The Progress On Istoria

Several weeks ago, at the genesis of this blog, I wrote about the Monday night role-playing game some friends and I were playing over the summer. I explained the concept and the plans we had for it, so if you're not familiar with what Istoria is, you can find the link to the previous post here. Well, it's been a month since we officially got underway with Istoria, with two sessions of Dawn of Worlds under our belt, followed by two sessions of an exploration-based campaign run with the Fate system (and interspersed with a one-shot horror/survival session set on a tropical island GMed by David). I've recorded all of the sessions as audio files, and maybe I'll share snippets of those as we continue on, but they are much too long, boring, and filled with random things that don't have to do with RPG to be of much interest on this website. I would, however, like to give you all a quick write-up and review of how it's going so far--how much fun we've been having, some of the concepts we've been playing with, and what we like about the systems we've been running. 

First off, the two sessions of Dawn of Worlds (where we world build our campaign setting piece by piece, race by race, event by event) have gone splendidly. We've created several different races and cultures all over the world (including angel-like militaristic socialists, sapient parasitic insects, spherical jet-propelled blobs that have a society, and eighty-yard long many-eyeballed starfish people), lots of cool non-sapient creatures (fish-snakes with gigantic wing spans, gigantic colossi that serve as walking cities for the sapient parasitic insects, and six-legged rhino-sharks), and a theme for the magic of the world (information-based, all magic systems are sub-systems of an umbrella system called "Marking" that allows one to draw information from something and transmit it somehow). The world has five moons, which causes some really weird tidal phenomena to occur on a predictable basis, and has a hotter than normal average temperature, causing the poles to be warmer and the equator to be super-tropical, almost uninhabitable at some points. There are dozens of little things that we've made up over the two DoW sessions, and many more that are being dreamed up as we begin our Fate campaign, but it would take forever to share them all here. Suffice it to say, we're having a lot of fun and making up some really cool stuff.

Now, on to Fate. I'm the Gamemaster for the first campaign of Istoria, entitled The Promise of Safe Return, named off of Rise Against's amazing song "Wait For Me" from Endgame. As I said, we're running the Fate system, and I have been pleasantly surprised at the ease and fun of running it. Character creation is fun, highly collaborative, and based almost entirely on story rather than mechanics. Most of the creation of a character is deciding what their past was like and what "aspects" (traits, essentially) they have because of those events that shaped their lives. It also encourages the characters to have already met, have formed opinions about the other characters, and create lots of hooks for the Gamemaster to grab onto when he needs story seeds. The system as a whole is very collaborative and relies on the efforts of everyone involved to move the story along. Essentially, a player is rewarded an in-game currency called "fate points" whenever a character's aspect causes them problems in the story. And they have to spend those to use their good traits. It's a constant give and take that makes the game much more collaborative, as I said.

Alright, into the story of The Promise of Safe Return. The player characters are all part of an expedition being sent overland across the main continent to discover new resources, trade routes, races, and a possible site for a new colony (as they are being trailed several days behind by a larger expedition for that express purpose--forming a colony). The expeditions are being funded by the Rovert Exploratory Company, a human-based organization from the Homeland (the continent to the north of the one being traversed). The expedition, however, is being based out of the nation founded five-hundred years ago when human colonists came to this continent in the first place and made friends with a race of desert-dwellers with chitinous skin that use air pressure instead of water to pump their blood cells around their body, called Sansur in their own tongue (though Sandie is the common slang word used to reference them). Here is our main cast:

  • My brother Connor plays as Tirsov, a young, curious human scholar who loves studying new cultures and is probably the least competent (in terms of survival) of the party. He has a magic book that can record what he says without ink.
  • David plays as Rultis Meinvred, a human Krova (knight-like organization that uses a version of the Marking magic) who was put on this mission by his superiors to get him out of the way. He's kind of an embarrassment.
  • Jared plays as Zoya, a human Yelloweye (a member of an organization of monster hunters that use magic to steal monster's abilities) that gets herself into more trouble than she probably should. (Yes, Jared is playing a girl. Yes, we all know how weird that is.) She has an apprentice named Muhai, a human girl who's just as wild as her master.
  • Trevor plays Remis, a Sandie ex-Yelloweye that doesn't agree with the way his former peers mess with the natural balance of things. He reluctantly agreed to lead the forward expedition, and he's been regretting that decision every minute. Oh, and he has a velociraptor as a pet.
  • Becca plays as Ziktang, a rugged human hunter/survivalist that has a way with people, is strong and skilled, but intensely afraid of both the dark and his own strength. Yeah, we're not sure how he's a hunter either. He hides being afraid of the dark really well.

