Daniel M. Ford

Author of The Paladin Trilogy

Daniel M. Ford is a teacher, poet, writer, and author of The Paladin Trilogy, forthcoming from SFWP.

Filtering by Tag: RPGs

Crawl Out Through the Fallout (of Disappointing Narrative)

Let me preface everything I'm about to say with this: I think Fallout 4 is a fun game. I've played hours and hours of it since its release. I bought the Season Pass and played most of the DLC. It is, in fact, the final piece of DLC that has led me to the following conclusion:

As much fun as I've had with it, Fallout 4 is still a disappointing piece of storytelling in many ways.

When it comes to my gaming habits, I am a Narrativist through and through. I don't care nearly as much about mechanics as I do the story the game tells me or allows me to create. I love the Fallout series and have intensely played and replayed all of the core games; Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and so of course I was slavering for Fallout 4. I was dazzled (and intimidated) by the construction system, I enjoyed the combat, and I found most of the companions interesting, if a little bit thin.

But ultimately, now having played Automatron, Far Harbor and now Nuka-World, I ultimately feel disappointed by the storytelling in this entry, both at a macro and micro level. I'll start with the latter.

Let's talk about two specific locations; Easy City Downs and The Combat Zone.

Easy City Downs is a former horse track (I actually thought dog track, but it seems that the Fallout Wikia disagrees) taken over by Triggermen in order to stage robot races.

What a great idea! That is thoroughly Fallout to me. Repurposing the things and ideas of the shattered world. Repackaging its vices. Yes. I dig it.


It is purely a combat encounter. That's it. That's all. There are lots of different approaches you can take, but they come down to this; when you show up at the Downs, you're going to kill a bunch of Triggermen and raiders and robots. The means and method is entirely up to you, but that's all that's gonna happen.

Is that really how this would've gone down in any previous entry in the Fallout universe? Why can't I take it over and run races? Why can't I cut some kind of deal with Eager Ernie and take a percentage off the top by promising that the Minutemen and/or Brotherhood will keep looking the other way? Why can't I scour the Commonwealth for rare robot models and modifications to bring to the races? Why can't I build my own robot using the tools from Automatron and race it to earn caps? Why not some questlines or radiants where I have to track down some raider who's fallen behind on the vig and extract caps or flesh? There are dozens of quest and story-telling possibilities with this location and the game makes use of precisely none of them. I mean, sure, there are different kinds of quests that can bring you there; kidnapping, bringing back an escaped synth, and so on. But all of them boil down to just shooting/stabbing/punching/blowing the place up.

The Combat Zone (the reference in the name to Boston's former red-light district is one I only got because I've read so much Robert B. Parker, but I chuckled) is in the same boat. You walk on in there and watch Cait knock the crap out of some nameless, faceless raider, or you would, if you weren't busy getting attacked by the entire audience the moment you walk through the door. Again, it's not hard to see the narrative potential here, for fighting, betting, moving up in the ranks, working with or against Tommy Lonegan. A friend of mine (incidentally the same guy who did the wonderful map for Ordination and the future books in The Paladin Trilogy, to whom you should pay money to create maps for your own books and/or RPG campaigns, I can put you in touch with him) suggested that Cait should only have become available as a companion if you worked your way up through the ranks in a series of Combat Zone fights.

While Cait's story (why is it that some companions here have involved stories and questlines and demonstrate growth, but most don't?) is really interesting to me, the Combat Zone is just more wasted potential.

I think I can sum up my ultimate disappointment in Fallout 4 this way: instead of using its best ideas to ask “what kind of story can we create for the player here?” the game only asks “what kind of firefight can we have here?” or “what kind of settlement can you build here?” Can we say that's true of previous entries in the series? Sure, in any prior Fallout game you could waltz in and shoot up the place. But it seems to me as though 3 and New Vegas really did a lot more storytelling with their locations and ideas than 4 does. Is there any place in 4 as charming and memorable as Little Lamplight? Do any of the gangs or raider groups in the base game have the life and depth of the 3 Families of the Vegas strip? I would certainly say no.

