What’s VFF Publishing, you ask? Why, it’s my publishing imprint! Yes, I write and publish novels. This blog is about gaming, but I see no reason not to redirect you to the Visions of Fantasy & the Future site (or Facebook, if you prefer) if you’re curious about what I write. I write fantasy and sci-fi. You can buy my novels at Amazon and other fine sellers of literature.
Gary Con: a four-day celebration of the life and games of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I have been attending since Gary Con II.
Day 0 – We arrived on Wednesday, got checked into the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa and immediately saw some old friends. There were a few things I needed to run to the Piggly Wiggly for, so I did that, we had dinner at one of the on-site restaurants, and socialized a bit before bed.
A pretty low-key start, but that’s typical and appropriate.
Day 1 – I started the con out with a DM’s Guild Workshop run by some of the folks who came out to Gary Con from Wizards of the Coast (Mike Mearls, Trevor Kidd, and Chris Perkins among them). It was about building backgrounds for your game, or more specifically gothic horror backgrounds since their current thing is Curse of Strahd. I found it more helpful than I expected and was sad that was the only workshop I could fit into my schedule. I hope they come back next year!
Next was my Paranoia game, “Bugs in the System.” I run 2nd edition Paranoia because it’s my favorite version and I’ve never seen the need to add more different complex systems to it for any reason, particuarly a convention scenario. There were several familiar faces at the table and a few new players. They all failed to kill the team leader multiple times, though. I failed, as well, as he didn’t die once. I must be losing my touch. Still, the game was a success and everyone seemed to have fun. The session ended with them aiding, however inadvertantly, the giant mutant cockroaches in lauching the Starship Warden.
After Paranoia, I managed to hit the Dealer Hall for a bit. It was bigger than in previous years, more spacious, and with more vendors. I managed to avoid spending ANY money. Most excellent.
That evening’s game was run by James Carpio of the new TSR Games. It was a playtest for their new espionage RPG written by The Admistrator himself, Merle Rasmussen (who you may remember from such RPGs as Top Secret). It was a fun game and since I wasn’t rolling a d20, I did fairly well, though I did whip out an Australian accent while undercover in the U.K…. I have no idea WHY I defaulted to that instead of a generic British accent. Or Irish. Or Scottish. No, I had to go to the other side of the planet. Still, we succeeded in our mission and I got to fly a drone into the back of a sniper’s head… causing him to fall off the building and set off a car alarm. Oops.
Day 2 – I started the day with an Adventurer’s League game. The one I signed up for was cancelled since I was the only person who signed up, but fortunately, there was another table with an open slot. Players were still working through the earlier adventures in the series, I was a non-conformist who signed up for the third adventure in the series.
I swore off Organized Play after two years straight of bad experiences at Gen Con. I tried Pathfinder Society for a while, but the GMs were hit-and-miss and generally, I found not playing to be preferable. So, I didn’t have really high hopes.
The adventure, which took place in Barovia (I also swore off Ravenloft after an incident in the early ’90s), was enjoyable, and though my tiefling paladin died, we defeated the villian. Or rather, the other two players did while I provided a convienient distraction for the attacking werewolf.
You see, all weekend, my d20s rolled like warmed over shit. Seriously, I could not succeed on a roll to save my life, whether it was D&D or Dungeon Crawl Classics. I was so digusted after the D&D game, I went out and bought a whole new set of dice. Naturally, that didn’t work. Must have been user error, an 1d10T error, if you will.
I followed the D&D game up with wandering, Dealer Hallering, and general socialization until my afternoon game: Women Only – Tomb of Horrors, played with the original AD&D, as it was meant to be experienced. The group played cautiously, and it took an hour before the first death. Well, the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth deaths. Can you guess? Look in the first comment for the answer (a few people who read this blog will be spoiled by the answer).
Also, kudos to the 9-year-old girl, whose name I cannot remember, who had the best comments of the game. To the Petrie sisters & mother: I finally met someone worse than my mother! And, her HORROR when she realized what she said: “Stop sticking your poles in holes!”
As a 9-year-old, I doubt I would ever have realized the implications of that phrase. There were also jokes made (not by me!) about the Tomb of Whores. Apparently, I don’t enunciate as clearly as Paul Harvey.
The evening was pretty much free. I think I planned to find a pick-up game, but ended up socializing instead.
