone, but maybe for an AirTag or other accessory? So I found out my old iPhone's IMEI (it's engraved on the SIM tray in very, very, very small letters) and entered it into the Apple Trade In website. In answered all the questions about the state the phone is in, which is very good, the thing doesn't have a scratch on it. And Apple told me what my old iPhone 7 Plus in perfect condition is worth: Absolutely nothing! They offered to recycle it for free if I would send it in.

The only positive thing about this is that gives me a good argument to justify having bought a new phone. :) But in reality I don't agree that a 5 year old iPhone in good condition is already completely worthless. So I looked around for alternatives and found Swappie.com. They evaluated the residual value of my old phone at €135, which is actually a bit more than I would have thought. So agreed to sell them my phone, which works by them sending you a label for a delivery service company to come and get the parcel from your home and sending it to them. They then check if the phone is as described and transfer the money onto your account. I'll see if that works. But hey, it can only be better than Apple's offer!

Wednesday, May 05, 2021
 
Curse of Strahd - Session 5 and 6

In the previous session the group got tricked by Strahd into deposing the burgomaster of Vallaki, who was a bit crazy, but strongly anti-Strahd. So the group took Ireena, the woman that Strahd pursues because she is a reborn version of the love of his life, Tatyana, and they flee further west. They arrive at the village of Krezk, where the guards don't want to let anybody in except for the wine delivery they are expecting and that is late. Aelis, as member of the Martikov family that produces the wine, manages to persuade them to let the group in to discuss the next delivery.

In Krezk, Ireena feels a strong attraction to a pool at the north of the village. Approaching it, she is greeted by the spirit of Sergei, the younger brother of Strahd, which Strahd killed to take Tatyana for his own. Ireena disappears into the pool, and the souls of Tatyana and Sergei are reunited. That triggers the rage of Strahd, expressing itself in a lightning storm, with Gustav (standing in the pool to search for Ireena) getting hit.

After that, the group visits the Abbey of Saint Markovia, having heard of a powerful, eternally young abbot residing there, who can heal and raise the dead. The group finds out that this abbot is in fact an angel, but apparently he got corrupted by Strahd / Barovia, and is now fixing people by replacing their limbs with stronger animal limbs. He has the abbey full of mongrelfolk, made up of various animal parts. The abbot shows the group his project, a flesh golem in the shape of Tatyana, which he wants to offer to Strahd as a bride to calm him. The abbot asks the group to organize him a bridal gown. The group also meets Ezmeralda d'Avenir, a vistani and apprentice vampire hunter. Ezmeralda is looking for her mentor, the legendary vampire hunter Rudolph van Richten. From the description, the group realizes that they met him in Vallaki, disguised as a carnival ringmaster named Rictavio. Ezmeralda sets out for Vallaki, but the group has other plans.

The group is heading south towards the Wizard of Wines winery and vineyard. Aelis wants to meet her family, and everybody in Barovia, Strahd included, seems to waiting for missing wine deliveries from there. They meet the Martikov family (who, like Aelis, are wereravens), and find out that a group of druids and plant creatures has overrun the winery and kicked out the Martikovs. The heroes battle the druids and blights in a series of battles, and capture an evil Gulthias staff. From the holy symbols of the druids, they learn that the druids venerate Strahd as their god. The Martikov family explains that their wine production is powered by three magical gems. They need at least one of the gems to make cheap wine, and if they have two or three, they can make better and better vintages. But a witch from the village of Berez incited other evil creatures in the neighborhood to steal those gems. So one is now with the druids on Yester Hill, another in a cave full of werewolves near Lake Baratok, and the third in Berez. [Here ended session 5 and session 6 begins]

One druid escaped, and the group follows him to Yester Hill. There they find a large wicker statue of Strahd within a stone circle, and further on a Gulthias Tree, that is producing the blight creatures. They also see a mirage beyond the mists of Barovia, of Gustav's (and Strahd's) old homeland. Before they can set the wicker statue on fire, Strahd rides in through the air, on his nightmare mount Beucephalus. He expressed his disappointment with Gustav, for having led Ireena to the pool in Kresk, and destroying Strahd's hope of making her his bride. Strahd explains that he comes to Yester Hill sometimes to watch his old homeland, even if it is just a mirage, and that as he *is* the land of Barovia, the druids venerate him. Then he gives a signal to the druids (who were hidden in the stone circle) and rides off.

