This Game Developer Turned 'Fallout 4' Into His Personal Tabletop RPG
Bethesda made a sandbox. With mods, spreadsheets, dice rolls, rules, and records, he made it his own world.
All screenshots courtesy of Yik-Sian James Seow
When I first began following Yik-Sian James Seow on Twitter, it was because he was the developer behind Steam Marines, a squad-based tactical roguelike that launched back in 2013. But today, I follow him for a completely different reason: The fascinating stories of his many Fallout characters.
Last September, Seow tweeted a picture of Fallout 4, adding only “This UI mod is great.” It turned out to be the simple start of what would turn into a long running feature of Seow’s social media feed, a detailed, screenshot-rich breakdown of his ongoing, mod-fueled micro-campaigns with the game. Watching Seow play via these nightly updates is captivating, which may seem weird since, one, unlike video based Let’s Plays and livestreams, his screenshot-and-text updates are intermittent at best, and two, I’ve already played these games to death.
But Seow’s Fallout 4 isn’t my Fallout 4. My experience with the game cast me as the wasteland’s chosen hero in his fight for android equality. Seow’s Fallout 4 places him as a nobody caught up in a factional conflict bigger than he can ever really overcome. Sure, I tinkered a bit with the game’s open world settlement system, making basketball courts and the occasional farm. But Seow establishes trade routes and builds self-sustaining communities.
The most obvious difference is that I played at launch and Seow is playing three years later with the support of mods. Some inject major changes into the game’s content or mechanics, like True Storms (which adds intense weather effects and environmental hazards) or War of the Commonwealth (which dramatically increases the amount of NPC activity in post-apocalyptic Massachusetts). Other mods are all about roleplaying, like Another Life which casts the player not as the canonical “sole survivor,” but instead as one of 36 other possible starting positions, like Courier, Doctor, Mercenary, or Lawyer.
But it isn’t only the mods that transform Seow’s game. Through his own custom-built list of random events, additional character creation steps, and a dedication to roleplaying instead of playing only to win, Seow has effectively turned himself from a Fallout player into something more like a pen-and-paper-style Fallout Game Master.
All of this is compelling enough on its own, but Seow’s campaigns are even more interesting when understood in the context of Fallout 76, Bethesda’s next game in the franchise which transforms it from open-world, story-driven, single player RPG into a multiplayer survival game with a focus on crafting and lots of room for player-vs-player action.
Given all of this, and my general excitement for the playthrough, I chatted with Seow via email about why he plays the way he does, what he’s learned from the experience as a developer, and maybe the most important question of all: Why Fallout 4?
Waypoint: I’ve been watching you play this running, modded game of Fallout 4 (and now New Vegas ) for like eighteen months now, but I think I only wrapped my head around what you were fully doing a earlier this year: Through a combo of mods, you’re playing the games as post-apocalyptic sandboxes, taking the role of random characters associated with factions, and with randomly rolled motivations/allegiances/moral codes. Is that basically right? Am I missing anything important?
Yik-Sian James Seow: Yes, that's about right. The idea is to take Fallout 4's world and factions and decide how to roleplay a character that is not the Sole Survivor and trying to act and behave in ways that are consistent with what that character believes and knows. I also run with self-enforced permadeath for both me and NPCs. I don't use the wait feature, but sleep is an integral part of the game with hunger/thirst/sleep survival.
What attracts you to playing this way?
Consequence is a large part of it (e.g. self-enforced permadeath means that escorting/protecting certain named NPCs can completely cut me off of certain quest lines), but on a moment to moment basis it's the micro story telling that I really engage in. I enjoy preparing for stuff, both in real life and in games I play, so having a plan, acquiring the resources to proceed with it, and then either having a wrench thrown in the gears or executing it well gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Settlement building is largely an extension of that mindset. I'll say to myself “Okay, in the early game I had to scrounge all my food, water, ammunition. Now I have a settlement, what would I need to build to try and get steady sources of these things, to take pressure off of me?” And the various game mods will throw some wrenches. Or I'll forget something, or make a mistake.
A great source of joy and frustration roleplaying as a non-Vault Dweller means that while I have to use the Pip-Boy (or modded Pip-Pad) to manage my character and inventory, I can roleplay not having it at the start of the game, meaning some vaults are inaccessible to me until I find a suitable roleplay reason I've acquired that access or technology.
The thread is so big that Twitter has had trouble displaying it all in the past, so you know, it’s been easy to miss stuff. Do you have any favorite characters? Favorite moments?
