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Critical Role is the Nerdiest Thing Ever

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…And you absolutely need to watch it.

Critical Role is a show streaming on twitch every Thursday. A bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors roll dice and play Dungeons & Dragons – in the words of Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, at least. It also just happens to be my current obsession, as I am in the fourth rewatch of it while also getting up at 4 AM every week to watch the newest episode as it is streamed. And sometimes even twice a week to catch the after show Talks Machina on Tuesdays.

(Sidenote: That’s 4 AM German time. It’s 7 PM California time where they’re filming, and you just do your own math from there.)

All episodes are available on youtube and Geekandsundry.com, the entity behind this shindig, where they’re uploaded on Mondays after airing, but only accessible via the Geek and Sundry website for about two months or so. They’re immediately available after airing if you subscribe to the twitch channel (which you can do at no additional cost if you have an amazon prime account) or pay for access on Geek & Sundry’s own streaming service, alpha, which has additional overlays, snarky written commentary, and half an hour of extra content of Talks Machina.

And I mean, if that one sentence premise already sounds appealing to you, my job here is done and you can just follow up on the links and get started immediately. Just, be warned, the series is a bit like TV Tropes, it will take over your life for a while, and demand a whole damn lot of time.

And they never even sit like this.

In fact, as I am writing this, episode 88 is coming up next Thursday. That’d already be a hefty number for your average hour long television series; almost 4 full seasons worth, really. The problem is that the episodes aren’t an hour long. They average in at around 3, with some pushing five hours – such as 2016’s final episode, 79 did, which featured the finale to a 40 episode story arc and had me seriously worried about whether I’d make it to my dentist appointment at 9:30.

As of episode 78, without the breaks and Q&As and “Critmas” segments during which the cast opens presents sent to them by the viewer base, there was more than 300 hours of pure story content available.

So, yeah, catching up takes a while, and the show isn’t ending soon, either. It’s a bit of a commitment. The sheer amount of time needed is prone to scaring off people from even starting the series, so this piece right here will be my attempt to counteract that.

If you like your content in a neat TL;DR slide form, there’s also a presentation you could watch.

The Lay Of the Land

So, first things first, the show has almost no visuals beyond people sitting at tables, rolling dice, fumbling with paper, eating, drinking out of occasionally oversized mugs, and making faces at each other. And everything except for the faces is completely unrelated to what is going on in the story at any given moment, unless Matt Mercer goes into full monster mode.

Doing what he does best.

Well, and in later episodes sometimes there’s really fancy battle maps.

And now while the cast interacting with each other is basically the best thing about this, they’re also all trained voice actors, and since everything lives and dies from Matt Mercer’s ability to tell a story and impersonate characters and monsters and whatever else you need, you can very comfortably listen to these episodes like you would to a very long podcast. I hear that’s very nice for a dedicated workout or something. Personally, I use them as audio books to go to sleep to a lot myself.

Sitting down and watching a 3+ hour episode in one sitting without being bored is also completely possible, of course. Even if you catch a slow episode and not much else is going on, the cast is very, very nice to look at.

Even though they only do costumes for the opening. Still really pretty without them.

Death is Cheap, Until it isn’t

One oddity out of the way immediately: This is a D&D campaign. In D&D, once you have access to a decently leveled cleric, death becomes a minor inconvenience so long as there’s a body left. Drag their cold, lifeless asses to the next temple, pay a fine for the spell maybe, bam, back to live they are. Those are the base game mechanics.

This is what DM means, by the way. It’s fun to say in public.

Matthew Mercer puts a homebrewed twist on that, in that there are dice rolls involved. There essentially need to be offerings to bring the soul back to the body, and you can fail these offerings. And even if you succeed, there’s a chance the ritual itself might fail, as it all ultimately depends on one last die roll made by the DM.

Now, mathematically speaking, this still makes resurrections easier than collecting all the dragonballs, but the characters don’t act like that at all.

Death has happened on the show, so much so that at the time of writing this, only 2 out of the 7 lead characters haven’t died, and several who have died more than once. But this apparent “cheapness” of death is never, ever felt, since every new instant of death reduces the actors to sobbing messes, sparks some of the most raw and intimate character moments, and deeply affects characters even after being resurrected.

And those are always some of the best moments and episodes – death may be cheap-ish, but it is never laughed off.

Where To Start?

Episode 1 is not very beginner-friendly. If you are familiar with tabletop RPGs at all, you are well aware that most adventures start with a group of characters who all kind of suck meeting at a tavern and going to kill monsters of little consequence. Or answering a post on a job board of sorts. Or meeting in a prison cell.

