Live, Die, Repeat: Mastery Through Repetition

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I positively adore the movie Edge of Tomorrowa Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt triumph of a time travel movie in which Cruise’s character becomes an incredible super-soldier by reliving the same day over and over again, until having perfected every minute detail of the day. Watching him stumble around and die a litany of stupid deaths early on pays off in the end when, after thousands of repetitions, Cruise is able to march through a D-Day-esqe battlefield and deal with every single obstacle with ruthless precision, gained through memorization.

As it turns out, I actually really like this scheme in games as well. When done correctly, having to repeat similar sections over and over again, learning every time, is a great way to have the player develop a sense of mastery, and to inspire a sense of awesome skill when the player finally goes back to the same section and does that “perfect run”, where all of that skill development pays off. And, of course, no game emphasizes this better than one game which stands above all, where you play a ruthless killer repeating missions over and over again, learning and improving your tactics every time, where you have to deal with how to expertly maneuver through massive crowds of NPCs, and where you play as a bald guy*.

Of course, I’m talking about Left 4 Dead.

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*You’re only bald if you play Louis or Coach, but you see what I was getting at.

Arguably my favorite FPS everLeft 4 Dead and its sequel were and are unique for their use of repetition. The games focus on playing through a limited stable of Campaigns, each constant in their layout, objectives, and larger beats. Characters always start each chapter at point X and end it at point Y, and they’ll always have big confrontations at points A, B, and C along the way. There is no sense of character advancement or even mechanical differentiation between characters.

So, playing Left 4 Dead means playing the same 10 or so Campaigns across the two games over and over and over again. On first glance, this seems to make the game ripe to become stale. On Normal, each Campaign runs about an hour apiece, so once you’re done with the 5 Campaigns that come packaged in each game, why keep playing?

Well, much like a good cake or Hell, what really makes Left 4 Dead is its layers. On your first playthrough of a Campaign, your singular goal is going to be survival and completion. Each of the game’s Crescendos, high-tension moments where the players need to complete some goal while being bombarded by zombie hordes, feels like a desperate fight for survival, and whenever the music for the hulking, nigh-unkillable Tank begins, the only thing being flung around more than bullets is obscenities.

The best example of this is my personal favorite Campaign from either game, Left 4 Dead 2‘s “Hard Rain”. Not only is Hard Rain a microcosm of the concept I’m talking about (the second half of the campaign has you retracing your steps from the first half to get back to your boat after making a supply run), but when you play through it the first time, it’s horrifying. The entire second half of the Campaign has the levels consumed in a massive thunderstorm, obscuring vision and sound and generally making movement much more difficult. The Sugar Mill, the second chapter of the Campaign, is notably full of Witches, enemies which are docile when undisturbed, but once aggravated by light, proximity, or gunfire, can shred through a character a couple of hits.

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There are entire horror games that I found less scary than my first playthrough of Hard Rain

However, something beautiful happens after your first run through the Campaigns. At that point, you exit the phase of Discovery, and you begin the process of Refinement. You want to play through the Campaigns again, if for no other reason than to nurse a bruised ego, and you find yourself avoiding mistakes you made the first time. The game isn’t identical your next time around: an AI “Director” modulates enemy spawns and available items dynamically based on your player performance, so maybe spots where the game let up last time you played this time become major firefights. However, as you replay the game you start to know where things might appear, which is somehow more rewarding. It’s less like you’ve memorized the level, and more like your understanding of the fundamental forces of the game is increasing.

As you replay Campaigns, you’ll find yourself associated certain locations with memories of that one time things went terribly wrong (or right, occasionally). What were once insurmountable obstacles, such as the mad scramble for gasoline at the end of “Dead Center”, get refined into well-tread ground as your ragtag group of survivors starts to more closely resemble a SWAT team. You start to develop detailed mental maps of each Campaign, each chapter, and soon, you stop feeling like a blundering idiot, and more like a zombie-killing badass, not because the game is going easy on you (in fact, at that point, it will be harder on you than it ever was thanks to the Director) or because you’ve simply memorized every facet of the game, but because your skills have improved to the point where you are simply attuned to the way the game works.

Once you’ve reached this point, Mastery, when you go back to Hard Rain, the level is no longer a terrifying horror story, but a place to display expert skill. Moving through the flooded city streets in the second half is a breeze with map experience, and has you hopping across car hoods like some sort of acrobat. The Sugar Mill filled with Witches becomes a shooting gallery once you’ve mastered the art of “crowning”, or killing Witches with one precise, and extremely risky, shot to the nape of the neck with a shotgun. It no longer feels like this rainstorm is coming to consume you, it almost feels like the storm is an omen of you coming.