Now I know the settlement building really works for a lot of people. And I played around with it, and it can be fun, but I never played with Lego and I don't want to play Minecraft. Sure, custom designing my character's home (and eventually building huge pegboard walls to display my massive collections of weapons) was kind of fun. But why can't I just appoint someone to run a settlement for me, like hiring a steward for my Manors in Skyrim, once I have it up and running? Also how in holy hell am I supposed to get a settlement's happiness above 85%, which I have absolutely never, ever achieved?

These are rhetorical questions, so please don't feel a need to answer them. But if you've got a good answer, feel free to share.

This brings me to Nuka-World, which I think I finished this morning. Yes, it just came out. No, I didn't find that it had a heck of a lot to do other than “go to an interesting location and kill everything in it.” The amusement park setting was a really neat idea, but since most of the park is not operating when you show up (and likely is not going to be until you finish almost all of the quests) it's mostly just new scenery to kill ghouls and robots in. And I think there is a huge problem, this late in the game, with asking the player to suddenly work on behalf of some very thinly sketched raider gangs.

The problem is that up until this point (you have to be at least level 30 to go to Nuka-World, and more than likely a player will have completed the main game at least once by now) raiders have been nothing but faceless enemies. Sure, there are a few named raiders here and there, and they are humanized a bit by reading some notes or some terminal entries about how they interact with one another. But a player has to seek that information out, and it has zero impact on how the raiders will act in the game.

After about the first hour in Nuka World, you're introduced to 3 groups of raiders; the Pack, the Disciples, and the Operators. And after dozens of hours of killing raiders at every moment, of them being absolutely nothing but enemies, you're suddenly supposed to see these 3 gangs as people you're supposed to care enough about to do jobs for them, ensure their survival, and balance their ambitions.

Or, of course, if you are horrified by them, you absolutely can get a quest option to kill “just the leaders.” Guess what happens if you kill any one leader of any gang? Every single raider in the park goes nuts attacking you. And you then don't get the option of doing most of the quests in the frickin' add-on. You go and kill the leaders and you report to someone for having done it and that's that.

Let's say you really consider the motives and actions of your character in Fallout 4. Let's say you took seriously the idea of bringing back the Minutemen, and you built settlements, and you defended them, and you wore the Minuteman General's Armor (one of the coolest looking get-ups in the entire game and you can't put ballistic fiber in it, FOR SHAME) and got a Colonial haircut and mastered the laser musket and the revolutionary sword and by God you built enough artillery to blow the goddamn Prydwen out of the sky after you destroyed the Institute and everything it stood for.

Why on earth are you suddenly going to even consider conquering settlements you built for a raider gang? Why are you even going to consider working for the Disciples, a gang whose whole schtick is so putrid and cliched that they feel like they were conceived by the kind of grody gamer whose room is covered in posters saying WHY SO SERIOUS and  Hellraisers? I mean, literally, their hideout is full of mutilated corpses, has prisoners shackled to a wall for everyone to torture freely. Their footsoldiers walk by saying things like “that last one died too quickly.”

Now, I get that playing evil is an option some people enjoy. Not quibbling with that. What I am quibbling with is that Fallout 4 has only given you the option of playing mean and then wants you to go 0-60 on evil as soon as you walk into Nuka-World. Previous Fallout games gave you the option of going this way from the moment your boots hit the ground. Want to be an unrepentant asshole in Fallout 3? Blow the shit out of Megaton and watch Mr. Tenpenny applaud from his veranda. In New Vegas you got a good early look at what the Legion were about, and you could absolutely sign up and be a sadistic, awful bastard if that's how you wanted to play. I never did, but if that's your bag I'm not here to judge.

While I do think The Institute is ultimately evil in Fallout 4 and I have yet to complete a playthrough where I sided with them, I can at least see the argument. I can see the space that would lead a person to take that route, genuinely believing they were doing what was best for the Commonwealth, and especially with the added weight of your long lost son giving the sales pitch. I think it's a facade of bullshit and self-interest, and the self-awareness of the Synths you interact with throughout the game (and especially in Far Harbor, which I think had more interesting storytelling than the rest of the game) but I am willing to hear the argument.

You can absolutely miss me with arguments that suggest that Caesar's Legion in New Vegas is anything but utterly, knowingly, deliberately evil.

