Show vs Tell

There’s an adage in visual media where it’s better to show than to tell. It’s more so related to overexposure, where the audience is treated as incapable of putting A and B together to come to a conclusion. As much as I like Sherlock Holmes as books, they suffered from this greatly as key plot points are never shared with the reader. Whereas you can watch the movies (Murder on the Orient Express is great), or something similar like Knives Out and you have all the clues along the way. Nolan does a great job in this with The Prestige (another awesome film).

Things that go off the rails are more like Lost or Game of Thrones (TV). Creators have painted themselves into corners, and lacked a larger vision, so we end up with some duct tape and bubble gum to try to patch all the loose threads together. Or, in some cases, the author think they are being quick witted, but the reveal stretches the imagination so far that it just doesn’t jive. JK Rowling is a GREAT example of this, wow.

Video games are a tough spot, mostly because they are interactive. That challenge means that the plot points and beats are not experienced in the same order for all players. Throw in player agency, and the plot threads get much more complicated. RPGs and open-world games really struggle here, as side quests can take you all over the place. Final Fantasy is chocked full of monologues to get the plot points across, often meant as milestones so players remember what’s at stake.

I look at something like Horizon: Zero Dawn. The majority of the lore in that game is through text, notes you can read about what happened before. It’s incredibly in depth. Exploring the old labs, you get a better appreciation of what happened before. There are however, some quite ham-fisted points where characters go into pure monologues to explain themselves and why the world is it is. WoW (MMOs in general) is pure exposition now, which if I take a step back, is pretty much required as the writing is atrocious (plot vs character).

Then we get to something like God of War. While you only really deal with Freya and Baldr, Mimir spends a significant amount of time telling stories about the other gods while you’re paddling your boat. They fill in the (literal) blank spaces in the game and provide the context for the larger storyline. With few exceptions, there’s nothing Mimir says that relates directly to the game itself. Learning that Odin will go to any lengths to learn doesn’t change the main gameplay – you never actually meet Odin.

Hades is another great example of context delivery without overly exposing. It helps that the writing is awesome, and not something that prevents gameplay.

And now that I’m in AC: Valhalla, and the foundational context is also the Nordic gods, it makes for a very different shift. AC games have always struggled with managing plot lines, the “real world” never really intersected with the game world in a meaningful sense. The in-game Templar vs Assassin line has become much less relevant too, almost an afterthought in this game. AC is instead moving into the ancient lore, what with Atlantis in Odyssey, and now Asgard/Jotunheim in this one. I won’t spoil much here, but AC is making as solid case that none of their main plot lines actually matter. Eivor’s settlement has nothing to do with the Nordic gods, nothing to do with the “real world”. Just a (very, very long) story about survival.

I can’t imagine the mental gymnastics a game director or creative director has to go through to ensure a game delivers on all fronts for the story. Probably why there are so few good examples over the years, and why the ones that are great really stick with me.

Kitchen Sink Is Here

A rather significant patch arrives today for AC: Valhalla. Hilarious timing of my prior post. I can identify quite a few items in that list that I’ve experienced. Fishing (which I think needs to be in every game) was always a weird one. Fish would haul into me, then swim all the way to the farm end of the water. And when I say far end, I mean out of draw distance. So when I cancelled the fishing action, it would take a solid 5-10s for me to reel in the line.

So fingers crossed here, but with this patch AND AC going on sale in a few places, heck of a time to pick it up.

In-game, I’ve been trying a few different bits out. Similar to Ghost of Tsushima, there comes a time where there’s little need for stealth. In AC, that’s focused on 2 skills from the tree, ironically both in assassination. One where you can parry arrows and launch them back, the other is where a last minute dodge causes time to slow down for everyone but you.

The former makes every ranged attack except crossbows a weapon for you to use. No need to climb to find an archer. Stand there, take the shot, and send it back. Often 1 hit kill.

The latter is pure gold in melee. A late dodge on a “red” attack slows down time for them, but not you. Slow swinging weapons can do some decent damage here. But.

AC’s combat is not balanced against speed. All heavy weapons deal similar damage, regardless of speed. And that’s minor increase on light weapons. In a “balanced” game, the ratio should be similar, so that the DPS is similar. Maybe a bit higher for slow weapons given the risk/reward factor. Not in AC!

