Tobold's Blog
Saturday, July 24, 2021
Mining on the Switch

I never mined Bitcoin. Of course, I wished I had done so back in 2009. But in 2021 it is definitively too late, in most western countries you can’t even get the cost of electricity back from mining Bitcoin. And I don’t like the 129 TWh of electricity wasted on Bitcoin globally per year now, as it unnecessarily contributes quite a high amount of CO2 to global warming. Having said that, my Switch is currently lying next to me, running, consuming electricity, in order to “mine” monstie xp and resources in Monster Hunter Stories 2.

Monster Hunter Stories 2 has a game mechanic introduced in area 3 where you can send your monsters on “monstie expeditions”. You can send up to 6 monsters on expeditions that net you different amounts of experience points for them, plus random resources and even some rare items. These expeditions have different lengths, with the longest being half an hour. But, unlike mobile games, time only passes when the game is running. You can’t start an expedition in the evening before going to bed, turn off your Switch, and get your rewards next morning. The expeditions are intended to run in the background while you are playing.

Having played a lot of mobile games where you get rewards from letting time pass, it was immediately obvious to me that I could abuse the system by letting it run when I am not playing. A Switch uses a lot less electricity than a Bitcoin mining rig. I just need to collect the rewards and start the next expedition every half hour. Besides the resources, I also like to use the xp on the monsties that I plan to sacrifice to the Rite of Channeling. A hatched egg gives a level 1 monstie with few genes; send that monster out to a few expeditions, and more genes unlock, giving you more options to pick a gene to transfer to another monster.

At the same time, this “mining” doesn’t increase the level of my main hero, and I don’t use it to make overly powerful monsters for combat. Having already restarted the game once because I had overleveled, I am careful to avoid becoming too powerful for the story content. I am mainly using the mining for genes, so I need to grind fewer monster dens for eggs. The method is certainly not working as intended, but it works for me.

Friday, July 23, 2021
Netflix game pass

I have a Netflix subscription. I watch TV series on Netflix frequently enough that the annual subscription for Netflix is cheaper than buying an equivalent amount of content on DVD. While Netflix gained a lot of new subscribers during the pandemic, their outlook for growth looks a bit less positive for the coming years, as they are reaching market saturation. So they decided to try something new and get into video games. Obviously I am interested, especially if it would mean access to games at no additional cost beyond my already existing subscription. However, I can’t help but think that this isn’t going to be easy.

One of the features of the current Netflix app is that it runs on pretty much everything, including your toaster (with the strange exception of not running on the Switch). If you have a smart TV, smartphone, tablet, computer or console, regardless of operating system, there is probably a Netflix app available for your device. That works for streaming video, but I can’t see it working for video games. The video game market is far more splintered into different operating systems. There are very few games that run on the PC, several consoles, and both iOS and Android mobile devices. And given the different graphics and computing powers of these different devices, you’d need to design for the lowest common denominator.

Yes, millions of people play Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. But these and many other mobile games are already free to play, so they wouldn’t really be a good fit with a subscription business model. I am paying €10 monthly for my Xbox Game Pass for PC, but that is to get access to PC games which would otherwise cost me between €20 and €60. Hey, if Netflix partnered with Microsoft to include the Xbox Game Pass in my Netflix subscription, I’d be all for it; it would just mean one *less* subscription for me. But anyone using something else than a PC to watch Netflix wouldn’t be able to use those Game Pass games on his device. While mobile devices already have a huge abundance of free or cheap games, and mobile games included in Netflix wouldn’t be much of an incentive.

So, I am interested what exactly their plan is. It being announced in their quarterly earnings report might mean that the news is just smoke and mirrors for investors, so they don’t react too badly to slow subscription growth. But then Netflix invented a lot of very popular services that didn’t exist before in that form, so they might surprise us.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

After being about half way through, I deleted my save game from Monster Hunter Stories 2 and started over. With RPGs that is something that happens actually quite frequently to me: Somewhere mid-game I arrive at the point where I think I mostly understood all the game mechanics and flow of the game, and then I realize I would have more fun if I had taken other decisions earlier in the game. With Monster Hunter Stories 2, this was my own fault: I simply overleveled. I completely forgot about the main story (in my defense, it *is* forgettable) in area 2 and got completely engrossed in collecting monsters, splicing genes, hunting rare “royal” monsters and the like for many hours. When I finally moved on to area 3, I was far too strong, and all combat was trivial. Oops! I decided instead of rushing through that area and hoping to catch up with the difficulty, I’d rather start over and only grind when I need it to get strong enough for the main story.