Day 3 – Day three was Numenera day. I ran two events set in Monte Cook Games’s Cypher System Numenera setting and was grateful to have one player in both games who was familiar with the system. Not that I was completely inexperienced, but it had been a few months since I tested the adventures and when you bounce back and forth between wildly different systems, it can be difficult to keep things straight. Both games went well. “The Wailing Sore” got high marks for being really weird, but I think “Locks of the World” was better paced, even though I missed giving out the key clue to unraveling the mystery. I’m not sure how that happened; I must’ve given my play-test group a bit of information I didn’t have written down in my notes.
Still, the games went well, despite both being the games for which I had no-shows. There were plenty of walk-ons (or as one gamer described himself, squatters) for the first game, so I ran a full table. The second game had two empty seats when we started, but Numenera is a flexible enough system that being short two players didn’t matter.
I’m fairly certain I planned to run a pick-up game in the evening, but instead we had dinner with some friends, then called it a night.
Day 4 – I hit the Dealer Hall once last time before they closed, because someone at Goodman Games came up with these scratch-off Adventures and if you “won” 1000 GP of treasure, they’d give you a $10 gift certificate at their booth and I won! Well, I bought enough cards to earn enough loot (really, it was $5 of cards for $10 off, so I still came out ahead). Whoever designed these crack card is a freakin’ GENIUS. If they have them at Gen Con, BEWARE. Your wallet will cry DOOM. DOOOOOOM. They’re fun though!
I only had one game: a Dungeon Crawl Classics play-test. My dice, once again, decided rolling well was not as fun as being horrible to me. My first three rolls were (in order, 3, 1, and 1. I did roll a 20… at the worst possible time when I wanted a low result. So yay.
Still, the game was fun and during the short break, I ran into the Geekpreacher (who is a good friend). Running into him isn’t all that unusual, but he told me how he got into a bidding war with Tim Kask over my fantasy novels at the Gary Con auction. Mr. Kask was interested in them, but Geekpreacher knew his birthday was coming up, so he out-bid him, then after encountering me in the hallway, had me present them to Mr. Kask during his video panel. It was quite a thrill to be introduced as the author of books one of the Old Guard was interested in and be able to present them to him as a birthday gift. I hope Mr. Kask enjoys my books.
There was one other game on Day 4, but it was an invitation-only off-grid game. Bob Brinkman ran a continuation of his Mountain Monsters-inspired Call of Cthulhu game. For those of you not in the know, Mountain Monsters is a “reality” TV show on Destination America. It’s basically Finding Bigfoot (or insert crytid of your choice here) when a team of West Virginia hillbilly hunters. The show is just as over-dramatic and silly as you’d expect, but is surprisingly good fodder for Call of Cthulhu. We closed out the con with this 8pm – midnight game and it was suitably epic. The sad part is I hear our friends from the UK, Simon Todd, his daughter Bernie, and his business partner Andy will not be able to attend next year. Part 3 won’t be the same without them!
Whether or not it’s related, I saw a spike in sales that day, as well. I put all my books on sale during Gary Con, but I didn’t mention it during my brief appearance in that panel (I did mentioned at other times, especially if the topic came up).
The on-site restaurants were excellent. Of course, it is rated a 4-Diamond Resort by AAA, so quality is to be expected. Not only did I not gain weight, despite feeling like I overindulged (particularly in gelato), I actually lost a pound or two, I think. Tableside service was also excellent. I actually felt like I had options other than fried fat with a side of fried carbs in a fried basket of fried (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I ceased to be able to eat that for a meal many years ago).
Gary Con was bigger than ever, yet seemed less crowded. Mostly because the venue was much, much larger than previous years’. All the GMs and players I gamed with were excellent, and even the Organized Play, which I poo-poo at Gen Con, was good. It was the best organized and most fun OP I’ve ever experienced at a convention. So, kudos to the organizers for that.
There were a few things to complain about, no con is perfect, but I provided feedback I hope the organizers will find helpful.
The next morning, Xil-ta arrived at Boccob’s Barge just as the crew woke from their sleep. He inspected the helm and revised his estimate of the repair time down to just three days. Of course, that did not mean it would be less expensive, much to Sumner Redhorn’s disappointment.