Dual Daggers act as a chainsaw. You get the first one in Norway, the 2nd in the first city you visit in England. I had tried it, but had some issues as I was trying to figure out other bits. And really, to start a shield is much more useful to learn the Parry mechanics. When you do get that timing down… nothing and I mean nothing stands in your way. Add in poison/fire on the main hand, speed boosts/runes, and high crit chance (I’m ~80% now), it feels broken. In group combat, where the time to kill is already low, it’s not too crazy. Against named enemies, like Zealots, it’s effectively an “I Win” button. I don’t see anything in the patch notes about this.

So run in, hit a couple times to trigger a counter attack. Dodge to slow down time, get back in, pull a full-on shredder, then repeat.

I dunno how I feel about it really. It’s not like AC has strategic combat to start, or the refinement for twitch combat. This speeds up something that otherwise feels like padding. It does make clearing large camps pleasant, as you just run in and everyone comes to you. It’s a weird shift from AC: Odyssey, where 10v1 usually ended up with you dead.

Still a fun game in the larger context.

Marvel Avengers

I don’t think it’s surprising that the Avengers game didn’t make bank. What I think is surprising is the actual margins. Something around 60% of units sold is some rough business.

For a minute here, let’s just go over the things going for this game.

  • The largest IP in the last 10 years, with a multi-billion profit
  • A producer (Squeenix) that understands 2nd chances
  • A developer with a solid single player pedigree (Tomb Raider)
  • A business model that’s been been clearly demonstrated across dozens of games, including how not do do it (BF2)
  • A game design that has both great models (Destiny) and horrible models (Anthem) from which to base upon

There’s no denying that the IP itself is both a boon and a hindrance. People identify Captain America with Chris Evans. Anything that doesn’t look/sound like him is going to be weird.

The rather consistent news in this space is that Avengers as a single player game appears to be universally well taken. This seems reasonable given Crystal Dynamics’ work with Tomb Raider.

Where it doesn’t work is in the risk/reward structure of it’s online component. First was the rather impressive amount of bugs and lack of polish. Launching any game in that state, when there are quite literally dozens of viable alternatives, is a recipe to lose most of your player base. Avengers certainly has. It went from 25k users at launch, to 2.5k users after a month (these are relative numbers). That’s a 90% drop. Recent numbers put it ~500 concurrent, though this weekend’s sale (50% off) brought it up to 1,800. That is far from viable.

The question then becomes, what’s next? If Anthem, dumpster fire that it is, can still be operational nearly 2 years later, Avengers certainly has shelf life. But does it deserve a re-tooling? Does it need an overhaul, or just tweaking? Its lack of content is a challenge, no doubt. But its certainly better to stabilize before adding more stuff. The core mechanics appear sound, just that the reward spigot needs to be changed. Playing 49 floors of a game for no useful rewards, and no checkpoints, is not smart design. There’s a reason it doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Still, $30 for a decent single player superhero game is a good deal. And with the potential for a somewhat rewarding end game, that’s cool too. I’d be game to have something to replace Marvel Heroes. And there are enough success stories of games coming back from the brink (For Honor!!) that there’s some life in here yet.

Assassin’s Creed : Valhalla

Normally I wait for AC games until they get a kitchen sink patch. I don’t mean a day 1 patch, I mean kitchen sink where the game is retooled based on a large list of issues. I did not follow that advice, and decided to get it on sale (well, a coupon). I will flatly say, that it is better to wait. Why?

I have encountered at least a dozen game breaking bugs. The kind where you need to reload. Some where I needed to reload before a quest started, so it’s created a behavior where I manually save before starting any quest step. That is RPG save scum behaviour, argh!

The combat mechanics also need a retune. It attempts to replicate the parry/dodge mechanics seen in other AAA games, like Ghost of Tsushima. It doesn’t work because the indicators are orange/red, which make them difficult to differentiate. And there’s some very odd input lag, or rather, resulting lag that can cause some elastic behavior. Hell, I had one where I dodged and ended up halfway across the map in a tree.

Fix those though, and there’s a dramatic systematic improvement here compared to Odyssey. Questing is much better. Side quests are a joy, and entirely worth undertaking. Inventory management is MILES better. The skill tree is a bit-iffy, if only because of the “fog” preventing you from seeing where you’ll go. Ironically you can explore it all, reset all your points, and then make choices. The home base model from AC2 is back, and it makes for a much more consistent experience than you flitting around the map.

