Why The Hell Can’t I Stop Playing Fire Emblem Heroes?

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I play it in bed. I play it on the toilet. I play it in front of my computer. I play it between classes. I play it DURING classes. I cannot stop playing Fire Emblem Heroes. In fact, with the exception of a bit of Overwatch, as well as me starting the first couple hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (a game I will probably talk about more once I’m deeper into it), Fire Emblem Heroes is literally the only video game I’ve played in the last, god, month?

What Fire Emblem Heroes is is a mobile game, Nintendo’s third after Miitomo and Super Mario Run, and it is sort of a Fire Emblem-lite. You control squads of four units on very small (6 x 8, in fact) maps, with the simple goal of eliminating the entire enemy force, which only comprises between three and six units. Units have special abilities, and gain advantage and disadvantage over opponents thanks to a simple rock-paper-scissors style triangle (swords beat axes beat spears beat swords).

Probably the main draw of the game is the way one obtains heroes, as the title suggests. Usually, Fire Emblem games provide a drip feed of new characters through the story, occasionally letting you unlock some through clever gameplay. Heroes, meanwhile, offers up a gachapon-style unlock mechanism by which you spend orbs, the game’s main currency, in exchange for “opening up” new heroes. You get a batch of five colored orbs, indicated the contained hero’s place on the weapon triangle, and can spend money to open them up, with each consecutive orb in the batch being a little bit cheaper. Since this is a free mobile game, of course you can buy the orbs with real money (I haven’t).

The most obvious reason that I might be playing this game a lot is time-based. I’m super busy right now, with two senior projects needing completion, plenty of homework in my other classes, a job hunt, a part-time weekend job, and two tabletop groups to juggle. Playing a full-fledged AAA game right now is kind of a hard sell right now, when I could be using that time to do, well, productive things.

Fire Emblem Heroes is so short and bite-sized that it means it’s perfect to slot into this schedule. The most demanding fights only take five minutes or so, and while the stamina system which determines how much you can do in a day seems like it’s aggravating some, for me it serves as the perfect end-cap for how much I want to play in a session before returning to whatever I was doing.

I’m also usually a huge sucker for games where you collect stuff (Pokemon, specifically), but I don’t think Fire Emblem Heroes necessarily has its hooks in me for that reason. I’m not hugely attached to the Fire Emblem series (the only game I’ve played is Awakening, although I’d quite like to play the others in the future), so seeing all of these familiar faces from the whole series really doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Instead, I think the character progression is what’s holding me close.

You see, characters in Heroes level up as they fight and kill enemies, and doing so unlocks Skill Points. These points are then spent on a hero-by-hero basis to unlock new basic and special attacks, as well as to unlock certain special feats and traits. One hero might gain the ability to drag an attacked enemy back a space, back towards the rest of your forces, while another might attack twice, so long as they initiate the combat. Unlocking these abilities I think forms the strategic depth of the game needed to hook me.

Fire Emblem Heroes obeys the first law of making instantly interesting gameplay: easy to learn, hard to master. The initial mechanics are easy: guys can move two spaces than attack. Faster guy attacks first. Weapon triangle grants buffs. Simple enough. However, as you progress through the game and your characters accrue more and more Skill Points, your strategic options grow in kind, as suddenly you’re paying very close attention to character positioning, to the types of enemy on the field, to whether you should initiate a combat or let an enemy come to you. Sure, none of these puzzles are equal to, say, a game of Starcraft, but they’re just mentally engaging enough to be a satisfying five minute distraction.

Furthermore, the sheer quantity of heroes you get, as well as the difference in abilities between them, means that you can always mix up and try new strategies. You can lumber forward and fight enemies with brute strength with a bunch of knights, which are very strong but can only move one space a turn, or you can hope to decimate a foe’s melee units with a barrage of arrows and spells before they even get close.

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The arrows strategy also gets much better if you get lucky like I did and pull a five-star version of the best archer in the game early into your playtime.

The beauty is that all of this is condensed into a game that just takes a couple of minutes to complete, instead of hours. Each match feels like a tiny little puzzle, one where you have to work the numbers out in your head. There’s no RNG in the fights at all, just pure strategy, so the game strikes this beautiful balance of having just enough tacked on to each character to create a vast array of possible strategic situations, combined with a wide range of characters to choose from, all condensed into an extremely short play time. Sure, a full length Fire Emblem game would be boring if it were this simple, with no equipment system, support system, or even classes, but you’re not playing a full Fire Emblem game, you’re playing a five minute one.

Ultimately, I feel like Fire Emblem Heroes works because it fills a nice niche as far as games are concerned. The game isn’t brain dead, you do need to engage with it on a mental level in order to plan around assorted character abilities, positions, and tactics, but it doesn’t require near the same tactical investment as a round of Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch, and that strategy is condensed into such a tiny little span of time that it doesn’t feel like an investment of time or energy at all, just a quick little diversion to distract from the day.

