IFComp 2020: Tavern Crawler

Here’s another one in the better-than-it-seems-at-first camp. The genre is blatantly D&D-based fantasy, with half-orcs and thieves guilds and everything. There’s no dungeon per se, the story being mainly set in urban environments, apart from a brief foray to find a dragon and, in so doing, set up the rest of the plot.

But it’s not so much combat-based or even puzzle-based as decision-based. Oh, there’s the option to grind monsters for cash if you really want to, but if you play the game like me, trying to do as much as possible in each location before moving to the next, then you’ll be very advanced in the story before you discover this.

And while some of the decisions are purely practical ones, a lot of them are decisions about your character, about what kind of person you want to be. And it’s peculiar, because I mean that in two senses: the same decisions that reflect your personality and moral qualities also affect your character stats, which is to say, your skills in fighting, magic, and thievery. I started off the game thinking I’d be a thief, because that seemed like the skill set that would be most useful in the setting, but wound up having more points in mage, because I kept making decisions that were kind and thoughtful instead of selfish and greedy. It’s like the character creation system from Ultima IV, but spread out over the entire game.

There’s one other CRPG that it reminds me of even more strongly, though, and that’s the PC adaptation of Temple of Elemental Evil. Largely this is because of the way it uses those character stats: with very few exceptions, they’re applied not as modifiers to a random roll, but as prerequisites for an option, which is displayed with a special icon and the required stat threshold. If you don’t meet the requirement, the option is displayed but crossed out, Depression Quest-style. But also, it resembles ToEE in the style of its side quests. This is a game where you can, for example, wind up deciding whether an innkeeper’s wife should stay in a stable but loveless marriage or leave for an uncertain future, and be rewarded with cash either way. (Since there’s no XP, the game uses money as its generic reward.)

The story seems to be set on an unvarying backbone, with player decisions affecting the details. Do someone a favor, and you might find them returning it in a later scene. Why wouldn’t you just do everyone favors? Because many of them are contradictory, forcing you to choose one person over another. The game’s favorite trick, which even forms the basis of the main plot, is that it’ll let you do a quest, and then, just when you’re ready to turn it in and claim your reward, it gives you more information that casts doubt on whether you should.

In short, this game is basically just the story part of a decent story-oriented fantasy RPG. It’s easy to imagine giving it a graphical front end to make it look more like other games of its type, but why would you do that? It’s fine as it is.

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