May 2010


"I'm nothing without you" is a fucked up sentiment." - XKCD

May 3rd, 2010


Inspired by the "Shields Shall Be Splintered!" houserule at Trollsmyth, I've been thinking about how such a mechanic could be used to make sword-and-boarding a more interesting and flavorful mechanical choice. And maybe address some of the balance issues that make them so much less appealing than wielding a two-handed weapon.

SHIELDS: Once per round a character can use their shield to block (or partially block) an incoming attack. Both the shield and the shield's wielder suffer the full damage of the attack, but the shield's wielder can subtract a number of points of damage equal to their Base Attack Bonus. A shield cannot be used to block a touch attacks or attacks that bypass armor in any way.

A shield can be used to block damage from any effect which requires an attack roll (such as a scorching ray).

A shield can also be used to block damage from any effect which allows a Reflex save (such as a fireball). If the character makes a Reflex save for half damage, the damage blocked by the shield is subtracted before being halved.

A character who is flat-footed or unaware of an attack cannot use a shield block.



(1) There are quite a few possibilities here for feats to extend this basic capability: For example, allowing characters to block up to twice their BAB in damage. Or a feat similar to Combat Reflexes that would allow a character to make a number of shield blocks equal to their Dexterity bonus. Should the "blocking spells and other effects" be relegated to a feat, as well? Is it too useful straight out of the box?

(2) Instead of making this a 1/round ability, should it be an immediate action?

(3) Is this useful enough that the normal AC bonus from a shield should be eliminated?

And, of course, the big question is: Does it work? Is it balanced? As the title of the post suggests, I've given this zero playtesting. It's just a nifty idea that tickled the hind-quarters of my brain. It undoubtedly needs some tweaking at the very least.

May 5th, 2010




This 3-part series was originally written in November 2000, shortly after the release of John Wick's Orkworld. I shopped it around to a few gaming periodicals, but the game never became popular enough to justify several thousand words and the article never sold. Although it is perhaps most interesting to those who remember the exceptionally evocative Orkwold, I think there's interest here for anyone running a fantasy campaign.

This is the story of Fanal the Swordbearer; Fanal the Mowgd Bane; Fanal the Bashthala. When told by the talda of the North it is a story of hubris and stupidity. When told by the Eastern tribes it becomes a parable of the Harsh Times. To the bards of the West it is known as a story of tala, the false heroism of foolishness. And in the South the story of Fanal is forgotten as the detritus of an ignoble age.

But here, in the lands of the Long Winter Glen, it is a tale of fanu – of a strength which can only be found in the strongest of hearts in the moment of wa. The story of a hero who rose above the limitations of his flesh and his people, and who truly earned his name and his heritage. Here Fanal is not forgotten or dismissed, but remembered as the ork he was – an ork whose strength of spirit serves still as a reminder of our common plight; of the thala which make up our lives, and the solutions which may be found even in the face of adversity and hopelessness.

* * *

In years long since gone by, it came to pass that three of creation’s fiends walked along a common path: Atheleyaendroovalsai of the Ahlvsees; Burgon al’Kalthorn, Lord of the Eastern Shtontee; and Petrus of the Manoo. Each sought the might of the Gray Spear, crafted in the days before legend and housing a shard of Bashthraka’s soul within a spearhead made of the metal of Iron Lake, for their own selfish reasons. Athvalsai would use it as a means of laying waste to his comrades. To Petrus it would reveal our secret magicks. For Burgon al’Kathorn its sacred metal would be transformed upon his forge into a mundane blade.
First they sought to seize the spear through force of arms. Each of them – man, dwarf, and elf – brought to the field their private armies, and welded them into a single whole: The Army of the Triad. But in these times the Gray Spear was wielded by Kalabak, the greatest of the thraka, the eldest son of the Household of Tildahn, and the most revered ork among the Nine Houses of the Thrush. In his hands it had vanquished a thousand foes, and washed the Plains of Pain red with the blood his enemies. When the Army of the Triad marched against the House of Tildahn, it was driven back.

And so, to wrest it from the mighty grasp of Kalabak, these three joined in conspiracy and conceived a plan bred of mowgda and seeded with the treachery of man, the poisoned soul of dwarf, and the twisted ambition of elf.