But with Nuka-World, nothing in the hours of gameplay prior prepares you for suddenly taking charge of raiders, improving their conditions, listening to their dumb justifications for their behavior (after I mowed down the Operators I found some holotapes that I assumed speak to their origins and I rolled my eyes so hard I almost passed out) or doing anything but eradicating them from the Commonwealth. And doing that is exactly what the DLC really doesn't want you to do. The game does not in any way position you to accept raiders as heroic, marginalized, misunderstood, or worthy of your admiration, pity, time, sweat, effort, caps, or thoughts. It positions them throughout as enemies, plain and simple, and then wants to pull a 180 degree switch once you walk through the doors of Nuka World. It hasn't earned that switch. Not even a little bit. The flat, stale storytelling of Nuka-World is probably the most disappointing part of a game that I still enjoyed, but can't love the way I do its predecessors. I go into a Fallout game expecting my choices to matter. Fallout 4 gives you one big choice; side with the Institute or against it. Blow it up or don't. Sure, the faction you do pick then decides whether you blow up the Prydwen or shoot up the Railroad HQ. And seriously, why couldn't I at least try to hammer out peace between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Railroad? You could get the Brotherhood and the NCR to play nice in New Vegas. It was tricky, but it could be done. This entry in the series just gives you straight up or down choices that don't feel like they make a difference except in terms of which bodies hit the floor. I expected more than that.

And seriously, why can't I put ballistic fiber in any damn piece of clothing or hat that I want? WHY?

So what's your experience with Fallout 4? Enjoy it more than I do? Think it's the best entry in the series? For my money, New Vegas is tops, and probably one of my top 5 of all time.  

Role Playing and Learning to Write

I am pretty deep into the first big developmental and copy edit of Stillbright: Book II of the Paladin Trilogy and let me tell you, trying to get a nearly 600 page novel into shape is no easy task. This is hardly the first time I've been through it; naturally it's undergone several revisions from the first draft I wrote in the winter/spring of 2012 (I know I began it in February of 2012 but am not entirely sure when I finished it). 

Revising  is different from editing. Sure, I would try to clean it up and fix mistakes, but revision, as I mean it anyway, is mostly about consistency and story. Now that it's been through the hands of an editor, it's a whole different ballgame, and there's work to do on nearly every page. 

But that's not what this post is about. No; what it's about is that I've realized how much of my writing style has been influenced by something I spent a lot of time doing back around the turn of the century: MUSHing. 

No, it has nothing to do with sled dogs. 

A MUSH or a MUX or a MUD (or MU* as I'm probably going to use it from here on out) is essentially a text-based online roleplaying game inhabited by multiple player simultaneously. Yes, I said text-based. Back in 1997, we didn't any of your fancy graphics to kill Orcs or pretend to be Jedi. 

The games I mostly played on were Star Wars based; I'd played (and still do!) play the old West End Games (WEG) d6 Star Wars RPG, and finding out that I could, through the magic of the internet, open up a screen and essentially be playing that very game with dozens of other people at any hour of the day was pretty transformative. There is an enormous difference between MU*ing as I experienced it and playing a tabletop session, though; in a tabletop session you generally expect some action or plot to occur every time you pick up dice. On a MU, in large part, you were simply engaging in roleplay, developing a character in concert with other people. There were plots (or TinyPlots, for reasons I'm not entirely sure about) that would involve combat and conflict and possible PC death, but those were fairly few and far between, especially compared to tabletop roleplay. 

I knew at the time that I wanted to be a writer, and so playing on MU*s felt like writing every day. I wouldn't consider them that now, but we're talking nearly twenty years ago now, so bear with me. 

What I'm getting at is that as I'm revising Stillbright, it has occurred to me that a good deal of my writing style, things I do well and things I need to work on, was developed in those days, with the patience and collaboration of a whole host of other roleplayers. 

For the most part I played on a game called Star Wars: The Minos Cluster. I played, briefly, on the game known as Star Wars I, a bit on Star Wars: Brak Sector, and a little more than briefly on Star Wars: Legacies.   I played on a few fantasy games here and there, but never as long or as devotedly as I did on Minos Cluster (MC). There were a couple other SW MU's I'm failing to remember adequately; one that was post Return of the Jedi but ignored the continuity of the growing Star Wars Expanded Universe and posited the Empire splitting into factions, each controlled by different Dark Side disciples of either Palpatine or Vader. And another, the name of which I cannot recall at all, where I continued playing the character I played the most, from the Minos Cluster. 

