Orcs and trucks

I had given up on Shadow of Mordor, not knowing how near I was to finishing it. Every now and then I felt an itch to go back and make an attempt. Even if I wound up ragequitting again, killing orcs and pitting brute against brute was fun in stretches.

Well, I beat it this weekend. And I even ran into that Bloodlicker guy at one point near the end, no joke. He wasn’t alive long enough to do much licking, but.

The game’s got a lot going for it, and I’d heartily recommend picking it up during a sale (or for full price if you’re one of them rich folk with dollars to burn). That is, of course, dependent on a certain tolerance for (well-done, albeit) Middle Earth fanfic. The writers put together a decent story, but there are some pretty egregious changes to Celebrimbor and Sauron and the nature of the ring. If you can get past that and just slay some orcs, though, it’s good fun.

Mordor isn’t quite as barren and Verdun-y as I imagine it was intended to be, but there are all sorts of barby things and sinister towers. Orcs quarrel and grumble and brag amongst themselves as you slink around. Power struggles go on and orcs get promoted or die with or without your intervention.

There are many little touches that make for an immersive and enjoyable experience. You may kill orc captains, but they don’t really “die” until you cut off their heads, which so far as I can tell is random. I ran into this drunk orc (that was his “thing”) three or four times, and with each encounter he became more and more disfigured. At the end he was missing half his face, replaced by metal plating.

Being able to ride beasts was cool, as were many of the wraith powers. The biggest draw for me was the ability to dominate (ghosty-mind-control?) enemies. Not only can they help turn the tide of large skirmishes for you, but the ability affords you a bit of flexibility in accomplishing your objectives.

The quest I was stuck on was tied up in dominating a particular warchief, but he would only show up if you grabbed one of his followers and made him squeal for help. The problem was, this dude would always be hanging out in the middle of a fort with a big posse. Every attempt I made to lure him off by himself failed and led to a never-ending battle that ended in either retreat or the death of the follower.

Finally it occurred to me that I could just get one of my own lackeys to challenge the warchief. So long-story-short, I did. Little did the chump know that his bodyguards were also my creatures. And so I just showed up and it was no difficult task to overpower and dominate him.

It was pretty fun to send my captains and warchiefs on missions, too. By the end of the game I had a strong enough group that they were able to wipe out the Black Gate captains and forces almost on their own (I helped a little).

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So that’s Shadow or Mordor.

I’ve also been playing a bit of American Truck Simulator, which isn’t something I’d ever have imagined myself getting into.

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But with all the politics injected into everything and the culture wars raging, sometimes a game like this can really hit the spot.

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I mean, sometimes it all just makes you want to kill hordes of orcs. And sometimes it makes you just want to deliver construction equipment from Flagstaff to Carson City while listening to streaming country radio.

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-Bushi

bushi

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1000 ways to kill orcs

Back at the end of 2011, I came across a little gem of a PC game aptly called Orcs Must Die! Featuring an obnoxious main character and a forgettable plot, this was…actually really fun.

The Mob – a horde of orcs, ogres, gnolls, and other beasts lead by a sorceress is invading the human world. As the Hero, you must stop them. I hope you like killing endless streams of baddies.

Orcs Must Die! is an action tower-defense game. The bulk of the gameplay consists of running around levels placing traps, physically picking off or kiting enemies, and sometimes triggering environmental hazards. Slain orcs (for economy of speech here, let’s just include all the other monsters in “orcs”) provide you with gold and sometimes health or mana potions. Sometimes the orcs will emerge from multiple entryways. If one makes it to the end of the level, it enters the rift to the human world and you lose some rift points. If your character dies, you likewise lose points. And you guessed it – if you get to 0 points, you lose the level.

The game’s strengths lie in a very clear understanding of what it wants to be. The graphics are cartoony and neat. Like a cartoon, the main character and the orcs are often comedic and kinda doofy. There’s a wide variety of traps – spike tiles, tar pits, spring platforms that launch enemies off cliffs, swords and axes that pop out of walls to slice and dice, and much more. Often the orcs will scream dramatically as they fall into a bottomless pit or shriek “every moment I live is agony!” as they dissolve in acid.

You’ll also unlock various weapons to wield, and a couple “guardians” – NPC archers and knights that you can plunk down to pick off enemies or tank bottlenecks (guardians can be downed, unlike traps, though).

The music is fine – nothing special but it gets your blood pumping.