Once you’ve Mastered Left 4 Dead, the game opens up a new level of challenge to you by offering an assortment of variant modes, which give you the opportunity to use your skills and game knowledge in new contexts. Versus modes puts the reins of the Infected in the hands of an enemy team of players, forcing you to pit your skill against a team of equally-knowledgeable foes to survive, or alternatively, destroy. Mutations have players play through Campaigns with fundamentally changed game rules, ranging from Healing Gnome, where the only way to heal becomes holding a garden gnome (and thus, rendering yourself unable to attack in any significant way), to Taaannnkk!, in which every single Infected player always spawns in as a Tank.

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To circle back to my obvious bait earlier, 2016’s Hitman (which is a very good video game), also utilizes this pattern. First the player Discovers the level contents and game mechanics, before Refining them through mechanically-motivated repetition, until a Master player is ready to apply their intimate knowledge of the game’s systems to variant modes, in this case represented by Escalations and the challenges, which can impose difficult rules on a run, such as never being seen, or doing the whole mission dressed as a vampire. While Hitman‘s levels are far more clockwork than Left 4 Dead‘s, with everything down to AI routines set to a precise, mechanical schedule, the variance that keeps things interesting comes from the player’s ability to bring in new items every time to help in their assassinations, as well as variety of different ways players can actually complete their goals within the level.

Ultimately, I feel that games that emphasize mastery through repetition are some of the most successful at creating that ambiguous feeling of mastery on the player’s part. The possible roteness of the repetition needs to be mitigated by having some part of the game vary from playthough to playthrough, but I think as Left 4 Dead and Hitman show, the key is that this randomness needs to be able to be mitigated by a player who has fundamental understanding of the systems of the game. A Master Left 4 Dead player knows what spots they need to look for a key health kit, even if they don’t know exactly where to look, and while a Master Hitman player doesn’t necessarily know exactly where to go to perform a sniper-only run of Sapienza, they do know some candidate spots to try out.

The key, then, is to design such a game in a way that makes early playthroughs difficult, and perhaps at times overwhelming, but clear and informative enough that a player can then absorb information from those playthroughs and apply it on their next run. The game then needs to be internally consistent enough that players applying knowledge they’ve learned in-game should be rewarded with satisfying and triumphant gameplay, but still new enough that they don’t feel like they’re just memorizing the game. Finally, once players have mastered your game, you need to ensure that they have ways to take on new challenges, ones that force them to apply their new knowledge in different ways, while clearly signposting those challenges in such a way that they don’t overwhelm new players.

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Westworld Has A Lot To Say About Video Games

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//This post contains spoilers as to broad setting details, but I’m going to try to keep plot spoilers light. Still, just assume, if you care, don’t read this.

The recent “show that your friends keep insisting you watch” has been HBO’s Westworld, a show inspired by the 1973 movie of the same name, in which rich assholes gallivant across a faux-Wild West theme park full of androids that don’t know they’re part of a theme park. Westworld is as realistic a recreation of the Wild West (at least, as people think of it) as possible, with the exception of the fact that guests basically cannot experience any negative consequences of their actions, allowing them to (show’s words, not mine) rape and pillage their way across the land, knowing anyone they maim and slaughter will show up in their predefined loops the next day, their memory wiped of the atrocities committed.

I don’t necessarily want to just rant about why the show is good (that’s not what this blog is for) but the particular reason I’m so enthralled by the show is how much the show is about game design without being about game design. The employees of the company which runs Westworld talk about seeding the environment with narratives for Guests to discover, and have arguments on whether the Guests should follow along with narratives or just wreak havoc upon them. Guests argue about which side-quests are worth your time.

Obviously, this isn’t the main theme of the show (talk about niche appeal), but there’s certainly a reading of the show that very much does have something to say about games and narrative design.

For starters, Westworld has quite a bit to say about the depravity of modern media. Guests in the park tend to enjoy violently murdering, among other things, the lifelike Hosts in the park. The pinnacle of this comes in a big, town-wide gunfight early on in the series.

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This guy’s just pissed because he saw some girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

This scene is great, and features some fantastic Wild West gunslingin’. However, it comes to an abrupt halt when the leader of the bandits raiding the town, as well as his next in command, are shot by a Guest and left to die on the ground. As the Guest giddily jumps for joy at the murder he just committed, giddy with how lifelike the bandits’ violent dying spasms are, I all of a sudden became extremely uncomfortable with how excited this man was to commit murder.