What I took away from the hours (you could honestly count it in days; when I fall for something I fall hard) is dedication to character building and the importance of dialogue. If you can't keep people interested you're not going to find much RP on any given day. When I'm working on a story and I don't know what to do next, I just have two characters talk until something happens. The reason for this, I think, is that's generally what you did in any given RP session on a MU. You logged in, went somewhere other people were hanging out, and figured out a way to interact with them. 

Now, this has its downsides; because when you're posing your character on a MU, you want to give everyone interacting with you something to react to, you use a lot of character tags, a lot of movement, a lot of description. At least, I did. So this has filled the early drafts of my books with a lot of people moving their hands and their eyes and their brows and their mouths, and in a story that's just not interesting or necessary. In a collaborative setting where the story is being made moment to moment, you want to be clear about what you're doing, how, why, who you're looking at, how you sound, and so on. By the time I stopped playing on MU*'s, perhaps a decade ago, I wrote all my character's poses entirely in "emits," where I could churn out a paragraph (or more) of movement, reaction, dialogue, expression, and so on. I never tried to spam anyone by over-filling their screen and I hope I generally made RPing with me pleasant and entertaining. 

I know for a fact I was terrible when I started, and it was only the patience and the continued good modeling of the people I played with that made me any good. I do think by the time I was done I was at least pretty good at it, given how often I could find folks to RP with. Who was I, and who were they? My most-played character was a Devaronian (the race in the cantina in ANH with horns; they look like devils) with one missing eye and one busted horn named Ereqai Du'Hrollac. Yeah, the apostrophes; in my defense, I was continuing a naming convention given to a Devaronian character in a really solid piece of Star Wars short fiction called "Empire Blues: The Devaronian's Tale" in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina.  I enjoyed that story so much I even tied my character's backstory to it. He was a hard-nosed career military man (alien) with a drinking problem (because of course) and some war crimes in his past (read the above story, it's honestly quite good) who knew more than his share about blowing things up or stopping things from blowing up (I put a lot of points into Demolitions, is what I'm saying). Eventually he went from being "the EOD guy" to an MP and an officer leading a New Republic Spec-Ops team. 

The point of this blog post, besides reminiscence, is really just to say thanks to all the people I played with back in those days. I used to talk to some of you on AIM or in email, and more than once wound up meeting them in person. A couple, I'm friends with on Facebook. One was already a lifelong friend and one became a lifelong friend (and another I married, but that's a long story I'm not telling). I'm going to attempt a partial list here of people I played with who really stuck with me (by character name, naturally). If I forget you, it's not, I swear, personal; it's just that this was a long time ago and I spent ten years in college (you do the math). So, thank you to; Kylariss, Boon, Bourne, Jervis Ishner, Bec, Hollifeld, Ril, Nahren, Val Zular, James Ravis, Terre, Fontane (played by the fellow who drew the amazing map for Paladin!) Nadirehs, Valdetta, K'rrayn, Harbinger, Pryden...I know I'm forgetting folks from Minos Cluster but that's all I can dredge up right now. Thanks, all of you! 

On other games: Legacies, I mostly played Droshka, an Ubese conspiracy theorist and arsonist, who worked for the criminal cartel run by a Falleen (played by my IRL pal and roommate named above) along with the greatest Gamorrean character of all time, Arglebargle, and a half cyborg badass whose name I cannot, for the life of me, remember. I tried dredging old email accounts but they appear to be gone; I know there are logs on the hard drive of an old computer but I just don't have the time to drag them out just now. We even met up and hung out at the Maryland Renfaire one day long ago. Thank you. 

On another game where I continued playing Ereqai, only now out of the military and working as a detective; Selynn, who once sent me a great piece of art of her character and the above named pal's character who ran a bounty hunter's guild she was a part of. There were definitely other people I played with there, and you were great, and I'm ashamed that I can't remember your character's names. Thank you. 

Thanks, I mean it, to all the above named people AND all the folks I'm forgetting. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but all of you helped me become one, a pose at a time in a galaxy far far away.  

