Wordless Wednesday: Pale

Photo by Gene'O

Photo by Gene’O

Planescape: Torment, Episode 1

by William Hohmiester

Planescape: Torment is a PC role playing game based on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) tabletop rules. It came out in 1999, and it is played from an isometric (fancy for “top-down”) view. It is a point-and-click turn-based game set in a weird fantasy universe. I am writing a “Let’s Play” style series about Planescape: Torment from beginning to end.

I learned about it from Jeremy about ten years ago, when we found out we both liked the Baldur’s Gate series of PC games. I know Baldur’s Gate very well, but I’ve never played more than a few hours of Torment. So why not write about Baldur’s Gate?

Because there’s less room for surprise and exploration; because Jeremy once lent me his ancient, battered cd before digital downloads became common, which is a hell of a recommendation; and because of what Planescape: Torment is about.

It is about an immortal with amnesia and his best friend, a floating, talking skull. They have strange encounters with alien species, and the game encourages talking, exploration, and moral choices over fighting. It’s Doctor Who if Edward James Olmos played the Doctor. Which is how I’ll play the game as well, doing my best to make good moral decisions (tempered by a roleplayer’s greed) and choosing to help rather than to harm.

The game is available at gog.com (Good Old Games) for a few bucks, and there are several mods available for free. I’m using some of them to add missing content and to keep the game from looking its age:

  • The Ultimate WeiDU Fixpack – this fixes a number of bugs and helps prevent crashes.
  • Qwinn’s Unfinished Business – restores content to the game, including quests and dialogue, that was abandoned by the developers due to time or budget problems.
  • Bigg’s Widescreen Mod – allows me to adjust the resolution of the game so it won’t appear so pixelated. When I originally installed the game it displayed only a few feet around Nameless. With this mod I get a much broader look at the surrounding area, and a feel for the scope of the setting.
  • Ghostdog’s UI Mod – fixes all the bugs introduced by the widescreen mod and smooths out the user interface for an easier player experience.

Although it’s based on AD&D, Planescape: Torment is a weird game, so I’m going to add some explanation of how it’s played, what certain terms mean, and how I made my character. Thankfully, unlike Baldur’s Gate, the character creation system is simple and easy to understand.

First, here’s my guy:

planescape1_will You could grate a mountain on that mug. Surrounding him are his stats: Strength, Wisdom, Constitution, Charisma, Dexterity, and Intelligence. These are increased by using Character Points (in the lower left) and, depending on what I choose to improve, effect the Armor Class (AC – how hard Nameless is to hit) and Hit Points (HP – how many hits he can take).

I’ll let the manual explain the individual stats, because I miss the times when games came with manuals that added to the story or the world.

STATISTICS:

“There are six primary stats that determine what kind of person the Nameless One is – smart or stupid, strong or weak, agile or clumsy. I have 21 character points to increase them. Though some control his mental faculties, they do not affect his morality or alignment.

  1. Strength (STR) – This makes you a good fighter. If you want to be a real meat grinder of a warrior – raise your Strength score.
  2. Constitution (CON) – This stat makes you tough to kill, almost always a plus considering how many people are trying to off you. One other bonus of a high Constitution is that you’ll regenerate faster.
  3. Dexterity (DEX) – This stat determines how difficult you are to hit, as well as how fast your reactions are. If you want to get the drop on your foes before they raise the alarm, high Dexterity helps.
  4. Intelligence (INT) – The smarter you are the more witty things you can think of to say. Having a higher Intelligence stat gives you more dialog choices, access to more spells, and a better chance to regain memories.
  5. Charisma (CHR) – A high Charisma stat means that people are more likely to listen to you, and even believe what you say, you’re so convincing. A high Charisma allows you to successfully bluff people more frequently.
  6. Wisdom (WIS) – The ability to absorb lessons from what’s happened to you is largely a function of Wisdom. You’ll gain experience points faster if you’re wise enough to learn from what you’re doing. A high Wisdom also gives you a better chance to regain lost memories.”