For another role-playing game which I started over earlier this year, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I would say it wasn’t my fault. I made a choice of a character class, cleric, not knowing that two of the NPC companions I would encounter were clerics too. Only once I had encountered all possible NPC companions could I possibly know which character class would work best with them, so I restarted with a wizard. Yeah, I could have played with a bunch of custom mercenaries, but then I would have missed out on all the NPC companion story content. That is a bit of a problem with games that have you make lasting character decisions long before you actually can understand what the consequences will be. I much preferred Divinity Original Sin 2, which offers a complete respec of you and your companions; in Pathfinder you couldn’t change your character class on a respec.

One reason why I often don’t mind restarting RPGs is that I often enjoy the earlier parts more than the end game. As I discussed here before, that is also true for D&D: Having ultra-powerful characters that don’t evolve very much anymore is less fun than early character development. In a computer RPG the added benefit of restarting is playing this early part now much more consciously of what will be needed later. So in this second playthrough of Monster Hunter Stories 2 I now have very different priorities when collecting monsters, because I now understand the gene system and other game mechanics much better.

Monday, July 19, 2021
Freedom Day - Going Endemic

Today, according to the UK government, is “freedom day”, the day where many of the existing Covid lockdown measures are being dropped. Not because the UK is Covid free, in fact it has one of the highest rates of new infections per million of inhabitants, about 10 times as high as the USA or France, and the case numbers are already quickly rising. But the goverment is responding to the will of the people, who are mostly fed up with those restrictions. And by doing so, the UK is launching a nationwide public health experiment which will be an example to the world, either because it is a success, or because it is a failure. Basically the UK wants the pandemic to go endemic, that is to say reach a steady state in which it is managable. There is science behind that, but it is hard to understand, and riddled with uncertainty, so things certainly could go very wrong.

Over a century ago, the Spanish Flu killed between 20 and 50 million people world wide (in the aftermath of World War I, medical record-keeping wasn’t great). If you think that the Spanish Flu is long gone, you’d be wrong. It still kills people every year. But it has become endemic, part of the mix of viruses causing seasonal flu. Serious enough for your doctor to advise flu shots, but not deadly enough to justify lockdown measures. Between flu shots and antibodies humanity acquired over the last century, the Spanish Flu has gone from mass killer to seasonal nuisance.

With 190 million cases of known Covid-19 cases and probably over 100 million undocumented ones, the idea to completely eliminate the corona virus from earth is probably farfetched. The most likely future is the corona virus joining the club of seasonal flu viruses and staying with us forever. In a probably misguided attempt of appealing to your civic duty, governments worldwide have told you about vaccination stopping the spread of Covid-19. The haven’t emphasized that the track record of vaccinations stopping such a virus is spotty at best, but that vaccinations actually do a pretty good job of lowering the intensity of the disease when you catch the virus, and have a pretty good probability of stopping you from dying. We just need all of humanity to be either vaccinated, or full of natural antibodies from an infection, for Covid-19 to become what some people have tried to sell it as before, just another flu. Of course we don’t know that for certain, as the virus is different from regular flu viruses, and we don’t know how it might evolve further. But an endemic future for the corona virus sure is a possibility.

While other countries have tried various things to get a larger percentage of their population vaccinated, from vaccine passports to lotteries, the UK is doing something radical: It has a relatively high percentage of people vaccinated at least once. And “freedom day” is basically a declaration that if you are in the UK and didn’t want to get antibodies by vaccination, well, there is always the natural way to get those. Remove all lockdown restrictions, count on the vaccinated people only getting the sniffles, count on the unvaccinated people needing hospitalisation being low enough to manage, and presto, half a year later you have an immunized country free of restrictions. If it works like intended, that would certainly be a big boost to the economy.

