Why don’t I play wizards in CRPGs?

I know it’s kind of weird to write a blog post asking my readers a question about myself. But it’s a question I’ve been pondering recently.

I started re-playing the expansions for Neverwinter Nights. The two expansions—Shadows of Undrendtide and Hordes of the Underdark—actually form a series separate from the main Neverwinter Nights campaign. It takes your character from level 1 to epic levels, and is a lot of fun.

As I was making my character, I realized I tend to play melee characters in computer-based role playing games (CRPGs). My first game ever—Baldur’s Gate—used a paladin, and I repeated that in its sequels. Other times I’ve played a ranger or a melee-focused rogue, but that’s as far as I stray.

That’s not the case with pen and paper RPGs, like D&D 5th edition. While I have played paladins here, I’ve also played clerics, warlocks and wizards. My favorite so far was a wizard (Fonken, who I’ll discuss here at some point). So I thought I’d try a wizard in my latest play-through of Neverwinter Nights. But after about halfway through Shadows of Undrentide, I stopped.

Why? Part of it is the nature of that game; your choice of henchman disadvantages non-frontline characters. But it was also the gameplay. I found myself spamming the same set of attack spells in each combat. And if the enemy broke through my outer defenses, I had to reload the last save. Ultimately, it proved one-dimensional and both tough and boring at the same time. So now I’m playing as a ranger.

But obviously some people play CRPGs as a wizard, and have a lot of fun. So the problem must not be in a design flaw, but some difference between tabletop and computer-based Dungeons and Dragons games.

Indeed, the tabletop experience as a wizard is a lot different than in a computer game. Some people do just spam magic missile, and have a great time. But there is a lot of opportunity to use attack spells that disadvantage enemies, giving your melee companions a chance to attack. And all the non-combat encounters provide an opportunity to use utility spells in a manner that really makes your party’s lives easier. I tend to follow this guide’s approach to wizard, which de-emphasizes damage per second (dps) and focuses more on controlling the environment.

A lot of this doesn’t translate into computer games. There are many spells I prepare as a wizard that I never use, as the situation doesn’t arise or there are other easier means. For example, in Shadows of Undrentide, I had knock prepared, but my panther familiar ended up just breaking down locked doors. So as a wizard you tend to gravitate towards spells that cause a lot of damage or that summon allies.

As a result, wizards just become dps machines. This is the role they play in World of Warcraft. That might be fine if you have a large party to control—as in Baldur’s Gate—but when you control just yourself and a henchman (like in Neverwinter Nights) it can be limiting.

More importantly, it’s not what draws people to play a wizard. Wizards are smart and inquisitive. They’re masters of lore and problem solvers. None of that comes across if you just cast attack spells over and over. I guess you could still add in some role-playing elements, but it’s rarely directly connected to the story.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is a way around this. Games like the Elder Scrolls—in which there is a lot more freedom to interact with the environment—are more fun to play as a wizard. You can use your spells in creative ways to avoid combat if needed. But ultimately, a lot of the non-combat encounters from D&D would be difficult to pull off in a video game (although if someone has a good example, please let me know).

Overall, this may be a good case of how tabletop gaming does not translate well into computer games. They’re both good, but are not exactly the same experience. Are there other areas where we lose something important if players only know D&D through computers? Am I being unfair to “support” characters in computer games?

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Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 3

I have been interspersing my RPG discussions with a walkthrough of the excellent Crusader Kings 2, in which players choose a dynasty and see it through from 1066 to 1453. In this game, I was playing as the last Karlings–Charlemagne’s descendants–confined to one county in France. Over time, they have schemed and conquered in an attempt to return the Karling family to greatness.

Last time, Clotaire II abandoned his family’s long feud with the foreign French monarchy, and died peacefully, mourned by all.