There are six druids in the stone circle, who are now chanting a ritual, protected by six berserkers. As the group doesn't manage to stop all of the druids from chanting after 7 turns, the wicker statue erupts as a tree blight. But the group realizes that the Gulthias staff they found has some power over blights, and by destroying the staff they instantly kill the tree blight, and the blights hiding in the grove around the Gulthias Tree. From the corpse of the tree blight they recover the first winery gem. And they hack down the Gulthias Tree, which is defenseless after his blights were destroyed, and take a magical axe from it.

Back at the winery, there is a visitor: Zuleika Toranescu, who is a werewolf and mate of the previous leader of the werewolf tribe, Emil Toranescu. She explains that another werewolf, Kiril Stoyanovich, gained power of the tribe with the help of Strahd. Now Strahd lets Kiril and the werewolves loyal to him pass the mist into the Forgotten Realms and kidnap children. The children are then made to fight each other in an arena, and the strongest one is turned into a werewolf, while the others are eaten. Emil, who opposed that practice, got hauled off to the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft. The werewolves venerate Shar, and stole the winery gem as an offering for their shrine to her.

So the group sets out to the werewolf cave to get the gem (the group is mostly evil and didn't care much about the children). Storming into the cave they surprise the werewolves and kill some, while the rest flees towards the back of the cave. Warryn with his squad of skeletons is foremost in following them, and a fight erupts on the staircase behind a curtain made out of human skin. [This is where I made a mistake: I didn't take into account that the skeletons don't have silver or magic weapons and can't actually hurt werewolves.] The group kills the werewolves and finds the shrine of Shar. Aelis, priestess of Shar, finds that a powerful curse threatens those who steal from the shrine, so they leave most of the offerings and exchange their magical battleaxe for the gem, thus escaping the curse.

From the cave the group sees a tower on a peninsula on Lake Baratok. But first they must take care of the children they freed, one of which they suspect of being a young werewolf. So they bring the young werewolf to the Abbey of Saint Markovia to live with the abbot and mongrelfolk, and the other children to the orphanage in Vallaki. There we ended the session.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2021
 
My Steam Library

My Steam library contains 445 games, of which only 134 have ever been played. You can get that info from the Steam Calculator by entering the URL of your profile on Steam. While my library of games has grown since I posted my Steam Calculator results in 2014, the percentage of un-played games has stayed roughly the same at 70%. But some things have gotten worse.

One of those things is age and memory. I recently got a mail from a reader who recommended that I should try out Trials of Fire. So I looked up the game on YouTube, and it looked really interesting. And when I looked on Steam it turned out that I had bought it in Early Access in 2019, never played it, and then completely forgotten about it.

The other thing that has gotten worse is that even if I mostly buy games on Steam when they are heavily discounted, there are now much cheaper ways to play these games. A lot of the games that I have in my Steam library I now also own as free games in the Epic games store, or have access to for free as part of my XBox game pass for PC subscription. Yeah, I only paid 23 Euro for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire back in 2019. But I still haven't played it, and now I could play it for free on the game pass.

The underlying fundamental problem is that there are now so many platforms with so many games, that even if you concentrate on your favorite genres, you still can't play them all. Some of the games that were un-played in 2014 are still un-played, and are probably so outdated by now that I'll never actually play them. On the other hand the Steam Calculator says that my collection is worth between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on whether I bought games at their highest or their lowest price. As I rarely buy at the highest price, let's say $4,000. And I have been on Steam since 2008, so $300 per year. That is still affordable for me, so I don't have to feel too bad about the waste.


Sunday, May 02, 2021
 
WoT on Steam

I have played a lot of World of Tanks, but I am currently not playing or following the game. So I was somewhat surprised to see that Wargaming now released the game on Steam. And they got swamped with mostly negative reviews, with two thirds of reviews not recommending the game. What is going on?

I could have imagined two possible setups for World of Tanks to work on Steam: One is to just have one game accessible to everybody old players and new, which maximizes the number of players on the server, and makes matchmaking faster. The other is to create a new "Steam" server, and only let new players via Steam access it, so that they don't get slaughtered so much by veterans. So which option did Wargaming choose? A hybrid that combines the worst of both worlds: Old players can't access their existing account via the Steam client. But new players on the Steam client are on the same server as the veteran players, and just get slaughtered.

World of Tanks is one of the least "new player friendly" games there is. Curiously, being a game in which your tactical experience and skill makes a big difference is part of this. You've all heard the old adage about a game being "easy to learn, hard to master". Well, WoT is that. It literally takes several thousands of hours to become good at this game. So even if there had been a separate Steam server, a veteran player with a new account (even somebody like me, who never got beyond medium skilled) would absolutely slaughter any new players for a very long time before they would catch up.

