Utility Spells in Video Games

I like utility spells in my video games. By that I mean spells that allow me to do things other than DPS. There is nothing about magic users as a RPG class that dictates that they should be pure damage dealers, but more and more modern RPG games treat them as such. Likely, this is an influence of MMORPG’s which must have rigid, and very clearly defined combat mechanics to allow for structured team work. For example in WoW mages are usually geared toward AoE DPS, warlocks specialize in DoT spells, priests and druids are usually pegged healers and etc. At least this was the breakdown last time I have played, and it made sense. In MMO games you spend most of your time either in combat, gearing up for combat, walking to a combat location or arguing with people over combat mechanics and strategies. Skills and spells that do not directly deal damage or aid your team are at best nice vanity perks, and at worst wasted XP and clutter that takes up space on your hot-bar.

Single player RPG’s however are different. They are often much more focused on storytelling or exploration. They ought to offer much wider variety of magic to the players. But more often then not, when you roll up a mage, and look at the available spell list you realize you don’t really have that many choices. There might be hundreds of spells, but the main difference between them is the color and shape of the particle effect that shoots out of your magic staff. That and the amount of hit points they subtract from the enemy health bar.

Yes, mechanically AoE, DoT, direct damage and debuff spells are very different and allow for a myriad of strategies and tactical decisions. But conceptually, they are virtually identical.

Most games use magic exclusively to hurt and heal and that’s really, really boring.

Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to throw a fireball from time to time. The more deadly it is, the more enjoyable the act. But that’s not all that magic should be about. Right now I’m playing Dragon Age: Inquisition and the only spell I really like is Fade Step. It’s basically a blink style ability that propels you forward much like the Vanguard charge in Mass Effect games. But you can spam it outside of combat – which is how I usually explore new areas. I run around hitting the search button while Fade Step is on cool-down, and mash it as soon as it becomes available.

Most Dragon Age Inquisition spells are DPS.

Most Dragon Age: Inquisition spells are pure DPS.

This is not really a critique of the game itself. I get why the spell system is the way it is: the game involves MMO style tactical combat, and the skills are geared towards that. The classes were designed to be balanced and complementary and with the way you issue combat orders, there is simply no UI space for frivolous spells. The game has limitations that are parts of its design, which were there (albeit less pronounced) since the beginning of the series so I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Skyrim did not have such limitations, but it’s magic system was also primarily concerned with shooting particle effects out of your fingers, buffing your own stats, or putting temporary debuffs or effects on enemies…

It did have Water Breathing though, which was neat. Yes, it was mostly useless, since the game never required you to do any extensive swimming or diving. But the two or three times you actually found a use for it it during the course of the 600 hours you put into the game, it made you feel a little bit like a superhero.

I like spells that have nothing to do with combat.

I hate to always keep going back to Morrowind (which is probably my favorite CRPG), but that game had a really great magic system. Not perfect, mind you, but interesting. It had a lot of really nifty utility spells were useless in combat but great outside of it. The entire school of Alteration was all about practical effects any adventurer would love to have in their toolkit.

For example, it had a spell that opened locks. Mechanically it was redundant because it did the exact same thing as the lock picking skill. From a purist game design point of view it was just useless clutter. But, I love the fact it existed. Think about it: why would a mage ever want to carry lock picks or learn how to use them? Morrowind gave you an option of role playing a mage who thought lock-picking was beneath him/her but still could effectively open locked doors using magic.

By the time Oblivion was released, someone invented mini-games, decided that picking locks must be one of them, that was the end of that useful spell. It got streamlined out of the Elder Scroll series.

In addition to the aforementioned water breathing, Morrowind had a water walking spell. It did exactly what you expected: it allowed you to run (or bunny-hop) across the surface of water as if it was solid ground. You might think it is a silly ability, but I remember learning this spell on every class because it was extremely useful. It allowed you to cross waterways much quicker and without having to do with annoying Slaughterfish and could be used to escape enemies. It was the extremely useful if you wanted to trade with the Mudcrab Merchant.

There was a spell that allowed you augment your jump height, in case you wanted to hop around the world like you were the Incredible Hulk. There was a complimentary slow-fall spell that allowed you to mitigate damage if you jumped to high. There was also a straight up levitation spell which would let you walk upwards or downwards at your normal speed. This meant that city walls, or steep mountain cliffs were not impassable barriers but merely temporary obstacles that mages scoffed at.

