Mouse vs the Wasteland: Part One

by Dan H

Dan tests a theory in Fallout 2
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So about halfway through my recent article about skippable combat I started thinking about something. Specifically, I started thinking about the original Fallout games. Even more specifically, I started trying to remember how much actual mandatory combat there was in them, and how much could be solved by stealth, diplomacy or in extreme cases exploits.

As I said in the original article, I do actually think RPG combat is a problem, in particular I think it's a problem that games seem increasingly to see fights as mandatory “scenes” rather than as optional features of an environment. I also think it's a problem that fights are so often shitty and boring. Paradoxically, all of the streamlining that has been introduced to make the genre more accessible has often also made it more combat-focused (a side effect, I suspect, of trying to broaden the appeal of the game to include not only casual gamers but also FPS players – I note that the difficulty settings for Mass Effect III will include not only a rebranded “Story” Mode for the casuals – seriously guys, it's just an easy mode because that is all you damned well need - but also an “action” mode where the NPC interactions happen as non-interactive cutscenes, an option which honestly seems like it would just turn an RPG into a mediocre FPS).

I increasingly began to suspect that the plague of boring, unskippable, unavoidable combat came about as a direct result of RPGs abandoning the idea of the player exploring a world, and instead producing a strictly predefined story, punctuated with fights which take place at predetermined intervals. On a side not, I notice that the tendency of a game to force you into combat against your will seems to correspond strongly with its desire to force you out of combat where it deems it inappropriate. Since Neverwinter Nights at least, it has been as impossible (in a Bioware title) to harm “friendly” NPCs as it has been to avoid fighting hostile ones.

Back In The Day, an RPG was a game where you could go where you like and kill whom you liked (and in a truly classic RPG, they'd drop all the stuff they were carrying, instead of just generating some random “treasure”). If you wanted to cut loose and slaughter the whole of Juntown, you absolutely could. What I'd never tested, however, was the opposite. Does a game which will happily let you shoot every merchant you meet in the face with a 9mm pistol have an equally cavalier attitude to avoiding combat? Does a classic RPG give me as much freedom to leave people alive as to shoot them down in cold blood?

Thus was born Mouse, Coward of the Wastelands.

The Rules

I see Mouse as sort of a spiritual sister to the late lamented Nordrick, a character designed for a deliberately non-standard playthrough of an open-world RPG. Unlike Nordrick I won't be playing with a “no reloads” rule. If nothing else, I plan on pickpocketing every bugger I meet for the XP, and I don't want a bad dice roll to turn everybody hostile on me.

Unlike Nordrick, Mouse will not be averse to adventure. As a Fallout 2 protagonist, she will obviously want to do her duty as the Chosen One, track down the Holy G.E.C.K, and generally see as much of the Wasteland as possible. On a more personal level, I'd also like to see how much of the game I can actually do without shooting anybody.

Mouse will not be an ideological pacifist. She's perfectly happy to hurt people to get what she wants, she just doesn't like doing it through direct confrontation because she gets skittish when there's guns being waved around. So I won't skip out on assassination quests if there's a way I can get through them without engaging in combat (I may even use the old C4 strategy if it comes to it).

The basic rules Mouse lives by will be these:

If at all possible avoid a fight: She will try to talk or sneak her way out of combat if she can.

If other people are fighting, wait and see: Mouse isn't averse to other people fighting, and she's more than happy to watch other people slug it out around her and loot the bodies afterwards.

If in danger, run: If she does wind up in Combat with an enemy (and it will happen, sneaking isn't massively powerful) she will run the hell away as fast as possible.

Knowing stuff won't hurt: Mouse will not spend any points on combat skills, but she will take quests that boost combat stats as long as they don't actually involve fighting, and she will read copies of Guns and Bullets which might lead to her developing a respectable Small Guns skill. Again, Mouse isn't opposed to violence, she just likes to avoid situations where violence is directed at her.

I probably won't be able to avoid combat completely, because sneaking isn't one hundred percent reliable, but I consider “running through a combat zone without engaging the enemy” to be a legitimate way to deal with trouble. If this seems like cheating, remember that I'm not actually trying to have zero combat-time here, I'm trying to deal with combat the way the average RPG lets you deal with dialogue, which is to say by hitting “next” a lot.

The Build

This is technical, so if you're not interested in the details of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system you can skip this part.

I gave Mouse the following Stats: Strength 4, Perception 7, Endurance 4, Charisma 5, Intelligence 8, Agility 10, Luck 1. I deliberately sold down Strength and Endurance to support the notion that I was a noncombatant, and sold my Luck down as low as it would go, since it mostly modified Critical Hit chance, and I didn't intend to attack anything ever.