The storyline is so-so. I think I’m done on the “ancient civilization” model, where AC is drawing blood from a stone. I’m sure that they can make the AC model work in another game, just like AC replaced Prince of Persia. You’re effectively an invasive force, and the historical setting (rather than fantasy), makes some parts of this a challenge to work through. There are attempts to focus on the “king making” aspect where you’re working with the local population, but then you go raiding a monastery, and go “hmm”.

So let’s say you get this after the kitchen sink patch. The mechanical parts are going to be a solid improvement over previous games, but the storyline is significantly worse. I do want to take time to highlight that this game went through the final dev/QA during a pandemic. That it met its release date and frankly isn’t any buggier than previous releases is an amazing achievement. The logistics for this to have happened… I know from experience that mountains were moved to make this happen.

Top Books

I like to write, which I think for most people who enjoy that, also likely enjoy reading. I could go into a very long post about how society is on the verge of being post-literate, best exemplified by the increase in streaming + book to movie conversions. But this is a blog, and you’re reading it, so you’re not exactly that audience.

I have a preference for fiction. Mostly due to work giving me more than enough material in the non-fiction area. I tend to stick to sci-fi authors, as they generally have more complex world building that isn’t reliant on tropes. Or perhaps that’s just cause the gap between good sci-fi and bad is much larger than good and bad fantasy.

Dune – Herbert

Might as well start with a gold standard. Dune as a standalone novel is full of crazy ideas that have been replicated in nearly all sci-fi stories from 1990 on out. Dune as an idea, that is something else. There are few examples of books that can tackle the concepts of religion and determinism, and this series is at another level. It is one of the first books to really take the concept of AI to the next level, again, with religious tones.

Foundation – Asimov

This series started as a collection of short stories in pulp. The three main line books (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) deal with intergalactic civilizations and rarely ever fire a shot. It’s a thinking person’s series, more in line with Sherlock Holmes than you would think. The concept here is that there’s a math equation for society, that can foretell future events at larger scales (not individuals, but groups of people). There’s an underlying plan to avert 1000 year dark age, and then seeing how people deal with that concept and the people “controlling” the math. There are ton of books in this series, but these 3 are the gold standard.

If you want to read another seminal book from Asimov, I suggest The Gods Themselves. That is a mind messer.

Childhood’s End – Clarke

I’ve read this story at least a dozen times. Every time is makes me take pause and reflect on our understanding of what humanity really means. This theme of humanity exploring it’s own limits is also found in 2001: A Space Odyssey (I do appreciate the film more than the novel), and Rendez-vous with Rama (only the first book is worth it). Childhood’s End instead focused on the end of humanity as we know it, and how society comes to terms with that fact. It is an astounding work of thought.

The Fifth Season – Jemison

A very recent series that deals with society facing the end of the world. Again. There are a few tropes in here (mages are all evil and need to be controlled) but the real interesting bit here is the world building. The lengths that people will go to in order to protect their own. The 3rd novel comes to terms with the lore, which ties in so many other loose ends. There’s no denying the fact that as a female author of colour, Jemison had to surmount some impressive hurdles to get this out the door.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Covey

I can’t think of any other book that has had more impact on my general life than this one. If ever you’re feeling overswamped with things, this book has a set of tools that can help you prioritize through them. With some exercises. If you have someone you can talk to about this method, all the better. I’m somewhat amazed this isn’t mandatory reading in high school.

Wheel of Time – Jordan

Where Tolkien laid the ground work, Jordan defined pretty much every single fantasy trope in use today. It is an astoundingly dense series of overflow 4 million words, hundreds of characters, massive armies, complex magical structures, time travelling eternals, and an absolutely effective ending. I re-read the series every time a new book came out, and there’s a practically essential wiki as well.

Flowers for Algernon – Keyes

This is a story about a slow person who goes through an experimental project to become smarter, and examines the positives and negatives that come with it. It exemplifies the “ignorance is bliss” mindset. It is rare to read any tragic sci-fi novel, and rarer still to have one stick with you for years on.

