Monday, August 31, 2020

Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed: Collapsing Choices

It doesn't make any difference.
I pressed ahead and won Matrix Cubed last weekend, because at some point it became clear that if I stopped, I probably wouldn't start again. The game managed to go from seeming like an improvement from its predecessor to "meh" to actively pissing me off. After overcoming the bias I had built against it in the last session, it lost almost all that good will in this one.
When I last wrote, the Venusian scientist Leander had agreed to oversee the Matrix Device project. Needing a high-gravity environment, he and the science team departed for a laboratory in the orbit of Jupiter. Meanwhile, my next step was to find a PURGE scientist named Dr. Jerod Malcoln, who had invented an explosive radioactive gas that we need. He was probably at PURGE headquarters on Santa Catalina. SCOTT.DOS, our ship's artificial intelligence, had also identified an electronics scientist on Luna named Dr. Coldor. Buck Rogers gave us a passcode to enter a building in Losangelorg and find an agent named Red Carrin so that he could tell us how to get to Santa Catalina.
Buck reminds us of our current tasks.
We returned to Losangelorg and poked around the downtown until we found the right building. Carrin was supposed to be in Suite 5403, so we took the elevator to the 54th floor and found his suite. (The game allows you to take the elevator to any floor between 1 and 85, but most of them are just generic hallways with no encounters.) On Carrin's door, we found a note saying that he'd be in the Sparkhouse Cafe on the 85th floor, but this was crossed out and replaced with "Smoking Gun Slots on the 13th floor."
The 13th floor had several rooms we could enter and gamble. We tried our luck at "One-card Monte," an unsophisticated game that consists of everyone drawing one card, making a round of bets, and awarding the pot to the person with the highest card. Somehow I won almost $5,000 with my queen of hearts.
"War" was too complicated for you fellows, huh?
Anyway, the crossed-out part of the note on Carrin's door was a ruse meant to lure unsuspecting victims into an ambush. A panhandler warned us of this after we gave him a few credits. We tripped the ambush anyway because no one ever earned experience for walking away from a fight.
After mopping the floor with the robbers, we went to the 85th floor and found Carrin in the cafe. After a brief conversation, he gave us a passcard that would allow us to take his boat from the docks. As we took the elevator back down, I couldn't help but think that in the 25th century, there ought to be some easier way for six people to get to an island twenty-six miles offshore.
I'd work for anyone, even the NEO, who could float me to my island dream.
We also, of course, pondered what calamity must have occurred to move Santa Catalina closer to the mainland, move it about forty miles north-northwest, enlarge it, and change its shape. 
Wilma Deering, Buck Rogers' girlfriend, approached the party as we landed, offering no explanation as to how she got to the island. It's a minor issue, but the phrase "offering no explanation" is going to become a big part of the Matrix Cubed narrative from now on, so we might as well ramp up. She said she'd been scouting the headquarters and had identified two ways in: smooth talk the receptionist in the lobby and hack the security doors in the maintenance tunnel.
One also wonders why a secret island facility belonging to a terrorist organization needs a receptionist.
We chose to try the receptionist. Elias, who has the highest skills in persuasion, passed his skill check, and we got in. For a while, we wandered the first floor, listening in on PURGE conversations and meetings. In a conference room, some members were talking about broadcasting a subliminal message using a satellite signal. In another room, a printing press churned out PURGE brochures.
Eventually, we came across a PURGE Commander Sooth talking to a subordinate, and they recognized us as infiltrators. An alarm went off, and the game was on. We were attacked by a variety of PURGE forces in most rooms and intersections.
The beginning of another PURGE battle.
We continued to explore the base, eventually transitioning to a second floor. We rescued Dr. Romney, inventor of the Matrix Device, from a jail cell. We wiped out a squad in a control room and found evidence on a computer that a PURGE team was attacking a Desert Runner radio station near the edge of the desert. In Commander Sooth's office, we found a letter from Sid Refuge, the cyborg, indicating that he'd recovered from his defeat on Venus. A laboratory held evidence that PURGE had been experimenting with subliminal writing. Most important, a logbook described an "anti-personality" virus called Bug Nine created by PURGE engineers.
Every time I have to read something in the paper logbook, it feels like a little piece of my soul dies.
Finally, we wandered into a room and found Commander Sooth sitting in a chair with a bunch of electrodes stuck to his head. Technicians were transferring his consciousness into a computer, to make him an artificial personality like SCOT.DOS. They finished just as we arrived. After a few more battles, we came across Dr. Malcoln taking orders from Sooth's voice, coming out of a computer. Yet another battle ensued, in which we killed Dr. Malcoln.
This would be a good place to mention that battles from this point forward were fought almost entirely with explosives. I'd found enough rocket launchers, plasma-throwers, and grenade launchers during the last session that I didn't have to worry about scrimping. Since enemies all have explosives, too, it would have been irresponsible not to use them.
A rocket launcher blasts some technicians.