As they discussed the repairs with the Arcane, First Mate Rexor reported that several of the crew did not show up during roll call: Bo’sun Zorag, Kagark, Corva, and Pallas. In the meantime, Xil-ta reported to Captain Straxius that he needed to return to his shop to retrieve some supplies and had his next favor to ask of the crew: travel to a world called Eorôe and retrieve a crystal of ice from there. It was more than simply frozen water, however, as large as a man and they would probably have to deal with the giants on the world in order to retrieve it. Xil-ta didn’t know in which sphere Eorôe was, however; the crew of Boccob’s Barge would have to locate it, and figure out how to keep the crystal intact on their own.
They had a few days to mull over the details, though, because there was a matter of their missing crew. Rexor figured they weren’t deserters, as all their gear was still in their footlockers. Veya, Flint, and Zinni were certain Kagark wouldn’t just abandon them, especially his precious Veya, so they decided to hit the taverns to look for them after Straxius paid a visit to Red Ríognach’s Pleasure Barge.
Red Ríognach was more than just the madam of a brothel; she was one of the Rock of Bral’s premier information brokers. Drunk, oversexed sailors have loose lips, and no one (with the possible exception of Luigi the Beholder) knew more about the Dwarven, Elven, Human, and others’ fleet movements than Red. Her information on Illithid, Neogi, and Beholder fleets were limited however, since the crew of those fleets didn’t frequent her brothel.
When they entered The Pleasure Barge, they were greeted by Red’s major domo, Murray, the Demonic Talking Skull. After his usual tirade of bluster and regret (“There’s so much tasty here and I have no lips and no arms!”), he got down to determining if they were punters or dark seekers. After sussing out “dark seeker” referred to a client of Red’s seeking information, they were permitted to pass through to see Red.
Information she didn’t have was as good as gold to Red, so she accepted Straxius’s account of the Mind Flayer-Beholder battle at the edge of Realmspace in exchange for the location of Eorôe. It was in a sphere called Patria, approximately fifty-eight days away at standard cruising speed through the Flow currents (Radiant Flow à Arcane Inner Flow à Casa Flow. Due to the direction of the currents, the return trip would be about five days shorter.
Their first stop after the Pleasure Barge was the Rock Rat Tavern. After buying a round of drinks, especially for the giff from the HMS Mandragora who were looking for a fight, the crew determined that Kagark and Zorag were drinking there the night before, and overindulged. They were dumped in a couple of rooms upstairs, but were gone when the barkeep kicked all the hungover drunks out in the morning.
The crew decided to split up to cover the remained taverns the ship’s crew commonly frequented. As they did so, Straxius and Sumner noticed someone follow them out of the Rock Rat Tavern. Straxius cast a quick suggestion spell and lured their tail over. Thanks to the enchantment, he revealed he was Van Sallus, a former member of the Red Knives who overheard the crew of Boccob’s Barge inquiring about their missing crewmates. He said he, too, was looking for a missing friend: his sister, Gwen. He believed they were all abducted by the Red Knives, a group of thieves and thugs he left when he found out they were diversifying into selling slaves to vampires for food. Furthermore, he told them the Red Knives main headquarters was under The Red Bull Tavern; the tavern was just a front.
Straxius recalled Flint, Veya, and Zinni as Van explained that going in through the front was a bad idea and he knew of a back entrance that lead directly to the holding area where any prisoners would be. He led them to a decrepit, abandoned church in the Middle City called the Church of Tenebrous. An aura of unease surrounded the building and it was only through sheer force of willpower that they were able to proceed into the building.
The Church of Tenebrous was dusty, full of cobwebs, and falling apart. Plaster fell from the ceiling in chunks as they made their way through the pews and flickers of apparitions appeared in the periphery of their vision as otherworldly moans filled the air. They pressed on, eventually finding the door that lead to the crypt, just as Van Sallas described.
They followed the stairs down, down into the crypt. Flickering scones lit the chamber in dim yellow light as they picked their way through the resting places of the dead. Rats scattered underfoot. Eventually, they reached a dead end where they found the secret door Van Sallus described. It opened into a portion of the Rock of Bral’s sewer system. Following his instructions to stick to the level path, they waded through the muck to another dead end.
Another secret door and a quick passage through rock and they found a wooden door. Beyond that: a small living area. They heard voices coming from a chamber nearby and, after verifying no one else was in the living chambers, they burst in on the meeting.
