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Wasteland 1 and that Old-School Skill Set Symphony

Posted by Chris Avellone , 06 May 2012 · 17366 views

I started playing Wasteland 1 near the end of Kickstarter to get back into the Wasteland mindset. I'm still loving it just as much as I did back in high school.

One thing I wanted to vent about concerning old-school RPGs like Eternal Dagger, Wizard’s Crown, and Wasteland, is the more you give a player the ability to customize their own skills (and stats, although in WL, it’s random), the more you can build a character you can role-play, and imo, you can do it much better than you can if you’re simply given an archetype or limited stat set.

Detour: Not to plug the Hero System (pen and paper, I was first exposed to it through Champions, then Dark Champions), but the amount of character building and customization, point-for-point, was one of the primary reasons I loved making characters for that game. Granted, the knowledge of math you need (and potentially Excel knowledge) is huge, but, to continue my tangent, the fact you could customize your flaws and disadvantages was also huge. Anyway, enough about the Hero System. If you haven’t played it, you should. Or read one of their sample characters in one of their sourcebooks to get a feel for it. I’d recommend you check out Underworld Enemies and see what got me excited about character creation mechanics. Don’t worry, I don’t get any $$$ from it, so this would solely be for demonstrable purposes.

So skills contributing to role-playing: As an example, when building my Wasteland party of four Rangers again, all I knew to start is I wanted a Brainiac, a Thief, a Jack of All Trades/Gunslinger as party leader, and a Melee Specialist because I like bashing the **** out of things with clubs, axes, and chainsaws. With those basics in mind, I went ahead and went through the Wasteland stat and skill set and built personalities formed by the random roll (although biased toward accepting characters with a high IQ, since IQ is a big “win” in Wasteland – and this should remind me to do a blog on how prevalence of usefulness of skills and abilities can ruin role-playing and a lack of balance can do the same) and also based on the skills that were provided to me and what points I put into them.

Now one of the great things about Wasteland is that there are 27 skills to start. You can even learn brand-new ones over the course of the game, and the first time I discovered that, I was floored and ended up jacking up my IQ as high it could go to see what new skills became available (the higher tier skills are IQ-dependent).
  • Brawling
  • Climb
  • Swim
  • Perception
  • Assault Rifle
  • AT Weapon
  • Energy Weapon
  • Medic
  • Doctor
  • Picklock
  • Silent Move
  • Demolitions
  • Bomb Disarm
  • Safecrack
  • Helicopter Pilot
  • Toaster Repair
  • Electronics
  • Clone Tech
  • Clip Pistol
  • Knife Fight
  • Pugilism
  • Rifle
  • Knife Throw
  • SMG
  • Acrobat
  • Gamble
  • Confidence
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Forgery
  • Alarm Disarm
  • Bureaucracy
  • Cryptology
  • Metallurgy
  • Cyborg Tech
Detour: I’m not arguing for putting in skills for skills’ sake – if they don’t have value, you shouldn’t put them in. Wasteland did have a flaw in that not all of the skills were equally useful, and often, the more special-case the skill was and the more limited the weapon selection was for that skill (Knife Throw, Confidence), you could waste points by dumping them in a skill. That said, it was hard to make a completely useless party, it was still possible to complete the game with a bunch of chumps (even the Bad News Bears could triumph), and that’s part of the fun.

And even realizing that some skills were useless, I put points in them because I thought it suited the character personalities more. If they're going to let me do it, I'll use it if I feel it rounds out the character.

So as an example of skill-defining-character options, I approached the Brainiac first. I wanted a high IQ, and it so happened the first high-IQ I got had a ****ty Charisma and not a terribly great DEX and not so great “weapon” stats (ST, AG, DEX). Going through the skill set, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do much with skill beyond an assortment of 1 point = 1 level allocations across a range of skills, so I tried to imagine a character that would have crappy but baseline skills with:
  • Cryptology (He’s good at technical aspects of puzzles but not great since he’s only at level 1, which makes it either a hobby, or some flaw, perhaps?)
  • Safecrack (I imagined the character got by this with excellent hearing.)
  • Demolitions/Bomb Disarm/Alarm Disarm (He knows electronics very well.)
  • Metallurgy (A specific skill, which felt legacy and old-world.)
  • Bureaucracy (Old-world civilization skill, and it felt very list-making, report-filing, and law-oriented, so he’s either a police officer, lawyer, or government bureau-bot. The “bot” aspect started appealing to me.)
  • Forgery (He can replicate any doc, and apparently has no ethical issues while doing so, so that also suggests he has mechanical-level precision and replication with documents and will “do as he’s told" to forge those elements. I started to imagine a humanoid photocopier.)