It’s been a while since I played the first one. The other day I went back to replay the sequel (Orcs Must Die! 2). For the most part it’s the same deal. This time you can choose between the Hero and the Sorceress (the Mob has turned on her). There are more traps, weapons, guardians, and types of enemies. There’s even a multiplayer mode if you have a friend.

I’ve been doing runs of Endless. Basically you go to one of the levels from the campaign, but as the name implies, you just keep surviving for as long as you can. Periodically you’ll get little breaks between waves to inspect the battlefield and strategically place traps without the pressure of orcs trying to kill you. I’m all about acid sprays and hot coals. When you finally lose, you earn skulls, which can be spent you unlock or upgrade additional traps and such.

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Despite the simplistic and humorous tone of the game, I find the strategic elements to be be quite fun. In order to get the most out of a level, you must consider terrain when placing traps and guardians. Platforms or elevations out of harms way are great places for archers, and bridges are ideal for spring traps. Sometimes, though, you may want to place springs or other “movement” traps in such a way as to knock enemies back into other obstacles they’ve already passed (poor guys). As the Sorceress sometimes says – “I feel bad for the Orcs…! If I had any feelings…”

There is something very satisfying on an almost physical level in watching as an orc liquefies in acid or burns to cinders or goes flying in pieces.

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So in conclusion, neither of these games is a masterpiece, but if you like this kind of gameplay they’re quite good at what they do. Definitely worth a few bucks for the joy of slaying tens of thousands of orcs (I just unlocked a Steam achievement last night informing me that I had in fact slain 25,000 to date).

-Bushi

bushi

This is the Police

 

One of my Pulp Revolution cohorts gifted me a Steam game called This is the Police not too long ago. I remember having seen this one but hadn’t really given it a close look. Well, a couple weeks ago I decided to take it for a spin.

First impressions – a cool, noir-ish setting, neat art style, decent voice work, and some swinging tunes (mostly jazz and big band stuff). Very interesting gameplay.

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This is the Police is a police management/RPG in which you take on the role of Jack Boyd, the esteemed police chief of the fair city of Freeburg. Within the first few minutes you find out that you’re being forced into retirement by a scumbag mayor and that while Jack is very well-liked by the community and has a reputation for being a straight shooter, he paints in grays. The chief subscribes to a 8/10 rule – that is, for every 10 crimes reported to the police, his goal has always been for 8 of them to be properly handled or solved. Sometimes a couple are uncrackable or else it may to the greater good for the paperwork to go missing.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Jack and get to make some decisions for him. So far as I could tell, they don’t affect the final outcome of the game all that much, which is a shame. Jack is dealing with some personal demons, including a search for his wife who suddenly up and left him. Meanwhile he (most likely) becomes entangled with the mafia and other unsavory characters and groups.

Before I get into my gripes and major spoilers, let me tell you what I liked about running the police station. As a management game, This is the Police provides a fresh yet relatively simple new offering for the genre. Each day you get up, get a glimpse of the morning headlines (and later on some insider political tips), and are off to work. You’ve got two shifts of regular cops and plain clothes detectives who work on alternating days.

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Police’ve got two major stats – professionalism (which reflects their competence and effectiveness) and energy level. As calls come in, you get to choose who to dispatch to the scene of the crime. Successful resolutions raise professionalism – this is the main way you’ll build up your cops. As the days progress, you’ll need to use your judgement when sending out police. You’ve got a limited number of staff, so if you send them all out on a call and another crime report comes in, you have to just shrug and hope no one gets killed. At the same time, certain jobs are more dangerous or tricky and may require more bodies or cops with more professionalism. A bank robbery isn’t nearly the same as going to pick up a kid who got collared by a store owner for shoplifting. You’ll also get a SWAT team and eventually a paddy wagon that you can use to supplement your regular officers. Sometimes your police will request backup or ask for your orders in certain circumstances.

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Some calls won’t be jobs at all. If someone demands a SWAT team to repel the yeti tearing up their lawn, you may well decide not to send anyone.

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You’ve also got to keep an eye on your cops’ energy level. Ordering double shifts is possible, but will run a cop down. And tired officers make mistakes. Also older cops don’t seem to recovery energy as quickly. Sometimes officers won’t show up for work or will ask for the day off (some excuses being more reasonable than others). It’s up to you how to deal with this.