Five ghouls, three Red Knives, and a Mind Flayer were gathered around an oubliette discussing prices. Veya charged in after hearing Kagark’s voice from the depths of the oubliette and the battle was joined. The illithid immediately began casting a spell that was interrupted by a counterspell from Straxius and the three Red Knives laid into Veya, wounding the barbarian woman severely. Flint turned the ghouls with the power of Sune.
The illithid opened a portal and stepped through, leaving the ghouls and Red Knives to the crew of Boccob’s Barge. One of the ghouls was unaffected by Sune’s power and paralyzed Flint. Straxius cast a suggestion at one of the Red Knives, convincing him the battle was won and he should celebrate at The Laughing Beholder. The remaining ghoul and two Red Knives were slain and when Flint recovered, he herded the cowering ghouls to the back bedroom where they were locked in.
The crew helped the half-dozen prisoners out of the oubliette. Kagark, the three missing crewmembers, Gwen, and one other were all there and greatly relieved. So too relieved, were the dead Red Knives, of their possessions, that is, among them a magical marble elephant (a figurine of wondrous power), a wand (a wand of binding), and clockwork-embellished short sword (a giant slayer). They also found invoices proving the Red Knives were dealing in slaves and planned to frame the Jugglers for it. Straxius turned the papers over to the town guard who indicated they would follow up with them at their ship tomorrow.
They returned to The Laughing Beholder, intent on dealing with the Red Knife they sent there, only to discovered he never arrived. A mystery for another time….
A bit of investigation and a bit of combat made of a rousing second session. Either I’m more into the game right now than I’ve been in a long time, or running my own material is much easier now than it was a couple of years ago. It’s possible 5E’s ease of preparation is making it better for me than Pathfinder was, even though I was running an Adventure Path. The fact that I don’t have to read, read, learn, and read someone else’s material is possibly another factor. I just flat-out told everyone I intended to be more generous with the magic items than Hoard of the Dragon Queen was. I think part of that is I love the quirk tables included in 5E for magic items; I plan to expand them.
While writing up this synopsis, I discovered I printed out the wrong version of the Flow map to put under the plexiglass on my table. Oops. Oh well, it’s accurate enough for now until I get around to sending the proper version to Staples. The next session should see the crew getting back into Wildspace… unless they get distracted by the Rock of Bral some more….
As an aside, I did seriously consider calling the campaign “Brain Eaters and Beholders.” “Favors of the Arcane” is a little more sophisticated, I think.
Last night we kicked off a new D&D 5th edition campaign! In our last campaign, two characters died during Hoard of the Dragon Queen and the other players conceded defeat. Defeat is not death, however, even when one is looking down the maw of a hungry, angry dragon.
The sad thing is, I still don’t have a name for this campaign. When I finally think of a cool and fitting one, I’ll edited the title of this post to reflect it. Until then, it is the Generic Game of General Greatness! 4Gs are 4x the G-rated of 1 G! (Yeah, that means absolutely nothing to me, too.)
The action started with Zinniana Namfoodle, Veya Knockrot, Flint Rockbottom, and Kagark:
Blood sprays in a crimson fountain as the great white dragon tears into Broken Sky. With a swiftness belying its size, the beast snatches up Tobin, ripping into him with aplomb, its dagger-like teeth piercing the bag of holding in the bard’s pack…
With an unearthly wail, its head stretches and distorts as it is pulled into the forming rift. The magical effect is unlike anything you have ever seen or heard of. You scramble to gain purchase on the slick ice to no avail. The dragon’s bones crack and shatter as it is forced to pass through an opening far too small for its gargantuan bulk. Blood and gore spray in all directions as cosmic forces rend flesh and organs. Yet, the pull is too great, despite the terrible things hurling themselves at you.
The stark blue-white of the icy citadel vanishes as you disappear through the rift. Darkness surrounds you, yet you know you are not dead. The dead don’t feel the pain of their most recent battle, and all your wounds still ache.
In the distance, you see what looks like a blurry rock in the void. It moves closer and you see that, not only is it the size of a city, it is hollow with odd protuberances and what look like glowing eyes on rocky stalks. The glow fades and the object turns, then speeds away from you.
Your senses dull and the pain fades. Curiously, you feel neither hunger nor thirst, nor do you perceive anything. In time, hours, days, weeks, who knows… everything fades until you are left with nothing but a vague sense of existing.