There are several other important people in the forward expedition (which numbers at twenty-five altogether), but they're not quite as important as the player characters.

Anyway, the characters began their journey from the last town on the frontier before uncharted territory begins. Their first obstacle? A mountain range like a spine down the center of the continent. After some trouble among the ranks (naturally, mostly involving Jared) including failed attempts at flirting by Connor directed at Jared's apprentice, very, very successful attempts at flirting from David at Jared's apprentice, and Jared's subsequent mistake in thinking that Connor might have succeeded and the inevitable "threaten Connor's life" scene, the party finally got underway. After some issues involving Jared accidentally spouting out some untrue information about his character's sexuality, the soldiers hired to keep the party safe stopped flirting with his character and started mocking her. This continued on for some time. The characters also discussed various legends revolving around what might be living in the mountains--the Sandies have many tales about giants living in said mountains. 

Oh, and they hunted lions. That happened too.

They finally reached the foothills of the mountains and set up a base camp from which to do some exploring to figure out both what would be a safe way to go through the mountains and is there any danger nearby? Trevor, Jared, Connor, and Becca (leaving David back at base camp, mostly because he had already left for the night in real life) set out to do said exploring, and came across some interesting things. First, they tracked tyrannosaurus tracks, which led them to not only the remains of a humanoid that had been partially devoured by said dinosaur, but also to some sort of effigy and an eight-foot long blade that might be a giant's paring knife.

They quickly left the region and went back to base camp. Then they headed north instead of south, looking at some passes there that might be promising. They discovered what eventually turned out to be an entire overgrown city built into the sides of a canyon. After resisting the urge to explore a distant tower, they made their way to a crater lake that was much more westardly than the tower, which was covered in temple-like structures strung out like spiderwebs across the water. Since it was both dark and raining, they decided to spend the night in one such building. Connor found a hundred-foot tall mosaic depicting the deity he plays in Dawn of Worlds--the god of the sun. After waking up and having the chance to see more of the temple, Connor also realized how well-tended the structure was. This wasn't abandoned like the rest of the city was. He found a well-trimmed garden, and soon afterward he found a dragon. 

A giant soon followed, and that's where we ended the session. 

We've had a lot of fun so far--made a lot of great jokes, had some interesting ideas pop up in the midst of play, and generally enjoyed ourselves and the game. So far, we're all liking Fate, and hopefully that continues as we delve further into the system. Once I'm really familiar with it, I'll probably do a review of the game and what it offers, in case any of you are interested in picking it up (it's free on the internet). 

Well, that's about all from this end. Monday we continue the adventure, which is part one of the campaign, and entitled "Do You See The World?" (Also a reference to "Wait For Me" by Rise Against.) It should be a blast. Until next time! 

Oh, happy Fourth of July, by the way, and thanks again for reading.

My Favorite Video Games

Well, it's time to talk about games again. This week, I'm going to give you a list of my top ten favorite video games of all time, as well as a review for each one. It should be fun, so stick around!

10. Alan Wake

Alan Wake is one of the most recent games I've enjoyed, and despite the older release dates on most of the other games on this list, I'm not some sort of retro video game elitist or anything. To be honest, many of my favorite games are favorites at least partially because of nostalgia though they are all fantastic games in their own right.

Alan Wake is a fantastic thriller/horror third-person shooter filled with mysteries and puzzles and one of the most fun, interesting stories I've ever encountered in a video game. The writers in charge of the storyline absolutely knew what they were doing and knew how to use the mechanics of the game to perfectly complement the pacing of the story. 