Agility 10 was my biggest investment, designed for maximum Running Away potential. Perception 7 was to stop me getting ambushed and Intelligence 8 was for the skill points.

For Traits I took Skilled and Good Natured. Skilled gives me extra skill points per level at the cost of Perks (normally this is a terrible tradeoff, but most of the best Perks are combat-focused and I suspected I would need to max out my Sneak and Speech skills as fast as possible), while I took Good Natured not so much for its benefits (although a decent bonus to my non-combat skills was to be sneezed at) as for its penalties – it reduced my combat skills to truly abysmal levels, further committing me to a life of avoiding direct confrontation.

Finally I tagged Speech, Lockpicking and Steal. I left Sneak alone, reasoning that it was more important to be good at stealing (which I intended to to do a lot to make up for lost combat XP) than sneaking (which was generally fairly easy anyway and unreliable even with high skill levels). Thus I entered the Temple of Trials.

The Temple of Trials and Klamath

Things started badly, I hit Sneak, walked into the Temple of Trials, and was fairly quickly attacked by a giant ant. I walked away from it, hit End Combat, and combat ended.

Creatures encountered: 1, Creatures run away from: 1.

I picked my way through the Temple relatively quickly. I didn't explore that much since I knew what was in there and didn't want to have to deal with the scorpions. All of the ants proved amenable to the old “walk away and end combat” strategy. I reached Cameron at the end of the temple, and managed to persuade him that a fight to the death was a spectacularly bad idea for my first trial, and thus made it into Arroyo.

There are four basic quests in the starting village and only one (kill the plants in the shaman's garden) is combat based. Other than that I managed to fix the well, get my spear sharpened (fnar) and even rescue Mynor's dog without throwing a punch. Rescuing the dog was a bit touch-and-go, I tried to sneak around the geckos, but they weren't having any of it. Fortunately Operation Run Away From Anything Dangerous worked like a charm, and I managed to nab the woofle and leg it out of my tribal hunting grounds without much more than a scratch.

Pausing only to steal everything that wasn't nailed down, I headed south to Klamath.

Klamath is a relatively small town, and your main goal while there is to hunt for Vic (your only guide to the location of Vault 13). The big sidequests in the area are to kill a rat god (which I didn't do for reasons of combat-aversion), to get Sulik into your party (which I didn't do because I don't want to use NPCs to cheat the system too much) and to find out where Vic is going. I did refuel a still for a guy called Whiskey Bob, which involved getting past a whole bunch of angry geckos. Fortunately I could sneak past most of them and outrun the ones I couldn't. See Mouse Run, Run Mouse Run.

Klamath was the site of my first major disappointment. I had hoped that I would be able to take the “evil” option on the “Guard the Brahmin” quest (a local boy asks you to help him guard his cows – which involves combat – but two villains give you a chance to trick him into leaving, allowing you to score a purely diplomatic victory) but tragically the “evil” quest bugged out, and I had to reload.

Deciding that I would not try to rescue a trapper from a cave full of giant killer lizards, I made my way southeast to the Den.

The Den and Modoc

The Den is a wretched hive of scum and villainy (I think it's even called that in-game). It's a dirty, grubby little town full of petty crooks and drug addicts (none of whom had anything worth stealing). It's also Slaver Central, but since going slaving would involve actually getting into a fight, I decided to keep my dealings with Metzger and his band purely professional.

I did a few odd jobs in the Den, although there was a lot I could have done but didn't (very few of the quests in the Den are combat based). I started a gang war, which I promptly ran away from, but still managed to get $100 and a thousand experience points for helping out, and I managed to rescue Vic from Metzger without too much trouble (I had to pay quite a lot of money, but being an inveterate thief and not having any reason to invest in weapons upgrades had some serious advantages).

I took Vic into my party because seriously, a wheezing old man is not going to ruin my non-combat status. Deciding to ditch the Den for now and try my luck somewhere bigger, I set out for Vault City. On the way there I stumbled into the drought-stricken farming town of Modoc.

There were some people in Modoc I couldn't help. A man named Farrel asked me to kill the rats in his garden (well it's traditional) but that would involve fighting things. I also had to turn down a job guarding cows. On the other hand I got to blow up a toilet and steal a golden watch back from a giant rat.

The main quest in Modoc is a fairly long negotiation between the starving people of Modoc and the underground-dwelling “Slags” of the nearby Ghost Farm (I suspect that the name of this particular group was chosen by an American, or else by a Brit with an odd sense of humour). Once again, this is a negotiation between two sides, both of which are ultimately reasonable, there are multiple endings, and in keeping with the suggestions made by those two guys whose blog post I critiqued getting the optimal “good” ending requires a certain amount of dedication to solving the problem. Well, dedication or a walkthrough – you have to allay the townsfolk's fears within a (relatively generous) time limit or they snap and attack the farm, this is trivially doable if you know who you're looking for, but I could see a player failing it the first time around.