Clotaire II was succeeded by his eldest son, Lothaire. Where his father was noble and beloved, Lothaire was devious and feared. A great schemer, he immediately set to work bringing down the hated foreign king. Lothaire formed a faction to push for gavelkind succession; as the King had two young daughters this would lead to a division of the realm. Lothaire used his spies to gather dirt on other lords and blackmail them into joining his cause, then launched his rebellion. He easily won, and the King changed the succession rules.

Lothaire then moved into phase 2 of his plan. He had his spies abduct the King while he was travelling through the Karling lands. Lothaire then executed the King in prison. This led Lothaire to be widely despised, even by those who were not fond of the King. But it worked. The realm was divided between the two daughters. Brittany, Aquitaine and Aragon went to the eldest, and France to the younger.

[all of this was accomplished through the Intrigue actions available in the Way of Life expansion. I got a little lucky it all worked out, but when you have a high enough intrigue in a character, it can be a useful way to rule your realm through underhanded means.]

Lothaire then began plotting to overthrow his new Queen. He did not get very far in this latest scheme, however, as he was assassinated by bowmen while travelling on the roads. His list of enemies was too long for anyone to know for sure who was the killer.

Lothaire’s eldest son, Francois, inherited the Karling lands. He was a genius, and immediately set about developing and strengthening the administration of the realm. But he worked a bit too hard, and died of stress after only three years.

His brother, Lothaire II then became Duke. Lothaire II saw the repeated failures and frustration of his family, which he attributed to personal egos getting in the way of the cause. So he came up with a plan with his sister, Denise. She would marry their German cousin, now the Duke of Franconia and Flanders. Lothaire II would make her his heir. The two would then work to break their land free of what remained of France and join the Holy Roman Empire.

Their plans came together sooner than expected when the Queen of France faced a rebellion in the southern part of her realm. Lothaire II declared independence and easily won, although he was severely wounded in battle. He died less than a year after gaining independence, and his lands passed to Denise.

Denise was a brilliant and shrewd leader, who should have been the greatest of the Karlings but she repeatedly faced suspicion due to her gender.

Shortly after coming to power, she swore fealty to the Holy Roman Empire. After joining the Empire, her intelligence and charisma earned her the respect of the previously suspicious German Dukes. She also became very close to the Emperor, although he refused to appoint her as a counselor position because she was a woman. She also used her managerial skills to develop her families lands further, making them some of the wealthiest of the Empire.

But she faced repeated intrigue to remove her from power. Her various nephews continued to conspire against her. Some tried to kill her, others tried to organize factions to overthrow her. She managed to undermine all of these plots, throwing her nephews in jail, one by one.

Turmoil on the Empire’s eastern border soon called her attention. The Mongol horde out of the east had been gradually conquering Christian lands. They had seized Hungary a few years before, and now turned their sights on the Holy Roman Empire. In a massive invasion, they conquered Bohemia and the Empire’s lands in Italy. After a short respite, the Mongols attempted to conquer the Papacy itself. Christian leaders all over Europe rallied to defend the Pope, including  Denise. She raised her troops, and spent some of her own money on mercenaries to supplement them. The Christian armies turned back the Mongols, ending their advance into Europe.

Denise spent the rest of her life in peace, dying peacefully at 66.

Why Baldur’s Gate would make the first great video game movie

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS FOR BALDUR’s GATE BELOW

Every few years, computer game fans get excited as a new movie based on one of our beloved games comes out. And every few years, we get disappointed and bitter. Some movies refuse to remain faithful to the games they’re based on, changing everything that made them great and leaving a mess. Others try to be faithful, but come off as more of an inside joke than a coherent storyline. Either way, non-gamers continue to not understand what makes computer games so great, and gamers continue to wait for a faithful adaptation to arise.

This problem could be solved, though, by turning to the excellent Baldur’s Gate series. Set in the D&D world of Forgotten Realms, this game was released in 1998, and was followed by a sequel and an expansion that was basically a third act. It is still widely-loved, and was released in an updated version in 2012. It is widely considered one of the greater computer role-playing games, for its innovative mechanics and story alike.