The counterpoint that characters in the show use is one that we in the games industry have used quite a bit: a sane person knows the distinction between a simulacra of a human and a human. The same argument used for Mortal Kombat is getting used here, but it feels like the show is forcing the viewer to take a hard look at that reasoning. “Look at this,” it says. “Isn’t this guy kinda fucked up? He didn’t shoot a person, and you said that’s OK,” it taunts. “So where exactly do you draw the line? How real is real enough?

These sorts of moments are what makes the show really powerful in this regard. There are great, well choreographed, spectacles of fight scenes, but put side by side with scenes of Guests truly acting like monsters, before those same Guests perform those high-octane stunts, you’re left feeling gross about the entire situation.

Another interesting point the show has to make is the idea of predefined vs. dynamic narratives. Lee Sizemore, the head of the Narrative department of Westworld, has a variety of discussions with coworkers about how his Guests (read, players) interact with his narratives. He spends all this time constructing stories and character arcs and speeches, only to have Guests either ignore them, or “shoot and fuck” them into disarray.

I think the interesting thing here is this idea of “blaming” Guests for ruining storylines. While we don’t really see an uninterrupted playthrough of any of the narratives in the show, what we see of them portrays them as pretty simple affairs, mostly involving murder, simple interpersonal interactions, and some basic travel. Westworld as a whole seems to only encourage shooting and boning as means of interaction with the world (two of the first things you see when you get off the train are a brothel and Union soldiers signing people up for a manhunt). Hell, before you even get into Westworld, the lobby area is full of guns and attractive Hosts ready and able to engage in any debauchery the Guests want. When representatives of the corporation that run Westworld come down from on high to make some changes, they comment on a desire to make Hosts “simpler” and to simplify interactions between them.

In this way, the way Guests behave in Westworld, and the events and tone of the show, can be seen as a direct result of Narrative. Westworld, in this reading, is a game, and it was Narrative’s responsibility to teach Guests how to play. Guests were shown guns and sexy ladies during their “tutorial”, and everything they do in Westworld is based off of what they were “taught” to do, how they were “taught” to play. I think this is a very important point: when players enter our game, what we teach them, and what we don’t teach them, will color how they want to interact with the entire game world. If we want players to behave a certain way, we can’t just expect them to do that, we need to teach them that such a thing is possible. Perhaps by giving players tutorial levels where they learn the controls to jump and shoot, we’re limiting the player’s ability to see the game as anything other than stuff to jump over and enemies to shoot.

I’m sure there’s more Westworld has to tell us as designers of narratives, and I’ll probably pick up on more in my second viewing, but for the moment, I think one of the reasons Westworld is the best show I saw this year is its commentary about the way we tell stories.

 

 

Welcome, to a WORLD OF DUNGEONS

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I recently had the pleasure of running Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra’s Dungeon World for the first time, and boy what an experience it was. Not only was this my first time running Dungeon World, or in fact any of the Powered by the Apocalypse games (named after the progenitor of the main rules framework, Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World), but it was also the first roleplaying experience of several of my players, who heard about tabletop RPGs through some of my gaming group regulars, and decided to try it out.

The first thing that struck me about Dungeon World was how easy the prep was. When I’m preparing for my biweekly Edge of the Empire game, my prepwork usually falls in the middle of the spectrum, detailing modular events and characters that I can drag and drop into the game as need be, without defining end states for any of those events. Usually, I just keep a few “glasses on the edge of the table”: situations that can easily escalate given a bit of player interaction, but can otherwise be easily cleaned up and removed from the situation if they’re not fitting. I rarely draw maps, only stat out key NPCs, and leave quite a bit up to my improv ability once table time begins.

Dungeon World seems fit to exactly my style of GMing. It seems like the game is specifically designed to encourage GMs to set up questions without answers, much as I do, and let players’ actions inform the resolution of the session.

Here, lemme give some concrete details. For the first adventure, as I was crunched for time, I ran the I’m On A Boat adventure provided on the Dungeon World website. I looked at the document and at first was kind of confused. What would normally be a short bit of informational background text in one of my adventures was left as a question in this adventure. How did half-orc Tim become the first mate? Instead of writing answers, I went “screw it” and ran the adventure as is.

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Amazingly, we went through the entire session without a single “booty” joke

What I got was something extremely interesting. Dungeon World has an extremely interesting mechanic wherein player actions are tied into specific dice rolls called Moves, and the results of Moves are very specifically laid out in the game text. One such Move, Discern Realities, is an equivalent to a normal game’s Perception check, but instead of just allowing players to ask whatever they want, it constrains their results to a list of predefined questions they get to ask the GM, one of which being “What here is not what it appears to be?”

