Idea: Focus Crystals

This is an idea for a book series that I will likely start writing in 2018, after my third Shadow Wolf Book (The Whore’s War) comes out.

I have gone on about industrial age fantasy before. My current favourite book series that fits the idea is Brian McClellan’s flintlock fantasy which begins with Promise of Blood. I believe that we will see more and more industrial age settings as the genre branches out. I can even see it becoming one of the dominant forms of the the fantasy genre. Steampunk has done well, but the industrial age is larger than victoriana.

The Focus Crystal

The idea behind the Focus Crystal is to combine the industrial age with fantasy magic. The crystal is a specially treated mineral that converts concentration into magical energy that can be used to power magical effects, or as a mundane source of energy.

Key Points

  • The Focus Crystal works better for people with stronger will and better concentration.
  • The Focus Crystal can store energy for a limited period of time. Small crystals lose half their stored energy every 15 minutes while the largest and most elaborately made have a storage half-life of 24 hours.
  • The energy from a focus crystal can power a spell. Originally they were used by hereditary sorcerers to supplement their magical abilities, but it was eventually discovered that the energy could be used for more mundane uses like electricity in the real world. Eventually it was discovered that it could be used by a non-sorcerer to power a magical effect when combined with a spell plate.
  • Focus Crystals can be mass produced from materials extracted from the earth.

In the setting I am considering Focus Crystals undermine the nobility, who claim power through hereditary sorcerous power, by making magic more accessible.

The working title for the series is End of Kings.

Review: Path of Exile

This week, after a long hiatus I returned to Path of Exile. My main computer gaming pastime of late, Total War: Warhammer, is still building up to a major and I am content to give it a rest until then.

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Path of Exile is a free to play action rpg that has been out for several years. The game that most people would compare it to is Diablo (more like 2 than 3). Regular updates and a strong community keep it fresh.

Path of Exile plays like a typical isometric action RPG. Your character will fight hordes of enemies and nasty bosses for levels and loot. Compared to Diablo 3 the graphics are less impressive, but also less gaudy, and when the action starts much, much easier to follow than the explosion of special effects that define a high level confrontation in Diablo 3. It is much easier to follow what is going on in Path of Exile and the no nonsense approach to graphics means that special touches like an impressive boss or unusual item stand out. I also like that the combat is more tactical, with nods to positioning and ability use and less about dodging ground effects.

Path of Exile is a game that does not hold your hand. It is possible to make characters that are far better than others. The game’s skill web makes the skill trees of Diablo 2 look like shrubs and the skill choices of Diablo 3 seem like preschool.

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Each of those tiny nodes is a single skill point. Most are small bonuses, but can radically change your character over time, while some nodes can completely change the style of play. There are also ascendancy classes.

While the sheer variety may seem daunting, it is fairly intuitive once you understand how to read it ad the community are always, always talking about builds. The endless theorycrafting helps promote the game.

Melee (STR/Marauder) is supposedly among the weaker built types, but I have no trouble in single player on the first such character I made.

Not that anyone who likes the game would ever stop at just one character, the possibilities of that skill tree are a great lure.

At first glance the item system in Path of Exile is nothing special. The usual rares and artifacts make their appearances. Slots are in as well, though in Path of Exile this is where you get your active abilities from. In is interesting to note, however, that none of the shops use currency, but rather trade in useful commodities like identify scrolls and orbs that reroll the properties of magic weapons. There is real depth in the item system and it certainly holds the game together.

The dungeons and environments are well designed. My favourite is the labyrinth where you get your ascendancy class; a randomized set of trials with challenging traps and interesting, varying mechanics in the boss fights, all with a tight story about an emperor with no heir trying to find someone worthy.

Speaking of story, the world building in Path of Exile is unlike any of its competitors, steeped with western archetypes and what seems to be some sort of Maori warrior lore and crazy ruined empires than run on blood, gems, and the dreams of gods (and men of infinite ambition). If the story of Diablo is Dante’s Inferno cross with a world war, Path of Exile is more comparable to Vance, Moorcock, and the Malazan series. It is dark and brooding, but teeming with life and ambition. All of that grandness though is brought down to earth by interesting characters and a simple motivation: you have been cast out, exiled and left for dead, but you lived and now it is time for revenge.

Best part is the micro-transactions are not prohibitive at all. No pay to win, or pay to remove obstacles to play here.

Good game.

Big News in Gaming: Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop Part Ways.

Rumours have been circulating in gaming circles for some time now. Games Workshop, the dominant company in miniatures gaming for decades. Lately GW has been a favourite subject of my ruminations, especially in regard to their treatment of The Old World, the most popular grimdark fantasy setting in gaming.

