This War of Mine

There were four of them in the house. Anton, was the oldest. In his previous life before the war he was a respected mathematician and a professor. When he joined the group, he was so sick could barely stand up. They made a bed for him in the basement, and took turns watching over him and bringing him food. Zlata was an aspiring musician. She was young enough to have been one of his students back when schools were still opened. She would often sit by his bedside and play the guitar to cheer him up. Cveta was closer to Anton’s age. She used to be a school principal, and the war hit her especially hard. Out of the entire group she had the hardest time adjusting to the new reality. Pavle, an accomplished athlete and former football star did not have such problems. He learned to use his skills to scavenge and avoid trouble, and could throw a mean punch when cornered. He soon became the groups main provider.

This War of Mine Gameplay

This War of Mine Gameplay

They worked out a pretty good system: Pavle would go out at night and scavenge for food and supplies. Cveta and Zlata would stay home and guard the groups possessions. When Anton got better, he joined the guard rotation so that the others could get more sleep. He was not much of a scavenger, and he could not carry much loot anyway. Neither could Cveta for that matter. Zlata however was young and agile, and eager to help out. She and Pavle worked out a rotation. Each night one would go out to scavenge and the other one would sleep or stand guard.

On one of her runs Zlata stabbed a soldier in the back.

She found him at an abandoned supermarket. He cornered a young girl and was making threats and demands waving his weapon around. It was a split second decision, but she did not regret it. The girl run off, but later a woman from the neighborhood told them she got home safe. Who knows what would happened to her if Zlata did not bring a knife that fateful night. Zlata, the golden* girl. Zlata the hero, they called her. Anton tried to play the guitar that night, but he was terrible at it. Zlata brought the soldier’s assault rifle and a box of ammo home. The group now had means to defend themselves from raiders.

Pavle found an abandoned villa with lots of supplies. Unfortunately it turned out it was not really abandoned. Few military deserters made a nest in the basement. On the second floor Pavle found a pile of human corpses, all carved up, charred or otherwise broken… Their wounds were not a result of a fight. These people have been tortured and murdered with exceptional malice. There was a locked room at the end of the hallway, and when Pavle tried to force the door open a man cried out for help from the inside. Pavle did not bring a crowbar or lock picks so he was unable to open it. He made too much noise and alerted the deserted. They were heavily armed. Pavle got shot, but somehow managed to get back home.

His woulds looked grave and the group did not have any bandages. Without some sort of medical aid, Pavle was as good as dead.

All the nearby buildings they could easily get to were already picked clean. The spots that could potentially have some left over medical supplies were off limits due to heavy military activity. However, Zlata knew that the deserters would likely have some military supplies. Chances were that at least some of them would carry standard issue med-packs with bandages and pain killers. She also felt bad for their hostage. She could not sit idly while a man was trapped out there with deranged killers. She hatched a plan.

Next night she went to the villa armed with a knife and a set of lock picks.

When she came back in the morning her eyes were hard and fierce.

She brought food, booze, three rifles and lots of ammo, but no meds or bandages. The hostage was safe, she told the group. The deserters would no longer be a problem. The villa was abandoned again. Pavle got worse. His wounds kept opening up and they could not stop the bleeding.

There was a military outpost near by that was very well stocked. They were bound to have medical supplies, and they were known to trade with the locals. Cveta gathered the little surplus possessions they had left and went there to trade for bandages. They told her to leave. Few days earlier Pavle visited the outpost and was caught trespassing and trying to steal their supplies. The soldiers were still very sore about that, and refused to trade. They would not listen to Cveta’s pleading. “Serves him right”, they said.

Pavle got worse. He could no longer get up on his own. His wounds were infected and he was running a fever. They had to take turns bringing him food. None of them had medical training, but it was clear he might not make it without some medical help. Zlata refused to sit idly and watch her friend die. She took off to the military outpost, her trusty knife in her pocket. It had four notches on the handle already. She would add a few more if that’s what it took to save Pavle. That said, she hoped that she won’t have to use it, and that stealth and subterfuge will be enough to steal some medical supplies.