Critical Role, however, starts after the cast has already been playing together for two years or so. They’re around level 9, no one is introduced beyond

Kima would have a very pragmatic solution to this.

the character background videos (that you should watch once or twice no matter where in the story you’re going to start), and they’ve even already been given the quest they’re on (rescue a Halfling paladin called Kima who went missing during her vision quest in the Underdark).

I tried starting with the first episode once and was very annoyed and very bored with it all. It’s still an excellent episode, just not an excellent start. If you’re anything like me, you need to be invested in something to care about what’s going on. And while I wouldn’t recommend my particular route to catch up, there are several ways to go about it.

See, since the show has just SO. MUCH. CONTENT, it only make sense that is has various different things to offer. It’s all about what you want to see, really.

…Though no matter what that is, start with the character introduction videos, the write ups of the characters I will do next week, and also the backstory video they made, explaining what happened before the stream started.

And also this video to get you going.

I just want people sitting around and having fun playing a D&D campaign!

…That’s cool. That’ll be episode 1 for you, pal. Or literally every other episode ever. But the one thing you can say about the beginning is that it feels the most like the classic playing a game around someone’s kitchen table approach to these things. The story arc is very self-contained, on the shorter side with 13 episodes, the stakes are… The lowest they’re ever at until like where we are now (at episode 86, before the real new arc has really started), and it’s the closest to classic dungeon delving we ever get.

I want a quick start on the characters and then some light-hearted fun!

Well, who doesn’t? In this case, I’d recommend skipping the first 13 episodes, and catching the tail-end of things in episode 14.

That way, you meet all the characters in their natural habitat, whereas the Underdark has most of them out of their element in one way or the other.

Uneventful one or two episode long adventures like this.

Here, they’re all at their best and most natural, and the dynamics are easy to pick up on. You also get introduced to Kima, Allura, and GILMORE! Who are probably the most frequently reoccurring and most highly regarded NPCs in the entire series.

Another nice feature is that you first get to feel out how the party interacts with each other, and then see that challenged when they’re forced to split up for four episodes and play nice with different people. The entire Vasselheim arc (episodes 14-23) is just excellent for that, even though it’s mostly smaller adventures for 1 or 2 episodes at a time that are very much self-contained. Of course, that also means there’s not much continuity for you to keep up with, so you can basically dive right in.

I want intrigue, suspense, horror, and drama!

Then your starting point will be episode 24, my friend!

Shady characters from a party member’s past come a knocking, causing the party to try and play the political game for a bit to oust them on a public stage. When that plan goes tits up (like most plans do), they have to clear their names and find a city overtaken by undead and other dark shit, causing them to start a rebellion against forced darker and more evil than they could have anticipated.

Oh, also, not just the city is overtaken by dark shit, a party member’s mind is, too.

This arc, usually referred to as the Whitestone or Briarwoods arc, is where the show really came into its own, and where you really start to fear Matt Mercer because he is mean and brutal and probably some shade of chaotic evil. Well, neutral, because at least he sometimes feels sorry about torturing everyone.

Everything’s close and personal, the relationships between party members really start to pay off, and some of the most iconic moments happen during this time. It is also one of the most well-handled vengeance arcs I have ever seen, the effects of which are still being felt 30-40 episodes later.

Just get me to the big, exciting fights already!

Well, I mean, all of the fights are big and exciting to a degree, but okay, I hear you.

So, the biggest, baddest, and longest arc of the series starts in episode 39 (but starting at 37 helps for context). It’s the point where the series goes from some dungeon and almost no dragons to no dungeons and way too many dragons.

There’s a lot of build-up to the individual dragon fights, and a lot of character development happens in-between, and oftentimes, it’s not the actual dragon fights that hit the group the hardest, but the callbacks to their personal arcs.

Your road to all the important fights goes thusly:

50 – 55: Westruun/Umbrasyl, and also Grog’s personal arc.

64 – 71: Draconia/Vorugal, also Percy’s issues come back with guns for the most devastating fight to the group yet in 68.

79 – 83: Endgame. But I really don’t recommend starting there, because there’s a LOT of personal issues leading up to these episodes, and they just don’t pack the same punch without dealing with those.

How about some good, old fashioned fetch quests?

Oh, oh, absolutely! These intersect with the dragons, though, because why settle for one classic when you can have two in technically the same 40+ episode arc?

See, to properly fight way too many dragons, you need the appropriate swag. And the so-called Chroma Conclave arc is basically a steady back and forth between getting the swag and fighting the dragons. And of course, the required items are spread far and wide between fun locations on several planes of existence, which more often than not cause amazing shenanigans.

43 & 44: This is your fetch quest, go forth and get started!

47 – 52: Get more information and almost die for few cool things.

