The Games That Defined 2017 For Me

I want to note for a second that this post isn’t called “The Best Games Of This Year”, because, honestly, I don’t feel comfortable saying that simply due to how many good games, games I’ll probably love, I didn’t get around to.

2017 was a busy year for me. The world was…well, a lot of stuff happened in current events this year that you don’t need me to describe to you, but in the midst of all of that, I graduated college with Latin honors, got a job as a programmer, visited Japan for the first time, got my own place, had my Dad move out of Dallas, leaving me alone here, and a ton of other stuff. The fact that I have time to play any video games is honestly incredible.

But play games I did, and holy shit was this a good year for games. Japan came back with a vengeance after misguided rumors that the Japanese development scene was dying. Many of the year’s best games came from Japanese teams (including NieR: Automata, Yakuza 0, and Persona 5, all of which are still in their shrink on my shelf, shamefully). In between releasing Skyrim for toasters, Bethesda published some fantastic single-player experiences, proving that it pays off to invest in your pet projects. The Switch only came out this year, and it’s already such an amazing piece of hardware. Tabletop RPGs are full steam ahead, following the path to public fame blazed by the Fifth Edition of D&D and shows like Critical Role. Board games have never been better.

So, instead of just arbitrarily listing all of my favorite games that came out this year, despite the fact that I played a ton that did not come out this year, all to culminate to a grand reveal to my favorite game of 2017 (Prey, spoiler alert), I thought it would be more interesting to talk about the games that are inexorably linked to my life and my memories of 2017.

The Game That Almost Fucked Up My College Career: Nuclear Throne

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Let’s get something straight here: Nuclear Throne did nothing wrong, I almost fucked up my college career, with the vehicle of self-destruction being Nuclear Throne. I first installed Nuclear Throne at the top of the year, after meeting game development icon and saint of a human being Rami Ismail, and after blubbering like an idiot for what felt like four hundred years, going “I should play more Vlambeer games”. I fell into a real hole playing Luftrausers, and thought Nuclear Throne would be a good game to play.

I played, like, a lot of Nuclear Throne. So much that I was sitting in the back of a couple of classes in my last semester just…playing Nuclear Throne. Linear Algebra? Who needs Linear Algebra? The only vectors I need are the ones from my gun’s muzzle to this crow man’s face!

Yeah, turns out, while you can have a philosophical argument all day about whether or not you need Linear Algebra (spoiler alert: if you’re a programmer, you do!), when you’re in a Linear Algebra class you 100% need Linear Algebra. So, I had to spend the week before finals with my head buried in textbooks learning all of the material for the first time, instead of casually recalling all of the stuff I learned in class, because I spent all of class playing Nuclear Throne. In this way, I don’t know if any game will evoke my college years of late-night cramming, sitting in lecture halls, and panicking about grades, quite like Nuclear Throne.

The Game That I Wouldn’t Shut Up To My Friends About: Deadly Premonition

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Is Deadly Premonition good? That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re measuring by the metrics of realistic textures, non-repetitive music, good driving controls, a meaningful open world, or PC performance, no. In fact, by those metrics, Deadly Premonition is pretty much a trash fire. Luckily, I don’t rate games by any of those metrics.

Instead, I rank games by the amount that I get pulled into their world, by the affection I have for the characters and the disappointment and longing I feel when I have to put the controller down. And by that metric, Deadly Premonition is a masterpiece. I ended up loving FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (please, call him York), as much of a movie-referencing, tone-deaf weirdo as he is, as I ended up loving all of the weird characters of Greenvale. The mystery and world of the game enthralled me, and even when the game was at its worst, I wasn’t mad because the game was mad, I was mad because I was too addicted to stop.

I have convinced four of my friends to purchase Deadly Premonition. It has its hurdles to jump over to really enjoy, but when you get past all of that, the game is an absolute treat. Everything in the game is a monument to how SWERY65 and his team worked hard to make a game, a crazy game that only they could have conceived. While the translation from idea to product is never perfect, and that’s maybe never been more true than for Deadly Premonition, this game is the kind of paradoxical mix of unsettling and charming that it really does perfectly capture small town America.

You should play Deadly Premonition.

The First Game I Played As An “Adult”: Prey

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Younger readers might not know this, but after you graduate from college you get inducted to the secret cabal of adults, where you gain access to all of the Secret Adult Knowledge like how to fix plumbing and what a Roth IRA is. Once I had finished reading the ancient scrolls and the scientists activated the gene that makes you refer to movies as “shows”, I walked outside as an adult. I wasn’t a student, for the first time in 16 years. I had a job, and two degrees.

