Yeah, so I’m writing everything in lists now, because that’s where the money is. Sue me. Also, for context it’s worth pointing out that I don’t like most computer games. As in, find them literally unplayable. So when a computer game makes a dent in that, it’s a big deal. Context.
Conclave is an asynchronous D&D-inspired fantasy RPG in the mould of the old SSI games. You can find it at http://www.playconclave.com and you and three (maybe four?) buddies can team up and play through a pretty awesome fantasy campaign on any device that can run the internet – it doesn’t even use java. If you’re yearning for some old-school RPGing in your life but are worn down by the tyrannies of time and distance, this could be your port of call. But it’s not just Tiny Adventures all over again. It’s much, much better than that. Here’s why.
1. It’s free, for real
Tiny Adventures and other social media type games are free but they don’t want to be. They want to go viral and sell numbers, so they want all your friends to play. Others want to sell you microtransactions, to get all the extra goodies. Conclave doesn’t have any of that. You can pay for it, but it’s a single (cheap) transaction to get the full version, but so far we haven’t seen a need to. What’s more, if just one person in your team pays, the whole team can unlock things. Not only does this suit my budget (and everyone’s budget) this fact filters through every aspect of the game design. It also makes it easier to sell to your friends: it’s not going to cost them anything, and it’s not going to drive all their friends on facebook mad asking them to join.
2. It’s team-based but asynchronous
The game can be played solo, but it thrives in team play – the classes are nicely complimentary (see the below for more), and the text chat supports conversation, as does the cool voting system when the story branches in different directions. This is, as mentioned, an artifact of being really free – facebook games want all your friends to play with you, which could never work for hundreds of them, so when you’re playing Marvel Heroes, you’re always alone. But in Conclave you’re very much both a team of heroes and a group of gamers, sharing an experience, which pulls it closer to the D&D feel. But unlike linking up to play Diablo or D&D online, this is asynchronous. Once everyone has had an attack (or a vote on a story choice), the game will start a new round, and if you’re a bit late getting back on line, your friends can just act before you that round (although that might not be tactically sound). Got a friend who can’t play at your rate? The game will automove you if you are offline for more than 24 hours. Going away for a while and don’t want the game to do that? Set it to vacation mode to wait for you to return. It can accommodate all paces, so you can all share the fun.
3. The system is very good
Some might say this is a no-brainer, or that it’s most kept invisible, but the system the computer is running is a really solid RPG system – so much so it would definitely be worth playing off-line. It has the D&D 4E cleverness of making every ability interesting, but without going over the top, and of focussing on status effects, but not being crippled by them. Like 3E and WFRP, it breaks down into minor and major actions, some of which have the 4E conceit of only triggering once (or twice) per encounter, or only when wounded or acquiring some other status. In the few cases where it might get as fiddly as 4E with all the effects, it doesn’t because a) the computer is doing them and b) they’re almost all elegant and simple, just a single modifier or such. Yet in this simplicity the choices are extremely meaningful, especially because you can’t win an encounter (in fact, you must restart it) if even one party member dies. This nicely balances out the advantage of having extra party members and keeps the tension high and the tactical choices extremely weighty. Sometimes, who moves precisely when will change everything, and that’s fantastically engaging.
4. The character building is strong
Characters have a familiar race/class build, but both options are strong and have options within. Niche protection is high, and the standard roles of 4E/MMOs are present, but in a way that has a new feel to it. Clerics (Buffers) are now Beacons, which means their role as a “leader” (as it was in 4E) is built into their in-setting explanation, and provides them with Warlord-esque ways of leading others to greatness. The fighter is the Vanguard who is basically the tank, but not in such a way that he can sit on the front lines without thought, especially at low levels. The rogue, runecaster and truebow are the striker-types: high damage, low squish, but in different ways from each other. Extra skills unique to each class add to make each feel distinct, as does weapon access. It is hard to make a pole-arm vanguard as a result (Beacons have that option) but you can respec if you go down a dead-end and with a simple but decently sized trait list, no two Beacons need to feel the same. Races too, are strong archetypes but with a new twist: the lumyn and the nix are mostly just high elves and gnomey-halflings, but then we have the chameleonic stealthy lizardmen, the satyr-esque wood-elf-sort-of-trollish trow and the gigantic living furnaces of the forgeborn (not like warforged; more like klingon-Azers)
5. The writing is fantastic throughout
I’ve played Mass Effect and Dragon Age and Guild Wars and more, and this is the best writing I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. The world design is elegant and clever: for hundreds of years, empires have fallen, one after the other, until only Bastion was left, the last free city, which just so happens to be where your characters come from. Why they’ve fallen and who caused it is still becoming clear; the game does not make the mistake of doing infodumps about the world but reveals it in elegant inches, as you explore and gain allies and respect, but at the same time never makes you feel small. One lovely twist is that whatever force of darkness is out there has taken away the ability to dream – except in rare, magically important situations: a perfect macguffin to draw your PCs into the story, and to trigger lovely subplots (like the cult that develops around another Dreamer who believes his nightmares have made him a messiah). It’s not just the structure and world that are well written though: the characters and language are vivid and direct, and each quest or scene introduced with short, clear vignettes that deliver powerful emotion and clear goals in the minimum of words, then vanish – just like a good GM should do.
And that’s the real glory of Conclave: it is the best D&D game I’ve ever been in, including all the ones I’ve played on the tabletop, because it feels like a tabletop game, and what’s more, one being run by an excellent GM. Here is a CRPG that hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel but rather taken all the best lessons on good GMing from the table, and implemented them as elegantly as possible on computer, and then stepped aside to let you fill in the blanks. It’s not, of course, an RPG. You don’t get to act in character or make any choices you want. On the other hand, if you do that in the textbox, it is as much an RPG as anything Gygax ever wrote, and certainly as much as anything from SSI was, or even Planescape: Torment was. So-called narrative control and on-screen dialogue does not necessarily the RPG experience make, and if you’ve found things like Dragon Age to be glorified adventure games that don’t feel anything at all like gathering around a table to match wits with hideous enemies in dungeons foul, then all is not lost. Conclave is here, and it is OFF THE GODDAMN HOOK. If it was any more D&D, it would make cheetoes shoot out of your screen, plus you can play it on your goddamn phone, even if your buddies are at the North Pole.
What more can you ask?