I actually started an Imgur gallery to track some of my better screenshots, and so my Twitter threads don't melt any more phones.
I'm always really happy to have a strong character start, like with the Gifted trait, but the most memorable characters are usually those with some really awkwardly allocated SPECIALS and/or bad traits that force me to play in a weird way. A low strength character with melee weapon traits. A Brotherhood of Steel member who hates power armor. An Institute member with an Intelligence of 1. Contradictory setups are always fun to think through.
My favorite character is one who is still alive but unplayable because my Fallout 4 version and modlist has changed too drastically for me to reload that save file. I had a Minuteman General with a lot of hand-built settlements. I even had an internal Minuteman rank/wage/resource allocation structure. I had settlements specializing in various crops, water purification, I had laid out routes for transportation via trucks and vertibird fueled by natural gas from a Glowing Sea outpost. I had a lot of spreadsheets going and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Some of my favorite moments are just unexpected, perhaps even buggy, things that trigger a sequence of events that make you re-evaluate what you're going to do. Most recently I had a run where I had revived Nora [one of the potential Sole Survivor starting characters], from Vault 111 and we stumbled across Billy Peabody—a ghoul child trapped in a locked fridge. I talk to him and fire at the fridge door, breaking it open. At this point the quest is supposed to have Billy get out, and you can talk to him about reuniting him with his parents. Apparently either I accidentally hit Billy with my gunfire, or firing near him flagged him hostile, or some bug occurred, but he turned hostile. Nora immediately senses this and kills him before I even registered he had turned hostile and died right in front of me.
What the hell, Nora? Are all pre-war people like you? You just killed a kid! There was a lot of moral space here, about whether your character is or is not okay with that and Nora's reasons for her actions. Was it just reflex? Does that mitigate what she did? But the short version is we went back to a settlement and I dismissed her.
In this tweet you mention random events. How do those work? Any fun examples?
A lot of the time I'll make things up on the fly. I'll roll to see if I can salvage an operational power frame from power armor wearing NPCs, I'll roll to see if I salvage a fusion core, I'll roll on followers successfully lockpicking/hacking, I'll roll on how long it takes me to build something like a wind generator with four settlers and we have a schematic but no engineering or mechanical training. Once I successfully convinced [one of the game’s major antagonists,] Kellogg, not to fight and we became mercenary buddies instead.
One thing I wish I could figure out how to implement better is some sort of disguise/mistaken identity system. Why am I walking around in full raider armor and everyone knows I'm not a raider? New Vegas had a disguise system but it was not particularly useful gameplay-wise and was not leveraged much in-game. I think the sneak system being pretty overpowered in the Fallout games is a likely contributor to why disguises aren't super high priority. Hitman-style Fallout would be fun, though.
In general I don't tend to roll for custom events like "Raiders ambush you!" because that's taken care of by other mods like War of the Commonwealth. Although one time I was escorting a mobile APC full of gold bars and on the way to secure it I got into a firefight with a Gunner outpost and rolled that they had radioed their headquarters so they knew where we were and what we were doing. A missile hit the APC and I rolled to figure out how long it would take to repair. It all ended with a massive firefight at The Castle. Because fighting over gold never changes.
I’m sure I’m not the first to ask this, but what led you to do this instead of playing something like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat , which has more built in sandbox elements?
I am not 100% sure since I've actually never played a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game! My brother has actually mentioned this to me in the past and from what he says it does seem very up my alley, but I'm pretty deep into Fallout at this point. I love the retro-furturistic backdrop, I love the brand of humor, I love the lore, and honestly I'm just very familiar with Fallout 4 and modding at this point.
The other thing that it all reminds me of is tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. When I was living in situations where I couldn’t play any tabletop RPGs, I tried my best to bring this same sort of role playing to my video games (though not to the degree you’ve managed here). Do you have any tabletop RPG history?
I don't really have any tabletop gaming history, no. I actually learned about Warhammer (and roguelikes) after starting development of Steam Marines, so I did get to watch some people play Space Hulk. I've seen people play D&D as well, but never participated proper.
I don't have anything against tabletop games, it's just that my circle of friends never really had people who were interested in them. We all really liked video games and Magic: The Gathering. D&D strikes me as something I'd probably enjoy, like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., if I ever got into those.
If you want as many people to play your game, for as long as possible into the future, make your game moddable. There's just no way you can expect any studio to make a game to cater to everything every degenerate like me wants, but opening a game to modding means we can get closer.