Utility spells in Morrowind offered the player an unparalleled freedom of movement that I have not seen in any other game.

The very existence of these spells influenced the game design. The world map was designed with the expectation that the player might be flying in from overhead, running over the ocean floor, swimming to the bottom of the sea and etc… Stationary in game assets were built to be explored from any possible angle. Some areas were specifically designed to be accessible only via application of utility spells or potions. There were side quests that required water breathing, and there were areas in the game that could only be reached via levitation. So if you never learned any spells or put any points into magic related attributes, then you simply had to scrape some cash and either buy or mix some potions to access those parts of the game.

If you were a spell caster or a hybrid class however… Well, it felt great to discover these little exclusive areas. Being able to nonchalantly float up into some stuck up wizard assholes mushroom castle made you feel like a bad-ass.

Inessential, non-combat, utility spells are always nice to have. They make playing a spell caster feel a little bit like being a super hero. Without them, wizards are just a boring damage dealers. I understand why sometimes boring AoE DPS class is what the game mechanics are calling for, and that’s ok. But more often than not, giving the player the ability to use magic outside of combat makes the game more fun. Not only that: they will often force the devs to design more complete, believable and robust game spaces. So next time you are designing a magic system for a single player RPG, consider adding levitation, water walking, or super speed to your spell list. Unless of course you hate fun, and you just want your game to play exactly like an MMO which is something no one ever asked for.

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Rat Queens

When you play D&D (or any kind of classic fantasy Role Playing Game) the game universe crafted by your GM is typically laden with certain game specific tropes. Because it is a collaborative medium, and because it is a game with rules and win states, the functional world is expressed through that lens. The GM can’t help but create scenarios with plot hooks and quests that railroad the players toward prepared material and fence of sections of the world that are not fully realized yet. Players can’t help but be a little bit genre savvy and incredibly blasé about saving the world every other Tuesday.

Rat Queens

Rat Queens

Here is a little personal story: during my first RPG session we encountered some undead. My character was a warrior: a commoner thug who used to be a highwayman up until he decided to go adventuring with a dwarf, and elf and a wizard. Seeing how he was a country bumpkin all his life, and this was his first big adventure I tried to role-play him being paralyzed with fear at the sight of the walking dead. It did not really go over well with anyone else in the group: everyone else was already in combat mode with dice in hand and they had neither time nor desire to deal with my existential dread bullshit. The dwarf forcibly dragged me outside yelling “You are a warrior, you see walking dead, you hit’em with yer sword!”

This was my introduction to the gaminess of RPG. When the enemy shows up, you ready your weapons and start rolling. When you’re in a tavern, people recognize you as adventurers and give you quests. When you go into a dungeon, there will be a boss fight and loot at the lowest level. Unless you are actually playing a game specifically designed for collaborative narration, the stories that happen at the gaming table will be predictably different from the stuff you might have read in a novel. Because most fantasy novels do not start with five of people armed to the teeth with magic artifacts going into a tavern on an off-chance someone will need a dragon slain, because that’s what they do for living.

The series has no shortage of violence and gore.

The series has no shortage of violence and gore.

The DM of the Rings comic is a brilliant, humorous exploration of this specific clash between a classic book storytelling intersecting with collaborative gaming aspects of RPG. The narrative breaks down, because the player expectations and the game play structure of quests, battles and rewards inherent to the role playing systems. The players are always three pages ahead, always pre-empting and second guessing and always pushing against the boundaries of the story, because of course they are. So if you set out to re-create Tolkien at the gaming table, you are bound to fail. Conversely, going the other way around sometimes works out fine as illustrated by the comic itself.

That is basically the concept behind Rat Queens. It is a fantasy story that might as well have been a dramatized chronicle of your last D&D campaign. It features a genre savvy protagonists, who are self proclaimed “adventurers”, because of course they would be. They start in a tavern (where else) where they start a massive fight (as you do) and get thrown in jail. As a punishment they are given a quest to clear out some goblins from a cave near by, and they shuffle off, grumbling and complaining about insufficient loot prospects of the whole endeavor.

No, seriously.

No, seriously. This page is like a visual representation of a critical hit table.

DM of the Rings is a cynical, and humorously jaded deconstruction of bad campaign, where neither the players nor the GM are on the same page with respect to what they are trying to accomplish. Rat Queens is something different: instead of poking fun at the disconnection between structured storytelling and role playing it embraces it. It is a love letter to D&D and the type of collaborative storytelling which happens at the gaming table. It is a faithful reconstruction of a good campaign: one in which both the GM and the players are on the same page, and just want to have fun and pull of a series of wacky hijinks and spectacular heroic battles because that’s what you do.