The problem is that you can only use these explosive devices once every two rounds. To operationalize this rule, the game makes the process of equipping the weapon take a full round, and it then un-equips it every time you use it. After combat, you have to remember to re-equip all the items or else you'll waste the first round of your next combat equipping them.
Combats soon fell into a predictable rhythm of all my characters blasting the hell out of the enemies in the first round, then mopping up what was left with regular weapons in the second round. In the few major battles in which a substantial number of enemies were left after the first round, I would usually have some characters throw explosive grenades. (You can only use the launcher, which has a much greater range, every two rounds, but you can throw as often as you want.) I still used chaff grenades occasionally, when facing a large number of enemies (particularly robots) with their own explosives, but for the most part the power of the explosive weapons made the game feel a lot less tactical, much like having eight or ten "Fireball" spells memorized ruins things in the Dungeons and Dragons Gold Box titles.
Anyway, we fought our way into a computer room, where Theta Sigma used his "Programming" skill to access the Bug Nine virus and send it after the newly-created SOOTH.DOP, killing the artificial intelligence in its first hour. (Given all the body parts in the rooms behind us, I don't know why this felt particularly mean, but it did.) With Sooth dead, we retrieved Dr. Malcon's notes about Efanite, the explosive gas needed for the Matrix Device.
Sooth is unfortunately wrong about both things.
This episode is the first of another trend that dogged me through the rest of the game: progress gated by skill checks. I don't know for sure that there's no way to finish this mission without someone with sufficient "Programming" skill, but I do know that I couldn't find one. I had to reload several times before Theta Sigma passed the necessary checks. Later in the game, I had even worse problems. Not only do many episodes require checks, many of the thresholds are quite high. Given all the skills that exist in the game, you'd have to have some prior knowledge that some of them were used at all before you would bother investing points into them.
The game makes the whole process difficult in a few other ways, too. First, you can only learn one new skill per level-up. So if you started the game with only, say, five skills, the most you'll ever get in Matrix is maybe ten, and you certainly wouldn't have time to build the last few to any reasonable level. Second, you can't choose skills for new characters; the game does that for you. So if you find yourself lacking in "Programming," you can't whip up a new temporary character with a massive focus in "Programming" to save the day. We'll see later moments were this issue got a lot worse.
A lot worse.
As we left the facility and took the boat back to the mainland, I decided to comprehensively explore the Losangelorg metro area to see if the PURGE raid in the Desert Runners' radio station was actually something we could intercept. I also wanted to see if there were any other encounters on the outdoor map. It turns out that there weren't many, but a slew of random encounters with various  "gennies" probably added one to our final levels by the end of the game.
This is feeling a lot like a Fallout game.
We did eventually find the radio station, run by a Desert Runner named "Bad Dog." PURGE forces had thrown him out and were using his equipment to broadcast their anti-gennie propaganda. Once again, I have to emphasize that I don't know why we're against this. We just killed a few hundred gennies in the desert right outside the radio station door. Who is pro-giant scorpion? But we still defeated the PURGE forces and yanked their agent off the air.
This is feeling even more like a Fallout game.
We returned to Salvation, where Buck Rogers thanked us and said he'd send the Efanite files to Leander. That left our only mission to find Dr. Coldor on Luna. The Moon, if I haven't already covered it, is actually not a part of the New Earth Organization, but rather an independent colony with strict isolationist tendencies. To get there, I had to launch my ship, fly one square away from Earth, fly one square back to Earth, and choose to land on either Tycho or Copernicus. (Incidentally, half the time that you're on approach to a planet like this, the solar system suddenly rotates out from under you, putting your destination an extra few squares in front of you or even behind you.) It turns out that Tycho is just a menu town--we stopped in just long enough to get thrown out of a bar--and Copernicus is the actual destination.
I can only land at one place on Earth, which is four times as large, but the moon is parceled out.
As we arrived at Copernicus, we received a notice that our ship was impounded and that we should report to a Lt. Jenner. As we made our way to the police station, we saw Dr. Coldor getting into a jetcar with the "Tsai Weaponry" logo. We tried to approach her, but she said that "NEO has her services" and told us to get lost before we could explain that we were NEO and that whoever had her services definitely was not.
At the police station, Lt. Jenner explained that Luna is filthy with corruption, and that the police chief, Senator Koi, and the CEO of Tsai Weaponry are involved in a major conspiracy. He promised that if we could collect enough evidence against them, he'd help us collect Dr. Coldor and get our ship back. He gave us fake police badges to assist.
That was easy.
The rest of the map was a bit tedious, as we ran around from building to building--the offices and houses of the three major players--collecting intelligence. The process was annoyingly linear. For instance, the first time we visited Chief McKay's house, we found nothing. But later, we found a computer entry that mentioned a logbook. When we returned and looked again, we found the logbook.