Anton pleaded with her, and warned her not to go, but deep down inside he believed she could make it. Zlata was, after all, the golden girl. God watched over her. She was magical. If anyone could break into a military outpost and come back with supplies, it was her.

She did not make it.

Turns our that a musical prodigy armed with a kitchen knife was no match against four trained killers with automatic weapons.

Anton was devastated. Next night he picked out the best of the four rifles the group had in the house, and put a few clips of ammo in his backpack. He was not a vengeful man, he assured Cveta, and it was not about vengeance. Zlata deserved a proper burial, and Pavle would not make it much longer without medical supplies. If they don’t do anything and let him bleed out, then the golden girl died for nothing. He was lying, of course. But only about that first part. It was about vengeance. Never in his life did he wish death upon another human being. Not until now. He wanted these soldiers dead.

He arrived at the outpost at dusk and got inside the building. He set himself up in a long hallway with a clear escape route behind him. The soldiers would have to climb up the stairs on the opposite side, and he would mow them down as they came in. If he ran out of ammo, he could just take a step back and jump off the balcony and run to safety.

Anton fired a shot into the air to alert the soldiers.

When the first head cleared the stairway he pulled the trigger. The rifle kicked back harder than he expected it to. His shots veered wildly off the target. The return fire was swift and accurate. Single burst of fire echoed in the hallway with a resonant “ra-ta-ta-ta-tat”. Anton’s skull burst into tiny pieces, his cranial fluids staining the walls behind him.

Pavle bleed out to death that night.

Deaths

Deaths

Temperature dropped, and it started snowing outside. Cveta chopped up Pavle’s old bed for firewood. She had no use for it anymore. At least the blood stained oak and plywood would keep her warm. She kept herself busy, trying not to think about the events of the last few nights. She wanted to weep for her fallen friends, but she could not find the tears. She wanted to scream in an impotent rage, but she just did not see the point. True depression, as she was learning, was not sadness or despair. It was an overwhelming emptiness and a sense of existential enui. But she tried to fight it as best she could. She had to survive for Anton, for Pavle and of course for Zlata.

She sold Zlata’s guitar for some canned food and vegetables. She never learned to play it, and she could not stand seeing it around the house.

She repaired an old radio and tried listening to the few remaining music stations that were still broadcasting. There was never anything good on it. Only bad news, and some sad sounding, old music records playing on a loop throughout the day.

When there were four of them in he house, they were always hungry. There was simply not enough food for all of them. Cveta would often skip a meal or two to make sure Pavle and Zlata were well fed. Now she had more food than she knew what to do with. She figured that if she rationed it properly she could survive a few weeks without leaving the house. The winter was in full swing, and the raiders were getting more and more desperate.

Cveta would usually sleep during the day, and keep watch at night. She had plenty of weapons an ammo in the house, and despite lack of training they provided to be a good deterrent. Cveta was not a good shot, and she never aimed at the raiders. She would shoot at the ground or in the air to scare them off and it usually worked. Most people would give up after seeing or hearing an automatic weapon burst fired in their direction from a window above. On most nights she would expend 4-6 rounds this way. She would pick up the expelled casings from the floor and line them up on the window sill. Each clump of shells symbolized yet another night she survived alone and against all the odds.

Days passed and it stopped snowing. Cveta ran out of ammunition.

That night the raiders forced the door and made her pay for every single shot she fired.

They cleaned out the pantry and looted everything that was not nailed down to the floor. They left her to die, beaten, broken and bleeding. She dragged herself into the basemen, crawled into the bead and slept for three days. She was waiting for death, but death would not come.

Raided

Raided

On the fourth night she patched her wounds as best she could and set to work. She chopped up remaining furniture and used the remaining supplies to build a rat trap. Few times she had to stop because of the pain, but she kept on working. She put rotten food and garbage inside and every few days it would trap some stray rodent. She ate the meat raw, because she had no firewood left. And even if she had some, it would not stay in the house for a long time.

