In Search of Transformative Encounters

Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve slowly drifted away from video games in favour of table-top RPGs. That trend probably started a few years ago when Gaines and I played TTRPGs weekly with a group of friends in Troy. However, I think my malaise is more complex than that.

I’ll freely admit that I haven’t really been greatly excited or enthralled by any video game since the Mass Effect series. Even Dragon Age: Inquisition, however good and enjoyable it was, felt shallow to me. I’m now convinced that the video game industry has forgotten that stories usually have an ending.

I think that the last game that I played that had a truly satisfactory ending was Mass Effect 2. Granted, it was setup as the middle portion of a trilogy, but it nonetheless left me with the distinct impression of closure where something had been accomplished, where a chapter had been concluded.

In fact, I’m playing it again right now, and contrary to the original Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 holds up surprisingly well. Oh sure, it shows its age here and there, but overall it’s still a surprisingly satisfying experience. I think that, partly, this is due to the way Mass Effect 2 handles combat, especially during the final suicide mission. To this day, I’m still convinced that it’s the best squad-based level ever designed, and I can’t wait to play it again.

I’m a firm believer that combat (or encounters, more generally) should matter. Whether epic or mundane, it should always be transformative for the characters in some way. This is the main reason why I’ve always disliked JRPG-like random encounters.

And I think this is where my disastisfaction comes from. Dragon Age: Inquisition, for all its beauty, felt like a series of random encounters meant for little more than providing characters with an abundance of XP. It’s as if more combat is better than transformative combat, that more encounters are better than transformative encounters. In the end, I didn’t really care what or why I was fighting anymore.

The need for transformative encounters was really rammed into me lately as I’ve been playing Twilight: 2000 (or T2000 for short). A Cold War TTRPG, T2000 is set during World War 3, after a tactical nuclear exchange. Contrary to most post-apocalyptic games, the world of T2000 is ravaged, but not destroyed: infrastructure still exist, governments still partially operate. Money, however, does not. Or not really.

A game of T2000 starts with military characters stranded somewhere in the world with all their worldly (yet limited) possessions, and they must then choose what they’ll be doing now that they are cut off from civilization. A typical campaign involves characters attempting to find their way back home.

It’s the first time that I’ve GM’ed T2000, and I’ve come to realize that it makes me love random encounters. In fact, campaigns are designed around random encounter tables. At first, I was skeptical, but I quickly became amazed by the way T2000 encounters develop. Moving behind T2000‘s GM screen is transforming the way I approach TTRPG encounters in general.

For a military game, T2000‘s encounter tables possess a surprisingly small amount of combat encounters. In fact, looking at the charts in the book, I’d say that only about 20% of encounters are designed specifically to be combat oriented. Rather, characters will encounter roaming hungry refugees, travelling smugglers, and abandoned convoys. And every one of these encounters has the potential to be transformative to characters.

The campaign I’m currently GMing began in Djibouti, and the characters are all attached to the French Foreign Legion as part of a military exchange program. They began the game with 3 days’ worth of food, a few thousand dollars’ worth of gear, and their HMMVV. After examining all their options, they decided that their best bet for survival and making it back home safely was to reach the Nile River. So, they packed up everything and set off for Khartoum, located 1,627 km away.

Chapter 1 of the campaign ended before the holidays began, and the party had traveled about 965 km. There was about seven in-game days of traveling, and 34 days of defending a small farming community against local brigands as the party attempted to grow crops to feed themselves and distill methanol for their HMMVV.

The encounters they’ve had while residing at the farming community are slowly transforming the characters themselves. For example, the characters accepted the villagers’ offer of going on half-rations for several months in order for that characters to be in top fighting condition to defend the community. The characters accepted this knowing that, among the people going hungry would be an elderly man and a small child.

Later on, they’ve had to refuse a group of hungry refugees’ requests for food and shelter because the community’s resources were stretched. It’s only later that they discovered that the same group had come to a grisly end after they departed.

The party debated whether or not to spend roughly 15-20% of their very valuable medical resources curing plague-ridden prisoners that they rescued from slavers. They elected to do so, but only three of the eight prisoners survived. One of the characters even contracted the plague and had to be treated.

During the final combat encounter of the campaign’s first chapter, they faced a three-pronged attack on the community by the remainder of the bandits that had been attacking them. Their successful rescue of some NPCs that had been taken hostage led to the death of a young father, and the wounding of two more of the community’s residents.

Even T2000‘s combat encounters are transformative. Most combat ends with the party’s opponents being incapacitated because of gut shots, broken legs, or head wounds. Rarely is combat lethal in T2000. Rather, it’s everything else (infections, disease, famine, etc.) that might kill you.

There’s been many a debate at the table about what to do with the wounded NPCs. Resources are scarce, after all, so maybe wasting a bullet to make them stop yelling from the pain isn’t the best idea… but then again if they’re given enough painkillers, maybe they’ll be able to provide some valuable information before dying, right?

These are the kinds of encounters that I want to see in the games I’m playing. Sadly, Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t really provide them. Mass Effect 2‘s suicide mission, however, comes really close.

When I play through it, I really feel that Tali might die in the tube if I don’t do my job right. I really sense that Grunt is elated when he’s holding the line for me. And I can see Jack struggling to protect the team with her biotic bubble. There’s a real feeling that the characters are transformed by their encounters as they live through them.

For now though, I’ll continue finding what I’m looking for in T2000. The next time we play, the party will be arriving at a Khartoum that isn’t exactly what they thought it would be, and their situation will be made more complicated by the fact that accompanying them is the 6-year-old girl that they cured from the plague.

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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