My first tabletop RPG experience

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years. I’ve experienced many amazing adventures and RPGs in this time, and these have allowed me to develop a strong appreciation for interesting narratives and well-thought-out characters.

It may therefore seem a little strange that I’d never tried a tabletop RPG before this year. Perhaps this was mainly to do with having only limited exposure to them; although I’ve known several bloggers who play for a while now, my real-life friends have always focused on video games. There’s also the fact that somewhere along the way I’d made the assumption it was just a group of people telling each other fantasy stories. My interest had never been piqued enough to cause me to find out more as writing fiction was something I’d never been good at.

This changed when Kevin from The Mental Attic began looking for players for a new game to be streamed on his Twitch channel, The Lawful Geek. I didn’t immediately say no when he got in touch last summer to ask if I’d be interested in joining in, but I must admit that I didn’t jump straight in with both feet. After telling him both myself and my other-half would help out by taking part if he couldn’t find enough players to make up the numbers, we found ourselves trying to create our own characters towards the end of 2019.

The game itself was the sixth edition of Shadowrun. Instead of being the completely fantasy-orientated tabletop RPG I had in my head when I thought about the genre, this is more science-fiction focused even though it still contains magical elements and dragons. It takes place several decades ahead in a future London where megacorporations control the lives of employees and others, cyberware is common, users interact with a worldwide computer network via neural interface, and dirty-work is contracted out to shadowrunners.

If it hadn’t been for Kevin’s patience and guidance, Pete and I simply wouldn’t have made it through the character creation part. It was a horrible process and one which we almost backed out of several times. Not only did we have to come up with believable backstories, something I struggled with thanks to my lack of skill with fiction, there were so many other things to think about and choices to make. The Shadowrun Sixth World Core Rulebook does an absolutely terrible job of explaining some of these – more about that later.

We made it through though and both came out on the other side with characters we were happy with. Pete went with Grifter, a 36-year old Australian who has turned into a wetworks specialist after growing up in an unhappy orphanage. My own character was kissingthepixel, or KTP for short, a young woman who has worked on her hacking skills since losing her parents in a car-crash as a child. What she didn’t realise at the start was that she was actually a technomancer: someone who has the ability to connect to the computer network with their mind.

Shadowrun, tabletop, RPG, gunfire, drone, machine, battle, fight

Both of us felt incredibly apprehensive before going into our first session. We didn’t really know what it was going to be like or what would be expected of us and were still bruised after the painful character creation. The game was going to be streamed on Twitch so any mistakes we made would be broadcast to an audience. And on top of all that, we were going to meet the other players – people we’d never spoken to before and who had years of experience with tabletop games. What if we didn’t get along?

We had nothing to worry about though and we’ve found ourselves in a great group. Kat, also known as ClericofKord online, is a wonderful actor and I admire the way she’s able to bring her street shaman Neko to life along with her many personas. Ozzy always seem to have the best luck of with the dice and his infiltrator Sleek is the guy we send in to get the lowdown on a location before busting in. They’ve both been extremely patient with us and we can’t thank them enough for all their help with getting to grips with the game.

I mentioned acting there, and this is the thing Pete and I were most worried about when starting Shadowrun. We might mess around on the Later Levels’ Twitch channel but we’re in no way performers; would we have to pretend to be our characters and talk as though we were in their bodies? The group reassured us when they told us there was no right way to play. Over the past several months, we’ve found ourselves doing what most feels comfortable given the situation: sometimes saying ‘my character would do this’, sometimes speaking as them.

It’s hard to recap our story so far because so much has happened since the first session in April. Our team of shadowrunners were thrown together thanks to a job from a man known only as Blondie, who isn’t on any records and doesn’t actually exist. He’s now slowly taking over the city and intent on killing us, although we still have no idea what his ultimate goal is. Thankfully we have a benefactor named Malcolm on our side who has come to our aid more than once; but he recently disappeared, and information we’ve uncovered implies he may not be as legit as he first seemed. I think the only thing we’re certain of is that we can truly trust no-one.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the Core Rulebook isn’t great. It does a good job of portraying this future world and the conflicts between the groups which exist in it but that’s where my positive comments end. Information about a specific subject is frequently split across far too many sections so you find yourself jumping between pages all the time. Certain paragraphs also directly contradict each other so you’re never sure you’re playing correctly – something which is surely a massive flaw a rulebook. It’s definitely not for beginners.