Nearly every night the raiders would come back and do a quick sweep of her house. Cveta did not even try to fight them anymore. She would just go to sleep in her blood soaked bed. Her wounds were getting infected and she was running a fever all the time. The bandits could see she was in a bad way so they left her alone, though it did not stop them from taking her stuff. The only thing they would not take was rat meat. They left her traps alone, and so they became her life line.

Every morning Cveta would drag herself out of the bed, and check the traps. Then she would eat, and drag herself back to her bed, usually leaving a bloody trail behind her on the floor. She was not getting any better. In fact, it was quite clear she was dying. She needed immediate medical help or she would die in her bed just like Pavle. There was a hospital in town, several blocks away, but they could not go there before. There was too much fighting going on over there. Now however the front lines shifted elsewhere. Cveta decided that it was worth checking out. She doubted there would be any supplies left there but she did not know what else she could do.

To her surprise, the hospital was still operating. There were were a few medical specialists still there taking care of the sick and wounded. They patched her up, and pumped her full of antibiotics. She came the next night, and their gave her more meds and re-dressed her wounds. They never asked for any payment, and they never complained about wasting precious medical supplies on a complete stranger.

They were saints. They saved her life. To repay them for their kindness, Cveta robbed them blind.

She felt bad about it, but not for very long. War hardened her, and now that she narrowly avoided death, she was determined to survive more than ever. She kept the medical supplies and intended to sell everything else in exchange for food and ammunition. Unfortunately she did not know anyone willing to trade.

Cveta robbed the hospital

Cveta robbed the hospital

She did not want to risk visiting the military outpost again, for obvious reasons. The traveling merchant who sometimes visited the house probably figured she was dead already. For all he knew, she should have been. She was the weakest and most vulnerable member of the group. And yet, here she was. Still standing, still surviving… On a steady diet of rat meat, but surviving nevertheless. Now that she actually had some valuables in the house, she went back to her old rotation, ready to fend of any raiders. Fortunately, they seemed to have given up on her house.

The nights were silent and peaceful. Cveta stayed up keeping watch four more times and she did not encounter any trouble. Her wounds healed up, and the fever went away completely.

Ceasefire

Ceasefire

On the fifth night they announced a cease fire on the radio.


I’ve been playing This War of Mine recently and I found it somewhat captivating. They game is not necessarily “fun” in the traditional sense of the word. What it excels at, is emergent storytelling. It gives you a set of characters, locations and scenarios and the ability to build and connect them into coherent and sometimes even moving stories.

The game is small, simple and low key, but it does allow you to have these interesting experiences. I don’t really want to say “deep” because most of the time they are not. But they can be engaging. When I started the game I had no idea the young musician will become the tragic hero, and that the middle aged school principal will become the main protagonist by the end. It just happened that way. That’s what makes the game interesting: that such stories can, but do not have to emerge from the game play.

The first play through was a complete shit show, with people dying in stupid way, and wasting resources on pointless crap. There was no pathos to the story – it was just a string of errors which resulted in unnecessary deaths, and me getting annoyed I can’t unlock the higher crafting tiers due to my own crappy resource management. If you approach This War of Mine as a game and try to beat it, this will likely be the result.

My second time around I realized that this is not really the best approach. The game is at its best when you treat it as an emergent story generator, and try to empathize with the characters, and imagine their relationships. The game systems provide the basic skeleton of the story, and you provide the connective tissue. And then you may, sometimes get an interesting story out of it.

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Life is Strange: Save Scumming as a Game Mechanic

“Save scumming” has been a video game concept ever since we have invented save states. In the past, abusing the save system was often the only way to win or avoid losing progress. For example, Sierra adventure games liked to kill the player at random for no reason, so you had to save often (preferably before entering a new area or touching anything). Modern games tend to discourage this tactic limiting where and how often you can save, or replacing save game systems with automatic checkpoints.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange title screen.