Fantasy Flight is a relative newcomer to the field. It was started in 1995 by Christian T. Peterson and rose steadily in prominence over the last decade or so, often through clever use of licensed IPs, including Warhammer and other GW properties. After a merger with Asmodée in 2014, Fantasy Flight has arrived at the pinnacle of the tabletop gaming industry.

Fantasy flight knocked Warhammer 40k, GWs most reliable miniatures line out of the top spot in the coveted US market in 2015.  This is kind of a big deal, especially after GW has dropped Warhammer Fantasy Battles in an effort to retool their fantasy lines to greater profit.Leveraging the Star Wars license is just the latest and most successful foray for FF Ginto the miniatures space. For years their boxed sets have been fantastic collections of figures while GW charges 40+$ for a single space marine captain.

It seemed inevitable that as FFG rose, its relationship with GW would change. GW has met with success in its re-opened specialist games division, boardgame-like products that it has abandoned for years, that compete with FFG. Then at Gencon 2016 Fantasy Flight announced Rune Wars, a tabletop miniatures that moves directly into the space vacated by GW’s defunct Warhammer Fantasy Battles. This signals that the parting of ways is less than amicable (Though not necessarily sour) and that the two former allies will now be competing directly for market share.

It is hard to speculate exactly what precipitated the parting of the ways, but it is very interesting news.

Here are some of my thoughts on this.

  • Fantasy Flight will ‘win’ this confrontation, at least in the short term. FFG has a good market strategy and holds the upper hand with the star wars license. The real winners will be gamers I think, because both companies will step up under increased competition. GW, in particular, is going to have to take a serious look at the price point of their miniatures — FFG offers much better cost per figure than they do (although Cool Mini or Not
  • The real downside to these two companies parting ways is that some very good games will just disappear. These include Chaos in the Old World by the amazing Eric Lang, one of my personal favourites as well as an extensive list of Board Games and RPGs.
  • Rune Wars is not an especially strong entry into the field (The IP is underdeveloped and pretty generic), but it comes at a time when few companies, none of them with clout comparable to FFG are in the space of making big class of armies miniatures games. Their timing is good here, people are excited, and if they capitalize on early successes and release new content intelligently they will still dominate for a while.
    • FFG is hit and miss on innovative mechanics. They love custom dice, cards, dials, and movement templates and Rune Wars has them all. Sometimes these work such as the Star Wars games or the Star Wars RPG, and sometimes they fall flat. I’m leaning toward functional.
  • Talisman is returning to GW. I preferred the old characters to the new, generic take on the game so I am looking forward to a new release.

That’s all I have to say on the matter now, but it is very interesting.

Ruminations on Intellectual Property: Stranded Worlds

Last week, while writing about how I was playing so many games based on Warhammer Fantasy, I stumbled across the fact that Games Workshop had destroyed the Old World, a setting with over two decades of history and development as a prelude to their new game Age of Sigmar. This fact has been occupying my mind and keeping me up late into the night.

First off, I am neither for, nor against Age of Sigmar here. It certainly has its fans, and some of the ideas within it could prove revolutionary. The mechanics seem weak to me, but I can see how they would appeal to a certain kind of enthusiast.

On the other hand I am deeply offended by the idea that Games Workshop crumpled up a wonderful, deeply developed world just because a competitor knocked Warhammer Fantasy out of the second spot in the list of top ten wargames. I get the need to retool your games lineup when faced with serious competition, especially in a publicly traded company where shareholders have serious performance expectations. That makes sense, even if it may be an unpalatable decision. What I do not get is burning the bridge that got you there. While winding down Warhammer Fantasy for a while may have been a good business decision, even a necessary one, nothing on earth will convince me that the destruction of the Old World setting is a good idea. Let me break that down.

  1. The value of settled IP: The warhammer was and is a valuable piece of intellectual property above and beyond the Warhammer Fantasy game. Books, Background Fluff, Magazine Articles, and Computer Games all contributed greatly to the many editions of the game, gradually turning what was a stock fantasy world into some thing that felt like a living, breathing universe. That kind of IP has incredible value, and harming it by destroying the world just seems senseless.
  2. You don’t need to destroy Warhammer Fantasy or The Old World to create Age of Sigmar: Age of Sigmar is meant to replace Warhammer Fantasy, but there is no real reason that GW can’t just sit on Warhammer Fantasy and promote Age of Sigmar as a different product, instead of a direct replacement. Their goal was not to reinvigorate an old setting, but rather to attract new people to the hobby. Age of Sigmar borrows lore and characters, but really has little to do with the older game. They can easily co-exist.
  3. Even if Warhammer Fantasy is not working, The Old World IP is still very valuable: Even now, while computer game developers and others are in a frenzy making games based on the old world, GW seems to be holding its nose while farming out this valuable IP. So far, that has not hurt, but it is only a matter of time before it is degraded. Put in a fashion that even a biz-dev can grok, the Old World IP is an asset, one which has tremendous potential and value, and it should be treated as such.
  4. A Grimdark Fantasy World with Strong Urban Themes: I wish I had the millions lying around to buy this thing just as computer games and fantasy fiction in general are exploring these themes. While Warhammer Fantasy may or may not have needed shelving, the IP is more relevant than ever.