In this season, Kalabak was the eldest of three sons. Next came Fanal. And last came Travlesan. In seeing this, the three conspirators conceived their mischievous plans. With the arcane magics of the elves, they cloaked themselves behind the faces of the gods: The dwarf as Bashthraka, the elf as Pugg, and the man as Gowthdukah.

Each conspirator, in turn, went to one of the brothers: Kalabak saw Bashthraka come to him as he hunted the wild deer. Travelsan was visited by one who bore the countenance of Pugg as he labored at the forge. And Fanal, as he was wont to do, had gone far from home in his wanderings, and was reached last by the figure of Gowthdukah.

Each of the three brothers was told the same lie: That there was a companion to the Gray Spear, which had been lost many years before. But that the god had finally uncovered the secret of its hiding place, and the spear could now be gained… if only they would follow the god to its hiding place.

Kalabak dreamed of glory redoubled. Travlesan of matching the exploits of his elder brother. Fanal of the great deeds which could be done with such a weapon.

Kalabak and Travlesan were the first to reach the accursed grove which the three conspirators had chosen: Perched in silver moonlight upon the tallest cliff. Athvalsai weaved his spells, and the true faces of the brothers were concealed from each other – and they warred with each other over a prize which had never been. Travlesan fell that night, and Kalabak’s blade was stained with the crimson of his own blood.

As Travelsan’s body slipped from the Gray Spear’s shaft, Fanal arrived within the grove – and would have shared his brother’s fate if chance had erred but slightly. But Fortune was with Fanal that night, for in disguising himself as Gowthdukah, Petrus had also opened his mind to the god’s own soul. Looking out over the devastation which had been wrought, Gowthdukah reached through the man and stripped the fiction from Fanal’s vision. Seeing one brother slain by another, Fanal cried out in horror – and in that instant the spell was broken upon Kalabak as well.

Kalabak looked down and saw what his hand had wrought. Next he looked within his soul, and found a shard of mowgda there. And he was ashamed. He cast the Gray Spear down, and filled with the anguish of his deeds, he fled over the cliffs to his doom.

Fanal, seeing still with true sight, saw all of the deception revealed. Reaching down with fury in his heart, he claimed the Gray Spear as his own and slew the man.

Seeing their failure writ in the death of their comrade, the dwarf and elf withdrew to scheme and plot their revenge. They drew to themselves, once more, the Army of the Triad and came again to crush the newly weakened house and claim the Gray Spear as their own.

But Fanal, fresh in his rage, laughed with the strength of keerisboon and rallied the Nine Houses to his cause. And thus was born the Second Battle of the Triad.

The fighting lasted all of the day, and into the night, and into the next day, and into the next night. But as the dawn of the third day arose, it came to pass that Fanal and the elf Athvalsai met each other upon the battlefield. Both were wearied beyond the bounds of mortal flesh. Both longed for rest. But both knew that their hour of truth had arrived.

Their battle lasted all through the day and deep into the next night. Fanal’s skill was too great for the elf to strike his lethal blows. The evil Athvalsai’s magics were too mighty for Fanal to overcome. But as the dawn of the fourth day arose, Fanal – wearied almost to the point of death – reared back the mighty Gray Spear and cast it deep within the elf’s foul breast. With a cry to set the tangodo walking, Athvalsai fell… and the Gray Spear broke.

Fanal fell to his knees, half of the Gray Spear still clutched in his grasp. The Nine Houses fell back in confusion. The Army of the Triad fled in terror at their leader’s loss.

That night the battlefield fell silent.

That night a sliver of Kalabak’s mowgda dwelt within the heart of every thraka in the Nine Houses of the Thrush.

That night Gowthdukah came to Fanal again.

Fanal looked upon the god. “Will they come again?”

“They will,” Gowthdukah said. “Anger lives in the heart of Burgon al’Kalthorn, and he will seek revenge.”

“Stupid dwarf.”

Gowthdukah nodded.

And a long silence passed.

“You cannot win the day tomorrow, without the power of the Gray Spear in your grasp,” Gowthdukah said.

“I know,” said Fanal. “Is there nothing you can do?”

And a long silence passed.

“Perhaps,” Gowthdukah said at last. “Perhaps there is. Follow me.”