Ender’s Game – Card

Boy genius + military world set = catastrophic consequences. This is a very complicated story, with a very strange writer. This was written when war games (simulated war through computers) was a theory, and has only aged like wine with time. The entire concept of consequences when you think you’re playing a game is the foundation of drone strikes being a valid military strategy. That distance removes empathy and allows for crazy decisions. Then the realization dawns, and it all falls to pieces.

Hyperion Cantos – Simmons

What if people were immortal? What if time travel were possible? What if both intersected? The first novel is more anthology, and absolutely spectacular with a tomb that is travelling back through time as the focal point. The latter parts of the series focuses on the challenges with immortality, the risks with AI, and the concepts of self-sacrifice. Simmons underlays it all with multiple allusions to the poet Keats.

American Gods – Gaiman

Gaiman is a prolific author, primarily in visual mediums (comics, tv). This book explores the concept of gods being real, manifest of our worships and feeding off of it. The American Gods reflect our obsession with the internet, TV, and food, taking away from the older gods of folklore. It’s really hard to write any fantasy in current day settings, it just doesn’t age well. Yet here it feels almost prescient.

There are dozens of other authors I enjoy. King’s Dark Tower series would be here if he was still doing drugs (Blaine the mono can only exist on a binge). A lot a references from other people, or message boards. And with ebooks its a simple matter of finding what you want. And there’s plenty of “good” bad writing out there. Dan Brown is a horrible writer, like eye gouging bad, but he gets people reading which is awesome. Not everything needs to be about learning or deep thought, it can be to just past the time and think of something else.

While we’re all strapped for time, there really isn’t much compared to the feeling you get when reading a great book. Just need to make time for it.

Managing Change

This is a haughty topic, one that I’ve been noodling on for as long as I can remember. The old adage that the only things certain in life are death and taxes misses a key 3rd item – change. Change is inevitable. There is nothing you can do to stop it, at best you can redirect it or have some impact on its effects.

Change occurs for a multitude of reasons, though primarily due to a a powerful agent. In changes we cannot control, these agents are fundamental – like water eroding a mountainside. In change we can control, the agents are often so complex that the we can only see them from our vantage point. If you’ve never been stopped by a cop because of the colour of your skin, it’s impossible for you to understand, let alone empathize. Sometimes change comes from a need, like smoke detectors being mandatory in your home. You could make a career out of analyzing the root cause of a given change – that’s pretty much what ancient history is all about.

You can’t stop change. Change is like a flow of water, if it hits a block somewhere, it will search for a new one elsewhere. You’re unlikely to have any success impacting the agent of change. There’s nothing you or I, as individuals, could have done to stopped the crash of ‘08 which impacted the global markets and nearly every person on the planet in some form. The people responsible for detecting that change agent were complicit in creating it. Our history (and current state) is full of examples of civil wars where the change agent was repressed and eventually overcame.

You can redirect change. A slight nudge early can dramatically alter the long term impacts. Like if you know your company is looking at job cuts, you can choose to ride it out and wait for the package, or you can start looking NOW and get ahead of the hundreds of others who will be in the same boat as you. If you see that your kid is struggling with reading, then taking time when they are young will dramatically alter their learning experience for the rest of their lives. If you are cautious about a change, then you can potentially defer it until that comfort is found – like waiting for extra research on a new drug.

But let’s say for a minute you don’t accept the change, you don’t want to be part of it. Plenty of people who have done that. Maybe you don’t want to accept that your kid may be a pothead. Or that there is no future in coal mining. Or that maybe, based on the colour of your skin, there are doors that open and close. We often see folks say “I didn’t see it coming”, which is certainly possible – 50 years ago. In 2020, it’s the opposite. The ease of which social media allows for outright hatred and lies to spread is unprecedented. Smart and rational people have all but given up their ability to think, in exchange for group ownership. This “group hive” mentality is an amazing defence mechanism to change – as a group you can have a larger impact on the redirection of change, thereby limiting its impacts on you. This is how the “church” (all of them) operates, through doctrine to manage change. Waiting to accept that gays exist? Hope the Pope says its ok, otherwise it’s not.