Baldur’s Gate tells the tale of a young orphan (players pick the name, race, gender, and class-I usually played a male so I will use male pronouns, but others can be used in its place) raised in the library-city of Candlekeep. His guardian, the wizard Gorion, tells him they must flee, and mysterious assasins try to kill the hero as he prepares for his journey. Shortly after leaving Candlekeep, Gorion and his ward are attacked. The young hero flees, but not before seeing Gorion killed by a sinister figure.

The hero makes his way to an inn where Gorion said his friends were waiting. There, after escaping additional assassins and discovering his childhood friend followed him from Candlekeep, he meets Gorion’s friends and they join him in his quest. They had heard of unrest far to the south in the iron mines of Nashkel, and want to investigate. In the course of investigating, the hero and his allies discover a massive, complicated plot by evil forces to seize control of the city of Baldur’s Gate. The hero also discovers he is actually the child of the god of Murder.

Two other games (really a sequel and an expansion) continue this story, expanding the mythology and significance of the hero’s lineage before bringing it to a spectacular conclusion.

So why would Baldur’s Gate make for the first great video game movie?

First, I need to discuss why existing movies have failed. Directors of video game movies have to strike a balance between gamer fans and the broader audience. Gamers want to see their experiences translated onto the screen, while the broader audience wants something they can enjoy without having played the game. This is especially difficult with relatively recent games that have rabid fan bases, like World of Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed.

Additionally, a lot of the fun of video games is the immersive experience. It’s fun to wander around and discover a new world. It’s satisfying to fulfill random side quests like killing wolves threatening a farmer. Neither of these would make for a good movie, though. I’ve spent hours trekking through the forests and mountains of Cyrodiil in Elder Scolls: Oblivion, but would be really bored to watch someone do that.

So how could Baldur’s Gate surmount these problems?

First, the game is nearly twenty years old, so there is less of the pressure surrounding adaptations of current hit games. The people who came to love this game in its prime are in their 30’s or older. So there will be fewer angry tweets from fans if the movie doesn’t recreate the game frame by frame. It will also be easier for non-gamers to relate to the movie, as it’s more removed from current discourse. Granted, this means there may be less apparent commercial appeal, but it’s not like the fan base of any other video game movie turned it into a hit.

Second, the graphics are pretty bad by today’s standards, so there will be no temptation to recreate the visuals of the game on the screen. Baldur’s Gate was a top-down experience, in which characters and enemies were portrayed with minimal details. As a result, a director would have the freedom to create any sort of visual experience they wanted. The movie could include one top down scene—maybe during a battle—out of deference to the game, but beyond that there’s a lot of flexibility.

Third, the nature of the story would lend itself to a movie. Many video games have a plot structure built around completing a series of quests. In the classic Knights of the Old Republic, the heroes must visit several planets before finding the clue to the evil Sith forces’ strength. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard must recruit and gain the trust of his allies before moving on to defeat the Collectors. Neither of these would do well as a movie, as they’d basically be a series of episodes.

The story of Baldur’s Gate is different. It’s a mystery. When you start the game, all you know is that someone is trying to kill you. Your first major quest—saving the iron mines of Naskhel—is just a rumor you stumbled upon. You get bits and pieces of information as the story progresses. And there’s dramatic turnarounds that would fit well as the “Act 2 reversal” in a movie; after uncovering the plot against Baldur’s Gate, you are framed for the murder of the city’s leaders. You must escape from prison, and evade guards as you clear your name and save the city. This would be perfect as a movie script.

Moreover, the second two games could easily be adapted to create a blockbuster fantasy trilogy.

Even as I write this, I am cringing at the thought of a cheesy, overwrought Baldur’s Gate movie adaptation. But I do believe the challenges complicating adaptation of other video games are absent here. If we’re ever going to have a truly great video game movie, this could be it.

UPDATED to edit some typos and clarify pronouns.