The fact that players have this question sitting in front of them at all times has a weird effect: it means players are constantly assuming that there’s more to the situation than what they can see. That, therefore, leaves them trying to extrapolate the details on their own. My players saw the situation aboard the Salty Mare, the boat described in the adventure, and assuming there was more than meets the eye, began to out loud postulate on the secrets of the ship, one of which being that Captain Cassandra Cassius might have been getting to know one of the passengers in the biblical sense.

While they were just postulating blindly about the game, I had those questions from the adventure in the back of my mind, and as my group was trying to think of the answer to the “mystery” (which in fact had no answer, and only existed insofar as the Discern Realities movie implied its existence), I managed to leverage these player expectations to answer these questions on the spot, and develop the game world right then and there to fit to the most interesting of the ideas proposed to my players. To them, it seemed like they were uncovering some grand mystery I had planned out from the start. To me, I was just using what they were expecting to feed my improv.

Now, obviously this can work for basically any system, but Dungeon World is designed in such a way that players are constantly confronted with implications about the world, from the mysteries implied by “What here is not what it appears to be?”, to the fill-in-the-blank Bonds their characters share with the party members, which imply a long and checkered history between party members, to specific class features like the Fighter’s Heirloom, which in its existence implies a sort of family that would pass an Heirloom down. Dungeon World down to its very mechanical level gives the players questions, and as they answer them, they give the GM a constant drip-feed of ideas, the most interesting of which the GM can take, or subvert, making the players feel like they’re exploring this well-defined world when, in reality, they’re helping define it.

In fact, Dungeon World does a neat trick where every character class, both at creation and in its Moves, requires players to explore and think about the world. From Bards having to describe the works of art they’re pulling from when they use Bardic Knowledge. Rangers are built to get a constant influx of knowledge about the monsters and animals they encounter. Clerics get to describe not only the god they worship, but the trappings of exactly how their religion operates. No matter what class you pick, you will always end up learning about the world, and defining things about it.

I think the I’m On A Boat adventure also helped me figure out how to GM Dungeon World. Instead of actually defining the adventure and world beforehand, the adventure encouraged me to leave setting questions, presented only to me, open-ended. Whenever the players in their blind fumbling gave me an interesting answer to one of those questions, I could just slot it in as the answer, and pretend it was that way all along.

Now, Dungeon World isn’t necessarily going to become my go-to for all things fantasy. Character creation is extremely focused, forcing characters into very trope-y roles based on their character classes, so if I was looking for something a bit more character focused, or a bit further from fantasy as it’s been canonized in pop culture, I might turn to some of my older mainstays, like Pathfinder. However, I think Dungeon World‘s ability to tell stories about worlds, and to develop intricate and interesting settings and moments, is perhaps unmatched, and I’ll probably be coming back to play more as soon as I can.

Hacking Roleplaying Games for Fun and Profit

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When people refer to modding games, the term tends to refer to modifying video games (or, at least, hardware and software in general). Modding is a weird situation for designers, in that you’re getting a preexisting design, and you’re hacking and slashing and adding to it to match a new design. It’s as if you were a sculptor, and instead of getting a fresh block of marble, you’re given someone else’s sculpture.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there is a fairly vibrant culture of tabletop RPG hacking out there, of people taking tabletop RPG systems and modifying the rules for new purposes. For instance, check out this hack of Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire system, turning the system into a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game. Or, alternatively, you can play some Star Wars, but with this hack of Apocalypse World.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I’ve decided that, as long as I have a bit of free time between semesters, I’m going to try my hands at a bit of hacking, just for fun. After all, it’ll take less time than starting a new game from scratch (especially considering I have in progress projects that need time), while still scratching the itch to work on something new, as well as getting some time to bang around in someone else’s rules and maybe see how an actual pro does it.

The system I’ll be hacking is Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. I’ve read through the 4E rules, and am very familiar with D&D rules in general, but always disliked using miniature combat in general, and my affection for 3.5/Pathfinder was too great to be shook by a new edition (at least, until friends from my gaming group ranted and raved about 5th Edition).

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Now, inspired by some reddit posts of other people who’ve taken to hacking Fourth Edition, I’m going to take a crack at it myself. Hopefully, this project won’t consume too terribly much time (when compared to a full game designed from scratch), and should be pretty fun.