Because of this our group has taken a more laidback approach and we’re finding our way as we go. Kevin frequently asks for feedback and if one of the rules doesn’t make sense or feels too restrictive, we all agree to a change and continue playing the game our own way. Working like this has totally transformed a badly-written manual and terrible character creation process, from a daunting obstacle to new players into an experience we now look forward to every fortnight.

I think the thing which has surprised Pete and I the most is how a tabletop RPG can be just as exciting as a video game. There have been some moments during our sessions so far that have genuinely shocked us, whether that’s down to a plot-twist thrown in by Kevin or surprise at how one of the player characters have reacted to a situation. Even when our own characters aren’t actively taking part in a scene, we’ll be there in the game listening because we want to know what happens next.

Does this mean I’ll now be seeking out other tabletop games? To be honest, I’m doubtful. I think we’ve been very lucky to find ourselves with a gamemaster who’s so willing to guide new players and a group who are an awful lot of fun to hang out with, and I’m not sure all experiences would be like that. Video games will always be my focus but I can’t deny that I’m enjoying Shadowrun right now. I want to find out where our story takes us next – and whether we’ll finally be able to give Blondie the beating he deserves.

Beautiful Desolation: big decisions, little choice

As I’ve written before, I always feel under pressure to obtain good the endings in video games. Many gamers dislike linear storylines because they’re given no opportunity to affect the outcome; but for me, they provide comfort in knowing I can’t make a wrong choice.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy releases based around branching narratives though. For example, I finally managed to complete Detroit: Become Human a couple of months ago and loved both its characters and plot – despite feeling very stressed at certain points and uttering a few rude words during our streams. It wouldn’t have been the same game at all without big decisions that felt like life-and-death situations and knowing there was a risk of having at least one of your protagonists die before reaching the end credits.

The good thing about Detroit was that through its pace, the storyline delivered enough information to make the player feel as though their choices were based on knowledge. You might not know what the consequences of your decisions would ultimately be, but you had enough detail to be able to think them through rather than simply ‘picking an option’. This led to some very interesting conversations in Twitch chat as we discussed what we should do, what the outcome would be and how non-player characters would react to us as a result.

It was a completely different experience playing Beautiful Desolation a few weeks later. This should have been a release I thoroughly liked given its science-fiction setting and isometric point-and-click gameplay; and it had been made by a developer whose previous work had been great. I’d been impressed by STASIS after backing the Kickstarter campaign for The Brotherhood’s first project in November 2013, and so had jumped on board with a pledge when they announced their second campaign for Beautiful Desolation in January 2017.

The title opens on Mark Leslie and his fiancé Charlize in Cape Town during a rainstorm, on their way to rescue his older brother Don from whatever trouble he has now managed to get himself into. A huge flash of light and violent shockwave causes their car to run off the road as a weird triangular structure appears in the sky. Fast forward ten-years and we find out that Charlize sadly didn’t survive the accident; and Mark now wants to make it on board the mysterious Penrose to find out what it’s really all about as a method of dealing with his grief.

He’s able to reach the artefact with the help of Don and a helicopter – but after being cornered by its security system, they’re thrown far into the future with a dog-like robot companion called Pooch. Human civilsation as we know it is long gone and in its place are societies formed of machines and strange hybrids who worship frightening gods. Mark’s surroundings now hold echoes of a desolate part and glimpses of an even darker future; can he unravel the secrets of this new world and find a way home for his pack?

Beautiful Desolation’s highlight is without a doubt its artwork. The developer used photogrammetry to take hundreds of photographs of scenes and objects before generating 3D-models and textures from them, so every screen has a real piece of Africa in it. The result is a game which is stunning and looking closely at the locations visited reveals tiny details such as rabbits hopping through the grass, mist rising from overgrown ruins and flowers swaying in the breeze. I’m not sure I’ve played a video game which has felt so alive before.