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Running Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a Tabletop RPG

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Boy, this one’s…this one’s gonna be niche

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about running a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure tabletop game. It’s a combination of two of my most niche interests into something that would require a group so oddly specific that I’ve basically resigned myself to never, ever doing this ever.

But, man, it’d be cool.

For the uninitiated, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is the story of the Joestar family, a bloodline for extremely stern people who basically constantly find themselves at the center of a great deal of trouble, from fighting vampire kings to chasing serial killers to fighting the President to fighting the time-stopping, blood-sucking uber-villain of the series, DIO.

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Yes, he is named after Ronnie James Dio and, yes, you are supposed to spell his name in all-caps.

In Jojo’s, a party of heroes usually ends up in encounters with enemies one at a time, in a “villain of the week” sort of format. Most characters of note in Jojo’s possess what are called “Stands”, which are these sort of ghostly manifestations of their inner psyche, each of which has a unique power. Some of them, like DIO’s “The World”, pictured above clenching his fist, have immediately useful powers like stopping time. Others have more niche abilities, such as “Highway to Hell” in Part 6, which has the ability to kill any target in range, so long as the stand’s user…kills himself.

That’s the joy of Jojo‘s, and why I think it would make an excellent tabletop setting. Jojo’s is all about people with extremely specific powers trying to out-think one another, to put each other into situations where their powers will shine. The most recent season finale of the anime, finishing off the Diamond is Unbreakable arc of the manga, had two stand users basically just outwitting each other for an entire battle, as the hero, who’s ability is to reconstitute anything he punches into its original form, faces off against the antagonist, who can turn anything he touches into a bomb. The battle is less of a direct fistfight and more like watching two very precisely laid-out plans weaved into one another.

So, specifically, why would Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure make for a good tabletop game? Well, what I just said above has me instantly interested. Traditional RPGs can sometimes devolve into rote “I hit him, he hits me” combat, in which combatants just smack each other with weapons until one of them falls over. JJBA instead has fights which feature a distinct pattern: Meet the villain. Figure out what his power is. Concoct a ridiculous strategy to defeat it. Execute. And then punch them a lot. Actual physical combat is usually the last thing in the fight, and it usually provides a satisfying conclusion to the fight.

As a result, every time players would show up to the table, they’d have a new puzzle to solve. First they need to put their heads together to figure out what the hell the enemy is even doing, which is easier said than done. Here is a list of actual abilities that Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters have had:

Basically, the sky’s the limit for what sort of antagonist you can have. When you have that down, your players have to actually be clever and figure out specifically how they intend to use their specific abilities to beat this foe. Then, they get to enact that plan, and change it on the fly, and beat foes with the strength of their strategy, instead of just through sheer force of numbers and statistics. Then, when they finally have the enemy in a corner, it’s punchin’ time.

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I highly encourage to let players scream wildly while they do this.

Another nice part about Jojo’s, other than its resistance to getting stale and how it incentivizes creativity, is that it’s episodic. Like I mentioned in my superhero game post, games featuring a “villain of the week” structure are extremely resistant to player schedules, allowing you to simply tell a story with whoever’s around the table that day, without worrying about where the other characters went off to.

So, what we have is a setting where players can build characters that can do basically anything, where every fight is unique and a chance to be creative, a game that requires smart thinking on part of the players, and a game that will work with a volatile group. You know what we don’t have? A game. Like, an actual system to use. Surely, I don’t have something already primed and ready to go?

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Behold, my face as you fell into my classic bamboozle

However, there is a system which I think is a perfect fit: Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream. MaoCT is a system in which children have adventures alongside their own personal monsters, otherworldly things which are unique to the child and have unique and interesting powers. Find “monster”, replace “Stand”, and done.

MaoCT uses the One-Roll Engine, which is an extremely simple and fantastically clever dice system which I am a big fan of. The system is designed from the ground up to allow for versatile and unique powers to be represented mechanically, and the fantastically good character creation system, which ties monster abilities to parts of their body, works pretty well in Jojo‘s, where it is frequently the case that protagonists have to attack specific weak points of an enemy.

So, I have a system, a motivation, and an infinite wellspring of characters to create, mechanically represent, and set against my players. Now, sadly, all I need are players.

Campaign Idea: March of the Hellgates

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I’ve been inhumanly busy lately, between my schoolwork, the two tabletop campaigns I’m running (and the one I’m playing in), my job, and pursuing a post-graduation job, but I still have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for games to play, and I’ve recently had an idea for a kitchen-sink campaign setting that’s got me very excited, if very wishing I had more free time.

The name of this setting would be March of the Hellgates. The setting centers on the world of Astacia, a high-magic, D&D-ass D&D setting full of wizards and magic and arcane secrets and monsters. The one thing this setting is missing is divine magic. While the concept of religion exists, the idea of divine beings having a tangible effect on the real world, at least an undeniable and traceable one, does not.