Currently, I feel that the Old World has a chance of becoming what I am going to call a Stranded World. The IP is still valuable, but that value will decrease over time without new official material and new promotions. The current crop of computer games will offer a short term boost to that IP, but without management and new material that is considered cannon, it will wilt and die. This would be a tragedy, and not just to the players and developers of that world, but to the people who might enjoy experiencing it in new games and novels.

By tossing a valuable IP in the garbage can, Games Workshop management has shown that they are not respectful of the assets that have been created for the company that they run. Age of Sigmar could be a tremendous, smash hit, but ruining the Old World Warhammer Fantasy setting was not necessary and degrades the value of a real, tangible asset that was carefully grown for decades and is still in demand. It is a bad decision all around. You don’t have to burn your bridges to start something new.

PS: Total War Warhammer ended up being the fastest selling Total War game ever, bringing a lot of players to the series. Overall it ended up being pretty stellar, and with a strong modding community (hundreds of mods three weeks after release) it seems to be a good replacement for the lost awesome of the old Warhammer tabletop. See my review.

Ruminations on Intellectual Property: The Great Warhammer Diaspora

Today, I was struck by the realization that the two computer games in my current play rotation and one of the two that are on my release radar so far this year are all based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer fantasy universe.

The first of these is Mordheim, City of the Damned, a turn based strategy game based on the old Mordheim boardgame from what I see as the golden age of GW creativity. The computer game tried to remain as faithful as possible to the rules and spirit of the original while making concessions to modern play styles. It is a decent game, with a fun advancement system, but I wish they had dropped some features of the original altogether in favour of a tighter game. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit and hope it does well so that the studio can branch out on its next effort.

The second of the Warhammer Games I am currently playing is Vermintide. This one is not based at all on a Games Workshop product, but rather lifts the world-building and setting popularized by Warhammer Fantasy and marries it to Left 4 Dead style gameplay. Instead of a modern land overrun by Zombies, you have an ancient city overrun by Skaven. It is one of the few multiplayer games that I am actually willing to tolerate, and makes great use of the IP.

The final game, the one that I am considering pre-ordering (I know, shame on me) is Total War: Warhammer. I love the Total War series, but the modern age has not been kind to it. Rome II was a botched mess that bored me to tears and tried to sell me DLC instead of fixing bugs, and Total War: Attila was not enough to regain lost glory, especially with more DLC shenanigans. While there is a controversy over the Chaos faction pre-order bonus in Total War: Warhammer, the game looks good and the combination of two old franchises could lead to a real revitalization here. I am willing to bet that this one could be a beautiful match.

The other game I am looking forward to in 2016 is the new X-Com, but that has little to do with this topic.

After my little revelation, I realized that the fact that I am knee deep in Warhammer based computer games is not an accident. There are a lot of them on steam and may of them are new. It used to be that Games Workshop was very selective in allowing the use of its beloved intellectual property and consequently we were starved for Warhammer based computer games in my youth. Now, it seems the floodgates are open and I am drowning in options.

Why?

The simple answer seems to be that Games Workshop is a recognizable and valued IP that has been built up over 25+ years and can reach a broad audience, but that the core game is doing poorly. Warhammer has faced strong competition in the US from Warmachine/Hordes over the last decade and from other games in other places. Then as profits began to sag, they blinked. They ran an enormous campaign to hype the players up and they destroyed the Old World, their setting for eight editions in a climactic battle. The thought was that they would reboot with a new setting in the same world a few decade or centuries afterward… instead, GW replaced Warhammer Fantasy Battles with Age of Sigmar.

Age of Sigmar barely resembles the old Warhammer game. It is fair to say that quite a few of those who loved the old games hated the new version, or just found it unrecognizable. Of course, others loved it, but the problem remains that all of that juicy old IP is wasted… or not.

It seems that since Age of Sigmar is the main focus right now, Games Workshop has been allowing much more freedom in farming out that old IP. No doubt they see it as a way to shore up their finances. While GW might not be interested in the Old World, other companies see real value in the IP that they spurn, and thus tons of new players can experience a rich, meaty setting built up through years of lore (including quite a few novels) and play in these new games. The Old World has escaped its masters, for now, and it will be very interesting to see where this great IP diaspora leads…