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Reclaiming Charlemagne’s Empire, part 2

Sorry for the delay in this post–I was busy with 4th of July celebrations. My group ran its third session of Out of the Abyss, and I’m working on the walkthrough, but here’s a post in the meantime. I made it a little longer than usual to make up for the delay.

In a previous post I presented part 1 of a walkthrough for Crusader Kings 2, an excellent PC historical strategy game. This is the second part, as Raymond-the son of Clotaire, Duke of Valois, the last descendant of Charlemagne-continued his father’s efforts to restore the Karling family to glory.

Raymond returned to the Duchy of Valois from Germany with high expectations. His father had tripled his family’s lands, and Raymond was a skilled diplomat ready to further increase the Karling prestige. He followed his father at first, consolidating the family lands; specifically, he revoked the County of Orleans from his half-brother—as the land had been divided after his father’s death—and gave him a barony in compensation. He also maintained the trade route his father had started and built new cities and a bishopric in his lands.

But then Raymond became distracted. As he had been among the Germans during the religious strife in France, he had not absorbed his father’s cautious approach to the conflict. A pious Catholic, Raymond decided he would return France to the true Church. This seemed to come to fruition when a Crusade was called shortly after Raymond became Duke; France fell to the Catholic armies, and the Pope installed Hugh Capet—the brother of Philippe who had remained loyal to the Pope—as King.

This success was short-lived as the former Bourges King was returned to power shortly after the Crusading armies left [there was a faction that organized and the King gave in]. Raymond then became even more devoted to his cause. He first tried to gain support among the lords to become the next King, as Philippe had instituted an electoral succession rule in response to his subjects’ pressure. This went nowhere, as—despite his great diplomatic skill— Raymond was seen as an outsider.

Raymond then began to organize behind Hugh. He supported him as heir and tried to gather support for his claim. He also tried to assassinate the King’s son, thinking this would open up the election. This failed, but earned him the enmity of the Prince, which became problematic when he ascended to the throne. Raymond persisted in his attempt to get rid of Fratricelli rulers in France, a struggle that ended suddenly when he was assassinated at age 50. The list of enemies he had made was long, but most suspected his half-brother, who never forgave Raymond for revoking his county.

The inheritance process grew complicated on his death. His eldest son inherited Franconia, and thus could not inherit lands outside of the Holy Roman Empire. This left his second son, who became very skilled in intrigue. He was actually in line to become the next spymaster of Valois after the retirement of the Duke’s close confidante currently in that position. But Raymond’s eldest son had two sons of his own, and because neither were landed (the oldest being 4), they could inherit Valois.

Raymond thus left the Karling name at best the same as when he received it, and at worst in an uncertain situation. Karlings now ruled two Duchies in two realms, and Valois had developed into a thriving commercial center. But the family lands remained divided, and Valois was in for some tension as a 4 year old German became the Duke, pushing aside his bitter and scheming uncle. Raymond turned away from his father’s single-minded focus on expanding the Karling name in an attempt to shape France’s political stage, and, to be blunt, failed.

Clotaire II: Clotaire II became the Duke of Valois at the age of 4 during a time of stability for France. The realm was still divided among Roman Catholic and Fraticelli Dukes, but the King ruled peacefully and focused on rebuilding the land. Clotaire II grew up surrounded by his grandfather’s loyal councilors, who trained him well, and also made sure he knew of his grandfather’s struggle to retake France for the true Church.

Clotaire II came of age shortly after the old King passed away [I was a little disappointed his uncle with high intrigue did nothing to take power- scheming uncles are rarer in this game than they should be]. He began following in the steps of his namesake, focusing on expanding his lands. Clotaire II had his chancellor fabricate claims to the counties in the Duchy of Orleans—which had been split between several Dukes—and, seizing them, named himself Duke of Orleans in addition to Valois. He also followed his namesake in another way, having a series of affairs, including, shamefully, the wife of his eldest son and heir [this was an event that fired randomly, I didn’t initiate it]

The new king, nearly as young as Clotaire II, then appointed him his spymaster, in an attempt to avoid the trouble his father ran into. This proved to be a mistake.

