Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Game Translation: Cold Fear

Cold Fear is a videogame that revolves around the Coast Guard's arrival on an old Russian whaling vessel, Eastern Spirit, in the Bering Strait, after the first tactical team sent in died.  Tom Hansen, former soldier who is now a member of the Coast Guard and who can read Russian, climbs aboard the ship with his colleagues who all automatically split up to search the vessel quickly.  This is all during a massive storm so, unfortunately for them, the vessel that brought them here has to back off, thereby abandoning the poor characters' to their fate.  Considering that the first team was a SEAL team that didn't last all that long you've got to pity poor Tom Hansen and wonder just how much information the CIA agent in charge of it all has actually given the poor man and his compatriots.

One of the first things you'll notice about Cold Fear is the importance placed on environmental effects.  You begin on a ship that tilts from side to side with the waves and then step out onto a deck that has a crate on a chain that swings back and forth across the deck and damages you if you get in the way.  There are spots with ruined railings where you can be washed overboard or paused, struggling to hold your position, against the water as your muscles grow more fatigued.

This is a bit trickier to model in a roleplaying game as it can be quite difficult to bear in mind the differences of walking across a sloping deck as opposed to a steady one.  If you have difficulties with this, try to pause and visualise some of these locations as well as the sensation of moving across a moving deck.  Another option is a visual cue, such as tilting a ruler over an eraser first one way than another so you can bear in mind the motion.

If you have a map, and with this sort of game you really should, you can just make them make a roll at random intervals to see if they hold their feet or slide across to the railing.  If they happen to be crossing a section with a broken railing at the time, give them a further roll if they're sliding to their doom in order to give them a shot at grabbing the railing.  What if they said they were timing their movements to coincide with the waves and grabbing the railings at the bad points?  Fantastic.  It shouldn't be a problem to simply allow them a free pass until they try to do something else - such as clamber up the deck to a door or fire a round.

The swinging obstacles are also a bit trickier as they rely on timing in the videogame but you can't rely on that in a roleplaying game.  Your best bet is to make it an Acrobatics or Athletics check to get past.  Dodge might work in a pinch if your game system allows it.  In fact, it's generally a good idea to build in as many different types of athletics obstacles as you can - especially if your game has different dice rolls for climbing, jumping and dodging.

There are also some semi-submerged corridors which slow you down as you move along.  If you blow out the fuse box, it'll then electrocute the water when the ship rocks far enough to the sparking fuse box side.  This is the one of the trickiest elements to model as it heavily relies on timing.  Unless you want to physically model it by putting a sticker on the inside of a cup and rocking the cup back and forth, zapping them whenever you rock it so far the sticker gets wet, you're going to have to rely on good old-fashioned die rolls.

You could just roll a 1D10 for every action they do (including every ten feet of wading) and electrocute them whenever it comes up on a 1.  Or you could simply make them do Survival checks (or some other roll) to see how well they can time the zaps before rushing across.  Or you could avoid including this hazard.  Up to you, really.

Since ships are, by definition, a rather finite size with a finite number of rooms you'd be best off encouraging some back tracking to give your nasties more than enough of a chance to come at the characters at all the right points.  This also requires players to think about where they might find the right key or an alternate path to the destination.  If you want to do this, accept that sometimes the players will think up a doable work around (such as balancing precariously on an edge to get from one side of the deck to the other) and if it seems plausible you're best off warning them as to any inherent dangers and then letting the dice fall where they may.  Using steel doors will help prevent an axe from becoming the ultimate work around.

Now that's a dedicated enemy....
A map will be incredibly useful through all of this.  You can mark out traps, obstacles, locations and monsters either before they get there or, if you like to improvise, after you describe things.  This can help you keep the places straight in your head when they return to the location which can handily help both plannners and improvisers alike.  If you want to be kind, provide the players with a copy of the blank map.  That'll at least sort out comments of: "But I thought it was quicker to get there!" or "You didn't say this room was *that* large!"

The other thing to bear in mind is that it's easy to gain sympathy for the poor human fools stuck on the whaling vessel and this just won't work if you want to use them as an easier target for the early combats.  Players will go to great extremes to avoid being the bad guy if they don't want to be one, so if you want shoot outs between both sides of the vessel to be automatic rather than occasional you're really going to have to avoid any notes or love letters that might make the players seek another option.

It's also a good idea to either accept that the players will drag any friendly survivors along with them, include a "safe room" that can be defended, or kill those survivors before the players get the chance to feel too attached.  While there's always room to kill a survivor later on, players tend to look for foul play when favoured characters are killed so cinematical, "A monster charges across and tears his head off" may lead to cries of: "Shouldn't we roll Initiative?" 

While it's tempting to say that if the players were getting into the mood of the thing, they wouldn't argue when you kill off an NPC, the truth is that if you've done your job well and really made a character sympathetic the players will care about their death and will therefore most likely want a shot to save them.  If the situation is iron tight but coincidental, like a sudden electrical surge in the waterways, the players might not react with indignation but may well assume that you only did that because you were sick of running the NPC.  Still, you should know your players and how they're likely to react to this.

Which might be true.

Anyway, a campaign based around Cold Fear, or including elements of it, should appeal to Tacticians as the obstacles require a bit of forethought to cope with.  They'll also add to the immersion factor, funnily enough, as if you have a party of players they're likely to be military trained and therefore should be thinking tactically in how they go about things.

Action Heroes who are purists about being able to simply run and gun will be disappointed as you need to worry about bullets and be a bit cautious because the enemies are tough and obstacles can zap you into behaving more cautiously than they would like.  Of course, Action Heroes who enjoy horror, tactics, and are okay with moments of vulnerability could potentially enjoy this more than most as increased risks make the successes all that sweeter.

Explorers will poke and prod around places that they probably shouldn't and this gives you a good chance to liberally spread around scare moments and clues.  They're the ones who will help the players actually go around the decks rather than bee lining straight for the most logical point and then refusing to move.  They tend to be easily habituated to their current circumstances as well as intensely curious about what they haven't seen yet.  Use them as your lure.

Investigators also tend to be thorough as they try to collect clues like scratches on the wall, written documentation, and other such hints.  They're also probably the first to notice the bodies twitching as they tend to be more keen on poking corpses to see what they can find out.  Take advantage of this but be aware that they may solve your plot long before you intended them to do so.  Throwing a few sub-plots involving hidden romances between the crew that can be picked out of clues can also give them a bit more to solve.

Communicators generally miss out in a lot of Game Translations because videogames don't do politics, generally, and very few even do social situations where fancy footwork might cause a better outcome (like the social 'combat' in Deus Ex).  There's not much here for them either so they might start poking their fellow compatriots or even acting suspiciously just to get their jollies.  Preempt this with the odd NPC encounter - perhaps talking through locked doors or in other areas - where it's vital that they convince the NPC of something.  Ensure that this isn't resolved with a single dice roll although having to trek to another room to get them something would be in keeping with the themes of this game.

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Left For Dead or Gears of War.

However, I might well try my new Game Impressions plan where I deeply investigate the first hour of Cold Fear to get an idea about how to apply the lessons more practically into a roleplaying game.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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