Okay, but how do I know what to pick? The obvious solution is to be a beefy strongman, since Nameless always starts as a level 3 Fighter, but only a level 1 Mage and Thief. He also can’t use his Mage or Thief abilities until he finds a teacher. But the manual has a bit more to say about this world and how we can best get along in it.

CHARACTER AND GAMEPLAY

Nameless is not a typical role playing game hero. The manual has something to say as well:

“In Torment, you take on the role of a scarred, amnesiac immortal in search of his identity… death serves to advance the plot and is even a tool for solving seemingly impossible problems… your actions throughout the game define your character’s development and even have the power to shape the world around you. You will find yourself gaining skills, new classes, and special abilities depending on your style of play… gathering memories is just as important as gaining experience, talking to the dead can yield more than talking to the living, and the most dangerous of enemies may be the only ones you can trust.”

Okay, that clears things right up. Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, in that order, seem to be the most important stats. I need them to solve the puzzle of Nameless’ identity and purpose, and to get more people on my side and helping me. I also want Constitution since I’m otherwise a weakling.

All the actual mechanics of the game – from dice rolls to saving throws – occur off-screen, so I mostly don’t worry about them. Let’s take another look at Nameless, with his now-completed stats:

planescape2_willIf you can’t see them in the image, the stats are:

STR = 9 – easily bullied
WIS = 14 – not Yoda, but nice
CON = 12 – wears a cup
CHR = 14 – ugly, but friendly
DEX = 10 – falls prey to the family cat
INT = 16 – full-ride scholarship
AC = 10 – the broad side of the barn
HP = 26 – bleeds easily

I thought for a long time before deciding to sacrifice a higher wisdom for constitution. I’m almost helpless physically, and I don’t know where to find someone to train me to be a wizard. Until I do, expect a lot of running away or bargaining.

That’s all it takes to begin a game. Next time, I’ll recount Nameless’ first adventure. If you have any questions or comments put them in the comments below, and if you have any spoilers put them back in your head and keep them there. No spoilers, please.

Tuesday Texture: What IS This?

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Photo by Gene'O

Photo by Gene’O

Agents of SHIELD now that we’ve seen Agent Carter

Agent Carter took a week off last week, and I’m assuming it was for the State of the Union address. Since Agent Carter is running as a mid-season show for Agents of SHIELD, I thought I would take a mid-season break from the one show to talk about the other in relation to the former… well, whatever, they make sense to compare to one another, right?

There are lots of comparisons that came to mind about the content of the show in the early days, or even before Agent Carter aired. Different eras, relationships to movies, these sorts of things – and I blogged some of my thoughts on that early on. Now that there’s been a few episodes of Agent Carter, the differences seem really stark (pun intended?). So let me look at a few features that I think really stand out between the two, now that they are both officially on the air and part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

The Ensemble versus the Protagonist

It’s inherent in the name, I suppose, but Agents of SHIELD is not the story of one person, with no central hero. Sure, the original and ongoing draw to the show is Agent Phil Coulson, brought back from the dead to give us a known leader and a mystery plot – namely, how is he back from the dead?

But he is by no means the only character on the show, just the only known character. Around him he collected a group of agents, who fly the plane, fight the battles, solve the mysteries, hack the computers, solve the genomes (Gene’O’s?), and build the tech. It was not a small team, and they took a lot of time – as they probably needed to – introducing us to all of these agents (and new ones, over time). While Phil Coulson was ever-present, so were the rest of the team.

Agent Carter is much different from that. Sure, she’s not the only character running around, but she is the one we are focusing on. Her partner is not even a fellow agent, but a butler. And there are characters we are getting to know more about – especially Jarvis in the third episode – but not all of them.

For instance, she has some friends she has made outside of work, women who have also been neighbors or roommates. Well, one is dead and the others we might suspect of having nefarious intentions for their friendship – who can we trust? There are also her fellow SSR agents, but they exist to be contrasted with Peggy Carter, to be cliches and stereotypes and not all to be fleshed out and explored.

