Darkest Dungeon & Fairness

I’ve started playing Darkest Dungeon again. I’ve tried a few times now, but despite always finding it gripping, strategic, and campily horrific I’ve always fallen off after a few play sessions. This particularly effort will be on in a series: I’ve almost completed my Master’s (my defense is in a week and a half) and thus have a sudden surplus of time to dig into my game backlog.

I’ve only ventured into the estate grounds twice, yet something interesting happened on my second expedition. An expedition which would prove to be Dismas’ last. He was a highwayman, half slick, half grizzled. He’d only fallen into banditry late in his life, after a series of unlikely misfortunes stripped him of his mistress, his comfortable job, even his home. On that day, with a sickly sun low overhead, Dismas would learn that fate was not yet done with him.

It seemed that the cultists—and the shambling corpses the’d reanimated—had a keen interest in the erstwhile highwayman. He fought back grimly with black powder and blade, but soon succumbed to their focused attacks. His new companions struggled to heal him, but these efforts were soon shown to be fruitless. Dismas bled out on the cold flagstones of my ruined ancestral home.

I flitted through the stages of videogame grief, eventually consoling myself with the fact that it wasn’t a great loss, mechanically. He was level one, and could be easily replaced. The game was designed to be difficult; some deaths are to be expected. It’s possible that I’d misplayed somehow—I don’t have much of an understanding of how threat works in Darkest Dungeon—but, again, it was a manageable loss.

Then I wondered why I was having to console myself at all, soon realizing it was because his death didn’t seem fair. I’d had my crusader mark himself (to attempt to draw attacks away from my slight highwayman). I’d had my vestal and plague doctor heal poor Dismas, but the attacks were unrelenting. I’ll bracket my potential misplays for now, and instead discuss my history with unfairness in games.

I could never play Bejeweled (or its many progeny) because it so often seemed as though the computer was out to get me, feeding me just the wrong pieces to break up combos. I won’t dwell on the perceived injustice of Puzzle Quest’s match-3 combat, but rest assured that it hated it. Heck, streaks of bad dice rolls in D&D have almost gotten me to pack up my player’s handbook.

This has been largely because for me, games have been about control or to develop a sense of mastery; at least to some arbitrary degree. (I enjoy feeling competent, but have never wanted to speedrun anything) Thus when a game includes a system over which I have no control—that dreaded RNG, immune to mastery—I usually figure it would be better off without it. Or at least without me noticing it.

My father was depressed and anxious, and he sought to manage these conditions with alcohol. I expect that he wanted to care for his son, but both his disorders and their treatment made it very difficult for him to do reliably. As such, when I was growing up, I often found myself in situations which seemed to make no sense and were, often profoundly unfair. I expect this also explains why I enjoy playing games in which I can feel like things are under my control. This feels safe to me, even when I’m disemboweling Locust or dancing over spikes in an ancient Aztec-ish tomb.

Dismas is gone and he isn’t coming back. In the macabre world of Darkest Dungeon, arbitrary, sudden, brutal death is to be expected. You can do your best to rail against it, train your heroes and hone your skills, but—I expect—that this will not always be enough. I’m looking forward to continuing my forays into these perilous depths, and see what other eldritch relics I may yet unveil.

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The Adventure Zone.

Daily writing again, hm? That’s the plan. Topics covered here will be podcasts, games played (video, MTG, role-playing), books, maybe the occasional art. No clue who this is for, other, of course, than for myself. Shall I begin?

 

On the finale of season 1 of The Adventure Zone

This will be free of content or story spoilers.

I’ve been falling off the podcast for months, now. Maybe even longer. This is not me going after those charming McElroys, nor will I rant about how Griffin is a terrible DM. (I also won’t delve into the ‘I had a crummy dad’ jealousy I’m often overwhelmed with when I listen to these good boys playing with their pop.)

Instead I’m just going to talk about what I like in a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. I think it will be clear to TAZ devotees why I’ve been left cold by the direction the series has taken.

What I’ve always liked best is getting into ridiculous, emergent situations with my fellow players. Or, of course, creating a world in which players can do so. It’s been made clear in the improv courses I’ve been taking lately. No matter how clever or funny you personally are—and our hosts obviously possess buckets of both—there is some strange magic that happens when two people both bring their ideas to a situation and smash them together. Something new and special is often made that couldn’t be built by either person alone.

It’s more than just the excitement, the investment which results when a player makes a decision or even suggests something flippant that changes the entire diegetic world (Friends at the Table’s famous undead pirates, anyone?). This is good, and makes players (and listeners, at least in my case) start to care about the world. But the excitement that springs from the back-and-forth between players or player and GM is what keeps me showing up.

Where I’m concerned, the rules in these game systems are supposed to facilitate, derange, complicate these interactions. Given the game world, given the starting basic attributes of each character, given the emergent situations in which you find yourself, what do you do now? What the player can then do with their character is—should be—broadly possible, constrained by the rules of the game, those established in the gameworld (magic? flight? cheating death?), and by the personality of their character.