Everything’s going swimmingly in Astacia until, one day, a hundred years ago, these great fiery portals called Hellgates open up across the land. Demonic armies literally spew forth from these rifts, razing the countryside, reaving armies, and enslaving the populace. To defend against this threat, eight of the greatest sorcerers, now known as the Sorcerer Kings, perform a ritual that destroys their physical body, but allows them to ascent to astral beings, and in this brief moment where they are able to maintain their power in the Material Plane, they carve massive swaths in the demon armies and force them to retreat.

The Sorcerer Kings vanish, unable to contain their power into material bodies for any longer, and the devastated Astacia is forced to rebuild. Riding on the end of the conflict, a mageocracy (that is, a government controlled by magic users) called the Arcane Protectorate establishes itself as the new high power in the land. The reasoning is that magic users are what literally just saved the world from destruction, so why not put them in charge?

While the Protectorate isn’t totalitarian per-se, they are an extremely bureaucratic and self-concerned organization, which meant it was a while before they tackled their first big problem: the Hellgates. When the last demons retreated through the Hellgates, they weren’t closed behind them. They were just sort of left open.

Finally, an expedition team is mounted to travel through a Hellgate, and this is where the meat of the setting is. When the team reaches their destination, they find themselves not in Hell, but another world, one called Mendallen. Mendallen is a desert world, currently controlled by demons, but most decidedly not the origin of the demons. In fact, as it turns out, the Hellgates serve as a sort of highway service connecting the assorted worlds that the demons have invaded at one point or another, thus establishing a multiverse ripe for exploration.

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That’s the meat and potatoes of the setting. Astacia serves as the “hub” for the game, out of need for a focal point, and its unique standing as a world recently (in the grand scheme of things) invaded by demons. Some of the worlds connected by Hellgates are under demonic control. Others, like Astacia, are not. However, the common trend is that control is inescapable. All of the worlds that resisted demonic occupation did so by instead submitted to an alternative evil.

Take the world of Covina, for example. Heavily inspired by D&D’s Ravenloft and Magic the Gathering‘s Innistrad, Covina is a densely wooded, dark gothic world, one where citizens hide behind their town walls at night out of fear of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. Covina is host to a variety of horrifying monsters, such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and most interestingly, a cosmic horror-scale monster called T’sholoth that lives in the ocean. T’sholoth is horrifying: it mutates and aggravates the monsters in the night, it drives men mad with whispers in dreams, and it basically has stunted all civilization on this world by forcing people to cower in fear.

However, when the demons invaded Covina, T’sholoth pretty much single handedly obliterated them, both with hordes of mutated monsters and its own direct involvement. T’sholoth is an unspeakable horror, and the damnation of the plane, but were T’sholoth defeated, the demon armies would easily conquer Covina.

That’s the core question of Astacia. Astacia freed itself, but now the Arcane Protectorate wields absolute authority. While the Protectorate hasn’t necessarily done anything too bad yet, they’re still extremely concerned with maintaining power, to the point of heavily regulating magic users, and making a point to research, perfect, and grandstand with powerful instruments of war. Their taxes can be rough, their punishments severe at times, and they have a tendency to be very paranoid.

Not only that, but the Sorcerer Kings are still a presence, even if not a physical one. Those who reach out to the Ethereal Plane can sometimes be visited by a Sorcerer King, who might bestow knowledge or a quest upon the traveler. The extent of their power is unknown, as is their motivations. On top of that, they’re completely unmatched: the Protectorate has no idea how to reproduce the ritual that created them, despite constant experimentation. Are the eight Kings going to become watchful guardians of the realm, or oppressive god-like beings like T’sholoth?

I think this idea is ripe with fascinating, interesting ideas. If done will, a campaign could take place within a single world (like a group of monster hunters surviving the woods of Covina, or a caravan of traders wandering the desert of Mendallen), or could span multiple worlds as a party travels the multiverse. Any genre of fantasy wanted can be explored here by just travelling to a new plane, and anything boring can just be left.

However, there are three things that make me very excited about this setting, that make me want to run it ASAP:

1. Higher powers are weird

Paladins are banned from this campaign, clerics draw their power from the ethereal Sorcerer Kings, and the gods, if there are any, don’t regularly make their presence known in this world. There are definitely great forces in this setting, but what they want and exactly what they can do are far more ambiguous than most high-fantasy settings.

2. Heavily exploration focused

This campaign is built from the ground up on the premise of going to new, bizarre places. The sheer variety of places to go, things to encounter, and problems to solve is multiplied exponentially by having a variety of planes, meaning you can do a sandbox-style game in such a setting fairly easily.

3. Weird magic

Sort of following point 1, magic in this world is bizarre and doesn’t work in a very well-defined way. While the Protectorate tries its best to normalize and control magic, things like the Hellgates, the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings, T’sholoth, and other oddities mean that there is plenty of magic that is just nothing but question marks. In my opinion, I think that makes for the best kinds of magic.