The obvious downside of the experiment is that even in the best of cases it will result in thousands more deaths than mandatory vaccination strategies. And in a supreme case of irony, most of these deaths will hit exactly the people who would prefer this “freedom” strategy to mandatory vaccinations. Which might actually be an act of political brilliance, because a strong belief in individualism makes it less likely that these people blame the state for those deaths. Remember “flatten the curve”? The UK believes that the curve will now be flat enough to handle, due to the vaccination rate. People will die, but if everything goes according to plan, they will be hospitalized and die in low enough numbers to not be a political embarrassment.

Some weird side effects of this strategy is that the UK just implemented travel restrictions to the UK from France, in spite of France having 10 times lower infection rates currently. But in France a different mutation of the virus, beta rather than delta, is in the mix, and that might mess up the hoped-for resistance by vaccination. And of course the UK goverment isn’t actually telling their citizens that their plan is to let thousands die so that the rest can live without restrictions. With already over 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK, it is hoped that these human sacrifices won’t be noticed. Grisly as that is, it might just work. If it does work, the approach will be copied.

My personal advice: Get vaccinated. It stops you from dying when your government decides to celebrate “freedom day”. Have a nice celebration, UK!

Saturday, July 17, 2021
Monster Hunter Stories 2 : Wings of Ruin

I like playing JRPG on my Switch. Most of them are designed to be played on console, so that works better than playing the same game on PC. And with me mostly using my Switch on holidays, and these games requiring a lot of time, that tends to be a good fit too. However, not every triple A JRPG is actually good. Earlier this year I was severly disappointed by Bravely Default II, a game in which the game mechanics push you towards boring, repetitive tasks, and away from the story. Fortunately I am having much more luck with Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. In fact, MHS2 is one of the best JRPG games I have played in a long time.

As I said before, I am not very familiar with the other games in the Monster Hunter series, because they are action combat games. But frankly, I’m not playing MSH2 for the story, so who cares if I don’t know the universe. The story is a bog standard “Your grandpa once saved the world, now it’s your turn” heroes journey, nothing to write home about. I’m playing MSH2 for the excellent tactical combat system, and a “collect and improve monsters” game loop that is more motivating than the Pokemon games. Monster Hunter Stories 2 is just the better Pokemon game!

I’m in the third region, which is still far from the end game, but certainly far enough to have understood the flow of the game. And that flow is excellent: Not only are there lots of different things to do, the game manages to make all of these options appealing. Whether you follow the main story, hunt for rare eggs, or farm for resources to craft weapons and armor, the game never feels boring or like a grind. That has probably to do with the huge amount of well thought-out quality of life features in the game. Not just the regular kind, like fast travel, but also surprising stuff like a button that allows you to skip trivial combat and still get the rewards. And the game balance is fantastic: Except for a few well-indicated and optional extra hard encounters, you are very likely to succeed on everything the main story throws in your way; and then the reward system is designed to encourage you to up your game, play better or improve your stats, in order to be able to get better rewards from the next fight against that type of monster. And before you get bored by a region, it is time to move on to the next one. When you find a new monster, the xp system works brilliantly for it to catch up in level with the rest of your team, so that you aren’t stuck in a bad choice between an old, high-level monster and a new, low-level one.

For those who like to optimize things, the monster gene system provides endless hours of entertainment. Each monster has a 3x3 grid of genes, into which you can slot genes of different types and color. You can build a jack-of-all trades monster, or you can try to match colors and types to achieve “bingo” bonuses. The genes to do so you get from the monsters you don’t need in your team, so even if you have a great team, you will always be looking for rare monster eggs. The whole system is very motivating and entertaining. And if you get good at building a strong team and using it in combat, you can do these bits of optional extra-hard content, like hunting for royal monsters. But if that isn’t for you, the monster that was extra hard and royal turns up as a regular monster some regions later, so you don’t miss out on ever owning one. If you wanna catch ‘em all, you probably can.

Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is available on Switch and via Steam on PC. If you have the choice, I’d go for the Switch version, as the PC version seems to have a bug that in rare cases can corrupt your save game when playin multiplayer. In spite of that, the game has over 4,000 “mostly positive” reviews on Steam, with the negative ones coming from the people who lost their save files (understandably, ouch!). If you read this much later than the time I write this, the PC bug will probably have been fixed, and the game might be cheaper on Steam, while Nintendo doesn’t do this whole “discount” thing. In any case, if you might at all be interested in a better Pokemon game, I can only recommend Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin.