Without another word the god turned his back and began to walk. Without another word Fanal followed.

It seemed to Fanal that they traveled for many days, and yet the moon never moved against the stars and Gowthdukah’s stride never altered. At last they came to a cave and Gowthdukah stopped.

And a long silence passed.

Fanal descended into the cave. What happened within those darkened depths is unknown to any ork upon the Wakingside. At last, though, Fanal emerged with Bashayla, the Long Blade – the Sword of Fanal.

And a long silence passed.

“This is not the weapon of a true thraka,” Fanal said.

“It is your weapon,” Gowthduka said. “And thus it is.”

Gowthdukah led Fanal back to his camp. As sights became familiar to Fanal once more, the moon resumed its course across the heavens.

As dawn broke upon them, they came to find the Nine Houses already besieged and the Third Battle of the Triad begun.

Turning from the carnage to Gowthdukah, Fanal found that the god was gone. He looked down upon Bashayla. He looked back upon his dying kinsmen.

And Fanal descended upon the battlefield, the Sword Bashayla falling from high above his head into the flesh of dwarf. And blood flowed as if a river around him, the Sword Bashayla falling from high above his head into the flesh of man. And rage was transformed into a physical thing, the Sword Bashayla falling from high above his head into the flesh of elf.

The Thousand Thraka of the Nine Houses fell that day, and yet Fanal fought on – the Sword Bashayla falling from high above his head into the flesh of all those around him – until only Fanal stood upon that field of gore, and the House of Thrush was no more.

And Gowthdukah came to him for the third, and last, time. And Gowthdukah led Fanal the Swordbearer to where Burgon al’Kalthorn, Lord of the Eastern Shtontee, had hidden himself away in fear.

And Fanal slew him.

* * *

After the Three Battles of the Triad, Fanal wandered far and wide – and great tales of his deeds have been passed down to us today. But those tales are for another day, for now I see that the sun sinks towards dusk – just as Fanal has faded from our world to dwell upon the Otherside.

May 6th, 2010




This 3-part series was originally written in November 2000, shortly after the release of John Wick's Orkworld. I shopped it around to a few gaming periodicals, but the game never became popular enough to justify several thousand words and the article never sold. Although it is perhaps most interesting to those who remember the exceptionally evocative Orkwold, I think there's interest here for anyone running a fantasy campaign.

Fanal the Swordbearer
Son of Bama, of the Tribe of the Thrush in the Household of Tildahn

Trouble: 6
Zhoosha: 8
Wounds: 12
Courage: Legendary 2
    Darkness: 2
    Battle Sense (Navigating Battlefield): 3
Cunning: 4
    Make Fire: 1
    True Sight (See Invisible/Illusion): 3
    Sense of Direction: 3
Endurance: 4
    Stay Awake:
Prowess: Legendary 6
    Sword: 5
    Spear & Shield: 3
    Dodge: 4
Strength: Legendary 2
    Carry: 2
    Endurance (Resist Damage): 4

May 7th, 2010




This 3-part series was originally written in November 2000, shortly after the release of John Wick's Orkworld. I shopped it around to a few gaming periodicals, but the game never became popular enough to justify several thousand words and the article never sold. Although it is perhaps most interesting to those who remember the exceptionally evocative Orkwold, I think there's interest here for anyone running a fantasy campaign.

The Bashfanal is one of the lesser cycles of orkish mythology. The story told above forms its core, and is known variously as “Fanal and His Brothers”, “The Fall of the House of Thrush”, or “The Second Birth of Fanal” (among others). The form and content of the cycle varies widely depending upon which orkish tribes are telling the story (based largely on where the stories began, whether they’ve survived, and how they’ve changed over time).

The telling of a tale from the Bashfanal may provide no more than a little local color to a GM’s campaign, but it is also possible to weave the tale of Fanal into the fabric of the campaign itself. The adventure seeds below assume that there is a fundamental truth to the story of Fanal as told above. As a result they will most likely work best in an epic Orkworld campaign, but are also easily adaptable to a realistic or cliché game.

Several of these seeds are incompatible with one another, but many of them can easily work in combination – leading to the possible use of Fanal’s story as a continuing theme and element of the campaign.