There’s a concept of change fatigue, where so much changes so fast that people lose their sense of stability and self. It feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean, struggling to stay afloat, swimming for shore – only for another wave to push you farther out. I’ve certainly been there, more than once. It’s exhausting, depressing, an isolating. You’ll grab on to the first thing you see in the hope that it can help. There are people who know this, people who prey on the weak, exploiting their critical needs. You seem them every day on television, preaching the us vs them mentality. How your neighbour is secretly stealing your wifi, or the lady on the bus is planning to take your job.

So what do we do about it? Is it just a lost cause? No, we need to show empathy and compassion. We need to show acceptance of the struggles of managing change. And we need consequences for those that abuse the power of seeing change through, those that prey on the weak. We need to reward those who help others, and understand that it’s a strength to change overtime, not a weakness. Changing your idea based on new, reputable information, is exactly how it’s supposed to work. It’s why we don’t have lead paint or gas in our cars.

If we don’t, and we continue to reward those that sow division and resistance to change, there is only one outcome. It’s up to us all to figure out if that’s what we really want.

DOS:2 Complete

Guess you figured with the amount of posts ont his topic. I’ll start with non spoilers stuff for those that have not played, then get into more later on.

I guess I’ll just put this out there, but DOS:2 is the 2nd best RPG I’ve ever played. BG2 will remain in that spot for a multitude of reasons, though I will admit that personal preference is important here. BG2 has a better through story, DOS:2 makes next to no sense up until the last bits of the final act. This is only due to the sheer complexity of it all, like 90% of the game is side quests (Reaper’s Coast exemplifies this). Mechanically, I have never played a game like DOS:2 before – it’s borderline 5e rules set in the focus on action points for combat and player agency.

The world building is at another level. Nearly every single line is spoken. At least 3/4 of the entire world population has something to say. Every bit of the map has something to see. Frankly, the main character is the world, and your job is to figure out its bits and bobs, and then how you fit into it. And it has to be, because you can literally kill EVERYONE in this game. They can’t be the focus if they can be removed mid-game.

The act structure is slightly weird for an RPG. It effectively caps each zone in terms of level/challenge, and you can tell from your quest log if you’re “done” or not. I prefer the open world where you return to previous locations and find new things – like Pillars of Eternity really. I understand why, no way a game this complex could operate without clear lines between chapters… the variables would be insane. You find the ghosts of people from previous acts, and you’d need to time travel to make sense of that.

The characters are ok, though lacking the interactions of typical RPG games. They have overly long arcs that don’t really mean anything until the final step. Was kind of hoping for more bickering and dialogue, but hey, that’s a small price for flexibility.

Stats are a bit weird. You NEED 5 Loremaster to identify items, so either you slot those skills or keep gear aside to do so. The latter is an inventory nightmare due to lack of “gear sets”. Persuasion 5 (or even 6 if you can) opens up TONS of options. It’s a weird point where if you are not fully invested in Persuasion, then you should avoid the stat altogether. And that person should initiate all dialogue. Lockpicking 5 isn’t required exactly, but it does save a lot of time chasing clues/keys. Finally, Lucky Charm negates

Mechanically, the combat is serviceable, and this is solely due to the inherent weakness of melee. Given this is a turn based RPG, melee needs points to move, then points to attack. At the end my rogue was rocking lvl 20 daggers, had 45% crit, 60 finesse (runes and armor), and 15% more physical damage (rune). A 2pt backstab dealt less damage than a 2pt spell – and I needed to position myself for it.

Mages though, holy moley. Fine, they have limits on the spells they can memorize but my goodness are they machines. Air/Water combo and a Fire/Earth combo make for insane results, and rarely are cool downs a problem once you reach the Nameless Isle.

If I were to do it again, I’d run 3 mages and a tank with Earth/Poly (those both have STR based attacks). I can’t see anything withstanding that barrage.

It’s a solid 40 hours, closer to 60 if you decide to do every little bit. I finished at level 20, and did every little bit.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Right, character arcs. I only did 4 on my play through.

Sebille’s is really quite bad. Elves actually have a cool history, but then they all but get wiped out. Cool revenge story! Nope, you’re shown to be super important and a pawn. The whole thing gets resolved on the Nameless Isle, which is about 50% of the way through the game. Ehh. There are NPC sidequests that are more interesting.