59 – 63: Feywild arc

65 – 67: Ank’Harel arc

74 – 76: Elemental Plane of Fire arc.

As you can see, it is pretty intimately intertwined with the dragon fights, so you can basically just start with 39 and keep going from there for the most context and best character moments, but, after all, this piece is trying to get you to start the series in a way tailored to your personal tastes, so if you find any of these things individually appealing, more power to you. Speaking of which…

…uhm, I actually would like some romance? If that’s okay?

Oh. Oh friend, there is nothing wrong with that. And unlike most tabletop RPG campaigns I have sort of witnessed at one point or another, this series actually has romance in it. Two. Three. Maybe four. Sort of. It’s complicated. Oh my god, technically five. Six. Aaah, I need to stop counting.

Okay. So, first of all, the romance angle is what got me actually invested enough to watch from start to finish. I mean, not that I don’t appreciate a good narrative without any romance in it, but in case it has been too subtle so far, apparently I am also the go-to person for shipping on this site now. Not that I don’t actively encourage that.

There’s a few ways to go about this. Thing is, the romance arcs between the actual player characters are very closely tied to their personal development, so it’s all interspersed with the crazy amount of episodes we have. This is why I’d argue that the couples that do end up being sort of canon at some point very organically developed out of the narrative, but as is always the nature of things, party of the fandom will violently disagree with that. Violent disagreements will be covered in another piece on this, though.

At this point, there’s even been ship wars about the ACTUAL real life couples.

If you want the most bang for your buck, you kind of need to start with episode 14 and go along for the ride (which ironically was also the episode I recommended for the most character development, amazing how that works, isn’t it?), but I understand if that’s too early for you and you want to be caught up eventually.

Now, for some reason, when left completely to their own devices, the cast somehow managed to have their characters hook up in like a Pride and Prejudice/Much Ado About Nothing formula:

There’s one pairing that is established kind of early (if you call the early thirties kind of early), and then delayed for another thirty episodes because of drama, misunderstandings, and other stuff like the world ending. They take up some space in the narrative, and in-universe, are basically the main ship up to a point. It’s just that for that pairing you’d have to start at like episode 20 and wait 45 episodes for a resolution, so, uhm, as much as I love them, it’s not what I’m recommending here.

No, what I’m recommending is starting at episode 57. Both because it is one of my absolute favorites ever, and because from there on up until… Uhm. It’ complicated. 72, 78, 87, ongoing? You get the most neatly condensed little romance arc the show has to offer so far. It’s not the main plot, ever, at all, but it’s the most condensed build up and payoff in that regard.

Technically, that particular ship canonically (as in, the actors said so) started way early, like episode 5, and you can also see it coming (if you’re paying attention, as a lot of viewers inevitably don’t) from the early 30s onwards, but yeah. This would be the secondary pairing that sneaks up on you, and yet ends up being the fan-preferred one. But unlike in the examples I listed, there’s not even a little initial dislike. For any of these.

Boy, don’t ever let me ramble about romances, I have a series to sell here, dammit.

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!

Full speed ahead, not knowing what’s coming? Well do I have a suggestion for you!

See, that 40+ episode arc we had just wrapped up. The episode coming up the next Thursday from when this was written is 88. And right now, it’s actually kind of easy to just jump right in.

Like, I’ve seen people recommend starting with episode 86 and then catching up, but I’d actually say, for maximum catch-up in minimal time, watch the first half of 84, the second half of 85 (timestamped here for your convenience) and then just watch from there. Admittedly, the second half of 84 is a nice illustration of how shell-shocked and paranoid the party has become after years of adventuring and betrayals, but nothing really happens, so you can skip that. The first half of 85 is a really cool one on one fight though, so watching that is fun, and makes the second half hit harder even if you have no real idea what’s going on.

Your catching up can then also be finding out all the things Scanlan Shorthalt willfully misconstrued, which is a fun perspective to have.

But besides that, the stakes have never been lower, and the character literally embark on a side adventure far away that is related to one of them personally, but not in a way you necessarily need to have any more context for than this. It’s Aang going to the northern water tribe, in more ways than one. Strap in and have fun!

Though I mean, at the end of the day, you could probably tune into just about any episode of the show and get something out of it, no matter at what part of the story you jump into. Because…

It’s all about the Characters

Remember how someone did the math that there’s over 300 hours of content for this series? About two thirds of that is entirely devoted to character interaction and development.

