RPG Autopsy #5: Vampyr (Part Five: Thelma and Bodily Fluids)

(Welcome to part five of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. This week we’ll be doing some amateur chemistry, and (finally) going to the morgue. The title above is a reference to the popular movie Thelma and Louise, but with ‘bodily fluids’ in place of ‘Louise’ for the purposes of humour. You have to kind of strain the word ‘fluids’ in your mouth so it sounds a bit like ‘Louise’. I did this because Vampyr is a game about vampires, and vampires drink blood, and there’s also an NPC in it called Thelma. It’s really very clever once you think about it.)    

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Before we get on with the main story there’s one more sidequest I want to look at – that of Thelma Howcraft. Thelma is one of the hospital’s mental health patients, and she suffers from a form of Cotard’s Syndrome – put simply: she thinks she’s a vampire.

Once again, here’s Vampyr addressing sensitive topics most games would bungle horribly, but somehow not feeling gross or exploitative. I’m actually baffled at how well it’s handled, to be honest. Thelma is a well-written, sympathetic character – she feels very human, and her severe mental health problems are never the butt of some cheap joke.

Thelma claims she’s being pursued by vampire hunters. Just paranoia, one might think, but it turns out that, while she isn’t really a vampire, her constant claims that she is a vampire have caught the attention of the Order of Priwen – that vampire-hunting group that pursued us back in the docks. They’re now convinced she’s a real vampire (I’d never heard of Cotard’s Syndrome either, to be fair), and are keeping watch on her.

So we make our way across the district to a Priwen hideout, and take their notes on Thelma (we also kill them all for good measure). All simple stuff, but as with the sidequests we discussed last week, it’s propped up by the context of the characters, and some nice little complications along the way.

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Hello, yes, this is the irony police. Off to prison you go, now.

Killing all those vampire hunters has really tired us out, so we head to our new office to sleep the coming day away. Before we do so, however, it’s time to analyse the blood we retrieved from William Bishop – the skal we killed back at the docks. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much – it’s strangely mutated, and ‘unstable’, whatever that means, but it’s clearly different from our own strain of vampirism.

When we wake up the next evening we’re accosted by Nurse Crane, who tells us that the hospital is dangerously low on antiseptics. Ever resourceful, Reid suggests combining some cleaning products for use as makeshift antiseptics, and asks to see the hospital storeroom. However, it turns out that, due to lack of space, the hospital has been storing all its supplies in the Very Spooky morgue across the street, which has been sealed off for sanitary reasons, and is, did I mention – very, very spooky?

So we schlep to the abandoned morgue and root around for cleaning supplies. It’s a fairly big place to explore, but there’s not a huge amount to say about it: we fight a few skals, learn they eat flesh – not blood like us, read a couple of scattered notes, find evidence that Dr. Tippets’ medical malpractice resulted in the preventable death of a patient. You know – standard trip to the morgue.

At the end we also have a boss fight against a powerful skal who likes to teleport about and hit us in the back. He’s kind of obnoxiously difficult, at least on the game’s hardest difficulty mode, but we deal with him after a couple of tries. It’s here that our decision to not feed on the innocent citizens of London (for huge stacks of XP, remember) starts to worry me: if this guy’s giving me – famed elite pro gamer Nick Keirle – trouble this early in the game, how will we fare against the game’s tougher fights later on?

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Turns out it’s quite hard to take good screenshots mid-combat.

With the skal defeated, we find the rest of the supplies, and unlock the ability to make various different kinds of medicine from crafting materials. One of the cooler systems in Vampyr is the way that time passes whenever we rest/level up, and how citizens can become sick with that passing of time. A once-healthy citizen might contract flu/a cold/fatigue/etc., and the condition of already-sick citizens can deteriorate until you’re dealing with a host of more serious illnesses.

This not only lowers their Blood Quality (meaning less XP if you decide to feed on them), but it also lowers that district’s District Status – the safety of the district you’re in (the game’s divided up into four districts – Pembroke Hospital being one of them). If you don’t maintain the citizens’ health (or if you start killing the citizens willy nilly) the safety of their district will drop. Let it drop too much and the whole district will fall into chaos, people will start to go missing, and the streets will be filled with high-level enemies.

So on top of the main gameplay, we’re constantly spinning these various plates. We make and distribute medicine to sick citizens. We try not to rest/level up too often to avoid the spread of disease. And we have to be very carefully about killing and feeding on citizens, as the wrong death at the wrong time can send a district spiralling into chaos.