So we had to visit the various places in the right order, then call the suspects to tell them we had dirt on them so Jenner could raid the subsequent meeting. I got sick of the whole thing in the middle of it and tried to just force my way into Tsai Weaponry, but automated laser cannons kept doing scripted damage to the party as we tried to explore the complex. These cannons weren't there when we did things "honestly."
Way to facilitate role-playing, guys.
So we followed the game's chosen path and got the police chief, senator, and CEO arrested for conspiracy, and Lt. Jenner gave us a pass to get into Tsai. We explored their headquarters (another 16 x 16 map) long enough to find Dr. Coldor consorting with Sid Refuge from PURGE. What is it with this organization? No one had heard of them two weeks ago, and now they have a headquarters on an island and have tendrils into every faction in the solar system.
Coldor learned at this point that she had been working for a bunch of lunatics. Apparently, Tsai had been creating some kind of chemical (confusingly called a "mutagen") capable of killing genetically-engineered creatures. Refuge had a little speech about it:
NEO's propaganda has served PURGE well. I recruited this scientist on your reputation. The pap of genetic mongrels living in harmony with the pure race fools so many people. They are blind to the inevitability of conflict. Either the pure strain will survive unsullied, or humanity will revert to packs of mindless animals!
I'm more confused than ever about PURGE's philosophy. Does Refuge think that humans are mating with gennies? Even if that were biologically possible, I haven't seen any evidence of it. Anyway, Refuge took off with Coldor, forcing us to follow them through the base. At various points, we were menaced by "plant gennies" that were just the same graphic as Bits o' Moander from Pools of Darkness.
They arguably make more sense in this context.
It became clear that PURGE or Tsai was about to launch a rocket containing the mutagen, somehow causing it to spread throughout the galaxy. We burst into the launch pad just as it was preparing to launch. While the party fought a big group with Refuge and his commandos . . .
This, like all situations, seems like a good situation for a rocket launcher.
. . . Dr. Coldor sneaked aboard the rocket and overrode the automatic controls. As we watched Refuge's cyborg corpse somehow escape yet again, we receive word from SCOT.DOS that Coldor had joined NEO and was taking the equipment and mutagen to the Matrix Device project at Jupiter. The police arrived to sweep everything up, and Luna officials thanked us while simultaneously inviting us never to visit the moon again.
As we blasted off from Luna, an explosion rocked the Maelstrom Rider, and radiation levels began to increase. The computer reported a 98% chance that the ship would soon explode. We couldn't seem to do anything to fix it, and the game clearly wanted us to escape in a pod, so we reluctantly took that option.
We get the hint.
As the pod sailed away, the party was surprised to see that the ship didn't explode, and instead flew "gracefully out of sight." Meanwhile, our pod was picked up by a ship called Rogue, captained by someone named Killer Kane. I was obviously supposed to recognize him from the game's setting, so I took some time to read up on him, which left me more confused than ever, because in no version does he seem to be depicted as the roguish "frenemy" of Rogers as he does here.
Well, I'm surely not going to call you "Killer."
Kane proposed an exchange: He would set us free if we agreed to infiltrate and help destroy a RAM cruiser called Deimos, which was transporting a "high-level Mercurian official" to Mars. This reminded me that well into the game, "De Sade" hasn't made a return appearance, suggesting all the intrigue on Mercury at the beginning of the game had nothing to do with the plot. This would turn out to be true; I never heard from De Sade again. Even the whole issue with Mercurian forces invading Venus turned out to be a mystery.
The game offered me the option of accepting Kane's offer, and I was feeling ornery by this point, so I said no. Matrix is the most linear of the Gold Box series, much more so than Countdown, which let you visit the planets and asteroids in almost any order. Here, we've had the choice of which of two missions to do first and second, but that's about it. This extends to not even providing alternate ways to solve puzzles that require skill checks.
In response, Kane shoved us back into our escape pod and said, "Good luck drifting." Well, we hadn't been drifting long before we were picked up by . . . the RAM cruiser Deimos. On which Killer Kane was somehow also taken prisoner in the hour since we saw him last. So that turned out to be another Morton's Fork.
A whole hour! Noooooooooo.
In the Deimos's brig, we were contacted by a RAM agent named "Oiler" who let us out of the cell and gave us explosives to plant in the weapons control room. Deimos was five levels, all of them relatively small, but we had to backtrack a lot, finding a keycard in on one floor that would let us through a door on another floor, and so forth. If there were battles, I didn't bother to take any screen shots; my recollection is that RAM crew seemed easily fooled by our lack of outfits or any identifying insignia.
We placed the explosive charges in the right place, but I don't think they were ever set off. As we left the room, we found ourselves surrounded by RAM bots who offered us a choice of surrendering or not. Either answer (I reloaded to be sure) led to them blasting us with sonic stunners and us waking up in a prison on Mars, so that was another choice they need not have offered.
The sun being too bright is a good sign we're not actually on Mars.
We awoke in a prison cell. For the second time in the game--but not the last--we were stripped of all equipment. The cell was made to resemble the Martian surface and extended infinitely in all directions.

