The Five Games I Want To Run in 2018

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I count myself lucky in a lot of ways. Two of those ways is that I have a tabletop RPG group that meets in person on a regular basis, and another is that said group has been open-minded to me running one-shots of systems other than our main fare, and sometimes of my own creation. Because of this, I’ve been able to run a number of different systems, which both has been a chance to learn about and play games that I really like, and to gain experience that makes my games better.

However, like a lot of people in this hobby, I have accrued a fairly shameful pile of game systems that I haven’t actually brought to the table yet. So, I think the new year is a great chance to commit myself to playing some of the systems that haven’t made it to my table yet, and actually sling some dice. It’s like a New Year’s Resolution, except with vaguely defined goals, and no consequences for not doing it. So it’s exactly like a New Year’s Resolution.

Burning Wheel

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You might have gathered by now that I’m quite a big fan of character creation, specifically systems that allow you to generate really interesting, narratively and mechanically unique characters. Enter Burning Wheel, probably one of the most contentious games on the internet, but one that I like quite a lot.

Burning Wheel is a master class in character mechanics. For starters, there’s the game’s fantastic Lifepath system, in which you build characters by selecting these sort of life units, called “Lifepaths”, which as a sequence describe what you have been doing your entire life. Each Lifepath offers certain skills you can (and some you must) put points in, the sort of places you might have come from, where you can go to from there, and other attributes of your character. For example, a character whose Lifepaths are Noble Born -> Squire -> Knight would have very different knowledge, skills, and experience than a character whose Lifepath runs something like Born into Poverty -> Farmer -> Hunter.

On top of that, Burning Wheel characters are defined by their Beliefs, or the convictions that they hold close to their heart, their Instincts, which are a sort of “if-then” logic that lets you program your character’s behavior automatically, and Traits, which are the defining, obvious, demonstrable characteristics of the character (any character can be handsome, but it’s only with the Trait “Handsome” that you’ll walk into a room and people go “Fuck.“) When you play to these things, and specifically when they get your character into interesting situations, is how you get XP in this system.

Burning Wheel is not the easiest game in the world to get in to, and understanding how and when to assemble some of the more complicated subsystems into the rules is kind of a challenge, but I think the way this game handles characters, and builds them into well rounded, interesting, unique individuals makes it well worth some plays in 2018.

Blades In The Dark

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Looking at this list of RPGs now, something I’m realizing is that all of them have one particular thing that they do really well. Burning Wheel handles characters really well, and this game, John Harper’s Blades In The Dark, is a master class in handling time.

The first way Blades In The Dark, a game about rogues and scoundrels making a name for themselves in a dark, steampunk pseudo-London, handles time is through the brilliant use of flashbacks as a codified game mechanic. Flashbacks are so important the game actually explicitly skips past any preparatory measures for a job, jumping right into the action. Whenever the players encounter an obstacle on the job, they may spend some resources to trigger a flashback, allowing them to describe a scene that happened during that skipped preparatory phase that solves this present day problem. They may attempt to inject an easy, but minimally helpful flashback (“I walked through the museum and memorized the layout”) or go for a difficult, but massively useful one instead (“I spend the last three months digging an underground tunnel right into the vault”).

The other brilliant mechanism Blades has to manipulate time is, well, Clocks. As described in the rules, Clocks are just little circles the GM draws, with some number of ticks around the rim. Depending on the exact circumstances of the Clock, some actions will cause the Clock to tick forward, some to tick back, and when the Clock is completely ticked, something happens. This is an extremely versatile tool, capable of representing everything from “The poor of the city are stirred into revolt” to “An explosive is about to go off” to “The guards are mustering to handle your intrusion”.

Frankly, handling the passage of time isn’t exactly the strong suit of RPGs. The weird “a turn is six seconds and everyone takes turns but really it’s all happening at the same time” thing is really hard to imagine, and handling the passage of time in non-combat scenarios is equally cumbersome. By attuning event countdowns to the drama, instead of the passage of time, such that the outcomes of actions taken push Clocks forward, ensues that tensions remain high and the ticking of the Clock remains dramatic, without the introduction of pedantic bookkeeping. I absolutely cannot wait to see the panic on my players’ faces as the Clocks tick down in my first Blades game.

Rogue Trader

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So if Burning Wheel handles characters and Blades In The Dark handles time, what does Rogue Trader, second in Fantasy Flight’s line of five Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, bring to the table? Scale.

Rogue Trader isn’t interested in the actions of the little guy, or the small, interpersonal goals that litter the galaxy by the trillions. Rogue Trader wants to tell stories that are big, and it fits the setting. Warhammer is generally disinterested in small events, instead opting for stories of massive wars where planets are destroyed and death tolls start out in the six or seven figures. So, when Rogue Trader welcomes its new players to the world, it gives them a spaceship that would make a Star Destroyer blush, and a Warrant of Trade, a document granting the party legal extraterritoriality, and the rights to negotiate with new aliens, to consort with the enemy, and to buy and sell commodities up to planets themselves.

Rogue Trader stories traded around the internet have inspired me to pick up this game, if only because the sense of scale brings with it a subset of player problems, and problem solving, simply not possible in other games. Stuck in a battle in deep space with an enemy ship? Get in touch with the first mate, wire them enough money to buy a small island, and watch the captain’s brains splatter across the inside of their windshield. Are your negotiations with an alien? Remind them that you can always call up your old buddy the Imperial Inquisition and tell them to turn this whole planet into a boiling hell. While some RPG campaigns are lucky to get a spaceship or a castle to call home, your team can buy a planet, or hell, a star system, and terraform it how they choose.