Also, since I've been perusing New Vegas vs. Fallout 4 forums/threads a lot recently: players really, really like official confirmation that they did a thing. I think that's what drives a lot of the (roleplayer) disappointment players had going from New Vegas to 4.
You’ve put so much time into the rest of Bethesda’s Fallout games. How are you feeling about Fallout 76 ?
I haven't been following that closely since the announcement, but the nuke launching mechanic is disappointing. I'm not sold on the no NPCs thing, or no offline mode; I do love my offline single player RPGs. That said I do love the lore of Fallout and will mostly likely be playing it, it will just be scratching a different itch. I am definitely interested in private servers, and having a good time co-oping with friends sounds like a good time.
Do you (or would you) bring this sort of roleplaying to other games? Have you done this with Skyrim or Oblivion? I'm curious if that would work in the same way, since it doesn't really have the same style of faction break down and conflict, either fictionally or systemically.
Skyrim has fewer options in terms of faction interaction, but it does have religion/worship, non-human races, and even a family/housing system. You can honor/desecrate the bodies of the dead. You can have mounts and roleplay taking care of them, or a whole stable of them.
For me a large part of roleplaying is trying to do things your character would do and to prevent player knowledge from interfering from that process. You can definitely play Skyrim without map and compass, and you can definitely choose to wear or use items that suit that character and shun those that don't. Nord who hates everything magical? No magicka or enchanted item use. Pick only one of enchanting/blacksmithing/alchemy. Roll dice to head in a random direction instead of thinking, "Well from a previous run I know that X is over that way."
There aren't that many full blown RPGs that allow the extent of modding Bethesda games do. That said I also do roughly this sort of thing in Mount & Blade: Warband (shout out to [the mods] Prophesy of Pendor and Brytenwalda!) and I used to mod an old Mac game, Escape Velocity, to allow me to do a lot of fiddly faction missions and let me change the military/political landscape of that universe.
Most video games have combat. Few have non-combat gameplay. I don't mean non-combat ways to accomplish the same thing, I mean actual systems devoted to gameplay that do not involve killing someone else.
Finally, let’s say that I wanted to try this on my own, what mods should I use? I know there’s been some changing of mods over the length of your playthroughs, but what are the “core” mods you need to get started with roleplaying in Fallout 4 ? Or, phrased a little differently: what are the needs you need met by whatever series of mods you use?
I run all the DLC, although truth be told I tend not to touch the new areas (like Far Harbor and Nuka-World) too often. The big ticket unofficial mods include Fallout 4 Script Extender (some mods require this), Start Me Up (an alternate start mod, so you don't have to be the Sole Survivor every time, also adds optional traits at character generation), Personal Journal (lets you write a journal—handy for roleplaying), Horizon (overhaul of the game with new systems), True Storms (overhaul of sound and particle effects, textures, radiation, ghoul swarms), Homemaker (adds a ton of new items you can build in settlements), Thematic and Practical (even more buildable settlement objects), Creative Clutter (even more buildable settlement objects), Conquest (lets you set up camps and actual settlements almost anywhere), LooksMenu (change player and NPC looks), Rename Anything (rename pretty much any object you can select in the world), Scrap Anything (you can't scrap everything, but it lets you remove a lot), Visible Weapons (holstered weapons, basically), Personal Guard (allows you to recruit and customize NPCs as followers), Gunners Overhaul (Gunners faction not hostile at the start of the game, offer quests), and Amazing Follower Tweaks (everyone should use this mod it's amazing—more granular control over NPCs, tracking them, assigning them homes, making them essential/non-essential, track their kills, get stat reports, offers a quest to rescue the Sole Survivor's spouse).
I also run a lot of graphical mods like Natural and Atmosphereic Commonwealth, Photorealistic Commonwealth, various 4k texture packs, stuff like that. Also a lot of weapon/armor mods. CROSS armors in particular are very good and come with 4k texture packs from Niero's Gumroad page.
A finally, a special shoutout to Sim Settlements, because while the mod looks amazing, it doesn't dovetail with my specific playstyle. The short version is apparently you can build settlements by dropping “plots” and settlers assigned to them (with appropriate resources and skills?) will automatically over time build structures.
This mod goes real deep, apparently there are other hand built systems in play, and you can export/import yours and other players' settlement builds which is a neat way of adding a sort of communal, if not multiplayer, vibe to a single player RPG. It's so expansive that NexusMods.com actually gives it its own category, and subcategories, on the Fallout 4 mod categories page.