Buck Rogers soon appeared. He said that when our ship returned to Salvation empty, he blasted off in search of us, found our pod, but was knocked out by gas and similarly awoke in this cell. This story makes no sense, as Rogers is a commander and shouldn't be soloing on rescue missions, but nevertheless, there we were. Rogers had his .45 automatic because it's so old that our RAM captors hadn't even recognized it as a weapon. Moments after Rogers joined us, so did Killer Kane, whose appearance makes even less sense.
And we had no idea, when we rejected you, that we'd end up in the same party. Though in retrospect, maybe we should have.
After finding nothing in our lateral explorations, Rogers suggested that we explore vertically. We dug down and hit a metal floor. Rogers then suggested we try to reach the "ceiling" via a human pyramid, with him and Kane as the base and the most athletic person at the top. Unfortunately, my "most athletic" person lacked the "Climb" skill to make it to the top, plus the "Acrobatics" skill to make it from the top of the pyramid through a hatch on the ceiling.
Spoiler: he failed.
In multiple re-tries, he kept falling and taking damage, and because the game offers no way to heal characters except at the end of combats, I eventually had to stop trying and use my second-most-agile character instead. And so on from him to the third. After about 15 minutes of this, the game took pity on me and let me succeed. I know it did because the character who finally got through the hatch had no "Climb" or "Acrobatics" skill at all. Incidentally, Rogers and Kane both have decent skills at both, but they insisted they had to form the base of the pyramid.
It turned out that my problems were just beginning. On the top side of the hatch was a gennie guard dog with about 76 hit points, and all I had to fight him were my puny fists. Even Austin, who had the highest number of hit points and the best chance of succeeding at hand-to-hand combat, was unable to kill the creature. Defeat means the character gets kicked back down the hole, the pyramid collapses, and we have to start over again.
In case it's not clear, this is when the "actively pissing me off" stage began.
The obvious solution, which somehow didn't occur to me, was to take Rogers' handgun. But I later consulted several walkthroughs and videos, and none of them offered it as a solution, so I suspect Rogers won't give up the weapon. If I'm wrong and someone has done this, please tell me. Meanwhile, all the walkthroughs and videos offered the same solution that ultimately worked for me: lower the difficulty level so that the enemy hit points get lowered. I hated, hated, hated doing this, but the damned dog was simply mathematically unbeatable without it. I thought maybe a character who specialized in unarmed combat could do it, but later I checked and found that's not even an option.
With the difficultly lowered, Austin was able to defeat the creature and then drop a cable to haul everyone up. Our problems didn't end there, though. The two-level prison that ensued offered combats with more dogs, robots, and other prisoners, all of which we had to fight bare-handed except for Rogers' gun, which we no longer had after Rogers suggested that we "split up." Kane fled shortly after we got out of the cell.
Since you have the only weapon, that seems like a really bad idea.
This was the only area of the game that I mapped myself, and only long enough to test various paths and determine that they led to dead-ends, or unwinnable battles. We ultimately found our way to a storage room and our equipment. Shortly after, we freed a "Stormrider" named Natbakka. He had been an ambassador to the Amaltheans, but they sold him to RAM. This story sent me back to the logbook to remind myself about the backstory. Stormriders are supposedly genetically-modified humans (though they don't look much like it) who live in high-pressure cities above the moons of Jupiter. Amaltheans are humans living on one of Jupiter's moons; they created the Stormriders in the first place but are now hostile to them.
I shudder to think what my brain is overwriting in order to learn this lore.
We found a computer console that allowed us to reach SCOT.DOS, who told us that he had found evidence of a spy at the NEO. Then some virus started attacking him, and we had to try to stop it through some confusing menu process that I didn't understand, and for which Theta Sigma kept failing his "Programming" checks anyway. At the end of the process, SCOT.DOS was dead, which I'm not sure wasn't scripted. If so, they should have just made it seem like it was scripted instead of making it seem like a character failed a skill check.
To be honest, I only ever vaguely understood who he was.
Buck Rogers rejoined us; we fought one final battle against RAM forces; and a NEO ship dropped in to rescue us. Soon after, we were finally back at Salvation. I felt like I had been through so much that my entire team should be able to level up, but only one person could.