But with everybody on the same server, the new players not only face veterans that are skilled, they also face players who have grinded and/or paid their way to a lot of rewards. World of Tanks is clearly a game in which paying money makes you stronger in various ways; you won't necessarily "win" if you pay, but you'll do much better than if you don't. So what if the new players do the reasonable thing and concentrate on learning the game at the low tiers of the game? Unfortunately, many of the rewards like better crew or equipment can also be used on low tiers. And with a stupid third party system that gives you a score depending on how well you do, there are quite a lot of so-called "seal-clubbers" in World of Tanks: They get high win ratios by boosting a low tier tank with great crew and equipment, and then using it to slaughter new players (the "seals") in low tier games. That is where a separate server for new players would have come in handy.

So there you have it. This is why World of Tanks is getting bad reviews on Steam: Veteran players that are angry for not being allowed to use the Steam client, and new players that are just getting crushed by veterans who are both more skilled and far better equipped than they can be. This really wasn't a good idea.

P.S. Steam Charts shows only 3k players at peak playing WoT on Steam. Which isn't very much compared to the 100k to 200k concurrent online players on the EU servers. On the other hand, more than 1k players left a negative review already.

One more factor for the review bombing on Steam is that Wargaming strongly "moderates" criticism on their own forums. Some people clearly felt that this was their first opportunity to freely say what they think about this game on an official platform.

Thursday, April 29, 2021
 
Bravely Default 2

I must say that Bravely Default 2 is one of the weirder role-playing games that I have played. That is mostly due to the job system, which operates on job points (JP). JP are gained together with XP after every fight, but the mechanics are somewhat different. In a typical RPG there is some incentive to attack level-adequate monsters, as these give you the most XP. In Bravely Default 2 that is still roughly the case for XP, but not at all for JP. You get the most JP if you manage to engage more groups of monsters at once. You can achieve that to a limited extent by using special items, called monster treats. But the far more efficient way is to use the fact that weak monsters run away from you to herd a bunch of them into a corner. For example you can herd all 8 monster groups on the beach where the game starts along the beach into a corner, and that gives you the maximum nimber of JP, over 800 per bunch. You’d much rather do that than get 30 JP for a regular fight against a single monster group.

What adds to this is the fact than only your main job gets JP. But your main job also determines your stats. So if you want to level up a new job from level 1, you are relatively weak, increasing the incentive to herd low level mobs rather than tackling more dangerous monsters. Ultimately the game cycles between two states: You farming low-level mobs for JP until you’re powerful enogh in that job to really use it, and the rest of the game, where you follow the story, do quests, and battle more for XP than JP.

Many other systems in Bravely Default 2 are also not very well balanced. For example you are supposed to search area and dungeons for treasure chests. But those treasure chests usually contain rather mundane loot. And you can get a lot more of the same regular loot with the Freelancer’s Forage command. So if you are chasing weak mobs anyway, why not use the Bravely/Default system and the Forage command to chain something like Forage-Forage-Forage-Attack. Fights take longer, but you come out loaded with loot and useful consumables. A bit further into the game you can learn the Thief job and do something even better, stealin rare items from every monster you meet. Who needs treasure chests?

While Bravely Default 2 has some of the qualities of early Final Fantasy games, and I appreciate the turn-based combat, overall the flow of the game isn’t great. Story boss monsters and the occasional world boss monsters are so much more powerful than the surrounding regular monsters that you actually *need* to be completely overpowered compared to regular monsters in order to tackle the boss. If the regular monsters aren’t fleeing in a panic when they see you, you aren’t ready for the next boss. While in some of the PC complex RPGs that I have been playing lately, like Baldur’s Gate 3 or Divinity Original Sin 2, I had often wished that there were a bit more fights, at least most fights in these games were somewhat exciting. Bravely Default 2 has tons of fights, but few exciting ones. I doubt I will play this for long.

Saturday, April 24, 2021
 
Going on a holiday

I'm a lucky guy in that I haven't caught COVID yet, and the pandemic hasn't had any major bad effect on my life. I quite like working from home, for the flexibility. The only downside is that it tends to blur the line between work and leisure, and after a year stuck at home I need a change of scenery. As international travel is still not possible for "non-essential" reasons, we booked a holiday apartment in the middle of nowhere here in Belgium. Nothing to do but nature walks and playing games. I am looking forward to it.