Where so many games go wrong, to my mind, is when the GM just ends up wanting to tell a story in which the characters have only limited choices, or none whatsoever. They can stride boldly into a dank crypt or dance clumsily through the baron’s gala but they’re going to end up at the ending I’ve decided upon, goddamnit.

Providing this kind of flexibility in a game is difficult, often nigh-on impossible. (I’ll always regret bending over backwards to prevent a character from heroically sacrificing himself because I assumed he didn’t want to die.) But this is a goal that players and GMs should be striving for in building and playing their games.

As well-crafted and smoothly presented the last episodes of The Adventure Zone have been, it feels as though the show is a victim of its own success. The weird playfulness, the having to toss an accidentally murdered hooligan off a cliff, the surprises of Griffin’s remix of The Lost Mine of Phandelver, all this is absent. Maybe this will always happen as a campaign wraps up. I’m curious to see what they’ll do in their next story.

Heck, I’m curious to see to what extent I’ll be able to walk my talk in my upcoming game.

PotD: Allotment Gardens, High Park

I’ve been lost in a sloppy mire of malaise and stress lately. I am sick of winter, sick of cold windy days, sick of dealing with the various vexations that seem to be coming more often than usual, and just generally down. As such, I haven’t been doing anything particularly noteworthy. Even posting this photo, which I had uploaded with the other one, was out of my depth.

Here it is. And here I go!

PotD: Stream, rushes, houses, High Park Winter.

I went to High Park yesterday morning. It was an eerie echo of a photo trip I took, jeez, probably about seven years ago. At the time, the park seemed to be in some unreachable nook of the city – it was maybe my second time visiting the place. But I bundled up and took my camera (then a Powershot S30, now a Canon 5dMkII) and shot whatever caught my fancy. Yesterday, I was dismayed in wandering around the park. The lack of leaves really made it difficult to separate a shot into any sort of meaningful order; everything just globbed together into a brown-grey barky blob. But after an hour or so of wandering around, I finally made it work for me.

It wasn’t until I got home and sat down with this image for a while that I realized how much I liked it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but my ever-astute ladyfriend pointed it out. It’s got everything I ever take photos of: sad trees, houses, panorama-ness. Added on top of that a nice mix of an ordered elements of the houses and the stream and the bisecting line of the road set against the aforementioned brown tangle of winter-bare woods… well, I guess that’ll do it.

PotD: Mysterious pipeline

Last November. I’m walking north along a ravine in the east end. A wide stream, or small river, casually wends its way down to the lake. The river is very shallow, its flow invisible to my eye; the whole thing seems to be buttoning itself up for the incipient winter. After a few twists and turns and over a flood-damaged Toronto parks & rec brand bridge, the trail reveals a glimpse of something shiny in the middle-distance treetops.

A foil-wrapped pipeline is suspended twenty feet over the dirt path, pacing alongside a monument road bridge just to the north. Walking under major streets is a common occurrence in Toronto, shot through with memories of ancient glacial runoff, but I’ve never seen something like this before. Where is it going, and what could it hold? Sewage is most likely, but also the least exciting. Heavy water. Chocolate. Prison escapees. Internet. These are the things I wish I could glimpse rushing along through this inscrutable piece of infrastructure.

Closer examination yields nothing and I leave the pipeline to its business.

PotD – Rouge Hill, Dusk, Autumn

I was so keen for there to be a monumental wintry attack; a blizzard unlike any before. Thunder and lightning and howling gale-force winds pouring cubic kilometers of crushing snow across our unprepared city. But instead there was a light dusting and everyone stayed home for the day. It means it’s time for salt, for that grey-brown slurry soaking into the hem of your trousers, for it being too sloppy and slippery to get a good jog in.

I miss autumn. Plans tomorrow to go out and come to grips with this frigid bastard of a season.

MotD* – The Amen Break

While the whole song is pretty dang catchy, this post refers specifically to the drum break at 1:26.

I’ve been listening to the Hospital Records podcast for a few years now. It’s some of the most astonishingly effective marketing I’ve ever willingly, happily, absorbed. It’s hosted by one of the label’s co-founders, Tony Colman, and is a semi-regular dose of new music by producers in their stable, as well as other music from everyone from unknowns in bedroom studios to some of the pillars of the scene. All in all, a great show, and one that sheds some light into a subculture that I know very little about.

I had heard Tony possibly** use the word ‘amen’ to refer to some part of a track before, or about the popularity of an ‘amen’, or to point one out in the mix somewhere. Of course, trying to identify one particular part of a drum & bass track can often be difficult even when you know what it is you’re looking for.

Finally, I remembered to do a quick search on the subject and was richly rewarded. It’s a short loop from the song by The Winstons, originally sampled way back in the mid-80s and used in everything from NWA to The Powerpuff Girls theme. (much more info at the good ol’ WP) When I heard the drum break isolated it immediately sounded familiar, but now with all this added weight of knowledge, I’ll be hard pressed to gloss over it whenever it emerges in the future. Hopefully I haven’t permanently altered my ability to listen to a broad swath of music that I rather enjoy – I suppose step one is learning about it, and step two is learning to forget about it.

*First of all, the M stands for minutiae. I am open to suggestions

** his accent often obfuscates ambiguous words (to my colonial ears)