That gets us far enough that I should be able to cover the rest of the game in one entry. By this time, the false choices and linearity were getting annoying, the skill checks were getting infuriating, and the combat was getting boring. You can see why I just pushed through to the end.
Time so far: 21 hours


  1. SCOT.DOS can survive that encounter if you pass all the skill checks before the timer runs out. But I don't remember how much he affects the game afterwards.

  2. "Rogers had his .45 automatic because it's so old that our RAM captors hadn't even recognized it as a weapon."

    Makes sense. I don't recognise swords or crossbows as weapons. They're probably some sort of personal hygiene product that I don't need to worry about.

    1. There's even a sci-fi cliche available here: the sensors didn't detect a weapon because all modern weapons have power cells or are made from duranium or whatever. It's still pretty silly, but it makes some attempt to lend some support to suspension of disbelief. This sounds more like "what's this gun-shaped thing? I don't see a plasma clip on it, so it must be some silly toy! Hyuk!"

    2. "What's this thing with a trigger, a barrel, sights and ammunition?"

      "It's my... toothbrush."

      "Oh, carry on then."

    3. Well yes, the sword is obviously just a large razor, nothing to see here. And the crossbow just needs some glue to make a mean epilation device.

    4. It's clearly just a walking stick.

    5. It wasn't THAT long ago that bayonets were still regularly used in combat. They were still a primary weapon in WWI. Great for chopping up people in trenches.

    6. The virtue of obsolescence and primativism is basically a trope of this genre - see also John Carter of Mars, etc - where the default skills and lifestyle of a 20th Century (white, American) male is inherently superior to any other time period or civilisation he may find himself in, no matter how theoretically advanced.

      That sounds like a progressive deconstructionist take on the genre when I say that - and it certainly requires one - but you can also more generously see it in the context of the building of a (white, English-speaking, male) American cultural identity throughout the 20th Century, with an emphasis on the value of self-sufficiency, common sense, individualism, bravery and rationalism.

    7. John Carter is also supposedly stronger than any Martian life form due to his natural athleticism in Earth's higher gravity.

      Ignoring the fact that he would probably lose that within a few months, it means there's zero stakes for most of the series. Most fights that involve Carter end with "and then he crushed their skulls with a single punch because he's just that awesome."

    8. The Honor Harrington novels use an almost identical plot device - the protagonist hides her antique .45 automatic inside a portable computer, and the lack of a power cell keeps it from being picked up by weapons scans.

      Somebody more familiar with the Buck Rogers serials would be able to say if those used the same concept, but it is not impossible that Weber was directly inspired by this game.

    9. Honor does at least actually _hide_ her gun, and in a reasonable place at that (it's inside what is supposed to be a detonator for an explosive that is her 'insurance policy'; this makes her refusal to hand it over for manual inspection reasonable, and the antagonist do, in fact, scan it for the presence of the commonly-used weapon-grade power sources).

      Then again, maybe Buck just hid it where one would normally hide a watch or something.

    10. The cliche of weapon recognizance failure also comes up in the long-running German SF-series Perry Rhodan, and that series (running non-stop since 1961) eventually build up so many different alien cultures you get basically everything:

      -Aliens not recognizing Human weapons
      -Humans not recognizing Alien weapons
      -Weird swerves like some dude in a rather melancholic story getting instantly vaporized by a hidden security weapon while hacking an alien ship's bridge controls. (He was the only one on this ship that didn't know and couldn't recognize the weapon. And since he had accidentally send all his alien friends to die against the captain, no-one left alive could or would tell him.)

      The oddest however, was the story of the Schatt-Armarong. A robotic species who could no-sell everything Humans and their allies could throw at them, but got into trouble when artificial gravity was used to immobilize them: They only lived in space, and since they didn't need it, almost never used artificial gravity themselves. The use of gravity as a weapon completely blindsided them, at least for a while.

  3. If this game is anything like previous Gold Box games I've played, then NPC inventories are off-limits. You can't take anything for your own characters to use, and anything you give to them is theirs forever.

  4. This is starting to sound like the sort of game that didn't get much playtesting

    1. Playtesting in this era generally is sporadic if it even happens at all, and is likely to be confined to the developers, their friends and family.

  5. Wow, I don't remember that at all. I wonder if I never finished this game?

  6. This and Dark Queen of Krynn are by far the worst gold box games. Unsurprisingly they were both made by the same team at Micromagic instead of internally at SSI.

    1. It feels like both of them suffer from the same sort of issue of being made with a specific sort of party build in mind, although this game having skills makes the issue way worse

    2. Hey, I know that name! You do streaming, don’t you? I think I just watched you play a bit of Wizardry 8.

    3. Yea I stream a lot of old games. :)

    4. SSI never even wanted to make the Buck Rogers games but their hands were tied. Lorraine Williams, CEO of TSR at the time, had inherited the Buck Rogers IP and if they wanted a license extension for Dungeons & Dragons they had to agree to make 2 Buck Rogers games.

    5. Cool, Sinatar I watch your streams sometimes.

      A few commenters in the past have said that Dark Queen of Krynn is supposed to be a good game, it will be interesting to see Chet's opinion of it.