Friday, July 16, 2021
Steam Deck thoughts

I am currently on my summer holidays, playing games (mostly Monster Hunter Stories 2) on my Switch. And I am hearing the news of the “Switch Killer”: Valve’s newly announced Steam Deck, a Switch-like console able to play Steam games. Color me skeptical. While I am well aware that there are far more Steam games than there are Switch games, and that Steam games are generally cheaper, I believe that the Switch has one fundamental advantage: Games that have been designed for its particular format and control scheme. Or, in other words, the Steam Deck will have lots of games that were designed for a PC with a large screen, mouse and keyboard.

As rhe name suggests, one of the big selling point of the Switch is that you can play it either handheld or docked, like a console. While you will be able to dock a Steam Deck too, that basically ends you up with a $399 PC; and PC gamers are terrible snobs, who will tell you that they have graphics cards more expensive than that. Most people buying a Steam Deck will never dock it, because they already got a more powerful PC. The reason to buy a Steam Deck is playing PC games handheld. I can think of a number of games for which that should work fine, especially indie games. I can also think of a lot of games that I sure as hell would not want to play on a 7” 1280x720 screen using thumb controllers. UI elements that have been designed to be readable on a 27” screen don’t necessarily scale down very well. And a thumbstick doesn’t have the same precision as a mouse. I’m not saying you can’t make great games for small screens and thumbsticks, but it is hard to make a game that is great on every possible screen size with every possible control setup. PC games aren’t usually designed for touch screen controls, for example.

There are some Switch games I don’t like, because they are basically ports of PC games and suffer from exactly these issues. And there are games on Steam, e.g. Monster Hunter Stories 2, which have been designed for a console and will run fine on the Steam Deck. But with my preference for relatively complicated games, I don’t think my Steam library would be a very good fit with the Steam Deck.

Friday, July 09, 2021
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin

Apparently there are 18 games in Capcom's Monster Hunter series, and I haven't played a single one of them. Except for once trying a demo once and not liking it. This is not because of the basic idea of hunting monsters for parts and crafting gear with those parts, which sounds exactly like the sort of game I like. No, my problem with the Monster Hunter series is that the large majority of these games use action combat. I'm not good at most action combat game, probably because I'm getting too old for rapid and precise button-mashing. So I always felt that this wasn't the series for me. Until today, where Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin (MHS2) was released; and that on the day where I am packing my bags for my summer holidays. MHS2 is a turn-based game; presumably like Monster Hunter Stories 1, which I never played, because I didn't have a Nintendo 3DS.

I like taking a JRPG with me on my Switch on summer holidays, because these usually can occupy me for many hours. And the currently installed JRPG on my Switch is Bravely Default II, which I found has a rather bad "flow" and isn't that much fun. Now there is some curious psychology at work when I buy games for the Switch: I don't mind buying them full price on release day. MHS2 also has a PC version on Steam, but if that one would have caught my eye, I would probably have wishlisted it and waited to pick up a half-price version. But for a Nintendo Switch game you can't count on getting it heavily discounted sooner or later, so you might as well pick it up on release day. I did.

On the other hand, Nintendo isn't getting my money for the new Switch OLED. I had hoped for a "Switch Pro" with features like better battery life, faster processor, and non-drifting JoyCons, but apparently the OLED version doesn't provide that. It mostly provides a minimally larger screen with brighter colors, which isn't really what I was looking for. Yes, if my Switch broke I would buy an OLED one to replace it. But as my Switch is still running perfectly, the upgrade isn't that big as to justify spending $350 on it.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021
The complicated math of retirement

98.375% of all investment advice on the internet is as fake as my 98.375% number. The subjects most people are interested in are sex and money, and many social media platforms have severe limitations on what sex content you can offer; so there is a plethora of content about money, just because it attracts a lot of eyeballs. The content includes a lot of scams, investment advice designed to pump & dump a specific stock, fake millionaires, and some popular influencers who don't realize how lucky they are, and how real life is for the rest of us.

If you look up financial advice on retirement, you inevitably stumble upon the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement. The idea is based on some easy looking math: Imagine at the age of 20 you earn $125,000 per year. You save 80% of that, $100,000, and spend only $25,000 per year. 10 years later, you have $1 million on the bank. You retire at 30, and as long as your investment yields at least 2.5%, you can keep up your current lifestyle forever. (If you assume 3% or 4% yield, the numbers change a bit, but the principle stays the same.)