Time ceases to have meaning as you tumble through the void. You stray out of thought and time. Every moment is as long as a life age of the world. Color returns to your sight: a kaleidoscope of rainbows. You become aware of it dimly, unable to determine when exactly you crossed the threshold. Light suffuses that which was once dark. Sticky threads diffuse your sight and bind your arms and legs. You’re jostled and feel a sharp pain in your side. Then, the threads are torn away.
You squint against the blinding light. The air is filled with odors and sounds you forgot existed. Eyes that lay unused for weeks? Months? Years? You have no way of knowing how long it has been since you last saw anything, but slowly, the light dims and the world comes into focus.
A worn and well-lined face stares down at you as grubby hands pat your pockets. It is a bearded man who has seen too much life and too little luxury. He backpedals at your sudden intake of air. Your lungs fill again for what seems like the first time in centuries, though for all you know, it could be mere hours since your battle on the citadel.
Blimey! They’re still alive! Captain! Captain! Those floaters we found are still alive!”
The four survivors were pulled from the Flow by the crew of what they soon learned was Boccob’s Barge. All around, they could see a rainbow of colors surrounding the ship. The navigator, a human wizard named Straxius explained to them that they had been found wrapped in cocoons of astral spiders in the phlogiston. He and a minotaur warlock, Sumner Redhorn helped secure them aboard the ship while the rest of the crew gathered up the silk from the cocoons and prepared to make way again.
Over the next week, they became acquainted with Boccob’s Barge her crew, and her captain, a half-elf named Fallar Goldeneye. They learned about the Crystal Spheres and the Phlogiston, and how fire was the bane of all Spelljammers in the Flow. Captain Goldeneye offered to drop off the survivors on Toril, since they were headed that way anyway with a load of cargo from Krynn.
They arrived at Realmspace and one of the ship’s wizards opened the portal through which Boccob’s Barge passed out of the Flow and into Wildspace. Short after receiving a quick lesson on the nature of Crystal Spheres, the lookout rang the alarm bell. A ship was bearing down on Boccob’s Barge!
It was quickly identified as a Tyrant ship and Captain Goldeneye panicked. Despite sounding battle stations and giving the order to flee, the Tyrant ship fired its primary weapon. The first beam took out the part of the main deck upon which Captain Goldeneye was standing. The next cut through the hull, halving the helmsman and damaging the helm. Before the ship could get off a third shot, two Nautiloids engaged the Tyrant ship and they sped past, leaving the wounded Hammership to limp its way to Toril.
Several of the crew were killed and the First Officer was incapacitated. Straxius took charge. The ship’s Carpenter reported that the damage to the helm was too great to risk making port on a planet; they needed to put in to the Rock of Bral for repairs. Fortunately, it was on the way.
Once they arrived at the Rock of Bral, they docked and Straxius took Sumner and the survivors to talk to their employer, Herzog Steelarm. They went to The Laughing Beholder, a tavern frequented by Herzog and run by the only friendly beholder in known space, Luigi. Herzog was sympathetic to the loss of Captain Goldeneye and assured them he would notify their clients on Shou Lung that the delivery was unavoidably delayed.
After dealing with official business, they sought out Xil-ta, the Arcane, one of the few beings on the Rock of Bral capable of repairing a Helm. After convincing his assistant, the Rastipede, Jerry, their need was true, the Arcane made his appearance to negotiate with them. His price was high, but not unexpectedly so: 45,000 gold for the repair. Naturally, the crew didn’t have that kind of money, even with the funds in Boccob’s Barge’s strongbox. Xil-ta indicated he would trade favors for money.
Straxius didn’t feel he was empowered to make any such deals, since he was not Captain of the ship, nor was he the owner. In fact, with Fallar Goldeneye dead, they didn’t know who the owner was.
To the Hall of Records!
At the Hall of Records, they learned Fallar’s next-of-kin was his brother, Rylael. They found him in an opulent townhouse in Middletown. He seemed more put out by the news of his identical twin brother’s death than upset and informed Straxius he and his brother were connected, so he already knew about it for over a week now. He wanted nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the ship and told Straxius he was now Captain and in exchange for doing nothing, he would take 5%. If the crew needed him involved in any of the decisions regarding the ship or its business, he wanted a larger cut.