    6. I got distracted by seeing the name "Sinatar" right after I'd watched one of his streams for my the Wizardry entry that will be posted this weekend. I too am surprised to see him mention Dark Queen negatively, because I think I've always heard good things about it. I guess we'll see soon. I definitely agree that both Buck Rogers games are low points for the engine, though.

    7. I somehow read "Dark Side of Xeen" instead of "Dark Queen of Krynn", and thought "how could you say it's a bad game AND say it's a gold box game?!"
      I think I may need some coffee...

  7. It's a recurring problem with this sort of tabletop-based game--you often not only have to heavily specialize, but do so in the right way, because the devs include all the skills and perks the book says to include but they only actually utilize five of them. Like how later d&d games let you get weapon specialization in a hundred different kinds of weapon, but then you only ever find longswords and daggers. Plus you have games like this where even if you do take the right skills, you still lose because it's a nice roll on top of that. It's very annoying.

    1. Very true. There are a limited number of ways to do "skills" well, especially in an era where most games were short and linear. My feeling is that games need to offer multiple different ways to train or grind the skill to make its inclusion fair. The problem with BRMC is not just that the skill thresholds are high, but that if I turn around and save the encounter for later, it probably won't matter because leveling up is so rare and the number of points you can devote to one skill is so low.

    2. Typically skill gates let you avoid hard combats or have loot behind them. Skill gates that prevent progress through the game is pretty awful design.

    3. IMHO skill checks are better used to gatekeep optional treasure areas, shortcuts, lore or other non-necessary parts of the game. However, if the developer wants to use skill checks for crucial plot-related events, they should allow a certain number of tries before a default "worse" outcome automatically allows the player to progress anyway. Say, combat, or fixed damage or loss of money. "You only get a couple tries before you break it/screw it up/etc"

    4. Skills themselves aren't the problem - something like Wizardry 7 has them in spades, yet they are all useful because they are all systemic.
      The problem are skillchecks. They have a place in PnP because of the free-form nature of PnP gameplay. On the one hand, the DM knows the character builds of their players in advance and can tailor the campaign to them. On the other hand, failing a skillcheck in PnP is not game over because the players can think of a way out on the fly. Finally, precisely because the player in PnP can attempt anything they can think of, skillchecks are need to keep the action, well, in check.
      None of this applies to video games though, and thus there's simply no way of making skillchecks work. If you allow grinding for skills and retrying checks, like in Quest for Glory, you're essentially making numerical skill values pointless - if a character has a skill, he can always train it to the level to pass the checks. On the other hand, if skillchecks can only be tried once, you end up with walking dead scenarios and/or lots of savescumming, as in Age of Decadence. Even when skillchecks are a secondary mechanic to combat, like Tristan describes, there's a balance issue: if you set fight difficulty to account for the player taking some non-combat skills for the secondary checks, the game becomes too easy for players who go all in on combat. But if you balance the battles for combat-focused characters, non-combat skills automatically become trap options because they leave you without enough power to do the combats.
      Skillchecks simply don't translate well from PnP to CRPGs. A much better way to do non-combat skills or abilities is to make them systemic like in later Wizardries or TES.

    5. I guess you could get the game to check what skills the player has and then use an appropriate one for the skill check. Also scale the fight difficulty based on how combat orientated the party of as well (which POR tried to do)

    6. You could also make that a failed skill check isn't a dead end, just sets you on a different fork of the story (and may not lead to the best ending)

    7. Sure, but that's a lot of extra work - and for what? Skillchecks aren't a terribly exciting mechanic in the first place: they're binary, they don't challenge the player, and their outcome can't be influenced by the player on the spot. Once again - it all makes sense in PnP as a way to stop the players from MarySue-ing the campaign. But in CRPGs, just clicking on a checked option and watching the dice roll is pretty dull and boring. CRPGs are much better served by having a small number of deeply simulated systems than by having a boatload of skills which work identically from a gameplay perspective and only change the kind of flavor text you get.

    8. Even if there's no dice roll, it kind of sucks. I generally liked Fallout: New Vegas but a lot of encounters are obviated by having a high enough Speech, at which point the game sheepishly steps out of the way and apologizes for ever bothering you.

    9. In tabletop games or in CRPGs, the key to doing skillchecks well is the idea of failing forward.

      If you're asked to do a skillcheck and you fail, it shouldn't result in progress stopping, it should result in a new and different environment where the narrative keeps moving forward.

      So locked doors where you need to make a lockpick roll are generically pretty terrible because of exactly this problem where progress stops if they can't be opened, but if you must have one, then failing the lockpick should mean that you have to break it down instead, which means you make a noisy entrance into the next room instead of a stealthy one, but you're still in the next room.