I also examined the character from what the character couldn’t do well, either, and the points I didn’t put into any skills also helped shape the character concept further:
  • Brawling
  • Knife Fighting
  • Knives (The ability to use knives felt like a more “natural” fighting skill than gunplay, so the idea that he’s not human was reinforced more here.)
  • Swim 0 (Maybe he can’t get wet, let alone swim, Wasteland also made me consider the idea of “hydrophobia” since that’s mentioned in Highpool, but maybe there’s some other limitation.)
  • Climb 0 (Some other physical limitation, limited mobility?)

So after the skill allocation phase, it’s clear this character is physically challenged, has esoteric old world knowledge, and is gifted with electronics and machines and codes, so after remembering that Wasteland has a high technology bent, it occurred to me I had the freedom to imagine him as an android if I wanted to. And this could account for his limited mobility, esoteric pre-bomb knowledge, and his crappy CHR and DEX. Having fun and digging about the pre-knowledge of Wasteland and memories of my crappy knowledge of coding in Basic way back in the days of the TSR-80, I thought it’d be cool if I built an android that incorporated some elements of the 80s and came up with a makeshift bio:

G.I.G.0: Stands for “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” and his name reinforces that there’s something flawed in this character’s intrinsic android programming, since the last character is a “zero” not the letter “O.” I saw him as a damaged android the Rangers deem only worthwhile for reconnaissance in hazardous areas, notably because it seems like he’s been damaged already (“past warranty” is what G.I.G.0 occasionally says, although no one’s quite sure what he means when he says this - they assume it’s a location in the game, and who knows, they may be right).

While G.I.G.0 will respond to his name when addressed, he will remind each new speaker once that “G.I.G.0.” is not his original designation, which has left some inhabitants of the Wasteland to wonder what kind of nation this “Desig” may be and if all the residents are like G.I.G.0.

G.I.G.0 wandered in from the wastes, following a radio signal being broadcast from a series of TSR-80 cultists (based on this, I assumed it might also be fun if I imagined him as occasionally stopping to have conversations with radio towers and computers in the game). He walked into the base and started communicating in Basic which the cultists understood and assumed he might be some sort of programming messiah sent by the Tandy gods and lavished praise and goods on him to encourage him to stay and guide them.

As years passed, however, G.I.G.0. became their messiah of disappointment and made them wonder if the pre-war years were more of a mess than it may have seemed from the history books to have made G.I.G.0. in the first place: Initially believing that an android gift from the wastes was a blessing, the cultists discovered the android had some series of programming flaws, and as far as compiling code and helping with repairs and programming around the base, it wasn’t helpful. At all. Every computer G.I.G.0. seemed to interact with on any complex level beyond simple on/off tests created near-catastrophic failures.

After he nearly flooded the lower levels of their facility with waste after being asked to recompile the sewage treatment management code, they gave him the name “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” blaming whoever built G.I.G.0. for his current programming weaknesses. G.I.G.0. accepted this new designation, although he seems unable to spell it without replaced the “O” at the end with a zero, further proof of some fundamental programming flaw.

Generally considered a pain and a burden, the cultists were tempted to send him back out into the wastes and let him roam until he found another culture to curse with his presence. Then another plan occurred to them - they'd offload him, and kill two birds with one stone. (Or two vultures with one shotgun shell, as it were.)

The cultists had a deal going with the Rangers for protection which was quite costly in terms of resources and trade goods. In a closed door meeting in the cult basement, a new plan presented itself: they disliked their Ranger contact and protector, a loud jock/bully by the name of Sergeant Donner who had a habit of self-promoting himself the more he drank and disrupting their chess games by calling them sissies and arranging their Kings, Queens, and Pawns in humiliating positions. The monks grumbled that Donner was a 4K moron in a 16K world… but now his chronic moronism worked to their advantage.

While Donner knew what an android was, he didn’t understand electronics, and he wouldn’t realize that G.I.G.0. was a lemon. So the monks feigned that they were running out of trade goods, and “as much as it pained them to do so,” they asked Donner if they could trade their prized android for a 10 year contract of protection. Donner chewed it over, then said, “make it a 5 year contract, and you’ve got a deal.” The monks again feigned distress and after copious comments about them getting the worst of the deal, they sighed and agreed.

G.I.G.0. was shipped off to Ranger Center and became part of the crew bound for Highpool, the Agricultural Center, and the Desert Nomads… all leading to the road to Vegas and the threat rising there.

History of the Brainiac: Complete. And all those ideas wouldn't have been sparked without the skill and stat customization feedback Wasteland provides.