This system accomplishes a few great things: (a) by making you feel like a real doctor with real patients, it creates a genuine sense of connection to (and responsibility for) the game’s various NPCs, (b) it makes it feel like all your actions are significant, to the point where your inactions also matter, and (c) it makes the world feel real; independent of the player (a bit like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise – my precious child that was too good for this cruel world).

Those are some pretty great things for any RPG to do.

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Let’s just handwave the fact that we’re making cutting-edge treatments for flu and pneumonia at our office desk.

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

RPGs are system-driven games at heart. You can make a game of various different parts – NPCs and dialogue trees, a big, open world to explore, and a deep, complex combat system – and that just might be good enough. But just by adding a few clever systems that tie these various parts of the game together, you can make it really special.

Vampyr has combat. It has talking. It has exploration. But it’s the Hints, Blood Quality, District Status, and the like that elevates it to another level – that compelling set of spinning plates makes the world and its characters feel alive, while also adding tension into otherwise ordinary situations and gameplay loops. They don’t always have profound effects on the gameplay experience, but they change the way the player thinks and feels about the game at almost every moment.

A game like Pathologic has combat. It has talking. It has exploration. But it also has illness, hunger, changes in the local economy, NPC illnesses, and so on. These various elements are compelling, too, but it’s the way they interact that makes the game what it is.

A game like Dragon Age: Inquisition has a bunch of systems – combat, an economy, a levelling system, Influence, Power, lieutenants to send out on missions, etc.. But none of them interact in interesting ways. It’s all just: ‘do quests to linearly increase Important Numbers’. None of it feels alive. And this is partly to blame for why the world never feels alive either.

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Dr. Swansea is such a necessary character – a cheerful, positive, funny voice in this otherwise very depressing game. Because of this I’m very worried he’s going to betray me at some point.

Anyway, after returning to Pembroke, we give Mortimer some treatment for his ‘Fatigue’, and are summoned to see the wonderful Dr. Swansea – head of the hospital. He tells us that the hospital’s chief donors – one Lady Ashbury – is being blackmailed for something or other, and as such might not be able to continue her financial support. It’s our job as chief surgeon to deal with this now, apparently.

We go find Lady Ashbury and – oh – it’s the vampire who saved us at the docks (and then proceeded to bugger off without explaining anything). Turns out Lady Ashbury the rich benefactor is a vampire, and I’m pretty sure she’s being blackmailed because she sometimes, you know, just occasionally, drinks the blood of the hospital’s sickest patients. She asks us to find out the identity of the blackmailer, and resolve the matter appropriately.

Lady Ashbury refuses to answer any of our various questions about our new life as a vampire until we resolve her situation. So there’s nothing for it – time to sleuth our way across Pembroke Hospital until we find the blackmailer. At which point we’ll presumably just ask them nicely to stop. Which will presumably work fine, I guess.

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Lady Ashbury is an interesting character – all kind words and politeness, yet skillfully hiding a sharp, inhuman streak.


We’ll enact this no-doubt foolproof plan next week. In the meantime – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like RPG Autopsy – why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate RPG Autopsy – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

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RPG Autopsy #4: Vampyr (Part Four – Burn After Bleeding)

(Welcome to part four of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be continuing our tour of Pembroke Hospital, and doing some fun sidequests as we meet and greet (and try not to eat) the remaining staff and patients of Pembroke Hospital. Today’s side quests will mainly consist of: (a) finding lost wallets, and (b) violating people’s privacy.)

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First, we bump into a young nurse – Pippa Hawkins, and then Milton Hooks – the hospital’s ambulance driver. Milton comes across, to be honest, as a bit of a dick – he never stops complaining, and he seems completely uninterested in the hospital’s patients. He does, however, give us our first proper side quest – the lofty charge of finding his lost wallet, which he apparently dropped while fleeing from a crazed flu victim outside the hospital grounds.

(side note: no one seems to realise that all these crazed, flesh-hungry people roaming the night are not just Spanish Flu victims, but skals – demi-vampires who eat flesh, not blood. Easy enough mistake to make, I suppose.)

We don’t have to help Milton out here, but hey, why not? Let’s go get him his wallet.

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Milton says he ‘speaks his mind’, which is a bit of an understatement considering his self-introduction consists of first telling us how terrible Pembroke Hospital is, and then offering to sell us a gun.