You play as author Alan Wake as he heads on vacation with his wife, Alice. He hasn't been able to write a word in two years, but he hopes this time away will clear his mind and get him to a point where can start working again. Things start to go wrong almost immediately. 

I won't say much more, because the entire game is a giant mystery and suspense extravaganza that you just have to experience yourself, but suffice it to say, this is one of the coolest games I've ever played, both in terms of story and gameplay. I will put a mild content warning on this one for some language, but other than that, this is a great game that anyone who enjoys a good story will have a blast with.

9. Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie

With a title like that, most people who are at all serious about video games would turn away with disgust. Video game tie-ins to movies are notoriously bad. But trust me, this is probably the best video game based off of a movie to ever be created. You play as Jack, the main male character of Peter Jackson's film (which is also fantastic, by the way, and has my "I cried at the end" stamp of approval) and Kong himself as they try to survive the perils of Skull Island. Most of the game is a first-person shooter, played from Jack's perspective as the characters are attacked by giant insects, angry natives, and, of course, dinosaurs. 

This is probably the most intense experience I've ever had in a shooter. You are on edge every single moment, trying to use every piece of equipment you find to survive against the terrors of the island. And then you get to the Kong levels, where you get to beat up T-Rexes, and the game becomes that much better. I definitely enjoyed the Jack levels more, but both perspectives work together to create an exciting narrative that follows and expands upon the movie's story. 

If you enjoyed the movie and like action-adventure survival games, play this one. If you didn't like the movies, but still enjoy this type of game, play this one. If you've never played any video games before, play this one. It's a blast.

8. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves

I admit, I will never understand the appeal about the various Nintendo games such as Mario or Donkey Kong. They have never been all that fun for me, and maybe that's because I grew up on Saga and Playstation, but when I play games like the Sly series, I tend to question why anyone would go anywhere but to Playstation. The Sly series is goofy, cartoony, and altogether amazing. Though the most recent addition to the series, Sly 4 (which was not made by Sucker Punch, the original creators of this series) was definitely lacking, the third and second installations in the series (bear in mind, I've still never played the original game) are top-notch in every way.

Sly 3 follows where Sly 2 left off, and though I won't tell you where that is, since it'd be spoilery, I will tell you that there was triumph and tragedy of all sorts. The opening sequence of Sly 3 features our main character, Sly Cooper, thief extraordinaire, sneaking into a base with the security of Fort Knox to steal back his family's long-hidden treasure. The opening sequence ends as he is brought to the brink of death by the hand of a gigantic monster genetically engineered by the main villain of the game (and the one who is hiding Sly's family treasure). We then enter a flashback sequence that explains how Sly got to this point. 

The story that follows is one of the coolest of my video game experiences. Sly sets out to gather the perfect team to break into his family's vault and steal back it's secrets. He travels across the world, finding old friends and new ones to aid him in the ultimate heist. The entire game is full of good ol' fashioned heist novel-esque goodness, in a goofy world where everyone are animals. 

7. Sly 2: Band of Thieves

Just a smidge above the excellence that is Sly 3 is it's predecessor. Though Sly 3 had multiplayer modes, several awesome mini-games built throughout the story, and wonderful gameplay overall, I think Sly 2 beats it out through pure storytelling excellence. This game is full of twists and turns, horrible villains and wonderful heroes, and emotionally powerful moments that make you yell "no!" at your TV. 

I actually played this game after  playing Sly 3, and even though I knew the ending of the game, I still had so much fun playing that I was completely engrossed in the story and the wonder of it. I absolutely recommend this game and this series. Absolutely wonderful action-adventure games filled with humor, great characters, and a driving story.

6. Star Wars: Battlefront II

Of course, I have to include this game on my list. Arguably the most popular Playstation 2 game of all time, Battlefront II builds upon its incredibly fun predecessor and perfects it in this action-packed, customizable, endlessly fun shooter that features Star Wars battles at their finest. Filled with all sorts of game modes and options, a wonderful and heart-wrenching campaign that follows the life of a veteran member of the 501st Legion of clone troopers, and dozens of different fun classes to play as, Star Wars: Battlefront II is the game that has me so excited about the upcoming sequel from DICE that I could burst. 