Plenty of RPGs let you play heroes, but Rogue Trader lets you play, to paraphrase the words of redditor ryanznock, billionaire bank CEOs in space, and there’s no sum of money nor rule of law that can fully contain your influence.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

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I’m in a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign right now, and actually ran a funnel for my regular group relatively recently (they mostly all died). My infatuation with this system has grown into affection as I’ve grown comfortable in it, and I hope to be able to run some more of this game in the new year (assuming I didn’t grind my players’ hope into dust too badly last time).

The specialty of Dungeon Crawl Classics is definitely in its pure, concentrated weird. An extremely minimal rulesset, combined with the OSR mentality of “rulings over rules”, mean that most of the problems the game presents are to be solved with clever thinking and player ingenuity, rather than just rolling a skill check. Since stat blocks can be written out in a couple of lines, GMs are free to whip up whatever insane enemies they want, and since fights can be won with clever thinking and MacGuyver-esqe schemes as much as they can by rolling the “hit shit” dice and making numbers go down, you’re free to present your players with enemies of any scale, from rats to gods, knowing that any challenge is one of logical thinking, rather than numbers.

Furthermore, the rules of Dungeon Crawl Classics are such that they naturally attempt to inject some weirdness into the game over time, especially with the magic rules. Roll particularly bad on a spellcasting roll, and your wizard might end up with some new features, from a delightful patch of purple skin to some extra eyes to who knows what else. Every spell you learn has its own special flavor specific to the way you cast it, from changing the weather to causing thousands of rats to pour out of your sleeves. There’s no “I just cast a fireball” in Dungeon Crawl Classics, and every spell turns your game for the weirder.

 

Genesys

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This one’s sort of a cheat. I have been running Genesys for a while now, since the core system is just the main rules of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, divorced from the setting and turned into a generic system (Get it? Generic system? Gene-sys?). But I love this system, especially after some fuddling with the other big boy generic systems like CypherFATE, and GURPS. Nothing handles meaningful dice results quite like Genesys.

For those not in the know, Genesys uses some initially wonky custom dice, which are easy to write off as a cash-grab by Fantasy Flight, but are honestly really cool. These dice roll up symbols instead of numbers, with those systems belonging to three pairs:

  1. Successes and Failures cancel each other out. You need at least one uncancelled Success to succeed at a roll
  2. Advantage and Disadvantage cancel each other out, and whatever remains uncancelled generally determine whether or not things get better or worse for the actor as a result of their roll
  3. Triumph and Despair do not cancel each other out, and represent extremely lucky (or unlucky) consequences of their actions. These essentially are crits.

By using these wonky dice, Genesys‘s dice rolls not only describe success or failure, but lay the groundwork for the progress of the story after the roll. Players can succeed, but create bigger problems for themselves (“You blow up the enemy, but doing so blows a hole in the ship’s hull, creating a force attempting to suck you all out into deep space”), just as players can fail in a fortunate manner (“Your laser blast misses the enemy, but it does blast off the shackles of the prisoner they’re keeping behind them”). Every dice roll is customized for the situation, and it prevents the boredom that comes with both constant success and constant failure.

Conclusion

Obviously I want to run as many games next year as humanly possible, it’s just my nature. However, these five games have been burning a hole on my shelf, and I absolutely want to bust them out and throw some dice playing them. Be it Burning Wheel‘s unique characters, Blades In the Dark‘s sense of time, Rogue Trader‘s vast scale, Dungeon Crawl Classics‘s propensity for the weird, or the great dice rolls of Genesys, these games will hopefully fuel the flame for interesting, fun sessions not just next year, but for years to come.

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Wrestling Games Should Be Crazier

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There’s a special place in my heart where pro-wrestling lives. I’m not the biggest fan in the world (I generally dislike the need to follow plotlines reliant on years and years of built-up lore, the same issue I have with major comics and the MCU), but the sheer ridiculousness of a multibillion dollar production which is essentially a serialized drama about a wrestling competition is too good to resist. It’s like the plot line from a 90s fighting game, but in real life.

The gut reaction some people have when they here I’m in to wrestling is the stock “You know wrestling isn’t real, right?”, to which I respond “Of course I do, have you seen wrestling?” Pro-wrestling makes no attempt to be real, or at least no more attempt than any other performance art. The WWE’s stable of main characters includes an undead wizard, a masked demon from Hell, and a superhero (who had a crossover event with DC superhero Green Arrow). Wrestling makes no attempt to be “real”.

Which makes the line up of WWE video games so ultimately perplexing, and frustrating. Despite having this rich canon of ridiculous nonsense to draw from, and having the most unrealistic parts of pro-wrestling baked in to the core storylines of wrestling, WWE games are, for the most part, about a gaggle of sweaty dudes (and ladies) getting into a wrestling ring and hitting each other until one of them gets pinned. Sure, maybe they take some extra hits, don’t get as tired, and jump a bit further than a real person, but it’s hardly the realm of fantasy.

For some reason, WWE games are obsessed with this idea of “being taken seriously”. They’re published under the “2k” name, as many sports games are. They emphasize super-realistic character models of the wrestlers, and detailed recreations of wrestling arenas, crowds, and entrances. Hell, even the box art lines up with what has become typical for sports games.