It’s a fairly standard fetch quest, but while fetch quests in RPGs (e.g. “I want 5 wolf skulls. Please go find me 5 wolf skulls”) are more often than not tedious filler, Vampyr generally makes them work. Which leads us nicely into…

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

Fetch quests are not inherently bad game design. In fact, most quests in most RPGs can be described as fetch quests (go here, find/kill a thing, come back). What separates good quests from boring ‘Please go find me 5 wolf skulls’ fetch quests is the RPG Autopsy patented (patent pending) ‘Triple C’ formula:

Context, Complication, and Constraint

Let’s look at a real-life example here: Dragon Age: Inquisition – specifically the Hinterlands starting area. Specifically specifically this one boring quest where you have to kill a bunch of wild rams for their wool/mutton:

(1) Context: the quest is given some context (some refugees need food and blankets because it’s cold), but it’s very thin, and it’s certainly not interesting context.

What we really need for good context is something like: a mystery, some interesting worldbuilding/lore, an important goal that is specifically relevant to the player/player character, some character development, etc.

(2) Complication: There are absolutely no surprises in this quest. We go out, we find sheep, we kill them, we come back, and we get a minor reward not worth talking about.

(3) Constraint: the Hinterlands – and Dragon Age: Inquisition as a whole – are absolutely chock full of these kinds of by-the-numbers fetch quests. One or two would be tolerable, but when the meat of your game is interrupted by dozens of boring fetch quests it really starts to grate (And sure – they’re optional. But (a) you literally need the rewards they provide to continue playing the main quest, and (b) optional isn’t an excuse for bad).

You (or the straw man I made up in my head) might counter: ‘But these quests aren’t supposed to be amazing – they’re just there to give the player something to do’. And if your goal is to fill your game with stuff, then sure – this is one way to do that, just as a chef promising to make twenty different dishes for a banquet could just fill ten of those dishes with different combinations of cornstarch and aspic.

But I’d argue the point of food is to be good, not just there. And the point of quests in an RPG is to be interesting, not just something to occupy some of the minutes between now and my inevitable and senseless death. In other words: if you can’t make twenty delicious dishes for my RPG banquet, maybe just make ten instead?

So Dragon Age is and always has been bad – that much is obvious and definitely uncontroversial. But what would a good fetch quest look like?

Well, there’s countless examples. The Witcher 3 manages to make most of its side quests work because they tick the complication box very well: Go beat up this guy who robbed the quest giver. Oh wait, turns out the quest giver took a job from the guy, and did it so shoddily the quest giver refused to pay him. Now you have to decide if you want to side with one of them, or if you just want to walk away and not get paid yourself.

That’s not fascinating stuff, but it’s pretty good for the most minor of minor side quests. It gives you both story complication (you’ve been lied to), and mechanical complication (you now have to make A Choice, where before you were just fetching something).

Or let’s look at Sunless Sea‘s The First Curator side quest, which tasks you with finding and acquiring different magical colours. Colours like Apocyan – the colour of memory and coral, and Gant – the colour ‘which remains when all other colours are eaten’. The context here is fascinating (cool worldbuilding, evocative writing) in classic Failbetter style. In fact, most quests in Sunless Sea are nothing more than prettied-up fetch quests, but the writing and worldbuilding is so good we don’t really care.

So yeah: that’s my obviously unique and not at all tedious gift to RPG game design criticism: Context, Complication, Constraint. If you’re making a side quest/fetch quest, ask yourself‘How can I make an interesting context here, or surprise the player in some way, and, above all, is this side quest necessary? Is it just filler for the sake of filler?’

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Sunless Sea being very Sunless Sea.

Anyway, 700 words of digression later, we go look for Milton’s wallet. After finding and killing the rabid skal, we find it, and inside we see a picture of Milton and nurse Pippa together. Turns out they’re secretly a couple, which is very much against hospital rules (this is also an interracial couple, which, again…y’know – it’s 1918).

We also learn that Milton is charging people to use the ambulance – in other words, no bribe no ride. This is apparently so Milton and Pippa can save money and eventually start a new life together somewhere else far away from here.

So, while the context of this side quest (get me my wallet) isn’t anything special, it does complication very well: it develops Milton and Pippa’s characters in a way the player can later investigate during dialogue (using the game’s Hint system), and it lets the player make a choice: to threaten to expose their secret relationship, or to agree to keep it quiet.

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Mortimer Goswick is an especially sad case in a game exclusively about sad cases.

There’s one more side quests in Pembroke Hospital before we finish today’s post: that of Mortimer Goswick, and his overbearing mother Beatrice.

Mortimer complains of terrible throat pain, and is heavily bandaged, but he won’t give us any more information. It’s only later, while fulfilling my doctorly duties of hiding outside the window and eavesdropping on people’s private conversations, that I learn enough about Mortimer to conclude (I’d already guessed) that he tried to commit suicide. After asking him about it/using our vampire mind powers to get him to spill the beans, he asks us to go to his house and find the suicide note he wrote – before anyone else can find it and read it. 