Lohse is possessed, and you spend a lot of time figuring out who that is. Was hoping for more of that demon to show up, maybe affecting combat. No such luck. The fight against that demon is wild, 12 enemies against you and 4 turns to burn down the big bad or it’s game over. Felt more like a neat side quest than a character arc.

The Red Prince is destined to rebuild his people. Chases a princess, falls in love, they give birth to the first dragons in centuries. Dragons who are destined to burn the entire planet. The idea is sharp, and you get a neat summon at the tail end. It is woven into the God King arc, with a covenant and all. Some good potential here, and the whole lizard stuff works as a general theme throughout.

Fane. Ya know what, I won’t even spoil this. I will say that if you’re going to play DOS:2, your main character should be Fane. His background adds context and extra dialogue to every single major plot point.

There’s this weird thing about RPGs, where they tend to fall into the “you fell for the lies?!” trope a tad too often. Double crosses and whatnot. DOS:2 doesn’t really do that, instead it focuses more on redemption arcs. Sure, there are bad guys that hide behind masks (literally), but on the whole all the characters are truthful in their speech. The last bit, like really ultra last bit, gives a significant twist on the main baddies and gives you a choice – die to save the world, or condemn it. It’s a bit out of left field ya know?

Take the condemn route, you get a major battle against named NPCs, then a 2nd phase. Take the sacrifice route and jump straight to phase 2. End of phase 2 gives you a more nuanced level of choice. One where I stepped away for a bit and thought about it. I had been paying attention to the lore thus far, so this choice wasn’t completely out of left field. It was however a tonal shift. A weird twist on redemption. I made my choice, and the epilogue was quite satisfactory.

I’m still amazed at the journey.

End of Spoilers

The logical question that comes when exposed to something like this is “how does the genre move forward from here?” I’m somewhat concerned for BG3, mostly due to the fact that Larian has a much different view on RPGs than BG had in the past. If they had made something like DOS:3, then yeah, but there are clear expectations here.

If I look at the larger RPG setting, I am not sure anyone could replicate the world complexity/integration that Larian has set here. Looking at something like EA’s/BioWare’s attempts, it’s clear that this is beyond their grasp. Even in things that are quasi RPGs, like Assassin’s Creed don’t even come close. But then you get something like Disco Elysium which can manage that complexity. I do think this is going to put pressure on Bethesda, as the focus there is in player agency and world breadth- not integrated story.

Mechanically, it would seem obvious that environmental tactics are the future – lighting oil patches, moving into poison pits, priming and triggering effects. For all of the woes with Anthem, I think this part was one of the best things. Probably explains why so many games today are moving out of the target based melee space (just look at MMOs, where ranged/casters are the true callings).

I wouldn’t say DOS:2 is the future of RPGs, instead I would consider it a critique of our assumptions. You think you know what’s there, this is a significant shift, and it’s likely to make you think there are problems with the game. It’s a rare event where a developer is able to stick to their vision, have it different than the “norm”, and it still be an amazing experience.

Power Scaling in RPGs

I would hope most people are familiar with exponentials, especially in this current environment. The act of doubling (for example) something may seem small at first but can take off to crazy degrees very quickly. Doubling 2, 5 times gives you 32. Doing it another 5 times gives 1024. Doing it 64 times (like a chess board) is, well, too big to write down (1.8e19).

With nearly every game having RPG mechanics today, it’s a natural occurrence that scaling becomes a challenge. Now, in this regard, scaling only matters in terms of what you’re doing. God tier power on ants is meaningless. Devs go through large pains to find a balance between player power and enemy power. Normally this is done with linear increases – meaning the difference between levels 1 and 5 is the same between 5 and 10. It means the damage going in/out is relatively stable – you deal 1dmg on 5hp or 10dmg on 50hp, it works out to the same.

Where traditional RPGs struggle is in the mage problem. That of quadratic growth. In older RPGs, mages had relatively simple spells – deal some damage to a single target. Very similar to swinging a sword. They were limited in the number of times they could use the spell TOTAL in a battle (needing to rest/recharge). As they leveled up, they gained more spell slots and more powerful spells. A max-level mage had access to multiple god-tier spells and no other class could compete as they often needed to move to attack.

If you played BG2, you will see this problem exemplified. DnD 3.5 was really quite bad a this, though it took a very long time to get a mage there in the first place. DnD 4 decided to take action points into consideration, so the super amazing spells were limited in use, and even the melee folks had access to some crazy stuff. I won’t go into why Pathfinder took off because of this change (and others in 4e) but hey, it did.