Straxius and the crew agreed quickly that these terms were acceptable and left Rylael to his wine. They returned to Xil-ta and made a deal with him. His first task for them was simple: collect an outstanding debt from Ra-Jareez, captain of the Sugar Moon, a Tradesman out of Midgard crewed by Nkosi.
They decided to attempt a stealthy approach first and used invisibility and silence on Zinniana, giving her instructions to go straight for the Captain’s quarters and avoid the crew. Though the First mate of the Sugar Moon seemed to smell her passing, with no visual or audio confirmation of his suspicions, he went back to work directing the crew as they loaded and unloaded cargo. She found a trapped and locked chest in the Captain’s quarters, but nothing resembling a pouch with the money Captain Ra-Jareez owed Xil-ta. She returned to her compatriots and they finally decided to speak to the First Mate.
His name was Chezan and he was annoyed that his Captain had gone to a tavern while the rest of the crew worked. First mate Chezan was more than happy to tell the crew of Boccob’s Barge that if the captain had sufficient funds to pay Xil-ta, he took them with him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember the name of the tavern Captain Ra-Jareez went to, either the Black Bull or the Red Bull.
Straxius knew the Black Bull had a reputation for being a haven for assassins and violent thugs, whereas the Red Bull didn’t have much of a reputation at all. They decided to investigate the Red Bull first. The barkeep confirmed that Ra-Jareez was a patron, but he was already passed out drunk and they hauled him upstairs to sleep it off. Straxius kept the barkeep distracted while Zinniana slipped away to find Ra-Jareez. She found him sleeping with a pack at his feet. The gnome purloined the pack after discovering it was apparently magical and found a sack of coins within. They left a note with the barkeep for Ra-Jareez to read when he awoke.
They made their way back to Xil-ta’s shop, but by now, the Arcane was gone. Straxius counted out the money they found in Ra-Jareez’s pack and explained it was all the Nkosi captain had. Jerry thanked them and agreed it would be Ra-Jareez’s responsibility to retrieve his haversack and the rest of the belongings within.
Jerry told them Xil-ta would be back in the morning and bade them goodnight. They returned to the ship to rest and wondered what errand the Arcane would send them on in the morning….
A lot of role-playing happened and I think everyone got a good introduction to the setting. Fittingly, the players with the surviving PCs from Hoard of the Dragon Queen were all pretty much unfamiliar with Spelljammer and its tropes and the players whose characters were crew of Boccob’s Barge were familiar with it. We didn’t plan it that way, it’s just the way it worked out. Serendipitous, eh?
A crunch-light session was an excellent way to ease back into D&D after several months of play other systems.
First, a word on the previous two installments in the modern Fallout era: Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I enjoyed the quests and gameplay of NV over FO3, but I like the Capital Wasteland envrionment of FO3 better. The bombed out buildings and underground warrens felt more post-apocalytpic than the endless desert of the Mojave (I did LOVE the environment of the Honest Hearts DLC, though). I played both games multiple times, and at least once each completely unmodded (a real challenge on New Vegas, due to all the bugs; it wasn’t until my third modded playthrough that I actually got Veronica’s quest to work; my first game she got stuck and wouldn’t move at all, EVER). Still, I played the heck out of both of them, racking up over two hundred hours of play time on each game (over 400 hours on Skyrim, though, between 3 playthroughs).
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, though there may be a few (particularly about the opening). I haven’t played through the entire game yet, so I can’t speak to the ending. I do know you can continue playing after the ending, however, so it can’t possibly as bad as the original ending to FO3.
Fallout 4, the latest entry in the post-apocalyptic RPG series by Bethesda, starts off suitably bleak with you the Sole Survivor of Vault 111. Technically, that’s not true; you start off in 2077 before the war, and get to see a slice of life in the final days as you and your spouse plan your day with your infant offspring. The war comes to Boston and as fiery mushrooms sprout on the horizon, you race to Vault 111. Fade to black and when you come to, you are the Sole Survivor… sort of; your infant survives, too, and is kidnapped before you can free yourself from the cryogenic tube in which you’ve spent the last 200 years. Yes, Vault-Tec is back to its morally questionable antics with non-consensual experiments on its residents.