While the comic is heavily influenced by RPG, it is not particularly interested in saying anything about it. Gaming tropes and structures inform the narrative and the characters but the fourth wall is never broken, and there is very little meta-commentary with respect to the RPG medium. It is just a story about quirky, genre savvy adventurers set in a fantasy universe where there are quests, loot, convenient plot twists and where four person teams composed of a warrior, rogue, cleric and a mage are a common sight. It is a story about quirky, idiosyncratic characters existing in an oddball fantasy universe with familiar rules and tropes. It is fun, funny and occasionally rather clever.

Pleasant diversity.

Pleasant diversity, because why not.

It is also pleasantly diverse. The story takes place in the town of Palisade which is a racial and cultural melting pot that is full of all kinds of different people. Fantasy as a genre has always struggled with representation. Despite there being a concrete evidence of people of color being not only present but also often prominent and influential in the middle ages, popular culture usually usually represents medieval Europe as uniformly white and heterogeneous. This carries over to fantasy stories inspired by these period pieces. So we end up with settings where Elves, Orcs and dragon people are a common sight, but people with darker skin shades don’t even exist.

Rat Queens breaks away from that trend and embraces diversity. While it features the usual fantasy races such as Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs and Halflings “Smidgens”, it also draws a healthy number of prominent characters as people of color. Similarly, there are gay characters, because why wouldn’t there be? All of the protagonists, the titular Rat Queens (which is the name they given to their adventuring team – it’s a thing you do in that setting) happen to be women. This shouldn’t really be unique or surprising, but it is because I can’t think of a any other fantasy story which features an all-female cast of heroes.

Horned Demon Puppy.

I would like to direct your attention toward the horned demon puppy in this picture.

Also, Dwarf women grow beards in this setting, and shaving them is frowned upon by Dwarf society. Actually, the whole female beard thing is interesting because it makes an interesting commentary on how our own society polices women’s body hair. It’s not preachy, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with the message. The whole thing is written in a funny, charming way and when one of the heroes shaves her beard in act of defiance and rebellion against stringent, suffocating conservativeness of Dwarf society most readers will cheer her on. But the commentary is there, and it does sink in. It’s somewhat subtle, which is why I mentioned the series can be really clever when it wants to be.

Rat Queens is a fun series, but keep in mind it is not Saga. It is not at that level, but then again, few things are. Still, if you are looking for a light, amusing and occasionally clever fantasy romp heavily inspired by D&D, it is worth picking up. It is also a great example of how you can create a setting that is diverse and which sometimes can make points about social issues without sacrificing your ability to have potty mouthed characters who engage in drunken debauchery in between extremely bloody and violent battles with monsters.

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Space Hulk

The original Space Hulk board game was released back in 1989. It would not be fair to say it was a direct cash-in, but the game design and theme were clearly influenced by the enduring popularity of James Cameron’s Aliens film. The epic battle between Ripley and the hive queen has become iconic example of bad-ass space heroism. Games Workshop game designers either purposefully or unconsciously channeled that that when they made a game about brave Space Marine terminators in heavy power armors boarding a derelict space ship wreck to cleanse it from alien infestation. The core game play was custom-designed to allow players to re-enact classic SF horror scenes such as blasting heavy machine guns on full auto at a horde of aliens until running out of bullets and being overrun.

Space Hulk

Space Hulk, 4th Edition, 2014

The game proved to be immensely popular. The first edition got several expansion packs, until being re-released in 1996 and later in 2009. The third, most recent edition was a very limited run which sold out within a week. Space Hulk was also adapted into at least five licensed video games:

  1. a PC game in 1993
  2. a Playstation title in 1995
  3. a mobile phone game in 2005
  4. a recent and rather well received 2013 PC game currently available on Steam
  5. an iOS port of the abovementioned 2013 title

There have also been a number of fan made expansions, conversions and attempts at digitization of the game. The popularity of the title is enduring and it remains one of most iconic Games Workshop properties. For many players it has been the gateway drug that got them into Warhammer 40k and wargaming in general. Thus it was no surprise that the company has decided to re-release the game earlier this year. The fourth edition of the game briefly appeared on the Games Workshop website in late September and sold out in less than 24 hours. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of it in that first batch at a discounted pre-order prince before they ran out of supplies.