In addition to micromanaging your police force, you’ve got to deal with factions like City Hall. The mayor’s office controls your budget and all requests go through them. Therefore if you keep them happy, you can request more staff slots (more cops is always a good thing), SWAT upgrades, and salary increases. If the mayor gets too pissed at you, he’ll cut funding and you may have to lay people off (hopefully not illegally, as you can be sued for that, no joke).

The factions are pretty much all scumbags, but they provide you with perks. For example the mafia can sell things you find and confiscate on jobs (like drugs or guns). One faction will provide you with a secret bank account to hide your illicit earnings, and another will keep City Hall from making certain ridiculous requests of your staff.

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The ability to collect more music as the game progresses is neat. I was also pleasantly surprised to go from jazz and big band to some random Ogre tracks later on.

Oh, also – there’s a mildly complimentary shout-out to pulp fiction. Though I’m not convinced the devs really understood it, as one character eventually talks about how the heroic comic cop protagonist is loved because he’s perfect and never makes mistakes. People would despise him if he made mistakes, we’re told. Nah dude – go back and read some real pulp. We love pulp heroes because they unflichingly do what’s right and because they’re real men; not because they never foul up.

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Ok, that’s the good stuff. Now I’m going to turn to negatives. Before traipsing into Spoiler Land, let me just say that the gameplay, while engaging, does get a bit repetitive over time. You won’t play ALL 180 days, but you’ll play a lot. Periodic cut scenes are welcome breaks in the steady grind of police work, but there could have been more.

Also, while the game seemed like it was trying to be evenhanded in painting everyone as potentially bad (and therefore potentially good, too), there was a lot of Catholic villainy. This may have stood out to me in particular because I’m Catholic, but there weren’t really any other “identity” groups painted as badly. There are some black criminals, but no Black Lives Matter or Black Panther group. LGBT people are frequent victims, of course. Not many Islamic terrorists to speak of (though the retro feel of this game could be a fair explanation for that).

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There is also a bunch of pro-lifer skulduggery, which made me roll my eyes and wonder if this games writers had done any research (violence against abortions and abortion clinics does occur, of course, but really uncommon).

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That stuff smacked of message fiction, but could be easily overlooked in light of excellent gameplay and story. And here be spoilers!

***

While I’d argue that the gameplay comes close enough, the story winds up falling flat. The plot and voice acting had me engaged for most of the game, but ultimately it all comes to naught! Jack’s wife has left him for a young rich man and she’s not coming back. His flirtation with the new city prosecutor goes to shit when she finds out he’s not squeaky clean.

In the final power struggle, Jack winds up with a knife in the back and loses his job either way. Even if you’ve saved a ton of money, Jack seems to somehow lose it. If you have too much cash, you wind up indicted by the Feds.

Oh, and forget even trying to play a straight cop. The game is about compromise – trying to limit the corruption and picking and choosing your battles. If you don’t play ball, you wind up with no funding and a shitty police force, or else dead (doesn’t do to piss off the mafia before you can gather evidence and make arrests).

So there is no good ending, and there is no real win.

I’d give This is the Police a 3/5 because the gameplay is creative and for quite a while it’s fun. I don’t regret spending my time playing it. Unfortunately there’s no satisfying end, and you may wind up feeling cheated at the close of the story.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Ringworld and Rimworld

Rejoice, dear readers – I live!

What have I been up to of late? My discovery of the Last Kingdom and first reading of EE “Doc” Smith are chronicled over at the Castalia House blog. But what else have I been up to? Certainly not writing blog posts, right?

Well, I’m nearly done with my first “Known Space” book. I read the Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle some years back and remember being impressed. Since then I’ve read one of Pournelle’s solo works and it was pretty solid. Time for Niven, right?

One of the challenges with going back to read these older series is sorting through the various collections that pop up, along with conflicting or sparse information on proper reading orders. I don’t think you can ever really go wrong following stories in publication order, but for some reason I settled on this order, starting with Neutron Star.

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It isn’t exactly publication order, but close enough. Neutron Star is a collection of short stories taking place in the Known Space universe. Once I’m finished I intend to proceed as chronologically as I can, though I’m eager to get to the famed Ringworld.