While a 3% yield from a balanced passive investment budget isn't unreasonable, the flaw of the scheme lies in the other assumptions: The overwhelming majority of people don't earn $125,000 per year at the age of 20. And living on $25,000 per year is extremely frugal, and is only possible in specific circumstances, e.g. married with no children, with your partner on the same scheme contributing another $25,000. The annual median household income in the USA is under $70,000, and for people at age 20 it is below $50,000. And the required savings rate for the FIRE scheme doesn't scale down well: If you earn $50,000 at age 20, living on $10,000 per year is nearly impossible, you'll spend that much for rent alone in most places. And if you are single, and have children, you'd be hard pressed to save anything at all.

But while retiring at 30 will only be possible for a very select small group of people in very lucky circumstances, the "3% rule" on which the scheme is based isn't wrong. You can count whatever savings you have, and assuming a reasonable and low-risk broad investment strategy, assume that your income from your savings is about 3% of that. At least historically speaking that is true, but of course "low risk" isn't the same as "no risk". If right after your retirement starts there is a major financial crisis, and you lose 30%+ of your savings, your calculation goes out of the window. And inflation can also mess up your numbers, depending on how inflation-proof your investment is.

The other fundamental truth of the FIRE scheme is that how long your money lasts depends very much on how frugal or luxurious you live. If your dream of retirement is having a small house in the countryside and spending your time gardening, that is more easily realized than a retirement mostly spent on a cruise ship. Even without luxury, your cost of living might be much more than 20% of your income. One reason why retirement at 60 is more likely than retirement at 30 is that many people have children, and at 60 those children are hopefully grown up, out of the house, and financially independent. And with full retirement age in most places being 65 or more, many people still consider retiring at 60 as "early retirement".

The math of that is complicated by a lot of factors: On the positive side, if you retire at 60, you probably benefit from some sort of state pension scheme, like social security in the USA, with an average monthly benefit of $1,382. You probably also get something from the companies you worked for, either as a monthly pension, or as a lump sum on retirement adding your savings. That is very important, because the average retirement savings in the USA are only $65,000. In other words, a lot of people live mostly or purely of their social security or other monthly pensions, not their savings. 3% of $65,000 is only $2,000 per year. But in the USA, the money is very unevenly distributed, and there are 13.6 million US households with a net worth of $1 million or more. If you are on the richer side of the spectrum, have $2,500 of monthly pension benefits (combined social security and private pension), and you have $1 million on the bank, you end up with an annual income of $60,000. On the other hand, we don't have numbers on how many frugal millionaires there are, and $60,000 per year doesn't exactly give you a "millionaire lifestyle". If you get your math wrong, you might be a millionaire at retirement, and broke a decade later.

Where it gets complicated is that in the calculations up to now, we calculated your income for the case that you will live forever. That is unlikely. If you retire at 60 and you would know for certain that you will die at 80, you could take out 6.5% of your savings every year while having only a 3% of investment yield; your savings would get smaller over time, but there are formulas that would allow you to calculate how much you can take out so that the money runs out after exactly 20 years. The obvious problem is that you don't know how old you will get, some people die before they are 65, others live to 95+. You also don't know how your health will develop. A nursing home can cost over $100,000 per year, and that doesn't include medical cost.

So how do you determine whether you can afford to retire? Probably the safest bet is to find out what your monthly benefits from your various pensions scheme are, multiply by 12 months, and add 3% of your current savings (plus lump sum pensions) to that. That gives you the "forever" annual income. If you can live with that, you can probably afford to retire. To some extent, counting only on 3% of your savings as income from it balances out the risk of additional expenses for care at end of life. But of course there are no guarantees in life. But the "3% rule" of the FIRE movement explains why 57% of Americans retire before reaching full retirement age. The more you save, and the more frugal your lifestyle is, the earlier you can retire. But retirement at 60 remains far more likely than retirement at 30.

Monday, July 05, 2021
Different modes of gaming

This post started out as a response to the question of Rugus on my previous post on how I manage to stay interested in a game like Shop Titans, which he considers to be rather slow and repetitive. I think the answer is in different games being played in very different modes, and effectively very different time scales.