This is, again, a standard ‘go and find something and come back’ fetch quest, but here the context is interesting (Vampyr writes good characters, and this quest is tied up to Mortimer’s character in an emotionally rich way), and it also gives some more complication in allowing you to make the choice between honouring Mortimers wishes, or betraying his confidence and giving the note to his mother instead.

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There’s also Harvey Fiddick – he’s nice, but I don’t have a lot to say about him. Sorry Harvey.


That’s all the side quests I’m going to talk about for now. Next week we’ll do one more side quest, and then actually get to that morgue (sorry for not getting to the morgue yet).

For now, though – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like RPG Autopsy – why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate RPG Autopsy – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

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RPG Autopsy #3: Vampyr (Part Three – Midnight in the Garden of Blood and Evil)

(Welcome to part three of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you want to start from the, uh, start, then you can find it here. Today we’ll be wandering around Pembroke Hospital demanding everyone tell us their life stories.) 

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After accepting Dr. Swansea’s generous job offer (and wondering why he’s so keen to give a vampire direct access to his patients – surely that’s some kind of violation of his Hippocratic Oath/Actual Crime Against Humanity), we get off the boat near our new home – Pembroke Hospital.

Taking a stroll along the canal, we arrive just in time to meet rough gang member, and all-around-dickhead Clay Cox. Clay has just killed someone in a brawl, but has ended up pretty seriously wounded in the process.

We talk to Clay, and he rudely demands we take him to a hospital. Our possible reactions to this demand are essentially: (a) “Up yours – I’m going to let you bleed to death”, (b) “Up yours – I’m going to kill you”, or (c) “Up yours – be more polite”.

I kind of love how the ONLY vaguely nice option we’re given for dealing with this dying man is to lord our position as potential saviour over him, and then give him a lesson in manners. We’re a vampire now, and as such we’re fast becoming more and more disconnected from normal humans. This isn’t explicitly stated by the game, but our dialogue choices tend towards the pushy, invasive, and downright manipulative, even if we play Reid as a doctor who genuinely cares about helping people.

The conversations in most RPGs tend towards the pushy and invasive – we meet an elf and then immediately ask them about their life history, and the history of their people (imagine meeting someone from India, and then instantly demanding they tell you about the Maratha Empire). This often feels very weird – real people don’t talk like this – but Vampyr gets around this dissonance by making us (a) a doctor, who occupies a position of trust/power, and can kind of justify asking invasive questions, and (b) a vampire, who can’t help but see ordinary humans as potential meals, regardless of how much we might fight to control these urges.

In other words, our mild case of Mild RPG Protagonist Sociopathy works here, whether we’re reading people’s private correspondence, or using our vampire mind powers to force people into answering our invasive questions.

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See that ‘500XP’ there in the top right? That means we’ll get 500XP just for ending this very mean man’s life.

Regardless of what we say to Clay, we’re near overwhelmed by our need for blood. And here we’re introduced to one of Vampyr’s most interesting systems:

Like most RPGs, we need experience points (XP) to level up. But unlike most RPGs, Vampyr is incredibly stingy – we’ll generally get a few XP for a fight, and a few hundred for finishing a major quest. We’ll need a few hundred to acquire minor bonuses, and a few thousand to acquire/level up our major abilities later in the game.

Enemies in Vampyr (especially on hard mode) also quickly out-level you, with standard enemies becoming damage sponges, and bosses becoming almost laughably powerful. So you’ll really want any XP you can get your hands on. But how do you get XP? By drinking the blood of the innocent, of course – how else?

As a vampire, Reid has the ability to mesmerise the NPCs he meets, and then lead them down a dark alleyway to drink their blood. A normal citizen might give you 1,000-2,000XP just like that, and this can be a big help in dealing with the fights Vampyr regularly throws at you.

You can also theoretically do this to almost anyone you meet, though you can only mesmerise citizens equal or lower to your ‘mesmerise level’ (i.e. strong-willed NPCs will resist your attempts to mind-control them). This level will rise as you progress through the game, opening up juicier and juicier targets, and bigger and bigger XP rewards.

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Blood Temptation is my favourite demo tape by one-man death black metal outfit Witches Moon.

This is a fascinating system, in part because getting that XP means permanently killing whichever NPC you feed on, which not only locks their storylines, but also can throw the wider district into chaos (more on that chaos in a later post).

Now, being a Grade A wet blanket, I choose not to kill Clay. I immediately decide to see if I can play a pacifist run (spoiler: you can (spoiler: I couldn’t)). One can also choose not to kill Clay now, and instead kill him later for better XP rewards, due to the game’s Blood Quality system:

Each NPC is worth a certain amount of XP, and this amount changes depending on two factors: how healthy they are, and how much you know about them. Look at the screenshot below: Clay is suffering from Fatigue, which means his blood is worth less XP. You can also see four places that say ‘HINT LOCKED’ – this means that there’s information about Clay we don’t yet know.