So far I’m really digging the setting and Niven’s writing. Stylistically his sense of humor and sarcasm come through without crossing over into silliness (a ‘la Douglas Adams). In my Doc Smith post at Castalia House, I noted my enjoyment of Smith’s aliens. Incidentally I’m also really liking that about Niven’s Known Space. Rather than space elves and dwarves (which I suppose you could argue some of the variant non-terran humans resemble), you’ve got space-faring cat folk, intelligent and honest yet cowardly monstrosities like the gentleman pictured in the above cover art, and physically weak, bizarre-looking yet honorable squid people. Then there’s the grog.

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So far most of the human protagonists blend together, but there’s a lot of cool technology, intriguing plots (especially if you’re into “hard”ish SF) and at least one rad alien character.

In gaming news, I recently powered through XCom 2, which was a flawed but ultimately fun preoccupation. Now I’m on to Rimworld, and oh boy this is a time sink.

If you’re unfamiliar with this title, it’s a scifi colony sim/survival game. There are several modes and difficulty variations to toy with. And holy crap is it detailed. When your colonists are injured, you can see exactly where – they might get a bruise to their torso or lose a pinky or toe. They can get scars and health conditions like asthma and infections and diseases.

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There’s crafting, of course. There are pets and animal taming. There’s hunting, cooking, and growing crops for food and medicine. You can build defenses like sandbags and turrets to help you ward off raiders and hostile animals.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of Rimworld is the storytelling AI. You can pick from among three AIs with different personalities and tendencies, and they basically generate events at certain intervals. The base AI, Cassandra, tries to ramp up the difficulty over time and keep your number of colonists at levels she likes (so if you have too many she won’t give you chances to get more or she’ll try to kill someone off).

The stories that can develop are nuts. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sad.

For example, in my first game I wound up incapacitating one of the raiders who attacked me. I remember she was a doddering old fat woman named Delgado. She had dementia and was a pyromaniac. Still, people are resources and I lacked manpower. So I captured her and treated her wounds, and kept her locked up until she agreed to join me.

Eventually she did, and she ran around naked and unhappy until I was able to craft some garments for her. Things went well for a while. She could cook, and that was a skill my people sorely wanted for. One day, however, she snapped. She started wondering around and setting fires on the outskirts of my base. I had to send someone to beat her down and throw her in the clink to cool down.

Shortly after that we suffered a heat wave that I was woefully unprepared for. My colonists all collapsed into unconsciousness in the 50 degree (C) weather before I could figure out how to treat their heatstroke. With no one to rescue them, they all died. The end.

Another time in a succeeding game, I was hunting muffalos for meat. Usually they just try to run away. But this time they decided (or Cassandra decided) not to stand for that shit. They got mad and I wound up with a couple dozen alien buffalos chasing my colonist back to base. I was able to draft everyone and ward them off without any deaths, but damn.

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Meat for the meat god.

One of the saddest things to have happened thus far, though, involves one of the colony pets. Stupid me had no problem letting them all sleep outside despite the bears and wolves and crap wandering around. After one raid, one of my dogs was pretty badly wounded. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a lynx attacked him. I was able to get the dick cat in time, but damn. Only a couple minutes later, a BEAR showed up for an easy meal. I was able to kill the bear before my dog kicked the bucket. But the damage was done, and the dog was down to two good legs.

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There was another raid, and the dog went in to help its master. I mowed down the invaders, all except one, and this guy was tagged and about to go down. So the piece of crap raider stops advancing on my entrenched colonists, turns to the dog, and slices its leg off right before he bites the dust.

It was a while before I noticed the dog wasn’t moving from the spot where my colonists had carried him to treat the wound. He would just lay there, periodically sleeping and being fed. I checked his stats, and…

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Yup. Down to one leg, and zero mobility. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

It was just a virtual dog in a stupid little game, but it took me a good few minutes of inner deliberation before I euthanized it. Damn game.

But man if Rimworld hasn’t got its hooks in me. There’s already so much content packed into this thing, but I can’t wait to see what’ll be added next.

-Bushi

bushi

Are your peasants men or mice?

A couple weeks ago, I was reflecting on the role of the peasantry in fiction. This is in the context of having just watched a couple of Scandinavian films, I suppose. In The Salvation, a Dane in America’s wild west finds himself up against a ruthless gang lead by Negan. Really.

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I don’t want to get spoiler heavy, but you’ve got two types of villagers here. The sniveling coward appeasers, who refuse to stand up to the lawless cowboys, and the real common men. I think this is a common motif in Western stories. Sometimes it takes a leader to marshal the townfolk into fighting back against the bad guys. The protagonist and his brother were once soldiers, so we are told, so I suppose they don’t count as “peasants” in this musing.

