#RPGaDAY 2018: Days 6-12

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Well, since the #RPGaDay2018 … people? have decided to sort their questions into week blocks, I figure that’s a pretty natural way to tackle them as well. So, instead of five questions a post like last year, we’ll just do a week … you know, a week. Pretty reasonable, in my opinion.

Now, last week’s post can be found here, and this week’s post can be found … it’s this one. You’re reading it.

August 6th: How can players make a world seem real?

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Participate in the world as an inhabitant, not as a player of a game.

My players have a tic that I hate, where occasionally they refer to elements of the game’s world or setting by their mechanical function. This is commonly done with the use of terminology lifted from video games, terms like “Quest”, “Objective”, “Side Quest”, things like that. I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose; it’s a quick vernacular that our entire table understands, since all of us play video games, but it instantly pulls me out of a game.

This can also extend to the way characters view NPCs. Occasionally, my players will tend to simplify their interactions with NPCs to either “Guys we need to kill”, “Guys we need to buy stuff from”, or “Guys we need to talk to in order to advance the quest”. This sort of behavior, while practical, ignores my favorite types of NPC interactions, the kinds that really make the world feel alive to me: talking, just to talk.

Real people chit-chat and make small talk. It’s something we all probably do a dozen times a day without thinking about it. There’s no goal to be accomplished, there’s no quest to be advanced, it’s just that you’re somewhere, they’re there too, and you both have five minutes to kill. Most importantly, this sort of conversation can be about anything, and is thus a fantastic vehicle for fleshing out parts of the world not inherently relevant to a quest, and to flesh out the PCs, as tiny, otherwise-irrelevant details come up in casual conversation. Yes, I spent some time in Waterdeep as an apprentice in my twenties. No, I’ve never sailed on a ship. Yes, I am quite a big fan of this painter. Little tiny details like that make characters, and worlds, come alive.

Long story short: participate in the setting as you participate in real life, with an eye for the tiny, irrelevant details.

August 7th: How can a GM make the stakes important?

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Actually, that picture’s sort of a bait and switch. I do think that the occasional reminder that PCs are, in fact, mortal (well, depending on the system) is a good way to keep PCs on their toes, but I actually don’t think it’s the best way.

I actually think the best way to make the stakes important is to let the players set them. If you just go to the PCs and go “This is the King of Coolsville, and it would be very bad if he died. You must protect him”, they’re going to do it, but they’re not going to care. They’re only going to do it out of a vague, video-game-trained sense of obligation to “The Objective”.

However, if you notice that your PCs have taken kindly to, I dunno, the local Cabbage Wizard or Junk Dealer or whatever, phrase the threats they have to take on in terms of how they’re going to hurt them. The marauding armies of orcs are going to topple the king and raze the land and all, and that sucks, but Greg the Cabbage Wizard will probably die in the rampage, and his two daughters have been asking him at night if they’ll be OK and he doesn’t know what to tell them. That will get the PCs moving.

Similarly, consider that a very real consequence for PCs’ actions can, and should, be impacts on their relationships with characters they care about. If the party Warlock particularly enjoys the company of a local bartender, have that relationship start to get rocky as the Warlock drifts further and further towards dark power. The young boy who goes out adventuring might come back home a Level 15 Fighter or whatever, but he might find that the town has grown without him.

This tip also works for inanimate things the players care about (their goals, their homes, particular objects they covet, etc.), but I’ve found historically that, in general, characters are just what people gravitate towards the most.

August 8th: How can we get more people playing?

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I have my personal gripes with the recent rise of tabletop RPG streamers and YouTubers (there are more games than Dungeons and Dragons god dammit!), but I’d be an idiot to deny that the hobby has had a meteoric rise in popularity since Critical Role really started to pick up steam. 2018 was the best year for Dungeons and Dragons ever, and more people than ever are starting to get into the hobby, as the misconception that RPGs are a weirdo hobby for anti-social turbonerds is starting to vanish (finally).

I think the key way to get even more players into tabletop role-playing games is to increase the variety of games, and players, played on these streams. Dungeons and Dragons, for all of the myriad of opportunities it offers, is ultimately just one game, and some people just aren’t interested in being wizards or paladins or fighting dragons or whatever. Just like how every movie isn’t a superhero movie and every book isn’t a YA novel, we should publicly show that the field of role-playing games isn’t limited to our most popular form.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that we need to show that role-playing games are for everyone. This is a … disappointingly contentious topic, but RPGs need to shed the misconception that this is a hobby for straight white dudes (the irony of being a straight white dude saying this is not lost on me, but I have a soapbox goddammit, might as well use it). The more voices of people of color, LGBTQIA+ persons, and generally non-WASPy backgrounds we can get into gaming, and have their voices heard in the hobby, the greater the variety of personalities and backgrounds there will be for new inductees in the hobby to find a voice that matches theirs, and distinct backgrounds will just cause the variety of stories that are able to be told in RPG to expand exponentially.