So, the first thing I did was go straight to my local game shop, buy a copy of Prey, plop down on my Dad’s couch, and play it until 3 in the morning. Turns out, being an adult is a lot like being a teenager, and so I slipped right back into my teenage habits of getting, just, real deep into a video game. And no game was so perfect for that role like Prey.

Prey is a goddamn masterpiece, a perfect 10 in my opinion. The way that game makes its world breathe and feel alive, and the way the characters on board Talos 1 feel like real people, right up until they get murdered and eaten by alien goop monsters, was what let me slip so deep into that game. Combine that with a perfect execution of immersive-sim style gameplay, encouraging exploration and creative thinking, and just like how the Typhon consume the bodies of their prey, Prey consumed me and my thoughts for weeks.

When I was a kid, I was afraid that there would be a point where I would have to take a step back, out of all of these amazing virtual worlds I was exploring so that I could focus on the real world and grown-up problems like mowing lawns and whatever the fuck a cleanse is. Prey reminded me that, no, no amount of years will make me stop immersing myself in these incredible games.

The “Holy Shit I’m Actually In Japan” Game: Gunslinger Stratos

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You hear a lot in nerd apocrypha about Japanese arcades, and how they’re full of hardcore dudes just chain smoking and being really good at fighting games. I wanted to go to Japan for a lot of reasons, but some nonzero percent of that desire came from the desire to experience a Japanese arcade, to see the sort of alternate reality on the other side of the world where people, like, leave their house and go to a place to play video games, something which for us Americans is mostly a dead dream of the 80s.

When I got to my first arcade in Akihabara, a Taito Game Station, I walked through a couple of floors of grabber claw games, some fighting games, and beelined to find a category of game I could only vaguely postulate existed, the sorts of games that were made for the arcade, in a country where arcades were not just a type of bar you can go to that might have a Ms. Pac Man cabinet, but were a part of nerd culture. Towards that end, I found Gunslinger Stratos, a third-person shooter that used custom lightguns that I whipped together like a chubby, gaijin Bayonetta.

I had been culture shocked from the moment I landed at Narita Airport, doubly so the first time I walked out of Shinjuku Station. There was a certain amount of being lost in those first couple of days, as I wandered around a combination of enchanted, curious, and clueless. I had to frantically Google about a dozen terms just to order my first dinner in the country. I got constantly lost, was massively intimidated by the crowds and the subway system, and had this little feeling in the back of my head that I was in way over my head.

It’s weird, but on my third day in Japan, walking into that Taito Game Station in Akihabara, all of that went away. Despite most of the signage being in Japanese, and having never heard of half of the games in that arcade, I was able to just walk right up to Gunslinger Stratos and play with the guys next to me, despite the fact that we couldn’t speak a word to each other. I got my ass kicked, sure, but something about the way I was able to just play a video game with some strangers comforted me, and from that moment on, despite being on the other side of the world, I was without fear or intimidation, and knew I could get around however I had to.

The Game That Kept Old Friends TogetherStar Wars Tabletop Roleplaying Game

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My college friend group is somewhat odd. We all actually went to high school, and while subsets of the group were friends back then, we never hung out as a collective whole until college, where we all subconsciously decided that meeting new people is scary and opted to instead coalesce into a group of people who weren’t strangers, but weren’t friends either.

We became friends quickly, though, good friends. Over the course of college, I ended up living with about half of the group in assorted configurations, and even while doing the thing everyone tells you not to do (common knowledge seems to say that friends who move in together will have knives to each others’ throats by the end of the week), we only got closer as friends. Or maybe I was the shitty roommate and no one was impolite enough to tell me. Also possible. Probable, even.

At some point in college, we all went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens together, and it was using this movie as a catalyst that I attempted to roll the dice on turning the friend group into a tabletop group as well, and it worked. For almost everyone in the group, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG was their first roleplaying experience, and the campaign we clumsily started that January persisted all the way through 2017, moving towards a grand finale in 2018.

Over recent years, tabletop games, roleplaying games in particular, have started to hold a special place in my heart that video games could just never encroach upon. The fact that I have an excuse to bring all of my friends together in physical space to all play a game together is something that, especially as we all branch out into our adult lives, is fuckin’ hard. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG for me is not just a game with brightly-colored dice, it’s the thing that kept my friends together through all of 2017.