The other film I watched, The Last King, tells the story of a Norse king who is assassinated so that those close to him can seize the throne. It is soon discovered that he had an illegitimate son – an infant who is being protected and hidden away by babe’s mother and some men loyal to the king.

Ultimately, a showdown between the usurpers and those truly loyal to the rightful king becomes inevitable. The two soldiers guarding the royal baby wind up marshaling a gang of farmers to arms.

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Though they know the odds are stacked against them, the Dane peasants ski in YOLO -style to kick some ass.

This is what got me thinking. I’m going to make a big generalization here – different cultures have wildly different perceptions and portrayals of their villagers. Specifically I was thinking of most of the Japanese films I’ve seen.

Part of this, I’m sure, if explained by the histories of the different countries we’re talking about. In feudal Japan, peasants would have maybe had pitchforks and other farming implements. They were forbidden to own swords for a good chunk of time. And I guess the strict class structure of Japan would have been another strike against badass fighting peasants.

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I don’t really have any solid explanations here. Just my half-baked thoughts. Still, this is an interesting element for DMs and writers to consider. Can PCs and baddies just come waltzing into town and expect everyone to lay down for them? Or is the populace going to fight back if pushed? This could be a neat way to draw a distinction between different peoples and cultures, too.

-Bushi

bushi

Hunters and Horrors

Things are frantic right now – just finished with wedding festivities and the in-laws have returned home. I’m gearing up for some long work days, as we’re moving to a new office and there’s lots of IT work to be done in preparation.

Still, nerd’s gonna nerd.

Kaiju, the Great Troll Lord, has done it again. The dude who once got me into World of Warcraft (“Merry Christmas – here’s a free month of crack”) has dragged me kicking and half-heartedly protesting into Monster Hunter Generations.

 

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This is my first foray into the series, though when I lived in Japan I saw kids hunting beasts all over the damn place. That land of trains and banker box apartments lends itself to local handheld play. Also there are terrible, giant monstrosities, so naturally kids would want to hunt them.

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The single player action is solid, though the gathering quests are kind of bland. As you might imagine, multiplayer is where the game really shines. I haven’t joined any public games yet, but I’ve killed a giant armored toad among other things with a buddy. I also joined in killing a dragon. By “joined in” I mean I stood a screen away so as not to get one-shotted. Coordinating attacks, laying traps, chucking bombs of various kinds – it’s all good stuff.

The crafting is ok. I find that there’s a lot of junk armor. I mean, it’s cool that pig-cows can be skinned, but who needs crappy pig-cow armor when the discerning hunter gets access to lizard-raptor parts almost immediately?

Most of the weapons are large and ponderous or else weird. Of course I went with one that’s both. The gunlance, aerial style, baby. So like FF VIII, I guess, but with a giant lance and shield instead of a gunblade? Trust me, I am a cool dude.

What free time I can scrounge has mostly been going to Darkest Dungeon, though.

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Ok, now I had seen the glowing reviews in passing. But I wasn’t prepared for how good this one is. I honestly just thought I’d try it for an hour or so and check off a box.

What we’ve got here is a dark, tactical, turn-based, rogue-like dungeon crawler. Artistically, it reminds me of a comic book. I’m not really a big comics guy, so I’ll say a Dark Horse comic. Dark Horse is a brand, right?

Stylistically and tonally, it’s got that weird tales feel. Lovecraftian, for sure. I mean, heroes build up stress, which if unmanaged can progress into various manias and general madness. The manor (the main setting of the game, divided up into various areas) is populated with all kinds of eldritch horrors, beasts, and nasty humans. It’s got as many cultists as you’d expect in an HPL or Clark Ashton Smith tale.

The battles make me think of the third member of the Weird Trinity. It’s tactical, for sure. Positioning and party composition matter big time. But the way it plays out is Howardian. It’s visceral and action-packed. You can feel the swishes and whomps and splatters. The suspense mounts and plays out both in combat (things can go downhill fast; they can also turn around quickly on a few (un)lucky hits) and out of it as you explore the dungeon, hoping you’ve brought enough torches and food.

I’m really enjoying it a lot. So far my most satisfying moment was defeating the Collector – this low-encounter-rate spectral mini-boss who collects the heads of dead heroes and then summons them to kick your ass.

 

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I’ll be at these two games for a while.

-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi