I’ve been away from my blog for a while, partly because I couldn’t tear myself away from Civilization V, and partly because I’ve been working on a new project. It is a mock-serious website that highlights the dangers of vampire hedgehogs. These vicious creatures are spreading through the native hedgehog population, and are highly aggressive towards other animals and even humans. A brave group of men and women known as the Vampire Hedgehog Hunters are dedicated to fighting this menace to public safety, using pitchforks, shotguns and ride-on mowers.

While this is not a game as such, it does have roleplaying elements – the alternative reality world and the chance to invent a character and interact. The website includes forums where you can post your own vampire hedgehog sightings and encounters, or swap hunting tips. I’d be really pleased if you want to take part or tell other people about it.

Be aware that I’ve already had comments from people who think it is real. This just makes it extra funny.

Check out Vampire Hedgehogs now.

Deathwatch is the latest incarnation of the Warhammer 40,000 roleplay system, made by Fantasy Flight Games, under license from Games Workshop. It follows two previous games that use essentially the same mechanics (and can be mingled together if you so wish), namely Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. The big difference with the earlier two versions is that those games deal with the niche corners of the 40k universe, the obscure and curious asides that litter the rulebooks of the tabletop game, but are rarely the main focus. You can, for example, play a tech-priest or an arbitrator, a navigator or an astropath, chasing after heretics and Chaos cultists. Deathwatch, on the other hand, puts you firmly into the ceramite boots of the Adeptus Astartes, as a member of the specialist alien-hunting chapter that provides the military might of the Inquisition’s Ordo Xenos. In fact, the Deathwatch draws its members from all the other chapters, which means you can be an Ultramarine, Blood Angel, Dark Angel or Space Wolf (or a Storm Warden – a new chapter created for the game). And with the bulk of the adversaries consisting of Tyranids, Tau and the forces of Chaos, straight away this is much more familiar territory for players who are used to the battle game.

The really great thing about being a Space Marine in a roleplaying game is that you are awesome – right from the start. There’s none of that problem you often get with RPGs where your starting characters are incompetent weaklings. Dark Heresy characters in particular are notable for struggling to beat even a Grot with a limp, until they’ve got some experience under their belts. Similarly, I remember starting a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign with some colleagues at Games Workshop, and getting beaten to crap in the first encounter of the first session by a bunch of overgrown spiders, as we repeatedly failed to hit the creatures despite the fact that most of them were crawling on our faces.

Deathwatch is different. As a Space Marine, you begin the game with super-human characteristics, proper Astartes weaponry, the hefty protection of your power armour, the strength to crush a man’s skull and the ability to smell poisons, spit acid and generally throw your weight around without having to worry about the first lasgun shot that comes your way. The game takes things even further with the Horde system. This allows your Kill-team of maybe just three Deathwatch Space Marines to take on dozens or even hundreds of bad guys without dying horribly (and without a single encounter taking six gaming sessions to resolve or the GM’s brain exploding). Single-handedly mowing down a tide of rampaging Tyranids is just proper behaviour for a Space Marine, the kind of image you read about in novels, picture in your head and hopefully one day will see in a movie. The Deathwatch RPG doesn’t merely replicate the idea of a Space Marine from the 40k battle game, because it has none of the same limitations of game balance and product ranges. Rather it elevates the iconic image to its rightful double-hard, ass-kicking place, which certainly feels a lot more satisfying than a Space Marine who dies if you roll a 2.

I finished playing through Mass Effect 2 last night. It’s a sci-fi RPG computer game (on PC in my case), in which you fly around in a cool space ship and attempt to save the galaxy by gunning down, punching out or chatting up aliens. It’s very good, although not quite up to the original in terms of plot. Once it was over (galaxy saved for the second time), I started to wonder how much actual roleplaying I’d done.

So what constitutes a roleplaying game anyway? Whether a video game or the traditional dice-and-paper variety, the criteria should be pretty much the same, right? At the most basic level, I need to play a character that is not me – to step into somebody else’s shoes is surely the essence of playing a role. Well, all RPGs achieve that, but then so do all first person shooters – you’re literally looking out of their eyes after all. And if I play a wargame, I’m taking on the role of the commander. In fact if I play Monopoly, I’m roleplaying a property tycoon (albeit one that looks like a small dog).

The next thing that RPGs seem to have in common is the option to choose equipment, skills and even personal appearance. But Team Fortress lets me do those three things, while Bioshock does the first two, but neither are considered RPGs. In fact all the FPSs I can think of let you choose weapons, which effectively dictate your skills anyway, while your own appearance lives mostly in your own head just like a dice-and-paper RPG. 

One of the accepted differences is that FPSs rely purely on player skill, while RPGs give you help in the background depending on your character’s attributes, helping you to hit if you’re good at fighting, letting you hit harder if you’re strong, etc. But if you think about it, these mechanics still exist in FPSs – the game still decides how accurate you have to be and how much damage you do, it’s just that there is less player control over them beyond picking up a shotgun or a crowbar.

In fact, I’m not sure that having more choice about how your character functions in the game really has much to do with roleplaying. Rather it becomes just another game mechanic to master and exploit in order to win – you max out the stats that fit best with your chosen career, with the best skills and the right weapons. Most RPGs even show you the numbers so you can literally calculate the optimal combination. I remember struggling with the enormous choice in Oblivion until I discovered how to string together spell combos to ramp up the damage. The so-called roleplaying choices I was making quickly became little more than maths-based tactical decisions. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I rather enjoy the challenge of working out how to get the most advantage out of the game mechanics, but I don’t think it constitutes roleplaying.

So when do I get to do some true roleplaying? Games like Mass Effect give you options during conversations with other characters, usually a friendly reaction, an unfriendly one and a neutral (boring) middle ground. It also has cool bits where you can interrupt the conversation by punching out an annoying reporter, or throwing a bad guy through a top floor window, etc. However, all these nice or nasty actions are tied in a nice/nasty swingometer mechanic that ultimately unlocks more options if you are nice or nasty enough. So while I really enjoyed being Jack Bauer in space, I ended up choosing the nasty options every time because I was aware of the mechanic – at least partially a tactical decision rather than a roleplaying one. Many recent RPGs have some similar form of moral rating, including things like your reputation in the Fallout wasteland or your preference for the light or dark side of the force. Fair enough it may be interesting or ‘realistic’ for the game have this kind of mechanic in the background, but giving me a quantified rating for my moral fibre works against any real roleplaying. It either becomes just another stat to max out, or allows me to check if I can ‘afford’ to do something evil.

Please point me to a game where I have genuine freedom to roleplay, without having one eye on the game mechanics!

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