Looking at modern RPGs, you see this is still the case. AC: Odyssey had no challenge at max level, primarily due to the abilities and less so the actual stats. Ghost of Tsushima by end game I couldn’t be killed and would take on 20+ enemies in a go. Abilities drove nearly all of it, as it was an action game.

Tactical RPGs are different. You don’t have defensive options, you have stat walls. You either react to damage (Cure poison), or prevent it through resistances/armor/HP. You can’t outright avoid it, at least not normally. To create that wall, you need stats, and in a linear stat game, that’s less pressing. Level 10 gear is worse that level 15 gear, but not so much to be a deal breaker.

In non-linear games, this is a problem. All of a sudden enemies 1 level higher are 1 shooting you, and you’re hitting them with a feather. DOS:2 has a scaling problem in this regard, but I’d expect most wouldn’t see it as it’s only at the tail end. See, it looks linear because to start the numbers are so small, but it’s actually a % base. Each level is about 30% better than the previous (armor/damage), which is peanuts for the for first 3/4 of the game. Most battles take 3-4 rounds to complete at that point and are a real challenge. The last quarter though, battles are over in a round, maybe 2. This makes for a larger focus on the split between a tank (lots of armor and poor attack) vs a mage (little armor and lots of damage). If my mage isn’t able to keep distance, they will be dead in a round. If my rogue isn’t backstabbing, there’s little chance I can take down the target.

I mentioned stats earlier right? DOS:2 follows the RPG model for stats, where melee care about their baseline (say, STR) and their weapon damage. Mages only care about their baseline. A level 5 wand with 2 INT/5% crit is better than 95% of any other mage weapon in the game. An ultimate sword at level 5 is beaten out by a garbage sword at level 10, simply because the damage on the weapon is more important.

What does this mean in a practical sense? Honestly, it means that my air mage can cast Thunderstorm at the start of every fight (Source Vamp to fill up after the fight), which hits an INSANE area, only targets bad guys, lasts 2 rounds, and can stun – all but wiping out every single battle in that duration. God forbid my character with high initiative uses a Rain scroll…My melee meanwhile, are not able to kill a single target in their turn due to the way weapon scaling functions.

It’s a weird model, one that I hadn’t really come to terms with until the Arx chapter. It feels a bit weird where lower items are better, and melee really suffer in the long term, but this harkens back to the pen and paper days. Where weird in something like WoW, it kinda fits here, since you need to think about WHY an item is useful, rather than just as having a higher level. Wonder how BG3 will address this.

Black November

Black Friday exists as a point in the calendar where businesses finally started to get “in the black” (e.g. profitable) within a calendar year. Gives you an idea of how tight profit margins used to be – that it takes 11 months of 12. Clearly, this isn’t a date on the calendar, each business is different. Custom eventually slapped this on the the US Thanksgiving Friday.

That unity brought competition between various businesses and the concept of a super-sale. There are enough WalMart videos to show how well that’s gone. Over the years it started spreading to other countries (the sale, not the dumb), yet at the same time it was competing with the online sale market.

A few years ago we started seeing Cyber Monday, where online sites had major sales after Black Friday. This had 2 purposes, ensure the on-site stock was cleared, and collect more money cause who doesn’t like a sale? The smell of money drives nearly everything, so businesses started to think about how they could get more of it, with minimal effort. Never underestimate the power of greed!

See the advent of Black Friday weekend. Then Black Friday week. And now we’re at Black Friday sales all through November. Think about that for a second, a month-long sale on a pile of stuff. We’re broaching Steam Sale timeframes now. Not in the space of 10% off, but the big sticker “50% off” or “$300” off. No business can operate on those margins… so they don’t.

In Canada we have some simple laws when it comes to displaying prices, in that the ring up at the cash has to match the sticker. This is the sort of grocery store fight you see on soup prices – but it actually applies to larger things too. In Ontario at least, the price you see advertised on a new car is the price you pay (+ tax). There are no hidden “delivery fees” or any garbage. Great! Yet, they are build for the brick and mortar model.