I rarely take my laptop on holidays, preferring to stick to the iPad and the Switch for holiday gaming. And it just so happens that Divinity Original Sin 2, which I am currently playing on the PC, is also on the Switch. And through the miracle of cloud saves, I could even play cross platform! Well, in theory that is. I tried it out, and with a few difficulties it worked: I had my current save game of DOS2 on the Switch and could continue playing. Which I did and then gave up after about 10 minutes.

Divinity Original Sin 2 is a rather complex game. And the UI is on the fiddly side, often requiring you to go through a number of steps to achieve something. That is okay on the PC with a big screen, mouse, and keyboard. Trying it on the small screen of the Switch with Joy Con controls was driving me nuts. Too many things happening on too small a screen, and the controls not precise enough, and cumbersome. For example the hotbar for skills is much smaller on the Switch, so what is one hotbar on the PC becomes three lines of hotbar on the Switch. Selecting a skill and applying it to the target you want becomes a hassle. When the fight against the UI becomes harder than the fight against the monsters, it is time to stop!

These days a lot of games exist on different platforms. But frequently you notice that it is either a console game that has been ported to the PC, or a PC game that has been ported to the console. The controls feel natural on one platform, and not so much on the other. The additional problem of the Switch in mobile mode is that a 6-inch mobile screen just isn't the same as a 27-inch desktop screen. A game designed for the small screen looks clunky on a large screen, while a game designed for a large screen becomes overloaded on the small one.

As a consequence, I will take a week off from playing DOS2, and will play probably Bravely Default 2 instead. I am also still playing Shop Titans every day, and that game works pretty well on both PC and tablet. And then, because I'm not going very far, and don't have to carry the luggage, I'm also packing some of the board games I recently acquired and hadn't had much time to play yet. So, rain or shine, I think I will have a good holiday week.

Sunday, April 18, 2021
 
How important is NPC animation for you?


This is Sebille. Sebille is a NPC companion, an elvish rogue with a complicated backstory, in Larian Studio's Divinity Original Sin 2.


This is Astarion. Astarion is a NPC companion, an elvish rogue with a complicated backstory, in Larian Studio's Baldur's Gate 3.

In game, both Sebille and Astarion are relatively small on the isometric map, when you play at a usual zoom level. You only really "see" their faces when you talk with them. As as you can see from the above examples, Sebille is a static portrait, while Astarion is fully animated in 3D. All 5 NPC companions in Baldur's Gate are fully animated and voiced in long dialogue cutscenes. And those scenes are graphically far more demanding than the isometric maps and UI. In other words, a significant chunk of the budget for Baldur's Gate 3 went into replacing the portrait of Sebille with an animated Astarion. And I wonder if that budget wouldn't have been better spent elsewhere.

As a player of D&D, I would like to see all 12 basic D&D classes in Baldur's Gate 3 (13 with the Artificer). I would like to see more subclasses, I would like to see more spells. And I would like to see a lot of quality of life improvements to the somewhat clunky UI, and the horrible inventory management system. And instead of all that, I get an animated Astarion. For me that animation isn't doing much. Yes, it's pretty, but I'd rather have a better user interface and more character choices.

What do you think? Are animated NPCs a reason to buy one game rather than another for you? Or do they provide relatively little bang for the buck, which should have been spent elsewhere?


Friday, April 16, 2021
 
Curse of Strahd - Session 4

In the previous session the group started to get their revenge on the coven of night hags that in the Old Bonegrinder windmill, ambushing one of them on the road, away from the others. Hags are much less dangerous when not in the coven. So this session started by the heroes taking on the other two "sisters" in an assault of the windmill. That was a harder fight, but they managed to kill one hag and made the last one, Bella, flee into the ethereal plane. She might come back later to haunt them in their dreams. In the attic of the windmill they found the Tome of Strahd, one of the three artifacts the fortune teller told them about, and an important source of information on the history of Strahd, and how he became a vampire.

After this, they went back to Vallaki. There the merchant they saved two sessions ago, Vasili von Holtz, introduced the group to Lady Fiona Wachter. Lady Fiona was opposed to the rule of the Baron Vargas Vallakovich, who had made it illegal to be not happy, and organized a festival every week so that the happiness would keep Strahd away. Lady Fiona proposed a coup at the next festival, and the group agreed to tackle the baron's main enforcer, Izek Strazni. Apparently there was an old rivalry between the von Zarovich family and the Vallakovich family, and Lady Fiona proposed to the group's paladin/hexblade Gustav von Zarovich to become the new baron.