GMs are also encouraged to remember that, like the Orkworld game itself, the tale of Fanal – and its off-shoots – can easily be adapted to a variety of other fantasy settings.


One version of the Bashfanal tells of Fanal’s last journey, which took him deep into the cold lands of the north. There he faced Galathvarl – a foul abomination spawned in the sorcerous joining of elven and orkish spirits.

Abandoned at birth by his elven creator, Galathvarl taught himself the ways of his sorcerous forefathers. Wishing to end the torment of his divided soul, Galathvarl had conceived a plan to summon forth Keethdowmga, the Great Mother of the Orks, and slay her -- believing that in the moment of her death his own orkish spirit would be vanquished.

Whether his plan would have succeeded shall never be known, for Fanal was able to prevent the ritual’s completion – but only at the cost of his own life.

Galathvarl, for his own part, survived the mighty explosion which rocked the northern mountains – but only due to the perseverance of his elvish spirit. Through the many years which have passed, he has slowly nursed himself back to health from his nearly destroyed state. Now he is ready to repeat the ritual… but this time with the aid of Bashayla.

(GMs looking for a particularly simple way of incorporating the story of Fanal into their campaigns as a bit of local color could simply strip this idea down to its essential core: The PCs find Bashayla. Imbue it with whatever magical powers you feel appropriate to your campaign and characters.)


Upon the battlefield the Gray Spear was sundered in twain. Legend has it that while the orks retained one half of the spear the other half was stolen away by the elves. Fanal summoned a young ork by the name of Ghurdal to carry his half of the Gray Spear to a place of safety. When the Battle of the Triad came to an end, a search was called to find the other half of the legendary spear – but it had disappeared into the blackened lands of the elves.

Ghurdal carried his half of the Gray Spear to a secret complex of caves, far up in the mountains. He lives there to this day – his life sustained by the life preserving magics of the cave complex – guarding the Gray Spear against all trespassers.

Unfortunately, over the years between then and now, the magical energies unleashed by the sundering of the Gray Spear have slowly been building up in its broken halves. Recently these energies have reached a critical mass, and the mystical connection between the two halves is warping all of reality between the two.

The PCs must track down the two hidden halves of the Spear – one protected still by Ghurdal; the other hidden away inside an elven citadel – and reunite them, or the world of Ghurtha itself may be torn apart.

(A possible complication for risk-taking GMs: Galathvarl could, again, rear his abominable head in this scenario – seeking the two halves of the Gray Spear in order to power his foul experiments.)


Not all of the orks who fought in the Battle of the Triad perished on the battlefield. Those who survived, however, carried with them a lasting curse – and this curse was carried down from one generation to the next… right to one of the PCs. It is said that the only way to rid an ork plagued by the curse is to wash in the blood of Fanal.


Death has never been an effective barrier when there’s a good story to be told – thus it has been, thus it shall always be. When Athvalsai’s body fell during the Third Battle of the Triad, his spirit was not similarly broken. To this day it haunts the field on which it fell. Recently, however, the spirit seems to have disappeared. Although orks have cautiously moved back into the area, their actions may be more than premature – in truth, Athvalsai is gathering strength (or has gathered strength) in order to possess another host body.


When his adventuring days were done it is said that Fanal did not die, but instead crossed bodily into the world of the Otherside. One version of the tale tells how Fanal, with the help of Pugg, tricked Gorlam into letting him pass into the Otherside. Another claims that Fanal had to sacrifice the blade of Bashayla to Gorlam in order to pass (and that the sword resides until this day within the Great Toad’s belly).

Whatever the case, there he waits: Living among the gods and the spirits of the dead, awaiting the day of his Return – when he will save his people from a dire crisis which will threaten all their lives.

(Using this scenario, the return of Fanal should almost certainly be treated as the culmination of a grand campaign: The orkish people are threatened with destruction, and only by securing the return of Fanal will the PCs be able to save their race. It should almost go without saying that such a story could easily include the defeat of Gorlam himself. )


Not all versions of the Bashfanal claim that Fanal passed to the Otherside. Some say that Fanal fell in an act of sacrifice (the stories vary as to whether this was to great purpose or merely a small, but characteristic, act of selflessness). Of these stories, some fraction also claim that Fanal’s spirit was unwilling – or unable – to journey to the Otherside, and instead remained here on the Wakingside.