This does come at a cost though: at times I struggled to see the items I was looking for or pinpoint interactive objects because there was just too much happening on screen. It got a it overwhelming as the game progressed and the story became more complicated. A certain level of detail can help draw you into a digital world and immerse the player in it’s narrative, but too much and you find yourself constantly jolted out of it each time you have to move a little closer to your monitor to progress.

Speaking of the story, Beautiful Desolation works slightly differently from traditional point-and-clicks and is more like an RPG in some ways. You take on missions and many of these can be progressed simultaneously instead of one at a time so the narrative doesn’t really come together until the final section. Once again, it can feel overwhelming because there’s just so much you can do at once. A quest-log would have been very handy for keeping track of what still needs to be completed and for whom, especially after periods away from your keyboard.

Because my immersion in this future Africa kept being broken due to screen repositioning and losing track of my objective, I felt unprepared when choices arose. And they weren’t small choices either: these were the kind of decisions where your action meant the prosperity of one race and complete annihilation of another. This was the climax in each of the five areas and, after failing to take in enough information to figure out which society I sided with on the first couple of occasions, I gave up and started picking at random.

This wasn’t right. The decisions in Detroit felt important and I wanted to pick the option which seemed as though it would be best for the protagonists; but here, I wasn’t given enough knowledge to really care. You should at least feel some sort of guilt when picking which a race has to die but the choices in Beautiful Desolation felt too binary, too one-or-the-other without any moral grey in the middle. On top of this they didn’t appear to have much of an effect on the ending so I didn’t get that emotional punch from the consequences of my actions.

If decisions in video games don’t carry any weight, is there any point in including them? Is a selection which has no impact and the illusion of choice any different from a linear storyline which doesn’t pretend to be anything else? For me personally, I’d rather know which kind of experience I’m getting into upfront. Give me a narrative that the developer wants to share so I can join them in their journey; or make that journey more personal to me and let me have a say in which destination we’re heading for.

Beautiful Desolation was by no means a bad game and it wouldn’t stop me from backing future crowdfunding campaigns by The Brotherhood. I’d just rather the decision-making was taken out of my hands so I can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Downward Spiral: a story lost in space

One of the first video games my other-half and I played together was Alien: Isolation. In our first few weeks after meeting we realised we shared a love of gaming and science-fiction so the title being recently released was a fortunate coincidence.

Instead of spending our Christmas together watching festive films and roasting turkey, we spent most of it creeping around the Sevastopol space station in search of Ellen Ripley with nothing but a tub of Quality Street for company.

Since then we’ve played several sci-fi games as there’s something about exploring an abandoned vessel which is weirdly appealing. STASIS, a title I received after backing the Kickstarter campaign, had the hairs standing on the back of our neck with its dark atmosphere. Tacoma left us feeling an emotional connection to its characters and their situation. And most recently, SOMA kept us questioning what it really means to be human for weeks afterwards.

As my other-half was there to take care of the controls, we didn’t play SOMA on its Safe Mode but this is something I would have considered if I was tackling it by myself. As someone who doesn’t have the greatest hand-eye coordination and enjoys video games for their narratives more than anything else, having the option to remove the threat from the creatures encountered and for that to be a genuine way to experience the game is something I’m thankful to the developers for.

That explains why I was intrigued when I received a press release about Downward Spiral: Horus Station by 3rd Eye Studios. A title that claimed to ‘lure players through a lost vessel abandoned by its crew’, it contained ‘gameplay options to tailor the experience’ including a mode that removes combat for those who prefer ‘a more relaxed, contemplative experience’. It was now available for PlayStation VR – something I knew Pete would be interested in – so I reached out to Lewis at Plan of Attack, who kindly sent me a review key.

The release’s unique selling point is its take on zero-gravity action. Rather than have the player walk simply around in magnetised boots, the developers drew inspiration from how such movement actually works: you need to grab onto something solid and then propel yourself forward by pushing away from the ship’s interior. The controls therefore move your character’s hands rather than their feet as they grasp surfaces and find themselves in near-constant motion.