Step one to this process is rereading the rules for Fourth Edition. Taking a deep dive into how the actual game functions, and reading them with hacking in mind, is an obvious first step. See what I don’t like, see what I do, and generally try to piece together what the rules are lending themselves to, what situations the rules seem built to push sessions to, and what mood the rules evoke.

With that knowledge in tow, the next step is to figure out a plan. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t want to keep the setting wholesale, since I already have a perfectly good game for playing D&D, and that’s D&D. Whether that means I’ll turn it into some other type of fantasy (perhaps some Warhammer-style grimdark, or something a bit more cutthroat and in the shadows), or maybe I’ll turn it into something completely different.

Given that the rules set I’ll be working with is D&D, the third step will most likely be the construction of classes. 4th Edition is very class-focused, giving each class unique paths and abilities, so redefining those classes will be the easiest way to make significant changes to the game. Classes define what the major roles players can take on will be, what players will be doing, and what sort of stories the game will facilitate.

With that, the fourth, and biggest step, is to go at the rules themselves, and make the changes as I see fit to match the vision. I don’t 100% know to what extent these changes will be made, since I don’t know what they are yet, but the more extreme the setting change, the greater the mechanical changes will be, more than likely, although I don’t want to get too far away from the original rules. Generally thinking, I believe my policy will be to try and keep everything that I can, and making minimum possible modifications to the actual rules, only changing what I need to.

Once that’s done, the “last” step is to playtest. The reason I say “last” is that playtesting and modification of the rules will probably go hand in hand, with multiple repetitions of each in a cyclical fashion, as playtesting informs rules modifications and rules modifications demand playtesting.

I think modifying tabletop RPGs is a really interesting idea, and very easy to do. After all, all you need is a word processor. With this project, I’m looking forward to the idea of taking an established game and making it something new.

My Most Anticipated Games of 2017

Is it a cop-out to do a “Top Anticipated” list instead of actual analysis? Yes. Have I had time to compose thoughtful analysis, or even to play any games, over the last couple of weeks? Hell no. It’s finals.

So, instead, here’s a quick overview of the games I’m looking forward to the most in 2017. Normally such lists are extremely dry and full of vapid hype, but I’m going to go into a bit deeper mechanical detail about why the designs of these games have me excited, instead of just saying “Herp de derp I love new video games”.

Crackdown 3

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I should probably write an article about Crackdown.

I really, really, really love the Crackdown games. Depicting a city rife with criminal gangs, and an omnipresent Agency that sends out superpowered Agents to fight crime, Crackdown will always be my ultimate “just dick around” game. The thing these games do the best is reward you for doing the things you find the most fun by making those things more fun. Driving better and more recklessly, as well as winning races, nets you driving experience points that make cars handle better and make your custom Agency cars do cooler tricks. Exploring the city to find Agility Orbs (I can still hear the hum) makes you better at exploring the world, and lets your character jump farther and higher. Everything is a positive feedback loop.

Crackdown 2, while mechanically superior to the first game in a lot of ways (notably the Wingsuit, the inclusion of helicopters, and better melee combat) suffered from same-y enemy encounters (mostly due to shoehorning zombies into the game for…some reason), so some good mission design will bring Crackdown right back into my heart.

Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite

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Hell yeah, it’s MAHVEL BABY. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was the fighting game that got me into fighting games, so hearing that the series has not only been dusted off and returned to shelves, but we’re getting a brand new game, makes me ecstatic.

The roster for Marvel vs. Capcom games has always been the main draw for me, for a variety of reasons. For starters, having a lot of characters gives the designers more room to put in very unusual characters, knowing that people who prefer more meat-and-potatoes characters will have plenty of options. From the risky play of fielding Phoenix, to the absolute nonsense of putting Phoenix Wright, who is just a lawyer, against characters like Thor or Iron Man, Marvel vs Capcom keeps itself from getting stale by allowing itself characters who radically change the way you play the game.

The thing I’m the most interested in (besides whether or not my boy Doctor Strange will be in the mix again) is the inclusion of Infinity Stones, the all-powerful objects of power from the Marvel Universe. It sounds like players will select an Infinity Stone to bring with them into each match, each offering different boosts (the Power Stone increases strength, the Time Stone speed, etc.) These seem like an interesting way to diversify the ways even a single character can play (imagine a fast Hulk, or a stronger Wolverine), and thus increase the ability to experiment. Very exciting stuff.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III

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I’ve already written extensively on this blog why I think Dawn of War II is a masterpiece, but my excitement for the third installment in the series is a bit more reserved. After a largely mixed public response to Dawn of War II, this game has been said to mix elements of both Dawn of War games together, sort of finding a happy medium.

