Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hardcore Games - You're Going to Die

Did you ever play Diablo II on Battlenet? I certain did. I admit to having a bit of addiction at that time to clicking wildly and crushing hellspawn for hours on end. Did you ever play Star Traders RPG? I certainly have. I admit to playing hours upon hours, rampaging the galaxy as a dread pirate, barely escaping bounty hunters and warships until death catches me, or surveying the galaxy, looking for ancient lost artifacts and eventually dying of multiple lost eye balls, hacked arms, and parasitic worms.

What compelled me to love and laud these games above many others? Diablo II had a term (and I can't remember if it was official, or player coined) that there was normal Diablo II and then there was Hardcore. In Hardcore mode, if you died once, you died forever. That same rule applied to your level 8 rogue who was trying to grind too fast or to your level 70 paladin who got caught in a bad mob of monsters or was doomed only because of a sudden surge of network lag. And the Trese Brothers Software lost a lot of level 70 characters back in the day. But, we kept coming back for more punishment.

Star Traders RPG is built on the same principles. You are a heroic or infamous captain, cruising the Quadrant and executing daring, crazy, or cunning moves to get rich, famous. But, as I saw on the forum once, "the world will grind you down and then you will die." You will eventually die. It's going to happen, just like in Diablo II, you can keep climbing but you will eventually end up in a bloody pile in the dust.

For me, the hook was this: your story, your suffering, and your trials are epic and compelling. You have never died, your story is a single running thread. Letting the computer kill you, and then respawning strips all that legendary away. I'd rather die a legend, I'd rather know I was going to die and keep pushing through and striking mighty blows until the end comes. It smacks of Norse mythology as well, in which the gods were told of the end of the world, in which man recognized death was inevitable, and both chose to stride forward with courage, for that was all that could be done.

As a game, without the Hardcore mode, I would never have gotten into Diablo II multi-player. But, hardcore hooked me just like so many other harsh worlds, genres, books and games. In the same way that I love my pen-and-paper RPGs to be brutal, realistic and unforgiving, I find that aspect undeniably addictive in computer games. Read George RR Martin, Melaine Rawn, go back and find a copy of Diablo II (Battlenet is still running!!!) or try your hand as a captain in Star Traders RPG, and get ready to have your heart ripped out as your characters triumph and fall. But oh how you will love it!

But that is what makes a legend. Legends are written in blood.

10 comments:

  1. Reminds me of the rogue-like games, most famous of which is nethack:

    http://www.nethack.org/

    No notion of save/reload on tough spots or do-overs. Each turn is permanent, leading to a unique sequence of events for each game. (The game would in fact corrupt stored characters if file meddling was attempted). An interesting twist in this one is the use of "bones files" in which dead character's ghosts randomly appear, and if defeated, yield some/all of that character's former gear.

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  2. I have never played a true roguelike game, but I have played some standard RPG's in a rogue-like manner. One playthrough of Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind I played with not doing do-overs or fixing poor decisions. I saved a lot only because the game crashed regularly. The playthrough involved a lot of running away and hiding from peril. I had to think seriously about what fights I got into. When you turned off the game music it could really make the game more entertaining.

    But it's hard to find a standard RPG that allows one to do that as some seem to expect you to try over and over again until you do it the way they expect you to do it.

    So I'm wondering about Secrets of Steel, with it being a tatical RPG, will it also feature permament death? Will HP=0 equal permadeath or can surviving members save the fallen? If the main character falls will the game end? I guess I'm really just hunting for more info on the upcoming game.

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  3. lnau,

    the idea of fighting ghosts of other characters who have passed on, or facing against other live characters you have played is really interesting.

    Star Traders embodies that rogue-like permanence. Every turn is permanent, and there are no saves or respawns. Its one of the reasons that thorough planning pays off so well in Star Traders as a game.

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  4. Kelvin,

    We are still wrestling with and discussing what character death will mean in Secrets of Steel. While I love Hardcore games, I know they are not for everyone. When you are talking about a single character (your captain, or hero in Diablo II) their death is familiarly singular and undeniable. You die, crushed to the ground, and no one can pick up your stuff... Secrets focuses on the life and activities of a group of heroes, and so the hard question is--what happens when one hero is struck down on the field of battle? Are they badly wounded and can be revived later, or do they pass from the game forever? Notably, this could change the course of the story irrevocably (challenges you were trying to overcome can no longer be conquered without that character's knowledge of skills).