As I’m one of those unlucky individuals who suffers from nausea when using virtual reality, Pete donned our PlayStation headset so we could start up Downward Spiral in VR. Sadly this didn’t last for longer than thirty-minutes: he found himself slightly queasy and the sick feeling in his stomach was enough to convince him to remove the device. I should point out however that I think he’s in the minority here, as the articles I’ve read about the game all seem to mention how well the VR movement works!

We then switched to the standard flat-screen version and the controls were handed over to me. Pushing down the left-stick causes your character to hold onto the nearest surface and releasing then launches them in the direction of their gaze. It sounds fairly easy but it took me a long time to get to grips with it, so much so that I made the decision to switch to Explore. There was no way I was going to be able to evade enemies or handle the combat in Engage mode if I couldn’t navigate the environment with some degree of ease.

Downward Spiral, Horus Station, space station, hands, grappling rope, jet tool

Fortunately we came across a grappling hook around 20-minutes in and this made manoeuvring a whole lot easier; and later on, a handheld jet tool added a small and much-needed speed boost to our movements. Although these seemed to work far better than using our character’s hands there was still no way of rapidly moving around and everything felt incredibly slow. It was frustrating to be stopped short of our intended target because we’d accidentally brushed up against an object and sent ourselves flying in the opposite direction.

The overall goal is to get the power back on and realign the ship by connecting each of its areas back together. This is completed through a series of tasks such as finding keycards, pressing buttons, pulling levels and inserting batteries – often after pushing a floating corpse or two out of the way. There are never any explicit instructions but television screens found in most rooms display what you need to do next, and the maps on the walls guide you on where to go.

Sadly, these tasks never really feel like puzzles: more like small jobs which need to be completed in order to progress your route through the station. There’s very little challenge throughout the gameplay and after finishing a job, no big revelation or reward to show you you’re heading on the right track. If it wasn’t for the completion screen shown between one act and the next, I’m not sure we would have realised we’d met the objective needed for each stage in the game.

A story must be cleverly written for a non-combat mode to be successful; with no action to pull the player through the game, it’s entirely reliant on the plot to maintain their interest. Although we didn’t experience it for ourselves, I can see how SOMA and its Safe Mode would have handled this perfectly. The flashbacks, recordings and emails found throughout the underwater research facility gave sufficient detail to keep the narrative moving, but still contained enough secrets to have the player piecing together the meaning of the story for themselves.

Downward Spiral, Horus Station, space, planet, stars, arms

Making the decision to remove all dialogue and cinematics from your project is therefore a very brave one and I can applaud 3rd Eye Studios for taking a risk with Downward Spiral. The title’s official website says that ‘players will have to piece together the mystery surrounding the derelict space station entirely through observation and interpretation’. On one hand this works as the complete focus on visual storytelling without any character interaction adds to the abandoned and lonely atmosphere.

On the other however, it leaves so much open to interpretation and there’s a danger that some players may not grasp the tale the developer is trying to tell. Having no definitive story unfortunately makes the title feel somewhat aimless. There’s a constant sensation that more is going on back down on Earth than you’re able to decipher and it’s extremely intriguing, but it’s then disappointing you don’t have the opportunity to learn more about what’s happening in the world outside the Horus Station.

Some of the eight acts come and go without much occurring and it’s only really in the first and last where there are any important narrative points. There are brief visions which reference walking through ruins on the surface of a sandy and windblown planet, along with floating up through water towards a light at the surface and these add to the mystery. But although gorgeous and a nice break from the more sterile environment inside the spaceship, they’re never explained and left us feeling slightly empty.

The co-op, eight-player PvP and PvE modes along with Deathmatch, Horde and Survivor challenges may hold appeal for some, and it’s possible that the Engage mode with its combat would have been more satisfying than the relaxed Engage. But it’s the plot I’m ultimately looking out for when promised a game that’s going to deliver ‘a story that’s discovered, not told’ and unfortunately, it’s just not obvious enough for most players.

Downward Spiral: Horus Station doesn’t do anything wrong as such; it just comes across as more of a concept than a full release. There are some glimmers here of a fascinating story that sadly got itself lost in space.