The problem with this is that a realistic approach to wrestling games loses quite a bit of what makes pro-wrestling special. The best part of wrestling is not the part where two dudes just hit each other a lot (there’s actually very little striking at all, which makes its strong presence in the game confusing), it’s watching these ridiculous, larger than life characters engage in the most melo- of drama, which is exacerbated by the fact that all conflicts inevitably end up in, well, two dudes wrestling.

Wrestling merely exists as the capstone of the sheer lunacy that is a pro-wrestling show, the crescendo for a build-up of nonsense including ridiculous monologues, shows of emotion lacking the subtleties of a midday soap opera, and feuds being started over the most petty, ridiculous things. One time, Dean Ambrose got mad and started a feud because another wrestler broke his potted plant. I am 100% not joking.

But alas, the WWE games have the payoff without the buildup, and it all falls flat. The story mode creator has been absent in recent years, despite having been a fan favorite and source of many amazing fan-made storylines, including the classic “Ghost Problems” and “Ghost Problems More“. There’s little attention paid to the ridiculous plots, the feuds, the powers and supernatural things, all of the pillars which raise pro-wrestling to the narrative scale of watching real-life superheroes. Instead, wrestlers in wrestling games are just sweaty punchdudes.

The most infuriating part of this is that the WWE has broken this schema before, in the form of WWE Immortals.

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A game that was boring mechanically (it was largely a reskin of the mobile Injustice game), but incredible thematically, WWE Immortals was a mobile game in which WWE superstars from parallel dimensions were drawn together into fight for…some reason. The game featured John Cena as a superhero, Triple H as a sort of barbarian warlord, Brock Lesnar as a Terminator-style cyborg, and Bret Hart as what appears to be Tommy Wiseau.

The existence of WWE Immortals proves that the WWE, at least to some extent, is willing to let WWE games get a little crazy. So you’d think that they’d make some more games which use the liberty of the medium to run a little wild. After all, watching an athlete do something athletic is much less impressive when that athlete is digital, so why not attempt to capture the sense of spectacle by scaling everything up with the flexibility of the game. Let wrestlers leap dozens of feet in the air, piledrive people through skyscrapers, crazy stuff!

Even if you didn’t want to descend into the madness that is the weirder parts of kayfabe (the wrestling term for ‘stuff that is true within the context of the storyline, not in real life’), then the strict adherence to reality in wrestling games is still misguided because it attempts to simulate the wrong parts of wrestling. Attempting to capture feats of great athleticism in combat is not interesting or new ground in games, in fact one can argue that melee combat is one of the first things games tried to emulate.

The thing that wrestling does that is great, the thing that is not simulated at all in WWE’s games, is the way that physical grappling is used as a vehicle to deliver drama. I can’t explain this idea as well as Max Landis’s fantastic video about the way wrestling tells a story, but the core synopsis is that wrestling is a vehicle to create, build, and release tension within an audience. You can make the audience fall in love with some wrestlers and hate others, and then using that to make an entire arena of tens of thousands scream with hate as that hated wrestler pins a beloved one, or cheer with joy as their hero takes down the villain. Every big hit raises the stakes as you see wrestlers wince with pain, limp, or scream. A really good wrestling match ends like a good martial arts movie, with every combatant breathing heavy, heavily injured, tired, sweaty, and worn out, but still driven to deliver the final pin.

And yet, wrestling games look like this. Emotionless slabs of polygons just sort of wail on each other, showing no signs of tiring, of injury, of passion, of any emotion at all. The moves look the same every time, delivered with a sort of bored repetition. In good wrestling, just like good dancing, each move should be an expression of something, some idea, even if that idea is just “I would like to beat you and take your shiny belt”. But in games, it just tends to be fighting for the sake of winning the fight.

What a wasted opportunity.

Collaborative Mystery Games

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Running a mystery in a tabletop RPG is pretty hard, as it turns out. An RPG traditionally has a single source of truth, the GM, and thus, all information required to solve a mystery must pour forth from the GM’s mouth. Unfortunately, players have a tendency to assume the converse, that everything the GM says must be essential, simply by the merit of having been said. Combine this with the normal problems constraining a mystery (clues being too obvious or too baroque, unclear motivations, easily sidetracked audiences, etc.) and the whole endeavor is pretty hard.

There have certainly been great leaps in portraying a mystery in an RPG. Gumshoe is a fantastic system for running mysteries, as it makes the fantastic observation that the useful part of a game is not finding clues, but rather understanding their role in the mystery at large. However, it’s still victim to a fairly fundamental psychological problem: sometimes, players just get locked into a train of thought that isn’t right, and end up frustrating themselves as they chase loose ends.

I’m experiencing this right now, in fact, as my current Dungeons and Dragons game is centered around a mystery. I can feel the frustration as my group, myself included, get stuck in our preconceived, false notions about the mystery, both angry enough at the dead ends to know we’re barking up the wrong tree, and too rooted to our current assumptions to be able to create alternative hypotheses.

This got me thinking: player agency with regards to the story of an RPG is sort of the new hotness right now. Plenty of games offer mechanics by which players can create truths about the world around them, and plenty of GMs nowadays are OK with, or even very into, the idea that players should get an amount of say with the game world.

What if players got to dictate truths about a mystery game, defining a mystery as they solved it?

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So, the immediate problem with this idea is that it, well, fundamentally destroys the concept of mystery. If the players can just point at a guy and go “He did it”, and actually warp the fabric of reality itself such that he most definitely did it, there’s no mystery. They’re no longer the audience, but the writer, and a writer is not surprised by their own mystery.