What we’re seeing now (more pervasively) is the perception of a sale. There are quite a few businesses that operate on this model (Burlington Coat Factory is one, Winners another). You look at the item and it says Regular $89, Sale $19. Great deal! But the normal price is actually $19 everywhere. Sure, you may find the odd item, but it’s not like that business can operate at 20% the margins of another.

This model applies to online stores too. Amazon is target #1 for this, where it shows a sale, but the actual price is higher than their normal price. What I mean by this is that online retailers will sell say a TV for $900 for the month of October. Then they will add that item to Black Friday sales for the month, but raise the price to $950 and then say that they are saving $500. It’s clearly a lie, you can compare around and see everyone is selling the TV for $900 – but the concept of saving $500! Holy cow! (This is actually illegal in the UK, you need to prove the item was $500 more for at least a month. So they raise the price 1 month before the sale starts.)

While I think this is absolutely despicable behaviour, I also think that this is going to have the same long term effect of window shopping in brick and mortar. Where people today browse furniture in a store then buy online to save money, technology is already starting to catch onto these models. Sites like CamelCamelCamel are popping up and giving you the ability to see prices over time, and set alerts for real sales. Here’s a price history for a “great deal” on an Acer Nitro laptop. Save $200! Or you know, look at the history and see that it sells for this price every 2 weeks, then $200 more the other 2 weeks. Is it a sale when it’s this price half the time?

Technology is so cheap nowadays, that it’s just a matter of time before this gets wider scale use. People are going to window shop on Amazon, visit a price history site, and then make their decisions that way. This won’t stop the mad WalMart rushes though – pretty obvious there’s no saving the people who enjoy that. I’d be quite curious to see how that all works out this year, ya know, what with a pandemic and all.

Gimmicky Combat

Each act in Divinity 2 has at least 1 fight that includes some really gimmicky combat, the type that makes my blood boil. There’s a reason people save scum in RPGs and this is the BIG reason for it.

In RPG parlance, these battles mean that a TPK (total part kill) is all but guaranteed, and often, there’s a OHK (one hit kill) mechanic included. The only way to beat these battles is through preparation and understanding the enemy AI for better tactics. Often this requires using skills that you would never use otherwise, and a deep understanding of game mechanics in this weird rock/paper/scissors model.

I will point out that one of DOS:2’s weaknesses in this aspect is party formation. You’re always in a tight bunch, effectively melee range from each other. Means that 90% of fights, the first move of the enemy will be an AE attack that hits everyone.

On Reaper’s Coast you can fight a witch that will OHK you if you’re not sporting some amazing fire resist. If she doesn’t do it, then the 4 fire totems will. So you can either cheese it by teleporting her away and chain stunning her to high heck, OR build a character that is a damage amplifier (reduce HP to 1 and reflect damage on caster). The damage reflect is so rare because there are so very few targets that deal out so much damage that it’s worthwhile.

A fight in a nook of Arx is similar, entirely covered by Deathfog. As the name emplies, if you’re alive and you’re in that fog, you be dead. Getting rid of it is a major pain, and only 1 spell does anything decent – Tornado. This spell deals no damage, just clears ground effects. You can imagine it gets zero use anywhere else but this single fight – and then all of a sudden you find it sticking in the hotbar.

As you get stronger, and therefore more access to abilities, these challenges are less about preparation and more about rolling with the punches. You can’t really chain stun someone at level 8, but you certainly can at level 20. Who knows, maybe one of those specific tactics becomes part of your regular rotation (rain scrolls… oh my goodness those are liquid gold).

Reminds me of the various lich and dragon fights from BG2, though those were LONG telegraphed ahead of time. Throne of Bhaal went to the deeep end on these types of fights, which felt like half the content. Even Pillars of Eternity’s “secret boss” was telegraphed ahead of time – and still required a solid 10 tries to clear.

I’m not against these fights – in fact I’m more for than against. They act as a solid challenge and change of pace from the rest, a spike of excitement. DOS:2 does an even grander job on this because it will often (I wish it was always) auto-save before hand. I’ll end up running it blind to see what I’m up against, then a reload to better prepare the more unique aspects of my builds. That they are frequent, rather than end-game activities is AWESOME.

And really, it’s a great feeling taking down a fight that originally seems impossible through trial and cunning. That it forces creativity is a great thing. That the game allows it is even better.