Thus begins the Main Quest: GIVE ME BACK MY SON! (Confession: I made a male character, so I don’t know if your child is a girl if you choose a female protagonist). It would be appropriate to make your character look like either Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson, and the robust character creator (which is similar, yet more detailed than Elder Scrolls Online’s character creator) allows creative and patient players to do just that. SPECIAL is still there, but skills are gone and you’re allowed to put a point into perks at each level (or level up a SPECIAL attribute; your choice). I hear there’s no level cap, so there’s plenty to go around (in fact, I understand in order to max out at 10 in all attributes and every perk (most, if not all, perks have multiple levels now), you’ll have to be over level 220). This makes it really hard to gimp your character by creating an energy weapons guy, then find out there aren’t very many at all in the first 1/3rd of the game (New Vegas, I’m looking at you).
That being said, rushing headlong into every fight thinking you can FPS your way to victory is a bad idea. It’s easy to get carried away exploring and wander in an area that’s far too dangerous for a fresh-out-of-the-Vault dweller. Power Armor makes a comeback, though, and with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. the responsibility to make sure you have enough fusion cores, because power armor actually uses power this time around. It’s also customizable if you’ve scavenged the right materials, so you can pimp it out and make it your own. Weapons and armor come in different flavors now, so they can be found with special qualities, similar to the weapons in the Borderlands series. While it’s pretty awesome to find a shotgun that fires exploding ammo from a game play perspective, it does take me out of the game a bit, because it just doesn’t feel real. That’s a minor quibble, though, because you can still mod those weapons and make them more awesome. You can’t break them down for scrap, though, so if you don’t want a particular legendary weapon, just pawn it off to your companion or sell it.
Fallout 4 is a scavenger’s delight and by the same token, the Settlement Building mini-game is an OCD packrat’s worst nightmare. You’re probably already in the habit of taking everything that isn’t nailed down. While you will immediately have a use for it (most things can be scrapped for parts), you can easily spend hours at a time building up your settlements. In theory, you could spend quite a lot of time doing nothing but. Too bad the controls are a little funky, a situation that will be modded on the PC, I’m sure.
Speaking of controls, Bethesda has committed the cardinal sin of screwing with keybinding. Some baffling choices have been hardcoded into the game. For example, melee and grenades are bound to the same key and cannot be separated. Rebinding the movement keys removes your ability to move around in Workshop mode, making building settlements such a huge pain-in-the-butt, that it is no longer something you’ll want to spend time on. If you’re not a leftie and are comfortable with a controller or the WASD default set up, this won’t be a bother. I’m a leftie though, and WASD is very uncomfortable for long periods of time. Breaking the interface when reassigning keys is extremely irritating (ME3 did this, too). I know WHY this is: it’s easier to design one control scheme shared across Xbox One, PS4, and PC than it is to design multiple control schemes that play to the strengths of each one. Still, that’s no excuse. It sucks, frankly. Fortunately, some Googling showed me how to install a keybind applet that resides in memory and bypasses the game’s keybinding so I can set up my preferences without breaking the interface too much (it’s NOT a mod for the game, so it doesn’t interfere with quests in any fashion). I can’t use the workshop menu at all with that script, though. I’m not sure which solution is better. The script is easier to disable when I do want to work on my settlements. I shouldn’t have to do that fiddle with these things to have a playable experience, though.
On the plus side, the game is playable. It is, in fact, the most stable Bethesda game I’ve ever played at launch. I didn’t come into Skyrim until several months (at least 6) after launch, so I can’t speak to it, but I remember the absolute nightmare FO3 could be (and NV was worse, but that was an Obsidian game built on Bethesda’s engine). Of course, WHY game publishers get away with releasing such buggy software could be a whole essay in and of itself, and I won’t get into that here.
In addition to the stability, the companions are the most well-rounded of any Bethesda game, to date. They have personalities and quests, and romance options more in depth than Skyrim’s “I see you have an amulet and I like you well enough, let’s marry!” Many of them have quests of their own for you. One in particular is a source of Radiant Quests, ala Skyrim that you’ll either love or you’ll grow tired of and avoid him (or if you’re on a PC, hunt down a mod to turn off his Radiant Quests). Gone is the faction/Karma system of New Vegas, now your companions judge your actions based on their own philosophies and the rest of the world doesn’t really care if you steal from the raiders who have been shooting at you.
The skeleton tableaus and subtle back story woven throughout the environment is just as strong here as it has been in past installments. Sometimes, these after-the-fact stories are stronger and more engaging than the actual plot. Someone in the Commonwealth certainly likes setting up their teddy bears in odd positions. I found a couple in flagrante delicato, and another trying to read the paper while doing his business, if you get my meaning. In addition, I understand Bostonians find the geography unsettlingly accurate, if a bit compressed, much like D.C. residents did FO3.
Crafting is pretty robust, even putting the settlement building aside. You don’t have to hunt for food recipes, though perks are needed for some of the more advance chems, meds, weapon, and armor mods. In fact, food is pretty awesome, better than stimpacks in many cases. Plus, you get XP for cooking. Save your stimpacks for broken limbs and Dogmeat (if you can stand the whining when he’s injured, he’ll heal quickly, but it’s REALLY realistic and I hate hearing a dog in pain). They didn’t include the ability to craft ammo, though. It makes ammo nearly the most valuable resource in the Commonwealth, especially once you have a strong settlement up and running providing you with clean water and food. You can also rename your modded weapons, so you could have a ripper called “Dr. Teeth” and a gauss rifle called “The Electric Mayhem.” My double-barrel shotgun is called “Nora,” after my character’s wife who was a lawyer before the war. See, she’d give the opposition both barrels in her closing statements, like I do Feral Ghouls, even after I think they’re dead (ESPECIALLY if they look dead). I also modded up a flamethrower and called it “Trogdor the Burninator” and my scooped rifle is AT&T (reach out and touch someone).
The shooter portion of combat is better than it was in FO3 or NV and VATS is still there when you need assistance (and the annoying, darting giant insects are much easier in VATS). You’ll want that assistance when you finally encounter Deathclaws and Super Mutant Suiciders (they give new meaning to the term “Nuclear Football”).
Bethesda has definitely learned in the years since FO3, and probably have taken cues from other games as well. Fallout 4 is challenging and fun and a worthy addition to the Fallout Universe. There’s hundreds of hours of content here and future DLCs will no doubt only serve to strength that. Unfortunately, as much as I praised the companions earlier, some of the interactions with other NPCs is lacking. For example, the first time I encountered a friendly ghoul in the game (which did NOT exist at all for my character just a few days ago), there was no dialog option why this guy was so obviously inhuman; he just just another Bostonian. As I understand it, there are certain friendly ghouls to whom you do have a WTF? reaction the first time you see them, so apparently, I wasn’t supposed to encounter this guy before all the others. So, it’s possibly an oversight, but it was immersion-breaking.
If you think it’s a travesty that the Fallout series has moved beyond turn-based isometric games, then Fallout 4 is not going to change your mind. If you liked FO3 and NV, you will likely enjoy Fallout 4. PC gamers are used to Bethesda’s quirks by now and know that a decent game by them can become great with the proper mods. Fallout 4 is already a great game, mod will make it awesome.
Coming soon, to a Doctor StrangeRoll channel near you:
I will be starting a D&D 5th edition Spelljammer campaign this Friday! You can expect session synopses and other goodies regularly here! It will be an original campaign, so unless I incorporate some pre-published material as filler (which I’m wont to do when prep time gets tight), there will be no adventure spoilers like there was with Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Beyond the Rim, or The Jewel of Yavin.
The campaign, for which I still have not thought of an awesome name, will pick up where Hoard of the Dragon Queen left off. If you’ll remember, Broken Sky and Tobin the bard were eaten by a white dragon and the rest of the players capitulated and chose to quit the campaign because they felt they were in a spot where there was no way out other than death. I’m using a bit of GM fiat and ruling that some bit of magic in the dragon’s stomach interacted with the bag of holding it ingested when it ate Tobin ripped open a portal which turned the dragon inside-out and sucked the surviving PCs through, depositing them into the phlogiston where they are picked up some time later by Boccob’s Barge. The hammership, out of the Rock of Bral, is crewed, in part, by two new PCs (played by Broken Sky’s and Tobin’s players).
I’m also working on a Fallout 4 review (game play only, very little to no plot spoilers). I’m going to post it here, on Amazon, and over at VFF Publishing. There’s a lot of crossover between Fallout gamers and tabletop gamers (at least in my circles), so it seems appropriate, plus it’s a hot property right now.