Friday, October 10, 2014

Shadow of Mordor Uses An Ancient GMing Technique To Perfection

If you like to play video games of the Stealth, Action, or Stealth-Action variety than odds are you've at least heard of Shadows of Mordor. My housemate bought the game recently and was nice enough to let me try it, and I have to say that I really enjoy it. The game effectively combines two of my favorite console series (Assassin's Creed and the Batman Arkham series) to masterful effect with a Lord of the Rings skin dropped on top. However, what really has me engaged with the game isn't the gameplay - which is solid - or even the story telling - which is solid as well - but the Nemesis system that has me going out of my way to hunt down specific Uruk lieutenants and captains. Why am I doing this? Because the game is exploiting one of the oldest GM techniques I ever learned: the recurring opponent.

The Recurring Opponent
If you don't know the recurring opponent is pretty self explanatory. It is basically any enemy NPC that keeps showing up to mess with the players. It doesn't matter if this is scripted into your campaign, or just random chance. It doesn't matter if the NPC runs away and escapes, defeats the players and leaves, or somehow comes back from the dead. There is just something about seeing the same person over and over again that gets to us, and part of that is because it is impossible to meet someone three or more times without forming some kind of relationship with them.

Kurga The Ruinous & Zunn The Mad Eye
In my playthrough of Shadows of Mordor I have felt this most keenly with Kurga the Ruinous and Zunn the Mad Eye. I have run into these Uruks at least six times each, with at least ten of those twelve encounters being incredibly disadvantageous to myself.

Now, Zunn started off the game as one of the Lieutenant/Captains that yo hunt in Shadows of Mordor, but Kurga had a more huble origin. Simply put, Kurga was just one of many Uruk soldiers that happened to get a lucky axe hit in when I was running away from a troll, three captains, and a pair of caragors. The blow took me by surprise enough that I didn't even react to the last chance mechanic and effectively died. The game gave Kurga a name (Kurga) and promoted him to fill the spot of the lieutenant I'd just killed.

Repeated Meetings
Over the next several hours I ran into Kurga a bunch more times. He showed up when I was trying to kill a weakened lieutenant after an ambush mission, and between him and his bodyguard I was forced to run away. He showed up when I was fighting a trio of caragors and caused me to be killed by the caragor. I went hunting for him, managed to "kill" him in a fight beofre having to flee three other captains, only to find in the aftermath that he had survived.

Between these meetings Kurga became known as Kurga the Ruinous, had challenged and beaten a higher ranked Uruk for his position, and had fought off four Uruk attempts on his life, including butchering an assailant who tried to ambush him while I watched and looked for an opening.

Each time I've met Kurga he's referenced one of our past encounters. He yells at me about the missing eye he has from the time I beat him. He mocks me that he's going to put me into the mud again. He tells me that he'll hunt me to the ends of the world, as considering how many times he's shown up while I've been doing other things I believe him.

For the first five hours of my playing Shadows of Mordor whatever the game itself is about faded to the back, and it became a duel between Talion (the main character) and the Uruk captain who had made a name off of stopping Talion's plots to weaken the army of sauron by killing its officers.

And Then, Kurga Died....
I killed Kurga near the end of my play session last night. Kurga had grown in strength considerably during our exploits. He had near triple the power rating of any other Uruk officer I had intelligence on. I found more intelligence, and learned that Kurga was making a move to become an Elite Captain, one of the top tier second only to the War Chiefs themselves. Considering how many of my plans Kurga had ruined, it seemed only fitting that I return the favor.

I made my way to where Kurga intended to pull off his challenge. I killed what uruk I could as I infiltrated the fortress, poisoning casks of grog along the way to keep things as "between us" as I could. I found Kurga before he found his target. With a grin on my face that this would be my chance for revenge, I hit the button to perform a stealth kill. Talion dropped down from on high, knife ready to plunge into Kurga's neck. But Kurga had kept something hidden from me through our past encounters, and I realized my oversight in not having looked for more intelligence on him. He was immune to stealth kills.

On screen Talion lands on Kurga and goes to stab him with the knife. Kurga catches Talion's hand and throws the ranger to the side. I hurriedly move back in to attack and Kurga blocks. The game goes into the small cutscene with weapons locked where it makes sure I know I am facing Kurga the Ruinous, and Kurga lets me know that he's going to repay me for the scars on his face.

He hits me, hard. The blow is enough to stagger Talion and drop him to his knees. Kurga steps forward, the nearby Uruk calling his name out, and prepares for the coup de grace. Kurga isn't the only one who has learned new tricks though. I pull off the last chance mechanic. Kurga's blade comes down and Talion rises to meet it, blocking and letting the uruk blade slide down to the side throwing Kurga off balance. Before Kurga can recover, Talion pivots around on one foot and decapitates the uruk captain.

Kurga is dead. His head flies through the air in slow motion. His name shows up on the screen with a red X drawn through it. On the couch I yell out in joy. My nemesis is dead.

How This Works
The awesomeness of the story aside (let me tell you about my paladin...) this really is an old GM trick that you can use to great effect. Shadows of Mordor is unabashed in how it cheats sometimes to do this. I killed Kurga once, and the game deemed that he had survived and brought him back. This is something you can do in a lot of situations with your own PCs and NPCs. Bring the bad guy back again and again. Put him in some situations where he wins. Put him in some situations where he loses. Keep him a threat (or not, that doesn't matter as much as the relationship) and play up the history they have with each other.

If you can do it right, your PCs will get a huge sense of satisfaction when they finally get the kill. Alternatively, they get other things out of it, like a pronounced rivalry, or the joy of finding themselves on that NPCs side.

Give it a shot, see how it works. And if you're so inclined, give Shadows of Mordor a shot as well. Tehe nemesis system makes it very interesting.

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