Now, I’m going to use this blog read by like four people, one of whom is my mom (Hi Mom!) to try and signal boost some of my favorite RPG streamers on the internet today.

  • Friends at the Table, GMed by personal hero Austin Walker of Waypoint, is a fantastic RPG podcast about “critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends”. In my opinion, this show has the best RPG storytelling on the internet today.
  • Theogony of Kairos, run by the sublime B. Dave Walters, is a fantastic 5E game with  twist: all of the characters are regular chumps instantly raised to Level 20, commonly considered the point at which D&D becomes “god tier”. This game tackles some very interesting ideas from the get go, highly recommend.
  • Adam Koebel is possibly my favorite figure in the RPG space right now, partially because of his open discussions of design in the field (he’s half of the designers behind Dungeon World), and the variety of games he runs, both in his current position as a Game Master for Roll20, and the many campaigns he’s run for the Rollplay series (including my favorite, Mirrorshades)

August 9th: How has a game surprised you?

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It was my first ever session of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and by extension, my first session of an OSR-style game. Joining a long-running group, I joined their rogue’s gallery party with four level zeroes. Given a list of stat blocks to choose from, I opted for a simple selection process: my crew consisted of the strongest, fastest, smartest, and luckiest four of the lot of level 0s handed to me.

Our mission was simple, at least as far as Dungeon Crawl Classics goes. We had to ride a giant space squid up to a floating castle in the clouds, and from those clouds retrieve some goop rumored to bestow eternal life.

OK you know what it wasn’t simple at all.

So, we ride on our, uh, giant squid gondola to the sky, and triumphantly, my mighty warrior and brilliant lizardman scholar hop off onto the clouds and … both immediately tank a luck check and, standing on unstable chunks of cloud, plummet from the sky to their deaths, the last thing to go through their mind presumably being their ankles. Half of my crew instantly died the literal first steps they took into the dungeon.

I was hooked instantly. I watched as my fellow adventurers reached into their bags and tossed some loose chaff they had onto the cloud, using it to identify safe spots, and safely exit the gondola. I knew that I had to shift my entire manner of thinking, and start to approach the whole game cleverly, like a puzzle. The idea of needing to think of clever solutions to fantastic problems had me hooked, and now I count DCC as one of my favorite games.

August 10th: How has gaming changed you?

Huh, this one’s sort of a curveball. I guess if I had to name a few changes I’ve seen in myself since seriously playing role-playing games, I could probably name a few.

  • My improv skills have improved dramatically. This is a fairly obvious result of the amount I GM, and the amount I have to constantly pull random quests and characters out of thin air for my party. Not only have I become a better GM in this regard, but I feel like my storytelling, improvisation, and quick thinking have all gotten a little better as a result.
  • I let other people have their moments of glory. This one’s sort of a conscious work in progress, but just like when I’m a player in an RPG, I like to sit back and let others do the thing they’re good at, and have their moments where they can swoop in and save the day. I don’t need to be the best at everything, that’s why we’re a team.
  • I’m more creative. Don’t get me wrong, I was always an imaginative kid, but I feel like playing RPGs has both increased the variety of ideas I have for games, settings, characters, etc. as well as widened the lens through which I collect inspiration. I used to basically exclusively consume “nerdy” media, basically turning myself into a sort of geeky pop culture orobourous, but now I look everywhere from cooking shows to city planning books to world history for ideas, and I think RPGs were the push that got me there.

August 11th: Wildest character name?

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….sigh. It’s time to talk about Druggo the Clown.

To set the stage, it’s my oft-spoken about Fantasy Flight Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign. My band of freedom fighter PCs have a tough mission on their hands: they need to assassinate two Twi’lek senators on Ryloth, as they are wildly corrupt and are allowing the planet to fall into the hands of a young Galactic Empire. The vector of assassination is this: the PCs have discovered the senators have a very, very minor, serious drug addiction. The game-plan is to find one of the suppliers, up the intensity of the next batch being delivered to the senators, and let them OD in their rooms. Not the most pleasant thought in the world, but less of a bloodbath than a (almost certainly bungled) straight-up gunshot.

Thus, my PCs crawled into the Twi’lek underworld, and discovered the main drug supplier on Ryloth. I was short on names (this entire method of assassination began as a side note in a margin in my notes, I hedged my bets and wrote a bunch of assassination methods instead of going deep on any one), so when it was time for their informant to name the dealer, I stammered.