If any of you read this, stumble across it, have thought about any of these old games or all the roleplay we did, please don't hesitate to say hi. 

The Sword's the Thing: A Look at How I DM

If you know what a Paladin is and that's what brought you here, then chances are you know what is meant by “DM” in the above, but in case you don't, it's shorthand for “Dungeon Master,” the storyteller, arbiter, and referee who runs a typical Role Playing Game (RPG). Probably more often than not, among the various groups of gamers I've been lucky enough to be a part of, I've taken on that role. Not always, but with a natural bent towards storytelling and a willingness to spend more than my budget should really allow on gaming books, it's often fallen to me to provide the backbone of story for the friends I game with. I have no complaints about this; the DM or GM's role is a complex and challenging one, but it has its benefits. For one, they can't play the game without you, so your scheduling matters. Two, and this is key, it has undoubtedly made me a better writer. A good DM learns to gauge an audience, work a room, manage expectations, drop the right kind of clues without giving up the plot, build characters out of thin air, and develop an instinct for killer story moments, the kinds of things players talk about for years after the fact.

If I had to break my DMing approach down into a few rules, they'd be as follows:

1. Let the dice fall where they may; what happens happens when the dice hit the table. This goes both ways! If the players cook up a clever strategy or simply get hot and roll a spate of Nat 20s to take down my big bad, so be it. But I won't pull my crits either.

2. The game – that means the DM – should reward risk-taking. Overly cautious play grinds the game to a halt and turns every dungeon crawl into a dice cleanse.

3. The player characters should get their time to shine, their chance for Big Damn Hero moments. What else are you playing the game for, if not that? Obviously if you're running an 'evil' campaign this may have different wording, but I don't care to run or play that kind of game, generally.

4. The PCs aren't heroes without the real threat of death. I do not think I've ever run a campaign that didn't wind up with at least one player death. I have, essentially, run a campaign that ended in a TPK, or close enough to it that we never picked it back up. I will reward risk, but I won't wave away stupidity, bad choices, and remember what rule #1 up there says.

5. Magic and treasure are one of the most fun parts of the game. I find this to be true as both a player and a DM. There's almost nothing I enjoy more than building a treasure hoard for a significant encounter, or designing specific magic items for player characters.

To that end, I recently designed a weapon for a new character for my current campaign, The Dragon Seas, a homebrew world for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. In another post some day, if there's interest, I'll go ahead and post up some info on that world and you can tell me what you think. For now, though, I'm just going to give what info is necessary. Be warned; the following is deeply nerdy. I mean, to the point of containing words in Elven. Errors in grammar, spelling, or usage there are entirely mine and not the fault of my source, which is https://www.elfdict.com/

The character coming into the campaign is new, but the player is not. In fact, we've been gaming together since 1999. His first PC in this game didn't die, but voluntarily retired due to recent actions by the rest of the party and the dictates of his own conscience. The new PC is going to be an Elven Barbarian. Barbarian by class, mind you, not by instinct or social role; I am pretty liberal in terms of the presentation of a class. So long as we're not altering the actual functional abilities, I don't really care if your barbarian is a gentleman of perfect breeding and impeccable stock who carries a heavy walking stick and has occasional episodes that end with blood under his fingernails and some ruffians beaten to a pulp. In this case I imagine the character is going to be much more like a samurai whose 'rage' abilities are more like a trance he deliberately induces in battle. Nothing changes about the class, only how it's role-played.

So, he's going to be entering the campaign at a pretty high level, 8. His previous character had some pretty sweet items, and took every one of them with him. This new character needs to bring some firepower to replace the old one, and some of that needs to be represented in his weapon. Now, I know that you technically don't need magic items to function in this version, not in the way you did in 2nd and 3rd.

But who doesn't want magic items? I know some folks prefer low magic settings and they have all kinds of good reasons for that.

I'm not one of them.

Give me the flaming sword and winged armor for my paladin every time. Give me a wizard with so many ioun stones orbiting his head he has trouble seeing through them, or a rogue with so many stealth-boosting magic items that a guard can be standing on his foot and still miss him. That's just how I like to play, and your mileage may vary. Besides, the more powerful the PCs get, the more force I can bring to bear to crush them and everything they love.