First of all, Shop Titans is a game that changes over time: The low tier items you make when you start are made in a very short time. And, as Rugus remarked, you can more easily sell them to higher level players who can't be bothered making this low level stuff rather than to NPCs. This changes at higher levels: Items of normal quality at higher tiers sell for less than twice their base level on the market, so selling them with the surcharge function for twice their base level to NPCs becomes the preferred mode. Which leads to some sort of dance in which you sell lower tier items at a discount to gain energy, and then use the energy to sell higher tier items at surcharge.

But more importantly, higher tier items take over 1 hour to craft. Which means that you aren't actually "playing" Shop Titans for more than a few minutes at a time. This is a very different mode of gaming, compared to playing some action game on console or PC. But on mobile there are a lot of games like this, which are designed to be played X times per day for Y minutes at a time. You need to be rather patient, as progress with this mode of gaming is obviously very slow, over weeks and months. Each individual play session is rarely exciting, but there is a sense of overall progress with time.

I tend to play always at least 1, but not more than 2 games of this kind on my iPad. Currently that would be Shop Titans and Assassin's Creed Rebellion, with the latter getting less interesting, as I am at the level cap. In Shop Titans I am still far from the cap, and it will take me many months still to get there. And as I mentioned in the previous post, I am still slowly gaining understanding of some of the game systems and getting better at it.

Sunday, July 04, 2021
Doubled the power of my heroes in Shop Titans

I've been playing Shop Titans since March, and it turns out that I am an idiot, and was equipping my heroes all wrong. In my defense, the game is called Shop Titans, not Hero Titans, and I considered sending out heroes on quests to get crafting materials as a less important, secondary activity. My shopkeeper is level 58, my heroes at or near level 33 (which until very recently was our guilds hero level cap, but we just increased that to 35), and I was doing okay with the daily crafting material gathering quests. Only when there were events, like the Tower of Titans, I noticed that my guildmates appeared to be doing much better than me.

So I finally took the time to look stuff up, and watch some videos on YouTube. And it turned out that I simply hadn't understood enchantments at all. You can put various elemental enchantment on gear, like an enchantment that gives "+15 fire". When I tried that on a random hero, the effect was minor, so I dismissed that part of the game and didn't bother with it. Boy, was I wrong! What I hadn't seen when I was doing that was that every hero has his own preferred element. Put "+15 fire" on a hero whose preferred element is nature, and not much happens. Put it on a hero whose preferred element is fire, and the combined score of all fire enchantments on that hero determines the level of his skills. And higher level skills have a huge effect on the power of heroes.

Before I learned this, my best hero had a power score of 14k. Now that I enchanted all my heroes with their respective elements to the max, my best hero has a power score of 32k. And pretty much every hero doubled his power, so my weakest heroes are now where my strongest hero used to be. The effect is bigger on heroes that have more skills, so suddenly ditching the old classes of heroes and replacing them with heroes of classes you unlock later makes sense. I haven't fully gone down the hero optimization rabbit hole yet, you can find a lot of guides and spreadsheet simulators for that online. But I rerolled some skills that didn't improve the main stats of my heroes, and that boosted their power further. Right now I am pretty happy with the result, and will slowly replace the less good heroes by the more advanced classes.

Saturday, July 03, 2021
Wildermyth Backstage

While Wildermyth is a very good roleplaying game as written, the devs decided to also give everyone who wants backstage access: In the "tools - open editor" section of the menu you will find a ton of development tools, which allow you to modify the game, and create your own content. The only caveat is that the tools are provided in the state the devs use them, and so there isn't a lot of handholding going on. There is an excellent tutorial on Steam though.

Roleplaying games frequently have a combat part, and story part. The story in Wildermyth is told by events, and displayed in comic panels. With the editor you can make your own panels and tell your own stories. The interesting thing is that these events aren't completely random: You can define when they happen, and what characters need to be present in your party to make these events happen. In the tutorial linked above, the event only happens if a bookish character and a friend of that character are present. And then the event is about friends discussing books. You could make a story that only happens if a character with a specific characteristic dies, or one that only happens if a specific type of character encounters specific foes. Because with each playthrough the characteristics of your characters will be different, different stories can happen.

