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Fallout 76’s huge fan war is a fight against nukes, glitches, and raiders

A good war, with a few complications

Fallout 76 - a player, dressed as a raider chief, sits on a throne of bones Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via The Warlord
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The Whitesprings Resort has always been a player hub in Fallout 76, but one night, it lit up for an especially important affair. Eight organizations took over the entire building for a massive dinner party. Players dressed as waiters to serve food, provided entertainment by playing the piano, and stood at the doors to make a show of checking bags as security. Raiders dressed as hideous mothmen stood next to white tie socialites, chatting over Nuka Colas.

These same players would later end up in massive battles, all of which are carefully documented through fan-made machinimas and front line reports. At least, that’s what happens when combat in Fallout 76 works as intended. Some battles end up abandoned midway through thanks to technical hiccups, like the one where player’s armor suddenly refused to work against normal sniper shots.

One roleplay community leader, Jesse Jewell, says he’s had a “hell of a good time” with Fallout 76’s PvP in the past, but its current state is struggling. “The problem is that PvP right now is so broken, in certain instances, that you pretty much have to cut out half of the gameplay functionality in order to do anything,” he said in a call with Polygon. “If you use VATS with certain weapon types, it breaks your damage gap and you can one hit somebody no matter what their build is. It’s not fun if you can press a button to auto aim and insta-kill somebody from across the map, right?”

Such are the woes of playing a multiplayer Bethesda game, and while these technical difficulties are omnipresent, they haven’t dissuaded fans from acting out complex warfare scenarios.

Several of these factions have been embroiled in a long-running role-play war, which so far has included assassination attempts, a public trial for a notorious raider boss, and back-and-forth battles across Appalachia. But as Fallout 76 marches forward, growing increasingly sophisticated, the game’s PvP scene struggles, and the game’s most dedicated players are being forced to adapt.

One such group, The Five-0 New Responders, takes cues from the similarly-named faction in Fallout 76, which, according to the lore, died out due to a plague. But players are continuing the Responder’s mission by giving aid and support to the people of the Wasteland. They’ve also continued the old faction’s war with the scum of the wasteland, those who might raid and pillage. And raiding happens to be The Vultures’ specialty.

The Vultures are the most powerful Raider gang in the roleplay community. While the group made headlines after its leader, The Warlord, got tried and convicted in an in-game roleplay court, another player, Condor, has stepped up to continue the fight. The conflict between The Vultures and The Responders has become tense enough that the good Samaritans have created a tentative alliance with the Enclave, another roleplay group that acts out what it’s like to be the last remaining representation of the U.S. government. And famously, the Enclave are also longtime Fallout franchise villains.

The Fallout role-play community, like most for big fandoms, is balkanized into various groups who had different interpretations of the lore and what constitutes fun roleplay. If you want, say, the Brotherhood of Steel to show up during your long war and act as an ally or antagonist, you want to make sure everyone agrees on what the Brotherhood of Steel is — and sometimes that’s not an easy task, with decades of history and multiple games spanning across the Fallout franchise, by different studios and developers.

Any battles that unfold also end up having an effect on the larger meta narrative, which all players have to agree about. Factions gain and lose ground across Appalachia. Settlements are destroyed. Characters like the imprisoned Warlord can’t show up at the next battle, because everyone agrees that he was imprisoned and has to abide by that.

For instance, the Responders approached Jesse Jewell thanks to the fact that he is the leader of the Enclave Armed Forces. The Enclave are a compelling faction to have around, and Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas both depict them as a complex and elitist group.

“The Enclave, because of their villainous origins, they’re a hard faction to roleplay properly,” Jewell says. He explains that other Enclave roleplay groups paint the Enclave as indiscriminately genocidal, or over-the-top Nazis. But his group aims for his Enclave to be understandable, human, and still an antagonist who retain their grim qualities from the roleplaying games. “The thing that makes the Enclave captivating is that they legitimately believe that they are humanity’s last hope,” he says.

The Enclave Armed Forces create out-of-game government documents to showcase their characters. They gather in the secret base beneath the Whitesprings to talk strategy (and hold photo shoots for Twitter). They take perks and specialize their character to feel and play like a member of the Enclave might, be that grunt soldier or mad scientist.

With the Enclave Armed Forces joining with the Responders against the raiders, the war continued across mock battles in Fallout 76. In November, the Enclave dropped a nuke on Bandit Town, the chief stronghold of the Vultures. In this shared story, the Vultures have lost Bandit Town to a nuke. They are forced to adapt to the actions portrayed in-game, with regular out-of-character conversations to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

Normally, when not in the middle of a war, The Enclave and the Responders are polar opposites — government elites who inherently believe in their own superiority, versus the common man attempting to help out a new civilization. “It’s become apparent that the help of the Enclave doesn’t come without a heavy price, so the attack on the Vultures by the EAF seems to be a ... gesture of good faith,” says The Warlord. While The Warlord is still in captivity, he spoke to Polygon over Twitter, taking the chance to sow some dissent among his opponents. “Chances are the Five 0 will come to regret the ‘help’ they have received.”

The war has since grown, with the heavily independent Free States Militia stepping up to defend their anarchist communities from an organized American government. All of these figures, from the Enclave diplomats to the rank-and-file raiders, are all real people, and they have all entered into a basic agreement as how to settle their disagreements.

Players strip down, equipping approved pieces of gear that allow for a competitive match. Certain weapons are banned, and the VATS mode seems to be a major problem.

“Unfortunately the sad fact is, PvP is utterly broken in Fallout 76,” says the Warlord. “There are multiple severe bugs and glitches in PvP that have been around for months, in some cases over a year, that Bethesda seems unable or unwilling to fix. VATS doesn’t work in PvP. Numerous weapons inflict zero damage on other players. High level endgame armor sets like Secret Service do nothing to prevent one-shot kills against certain weapons. Entire perk builds have become completely nullified and redundant because the bugs disable them and will seemingly never be repaired by the developers.”

The Warlord says that right now, the situation is so bad that some groups are exploring alternative ways to engage in PvP-based events, which are meant to determine future lore. The results aren’t planned; the players are attempting to have a solid, competitive match that integrates with their yearslong narrative.

“It’s sad, but really the only way players can battle competitively is to rely on exploits and legacy gear,” he says.

Jewell says the Enclave Armed Forces are going “back to the drawing board,” and investigating solutions like banning VATS.

The problem that players are encountering is that the game is evolving away from a free-for-all, player-only arena and into a different beast entirely. There’s story content for players to engage with, as well as in-game choices that take place in instances away from the open world. Bethesda have the tricky task of integrating their new content with the old world, and it doesn’t always result in a polished product.

“Even through the technical difficulties that sometimes exist, we’re all having fun, and [the roleplay communities] are all growing,” says Jewell. “These communities wouldn’t have grown if Bethesda hadn’t put in the good work they have. I think 76 is going to turn into a really excellent game.”

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