Now, given the level, and the nature of the campaign, I want to give this new character a solidly powerful sword, one that will remain useful for the entirety of the game. We started last April and I imagine we'll still be playing for several months yet, approaching level fifteen or sixteen by the time we're done.

I don't want to give too much background on my homebrew world in this post, but two things merit a brief gloss. First, there is an ancient order of elven knights-errant (though they need not be knights; any class can be a part of this order) called the Oniranya, or 'Wandering Force.' This is taken directly from the Youxia tradition of Chinese poetry. Second, slavery is an issue of political strife in this world, mostly in the form of humans enslaving orcs, though they're not too shy about enslaving one another, either.

And in the next session – which will be the first one the new character participates in – the players are about to attempt to foment a slave revolt by freeing and arming the thralls held in the slave market of one of the two major slaving cities.

Enter an Oniranya devoted to principles of freedom and courage. Carrying his sword, En Poldor Angwendh. The Breaker of Chains. As I described it in an email to the player:

Your sword has had many names, and has known many hands before your own. Always, it returns to Dolen Caras Randhirim (note: the only elven city in this world) and is given to another Oniranya – but seldom is it passed directly from one wielder to another.

In the wars against the Unnumbered Hordes of the Goblins it was known as Dangweth,or The Answerer. Later it was known as En Felectha, The Equalizer. When it came to you while you underwent your Oniranya training in Dolen Caras Randhirim, it was, as tradition would dictate, given a new name:

En Poldor Angwendh – The Breaker of Chains

It is a +2 Greatsword that is wreathed in flames when drawn and casts bright radiance to 30 feet. When you draw it, as a bonus action, by speaking aloud the command word, you can determine what kind of bonus damage the flames do; Radiance, Thunder, Acid, or Fire. To change this in the midst of combat also requires the use of a bonus action. It does an extra 1d6 damage of this type.

Furthermore, as an action, you may use this sword to cut through any chain, lock, or bar made of iron or steel (or other mundane metal) that is being used to imprison a sentient being. There is no need to roll an attack or damage; the bar/chain/lock is simply cut. This does not effect a magically strengthened or locked door (like 'hold portal' or 'arcane lock') it does not affect anything made of mithril, adamantite, or other exotic metals (gold, silver, platinum). It does not effect doors primarily made of stone or wood (i.e., if prisoners are being held in a room with a locked oaken door, the sword can't effect the door, but if there are bars or chains or fetters binding the prisoners INSIDE that room, those would be cut).

Requires attunement by an elf of CG alignment. In the hands of anyone else it functions as a simple +1 Greatsword.

So, my thought process and some clarification; I want the players to love their signature items. I want them to be meaningful to the character, rather than some rusty old sword they found in a dragon's hoard and said, “eh, it's 5% more effective than this old thing I've been carrying through all my adventures and won fame and fortune with, so out with the old.” I wanted to give him something that will remain useful to his character from now until the end of the campaign, reflect his culture and role, and generally do cool stuff without being overpowered.

So, that variable 1d6 of damage? That's useful forever, especially in this world. Remember that mention above of goblins? They're sort of the old bugaboo that even Stone Giant parents use to scare their children with, for good reason. The first is overwhelming numbers. Individually, they're totally nonthreatening, but they don't come in small numbers. Secondly, these are not standard Monster Manual goblins; they adapt in the midst of combat to develop resistance to whatever kinds of damage are being done to them.

No, it really isn't fair. Hence an ancient elven sword designed originally to fight them called The Answerer.

But goblins aren't seen as much of a threat anymore, or haven't been for eight hundred years, and the Oniranya don't focus only on the past.

I feel like the sword's ability to cut chains is the kind of thing that's fun, and lends color to the game without breaking anything or making it too overwhelmingly powerful.

And in his first session with a new character, an old friend and player will get to immediately prove his value and his total badassery to a bunch of strangers (the rest of the party) who won't have to invent some lame reason to keep him around – one of the perils of PC mortality.

So, there you have it; a glimpse into me as a Dungeon Master, how I create items, how I try to make space for the players to do the cool stuff we all sit at the gaming table for, and one of the many reasons I keep coming back to D&D and games like it; magic swords are just cool. 


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