With this in mind, such a system should not give the players complete control over the path of the mystery. Instead, players should have a more granular control over the clues, and be given some say as to what matters and what does not. The greater mystery as a whole is still left in the darkness, under the watch of the GM, but the players can find some fact in the world, some detail or clue, and say that, yes, this is indeed a piece of the puzzle, and here’s why. It’s then up to the GM to determine how that known piece of information bridges into the unknown mystery.

Here’s a really rough implementation idea. Let’s say that every character has some sort of knowledge domain, just like how Gumshoe does it. The rough-and-tumble street thug knows all about the underworld and crime and thievery. The posh noblewoman knows all about courtly traditions and noble bloodlines and gossip. The coroner knows all about wounds and blood spatters and poisons and bodily decomposition. Along with these domains of knowledge, the players are given some sort of metacurrency. Let’s call it Deductions.

When a character comes across a clue in their particular intellectual domain, maybe a splash of dried blood on a couch cushion, maybe a broken lockpick beneath the window, maybe the knowledge that Lady Verisimilitude or whatever left on the day of the murder to go to the the royal banquet at Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames, that character may burn a Deduction to make a conclusion about that clue, a conclusion that is, of course, completely pulled out of their ass.

“Real blood will dry brown if left to stain for that long. This is still red, and thus must be fake”

“This particular kind of break is most common if one attempts to pick a lock with strength instead of finesse, a common mistake for an amateur to make.”

“Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames cancelled its banquet this year after the local Baron fell ill, so Lady Verisimilitude must have gone elsewhere.”

The important thing is that these are facts from this point forward. That splash of blood must be fake, that thief must not be that good a lockpick, and Lady Verisimilitude must have lied about her whereabouts. The key here is that no conclusion is drawn here that cannot be pulled directly from domain knowledge. The player is not allowed to assert where Lady Verisimilitude was, merely that she was not where she said. This would have to be enforced as a rule.

In this way, I guess it would be more accurate to say that the players are not actually providing any answers to the mystery, but are instead being given the power to say what questions have answers that are important. It’s still up to the GM to say why there’s fake blood on the sofa, who in the town is a crap lockpicker, and where Lady V was, but the players can rest assured that those details have been codified as important, and thus, time and mental energy spent pursuing answers will not be wasted.

Because that’s ultimately the death knell for a good mystery, is if a lot of time and energy is spent by the players, and they feel like they gain little out of it, most likely because what they’re pursuing is simply not important to the mystery that the GM has laid out. By giving the players a sort of mechanical reassurance that what they’re doing is important (because they have enforced that it is, no less), they can be assured that they’re moving forward.

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Speaking of the mystery the GM has laid out, they’ll have to do so somewhat differently now that the players have the ability to assert facts. Generally speaking, you’ll have to make sure that your mystery is solid enough that the players aren’t completely dictating the story, yet flexible enough that it can incorporate all of the things that they believe to be true. Furthermore, since Deductions are a limited resource, you need to ensure that every clue you scatter through the game has both a place where you expect it to fall in your web of mystery (in case no one uses a Deduction on that clue), but also is general enough that players can slot them in a variety of places as they see fit.

Perhaps you just meant that broken lockpick to signify that the intruder was not invited in during the Grand Ball, and had to break in, but the concept of the lockpick being broken in an amateurish fashion gives you an extra wrinkle to work with. Maybe the thief’s bookshelf has a dog-eared copy of “Lockpicking For Dummies” stashed on one of the shelves, or their garage has padlocks lying on the workbench, clearly for practice. The detail the player created hasn’t changed who the thief is, but rather acted as a piece of bait that the players bit on to, that you can use to reel them towards the revelations.

I think such a system could be incorporated into any game already capable of running mysteries. Just, at any point where the GM would describe a detail of a clue, instead turn to the player and say “What do you notice?”. I think a certain key would be to give players a finite amount of ability to do this: too much and they’ll end up convoluting the plot beyond the GM’s ability to improvise, or they’ll line up facts in such a way that it basically forces a certain conclusion to be true, ending back up at the point where they are both writing and reading the mystery.

So, where does this get you? Well, your players will be given facts that are 100% guaranteed to be both correct and useful, and since they’re dictating them, they’ll never have to worry about being stuck down a train of thought that’s wrong, because they’ll be able to demand that their focus is, at least to a degree, relevant. This eliminates the guessing game of “Is this a red herring, or is this useful?” that tends to suck the fun out of mystery games.

Here’s the really bloody secret, though: you should already be doing this. If, as a GM, you have dictated from the very beginning how each and every clue relates to your mystery, even if you’re not concealing those clues behind skill checks, you’re running the risk of players getting stuck in those logical dead-ends where they’re focusing on the wrong thing, interpreting a clue the wrong way, or trying to kludge every detail into the incorrect hypothesis they already have. Frankly, the more players are confident in their wrong answer, the less fun you’re going to have.

I’m not saying “the players should always be right”, but instead “the players should always be half right”. Don’t give them the entire mystery, but instead give them just enough that the twists and turns of the mystery come from the parts they do have set in stone, instead of coming out of left field because the players were dead wrong in the first place.

One Goal, Two Executions: Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild

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I liked Breath of the Wild quite a bit. I had somewhere in the realm of 45 hours played when I finally reached the peak of Hyrule Castle and destroyed Ganon, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some moments where I had a lot of fun. But, that whole time, I couldn’t help shake the feeling like, in this beautiful, wonderful game, there were some things that just weren’t working.