Not that I dislike Dawn of War, but the second game was always the one that captured me, with it’s RPG-like campaign and the endless tweaking you can do to individual units. I very much liked the pervading idea of “build on what you have” in regards to units, equipment, and even maps from II, but maybe increased basebuilding could tie into that even more, with the ability to build permanent, long-lasting bases, with a few significant characters that linger amongst the hordes of cannon fodder.

Ultimately, I’ll have to see what this game’s mix of its forefathers looks like, but for now, color me curious.

Persona 5

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I KNOW THIS GAME’S ALREADY OUT IN JAPAN SHUT THE FUCK UP STOP REMINDING ME THAT I COULD BE PLAYING IT RIGHT NOW

While the game mechanics of the Persona series are pretty solid (I really like the Press Turn battle system, Social Links are a really cool idea, and the concept of “Pokemon, but demons” makes me giddy), the thing that actually gets me really excited for this game is the style. Everything in the game just oozes this jazzy coolness, this tone of being a suave master thief, that it’s just infectious. Lately I’ve been jamming to this game’s soundtrack in the car, because it just feels like everything in this game is coming together to form this mood, and that’s not something you see in RPGs a whole lot.

That focus on mood, plus the unique setting, great character design, and the promise of top-notch writing from some of the best in the business, keep me excited for this one. Also, reviews are already out, and they say its great, so that helps too.

Knack 2

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Hahaha just kidding who fuckin’ cares.

Prey

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While I’m deeply saddened by the fact that I’ll never get to play the space bounty hunter epic that the now-shuttered Prey 2 was touted as, 2017 reboot Prey seems like its got even more interesting stuff going on, mechanically.

Early interviews with the developers describe this game as open-world, where you’ll be exploring an abandoned space station fending off assorted baddies, but the interesting thing to me is the idea that you’ll be collecting assorted superhuman powers along the way, including a confirmed ability to transform into scenery objects, including a mug and a chair.

There are a lot of things about this game that get me excited. I like the potential for environmental storytelling. I like the idea of exploring an open space station and the potential for non-traditional spaces. I like the idea of zero-G exploration. But what I like the most is the completely untapped possibility space of playing a chair.

Well, those are some of my most anticipated games of next year! There are others, of course (Horizon: Zero Dawn comes to mind), but these games I think will present something interesting that we don’t necessarily have in the current games space, which hopefully will result in some interesting design come next year.

Saints Row The Third: A Coat of Crazy Paint

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I like Saints Row: The Third. After a long Overwatch bender that largely left me frustrated with the stress of competitive play, I decided to go for something in my library that was a bit more stupid, something easy, something that would serve as a good pallet cleanser. What I landed on was the ridiculous, goofy Saints Row: The Third, a game that answers the question “What if the GTA team included every stupid thought they had in development?”

Saints Row: The Third is a dumb video game. You can smack cops with a three foot long purple dildo, you can run around completely nude (with a mosaic blur at all times, of course), and you can have a button on the controller dedicated entirely to making a jerk-off motion. It banks on being completely ridiculous, it’s the main distinguishing factor that the Saints Row series grasped on to in order to transcend the label of “GTA clone”.

However, I can’t help but feel like this ridiculousness isn’t core to the game, and is instead a layer of paint, something that entices you and catches your eye at first, but doesn’t actually contribute to the structure of the game. For craziness being the central selling point of the game, it sure feels ancillary to many of the mechanics and missions.

Take, for example, the mission My Name is Cyrus Temple. This section will contain spoilers for the later portion of the game, so be warned.

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In My Name is Cyrus Temple, Third Street Saints mainstay Shaundi is kidnapped by STAG, the Special Tactical Anti-Gang unit which has set out to eliminate all crime syndicates, including the eponymous and protagonist Saints, from Steelport. The plan is great in summary: the Boss gets plastic surgery to look like Cyrus Temple, the commander of STAG. Then, he flies onto the aircraft carrier STAG is using as a base, offering other Saints members as prisoners, before the real Cyrus calls in and the whole thing goes sour. The Saints bust Shaundi out, and blow up the carrier before flying away in a VTOL jet.

