As to Andy's story... wow! This was a great piece of work. You know what I think makes it? It's the aspect I'm calling "Flow." The story structure is impeccable. It's a neat idea, and the writing is pretty good, but neither of those are magnificent. What really makes it shine is the way the structure creates the feel of a real, breathing world. Or, phrased another way, your actions have consequences.
For example, early on you can choose to steal from the King's treasury. At first, I was a bit put off by this, because it's so easy. There's no risk; you just definitely succeed. Then I discovered that it has consequences later. A LOT of consequences. In Ham Duranen, the guards at the gate recognize your picture on the wanted poster. In the neighboring town, if you are visibly carrying the king's loot, the guards there try to grab you, and chase you out of town. In an especially cool twist, if you then run around among the peasants talking rebellion, well, due to your theft, there's a spy among them, and he attacks you. These are all brilliant uses of consequences, of making your choices meaningful.
It goes deeper than that too, from the direction you choose to go on the overmap, to which faction you side with (if either), to the decision at the very end, Tipping Point is rich with meaningful decisions.
I have to say, the opening was my least favorite part. When I first pulled out this story, I almost didn't even give it a chance. In fact, the main reason this wasn't one of the stories I voted for was because I didn't realize how rich it actually is until I came back and played it again for purposes of writing the full review.
The main problem I ran into was that I couldn't immediately see the relevance of the strange vision. I mean, the vision is obviously supposed to evoke a modern world, but what on earth does that have to do with this extremely generic-seeming, cliche fantasy world that we then find ourselves in? Beyond which, the vision itself kind of rubbed me the wrong way, just because I don't agree--apartments are not cages. Cubicles at work are not cages. His descriptions make an almost political statement, and it's not one I agree with. Our world is full of wonders; just because we're used to them doesn't make them any less wondrous.
Of course, later it became apparent what the relevance was, and then I was quite pleased with how it all tied together. I wonder if there would have been a better way to forecast that, though, so the opening might not have seemed so awkward?
As I said in the opening words, this is where the story really shone. I think the presence of a combat system was effective and additive. It wasn't unique in any way, but it worked--and even better, it had a mass combat system that worked! I love mass combat, so it was REALLY cool to see that here, and even better that it wasn't inherently broken (though I personally did find a way to break it lol)
But game systems aside, what really made this amazing is the structure of the story, with a very effective balance between sandbox-style exploration and choice-driven narrative. The crown in the jewel is the effectiveness of the choice structure; just that so many of the player's choices are meaningful and have real, often dramatically important consequences later on.
The writing wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad. It has a bit of an amateurish quality to it, but there's also something charming about the innocence of the vision. Occasionally there was word repetition or awkward
sentences, but it wasn't too disruptive.
At the end of the day, the writing wasn't what carried the piece, but it didn't get in the way. It worked.
Although at first I was a little put off by the apparently generic fantasy world, by the time we got a little way in, I found myself kinda charmed by the old-school fantasy vibe. I mean, where else could you make a wrong turn and wind up in a random encounter with an iron elemental?
I remember a DnD game I played years ago, when we literally did have a random encounter with an elemental. I was so annoyed at the apparent lack of all rhyme or reason behind this elemental wandering around in the wilderness (the DM had just flipped through the Monstrous Manual to pick it out). In this story, it would have fit right in, though!
I liked that even the random encounters were actually tied to the main plot. And the whole concept of this being a "tipping point" in the fate of the world, going toward advancement or staying innocent, is really cool. All in all, quite solid.
Secret Sauce: 5
I'm going to go all out here and give this two thumbs up. It's not without its weaknesses, but at the end of the day, this is one of the most impressive entries of the year. Largely because it captures that all important element so effectively: meaningful choice.