Anyway, thanks to the magic of walkthroughs I negotiated a peaceful settlement between Modoc and the Slags (fnar), thereby saving the town and the farm both. Better still, I managed to save Johnny the Tanner's son from getting caught in the crossfire, which meant that I got a sweet leather jacket from his grateful father. Mouse doesn't carry weapons, and probably won't be wearing much in the way of armour, but she's nothing if not fashion-conscious, and the leather jacket looks hella sweet.

Next stop, Vault City!

(I was going to post a screencap here of my character sheet – level five and exactly zero kills of any kind, but my screenshot manager doesn't play nice with twelve-year-old video games).
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Comments (go to latest)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 13:57 on 2012-03-01
Woo! A let's play kind of thing.

Fall Out 2 is a good test subject for this kind of thing, because the the ending actually is easiest to get through, if you use brains instead of brawn. It'll be interesting to see whether you can do the whole game that way.

As I remeber it the non-violent option can also be the morally bad option, so the spread from a moral pov might be interesting too, I wonder if the designers considered that aspect. I think perhaps not, but I always liked the shooting too much to get empirical about it.

On the subject, you mentioned Planescape in the other article and if I remeber correctly, there is actually only one fight in the game you have to do(the one involving Ravel, I think). So that supports your theory of the problem being in the design rather than the option of what to skip.
Arthur B at 14:02 on 2012-03-01
The crucial question: would playing the game this way be as much fun if there weren't the chance that things could go pear-shaped and you could end up in the middle of a fight at a moment's notice?
Dan H at 14:55 on 2012-03-01
@Janne:

It'll be interesting to see whether you can do the whole game that way.


I suppose it depends on what you mean by "whole game" - there are definitely quests I *won't* be able to do because they explicitly involve killing things (unless I crank up my Stealth really high and plant dynamite on everything). The big things that worry me are the raider base that would give me the location of Vault 13 (I'm not sure if I can stealth my way inside) and the monsters in the tanker hold (I *think* the tanker can sail with them alive but I'm not totally sure). I should probably go for as much completion as possible (I might go back now my Sneak skill is over 100 and try to rescue Smiley and maybe even get the Car, and I should certainly do the other Fetch Quests in the Den).

I'm quite looking forward to whacking all the mob bosses in Reno as well.

As I remeber it the non-violent option can also be the morally bad option, so
the spread from a moral pov might be interesting too


I've been disgustingly good so far (I was going to betray Tor but it bugged out, and I figured betraying the Slags wasn't worth it) but I'm hoping I'll have some more dubious options later on. I'll probably have to screw over the Squat because I won't be able to kill Davon or whatever his name is.

On the subject, you mentioned Planescape in the other article and if I remeber
correctly, there is actually only one fight in the game you have to do(the one
involving Ravel, I think).


You might be right, although I'm not sure if missing out on combat XP wouldn't nerf you too much (the difference between "zero mandatory fights" and "one mandatory fight" is pretty enormous if the only way to win the one mandatory fight is to have leveled up on other fights) and I think you have to fight the Angel to get out of Carceri.

@Arthur:



The crucial question: would
playing the game this way be as much fun if there weren't the chance that things
could go pear-shaped and you could end up in the middle of a fight at a moment's
notice?


Ah, you have spotted my cunning rhetorical trick. Although to be fair, in a game with skippable combat, a fight could break out anyway, although I do feel that running away in-engine is rather more satisfying than just clicking a little "retreat" button.
Andy G at 15:24 on 2012-03-01
Playing Fallout 2 non-combat is much easier if you take a long trek south-west to the Enclave base (I think hidden beneath a petrol station). There's only one easy (avoidable?) combat with an unarmed opponent between you and a locker with a suit of Mark II Power Armour. Makes the game much easier in combat mode too for that matter.
Dan H at 15:45 on 2012-03-01
I've tried to avoid anything too exploity or cheaty - and if I'm doing it right I should be able to avoid getting into combat anyway, so the Power Armour wouldn't be that much of an advantage.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 15:53 on 2012-03-01
Well yeah, I meant in the sense, "play through", not "turn every stone". Those raiders should be interesting.

I've never tried Planescape not fighting, but there's lot's of experience to be had from quest completion and if you don't bother with other party members you should get a decent level by Ravel(if the experience works that way). And perhaps collecting combat scrolls? The angel might be the required one. They're both pretty tough ones too. But that's another game and not Fall Out, so that' that.

Andy G: A great plan, but a bit gamey though :)
Arthur B at 16:05 on 2012-03-01
I tried to beat Monkey Island without getting into combat but the game forces you to fight to complete the "beat the Sword Master" quest. :(
http://hafl.livejournal.com/ at 17:51 on 2012-03-01
Ultima 7 may also be a good candidate for this kind of playthrough, even though it contains some combat. However, since that game throws some very powerful weapons at the player almost from the very beginning, combat can be really trivial. Plus it allows the player to do what is in my opinion the most inventive cruelty in all video games.
Unfortunately, there is no (known) way to get through Fallout 2 without killing Frank Horrigan. However, there may be a way to take him out without you or your party *technically* killing him: if you have a high enough speech skill, you can convince the Enclave soldiers loitering about the exit to join you. However, you still have to deal with those turrets.

I think you have to kill two creatures in Planescape: Torment: the key-carrying zombie in the first room and either Ignus or Vhailor in the Fortress of Regrets (I do not know if you can skip that fight). You have to fight Trias, but you do not have to kill him, if that makes a difference.
I think you can run away from the Ravel fight, but I have never tried it.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 18:24 on 2012-03-01
But you can rig those turrets too shoot at Corrigan. That's the simplest way I know, although not as satisfying as beating him down with your fists.
Arthur B at 19:12 on 2012-03-01
I think you can run away from the Ravel fight, but I have never tried it.

I think I managed to do that on my first playthrough.
Dan H at 22:57 on 2012-03-01
Unfortunately, there is no (known) way to get through Fallout 2 without killing Frank Horrigan. However, there may be a way to take him out without you or your party *technically* killing him: if you have a high enough speech skill, you can convince the Enclave soldiers loitering about the exit to join you. However, you still have to deal with those turrets.


The turrets can be hacked with the presidential passkey.

Again, my aim here is not to play through as a *pacifist* it's to play as a non-combat character.
Andy G at 23:23 on 2012-03-01
From what I can gather on the interwebz (and it seems right to me), in Planescape you have to fight at least Ravel, Trias, Ignus/Vhailor and a random zombie. How would Ravel get defeated if you don't fight her? I don't think Planescape is designed to be potentially combat-free in the same way the Fallout games were.
How would Ravel get defeated if you don't fight her?


Even if the Nameless One fights and defeats her, a cutscene shows that she was faking her death in the hopes that he would finally leave her alone. No matter what, the Transcendent One swoops in and kills her for real.

I don't think Planescape is designed to be potentially combat-free in the same way the Fallout games were.


I agree, but there are still a lot of opportunities for non-violent solutions, and it seems like you get far more XP solving quests and pursuing non-violent solutions than in mindlessly killing everything.
Andy G at 00:13 on 2012-03-02
Yes but you still need to fight her to defeat her, surely?
Arthur B at 00:18 on 2012-03-02
I could have sworn I just ran off to the exit portal.
http://silverroseknits.wordpress.com/ at 01:10 on 2012-03-03
I was sure that I didn't fight Ravel, just sweet talked my way on through and by. Clearly this means I need to replay the game to find out.
The turrets can be hacked with the presidential passkey.


The only way to get that passkey is to kill the President.
Dan H at 15:29 on 2012-03-03

The only way to get that passkey is to kill the President.


I was pretty sure you could pickpocket it, but failing that I'll plant explosives.

Again, my aim here is not to avoid *killing* anybody (I'm doing Reno now and I'm probably going to take out all of the mob bosses) my aim is to avoid *defeating anybody in in-engine combat*.
Andy G at 00:05 on 2012-03-04
From memory and what I can find in walkthroughs, I'm pretty sure you do have to fight Ravel, no matter how well the dialogue goes, and the portal only appears once she's dead (well, "dead").

In the Enclave, isn't there the scientist you can persuade to gas everyone? I guess that way you could kill the president remotely and get the security key from his body. But I guess you'll get to that bit ...
Robinson L at 00:30 on 2012-03-16
This strikes me as a really cool idea (unfortunately, in pretty much all of the games I've ever played, a non-combat protagonist role is not a viable option).

Okay, I give up. As an American reader, I gather “slag” is British slang for something which raises serious innuendos in this context, but what exactly is it?
Dan H at 00:32 on 2012-03-16
It's roughly the same as "Slut" or possibly "Ho" although it's also used in those Guy Richie Lock-Stock-And-Two-Smoking-Whatevers style movies as a kind of all purpose insult ("You slaaaag, you're goin' daaaaahn").

Tangentially, "to slag off" means "to insult or diss."
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