The Game That I Reminisced Over: Puyo Puyo Tetris

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When I was in high school, my friends and I were pretty ravenous for any game we could play at school instead of doing, y’know, anything productive. Plenty of mediocre flash games came and went, but one standby constantly stood as a time-tested game that was always fun: Tetris.

Flash forward five years, and I had a good high school friend in town, back home from his new job in Idaho. Our friend group sort of exploded across the country over the course of college, and as the only one who remained in Dallas, I’ve been lucky. Whenever people come back home, by extension, they also come to see me. When he came back, we trawled our local game store for some good split-screen multiplayer games, and I landed on Puyo Puyo Tetris. We went home, poured ourself some glasses of whatever liquor I had lying around, each grabbed a Joycon, and went into Battle mode. This was probably around 7 PM.

The next time I looked at the clock, it was 2 in the morning. Something about the sort of mechanical process of just playing Tetris made it perfect for assuming a sort of zen state, where we just sat and played, occasionally remarking about where our friends were now, reminiscing about dumb stuff we did as kids, or just yelling obscenities at each other. Playing video games with my friends is something I’ve done for a decade at this point, but something about it being Tetris made it so familiar. It was like repeating a ritual we hadn’t gone through in a long time, even though this was technically a new game.

The Last Game I Played In 2017: Dream Daddy

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(Technically the last game I played in 2017 was The Jackbox Party Pack 3 at a New Year’s Eve party but I have fewer interesting things to say about that)

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure why I bought Dream Daddy. I’ve never played a visual novel or a dating sim, am not really a fan of the Game Grumps (although I was in the past), and am a cisgendered straight white guy, the sociological equivalent of a Chili’s. So, buying a gay dating sim produced by the Game Grumps is atypical for me. Part of it might have been that I was playing Demon’s Souls at the time, and reached a point where I was like “Fuck this, I wanna play something easy and wholesome”. Thus, Dream Daddy was purchased.

Dream Daddy is a sublime video game for a variety of reasons. The humor is spot on, with a very 2017 blend of self-deprecation, absurdism, and puns that never comes off as “fellow kids” territory. The minigames are all in all fairly clever, my favorite being an encounter with a fellow Dad that launches a Pokemon-esqe battle to see who can brag about their children the best. But the place Dream Daddy absolutely shines is the characters.

The best character in the whole game is easily your daughter, Amanda. Despite you the player not really having much presence in Amanda’s upbringing (the game starts near the end of Amanda’s high school career). Despite this, you end up feeling a sort of weird paternal connection to the character, as Amanda shares your sense of humor, your social awkwardness, and your habits good and bad (including eating a bunch of junk food and watching terrible reality television). Moreover, Amanda accomplishes what is apparently impossible in writing: she is a teenage character who behaves in a believable way, neither being “just a tiny adult” nor “a child allergic to logical decision making”. She reacts to the world of the game in a way that believably conveys the flaws of her character as well as just what it’s actually like to be a high schooler about to go to college.

Dream Daddy also has a full cast of dateable Dads who live on your block. These Dads generally initially conform to a one-word trope (there’s a hipster, a teacher, an outdoorsman, a fitness junkie, a goth, a “bad boy”, and a youth minister). At first, they seem to play these tropes fairly standard: goth dad Damien has gargoyles in front of his manor and wears a cape, leather jacket-wearing bad boy Robert downs straight shots of whiskey at a dive bar down the street, and gym nut Craig says “bro” a lot and coaches his daughters’ softball team.

As you play the game, however, these characters open up into interesting characters with pasts that affect them, goals they drive towards, and interesting personality quirks. Robert, the tough guy, is a major cinephile. Hugo, the intellectual teacher, loves pro wrestling. Damien, the goth dad, is afraid of scary movies. These are played for more than just gags, they help flesh out the characters as real people.

Moreover, the rewards for pursuing a Dad to the end aren’t always just “you bone”. Instead, these paths always end in what feels like a healthy, logical conclusion for the friendship, which sometimes means you don’t end up in a relationship. It doesn’t feel like you “didn’t win”, but rather like you actually advanced an interpersonal relationship in a real way. It’s neat.