Just think about that for a moment. That’s more character development than anything but the longest running procedurals or soap operas ever got in – and with the same cast, mostly. That means that literally everyone, even the side characters all played by Matt Mercer, gets in hefty amounts of development, even the ones that are more easily brushed off as gag characters. Like, my first reaction to the first episode was “Oh, great, everyone’s elves, why the fuck is there a guy with a gun in a fantasy setting, and oh, wow, they have a giant guy who hits people, and a tiny guy who hits on people. Really original, that.”

The latter two are archetypes of characters, especially in a fantasy setting, that I just loathe. The latter two are the only characters on the show to date who have made me bawl my eyes out. And I basically never cry about fictional stuff. I will yell about it, a lot, but not cry. So, kudos.

And I mean, proper investment in the characters can make any crap show of a narrative work. Ask me about my decade in the Naruto fandom some time, oh boy that’s going to be fun. But the thing is, the narrative Matt Mercer creates is just an almost perfect balance of external and internal threats; we basically alternate between taking down threats to the world and facing the characters personal demons. And the narrative is excellent in challenging the characters to grow as people and as a group.

In a quick aside, while there is bad and dark shit happening a lot, it seems to me that the narrative as a whole actively defies the grimdark. There is always brightness, always hope to be found, and that is something assured by both the DM and the characters themselves. There’s entire episodes devoted to them finding levity in the darkest moments, and encouraging each other to hold on hope and all that mushy stuff that never feels mushy but entirely earned.

There is no grimdark here. Only dick jokes.

But it’s also kind of about the actors

So there’s no real script. Matt Mercer has the external threats, the overarching narrative planned out to a degree, but if you have any experience with tabletop RPGs at all, you are fully aware that you can never account for what curveballs the players are going to throw your way.

Hence, every interaction and all that delicious development I mentioned, is improvised. It’s improv sessions with dice. It’s a group of predominantly voice actors (though most if not all of them have some experience with stage and screen acting as well) improvising what their characters would do or say in any given moment.

This is a thing they used to do. More than once.

The thing is, they have been with these characters for almost five years now. And this is something I say both as praise and out of exasperation with the fandom – they know what they’re doing. They know their characters really, really well, and have been working on them constantly, every week, since the show started almost two years ago. They know their shit, and seeing how they have acted in all kinds of narratives before, they know what appeals to them, what doesn’t, and what they’d like to try out for their characters.

What I mean to say is, watching this show makes an excellent case for just trusting your actors with the material, even in a show that isn’t all improvised. I know many a scripted show that might have benefitted from that on occasion.

The other side of the coin is that these people have also been playing a game together for almost five years now, and they were friends even before that. This is weird, I know, but part of the charm of the show, and one of its biggest strengths in my experience is just how much these people love and respect each other, in-character and out.

At its core, this show is about a group of friends having fun together. Usually while playing D&D, or while on their own talk show. There’s copious amounts of footage of them just unwrapping presents from the audience together. Sometimes they play Just Dance. And sometimes they throw cream at each other’s faces for a good cause. They also basically constantly mock each other over twitter, so you know where the casts of most shows have falling outs over the years, these guys are still as tight as ever.

Conclusion

So, yeah. Critical Role is my favorite thing right now, I adore almost everything about the story and the people involved, so much so that I can’t shut up about it and next week, will deliver a lengthy introduction on all of the characters and actors, because as described above, it’s a bit of a package deal.

 


Images courtesy of geekandsundry.com

Jana should be studying for her law degree right now. She prefers to obsess over pop culture instead.

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Gaming

Keeping Kosher In Monster Hunter World

David

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Monster Hunter World is the best selling game in its series, with over 7.5 million units shipped. There are many reasons for this: The game is more accessible for new players, it’s not just on a handheld console anymore, there was actually some marketing push for this game…the list goes on.

However, I personally think one of the reasons the game is so popular is its food eating cutscenes. Before you go on a hunt, you can eat a meal at a canteen that gives you buffs. You’re also treated to an adorable and very tasty looking cutscene of the Palicoes (a cat like race that helps you hunt monsters) making your meal. The details are so lavish and the end product looks so good I couldn’t help thinking about it off and on for weeks. And one question that kept recurring was, “Would any of this food be Kosher?”

Kosher foods, for those of you who may not know, are foods that conform to the Jewish kashrut (dietary law). The word treif describes any food that does not abide by this law. Determining what foods are Kosher or not can get complicated since different groups of animals have different rules. At its most basic though, there are three groups of animals: land, flying, and fish (invertebrates as a rule are treif). Conveniently enough, most monsters in Monster Hunter World could fit under the same categories. We’ll go through each category and examine a few monsters from the game to decide if any (or all) of them can be Kosher.

Before we begin though, I’d like to give major props to one of our editors, Gretchen. Before I wrote this article, I knew next to nothing about what makes a food Kosher or not. Gretchen not only educated me, but did a lot of the heavy lifting, and for that I am grateful.