By talking to an NPC, talking about them with other NPCs, or performing certain side quests, we can unlock more of these hints. Every hint learned increases that NPC’s blood quality, and thus the XP we gain from drinking their blood. So it pays to talk, and it pays to find things out.

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‘Social Circle: NO RELATIONSHIPS’ is a hell of a put-down.

After graciously refraining from murdering Clay (like some kind of absolute saint), we head to Pembroke hospital. Here, we can go straight to our new room and sleep the coming day away, or we can do what I actually did and spend the next two straight hours doing nothing but talking to NPCs.

I won’t get into all the characters, because there are literally sixteen of them in Pembroke Hospital, but here are some highlights:

There’s Thomas Elwood – a veteran of the Great War, who’s suffering from constant, chronic pain as a result of his disfiguring facial scars. It’s through Thomas that we learn that you can also lock yourself out of Blood Quality-improving hints by choosing the wrong dialogue options. Thomas is ashamed of his new face, to the point where he just wants to hide away for the rest of his life. If we try to console him by saying “well, looks aren’t everything, you know?” like an all-around-dickhead he’ll shut down and decide not to trust us – that’s just not what he needs to hear right now.

This sudden rebuke from the game – you messed up, and now you’ll never get that hint – feels incredibly impactful, even though at most it’s locking us out of a few hundred XP if we end up deciding to kill Thomas (and I would rather die than kill poor Thomas). This is really smart: by tying dialogue to these wider game systems, Vampyr can make your choices feel important without needing the devs to create lots of branching paths that (a) cost lots of time and money to make, and (b) will never be seen by most players.

It also bears repeating how well Vampyr handles its dialogue. Dealing with a PTSD-suffering, disfigured veteran of one of history’s bloodiest, most senseless wars in this game about being a scary vampire could descend into outright farce, but Vampyr’s writers (and Thomas’ voice actor) are incredibly deft. In a few short conversations Thomas cements himself as a deeply complex, troubled person.

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I just want Thomas to be happy. Please release DLC where I can make Thomas happy.

There’s also Gwyneth Branagan – a nurse who’s more than talented enough to be a doctor, but can’t because, well – it’s 1918. Her story really highlights how well Vampyr emphasises the relationship between various NPCs:

Some of the (exclusively male) doctors at Pembroke see Gwyneth as an invaluable asset, who should be supported as much as possible, while others are less than happy that she’s taking on the unofficial position of doctor. Talking to Dr. Tippets might unlock a hint about Gwyneth, or unlock a new conversation topic you can ask her about if you go back and talk to her again.

This is fairly simple stuff, mechanically speaking, but the fact that the game doesn’t immediately throw up a big tooltip saying ‘YOU SHOULD GO AND TALK TO GWYNETH ABOUT WHAT DR. TIPPETS SAID ABOUT HER’ means it’s all based on the player connecting the dots. So instead of just clicking through conversations, we think ‘ah, I should go back and talk to that NPC’, which starts to feel like real detective work.

This leads us into this week’s insightful game design lesson:

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

Tying your dialogue into broader game systems (in this case Hints, Blood Quality (and later the District Health system)) can help make that dialogue feel more interesting and impactful. These systems make clicking through a fairly linear dialogue tree feel like collecting important information, and they don’t even need to have huge, game-changing consequences – they can feel significant without being that mechanically significant. 

Vampyr’s hint system is generally used to increase Blood Quality, and so increase the amount of XP you gain from killing citizens. But I’ve already decided there will be no citizen killing, so hints provide literally zero mechanical benefits to me as a player. They are functionally irrelevant to my experience, but yet they still manage to change the way I think about and approach the game’s many conversations (in a hugely positive way, of course).

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There’s a lot more going on at Pembroke Hospital, but this post has already gone on long enough. Next week we’ll learn a bit more about some other patients, and then take a nice trip to the morgue.

For now, though – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you really/moderately/vaguely like what I’m doing with RPG Autopsy, why not be lovely and support me on my newly opened Patreon, out of pure human kindness? Find that Patreon here.

(Pledging above a certain level will also give you access to exclusive monthly posts of RPG Autopsy, so if not out of pure human kindness, at least consider pledging for the purpose of emotionless transaction). 

Also, my very own (in-development) text-based monster-hunting RPG  – The Red Market – can be played online here for the low, low price of zero pounds.

 

 

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