Space Hulk

Playing the first mission in the booklet.

If you have never seen the game played, it is a quite interesting box set. Instead of static-printed game board, Space Hulk uses modular floor tiles made out of thick, glossy cardboard like substance. They are more or less like big puzzle pieces that easily snap together to form the claustrophobic, tight corridors and chambers of the derelict, alien infested space wreck. The mission booklet that comes with the game includes instructions for assembling 16 game maps using the available pieces. Most of these are time tested maps from the original edition, but several are brand new. Players are encouraged to play the missions from the booklet in order, but with the plethora of available pieces it is entirely possible to design your own missions.

Many of the floor pieces are textured with groves or various protrusions that represent battle damage, machinery or wall fixtures which is a very nice touch. The material is sturdy, sleek and glossy. It should stand up to repeated use.

Space Hulk Mission 2

This is the setup for Suicide Mission – the 2nd scenario in the booklet.

The box ships with eleven Space Marine terminator models, a few dozen Genestealer models as well as a Blood Angels Librarian and a Broodlord. All of the models have been custom made for the game. They are the same scale as standard Warhammer 40k models but do not use the standard round bases. Instead the models are designed to be used without any bases. They are made of a waxy plastic which is softer and more malleable than the standard Games Workshop casts used for their flagship games. This particular material was likely chosen to allow the models to survive being stored in the game box, along with the heavy cardboard pieces without getting damaged.

Tight Spot

These marines might be in trouble.

Despite a lower quality casting material, the actual sculpts are very detailed, and feature the intricate over-design of the modern Games Workshop range. I might be a traditionalist, but I am a big fan of old school hand sculpted models. Miniatures designed entirely in CAD software tend to feature exuberant and needless detail that is invisible during the game but a nightmare to paint properly. The Space Hulk minis however don’t necessarily need to be painted. While the box art and examples in the booklets feature high quality paint jobs by the Evy Metal team, the actual game pieces are color coded (Space Marines are red, Genestealers are blue) to stand out on the game board.

Despite the seeming complexity of the game (the number of available models, modular floor tiles, different mission scenarios) the core rules are incredibly simple and intuitive. They are outlined in a 15 page rule booklet. The mission booklet contains instructions on how to assemble the floor tiles for each scenario, what models each of the players starts with, what are the win conditions for each side, and whether or not any special rules are in effect. You do not need to be familiar with Warhammer 40k, or have any experience with war gaming to jump right in. Once you set up the game board and arrange the models in the starting locations Space Hulk plays much like any board game. Each player has a limited number of moves they can make per turn. The aliens are fast and agile, while the marines are slow and methodical, but well armed. Their turns are timed forcing the marine player to think on their feet and make quick decisions under pressure.

Heroic last stand

Marines surrounded by aliens are making a heroic last stand.

For newbies, I recommend starting with the second mission in the booklet. It uses a rather small map, which means you will not need a large table, it will be easy to put together and it guarantees a fast game. The mission is heavily stacked against the Marines so you should let the newbie play the Genestealers on the first game to ensure smooth and enjoyable win. The mission typically won’t last longer than 15-20 minutes so players can re-set the board, swap teams and play a re-match immediately after to see both sides of the game. The frantic combat and cramped claustrophobic corridors of this scenario truly capture the essence of Space Hulk game play.

The first mission in the booklet is much more balanced and serves as a great intro into the actual meta-story that connects all the scenarios but it involves a number of special rules which might be confusing to first timers. That and it involves a rather large and complex map that might be more difficult to navigate and master.

Aggressive advance

The key to winning the Suicide Mission as Marines is being very aggressive and very lucky with your rolls.

For me, playing the game again was a trip down the memory lane. I did not own it, but my friend did have either the 1st or the 2nd edition box and we have played it countless times. For me Space Hulk was a gateway to Warhammer, Warhammer 40k as well as pen and paper RPG. Looking back at it with the eyes of a tabletop veteran, I can honestly say it has not aged. Or even if it did, the 4th edition face-lift has smoothed over any jagged edges, and the game is still as fun and exciting as I remembered it.

Right before the holidays the game has returned to the Games Workshop store, albeit in limited quantity and at twice the price it was sold during the pre-order period. Still, I believe it is definitely worth the price. The set is lovely, well made and sturdy. It will last you forever, and it makes a great center-piece on your board game shelf.

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