In a way, I think it’s appropriate that I capped off 2017 with Dream Daddy, because I think the thing that was most important to me about 2017 was my interactions with other people. From meeting one of my idols at the top of the year to graduating alongside my friends to reconnecting with old friends to seeing my Dad move away to pursue a better career to the random people I befriended in Japanese bars, people were the source of all the good things in my 2017. Hopefully, this is a trend that will continue into 2018 for me.

 

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How I Build A Playtest Session

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So, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to playtest a couple of my tabletop RPGs with my gaming group, and while those two games have been wildly different in mechanical fidelity, each seems to have gone fairly well, and were extremely informative. I thought it might be an interesting read to share how I build these playtest sessions, seeing as I’m currently working on my second playtest adventure for my dark fantasy game, Blackmarked. (You can read more about Blackmarked here, here, here, and here).

So, the very first thing I do is I set out with a list of questions I have about my design. “Is it good” is not one of them. When you set out to playtest, you should have real, concrete things that you want to figure out about your design. Ideally, these questions should be specific, because specific questions will hopefully yield specific action items for you to take going forward. If you ask “Is it fun?” the answer you get might be “No”, and “No” tells you nothing about what you should do next. If you ask “Were you able to build the character concept you envisioned with the character creation rules?” and the answer is even still “No”, you know what needs to be done: increase the variance of character creation.

It’s also worth remembering when you write these questions, and later when you hear answers to them, that your design is not the only thing that will influence the answers. Your playtesters and the GM’s style will have at least equal weight on your playtesters’ opinions of the game. Your player might say they were able to build any character they want, but they might only want to build obvious, tropey characters. Your players might say the game seemed hard, but the GM might have just been remorseless, or maybe even they just got unlucky. Knowing your GM and your playtesters’ preferences helps balance this out but, as with all things, a big sample size helps eliminate individual bias.

Now that you know what truths you’re trying to wring out of your players, it’s time to actually build the session contents. At this point, you’re in familiar territory: you’re just planning a session, just like GMing anything else. I’m not going to tell you how to do this, if only because GM prep is a process that’s very different and personalized for every GM.

Here’s what I will say though: you have a couple extra things you need to consider as you prep. The first is fairly intuitive, and that’s that you need to build your game in such a way as to let your players answer your questions. If you’re curious how lethal your game is, you should plan your session with a range of difficulty in the combat, so you can try to isolate where exactly the PCs start falling. If you’re trying to figure out how the Hacking mechanic works, you better put some computers in that session.

Another thing you need to consider is that there’s a much greater-than-average chance that the game will just crumble to bits in the hands of your players. Maybe they’ll stumble across a combination of rules that turns them into unbeatable death machines. Maybe a stray goblin will murder the entire party thanks to a poorly thought-out rule or an unbalanced string of dice rolls. Maybe a player will accidentally roll a useless character, or maybe the whole party will just ignore a rule that you think is pivotal. More so than ever, you need to build a session that is resilient to the most whiplash-inducing swings of luck, focus, and player strategy.

Also consider a general piece of advice for any one-shot, one that goes doubly-so for unfamiliar systems: players have no idea what their characters do in this world you’ve created, so define some clear goals for them. Don’t give them the chance to piss around and mistake their own lack of guidance for a lack of game focus. If your game is about hunting monsters, start your session with all your party in a room with a guy who says “Go hunt this monster, dummies”.

The last big thing you need to consider is that this is the players’ first interaction with your rules. Even if you’ve playtested with this group before, chances are you changed some subset of the rules between then and now, and even if not much is different, your players are still going to feel as though stuff has changed. So, if at all possible, try to structure your adventure in such a way that the complexity of the situation escalates. Think of a video game tutorial: first you jump, then you shoot, then you jump and shoot. Similar theory here.

If you’re still not sure how to build an adventure for this purpose, a solid recommendation is to simply pilfer what you can from other published adventures that are designed to introduce players to a game and see how they do it. Many systems have an introductory adventure in the back of the book, designed to integrate players with the game. Others yet have published adventures that are perfect intros for new players. Feel free to read some of these, study their pacing, their structure, the way they introduce mechanics, and pilfer as need be. Here are some adventures, and their corresponding systems, that I found useful:

  • The Sword for Burning Wheel
  • Sailors of the Starless Sea for Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Any of the Beginner Games for Fantasy Flight Game’s Star Wars RPG
  • Tower of the Stargazer for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Now, let’s say you’ve finished up your adventure up and are ready to run it. Dope! Most people don’t even make it this far. Now you have the complex part: finding a group to run it with. Just like with writing the adventure, you have all of the normal problems of finding a tabletop RPG group, but with some new problems too! How fun!