In this scenario, the PCs discover the dark truth of these latter tales: At the moment of Fanal’s death, his spirit was trapped in a blood red crystal through the foul sorceries of an evil elf. For centuries the orkish hero was forced to serve this dark master, until finally the elven lord was killed during a political machination. The crystal containing Fanal’s spirit was lost, but now it has been recovered by the PCs. In order to free Fanal from his prison, however, the PCs discover that they must secure an artifact created by the dead elven sorceror – and the only way to accomplish that is to venture into the Elven Desert and locate his forgotten citadel.


Recently, forced onto ever-worsening land by the encroachment of man, a lesser household has set up their Winter Home in poor, barren territory which has never been inhabited by any humanoid race in memory. Unfortunately, this new Winter Home seems to be plagued by various forms of poltergeist and spirit activity. Upon some investigation the PCs discover that the troubles are being caused, as a way of attracting attention, by the wandering spirit of Fanal.

It turns out that Fanal was killed in battle before he could return the sword Bashayla to the cave from whence it came – as a result, his spirit has been forced to wander the world. This, of course, is where the PCs enter the picture: They must obtain the sword and return it to its rightful place.


In a radically different vein, you might consider of the possibility of setting the campaign in the same time period as the stories of Fanal. In this scenario, the PCs are contemporaries of the Swordbearer and are present during the Battle of the Triad. A number of possible adventure structures suggest themselves within this broad outline:

1.     One of the PCs might take Fanal’s place in “history”, living out the events described above and triggering an entire campaign based upon the structure of the Bashfanal.

2.     Perhaps the PCs accompany Fanal during the Sword Quest to find Bashayla – going down in history as Fanal’s loyal companions and closest friends. This, too, could be used as a triggering event which allows them to accompany Fanal throughout the rest of his adventures.

3.     Another option is to simply use the Battle of the Triad as a backdrop to some other story: The PCs become involved with the battle through events totally unconnected to Fanal (although the deeper events surrounding the battle may have an impact at some later point in the campaign – for example if they encounter Fanal during his wanderings (see below)).


Another possibility in a campaign set contemporary to Fanal’s life is to have the PCs encounter the hero during the later part of his career – when he was a wandering hero among the orkish people. This encounter can be handled in a number of ways.

May 7th, 2010 (2nd Update)


For the past couple of months I've been working as an assistant director on Transdimensional Couriers Union, a new play written and directed by John Heimbuch for Walking Shadow Theater Company. It's a pretty amazing script that tackles time travel head-on and emerges with something smart, savvy, and perhaps even a little transcendental.

I've always wanted to see a true science fiction story given proper justice in the theater. What I've found instead are a lot of disappointingly cliche-ridden, illogical, and genre-stupid plays. Transdimensional Couriers Union finally delivers exactly what I've been looking for.

But I really shouldn't be damning it with such faint praise: Screw the comparisons to mediocre theater. I think Transdimensional Couriers Union can be placed side-by-side with Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross and Iain Banks. The script is that good.

Basically, I think you should check it out:

May 7th - May 29th

People's Center Theatre
425 20th Ave S. Minneapolis, MN 55454 (map)
At the NE corner of Riverside & 20th Avenue, 3rd floor

Post-Show Discussions on May 13, 22, and 27
Pay What You Can performance on Monday, May 10
Audio Decribed performance on Saturday, May 15
ASL-Interpreted performance on Friday, May 21

May 10th, 2010


After a procrastination of nearly epic proportions, I finally subscribed to GameFly last week. The GameFly queue system is not nearly as elegant as Netflix (since it seems to basically amount to a crap-shoot no matter what priority you actually give the games in your queue), but the result was that Infamous materialized in my mailbox a couple of days ago.

Infamous is a sandbox game of superpowers in which you have the choice to either be a superhero or a supervillain. My initial impression could be summed up as something along the lines of Grand Theft Auto + Knights of the Old Republic + Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. (The inclusion of two Star Wars games might seem excessive: But The Force Unleashed didn't have KOTOR's elegant light-vs-dark story arcs, while KOTOR didn't have The Force Unleashed's Force lightning powers.)