Almost as soon as he arrived in the Bourges capital of Rennes, Clotaire II began plotting against the King. He proved successful, having the King assassinated—but word spread quickly that Clotaire was the culprit. This led to an escalating series of plots and rivalries between the Karlings and the Bourges, although Clotaire II had the upper hand as many of the Bourges were scattered throughout Europe in strategic marriages.

Several Kings later, the throne passed to the young prince of Gwynedd, son of the Duke of Gwynedd and the eldest Bourges sister. The thought of an underage, Welsh King—who would likely absorb France into his father’s lands once he inherited them—did not sit well with the French Dukes, and series of rebellions broke out. Clotaire II saw this as his chance. He launched a rebellion in favor of the last Capet—now Duke of Burgundy.

This did not succeed. In a disastrous battle, Clotaire II’s troops were routed and he was arrested. He spent the next several years in jail while the remaining rebels were defeated. The young Welsh King did not enjoy any peace, however, as he died from a wound suffered in one of the battles shortly after coming of age.

Now released from jail, Clotaire II reevaluated his plans. The throne passed to another underage Bourges nephew, this time the son of the prince of Scotland. Clotaire II realized his family’s scheming was doing more harm than good; indeed, much of the chaos engulfing France in the last 100 years was because of the Karlings. And Clotaire II felt guilty about the late King, who was taken from his home as a child to a land he did not want, and spent his entire life fighting rebellions.

Clotaire II thus swore loyalty to the new King, and was soon appointed his steward and regent. Clotaire II raised his armies to fight alongside the throne’s when the inevitable rebellion broke out, helping to defeat it. He raised the King well, betrothed his eldest granddaughter to him, and excitedly awaited his entry into office.

Shortly after the King came of age, however, he was converted to the Fraticelli faith by a courtier [this happened way more than it should, and I think it was a bug in the new patch in the game]. He also renamed France Brittany—in solidarity with his Celtic culture; the King’s grandfather had incorporated Brittany into France, but maintained the title as a separate administrative unit.

Clotaire II was devastated, seeing it as a personal rejection; he broke off the betrothal, even though he remained the King’s Steward. This paid off when the King retook Toulouse from the Holy Roman Empire and Clotaire II maneuvered to have his son and grandson gain some of the conquered lands.

Clotaire II died at 70, well-loved by all, including the King he had raised. He learned from the mistakes of his youth, helping to bring stability and prosperity to his family lands and all of France. But the outlook of his line was still uncertain; he was no closer to regaining Charlemagne’s glory, and France was still ruled by a heretic, foreign King. [this is another issue—it really should be harder for a foreigner to rule France]

Will the Karling family’s newfound peace continue after Clotaire II’s death? Read the next post in the series to find out…

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 1

I ran my first session for the D&D 5e campaign “Out of the Abyss” this weekend. I’m working on a write-up, so while that’s in progress I thought I’d try something new. This is a walkthrough of a long computer game campaign I’m playing. If this isn’t your thing, bear with me, and I’ll be back with RPG discussions next week.

When I’m not playing D&D (or working, or spending time with my family) I play Crusader Kings 2, an excellent historical strategy computer game. In this game, you take control of a dynasty in 1066 (this is the default setting, it can change) and play them through 1453. For a certain type of person (like me) this is an incredibly engaging and exciting game.

After awhile, just trying to conquer land becomes boring, so players come up with harder challenges. One popular one is starting as the Count of Vermandois in 1066, who is the last descendant of Charlemagne, and attempting to restore the family’s empire. Here’s my attempt. I’ll be discussing the gameplay in narrative form, although I will include some interesting (or frustrating) mechanics that came up [in brackets].