But the role-playing extends into the game itself:

Because the game mechanics in Wasteland are forgiving and I’m willing to accept the fact that my characters may die during combat and I’m comfortable with reloading, I also have freedom to role-play my character’s flaws and their traits without being punished for it or at least feeling like I am, so I translate G.I.G.0.'s behaviors into how he interacts with the world as well. As an example, G.I.G.0. doesn’t have a good gun skill, and I don’t raise it, as being a poor shot seems in keeping with his clunky android-ness. In addition, even though it consumes his inventory slots to do so, he is the one who picks up matches, shovels, ropes, and other “tools” used to solve various quests because he recognizes the value of these items, more so than carrying a stockpile of weapons. All the other characters usually recognize these elements as useless because they don’t have the old world programming perspective that G.I.G.0. does.

As G.I.G.0 levels up, I also imagine character arcs for him, and I keep the illusion when he gets electronics/cyborg repair (he’s gained Electronics since he hit Vegas) that he might be able to fix what’s wrong with his own programming and become a better Android-uman.

I’ll go into the other character created later, and run through those as well, mostly because it’s a fun exercise, and I haven’t done this in RPGs in a long time. (And it’s rare for a game to let you build 4 characters of a range and variety, something I haven't had an experience close to since IWD1 and IWD2.)

  • mkreku, Alvin Nelson, Rostere and 11 others like this

Really interesting post! :)

This is a n00b question but - are all 4 characters you created considered PCs, so dialog between the 4 of them would not happen? Could NPCs join your party?

Also, Fallout 1 & 2 used the same type of skill and stat system, didn't it?
May 07 2012 01:20 AM
Interesting (and charmingly dorky) stuff.

I took a much more utilitarian approach to my first playthrough of Wasteland to be honest. I've never really approached videogames this way, I'd more often than not end up too constrained by the dialogue and choices given to me by the developers to enjoy this playstyle. I guess that's why it's possible with the original Wasteland though, since you have to fill so many gaps by yourself and your dialogue options just give vague description of what your character is going to say ("Buy" "sell" etc.)

What I'm more interested in, though, is the skill system. Wasteland had undoubtedly some problems with it: it offers too many unbalanced/useless skills and often doesn't explain itself about the intended progression (esp. combat skills are p. bad with that). However, I felt it was mitigated by the fact that you'd really only be picking one point in most of them and they'd grow organically with usage, which I feel is one of the best compromises between learn-by-use and point-based systems I've seen in my gaming "career".

Not so sure I enjoy rolling stats though, it's a system that I never particularly enjoyed in pen and paper, and even less in videogames where I'd just end up rerolling until I got optimal stats. Then again, that just might be because I was rolling my characters with an utilitarian approach, rather than with the idea of roleplaying them (and they still all ended up dead so I had to roll another party while Jackie slowly tracked back with their corpses to the ranger HQ).
Refreshing to see this kind of thought going into party creation, and also recognizing flaws in character build but accepting them as part of the character, and not something that needs fixing. So different than the min-max'ing type of players.
Wasteland is the only game I know where I could spend hours rerolling the 'perfect' character, just for the fun of it.
hm. I have trouble doing what you do--composing a character's narrative internally, without a game's having the systems to back it up. I mean, in a tabletop setting I could handle it, because the GM could just make whatever little situational alterations would be necessary for me to be a faulty android. and I guess maybe in a non-dialoguetree game like Wasteland it's a little easier to visualize, 'cause people aren't reacting to you as interactively as they are in, say, Fallout. but I think in a game with dialogue options and tailored replies it becomes a lot harder to sort of fly with your characters in your own mind. it's part of the reason they didn't include wookies and other stranger species as PC options in Old Republic, right? you get to a situation where people wouldn't be reacting to you in the same way, and you're not quite sure what to make of the fact that the Sith is just totally cool with elevating an ithorian to the Sith Concil or whatever.

as to cryptic skills--well. I'm a pragmatist in that respect, and I hate missing out on things just 'cause I didn't know about them. it's certainly cool to have the hidden **** you come across tucked away in the stranger corners of the wastes and then have that hidden **** turn out to have some value to you later, but there's the ROI question--how many players will just never hear about it?

still, maybe this is just a case of these things being handled heavy-handedly by a gaming industry two decades and more younger than ours is today, and maybe that kind of cryptitude can be handled better by keen and cunning men of good faith now than it was then. I'm eager to find out, for sure, and I almost think I'd rather see it tried and done imperfectly than have it omitted from the start.
May 08 2012 11:55 AM
I love this. I do it all the time. Choices let you create your own characters and that is what RPG is all about for me.

I think you are the only person to admit to having played Wizard's Crown and Eternal Dagger. I played both of those myself and really enjoyed them.

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