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First off, you need a group of people who are okay with the fact that the game they’ll be playing is both incomplete and possibly bad. Your players need to be aware of the fact that there might be things in your game that just don’t work. Stuff might be busted, and need to be hotfixed by you on the fly with some off-the-cuff ruling changes. You might have just not thought of a mechanic that the players expect or want to use, and have to whip something up on the spot. You need to be upfront with that, and you need to be OK with that.

You also need a group of people whose biases, tastes, and experiences you are aware of. Sometimes these will be relevant to your core questions (if one of your questions is “Can players new to RPGs pick these rules up fast?”, you should probably find people new to RPGs), but knowing this for anyone will help you understand the context of their opinions and criticisms. If you’re building a story game full of narrative mechanics, and you get a player who’s a 3.5 munchkin, that’ll affect what they think. Don’t necessarily use this as a mechanism to exclude people from your playtests (let’s be honest, the pool of RPG playtesters is not big enough for you to be excluding people), but do use it as a mechanism to determine your game’s strengths, weaknesses, and audience.

Finally, keep in mind that your playtesters are ultimately doing you a favor, even though they do get to play a game. Playing an RPG is a decent time investment, even for a single session, and your playtesters have allowed you to spend that time of theirs on your pet project. At the bare minimum, get them snacks, drinks, maybe a name in the book. If your project is such that you can swing it, offer to give them copies of the completed rules when you’re done (this also serves selfish purposes: by offering someone a completed game, you’ve now got people who’ll ride your ass about completing your game who will help motivate you).

You can also scrounge up playtesters in the form of other designers. If you’re extremely lucky, you can compose a group out of hobbyist designers, taking turns playing each others’ games. This is a fan-fuckin’-tastic way to play a lot of cool games and to also keep your passion for game design lit, but remember that every designer has their opinions about the way games “should” be, and while their advice is useful, it’s ultimately no more inherently useful than any other playtester’s.

So, go out there, and get some people playing your homemade RPG, even if you don’t plan on publishing it or even finishing it. Best case scenario, they love it and and you get the incomparable high of having people play and like your game. Worst case scenario, they hate it, and you learn a ton of stuff about game design that you get to carry into the future (this won’t happen if their feedback isn’t specific, but that’s why we build questions beforehand, remember?). So, really, worst case scenario is just a different best case scenario! You have no excuse.

 

Spice Up Your Magic

Magic systems are bo-ring nowadays. The Vancian system of magic, where spellcasters memorize spells, expend spell slots, and maybe have a book, has been canonized in fantasy roleplaying games to the point of being stale. Magic needs to be, you know, magical, so I’ve been trying to think of some interesting ways to spice up a world’s magic system and make it a bit different. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The Ten Percent Law

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For those of you who snoozed in high school Biology class, The Ten Percent Law dictates that a consumer of organic food will end up obtaining about ten percent of the available caloric energy of the consumed.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this.

Someone really, really messed up in your magical world discovered that the Ten Percent Law also, unfortunately, extends to magical energy. By consuming a magical being, you obtain ten percent of that being’s magical power. For the little stuff, the fairies and pixies of the world, ten percent is a barely noticeable bump. But were you to climb to the top of the tower of the greatest wizard of the land, strike him down, and dig in, you’d find yourself wielding noticeable new power.

Thus, the wizards of this world have made the devil’s trade, allowing themselves to commit the most heinous sin in exchange for ultimate power. Spellcasting duels usually end with the winner tearing the flesh from the body of the loser. Extremely high-end restaurants emerge, offering to cook up and serve powerful magical beasts for the enrichment of its sorcerous diners. Some people, with an unpleasant combination of ambition and psychopathy, hope to one day consume the gods themselves, in order to ascend to divinity.

Tell Me The Name of My Dad, So That I May Become Djinn

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A somewhat common spin on traditional magic is what I’ll call “Name Magic”. Popularized in the Earthsea series as well as in the Inheritance Cycle, the fundamental idea is that everything has a sort of “true name”, its name in the unknowable, ancient language spoken by the fundamental forces of the universe. By speaking that name, you exert dominance over that thing.