Clotaire was a completely average man in every respect. No discernible skills, a steady church-goer…who also had a series of affairs. Ruler of a respectable but small piece of land, the County of Vermandois, in France. Married to the daughter of another weak count. But he had two things going for him—his great ambition, and his name- Karling, the last descendant of Charlemagne.

As soon as he gained his father’s lands in 1066, Clotaire got to work restoring his family to greatness. He attracted skilled councilors from around Christendom to begin developing the country. Under the direction of his steward, he established a trade route to bring the riches of the east to his territory. And thanks to the work of his chancellor he developed close ties with the young King Philippe.

Clotaire tried to increase his power and prestige through two means. First, he tried to get close to those who already had power and prestige. Using his good relations with the King, he married his eldest son to one of the King’s sisters and managed to become the King’s Marshal (despite having no discernible military skills). He also developed a close friendship with the Duke of Berry while serving on the council. And when the King found himself with extra territory thanks to his holy wars (more on that below), he granted Clotaire the county of Orleans.

Clotaire also tried to expand his power more directly, primarily through his wife’s family lands. He first attempted to convince his wife and father-in-law to have the lands pass to her (instead of her elder brother), to no avail. Clotaire then dispatched his chancellor to fabricate a claim to the land. It was rather convoluted, and no one really believed it, but it was enough. Clotaire declared war, and—in an early sign of the continued power of his name—soldiers rallied to his side to support Charlemagne’s heir. Clotaire seized the land, dispossessed his wife’s family (ending any lingering good feelings between the two) and now ruled a significant portion of the Duchy of Valois.

Things became more complicated, however. This partly had to do with succession. Clotaire’s eldest son was a brilliant administrator, who soon became his steward. And his eldest grandson was a brilliant diplomat, who became his chancellor when the old chancellor died. Clotaire was reassured his line would continue strongly for several generations. But his son was killed by an angry mob of peasants while collecting taxes, and his grandson died mysteriously shortly after being sent on his first mission as chancellor (likely an assassination plot).

His second son became the heir. Raymond was a capable diplomat, and likely would be a good ruler, but he had married the daughter of the Holy Roman Empire (who inherited the Duchy of Franconia on his death), and had thus been absent for some time. Additionally, both France and the Empire had complicated inheritance rules, portending some troubles when Raymond’s son inherited Franconia from his mother.

The troubles also had to do with France itself. As mentioned, King Philippe launched a series of holy wars against the Muslims in Spain, seizing a good portion of Aragon. The acclaim he received for this went to his head and he soon turned against the Pope, adopting the Fratricelli heresy. This divided France, and a series of Catholic lords launched rebellions against the King as Muslim states to the south attempted to retake Aragon. The King succeeded in defeating the rebellious lords, although he lost some of his Spanish territory and, most disastrously, lost Flanders after the Holy Roman Empire invaded. By the end of these conflicts, Philippe was so weakened he was easily overthrown by the Duke of Berry, the son of Clotaire’s old friend, who started the Bourges dynasty.

Clotaire stayed out of these fights. While he remained a Roman Catholic he did not join any of the rebels, and tried to remain on good relations with the Fratricelli rulers. After the new King came to the throne, he granted Clotaire the Duchy of Valois and county of Paris—seized from Philippe—possibly out of respect for his father’s good friend.

Clotaire died at 72, after living a long and successful life. He managed to put the Karling family on the path towards regaining some of its glory, and his son, Raymond, ascended to his titles expectantly.

Will Raymond continues the family’s upwards trajectory? Read the next post to find out…

Thoughts on the role of D&D in Firewatch

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Firewatch. While I don’t give away any major plot points, I do discuss elements of the story. If you have not played it yet, and want to go in knowing as little as possible, come back to this post after you’re finished.]

D&D plays a minor but significant role in the excellent PC game Firewatch. It adds depth to a former inhabitant of the game’s environment and provides some emotional heft. Below are some thoughts on what this means and why I first reacted negatively to this aspect of the game, but later came to appreciate its insights.