This game was an amazing and integral part of my childhood. I had so much fun playing it with my brother, over and over again, and endlessly customizable game modes meant "one more match" could be as long as we wanted it to be. And with cheat codes? Oh, the fun was endless. I distinctly remember the anticipation my brother and I had for this game, and how much fun it was to play it for the first time the day it came out. We stayed up way past our bedtime, but our mother, knowing how much fun we were having, let it slide. She's pretty awesome.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II: The Rise of the Witch King

Yes, I realize what an incredibly long title that is. Technically, this is an expansion of a sequel, but it is what this series became when you got to the end of the road that made it so fantastic. This is undoubtedly my favorite Real Time Strategy game of all time and is filled with so much Lord of the Rings epicness that it made childhood me giddy with delight. Being able to live out the epic battles of the films I had enjoyed so much as a child was wonderful, and Connor and I played the heck out of this game.

Unfortunately, like most video games, Connor was better at it than I was, and when he played as the Elves, he would always win, no doubt about it. It was still a blast, however, and it was filled (like Star Wars: Battlefront) with loads of extra material taken from the expanded universe beyond the films. You got to summon Tom Bombadil for crying out loud! When paired with various mods that let you play across hundreds of more maps and with dozens of more factions from the Lord of the Rings mythos, this game had a nearly endless amount of enjoyment for a couple of young boys obsessed with Tolkien's world and Peter Jackson's vision of it.

This game has everything--you can jump right into a battle against any opponent(s) on dozens of cool maps from around Middle-Earth, you can conquer Middle-Earth in its entirety (or save it) in a War of the Ring mode, and you can play through two fantastic campaigns (one highlighting the events in the northern part of Middle-Earth during the War of the Ring, and the second, added in the expansion, you can play as Angmar as it conquers Arnor). Oh, and did I mention you can create your own hero? Yeah, Connor and I had some fun with that one. 

If you like The Lord of the Rings and RTS games, play this one, I beg you.

4. Icewind Dale

This game has an incredible amount of nostalgic power for me. Despite its increasingly difficult battles and relatively crappy graphics, the story and character creation and advancement in this game will always hold a special place in my heart. Icewind Dale takes place in the far north of Dungeons and Dragons' "Forgotten Realms" setting, and follows a group of adventurers that you have complete control over as they get further and further involved in a dark plot involving ancient powers, magical artifacts, and hordes and hordes of dangerous monsters.

As I mentioned above, one of the most exciting parts of the game for me will always be character creation. I've always loved the options you get, even though it is Second Edition AD&D that it's based off, and the entire game just feels in your hands, rather than you just being led along a railroad with cutscenes and characters that you don't control. And no, over the course of the game, there aren't a whole lot of really dynamic choices that you get to make that completely changes the flow of the story--the story continues on despite anything you really do. But it never feels like you're forced to go further. You always want to continue through the dungeon, wading through battle after battle, because of the way character creation and advancement feels and because of the mystery and depth of the story itself.

The voices that you get to choose for your characters are arguably the most memorable bits of the entire game. The voice actors are incredible, and since you get to choose who speaks for which character, you get to choose the character's personality, even if that personality is never really the center of attention in the game. The NPC interaction in-game is text-based and relataively minimilastic, but I have never minded it one bit. I just have enjoyed the world and the story so much over the years that I continue to play, even though I've never beaten the game and I probably never will.

3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Arguably the best Star Wars game ever created, and certainly the best Star Wars role-playing video game ever created, KOTOR (as it is affectionately called) was revolutionary when it came out. I actually played its sequel first and loved it as well, but the original KOTOR is where Bioware's RPG mastery shines. The story is probably the best ever devised, not only for a Star Wars video game, but for role-playing games in general. It is full of dramatic game-changing decisions, wonderful dynamic characters, and completely voice-acted NPC interaction. 

This game was actually made by the same people who made the engine that Icewind Dale is built on, and that created the game that started it all for truly amazing role-playing video games, Baldur's Gate (another D&D Forgotten Realms game). And as I said, they sure know how to tell a story. I've played through this game three times, and each and every time I enjoyed it immensely. It has a really good replayability factor, as there are so many choices and decisions to be made, not only in the main story, but also in the various side quests and in your own character's development. The first time I played the game, I went through the entire thing not realizing that I had rejected an opportunity to gain another NPC companion. The game did such a good job of immersing me in the story and making the choices I made matter that I didn't remember that it was a game. I just wanted to continue the story. 