This ideas is extremely common with reference to demons. The idea is that knowing a demon’s true name grants you control over its very being, essentially enslaving it to you. In my homebrew D&D setting, the demons themselves use this ability to establish a hierarchy: greater demons carry scrolls containing the names of thousands of subservient demons, which can all in a moment be magically read to move the horde.

The interesting thing about this system is that it suddenly gives magic a bunch of quirks which we normally associate with linguistics. What happens when you speak the Fundamental Language of the Universe with an accent? When someone creates something truly novel and unique, how do you refer to that thing in the Ancient Tongue of Creation? Moreover, if you understand some of the phonemes of the One True Language, you can potentially learn new and devastating magic just by reading. All of a sudden, magicians are engaged in the same war to control literacy as the church was in our real world 500 years ago.

Memory Limit Exceeded

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When you’re casting what we traditionally consider to be 8th or 9th level spells, you’re manipulating fundamental forces of the universe. There’s a lot of factors involved with getting a wish or opening a gate, and you need to account for all of them, or else your spell will not go the way you want it to.

To this effect, a mortal being literally does not have the mental capacity to process all of the information needed to successfully cast an 8th or higher level spell. If they try, the spell will invariably backfire, as some incalculable equation is calculated wrong, an impossible degree of focus is not achieved, or maybe just some rogue factor is simply forgotten.

The challenge which serves as the threshold between great spellcasters and those that change the world lies in how they shortcut this need for expanded mental capacity. In my D&D setting, the aforementioned demons cheat by distributing the tasks of spellcasting amongst their subservient demons. Artificers might construct objects that essentially serve as magical computers, crunching the numbers in the background to help a spellcaster deal with more complex world-warping. Particularly daring wizards might just try to magically expand their brain, although doing so, and especially botching such a procedure, might have disastrous consequences.

Ammomancers

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It’s fairly common in fantasy settings to have artificers enchant magical weapons, perhaps by fitting it with jewels or inscribing magical runes in order to grant a weapon new powers. With this in mind, consider a world in which enchanters use this ability to enchant America’s favorite weapon: the gun. Or, more interestingly, the bullet.

Making ammunition is hard, and its even harder to try and attempt to inscribe tiny, precise magical runes onto those little metal cylinders. As a result, the world’s ammomancers, those with the knowledge of the ancients and steady hands, are some of the most valued enchanters in the world. Entire kingdoms rise and fall due to the work of history’s greatest ammomancers.

While magical ammunition is pretty cool (bullets that explode! bullets that open portals! bullets that banish monsters to other dimensions!), the interesting worldbuilding potential comes from magical warfare experiencing a similar shift that actual war experienced at the end of the Middle Ages, a shift of democratization. It’s much easier to fire a gun than it is to swing a sword, and it’s also much easier to fire a gun than to cast a spell. With magical ammunition rampant, any commoner with the right equipment can cast spells like any great wizard. People will attempt to construct special mills that automate the enchanting process, with it completely changing the face of magic as it is known. How will the magical orthodoxy respond to this?

You Have Broken The Greatest Of Laws

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There is a Divine Creator of this world, one who wrote the Laws of Creation by which the fundamental forces of the universe work. You, as a spellcaster, have found a way to bend and break these laws for your own good. While you seem like a man of miracles to those around you, in the eyes of God, you are a lawbreaker, and lawbreakers must be punished.

If you perform a little magic here and there, you’ll get some omens that something greater than yourself isn’t happy: bad dreams, some black cats cross your way, maybe someone says something really foreboding to you before forgetting it ever happened. However, if you start doing some big magic, like throwing fireballs and resurrecting the dead, you’ll have problems on your hands. More, specifically, you’ll have Angels.

Far from the peaceful, wisdom-dispensing and Heaven-delivering angels we usually think of, these Angels exist to find anyone who breaks the Laws of Reality and remove them from the world, usually violently. These Angels are merciless hunters but, much like police officers, they are bound to the Law that they enforce. Thus, Angels do not have any abilities that we would consider “magical”. Instead, they exhibit an incredible control over probability. Instead of performing the impossible, they instead bend the odds on what’s possible to end up on their preference.

For big, big magic, like mass resurrections, profane rituals, and really, really bad stuff, God isn’t above some direct intervention. People tell stories about a kingdom up on a mountain which believed itself mightier than any divinity, thanks to its massive leaps in magic. Out of wrath, God struck the mountain with a force so strong it demolished the mountain, killed everyone in the kingdom, and sunk every last remnant of the civilization into an unknowably deep pit.

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.

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.