Then, the day after I beat Zelda, I strolled over to my mailbox and grabbed my copy of Super Mario Odyssey, and I was blown away, for a variety of reasons. But, maybe one of the most surprising things for me was how similar the core design ethos of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the ethos of Super Mario Odyssey are, and how, in my opinion, Odyssey got it so much more right in a way Breath of the Wild did not.

For starters, let’s talk about that shared design philosophy, because I do not think that I’m stretching by saying that both of these games attempt to achieve the same design goals. Those goals, in my opinion, are as follows:

  • Grant the player a constant stream of rewards as they explore
  • Create interesting puzzles by configuring known mechanics in interesting ways
  • Encourage players to pay attention to the world around them

Let’s talk about that first goal: granting players a constant stream of rewards. Both Breath of the Wild and Odyssey are jam packed with rewards, from Odyssey‘s 880+ Moons, to Breath of the Wild‘s litany of Shrines, Korok Seeds, and weapons. For both games, if you notice something that looks like it should lead to something, 99.99% of the time it does.

The difference is that Zelda has these rewards scattered across one massive world, while Mario opts to instead cluster them into small, but dense levels. Ultimately, neither of these approaches is right or wrong, but in the end I dislike Zelda‘s approach because it fails to capture that travel time well, in my opinion. This time spent moving between shiny things is ripe for exploitation and enjoyment, either by using enjoyable movement mechanics (a la Just Cause, or the Batman: Arkham games), excellent radiant story morsels to find (as Bethesda’s games like to use), or just by having the journey punctuated by the engaging, challenging combat (like a Souls game).

Zelda does none of these things, unfortunately. The movement in Zelda doesn’t feel terribly great, unfortunately. The limited stamina means you can only run paltry distances, especially in the early game, and horseback riding and climbing are both not terribly interesting. If you find any story tidbits on your journey, they won’t amount to much more than a meaningless side quest or the same Yiga Clan ambush that happens a hundred times. The combat, unfortunately, is also fairly cut and dry, and the game’s limited pool of enemies ensures that these fights get stale fast. Combine all of this, and getting from reward to reward is ultimately a chore. Your “steady stream of rewards” is cut up with these long sequences of boredom.

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Some might accuse me of simply being of short attention span, preferring the immediate, constant stream of rewards that Odyssey presents, which is true to an extent, but I also don’t think that I’m out of line by saying that if a game wants me to enjoy the journey, there should be something about the journey to enjoy.

Moving on to that second philosophical point, the idea that puzzles are to be created by configuring known elements in new ways. So, you’ve traveled that long distance and gotten to the shrine or the Korok seed or the Divine Beast, so what do you do to solve it? Well, while I haven’t completed every shrine in the game (I’m sitting at about 40 out of 120 right now), that sample size is big enough that I feel fairly confident in saying that most every puzzle utilizes a subset of the following components:

  • fighting
  • traversal mechanics (running, gliding, or climbing)
  • Stasis
  • Magnesis
  • Cryonis
  • bombs
  • electricity
  • fire
  • water
  • wind

There’s certainly plenty of clever puzzles one can construct out of these building blocks (especially the Shiekah Slate powers), but there’s a fairly simple problem: with few exceptions, each of these mechanics are introduced to you in the tutorial, with no expansion of their ability throughout the game. I understand why this is the case: since the game is open-ended and players can encounter any shrine at any time, they wanted the player to be able to tackle any of the puzzles contained therein.

Now, this is again a result of Zelda‘s open world design. Since Odyssey has a constrained set of levels, to be taken in a largely premeditated path, it can introduce puzzle mechanics (largely in the form of capture targets) right before you’re going to need that knowledge. Zelda does not have a predetermined player path, and thus does not have this luxury.

However, the trade-off is this: the puzzle variety gets extremely stale over time. Once you become fluent in the language of Breath of the Wild‘s puzzles, they become extremely rote and repetetive. There’s a metal thing, use Magnesis on it. There’s some water, use Cryonis on it. Since you’re introduced to all of the puzzle mechanics immediately, that gives you maximal time to get bored of each of them, instead of drip-feeding you new mechanics over time.

Contrast this with what we might call “traditional” Zelda design. While not open-world, it seemed like older Zelda games, especially A Link Between Worlds, had tried an alternate solution with great success. The world was littered with puzzles that, while featuring a common language, had solutions requiring components that the player might not have had at that time. As the player accrued items over the game, they eventually collected the abilities they needed to solve the puzzles they found. It certainly seems like having puzzles scattered about Breath of the Wild‘s world with solutions you didn’t have yet would both increase the sense of mystery and wonder the game tries so hard to cultivate, and offered another set of rewards to add to the other types: puzzle-solving abilities.

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Let’s move on to that third point: paying attention to the world in order to find puzzles and rewards. Before I get accused of jumping onto the bandwagon of just bashing the year’s popular games, I want to close with how Breath of the Wild does this particular component better than Odyssey.

Super Mario Odyssey is interested in having its players pay attention to the world, but not in a sense of mastering it, like something like a Prey, but instead with an analytical mind. I see these two walls are close together, so I can wall-jump up them. There’s a lady Goomba, so I’m going to go find a male Goomba to woo her. There’s no need to really master your environment, nor cleverness that can be performed with that knowledge.

Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, is a game all about learning about your environment and using that knowledge. Learning environments allows you to know what natural resources grow where, allowing you to craft the dishes you need. Learning your environments gives you new vectors to attack enemies from, as you glide down from cliffs or launch enemies into the briny depths. It gives you vantage points from which to shoot arrows from afar, or alternate routes to avoid enemies that are too tough. This is all compared to Mario, where mastery of a level just tells you where the stuff is.

Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild both are interested in very similar player experiences, but thanks to fundamental differences in style of game, diverge upon their execution. With this in mind, I hope not to bash one game or another, but to emphasize a point that I emphasize frequently on this blog: game design is not mathematics. A problem does not possess only a single solution (I know this metaphor doesn’t map one-to-one for math, but go with me). You can pursue a single goal, and depending on the environment constructed by the other basic elements of your design, you can come up with answers to that same question as different as, well, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

 

Super Mario Odyssey And Clever Puzzle Design

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I only realized that I had accidentally played Super Mario Odyssey for five straight hours yesterday when I collected a moon and realized that the date stamp which appears when you do so had incremented by one. The game is truly charming and fun, but one thing it does amazingly is the way it handles puzzles.

You see, the thing Odyssey does that I love is that it takes time very early on to set up a consistent language of puzzles, one which the player quickly learns fluency in. For all of its amazingly unique enemies, levels, and mechanics, the game uses surprisingly few actual puzzle mechanics. Generally speaking, most of them can be batched into the following types of puzzles:

  • some sort of acrobatic or platforming challenge
  • getting to a specific place within a predetermined amount of time
  • collecting a set of things
  • bring a thing to a person who wants it

These are hardly revolutionary puzzle designs, but the variety comes from these base modes being mixed and matched. Some puzzles are just one of these elements, such as those where you have to collect 5 Moon badges in order to unlock the real Moon, which is thoroughly a puzzle of the third kind. Others are a blend, like the musical notes where you have to collect every note in a certain amount of time, which is a blend of the second and third puzzle types.

Then in comes the captures. In case you missed the memo, Mario Odyssey‘s hallmark mechanic is ability of Mario to throw his hat onto enemies (so long as they don’t have a hat on their own) in order to possess them, like some sort of couture ghost. When you capture a character in this sense, you gain access to a new set of moves. Bullet Bills can fly through the air. Chargin’ Chucks can charge forward, smashing obstacles. Hammer Bros can toss hammers.

The thing that makes these captures really jive well with the puzzle structure is that, while captures are definitely necessary to solve certain puzzles, the extent of the puzzle is very rarely “just be thing X and you win”. Instead, when you perform a capture, you’ll still be performing those same core puzzle types, just with a different bend.

Take the Gushens, for example. These fish-like enemies are surrounded by a ball of water, and can use jets of water to hurl themselves forward or upwards, but only have a limited supply of water to do this with. They need to touch a body of water to replenish themselves, or they’ll run out. The obvious puzzle to build with these guys is “hit this thing with water to unlock it”, but that’s not the norm. Instead, Gushens are usually at the center of challenges that are extremely reminiscent of regular platforming challenges. The difference is, instead of the challenge coming from the timing of moves, it instead moves to conserving water and ensuring you can make it from one body of water to the next. Same puzzle type, different focus.

Another great thing Odyssey will do is give you the same or similar puzzles with different captures as the focus, changing the way you have to approach it. For instance, one level early in the game has you racing down a roadway on a scooter, requiring you to get to the end before the timer expires and the roadway disappears. In the postgame, you’re presented with the same challenge, but with a twist: there’s no scooter, you gotta hoof it. What was once a challenge of controlling the slightly unwieldy scooter is now one of trying to maximize your on-foot movement to reach the speed you need.

The benefit of this common language of puzzles relates to the open-world design of Super Mario Odyssey. Some of these levels are big, or at least they feel really big for a Mario game. On top of that, many of the levels change over time, either with the addition of new characters, structural changes, or sometimes massive state changes (the Sand Kingdom early in the game transitions from frozen-over to a hot desert over the course of the time you spend there). These levels are all full of assorted puzzles and challenges, too, some have as many as 80 Moons to collect.

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There are two ways this could have gone hilariously wrong. Were these puzzles all just “lock and key” puzzles, where it was just a matter of bringing the right thing to a puzzle spot in order to solve it, repeating that task 999 times would have been really boring really fast. On the flip side, if each of these puzzles were hypercustomized with their own special solutions, having up to 80 of them side by side, with the components required for their selection all intermingled, would have been mentally overwhelming. Imagine 80 Myst puzzles, all within the same city block, with their solution components all spread about. Blech.

Instead, Odyssey finds this great middle ground. By teaching players the lingua franca of the game’s puzzles, the game is free to scatter all of these puzzle components around the game’s levels with reckless abandon, knowing that when a player comes across a solution component, like an enemy to capture, they’ll know the sorts of puzzles they’ll be able to solve with it, and when the player encounters a puzzle, they’ll know what they need to do or get to solve it.

Take the humble Goomba for example, throwaway enemy since Super Mario Bros. When the player encounters a Goomba, they know exactly the kinds of puzzles Goombas are good at solving. Goombas don’t slide on ice, making them ideal for getting across frozen platformers. Goombas can stack on top of each other, allowing them to either reach really high platforms or activate switches requiring a certain amount of Goombas to activate. Goombas can also be used to woo Lady Goombas, which always yields a Moon.

Thus, whenever a player encounters Goombas, they know to be on the lookout for puzzles of these nature in the vicinity. The reverse also holds true: when the player finds a high platform with nothing around it, a Goomba switch, or a Lady Goomba, they know they need to hunt down some Goombas.