    We'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  5. I was 100% with you for this entire post until I saw the words "Melanie Rawn". While I'm not surprised to find you have a secret love for fantasy romance novels, I fail to see the connection with the gritty realism of "hardcore mode" gaming and authors like GRRM.

    I'd strongly encourage lovers of Star Traders to avoid Melanie Rawn at all costs haha.

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  6. Re: Melanie Rawn. Lol.

    I just love fictional authors who invest their time in making you love their characters ONLY so that they can mercilessly slaughter them en masse.

    I'm a sucker for it, what can I say?

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  7. I have a few favorite death management methods I have seen used in games. One was one used in a game called "Herc's Adventures," a Playstation game from about 15 years ago or so. It was a single or two player platformer with some RPG elements. There were no "lives" but you did have a health bar. If you "died" in single player your character was sent to the Underworld without any of the items you had previously acquired. From there you had to fight your way out to the surface to return to your last savespot. Each subsequent death started out deeper in the Underworld and the enemies were tougher. If you died while escaping you were put back in your prison for another attempt. You only had five chances to escape and if you died a sixth time the game was truly over. Thus it was to your benefit to really try not to die while on the surface as the game got exponentially harder as it progressed. Two player was a little easier as if your partner survived they could revive you at a savepoint.

    In terms of SOS, this method could be used as if characters died, the surviving PC characters could bring their body to a temple and pay for a resurrection. The scene would then switch to what passes for the Underworld in SOS and that character would then have to fight their way out to a return portal. Each subsequent resurrection would be tougher until the player would have to just call "uncle" and give up on getting that character back. Of course, any spells allowing teleportation or location change would have to be blocked for this to work. Perhaps for the difficult resurrections, the player could be given the option of having their surviving players mount a risky invasion of the Underworld to save their fallen comrade's soul with the risk being none of them get out alive.

    Actually, that reminds me of another character death situation I had in a game called "Might and Magic II." The game allowed you to make many characters and group them in 6 man teams. I was getting greedy and was pushing to visit the 6 or so towns in the game to find better weapons and spells from the various stores. I was using portals to travel from town to town which was a bad idea for a low level group to do. While exploring the sewers of a swamp town my party was almost wiped out by a cocatrice. The surviving party member dragged her stoned companions to safety but found out she didn't have enough cash to resurrect anyone or leave the town by portal. She couldn't use flight scrolls and the swamp was far to dangerous for her to escape to somewhere safer. I was about to give up when I realised I could make up a rescue party in the starting town, build them up, and have them rescue my original party. I played the rest of the game with the two parties working in tandem to explore the rest of the game.

    For SOS, it would mean having the option to have new characters start in the same setting as a previous player and allowing your new character to interact with your old character. I think I remember your saying there would be premade characters in the game, so I'm not sure how that premise would work for SOS.

    The other method I liked was the death rules used in the TSR Gold Box series that started with "Pool of Radiance" back from the '80's. For these games any character knocked down to zero health was merely unconscious. If everyone was knocked out, then it was assumed the enemy would kill them. Under zero but above -10 was out but bleeding. Another character could use an action to stabilize them to zero. Once the fight was over, they could be properly resuscitated. If they were allowed to slip to -10 or if massive damage knocked them past -10 in one shot they were considered dead or disintegrated. If the party survived, higher magic would be needed to bring the character back.

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  8. (Finishing post, apparently I write too much!)

    The only problem is I don't know enough about SOS to know what method, if any fits with it. I do think the Underworld escape method would be very unique for players to see.

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  9. My favorite thing to do in a perma-death game is create a group of absolute pansies with useless or redundant skills/abilites and just see how far they can get before it's snafu. There's nothing more entertaining than seeing them suceed against all odds and/or fail so completely that the folly becomes divine.

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  10. Kevlin,

    Awesome suggestions! I think we may take one or two of these elements into the game and create something unique for Secrets.

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