      Etc. No matter what, the story doesn't stop, just that the terms you're engaging with it on change.

    10. The problem isn't skillchecks existing, the problem is them being used wrong. If you design a quest with an open-ended approach in mind and have some paths require skillchecks, it's fine. Even better if they're not binary.

      Let's say someone wants you to infiltrate his rival's manor and grab some sensitive information for blackmail purposes. You can either barge in through the front door and beat up the guards. Or lockpick the servants' entrance door at the back. Instead of a binary "you unlock the door/don't unlock the door", you can give the check various degrees of success and failure. The greatest degree of success will have you open the lock without hassle, while a lower degree will cause enough noise to alert a guard if he happens to be in hearing distance. Then there's a degree of "successful failure" where the lockpick breaks just as you get the lock open, now the door can't be closed anymore and an attentive guard may notice it's been tampered with. Total failure makes your lockpick break in the lock before it's open and now the door is stuck. No retries, find another way.

      So what about climbing up to that open second floor window? Simple climbing check. But if Ou have a grappling hook with rope along, it's much easier. Failure means you fall down and take damage. Bigger failure makes you scream as you fall, alerting the guards.

      I see no reason why skillchecks have to be binary. There are degrees of success and failure, from "aced it" over "barely made it" to "gargantuan fuckup".

      Yes, it takes more work to design than a simple binary skillcheck, but it's worth it. And most of the examples I described would be possible with some minimal scripting, especially if some aspects are implemented systemically, like NPCs being able to react to sounds, sounds having a specific radius based on loudness... think Thief's sound system.

    11. I usually prefer deterministic skill gates - I find it adds to a game's replay value and makes character development more interesting.

      As a rule, if I max 'speech' I want to be able to explore all the high speech content without save-scumming.

    12. Just want to note that Disco Elysium contains a number of good examples of what GregT called fail-forward skill checks. In general, that game handled skill checks well. There's a good mix of passive and active skill checks and the active skill checks are nicely split between checks that can be reattempted and checks that can't. It's not perfect, but it's better than anything else I've played.

    13. Yep, DE was why I said ‘usually’, but it’s a bit of a special case because skill checks are the entire game.

    14. Yeah, I also thought of Disco Elysium, but I didn't came to play it.

      With the example of the Mars Prison, there a successful skillcheck let's you skip the fight with the dog, a unsuccessful leads to another situation where you have to fight, after that you are again on the same road, doesn't seem to be that much extra work

    15. I can only reiterate my earlier comment - sure, you can put in a ton of extra work to make skillchecks that are non-binary, that allow you to fail forward etc - but why? What do they bring to the table?
      Currently, skillchecks are typically used in CRPGs as a crutch, a substitute for a system that the game doesn't emulate because the dev didn't have resources to implement it. It's not an unproblematic approach in itself - just look at Age of Decadence. That game has a good variety of non-combat skills and non-combat builds - but they all play absolutely the same: you go around and click dialog options tagged with your most developed skills.
      But if you put in all the extra work - and it's a ton of work - to make skillchecks more interesting - wouldn't all that work and resources be better used just implementing additional gameplay systems?

    16. How would you turn something like persuasion into a system rather than individually scripted skillchecks?

    17. Depends on what function it serves in the game. If it's mainly about combat avoidance and getting mcguffins, you can just integrate it with combat system. I.e. make diplomacy skills somewhat analogous to spells like charm or fear. I had a thread on RPGCodex discussing that.
      If it's more about info gathering and plot advancement, then you could use the NPC disposition system that was popular at one point in late 90s. Its reputation got ruined by its shitty implementation in Oblivion, but it was the right direction for CRPGs to move. Disposition serves as a sort of "dialog HP" and thus you can build all sorts of (abstracted, non-scripted) systems around it that allow the PC to manipulate disposition. The obscure (and generally fairly bad) RPG/Adventure Arcatera did a great job of it. It didn't only track disposition, but also anger (provoking the NPC to attack you if raised) and patience. Patience was a particularly brilliant touch: each dialog action would lower it, and once it runs out, the NPC ends the dialog and won't talk to you for a while (and the game had a time limit). And because there were always more topics/options than patience would allow, you had to be very strategic about dialogs.

    18. Thought to be honest, that's all completely theoretical. In practice, there's no need to change diplomacy because people who like to play diplomat characters typically only play for the story and don't care for gameplay anyway.

    19. Disco Elysium works because usually the only thing at stake with a dice roll is what writing you get to see, and it's often interesting when you fail just as well as when you pass. Most games don't have writing good enough to make the simple act of having more to read into a positive outcome.

    20. “ In practice, there's no need to change diplomacy because people who like to play diplomat characters typically only play for the story and don't care for gameplay anyway.”

      the number of RPGs that you can solve entirely via speech checks is not that high. I like story but thankfully most games dont have me just walking around clicking dialogue, even though I regularly max speech.