As the player runs around a level of Super Mario Odyssey, they’ll be seeing and trying to remember a lot of significant details around the world. Instead of having a pile of disparate elements bouncing around in their head which the player is constantly trying to fit together in a logical way, like an old school adventure game, Odyssey makes it so the player always has some prototype in their head of how to solve a puzzle, instead of randomly trying to fit puzzle pieces together, which is a much more satisfying way to fill a world with puzzles, and to make the player feel smart for putting them together.

Dark Souls Is Not A Role-Playing Game (And Some Stuff That Isn’t Pointless Too)

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HOT TAKES! GETCHA HOT TAKES HERE! PIPIN’ HOT!

//The following article contains some general spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, for some reason

I know, I knowDark Souls? Arbitrary definitions of genre? Axiomatic declarations of truth? Man, I’m about to call out Pretentious Game Design Blog Bingo here. The reason I think this blog is worth writing is not that whether or not the Soulsborne games’ genre really matters, but rather, the thought put into to deciding it does. That is to say, the conclusion of the argument matters much less than understanding the argument to get there.

Allow me to make my case. Say I walk into a physical game store, and I go up to the dude behind the counter. I say “Hey man, do you have any recommendations? I’m looking for something new to play, something super different.”

After some deliberation, the guy snaps his fingers. “Oh man, I know the perfect game for you. It’s a game with a super heavy focus on its combat mechanics, to the point where you’ll feel like you’re absolutely getting your ass kicked early on, but as you progress you’ll feel amazing as you start to get used to it. You really have to learn about your enemy’s attack patterns and respond to them, instead of just mashing buttons.”

“There’s not really a heavy focus on dialogue or traditional narrative,” he continues. “And all the characters that are there are kind of bizarre. You have inventory management, both in the form of items and consumables, and have some stats that you can upgrade over time. Ultimately, though, none of that matters, because of you’re good enough you can go through the whole game with trash weapons and no stat increases. There’s a bunch of secrets to find, and also, it has a bunch of crazy boss battles and this insane Gothic aesthetic that’s just dripping from every room.”

“Dope!” I respond. “I’ll take that.”

With that, the clerk goes over to the shelf and grabs me a copy of Bayonetta.

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I know, I can hear your arguments screaming through the computer. Bayonetta doesn’t really have that many skills to upgrade, just Health and Witch Time. Dark Souls has a veritable Excel spreadsheet of stats to manage, and tons of items to collect and equip and use. Bayonetta just has melee weapons, that’s all. And Dark Souls has this rich, immersive lore-filled world full of deep characters and interesting motives, and you get to make choices! Bayonetta just has a linear story about punching God into the sun or something.

Herein lies my critical point: while Dark Souls has a bunch of gameplay features that we traditionally associate with role-playing games, what it actually does with them puts it much closer to the character action games that Platinum puts out, like Bayonetta, than an actual role-playing game.

I think the biggest point at which to start here is the stats, that omnipresent table of numbers that define who you are in a role-playing game. Dark Souls‘s stat screen is certainly intimidating.

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Here’s the thing, though. Literally none of the numbers on this screen affect who your character is, and they provide no wider a suite of options to the player as a selection of gun in a first-person shooter. To compare, let’s look at the “stats screen” of a true-blue role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.

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There are numbers on this sheet that describe how well a D&D character hits things, of course, but these numbers have a much greater sweeping effect on your character than that. The column of attributes down the left side inform the specifics of how your character behaves, what kind of person they are. Are they funny? Are they smart? How’s their critical thinking ability? Are they kinda shifty? Or big and brutish?

Go back and look at the Dark Souls stat screen. How faithful is a Dark Souls character? How much does that change when you increase your Faith stat? Turns out, you have no idea, and not much at all, respectively. Similarly, it’s not like your character has such better ideas when you increase Intelligence, merely the weapons that arbitrarily do more damage based on Intelligence will…do even more damage.

This is because of one simple truth: a mechanic does not make a game what it is, it’s what you do with that mechanic that matters. Dungeons and Dragons (and Planescape Torment and Pillars of Eternity and what have you) have numerical stats and use them as a way to precisely describe the distinct characteristics of a character in quantifiable terms. Mechanics are a way to represent what makes characters unique, what makes them, y’know, people. They are there to reinforce the idea that you are now this character, by giving you a better idea of who that character is.

Mechanics in Dark Souls do absolutely none of that. The numbers on a stat screen do not exist to help you get a better idea of who your character is, but rather they are variables to fit into the game’s mechanical calculus, elements to introduce to your strategies and tactics. They’re used as a way to fine-tune your combat strategy, to shore up parts of the combat where you’re weak, and make your preferred tactics more viable. In this way, they actual bear more resemblance to a scope in Call of Duty than they do D&D’s Intelligence stat. While a role-playing game’s stats push you closer to the character you’re inhabiting, stats in Dark Souls are merely modifiers to your combat aptitude.

I could go on with other aspects of the game, but I feel as though my argument is the same. The use of equipment and items in Dark Souls is merely used to modify and enhance combat strategies, and in no way is a reflection of the character’s identity (weapons as a reflection of identity in D&D can be seen in class restrictions in usable weapons. Since only certain classes can use certain weapons, using a weapon is an expression of that class).

The amount of story and narrative in Dark Souls also doesn’t make it a role-playing game, obviously. Plenty of games that aren’t role-playing games have deep stories. Metal Gear has a deep story. Touhou games have a deep story.