That sounds…pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, the execution leaves something to be desired. Here’s a basic play-by-play of what happens:

  1. After meeting with your Saints members at the plastic surgery clinic, you automatically get transformed into the STAG commander
  2. You then make your way to a STAG base without rousing any attention, and grab a VTOL jet.
  3. You fly the VTOL jet, and (in a cutscene) land on the carrier and meet up with the second-in-command
  4. You have a bit of non-interactive walk-and-talk before choosing 2 of 3 STAG R&D projects to progress on (which are then added to your inventory)
  5. You get outed, and have to shoot your way down some corridors to free your friends
  6. You shoot your way through some corridors to the main reactor, then shoot a panel to blow it up
  7. In a timed sequence, you shoot through some more corridors before grabbing a VTOL jet and escaping (in a cutscene).

Let’s look at the actual mechanics involved in each of these steps. Steps 1 and 4 have literally zero significant interaction, beyond some walking, and are essentially cutscenes. Step 2 is autofailed if you kill anyone, so you have to carefully and nonchalantly drive into that base (in a game whose driving controls are designed not for precise driving, but big clumsy chases). Flying the VTOL in Step 3 is a straight shot from A to B with no flying combat or even obstacles really. Then, Steps 5, 6, and 7 are the same corridor shootouts that are not only mundane for this game, but mundane for the genre as a whole.

Each of these steps can be seen as expressions of one of the game’s mechanics, or as intersections between the player and certain subsystems of the game. Really, most atomic elements of any game can be seen as that, but I think it’s a fair way to analyze this mission. As a Saints Row: The Third player, and maybe as a fan of open-world crime games in general, I want main story missions to do one of these things:

  • Show me new and interesting ways to use the mechanics in the game that I wouldn’t have seen before
  • Let me participate in cool and fun set pieces that the regular mechanics can’t quite handle without a bit of bootstrapping
  • Put the pieces in place to set up really cool moments using the normal mechanics

My Name is Cyrus Temple, and in fact almost all of the missions in Saints Row: The Thirdfails to perform any of these three tasks. The whole mission involves regular mechanics put in regular contexts (driving on city streets, flying in clear skies, shooting in corridors against well-known enemies). The best cool set piece opportunity for the mission, flying out of the exploding aircraft carrier, is handled in a cutscene, and even then it isn’t even shown. There aren’t even any cool moments. Most of it is just mundane corridor shooting. You could have some potentially interesting scenes of banging around in a VTOL in an indoor space, but that’s not even done. In fact, swap around some nouns (STAG for cops, VTOLs for cop cars, plastic surgery for stealing a police uniform), and this mission could slot in easily in any “serious” open-world crime game like GTA.

So, this mission is just the regular-ass mechanics of the game, without any embellishment, so at least this mission is as good as the wacky free roam, right? Look closer. You have to carefully drive a, due to the mechanics, very clumsy vehicle without causing any chaos, flying a VTOL through empty skies, engaging in a shooting gallery with bland enemies who are extremely resistant to the game’s goofy melee attacks. This mission isn’t even as good as just free roam, it’s worse. At least in free roam, I can drive like a maniac, shoot down police helicopters in the skies, and engage my full arsenal in combat.

This goes for a lot of the missions in the game. The token zombie mission in the game bogs down as you get staggered by every enemy attack, and the final mission, which brings to you space, is a regular gunfight ended with an epic boss fight where you…shoot…explosives when the boss…walks past them. None of your dumb guns matter when you’re basically just pointing at a gun at a big red barrel.

In the end, the problem is that, while parts of the game are as ridiculous and off the wall as the marketing and aesthetic would have you think, My Name is Cyrus Temple, and in fact a lot of the missions in the game, are as by-the-books as one of these games can be. That’s the key observation: it’s not enough for a game to just have the veneer of its theme, that theme needs to be baked in to the mechanics, the level and mission design, the enemy behavior and the weapons. Otherwise, it’s just going to feel like a coat of paint over the same old game.

 

 

 

 

The Plight of the Noble Fighter

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Has any traditional RPG class suffered as much indignity as the humble Fighter? Defined literally as “one who fights”, the Fighter doesn’t get cool magic spells or deities to entreat, or even zen-like bodily focus or bloodthirsty rage. The Fighter just hits stuff with weapons until they die.

It’s sort of a definitional problem, in that the Fighter is, by nature, supposed to be a non-magical, tactical melee warrior. The Fighter is a mercenary, a samurai, a soldier, someone who knows their way around a battlefield and is defined more by their tactics than by any special abilities.

The problem lies therein: tactics are defined by player activity, not by any sort of in-game ability. Fighting with tactics in mind just means to fight smart, and ultimately that’s up to the player to use the mechanics of the game in an intelligent and effective matter, which isn’t really something you can put in an ability box.

Just look at the description of the Fighter class in Pathfinder. Given less than two pages in the book (compared to the Barbarian, who gets about double that) the Fighter’s Class Features are about as boring as they can be. Get a bonus feat. Get a bonus when using certain weapons. Get a bonus on Will saves against Fear. Not a lot of really cool options here, you can just do a bunch of stuff you could do slightly better.

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Behold the greatest Fighter in the land, for only he is 5% better at landing Critical Hits than everyone else.

5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons sorta fixes this. The Fighter gets three Archetypes, each offering their own boons, but the options still aren’t great. Champions get small bonuses to things they could already do, and their first interesting ability, Survivor, which lets them regenerate hit points, comes at level eighteen. Eldritch Knights are just Magic Fighters, but if I wanted to play a Magic Fighter, I’d play a damn Paladin.

That leaves us with the Battle Master, the Archetype of the Fighter I’m currently playing in my 5E campaign. I feel like the Battle Master is so close to being an interesting Fighter. Battle Masters get a pool of dice called superiority dice, as well as a pool of maneuvers, much like how spellcasters get spell slots. Using one of these maneuvers expends one of your superiority dice (which come back on rests), and lets you do cool things like counterattack after a missed attack against you, or disarm a foe.

This solves the problem of giving Fighters new, interesting things to do in combat with their Class Options, but it does so in an arbitrary manner. Why does doing one of these maneuvers cost a resource? What, in-game, do these superiority dice represent? Tiredness? That can’t be, because even with all of them expended I can still fight normally for hours. Also, how come I can only memorize a few maneuvers? You can’t just swap them out every rest like spellcasters can with their spell slots, you’re basically stuck with your picks for the long haul, meaning that my tactical swordsman who is a master of the parry and riposte doesn’t know how to taunt an enemy.

This leads to the fundamental problem of the maneuvers: they’re not adding new options, they’re just taking away a bunch of options you used to have and saying “no, now these are special Class Options”. All of a sudden, my Fighter can’t attempt to disarm a foe unless I have the special “Disarming Attack” maneuver. You’ve taken control over my own tactics out of my hands and locked them away inside the rules. I now need special Class Options to do something that arguably any human being with a sword could at least try to do.

There are games that do some interesting things with the Fighter archetype. Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed has a class called the Unfettered, which functions more like a Dexterity-based Fighter, or even a bit of a Rogue, and is heavily focused on dodging over attacking. An Unfettered gets to add its Intelligence modifier to its AC, allowing it to parry melee, then ranged, and eventually magical attacks, as well as gaining the Rogue’s Sneak Attack. While this is still just “you can do stuff that you could do before, just better”, the difference between the Unfettered and the Pathfinder/3.5E Fighter is that the Unfettered’s bonuses are focused on a single goal: maneuvering. The Unfettered’s ability to be hard to touch allows the player to take on riskier plays and positions, ultimately opening up the sort of tactics they can successfully act on in combat, giving them more, interesting choices.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has a similar mechanic to the Battle Master of 5E, where Warriors can choose to undertake “Mighty Deeds of Arms”, which are essentially identical to the maneuvers of 5E: declare a Mighty Deed, be it a disarm, a blinding attack, a defensive maneuver, or what have you, roll a special Deed die, and see how you did. The key difference is that DCC doesn’t arbitrarily limit the number of Deeds you can do as a Warrior: you can just sort of do them all the time. This allows the Warrior to be constantly performing these cool combat tricks. Sure, it still has the problem of artificially constraining these sorts of generic moves to Warriors (actually, Dwarves can do them too), but that’s far more fitting of an OSR game like DCC, where only Thieves can sneak and Dwarves don’t get to be Wizards.

I think the key here is that these solutions always give Fighters a set of interesting decisions that are unique to them. When you just give Fighters flat stat bonuses, you’re not giving them any new decisions to make, you’re just tweaking the odds of the ones they already have. When you give Fighters a small list of maneuvers they can do a few times, you give them a few extra decisions, but not a ton (not helping is the fact that a decent portion of the 5E maneuvers are reactionary, making them not tied to active decisions at all), and in the end they’re not nearly as potent as other limited-use abilities, like spells.

And that, I think, is the revelation. Fighters are never going to be able to do things as flashy and game-changing as spellcasters. If you don’t give them anything cool to do, they’re going to feel like picking a Fighter is a mistake from the start. If you give them some cool new options, but restrict them like spellcasters (who do need limitations, lest they break the game), they’ll still feel impotent. If you can’t have a Fighter do amazing things, have Fighters do things all the time. Let players who want to revel in the mundane combat of your RPG get access to the deepest and knitty-gritty combat your game has to offer.