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Sourcerer is a multi-contributor blog of pop culture and opinion edited 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.

We’re Getting a New Look Soon!

Image

© 2014

Photo by Gene’O, 2014

Our American Horror Story post for this week is delayed, so I’ll go ahead and give you a first look at our new theme, with some notes about the widgets I plan to use.

I’ve been sharing this around a bit, and the early feedback has been positive so far.

Doctor Who Series 8 Episode 3: “Robot of Sherwood” Review

by William Hohmeister

Confession: I missed the last 30 seconds or so of “Into the Dalek”, so I didn’t hear Clara say that she didn’t have a rule against soldiers. This lightened my attitude toward her a bit, and made the ending more tolerable, since she clearly feels something about leaving Journey Blue behind.

Robot of Sherwood” is surprisingly good. I expected to dislike it; the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) meet Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and robots. I don’t like the Robin Hood legend, and robots appear as villains too often in Doctor Who. But this is my favorite episode of series 8 Doctor Who so far. It does pretty much everything right, even the goofy ending.

Clara gets to pick the destination this time, and she insists on Robin Hood (Kevin Costner). The Doctor claims he isn’t real, but lands in 1190 Sherwood Forest. Robin greets the Doctor with an arrow and tries to mug him. The Doctor pulls out a dueling glove and a large spoon.

They duel on a log over a stream and the Doctor knocks Robin into the water with a fancy move. The episode is full of Robin Hood tropes, and the duel means you’re in with Robin’s gang. He takes Clara and the Doctor to his hideout, where Clara joins the ranks of Companions creating history by dubbing Robin’s group the “Merry Men.” She and Robin talk, while the Doctor takes hair, blood, and “other” samples from the Merry Men for testing. The Doctor is convinced Robin is not real, and remains so for most of the episode.

The Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) and masked Knights kidnap peasants for labor and steal gold from the rest. When a peasant mouths off, the Sheriff kills him with a great pre-mortem one liner: “You’ll live to regret that… Actually, you won’t.” He also sets up the classic trap for Robin Hood (Sean Connery), an archery contest.robot-of-sherwood-doctor-bow

The best scenes in this episode are all silly. When Robin enters the contest, he wins by splitting the Sheriff’s arrow in two. Before he can claim the gold arrow as his prize, the Doctor splits that arrow. He and Robin one-up each other until the Doctor gets exasperated and blows up the target. The Sheriff arrests them, and the knights reveal themselves as robots. The Doctor is smug and glad, and surrenders quickly.

The rivalry between Robin and the Doctor deepens in the dungeon. Clara acts as the moderating voice, but even she gets fed up. A guard picks her as the leader, and takes her away. While she interrogates the Sheriff, Robin and the Doctor try to escape. They knock out the guard, but both try to grab the keys and accidentally kick them away. The Doctor says, “Well, there is a bright side here. Clara didn’t see that.”

Clara is at her best in the interrogation. She leads the Sheriff on without ever becoming as sleazy as he is, and gets his plans, his history, and his motivations. She pretends to have met the robots as well, and the eagerness with which the Sheriff believes her is pathetic. The Sheriff is my favorite villain so far because he is believable. He feels ill-used and lonely, but he’s also a total creep when he hits on Clara. He seems somewhat insane, as he rambles on about a vague plan to conquer England, then “the WORLD!” with the robots’ spaceship.

The Doctor and Robin stumble into that same ship, and the Doctor searches the computer. He finds references to Robin Hood (Tom Riley), and tries to tear him down as a fake. He loathes the idea that Robin might actually exist. The Sheriff finds them, but Robin escapes with Clara as the Doctor is captured again.

sherrifThe Doctor creates a riot with the kidnapped peasants, and nearly breaks out before the Sheriff appears. He claims the Sheriff and Robin are in on the plot together, but the Sheriff points out: “Why would we create an enemy to fight us? What sense would that make? That would be a terrible idea.” Seriously, the Sheriff is super-cool. He baffles the Doctor with common sense. The Doctor is forced to realize he’s wrong about Robin.

Robin and Clara reappear to save the Doctor. The ending has an odd misstep: the Doctor and Clara stand and watch while Robin duels the Sheriff. The episode is paced so well that this really stood out. Robin knocks the Sheriff into the vat of molten gold, but the ship takes off. Without more gold it won’t reach orbit, and the exploding engines will take out half of England!

The gold arrow is so, so goofy, but it fits the episode. I see it as a reaffirmation of heroes doing impossible things. Before leaving, the Doctor and Robin talk about heroes. The Doctor despises heroes and legends. Robin and the Merry Men are both. They fight impossible odds, laugh at death, and show up just in time. Robin says he’s not a hero, but by pretending he inspires others.