Where Infamous succeeds is the basic gameplay: Parkour-inspired climbing and leaping combined with an effective and interesting mix of electrical superpowers. Where it fails is the writing, which eventually turns the interesting gameplay into a mind-numbingly endless repetition of "been there, done that". (In a fit of dark irony, the game even has an achievement trophy called "Oh, So You've Done This Before".)

What I find particularly notable about these failures is the ultimately trivial amount of effort it would have taken to vastly improve the quality of the game: Hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of dollars were spent to make this game a reality, but it would have taken only a few hours from a dedicated writer and a fraction of a percentage of that budget to take a disposable trifle and raise it to the level of the sublime.

Which is what prompted this Rewrite essay. It's obviously not going to do all the work, but it is going to sketch out the handful of simple fixes that Infamous practically cries out for. (Be warned: There will be SPOILERS.)



The primary shortcoming in Infamous lies in the design of its sandbox. Like most modern sandboxing games, Infamous draws its basic structure from the tradition of Grand Theft Auto 3. And like most modern sandboxing games, Infamous fails to learn some important lessons from Grand Theft Auto 3 (while also failing to capitalize on the opportunity to improve the format in key ways).

To simplify things, there are four types of content in Grand Theft Auto 3:

(1) The main storyline. (A sequential series of missions designed to be completed one after the other while telling the story of the game.)

(2) Designed side-quests. (Specifically designed mini-missions or mini-quest lines that the player could choose to either play or ignore.)

(3) Procedurally generated missions. (Missions created on-demand by the game engine and, thus, creating a bottom-less supply of semi-variable gameplay. Examples include the taxi- and ambulance-driving missions.)

(4) Self-guided play. (Because the game world responded dynamically to player activity, the player could engage in rewarding self-guided play by, basically, seeing "what happens when I do this". Grand Theft Auto 3 didn't have much in the way of dynamic world response, but even something as simple as "police chase you if your wanted rating is high enough" resulted in an endless variety of entertaining car chases.)

The first flaw in the Infamous sandbox is the limited nature of the self-guided play: In general, this play is limited to "there are bad guys roaming the streets, fight them" -- basically the random encounters of an old school Final Fantasy game. (Surprisingly, despite the parkour-style climbing, there is little or no attention given to providing massive climbing vistas like those to be found in Assassin's Creed.) Even worse, the primary sub-quests are designed to make city neighborhoods "safe" so that enemies no longer appear -- which means that you're literally removing content from the game as you play the game.

The second flaw is the complete lack of procedurally-generated missions. This significantly impacts the long-term value of the game. I remember playing Grand Theft Auto 3 for years after "finishing" the game because there was always something interesting to do in Liberty City. By the time I finished Infamous, on the other hand, there was literally nothing left to do.

The most significant flaw, however, is that the designed side-quests are written as if they were procedurally-generated: They are repetitive, forgettable fluff.

Grand Theft Auto 3, on the other hand, used its side-quests to develop either plot or landmarks. The former is self-explanatory: The side-quests were interesting little one act plays standing in contrast or support to the full-length drama of the main storyline. The latter is about providing context for the city: You came to recognize Vinnie's pizza because that's where you delivered Leo's drugs (or whatever, it's been awhile since I actually played Grand Theft Auto 3). The side-quests helped to bring Liberty City to life. They filled the empty, gray building polygons with life and meaning and identity.

The side-quests of Infamous, on the other hand, have no story or life to them: An anonymous guy asks you to kill 10 bad guys. Or blow up a bus. Or kill 10 bad guys. Or kill 10 guys. Or kill 10 bad guys. (Did I mention they're repetitive?)

If these were actually procedurally-generated content (as they so easily could have been), it wouldn't be a problem. I understand the limitations of procedural content: You take a half-dozen elements, mix 'em up randomly, and that's what you've got. It's not going to fool you into thinking that an intelligent mind was authoring it.

But this isn't procedural content: Every one of these missions has been hand-crafted and hand-placed to fill a specific and non-substitutable place in the game. But if you're designing this content individually, why not take the effort (and the opportunity) to make it individual? And meaningful?



In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath encourages people to copy success instead of trying to solve problems.

In the case of Infamous, what they got right were the Dead Drop missions.