By Land

The first monster up for discussion is called Uragaan. Uragaan lives mostly in volcanic regions and is identifiable its large chin, its shiny, lustrous golden hide, and the spikes along its back. It consumes mostly bedrock and those large spikes on its back are actually crystals. It produces a sticky, tar like substance on its stomach, which it uses to attach explosive rocks to itself as a means of defense. If someone were to knock down or kill Uragaan, they’d be able to mine the vast mineral wealth on it’s back…but they wouldn’t be able to eat it, as Uragaan isn’t Kosher.

Not Kosher

In order for a land animal to be Kosher, it has to meet three basic requirements. First, it can not be a carnivore or a scavenger. It can not eat meat. Second, it must have a split hoof. Horses aren’t Kosher, but animals like cattle and sheep are. Finally, the animal must chew its cud. Pigs have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud and thus are not Kosher. Uragaan meets the first rule, but fails with the second and third. As such, Uragaan can never be Kosher.

The next monster up is Kirin. Kirin resembles a unicorn or (more accurately) a Chinese Qilin. It has a single large horn growing out of its head, with a white mane and tail that seem to stand on end from static electricity. It’s body appears to have fur, but those actually are scales. Kirin also seems to crackle with electricity as it walks. Looking at the picture we can see clearly that it has a split hoof. The game doesn’t tell us what it eats or if it chews its cud, but if we extrapolate what it looks like and compare to say, an antelope or a deer (both of which are Kosher) we can safely assume that Kirin is Kosher as well, right? Wrong.

Also Not Kosher

Kirin fails to be Kosher not by the quality of the animal, but by the quality of its behavior. You see, Kirin belongs to a group of monsters called Elder Dragons and these monsters, in addition to being tougher the ordinary monsters, are immune to traps and tranqs unlike other monsters. This presents a problem, as in order for meat be Kosher, the butchering must happen in one swift action using a sharp knife. Shooting the creature with an automatic repeating crossbow is not the way to do it. Kirin, unfortunately, is not Kosher for this reason.

We come now to the last land based monster in this article: The Kelbi. Kelbi, unlike the monsters mentioned thus far, are not aggressive. They are small, and the males are usually green in color while the females and juveniles are blue. Males also have large, prominent horns while female horns are smaller. In-game, Kelbi horns are medicinal, and players make potions out of them. I’m also happy to report that Kelbi might be our first (possibly) Kosher monster.

Kosher! (maybe)

Like Kirin, Kelbi has a split hoof. We also know that Kelbi are herbivores, but it is unknown whether or not Kelbi chew their cud. Extrapolating and comparing them to real world deer and goats though, we can have more confidence that Kelbi are, in fact, Kosher.

By Air

Now we will discuss birds. According to Jewish tradition, animals that fly and are not insects are birds. Thus animals such as bats are ‘birds’ in regards to Kosher rules. The rules for birds themselves are fairly simple. They can’t be predatory or scavengers. This rule immediately rules out the next monster on the list: Rathalos.

Not Kosher

Rathalos is known as the “King of the Sky” and is the male counterpart to Rathian, another flying monster.  Rathalos are bipedal wyverns, primarily red in color, with sharp, poisonous claws that they use to hunt with. In addition to that, they have a flame sac that they use to produce flaming projectiles from, and their long thick tail has a club at the end of it. But as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, no birds of prey can be Kosher.

The next monster on the list is one of the oddest in the game. Pukei-Pukei resembles at first glance a giant chameleon with frog like eyes, wings, and green scales covering its body everywhere except around its wings and neck, where it has feathers. The Pukei-Pukei is an herbivore and it will eat poisonous plants so it can produce a poison to defend itself. Despite all of these peculiar traits, Pukei-Pukei appears to be Kosher.

Kosher! (Surprisingly!)

I was surprised to hear Gretchen tell me this, as I thought there would be no way a monster as weird as Pukei-Pukei could be considered Kosher. But as she laid the case out it began to make more sense. Despite some reptilian traits, Pukei-Pukei has more avian traits, and that classifies it as a creature of the air under the kashrut. As a creature of the air, it has to meat a few specifications. It does not scavenge like a vulture, nor does it hunt like a bird of prey. Thus, Pukei-Pukei meets the requirements.

And By Sea

There aren’t very many sea monsters in Monster Hunter World sadly. Only one of them really seems like it would count. And this one is Jyuratodus. Jyuratodus resembles nothing more than a bipedal coelacanth fish. It has two dorsal fins, two pectoral fins, two pelvic fins, and a long, thick tail that it can use to defend itself. It also covers itself in mud and other ooze, to act as another layer of defense and to possibly keep its gills and scales damp. Fortunately for us, practically the only water based monster in this game is also Kosher.