So the festival starts, and rain spoils the main event, where the baron tries to light a sun made out of wicker. Gustav takes the opportunity to mount on the fountain in the central square and hold a speech, proposing to overthrow the baron. Combat with Izek and some guards ensues, but the group wins that relatively easily. However, meanwhile the citizen of Vallaki have risen up as a mob and are deposing the baron. Everything is going according to plan. Except ...

On the way to the baron's house, Vasili von Holtz and Lady Fiona call the group into a side alley and thank them for their role in overthrowing the baron. And then Vasili transforms into his true form and is revealed to be actually Count Strahd von Zarovich! The whole encounter with the group "rescuing" him was staged, so that he could gain their trust and manipulate them into doing his bidding. The group is shocked, and realizes that this means that Strahd could now easily capture Ireena. So they leave town towards the village of Krezk, and the Abbey of Saint Markovia, taking Ireena with them for protection. With that, the session ended.

This session was pretty fun. One of the big difficulties in campaigns against a powerful archvillain is how to let the group have their successes, while still making it appear that the villain has his wins too, and is getting more and more present and dangerous. This session did exactly that, the group won every battle, and feels as if they are losing the war. Great for a horror campaign!

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Thursday, April 15, 2021
 
Divinity Original Sin 2

I was a fan of Divinity Original Sin from Larian Studios, and not only played it through once, but then played it half way through a second time, spending 130 hours with that game. But while I bought Divinity Original Sin 2, I hadn't played it up to now, because, you know, too many other games. So I kind of skipped it when I started playing the latest Larian Studios game, Baldur's Gate 3. Now I have to say something blasphemous: I don't really like Baldur's Gate 3. To me it feels so *unfair*. Dungeons & Dragons 5E puts a lot of restrictions on players, but balances that by putting the same restrictions on monsters. In Baldur's Gate 3, we still have those restrictions on the players, but the monsters don't follow the rules. To somebody knowing 5E rules very well, it feels a lot as if the monsters are cheating. Okay, most AIs cheat, but some do it less visibly than others. So after a fight where the enemy not only cast mirror image, but then was able to cast spells each turn with each one of the images, I got fed up and stopped.

But as I was still in the mood for this type of heavy computer role-playing game, I went back and started playing Divinity Original Sin 2. And I must say that I like it much better. The flow seems much better, and the monsters visibly use the same powers that you have, which makes it feel a lot fairer. I am aware that part of that is the difference between playing a game in "definitive edition", as compared to "early access". And the definitive edition has some weird design choices: The developers added "gift bag features" that improve various things in the game, for example inventory management. But if you activate those, the game tells you that because you are using mods, you won't earn achievements anymore. I don't care about achievements, but I that to be very strange design. The gift bag "autopack" feature that sorts items into bags according to category is very useful, but I wouldn't consider it as a sort of cheat that makes the game too easy.

Speaking of mods, I also installed a mod from the Steam Workshop called "Let there be Tooltips!", which fixes another UI flaw of DOS2: When pressing the ALT key to highlight items you can interact with, the mod makes it so that *all* items you can interact with are highlighted. In the original game, lots of items, even very basic ones like crates, don't show up. Really, that is more of a player-created bugfix than a mod.

What is absolutely brilliant in DOS2 is the ability to easily respec your characters, with barely any restrictions. You can build a completely different party out of the characters you have. I'm playing with Sebille, Ifan Ben-Mezd, and Beast. If I go for a second playthrough, I can take the three other companions, enjoy their different character stories, but without that locking me into certain character choices. The ability to respec also makes me feel more relaxed about my deliberately underpowered choices: For pure power it is obviously better if your character skills work well together. But I have, for example, both fire and water powers, which sometimes cancel each other out. The advantage of using all sorts of powers is that you get to know them all, and have more fun with more variety.

I have already played 40 hours of DOS2, and I am still in Act 1, out of 4. And I am level 7, out of 20 or 21 (soft cap). So still a lot of game to go. I have to say that the quest system isn't ideal is telling you what you should be doing next, your quest log tends to be overloaded with stuff that you can't really do much about right now, so it is easy to lose track of your goals. But then, just going everywhere and revealing all the fog of war on the huge map works pretty well. Overall I am having a lot of fun with Divinity Original Sin 2. I just hope that in a few years Baldur's Gate 3 will be as good as this.

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