To summarize: In these missions, you hunt down satellite dishes hidden around the city. These satellite dishes were used to make dead drops by an intelligence agent, and by accessing the dishes you're able to recover the audio logs from his investigations into the strange events plaguing Empire City. These logs, of course, reveal a prequel-like storyline over time. (Although the game allows for a non-linear collection of the satellite dishes, the information is recovered linearly. Of course, one could also take advantage of the mechanic to do truly non-linear storytelling.)

If the Dead Drop missions had been constructed like the other side-quests in the game, the complexity of their programming would not have been noticeably affected: The player would still hunt down the satellite dishes and then push a button to access them. But rather than getting a snippet of story information, the player would just receive a tally of the number of dishes they had found.

The storytelling content that makes the Dead Drop missions work, on the other hand, is almost trivial: Less than a half dozen pages of script and probably a half hour of recording time with a voice actor.

So let's take a moment and consider how the other mission types might have been made to succeed like the Dead Drop missions.


HIDDEN PACKAGES: Using his electrical powers, Cole is able to "hack" the brain of the recently deceased to see their last memories. At various points in the game, he's able to use this ability on his enemies, revealing the location of hidden packages they've secreted around the city.

In the actual game, these packages are nothing -- meaningless fluff to be checked off a quest list. But how much more evocative would it have been if there was actually something worth hiding? Perhaps something that had been split up between the various packages?

The possibilites are almost endless: The schematics for the ray sphere. Records from Kessler's surveillance of Cole. Evidence pointing to a rebel faction within the First Sons. 


TRACKING THE DEAD: Similarly, Cole is able to track the ghost-like ethereal "imprints" of a person's recent movements. (Intriguingly, this ability is always used on murderers -- suggesting perhaps that the violence of their action is responsible for leaving a stronger imprint on the world around them.) This is an evocative and interesting mechanic, but it would have been nice to see some of these end with revelations more interesting than, "That's the guy who killed Senor Red Shirt! Vengeance!"

If nothing else, having the trails lead somewhere other than "a nondescript alley with a bunch of bad guys in it" would have helped. But it wouldn't take much effort to explain why some of these people were being particularly targeted by the bad guys.


SURVEILLANCE DEVICES: The bad guys have covered various buildings in town with dozens of surveillance devices. It's your job to climb the building and blow up the surveillance devices.

Oddly, the game never explains why the bad guys are interested in so heavily surveilling these particular buildings. Change "blowing up" to "hacking" and you (a) effortlessly add a new power for Cole and (b) provide an easy mechanism for revealing the reason for the surveillance.


PRISONER ESCORTS: The police periodically ask us to apprehend various bad guys for "questioning". In other cases, the bad guys have already been caught and it's our job to escort them to the nearest police station.

Spicing this one up is pretty easy: Have the cops actually report back what they find out from this questioning. This could foreshadow various developments, point us towards new surveillance missions, and so forth.


PROCEDURAL CONTENT: This suggestion moves somewhat beyond the intended scope of this essay (since they require more than a simple rewrite within the existing strictures of the game), but it would be nice if Infamous contained some legitimate procedural content.

For example, the picture-taking missions would be perfect for procedural generation. Triage missions using our healing abilities at medical centers seems like a no-brainer. A stalker fan that pops up to ask our hero for photographs or kisses or the like (or, for the evil-siders, a would-be assassin who periodically sends robotic drones after us). "Walk me home" protection missions (or muggings for the evil-siders). Bad guys blocking roads or railroad tracks. Bomb threats that need to be defused.



The mistake made in games like Infamous and Assassin's Creed is thinking that storytelling only needs to happen in the main storyline. I would argue that the design principle behind these GTA-like sandboxes needs to be different: Any time you're hand-designing content (instead of procedurally generating it), that's an opportunity to tell part of your story. And you should take it.

In general, side-quests offer you the opportunity to create storylines in addition to your primary storyline. (The successful Dead Drop missions in Infamous do this to great effect.) Some of these storylines may be short (a single quest); others may be long (dozens of missions); others will fall somewhere inbetween (three or four linked sub-quests). But the ways in which these storylines will weave together is an exercise left to the player and your game will be the richer for enabling that level of intrinsic collaboration in the creation of its narrative. The result is a unique gameplay arising out of a complex system, but the actual execution of that system is very, very simple.

MAY 2010: