Play This, Not That is probably not going to turn into a series of essays about salvaging videogame genres and franchises you enjoy by offering tabletop RPG alternatives which already have the potential to be better than what is currently on offer in digital media.
2018 was a great year for videogames. 2018 was a shit year for videogames. 2018 was a very long year. We had out-of-the-park hits like Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, God of War, and Monster Hunter World. At the same time we saw spectacular failures like Fallout 76, Metal Gear Survive, and Dynasty Warriors 9.
A fun mental challenge I like to undertake when I've got too much time on my hands and not enough to distractions is to think about games I'd really like to see do better- not financially, but narratively. And because tabletop RPGs have long-since dethroned videogames as my first love, I generally try to plot out scenarios where I could run (or play) a popular videogame franchise at the table with friends. Below are some of my musings.
Preamble: None of these systems will recreate the experience of a certain game on a 1 to 1 ratio, something is always sacrificed in the translation, but where it counts I've tried to pick systems that offer the ability to recreate the spirit, if not the mechanics, of a certain franchise or title.
Second Preamble: I just realized I haven't played any of these games I'm criticizing as the worst of 2108, so understand I'm pulling these from lists compiled from other websites. If you liked these games, no shade. I'm really just pro-bono shilling for tabletop RPGs at this point.
What can be said about Fallout 76 by someone who's never played it, never intends to play it, and never finished any of the 3D offerings?* You can't say it's barely Fallout. It is as Fallout as a Nuka Cola branded spiced rum commercial tie-in. It has Power Armor, because I've seen videos of it glitching players into Slendermen. The internet Fallout rage machine known as No Mutants Allowed is pissed it has Super Mutants, which is a hilarious sentence I never thought I'd write. Screenshots show it has Mr. Handys and other robots, who seem to be your primary questgivers? It probably has at least one vault, judging from the title.
Is it Skyrim with guns and Fallout-themed skins over all the character models and enemies like those early mods that turned all the dragons into Thomas the Train engine or Macho Man Randy Savage? Is it a verticle slice of the gaming public where you can listen to people watching movies on secondary screens in their gaming rooms, or abusing their children/spouses on mic? Maybe it's just Bethesda trying to get the jump on a bunch of sequels so that the next Fallout, 77, can be about the adventures of the Puppet Man, easily the third best Fallout-themed media to be fed to us this millenium after New Vegas and Nuka Break.
In any case, perhaps you're disappointed that the newer Fallouts are mostly about shooting waves and waves of endlessly repeating enemies of a sadly lacking variety of types. Perhaps you want to experience stories of recovery, salvaging, repopulation, personalized vengeance, or the hundreds of other creative opportunities offered by a lore as rich as Fallout's? Perhaps you wanted to talk to those raiders hanging out at that one robotic race track, instead of needing to shoot them on sight? In that case, take a look at Savage Fallout, a free (because lawyers) setting for the Savage Worlds ruleset. Play as a Human, a Ghoul, a Super-Mutant! Hell, I managed to hack the rules enough in about a half hour to allow a player to run a Mr. Handy PC.
Some aspects from the modern Fallouts are missing, of course. VATS isn't viable. Weapon degredation and crafting is a bridge too far in terms of immersion and simulation, but a clever GM could very well introduce mechanics for them. Hell, here's two: your weapon breaks on a roll of natural 1, it needs a successful Repair roll to fix (gain a +2 bonus to the roll if you have a similar weapon). For crafting, take a Novice Edge called "Gunsmith" to gain the ability to take the modifiers from one gun and put them on another. Wow, I wrote both of those in about three minutes and it's been two years since I've run anything for Savage Worlds.
With Savage Fallout you can tell any of the stories you wish you could have played in Fallout 76, and with actual friends, who can contribute their own stories without fear of lagging out because someone dropped three nukes in the server at once.
Feel free to bring some Nuka Cola rum to the table as well, if you're of age (edit: actually, don't. I hear it's pretty shit)
Pros: Actual roleplaying, ability to play as other metatypes, no roving groups of homophobic assholes.
Cons: You have to play fully clothed? I mean, you don't, really, because you can skype into games these days, or play on roll20.
*I was minutes away from finishing New Vegas when my 360 RRoDed. I never forgave Microsoft for that betrayal.
Wow, zombie games are still popular. Who'd have thought, with Dying Light 2, The Last of Us 2, and Days Gone still slated for release at some point in the near future? Apparently everyone. Regardless, we certainly got our share of disappointing undead-themed games last year, with Metal Gear Survive: a multiplayer survival game made by Konami that probably made people loudly speculate that transitioning to solely developing Pachinko machines wasn't the worst call a once great game studio could have made. There was also Overkill's The Walking Dead, suffering from the setbacks of not being made by Telltale and not being The Walking Dead Episode 1. Seriously, does anyone actually need to take bets that a game called the Walking Dead won't be utter crap? Again, never played them, just reiterating worst-ofs so I can talk about TRPGs.
So, with Sony skipping this year's E3, chances are a release date for our favorite adoptive father/daughter duo won't be forthcoming any time soon. What's a gamer to do?
Well, there are certainly a plethora of zombie games on the tabletop, and some of them are pretty good (Zombi is not, and I will not link it), the best I've played in recent memory is Red Markets, by Caleb Stokes of Role Playing Public Radio. The title definitely doesn't scream zombies, and that's because the focus isn't really on zombies in Red Markets, which are dubbed "casualties" in the game's canon. The focus is on your characters, trying to make enough money in the abandoned section of a zombified United States west of the Mississippi to buy themselves passage not only back into the secured east coast, but also to get their humanity back. Because, you see, Red Markets is a Capitalist Apocalypse (I can't wait for the comments). The casualties are just sprinkles on top of the shit cake that is the utter rampant corporate greed, identity theft, and desperate bargaining which make up the drama in each game session.
Red Markets is about managing dwindling (and expensive) resources. Your weapons will break. You need to eat. Every character has a dependant that is both a drain on your resources and the only way you keep your own personal incipient mental breakdown at bay. You can only carry so much, but everything you do carry is worth something. It's a lot like Metro in that way. Everything you have on you down to the bullets in your gun is worth Bounty, the game's universal resource.
Why is this fun, then? Well, you're telling stories about the end of the world, you're using ingenuity to manage contract negotiations and missions. You, as a player, have a say in how the world around you is created. I brought up The Last of Us because it is a fantastic game, and I wouldn't be surprised if the author took a number of cues from Naughty Dog's masterpiece when he wrote Red Markets. If you ever wanted to be a Firefly, or a Hunter, or just a couple of smugglers like Joel and Tess, give it a try.
Pros: No microtransactions, the servers will never be shut down, you'll be face to face with the other players. You won't be giving Konami any money. Also it doesn't have the Walking Dead franchise on it, so you won't have to make Carl jokes all the time, unless you really want to.
Cons: You need to buy dice (d10s specifically, so scavenging your Monopoly dice won't cut it here), Red Markets actually costs money; it's a big book, too. Like, encyclopedia heavy. You could use it to brain a casualty though...this should really be under the Pros section.
Again, who's got two thumbsticks and has never played a Dynasty Warriors game? This guy! Though, I did play Hyrule Warriors...a lot...so I think I know the basic mechanics. Large-scale battles, dramatic drama story stuff. I also know that I watched that one Jimquisition about Dynasty Warriors 9 ruining everything he loved about the series by changing existing character weapons, turning others into DLC, and being a buggy, terrible open world mess. But I'm paraphrasing from memory here, so I'll start talking about the TRPGs now.
So, I can talk about two games here. First is Feng Shui, a martial arts action-themed game which sees you mow down dozens upon dozens of enemies through your bad-ass combat skills. I have no experience whatsoever with this system. But it seems tailor-made for the hundreds-versus-one battles exemplified by the mechanics of Dynasty Warriors.
The other system I can talk about is 7th Sea, specifically the forthcoming Khitai (expy-Asia) expansion. This game has the chops to combine the dramatic storytelling of tales like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms with swashbuckling action against...smaller groups of enemies than a DW game. One vs a dozen or so at a time grouped into what the system calls a Brute Squad for your referential pleasure, and yes; you can fight multiple Brute Squads at once. With real-life Friends, too! Also most actions can be taken regardless of whatever you have equipped, as long as it's your specialty, so there's no barriers to the type of weapon you can equip!
Pros: Both the European and Asian 7th Sea settings have free Quick-starts, which give you a good insight into the system without paying a dime!
Cons: Aside from my unfamiliarity with Feng Shui, 7th Sea has a pretty drastic difference in conflict resolution than games like D&D, so if you've been playing those for years the transition may be a bit jarring.
Here I'll talk about games that...well, either aren't really games at the moment, or were really good games that you've probably finished by now. Blah blah blah I want to talk about Tabletop RPGs more.
Now that we're months past Blizzcon and we've had a cavalcade of videogame disasters to get mad at (though ActiBlizz's mass layoffs are either soon to be a thing or have already happened at this point), cooler heads may have prevailed in the aftermath of Blizzard's decision to show off a mobile spin-off title outsourced to a chinese company to PC gamers in Anaheim California. Only the comments section will tell.
Regardless, my objective here isn't to talk about Diablo Immortal, really, or even Diablo 3. Or Diablo 2. And no, not really D1, either. I'm here to talk about Lore. Theme. Mood. Those lovely spices that made people like me need to run to the bathroom and empty my bladder after I watched the intro cutscene to the first Diablo, or heard the Butcher say "Ahh, fresh meat" for the first time.
To me, the Story of Diablo isn't about the loot grind, or the accumulation of massive power, or anything you particularly do as a protagonist in any of the three main titles. It's about the story being told in the background. One about madness, and terror, and fallability. It's a story where the only characters who don't completely lose their shit are the ones you are playing in the moment, but after you relinquish control over them, they fail. Diablo heroes win because players are supposed to win in videogames, but when you stop playing, they stop succeeding. They stop holding back their madness, their frailties. They succumb, or die, or are tainted by the world, because Sanctuary is literally anything but.
There are a number of rulesets I could run a game of Diablo in, and I'll likely be homebrewing one of my own in the coming year or so, but if I had to prep a game tonight for people to jump into the setting, it would be with Cthulhu Dark Ages. For those that are unfamiliar, Call of Cthulhu is a game about normal people confronting things which are beyond the ken of anything remotely normal, and are driven mad by the confrontation. They persist because to not try is to doom the world to something worse, and even in success there is no surety, only a stopgap at best. I can't think of a better system which one would retell the story of Tal Rasha and the Horadrim, or the fall of Prince Aidan from Diablo 1.
To put the cherry on top, Call of Cthulhu's base system, BRP, is one of the most intuitive for new players of RPGs, as there are no classes (and thus no pigeonholing characters) and everything is percentile-based (so you always know how likely you are to succeed at any given task).
Pros: Easier than waiting 12 years for the next sequel, more opportunities for storytelling aside from 'kill all the things'.
Cons: Magic is terrible in Call of Cthulhu (as in it will drive you crazy and/or kill you), people who like the loot cycle won't find what they're looking for here, you'll have to make up quite a bit of setting info, as Diablo's overall worldbuilding is...spotty at best.
Okay, let's get this right out there. RDR2 is a massive achievement in scope and detail. It's garnered millions of fans and if you're not a fan of it you likely have at least three friends that are, and one of those friends probably bought you the damn game. It is fucking inescapable at this point; you've got death, you've got taxes, and there's Red Dead Redemption 2 right behind them asking for your credit card information so you can buy gold bars like it's a commercial on the Fox News Network.
I'm not a fan. It's too open. I won't speak in-depth, because this isn't a review. Just know that I'm not a fan of the gameplay cycle of RDR2; not the graphics, not the story, not the detail. It's just not my cup of tea.
In any case, I'm not here to sell you on a better narrative than Red Dead 2, because it has a great narrative with equally great characters. I won't try to sell the multiplayer aspect of tabletop gaming, because Red Dead Online is still young, and I've had some fun playing with friends on that part of it. Instead, I'll just talk about a couple games you could check out if you want to experience some more stories about the wild west.
First is Deadlands Reloaded, a Savage Worlds update to a weird west alternate history setting, one that takes place right after the Civil War and in the midst of a ghostly apocalypse. In this history, Native Americans got a bit sick of our shit and had the ability to do something about it, so they summoned their tribal spirits in a massive arcane ritual that turned everything in the continental US a bit...Supernatural (yes, with the capital. Like the show.). Ghosts are real now. The Horsemen are probably riding. Demonic possession is a regular occurence and certain towns just, well, disappear overnight. This new mineral called Ghost Rock has been discovered which basically kickstarted a Steampunk-esque industrial revolution fueled by the literal souls of the damned, all while putting down one hell of a carbon footprint.
Good times for some plucky adventurers to test their might and wit against the dregs of every nightmare imaginable.
Then there's Down Darker Trails, another Call of Cthulhu setting, placed in a more...historically accurate Old West. There's still all the evils of the Mythos, but with a bit of a western twang, and as per usual, your likelihood of surviving goes down with every session. But if you want something a bit grimmer than Deadlands, there's DDT.
Pros: If you're a fan of westerns, more cowboy is always better, right?
Cons: You'll be spending actual money on these ones, to my knowledge neither has any freebies attached at the current time; though you can always find free scenarios on the internets.
All right, that's about it for me, folks. Perhaps I'll do something like this again in 2020. Shout out in the comments if I did you or someone you love dirty, and don't forget to include the slap gifs; tomorrow's V-Day after all, and I'll be in my bunk.