Back in 2007 I asked my readers what save mechanic they prefered and the overwhelming number of respondents chose classic “save anywhere” system conducive to save scumming. I bet that if I asked the same question now, I would have seen the same answers. But if you look at the new releases, you will notice that more and more games tend toward a checkpoint based systems. This could be partly explained by ubiquity of consoles and difficulties of managing save game files across a myriad of platforms. But my pet theory is that “save anywhere” systems are simply one of those things that players love, and game devs hate for the same reason: empowerment.

A flexible save system can be game breaking, allowing a determined player to break up challenging segments into tiny, discrete chunks that can be mastered in isolation, or to abuse the random events to always get favorable results. As such it reduces the challenge and gives players meta-gaming tool they can use to brute-force challenges instead of grinding or getting better at a game. Naturally, this is something that many developers would like to avoid – they want to keep their game challenging and make sure no one gets to “cheat”. Hence, we see the shift toward smart, and flexible checkpoint systems in many modern titles.

Life is Strange opening credits

Life is Strange opening credits.

Personally, I think that trying to force people to play your game the hard way is silly. If a game is too challenging, or too punishing and it forces me to re-play the same segment over and over again until I get good at it, I usually get discouraged and stop playing. Save scumming lets me force my way through the bits of the game I would otherwise find tiresome and let me enjoy it at my pace. I always appreciate it when a dev team decides to trust me enough to give me a potentially game breaking tool, and let me use my own judgment as to how to use it.

The Life is Strange by Square Enix is a checkpoint based game, which introduces an interesting “time rewind” mechanic that for all intents and purposes emulates save scumming. At any point in the game you have an option to hit a button, and go back to an earlier state, allowing you to undo mistakes and change important decisions.

In and of itself, this mechanic is not new. The most prominent title that has used a similar gimmick was the 2003 game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. But there it has been employed a bit differently. The rewinds in the game were very limited (allowing you to go back only 30 seconds or so) and were tied to a finite, collectible in game resource. They were intended to be an “undo” button you hit after botching a dangerous jump, or accidentally falling off a platform. Life is Strange uses the mechanic in a way I have not seen before. It is not an undo button, as much as it is a “Groundhog Day” button.

Time Rewind Mechanic in Action

Time Rewind Mechanic in Action

Let me explain that. In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is trapped in some sort of a temporal time loop forcing him to relieve the same day over and over again. As a result, nothing he says or does during the day has any lasting consequences, since the timeline resets itself every night. This lets him get into all kinds of funny shenanigans, but ultimately gives him an opportunity to learn to become a better person through trial an error. Eventually he sets out on a mission to use what he knows about the events that will unfold during the day, and the things he learned about people around him to live out a perfect day.

Life is Strange allows you to do exactly that, albeit at a smaller scale. Max, the protagonist can only rewind few minutes into the past without getting nose bleeds, but this still allows her to do Groundhog Day style tricks. For example, she can have a conversation with someone, learn something significant then rewind back, and use the fact she just heard as a leverage. Or she can pick up a friends’ book-bag from the floor and rummage through it without permission only to rewind time right afterwards. The game also preserves your inventory between rewinds – so anything you pick up or put in your pockets travels back in time with you.

This game is gorgeous

Have I mentioned this game looks gorgeous? This game looks gorgeous.

If you think about it, this is exactly what players do when they save scum. You run through a conversation to see how the characters react to what you say, and then you reload to ace the conversation and get the most favorable result. The rewind mechanic simply lets you skip the tedious bits involving management of save game files. Not only that, it keeps you engaged and immersed in the game world because you are no longer meta-gaming. It is absolutely brilliant.

So is that game world they keep you immersed in for that matter. My one and only complaint about this game is that it is just too short. Life is Strange borrows both the core game-play and the episodic format from the critically acclaimed Taletale Games The Walking Dead series. According to my Steam stats, the first episode subtitled “Crhysalis” took me a little under five hours to finish. And this is with me walking around, examining everything and just taking in the sights. After I finished it, I immediately wanted to go back to Blackwell Academy. Not even to find out what happens next (although I must say that the mystery behind your super powers and the impending cataclysm looming over the town are sure intriguing) but to spend more time with Max and Chloe.