Sure, part of that is the 8-episode nature of the season: you can’t do it all in that time. But we have solid evidence that we aren’t going to get to know them all, as one of the agents was assassinated at the end of the third episode. That’s a number of friendlies killed in just three episodes – it’s a risky business being in that show! All we know is Agent Carter and Jarvis make it out at the end, everyone else is at risk!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Beyond Agent Coulson, the real draw for Agents of SHIELD is its connection to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. These got better over time. There was a ho-hum episode after Thor: The Dark World was out in theaters, with a vague connection to Asgard. Then there was a far better episode with the Lady Sif, and the Asgardian Lorelei. I think this sort of cameo was the sort of thing audiences may have been expecting or wanting more of in the show, and this episode at least showed that it could be done, and done well!

Then the ball dropped with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The SHIELD focus in the movie bled into the show, and the last few episodes of the first season, airing after the movie started playing in theaters, were really incredible, giving a payoff for a lot of the ensemble-cast character development that they had spent so much time on. I think by the end pretty much all of the cast got to be heroes and found their way into our hearts – or at least, more than they had been before.

Season 2 has more seriously delved into the mystery of the Once and Future Phil Coulson, his death and return. After Guardians of the Galaxy, audiences at least knew more about the aliens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – even if the characters don’t know. So when it starts to turn out that maybe all these mysteries are alien in nature – and we might know who these aliens are and what they might be like! – it got pretty good. The mid-season break ended in some jaw-dropping turns of events, the implications of which have us wondering just how much this will all be a set-up for some of the upcoming Marvel movies – especially The Inhumans, who may need the most setup.

But here’s the thing: with all of that, I think it’s safe to say that Agents of SHIELD is best in the way that it relates to the larger universe. The events of the mid-season-2-finale were great and all, but the implications were better. The minutes of my wife Holly and I theorizing and guessing after the episode was done were a lot of fun, and worth keeping up with the show – but you can’t really say the show and its contents alone were what made us enjoy it so much.

Okay, that’s a lot about Agents of SHIELD. So let me keep my comment on Agent Carter here brief: it hasn’t been like that at all. The connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe have largely just been in the characters who come from it: Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and Jarvis – known before just as a name and an A.I. named after him. There have been a lot of references to Captain America, largely just in the fact that Peggy and he were almost an item and now he’s gone. And that’s it – so the show is having to stand on its own, and not lean on the films for interest and intrigue.

So What Makes Good Television?

Oh man, what am I doing asking a big question like that? Well, I guess I mean that it is a show you can watch, and it’s good, and it entertains you. In and of itself. There are plenty of shows that people hang on to and watch for a variety of reasons – hoping it gets good again, wanting to know the answer to its mysteries, for love of an actor or actress or cast. If I were to try to define “good television” it would be something where it doesn’t have to rely on you “hanging on” – you just watch it and it’s good and stays there.

I think Agents of SHIELD has created a whole new category of reasons to hang on, because it really is an experiment in shared universe, between movies and film. Sure, there are shows based on movies, but generally as a re-telling – shows like Bates Motel or Fargo come to mind as recent examples. Sure, there are movies based on shows, both as re-tellings and often as end-notes, conclusions to the story or continuation. Star Trek movies seem like the best example of this. But Agents of SHIELD was a show set in the universe of the movies, not a re-telling, but a real-time continuation to keep you hyped and excited between movies.

As such, though, it does not stand on its own as “good television.” You can’t just pick up and watch an episode (or a season) of Agents of SHIELD and watch it and be like “hey that was all pretty great.” I don’t think that was ever going to be possible, but it’s an entirely new thing and as a fan, I am happy it exists and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s had rough patches and seemingly filler-episodes, but so have shows like Battlestar Galactica, which I followed all the way through its run.

By following an entirely different formula with Agent Carter, they have escaped that same new type of show that Agents of SHIELD belongs to. It’s a show following a movie (Captain America), but beyond that, it’s just a good, period-piece mystery show. It’s just good television. Not into comics? Not a problem, you can still get into Agent Carter. Okay, if you don’t like mystery shows or spy stuff like James Bond, maybe you won’t like Agent Carter. But no show is for everyone, right?

It’s a great mystery show so far, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s only 3 episodes to catch up on right now – out of only 8 this season! Not a lot to catch up on, so give it a chance! I’ll be back next Tuesday with my review of episode 4 – The Blitzkrieg Button!