Kosher, and think of all the sushi.

For a sea animal to be considered Kosher, it must have fins and scales that can be removed. This generally means that the stereotypical fish is allowed, but not animals such as eel, lobster, squid or crab. Jyuratodus, despite its size and aggression does have fins and scales and would be Kosher.

The Hunt Goes On…

So what are we left with from this list? Two monsters that could be considered Kosher, three that are not, and one that might be, if it chews cud. And this is only a small sample of the monsters in the game. Not only that, but Capcom has plans to release more monsters as free DLC over the upcoming months. When the PC version of the game is out, I might revisit this article and expand on it. Until then though, happy hunting and bon appétit!


Images Courtesy of Capcom

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Analysis

Hopes and Fears for Deadfire

Michał

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The release of Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire, the sequel to an old-school RPG that’s close to my heart, was pushed back a month. An unfortunate state of affairs, to be sure, but tolerable if it gives the developers the time to eliminate bugs. It also gave me time to undertake another play-through of the original. This time, as a female dwarf druid from the Deadfire Archipelago, just to see if it becomes relevant.

And for those of us who appreciate traditional, yet forward-looking RPGs as I do, I’d like to talk a bit about what I hope and worry about in the sequel. Unfortunately, I was unable to get into the player beta that has been going on for some months now, for brutally fiscal reasons. So while I kept close tabs on the testers were saying, I must avoid making authoritative statements.

Instead, I’m going to cover some big topics that occur to me as I play Pillars of Eternity again and wait for Deadfire. Those are, in no particular order…

Spells: rest or encounter?

First things first: since I play a full spellcaster as my main character for the first time, I already can’t wait for Deadfire’s upgrade to spells with per-encounter uses, rather than per-rest. Having spells that only recharge on a full rest stunts the game’s pacing and makes balance very difficult. What we have here is three situations:

  • The caster doesn’t use any of their per-rest spells and doesn’t contribute much.
  • The caster does contribute without per-rest spells, using per-encounter or passive abilities. Each main casting class has those.
  • The caster dominates the encounter with powerful spells.

None of those situations are optimal. If we have either the first or the last, it means two extremes. If the second or the last, then it means those classes’ performance is similar to those with per-encounter or passive abilities, but they also sit on tactical nukes.

There’s really no way to balance it against classes whose abilities are available a number of times every encounter, or entirely passive. It will inevitably swing in the direction of some classes having more impact on the battle than others.

Resting as a pacing mechanic is notoriously unreliable, because the game can’t really control how much we rest. It can dole out camping supplies and make some areas impossible to rest in, but players can bypass it all. In a tabletop game, per-rest encounters will rely on the GM’s willingness and ability to enforce a particular pacing. In a video game…there’s no GM to do that.

This change has met with mixed reception. Aside from those who think it’s dumbing down the game, there have been concerns over insufficient quantity of spells and the fact that they take too long to cast. Meaning the battle might be over by the time you fire off that spell. The latter two are legitimate, and I hope the developers address them.

But regardless of what issues arise from a shift to a per-rest resource management, I really think it’s for the best. Per-rest spells are a relic of old-school D&D that has stuck around by inertia. We can’t be rid of it in D&D, so let’s at least remove it from Pillars.

Health and safety

The health system of Pillars of Eternity is somewhat controversial. Its removal in favor of a more traditional health in the sequel, perhaps more so. The original system measures two health “bars”: endurance and health.

Every time you take damage, you lose both, but while endurance regenerates by itself and through abilities, health doesn’t. You have at least four times as much health as endurance, which means it drops slowly. Once your health becomes lower than maximum endurance, the latter is also lower. Dropping to 0 endurance knocks you out, dropping to 0 health maims you, then kills you.

In theory, I like it. It’s a compromise between old-school unforgiving attrition and a more modern style where everyone gets back to full strength after each battle. But I’m not sure it works so well in practice.

Sometimes it does, and introduces slow sapping of your characters’ strength and forcing you to rest. But at other times, you either avoid damage enough for it not to matter or one character is focus-fired by enemies and their health drops dangerously low. So you have to rest even though everyone else is fine.

This particularly punishes characters who get into the thick of it without necessarily being tough and wearing heavy armor, but also back-like casters or shooters who end up target of enemy attacks. There’s no “taunt” mechanics that would straight-up force enemies to attack certain characters instead of others, either.

Deadfire will remove this duality and simply have health that acts like endurance did. Once you drop to 0, you’re once again knocked out, which results in maximum health dropping by 25%, in addition to injuries. But if it didn’t drop to 0, it will return after the fight just fine.

While I wish they could have tried to strike some sort of compromise and refine the health/endurance system, I can see why they did this instead. The old system was fiddly, random and many players didn’t understand it. Although in the last case I think the problem was with insufficient explanation. The game never tells us in plain terms how it works, so of course it confuses people. But other than that, I can respect their choice of predictable simplicity over continued tinkering.

Matters of romance

We don’t know a lot about romance in Deadfire, only that it will be there. It will also include non-heterosexual relationships, something rather conspicuously absent from the original – with the exception of openly lesbian Maneha and her crush on Pallegina. Whether or not Pallegina reciprocated it is less than clear. She’s flustered by Maneha’s attention, rather than threaten bodily harm as she usually does, so maybe?

This has drawn some ire from people. Some complaints stem from elitism, believing that romances are something from a BioWare game and Obsidian should be better. Others come from a place of homophobia, believing that the existence of non-heterosexual romances are a sign the SJWs are coming.

An actual concern one might raise is accidentally getting our character tangled up in a romance. The developers promise a complex system of inter-personal relationships, where all sorts of interactions will influence them. That’s great…if it works. I expect that they will still be predictable to some degree. But I also worry about accidentally making an NPC attracted to us.

Relationships developing in a way we didn’t expect or plan for is natural, of course. In fact, that’s what the supposed complex network of influence is meant to accomplish. But when it comes to romantic or even sexual matters…I feel it’s different. Having someone suddenly display such interest in your character can be uncomfortable.

We’ve seen it in RPGs before, particularly those from BioWare. That studio eventually adopted a system of making it absolutely clear we’re pursuing a line of dialogue that may develop into a relationship. What will Deadfire do here? Regardless of how they handle it, I do look forward to this new way of tracking relationships and influence among our companions.

Class relations…

One of the major features in the sequel is the ability to mix and match classes. Or, well, not mix and match, really. You can pick two classes and get abilities from both, but at a slower pace. While you will have a broader repertoire, you will get new tiers of abilities later than a single-class character of the same level would get.

I’ve been excited and worried about it ever since its announcement. It has so much potential for customization, but also for breaking the game. The balance team certainly has their hands full with it. By some accounts, single-class characters feel not so much weaker as constrained, compared to multi-classed ones. There’s just not enough abilities to pick from, or ability points to use. There have been some hints on how they plan to fix it, so I hope they do. This is a tremendous opportunity and I look forward to playing a greatsword-wielding Fighter/Rogue.

…and many more

There’s a good deal of other innovations Deadfire will include, but it would really take me a while to discuss them all. The new system for damage reduction and penetrating it, managing your ships, exploring the vast archipelago… this game promises to be huge, and what I discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg,

Whatever happens, Pillars of Eternity: Deadfire promises to stay on the same course of marrying old-school gameplay with innovative, fresh design. I have high hopes for it, with the usual trepidation over their getting dashed to the ground. But that’s just how it goes when a series doesn’t just repeat the same things over and over.


Images courtesy of Obsidian Entertainment

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Dialect is an amazing game that asks if dying languages should be saved

David

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Greetings readers! Today will be the first of hopefully many reviews of tabletop role playing games. Some of them more mainstream, and others somewhat obscure. Today’s review is going to be about one of the more obscure titles. The game is Dialect and it is made by Thorny Games. Dialect is about language. Specifically, how languages are born, can grow, change your way of thinking, and how they can die. The team working on it has quite a pedigree, and includes people like David Peterson, who created the fictional languages on Game of Thrones.

Now, full disclosure: This game was on Kickstarter, and I did back it. My review will be based on the initial digital copy of the game I was given after the crowd-funding campaign was successful. I played Dialect with three other people: M, T, and V, none of whom backed the crowd-funding campaign.  

The Game

Dialect itself is different then a lot of “traditional” tabletop RPGs in that there are no dice, and no GM running the game. All you need are index cards, the five different decks of language cards that come with it, and the rules. Dialect requires three to five players as well, counting yourself.

The first thing the players do when they begin a game of Dialect is picking a backdrop for the game. The backdrop (called an “Isolation” in-game) is what separates this group from the wider world. These Isolations range from the physical (A new colony on Mars) to the cultural (A thieves guild). The Isolation is what lets them develop their language. The language also changes with the Isolation as well, as the next step is to define three different “aspects” about the Isolation. These shape the language, and will vary from game to game. In one example from the book, an aspect for a colony on Mars might be the ever present dust storms. After that the players have to answer questions about their community. These are smaller than the aspects, but still can define how the language will grow and change.

Once the players have answered all the questions, they draw three “archetype” cards, choosing one of them to use. These cards define a role in the isolation, and range from Innocent to Zealot. Leader to Jester. Each archetype has a different relationship with the different aspects. Some relate to only one aspect, some relate to them all. After selecting an aspect, giving a bit of backstory to the character, and determining their name and what others call them, the meat of Dialect can begin.

Each player starts with three cards from the first language deck in their hand. These cards have different word ideas on them. They range from ‘Greeting’ to ‘Bad Omen’ to ‘Filler World’. The player then ties this word to one of the aspects, explaining how the aspect gave rise to this word. It’s at this point that the players can discuss what word fit the best. In the end though, only the person who played the card can decide what the word is. After that, the final step is to have an in-character conversation either using or conspicuously not using the word. The final step has the player draws a card from the second language deck, and play passes to the next person.

After each player has had a turn, the “Era” changes. Now the isolation will have to deal with hints that their way of life is ending. There are three eras. By the end of the third, the Isolation has ended, and the language (Or at least the culture that spoke it) dies.

THE GOOD

One of the goals of Dialect is to create a language based on what the players want. And in this, it succeeds spectacularly. The language cards are clear and concise. The round table nature of the game also makes sure that every player has a say. As ‘V’ puts it: ”The floor is pretty much always open for discussion, but it prods every player into the spotlight so nobody gets unintentionally left out. The ‘this is 100% your choice’ questions make you feel more attached to that element of the game.”

Another, smaller aspect of Dialect I particularly enjoyed was how the book (and by extension, the writers) were concerned about player’s comfort levels. They stress repeatedly how the group should know it’s limits, and to avoid situations or scenarios that might be triggering to other players. A lot of games do this nowadays, but few do it as frequently or as early as Dialect does.

Dialect is also open ended enough that it can be useful when used with other settings to define specific cultures. ‘M’ agreed with that sentiment, and added: “I feel like it was less a game in and of itself than one of those generators I see every now and then, to help build a setting or a space marine chapter or whatever else.”

One of the strongest aspects of Dialect is the re-playability. With the randomness of the cards, the different selections of Isolations, and even the contrasting moods of the players, you will have a totally different experience each time. ‘T’ put it best, saying: ”A lot of the games will be different each time. Between the scenarios and the players and the cards, everyone will have a different perspective.”

THE BAD

Dialect is not without its faults. The most prominent of which is the very thrust of it’s premise. A game about how languages die can be very high concept, and that can scare some players away. Another thing that can scare players away is the group role-playing and decision process. Some players are just naturally more timid than others. In ‘T’’s words: “as it stands someone who isn’t comfortable at the sort of ‘rping’ it out probably wouldn’t get the same enjoyment’

Another fault with Dialect that stems from its focus on language is that nearly all it’s focus is on the language. There is very little to help new players get used to roleplaying. There is also very little that helps distinguish between the language creation and the roleplaying aspect. ‘V’ had a bit to say on this: “I think the game’s biggest weakness, from what I played, was the actual roleplaying part. It’s 90% meta, OOC [Out of character] discussion of your language, then you suddenly have to scramble into character and improv on the spot.”

The final criticism I have with Dialect is that there are places in the rules where there is ambiguity. Some rules errata will fix that issue though.

FINAL VERDICT

Before I give my opinion on the game itself, there are a few things I would like to mention. The first is that the Isolation does not have to be literal. It can be as simple as a boarding school, or even a website where people go to congregate. I even noticed some parallels to a few of the Isolations and the early LGBT movement. Not that the LGBT movement is dead, but that the language of it has changed since the early days.

The second thing I want to tell you about is a story from the test game I ran before writing this review. The players were members of a thieves guild in early 19th century London. They were con-men, swindling rich aristocrats out of their money by selling them ‘Mummy dust’ that was actually just dirt scraped up off the side of the road. One of the words the came up with was the word ‘Stone’ to refer to a bad omen. Named after the newly discovered Rosetta Stone, the word took on new meaning in a few turns, and began to be a term for anyone who wouldn’t fall for their tricks. It became one of my personal favorite words that session. When the game ended, I realized that the word was dead. Only a game like Dialect could make me feel that way about a simple word.

Dialect is an amazing game. I highly recommend it for people curious about language, those who are looking for a tool to help flesh out their own worlds, or for anyone just looking for a unique, fun game that doesn’t require a lot of set-up. Everything from the art design to the rules to the cards all helps bring the main focus of Dialect into perspective: What is lost when a language dies? Are dying languages worth saving?

Having played Dialect, I can tell you the answer to the second question. Yes.


Images courtesy of Thorny Games

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