To test this, I decided to make a mini mod for Wildermyth, just for myself, with a single event. After victory in a battle, the party finds a mysterious book. They can choose to keep the book, or leave it alone. If they keep it, they gain it as an item; if they leave it, they earn some xp. While the event is very simple, it took me several attempts and modification before it was working like I wanted. For example, at first I tried to create the outcome of the party gaining the book with the "addGear" outcome; it turned out that I needed to use the "upgradeGear" outcome, with a "query": { "forceItemId": "spellbook" } property. And for some reason, when I select "party" as the target of gainXP, the game gives them xp one by one, instead of all at once, so any outcome panel I create is displayed three times.

In other words, after taking hours to create a single small event, I decided that I am not going to be a story author for this game. But the look behind the scenes, how the game works, was quite interesting. And of course, other people are far more talented than I am, and you can find mods with various events on the Steam workshop.

Thursday, July 01, 2021
Wildermyth and the nature of roleplaying

Not far into the game Dungeons of Naheulbeuk you come across a quest from a large, bald ranger named Binsc, who is looking for his lost hamster companion Moo. If you played Baldur's Gate, that will probably get a chuckle out of you, because you remember Minsc and his hamster Boo, in spite of that being over 20 years ago. But come to think of it, in the 20 years since, there aren't a lot of other NPC companions from computer roleplaying games I remember well enough to catch a reference like that. I can hardly remember the names of my NPC companions from Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and that's a game I played only this year, and I played 180 hours of it.

Fact is that a lot of NPC characters in these games are less memorable than Minsc and Boo. Many have rather stereotypical personalities. And while they have their own stories, frequently told via quests, these companion quests are just a relatively small part of the game, between the main story quest, and probably a host of side quests. In those 180 hours of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I spent like 2 hours each per NPC companion on their quests, and many of those quests weren't particularly interesting. The NPCs also very rarely evolved over time, but rather stuck to their stereotypical personalities. So in the end, in many games your companions end up being regarded as a bundle of specific powers rather than real characters.

While I have only mentioned it in passing on this blog, I have been playing Wildermyth occasionally, even before it got fully released recently. And although much of the game and the companions are procedurally generated, I found that these "random" companions were more likely to develop in interesting and memorable ways than some of the pre-generated companions in other games, on which the developers spent hours to write cut scenes and dialogue. In Wildermyth the companions relationships with each other can evolve over time, they could even end up having children together. They can get maimed when a fight goes wrong, or they can end up with weird magical features, like a crystal replacing one of their eyes, or a wolf's head, from story choices. And that is interesting, because there usually is a link between your player choices and the evolution of the characters. You start out early to choose whether two characters are friends, rivals, or romantically evolved, and lots of things can happen from there. And the characters that survive an adventure, or die and get a tomb erected, will become legacy characters that can turn up in future adventures.

This might also have to do with the simple fact that the characters in Wildermyth are much larger on your screen than the characters in isometric games. Combat in Wildermyth has a very unique art style, with characters being 2D cutouts on a 3D grid. And the storytelling happens with your characters appearing in comic book style panels, with the look they have at that point in time, so there is also a visual evolution.

Computer roleplaying games rarely inspire me for my pen & paper games. But Wildermyth does. It taught me that significantly changing a player character in an event isn't a bad thing, as long as the player did have agency in that event. And while I haven't used it yet, I think I might on occasion use the heroic death system of Wildermyth for my D&D game, when appropriate.

Having said that, the combat system in Wildermyth isn't perfect. The calamities and incursion system pushes you to sometimes split your party to work on several things at once, but that can go spectacularly wrong, when you end up with a small group in a fight that would have been tough for your whole group. But you can be lulled into a false sense of security, because sometimes your small group easily wins a fight. Difficulty in this game has its spikes and lows, and lucky (or unlucky) crits can change the outcome dramatically. That adds to the sense of drama, but can also be sometimes rather frustrating. On the positive side, the magic system of Wildermyth is rather unique and interesting, if sometimes overpowered, once you fully master it.

At 25 bucks on Steam, Wildermyth is well worth trying. It's one of these indie games where the developer studio was clever enough to know that they aren't making a triple A game, and concentrated their efforts on making something unique, rather than trying to emulate some game from a big studio. Wildermyth leaves you with a new perspective on what a computer roleplaying game can be, and that is quite an achievement.


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