This shakes the Doctor up. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a real character arc, so this is especially welcome. Both Robin and the Doctor started off as similar characters, but with a drastic difference: Robin believes in heroes, the Doctor does not. Robin Hood is impossible to the Doctor. He knows from long experience that silly heroics don’t save the day.Robot_of_Sherwood_RobinHood

The gold arrow saves the day, though, against good sense and gravity. It shows that heroes are rewarded. The scene is ridiculous I think because believing in the Doctor and Robin Hood is ridiculous. The success of the arrow mirrors their own possible success as actual, big damn heroes.

Other things of interest: What is the Doctor writing on the blackboard as the episode begins? It looks similar to his scrawling in “Deep Breath.” And where was Missy? I expected her to pick up the Sheriff. We see his hands, covered in dripping gold, reaching out of the vat. I hope he comes back. Finally, why do only robots believe in the Promised Land?

images © BBC

Doctor Who: What’s up with the writing?

by William Hohmeister

I do not know what to think about Doctor Who.capaldieyes

I want to greet Peter Capaldi’s Thirteenth Doctor (yes, he’s Thirteen, not Twelve) with an open mind. And I think I can, because I have no special attachment to Matt Smith’s Twelfth Doctor. I am afraid of the new Doctor Who because of the writing; while I hope Capaldi brings a new and interesting take on the Doctor, I have little hope that the writers know or understand what they’re doing.

Many articles point out the decline in quality since Steven Moffatt took over Doctor Who, and lay blame accordingly. I do not agree. People, especially fans, like when there is a single point of failure – just look at how many cried out against Ben Affleck as the new Batman. Moffatt may be part of the problem, but a television show has too many moving parts to lay the blame on any one thing.

The writers do bear the brunt of blame, however. They wrote the show, after all. And while there are not so many terrible episodes, there are few genuinely great ones. Most are mediocre. I examined the writers of series 1-7 and found something interesting: there’s little difference between the two groups. Moffatt and Davies share 6 writers between their eras, not counting Moffatt himself. Davies and Moffatt each wrote about half of their own episodes. And both have close to the same number of two-part stories and single, one-shot episodes. Analyzing the writing from a meta view does not explain the quality of the stories.

Are the writers responsible then? Maybe it really is Moffatt’s fault. He okayed even the bad episodes after all; and he wrote much more after taking over the show. Under Davies he wrote some great episodes, like “Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace.” “Blink” establishes the weirdness of a time loop, while “The Girl in the Fireplace” hands a heavy defeat to the Eleventh Doctor (David Tennant… yes, we have to get used to this. Blame Moffat and John Hurt). Compare “Fireplace” and Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles) with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and series 5-7. Both characters are women who wait their entire lives for the Doctor. Madame de Pompadour dies waiting for him, but Amy Pond is rewarded by traveling with him longer than any other companion.

I think this indicates a shift in attitude. The Tenth (Christopher Eccleston) and Eleventh Doctors were both serious, and their stories often involved heavy lessons and moral defeats. Series 5-7 and the Twelfth Doctor are much more lighthearted, but the subject matter is not. The Silence, the series villains, kidnap and brainwash Melody Pond into an assassin. The Doctor kills and doesn’t look back. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Moment describes the Doctor as “The man who regrets [Eleven] and the man who forgets [Twelve].”

This attitude toward Twelve as “the man who forgets” might explain why sayings like “Rule one: the Doctor lies” came to be. It absolves both the characters and the writers from ever really explaining themselves. By not offering explanations, bizarre events like Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill in The Wedding of River Song can exist just to be cool. A fine line exists between style and fanservice, however, as “The Day of the Doctor”shows. All the Doctors gather together, to reverse the Doctor’s greatest failure. Of course, that failure never really existed because, if it had, the Silence would not have tried to kill the Doctor. Because the Silence try to kill Twelve before he saves Gallifrey, we know that he never actually destroyed it.

Using “timey-wimey” is just a symptom of the attitude the writers of Doctor Who hold. Steven Moffatt has said in interviews that a time-travel show doesn’t need an established continuity. But as we see from the confusing explanation I just gave of the consequences of “The Day of the Doctor,” and the overall quality of series 5-7, this attitude drags the show down. It allows the fanboy side of each writer to run wild; fanservice becomes normal instead of occasional. “The Day of the Doctor” is pure fanservice from beginning to end; therefore, it’s boring. The Doctor’s victory is never in doubt, and the audience goes along with it, because it is just so cool to see thirteen TARDISes (plural?) flying together.

I think that’s what needs to change. I wrote earlier drafts in which I pointed out everything the show did wrong during series 6 and 7. The drafts were several thousand words long. But each came back to the same thing: the attitudes of the writers, the showrunner, and the audience. We’re not innocent: the series 8 premier got the highest ratings since 2010. As long as style triumphs over substance, as long as “are bowties cool?” remains the most morally complex question the Doctor and his companions have to answer, the show remains mediocre.

There is also just some really awful writing.