Hmm, I just realized that I didn't give you any sort of premise for what this game is about. Well, it's set thousands of years before the events of the movies, in a time when the Old Republic is still ruling, though in a decline, and Jedi are much more numerous. You play as a Republic soldier aboard a ship that gets attacked above a contested planet, and you get caught into a conflict bigger than anything the galaxy has seen in years.

And the best thing? Everything you do matters.

2. Civilization V

This game is my favorite game that doesn't have a main story. It's a TBS (turn-based strategy) game that allows you to control history from beginning to end through the building and advancing of your own civilization. Civ 5 is part of a long-running series of Civilization games made by the gaming genius Sid Meier. I have played this game so much. You have absolutely no idea how much dedication and time I've put into this game and it's prequels. This is the kind of game that really gets me involved--I get to create my own civilization, change history, shape a whole new world! That sort of thing excites me. I've played through many a world idea for a fantasy book using this game, as a sort of springboard to get me thinking about the history and interactions between countries in whatever fantastical world I'm developing at the moment. War, culture, government, expansion, and everything else involved in a world-spanning epic is right here at your fingertips and you can control all of it.

Now, when I first got Civilization V, I was rather disappointed. I didn't like the changes they had made from Civ IV, and was sort of disillusioned with the gameplay. Looking back on those days, I have no idea what I was thinking. After playing Civ IV for a while, I went back to V and found that I was in love again. For whatever reason, the mechanics just needed some getting used to, so after many hours of gameplay (and two expansions that really made the game into what it was truly meant to be), I was hooked, utterly and completely. 

One time I even did a hot seat game against myself with eight different players, all controlled by me. I may have developed a mild case of schizophrenia, but I think I'm over it now. But seriously, play this game. It's fantastic, and full of strategy goodness.

1. Shadow of the Colossus

And so we reach my favorite game of all time. What some consider to be the best Playstation 2 game of all time, and what I consider to be the best video game ever created. Ever. Shadow of the Colossus. It's an epic action-adventure game where the only enemies are giant demon-possessed mountains, and you play one guy with a sword, a bow, and a horse. 

Everything about this game is minimalistic in all the right ways. There aren't hordes of minions to fight. There aren't other characters crowding up the world. And the story is so simplistic and yet wonderful. You play one man. The love of your life is dead, and so you have traveled to a forbidden land where a being is said to dwell with the power to resurrect the dead. You have an ancient sword, which you have stolen from your village, which is said to be the only thing that can help you in the forbidden land. You ride for days and when you finally reach your destination, the being makes a deal with you. Kill sixteen giant monsters with that sword and the love of your life will be brought back. That brings us to the tagline for the game, which is one of the most brilliant ever devised.

Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain.

The game sets a perfect mood of isolation. It's just you, your horse, and miles of open landscape for you to explore as you try to find and slay each of the horrible creatures you were tasked to conquer. Each of the "colossi" has a very distinct strategy required to beat them, and once you beat the game, different modes open up that time your battle or increase the difficulty of the fight. But the story and the experience of it and the world are where this game strikes that perfect balance of minimalism and extreme satisfaction. Connor and I collectively have spent more hours on this game than probably any other we've ever played. We've beaten the game countless times, and though we've lost that initial saved game, we will always remember the countless hours spent finding and slaying colossi or simply exploring the beautiful world spread out before us.

And the music. Augh, don't even get me started. It has such a beautiful score at all the right moments. Please, if you have ever played video games seriously, pick up this game (they've made a remastered version for the Playstation 3 and possibly 4, though I'm not sure about that last one). You will not regret it, I promise you.

Conclusion

Well, that was fun. Thanks for coming along on this ride with me, full of nostalgia and endless hours of entertainment. Feel free to comment with your favorite video games, and let me know what you think about my reviews of these games, if you've played them! As always, thanks so much for reading.