    21. JarlFrank

      "How would you turn something like persuasion into a system rather than individually scripted skillchecks?"

      Didn't Deus Ex: Human Revolution try exactly that? I liked that system.

    22. It sounds the argument over scripted skillchecks with non-binary checks vs "systems" seems moot. Both require considerable work and playtesting. Both would make the game more interesting depending on how you implement and thoroughly playtest them. Certainly better than what our fearless author is experiencing. Technically a scripted non-binary skill check is still a "system" of handling skills.

    23. I like to play diplomat characters but care more about gameplay than story. Go figure *shrug*

      Tracking reputation, anger and patience sounds like a good system. I haven't played Arcatera yet but it's on my long list of obscure old titles to check out.

      But in essence it still comes down to picking the right dialog options, so it's not really fully systemic like combat. You can't just have a random dialogue encounter the same way you can have a random combat encounter.

      I think skillchecks in dialogue are fine, but passing a single speech check leading to complete and total compliance by the NPC is bad design and makes diplomats trivial to play.

      A much better speech quest is Arcanum's persuasion master quest. Tarant wants you to convince the king of Caladon to join their union, and obviously they want you to get as good a deal for Tarant as possible. You read a ledger beforehand telling you of Caladon and its society. When you talk to their king, you should be polite and courteous, and when he asks for the specifics of joining the union, you have to balance making pro-Tarant demands with making pro-Caladon concessions, so in the end you broker a favorable deal for Tarant while still keeping it attractive for Caladon.

      I think the game tracks positive and negative points, and the king will agree when the positives outweigh the negatives. Having a higher charisma helps pushing through harder pro-Tarant terms, softening their negative impact.

      There are several instances in Arcanum where persuasion is not merely a matter of passing a single check, but of passing multiple checks (and of course the dialogue interface doesn't tell you which one is the best option, like many games nowadays do by marking one line as [Speech] and having that be the only check, so you don't even have to read the options and think about them).

      Dialogue skill checks are a fine mechanic and there's nothing wrong with them in principle... as long as you use them correctly.

      Passing a single speech check clearly marked as such and immediately succeeding at your persuasion attempt is simply bad design.

    24. In Griftlands, dialogue is just another mode of combat. I don't really like that approach as a rule I dont think.

    25. I know it only recently came out, but I like that in Wasteland 3 sometimes using speech skills actually make situations worse for you, because not every situation can be resolved by threatening people, no matter how well you do it. And bringing up information you know from passing one of your other skill checks will sometimes just make people angry at you for pointing it out.

      The game has a lot of flaws, though, and most of the time you just want to immediately use your skills if you can, so the impact overall is limited. But I like that idea in concept, at least.

    26. @JarlFrank, Arcatera also had standard options like offend or compliment that could in principle be selected any number of times. But because they also spend patience, the more you do it the fewer informative options you can pick afterwards.

    27. The difference between dialog systems like Arkatera or Deus Ex and scripted persuasion sequences like in Arcanum is that in Arcanum, there's only one right way to do it. You can't recover from your mistakes - unless the designers scripted those options. In Arcatera and DE failure is systemic, so with higher skill, mistakes might matter less or be recovered from.

  8. i have tried this in the past as a simple lark- glad i never got any further than i had :) still reading regularly even after all these years :)

  9. When I was playing this game I got the impression that the Gennies were all the non Terran races - Mercurians, Venisians, Martians, ect... So PURGE was some kind of Nazi like racial purity organization.

    It's been years since I played but I remember that climbing / acrobatics check sequence. The game had to throw me a bone too, but I don't remember it taking quite as long.

    1. As far as the game rules (both the Gold Box version and the pen and paper version) are concerned, Mercurians, Venusians, Lunarians, and Martians are all considered humans.

      Desert Runners, Tinkers, Terrines, Stormriders, and Venusian Lowlanders are gennies, along with like 90% of the things the party's had to kill in both games.

    2. I mean, even if PURGE is against THOSE gennies, there's nothing happening in the universe that suggests to me that any of them have any serious political power or that humans are falling under their control.

    3. Isn't that Nationalism/Fascism 101? Create an enemy, generally on baseless premises, so the notion that the Gennies need have any power seems a moot point...

  10. It seems like this game was rushed; all those false decisions hint at content that was planned but never created. Or perhaps I'm being optimistic and it's just bad writing.

    1. I agree, it definitely seems like they built the structure for a more freeform game, and then when they didn't have time to build that out, just tied off all the loose ends by having them point back into the same story. What might have been...

  11. If anybody is interested, it seems that the copyright on the original Buck Rogers novel "Armageddon 2419 A.D." was not renewed.

    If we take the novel as canon, Buck Rogers is 67 years old in the video games. XXV Century medicine kept him young-looking...

  12. How will this game go on the gimlet?


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