Super Tornado

Super Tornado. This is not a spoiler since you see it in the intro sequence.

Chloe, by the way, is voiced by the amazing Ashly Burch of the HAWP fame and she does a spectacular job. In fact most actors are on point, the conversations flow well and are engaging. Blackwell Academy feels like a real place, inhabited by real people rather than just a set of puzzle chambers, conversation rooms and inter-connecting corridors.

The game is a breath of fresh air. I love the fact that you get to play as a teenage girl, facing teenage girl problems (like asshole school principals, rich “mean girls”, nice guys and etc..) in addition to having super powers, trying to find a missing girl, preventing a murder and stopping a super-tornado from destroying your home town. I was overjoyed to play a character who actually has a concrete past (rather than the standard, vague “special forces/marines” background), relationships and insecurities.

Max playing a guitar

Max hanging out in her room, playing a guitar.

Spending 5 hours wandering around Blackwell Academy as Max Caufield was a rather intriguing and eye opening experience. Somehow I have managed to go through 30-odd years of my life without ever wondering how high school experience might have looked from the other side of the gender divide. None of the media I have consumed up until this point have actually given me a clear glimpse of it. Life is Strange did. Perhaps it is because video games put you much closer to the protagonist than any other medium. Perhaps it’s because Max is such a wonderfully fleshed out character who is easy to identify and empathize with. All I know is that viewing the world through her eyes was intriguing and enriching.

Especially that part where I more or less met myself. You see, Warren is basically a snapshot of me, as I existed back when I was around that age. He is somewhat awkward but personable, smart but introverted, super into science, computers and anime and related things. He has zeroed in on the shy, lonely new girl in town, and he set his phasers to “maximum cling”. He is dead set on giving Max so much of his time, attention and support that she simply won’t have any choice but to eventually fall in love with him. It’s not that he is creepy, weird, overly forward or insincere. He seems like a really good kid. He is just, uh… That guy. And now I totally get who “that guy” is. This was perhaps the first time I saw this “boy with an unrequited crush” dynamic without identifying with the guy. Seeing his behavior reflected back onto me, and being able to react to it was definitely eye opening.

Isn’t this what art is all about? Taking you to places where you haven’t been before, and making you feel things you haven’t felt yet?

Geek Girl Book Club

Geek Girl Book Club: no boy wizards or sad vampire fiction allowed. No boys period. :D

The game, despite short run time is full of little moments like this. I love the complicated, stranded relationship between Max and Chloe. I like that by the end of the episode Chloe’s “step douche” becomes literally your high school arch-enemy. I love that the game lets you dump a bucket of paint on a cashmere sweater of the mean popular girl to shut her up, but then allows you to be nice and comforting to her afterwards. Life is Strange takes a rather nuanced approach to systematizing “moral choice” and gives you more options than the standard Bioware options of “kick the sick puppy” or “send the sick puppy to college”. Because you can always rewind conversations and undo most of your actions at will, the game tends to avoid clear cut “good vs evil” dilemmas, instead focusing on character driven choices or setting up future plot hooks. Whenever you make an important decision, it impacts either your relationship with one of the people at Blackwell Academy, or sets up a dangling plot thread that will doubtlessly come back to hunt you, or pay off big time in the future.

Next time on Life is Strange

Next time on Life is Strange

This kind of game-play was shown to be extremely effective for The Walking Dead, but Life is Strange gives it a new, interesting twist. It remains to be seen how well the game handles the player choice, and branching of the story. So far the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are vibrant and the story is captivating. That said none of the choices you make in Episode 1 have any payoff or consequences as of yet. I hope hat the future episodes will be as good, or better than this one.

I can’t wait till March to play the second installment. Go buy a season pass right now.

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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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