Now, some of you might be asking, what is my definition of a role-playing game? And my answer is that it doesn’t really matter. I’m just using this genre discussion as a vehicle, a sort of Trojan Horse of clickbait through which I want to make my real point: when it comes to identifying the soul of a game, intent shines through much greater than the actual mechanical building blocks themselves. It’s how Dark Souls takes all of the mechanics of role-playing games to build a solid action game, how Thomas Was Alone uses the mechanics of a platformer to build a character drama, how Doki Doki Literature Club builds a horror game out of a visual novel.

This can also be seen in less homogeneous mixtures. Borderlands points role-playing game mechanics in the same direction as FPS mechanics, creating a single harmonious thing. The same thing happens when Brutal Legend points open-world action-adventure mechanics to run parallel with a strategy game.

Of course, saying that mechanics “belong” to a genre at all is stupid. Mechanics are just mechanics, and a good designer can make any mechanic feed into the central philosophy of any game, with proper tweaking. A stat block can be used to enhance combat, a gun can be used to solve puzzles (Portal), a player’s movement can be used to cast judgement upon them (The Stanley Parable), and so much more. So unshackle mechanics from their context and really run wild with them, and see what you can make.

 

10 Good Ideas: Bloodborne and Trick Weapons

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Well, it’s late late late September, which makes it a perfect time to wrap up my September blog series: 10 Good Ideas. What better game to conclude my list of great game mechanics than my favorite game of the Souls lot, Bloodborne? It works out doubly well, considering my lateness means that I’ll be talking about this Lovecraftian game of extradimensional horrors in this, the spookiest of months. Everything works out in the end!

The full admission with Souls games is that Bloodborne is, in fact, the only one I’ve beaten. I’ve gotten fairly close in a few others, but never beaten, whereas I’ve beaten every single boss of Bloodborne. I think the fast-paced combat of the game is a strong motivator for me (although I certainly still like the combat of the mainline Souls games), and a big part of that is the game’s exclusive usage of what it dubs “trick weapons”.

Trick weapons are, simply put, weapons with tricks. Less cheekily, trick weapons have alternate modes or abilities which can be triggered at a single button press, sort of like alt-fire modes in some shooters. Some switch between two different forms completely, like the Kirkhammer (which is a sword that you can sheathe into a tombstone to turn it into a massive hammer), whereas others gain temporary buffs upon activation of their trick, like the Tonitrus (which is a mace that becomes covered in electricity). For the most part, they’re like two weapons in one.

So, why am I calling these weapons out? Alt-fire isn’t exactly new. Well, the thing about weapons in Bloodborne is that, unlike other Souls games, Bloodborne lets you hold on to weapons through the entire game. Literally. The same Hunter’s Axe I got at the beginning of the game was the one that I used to kill the final boss.

On its face, this seems like a knock against Bloodborne. You just used one weapon? How boring! Could you imagine going through all of Half-Life with just one weapon, or all of Skyrim with the same crap sword? Well, no, because those weapons aren’t terribly dynamic. In most games, a gun just shoots, and a sword just swings, but in Bloodborne, weapons are dynamic. There are light and heavy attacks, you can hold and charge some attacks, and then you can activate a trick to transform your weapon, and gain a whole new suite of options. A single trick weapon has with it a fairly large set of choices to make when using them. Do I want the speed and flexibility of my shortened Hunter’s Axe, or the power and range of the lengthened mode?

Since every weapon in Bloodborne offers a fairly wide suite of options, this means the game can afford to have fewer. Again, this at first sounds negative, but I’m someone who hates when games force you to make ill-informed, numerically-driven, or otherwise boring choices, and that’s kind of what Dark Souls does with its weapons. Look at this wiki page for every straight sword in Dark Souls.

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What the hell is the difference between these three swords? I get that there are minor, minor stat differences (the physical damage varies by as much as four, the Strength requirements vary slightly, and the weight differs by one), but ultimately, these three swords are all, well, swords. You swing ’em, they’re sharp, and they basically, from a player feel standpoint, do the exact same thing. Or, at least, you certainly don’t see how they wouldn’t just looking at them (there are greater subtleties. The broadsword doesn’t thrust on a strong attack, for example).

This is stupid. I don’t wanna stare at an inventory screen to try and figure out which of these three essentially identical weapons I like the most. I’m down for inventory and weapon management, but not on such a minute level of granularity. Now, let’s look at some Bloodborne weapons, and in the interest of maximal fairness, let’s pick three swords.

Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a sword with a massive, bladed sheathe, allowing you to alternate between a normal sword and a fuck-off sized two-hander. The Blade of Mercy, meanwhile, splits in two, allowing you to switch between one- and two-sword styles. The Reiterpallasch, meanwhile, is a rapier that turns into a gun. Despite all being “swords”, relatively little observation lets you notice massive gameplay differences in these weapons, and each covers a very large subset of gameplay situations.

Trick weapons are clever because, by allowing one weapon to handle a variety of tasks, you ultimately minimize the amount of weapons needed for a game to feel like it has a “complete” arsenal. This minimizes the number of inventory management decisions the player has to make, while also ensuring that combat with the same weapon remains dynamic and interesting through the whole game.

Obviously, there’s a trade-off. A smaller amount of weapons means that the drip feed of loot won’t be as constant as in a more traditional RPG, but that really just depends on expectations more than anything else. Sure, Skyrim would be pretty boring if you only unlocked, like, four swords throughout its entire campaign, but most people seem pretty happy with Zelda games (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding) having only a couple of main weapons through the course of the entire game.

Ultimately, I think anything that trims down the amount of unfun choices made within a game is a good design choice, and trick weapons certainly do that, so for that, I consider them a Good Idea.