I’ve been interested in playing Firewatch since it first came out, and finally set aside some time on a business trip to run through it. The game is what some call (often in a pejorative manner) a “walking sim;” the player is basically experiencing a story, with much of the action narrative in nature so there is little in terms of combat, skill tests or risk of failure. Firewatch, though does include some exploration—with the amount of narrative you encounter changing based on how much you explore—and features an incredibly engrossing storyline that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was playing.

As the game progresses, the protagonist (Henry) finds several D&D-themed clues—although the game is called “Wizards & Wyverns” in Firewatch—such as a 20-sided die and an adventure map. These belong to a 12-year old boy who had previously resided in the firewatch tower you use as a home base. There is a rather sad story surrounding this, and Delilah—a firewatch supervisor Henry converses with throughout the game—has some sentimental memories of the boy.

The characters’ attitudes towards “Wizards&Wyverns” is rather negative. Henry frequently refers to it as nerdy, with the voice actor nearly scoffing as he discusses what he’s finding. Delilah is less overtly negative, but adopts a patronizing, pitying tone towards the boy’s interest in the game.

This gave me flashbacks to high school, which was less than accepting of people who were interested in things like D&D. The combination of mocking from “cool kids” and patronizing calls to be nice from slightly more gentle “cool kids” were what convinced me to hide my love for D&D (as well as Star Trek and many other “nerdy” pursuits”). I didn’t get back into them until well after college, when I was more comfortable socially.

So at first the depiction of D&D in Firewatch made me mad. It seemed like the game’s creators were using D&D as a signal for someone being lonely and unhappy. All the progress made in the mainstream acceptance of “nerd culture” in the past few years seemed to be undone. Compare this to the treatment of D&D in Netflix’s Stranger Things series; there, it is also a sign of difference, albeit one that indicates the resourcefulness and creativeness of the characters that allows them to succeed.

But that didn’t seem right. Firewatch is entertaining. It is also a game that many would consider art. People who put so much care into these characters and the gorgeous world they inhabit couldn’t have such regressive and dismissive views of creative pursuits like D&D, could they? So, over an hours-long layover at an airport on my trip home, I thought more about Firewatch and came to a different interpretation.

One of the better responses to Firewatch I’ve seen is an excellent piece by Olivia White on Polygon entitled “Firewatch took away our ability to be good people.” The series of events that place Henry in the firewatch tower are driven by his ultimate selfishness, and Delilah’s interactions with Henry and the world are similarly both self-centered and destructive. Unlike many games, the player can’t escape this; no matter what dialogue options you choose, you end up with less than heroic characters.

Much of the little self-awareness the characters—particularly Delilah—have surrounds the 12-year old D&D-loving boy. She regrets not doing more for him, or being unable to properly respond to new information about him that arises during gameplay. While Henry shares less responsibility for the boy’s fate, he too develops a sentimental attachment to his memory.

The things about the boy they mock—particularly his love for D&D—come to take on a touching, innocent quality. We realize the boy was a force for good in the brutal wilderness. Those surrounding the boy realize his goodness, but are unwilling to move beyond themselves enough to support and sustain it. So the things he left behind—like his D20—haunt everyone who encounters them.

This, then, is the true meaning of D&D in Firewatch. It’s not a marker of “nerdiness” meant to elicit sympathy. It’s a symbol of purity and innocence in the midst of darkness—the expression of our creative impulse—that, by its presence, reveals the flaws of the game’s characters.

In Colin Campbell’s review of the game, he said that, while not perfect, it is definitely something people will “want to argue about.” And while I had some issues with the game, the fact that it inspired this meditation on another game I love so much suggests it is definitely worth experiencing.

I’d love to hear what other players of Firewatch think. Am I giving the game designers too much credit? Is there something I missed?

NOTE: This is a different sort of post than I planned for this blog, as it’s more of a think piece based on the use of D&D in a PC game. I’ll be back to more conventional RPG discussions next week, so if this isn’t your thing, bear with me.