“Uh … drug ….. drug …. Druggo … the … the clown”.

I meant this as a joke, but, it was too late. Any other name I could come up with would be drowned out by the laughter, and Druggo the Clown was born, and subsequently died about twenty seconds later.

August 12th: Wildest character concept?

I’m going to call this a three-way tie between three character concepts I made for my most recent game of Doctor Magnethands. If you’re unfamiliar, Doctor Magnethands is a two-page one-shot RPG made by one of my favorite designers, Grant Howitt, which basically revolves around pulling bad ideas out of a hat to make a superhero story.

I think it was extremely telling that when I sat down at the table, I handed my slips of paper to the GM and said “these are the eight worst ideas I’ve ever had in a row”.

Of the four PCs, three ended up playing characters of my creation. Allow me to introduce you to the new Avengers, featuring:

  • Mecha-Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • All of the Baldwin siblings (yes, all, like, seven of them) in a big coat
  • The Night Manager of the Last Blockbuster

Also fantastic and in the group, but not of my creation, was the fabulously simple “Stink Man”.

Honorable mention goes to my favorite submission, which ended up not getting used: The Torsoless Horseman.

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#RPGaDAY 2018: Days 1-5

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Oh it’s the most wonderful time of the year again, it’s August, which means it’s time for #RPGaDAY, that wondrous time where, every day for a month we self-reflect on why we love the tabletop RPG hobby as much as we do via 31 questions. And, once again, I’m electing to answer these questions five(ish) at a time, so as to not assault your social media feeds.

Well, there’s really little to no introduction required beyond that, let’s be off!

August 1st: What do you love about RPGs?

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The ability to bring a world and its inhabitants to life.

There are plenty of forms of media that allow you to explore vast worlds, from the grand scope of the Star Wars movies to the laboriously crafted (and laborious to read) works of J.R.R Tolkien. However, tabletop RPGs allow you not only play in a fantastic fictional world, but it allows you to grow and explore it to a breadth and depth that is impossible in any other media.

In all other forms of storytelling, the amount of setting that can be explored by the audience is inherently limited, perhaps by the word count, perhaps by the length of the reel of film, or perhaps by the number of levels the level designer opted to include. This is where RPGs are wholly unique. All other forms of media are consumptive in nature, the audience consumes them until there is nothing left. RPGs are inherently generative, a critical component of playing them, for both the GM and the players, is to create characters, settings, worlds, and stories.

Role-playing games are the only form of storytelling media where the space for storytelling is functionally infinite, and where the players are free to explore every facet of their world and characters that they want, and in that way they allow us as players and game masters to flesh out these fictional worlds unlike any other medium.

August 2nd: What do you look for in an RPG?

What I look for in an RPG is a combination of three things, two of which are essentially mandatory, and one of which is optional but extremely wanted.

1. The game should provide a mechanical framework for something interesting, narratively.

This is sort of a vague requirement, but essentially what I mean here is that the rules of the game need to affect the storytelling in an interesting, preferably novel way. The dice mechanics of Genesys allow for stories with a lot of twists and turns, and fail forward, as well as succeed downward, character action. The Lifepath system of Burning Wheel, as well as the Beliefs and Instincts, allow for the creation of deep characters with arcs. Hell, even Shadowrun‘s escalating and deescalating dice results allow for things to go rapidly out of control sometimes.

2. The game should evoke it’s setting/theme/tone through all of its mechanics

This is sort of a hard thing to quantify, and actually usually takes some play to see, but I want every mechanic, every number, every die chosen and used by an RPG has been done so to maximize the way that the game’s central ideas come forth. A horror game set in the d20 system doesn’t do this. A PbtA game about unconquerable heroes doesn’t do this. A truly good design makes sure that every single choice made in that design flows through its mechanics, and if it can’t, it gets those mechanics out of the way.

3. (Optional) The game should provide new setting/character/plot ideas I couldn’t have thought of myself.

This rule is optional because I still get a variety of setting-neutral RPGs, but something that’s a big plus for me is when a game offers some narrative inspiration that I couldn’t get elsewhere. Too many books fill their pages with narrative elements that are either A) in too laborious detail for me to stretch my creative legs, or B) full of the tropey, rote overused stuff I could easily have created without the book’s help (“I am Grimjor Ironbeard the Dwarf, and I love gems and money!”). A good book should give me something new to mull over in my brain.

August 3rd: What gives a game “staying power”?

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This question could be interpreted two ways: what gives a game the power to stay on my shelf, and what gives a game the power to stay on the table. The first point is basically addressed in August 2nd’s question, so I’ll focus on what keeps a game on my table, which is to say, what keeps me playing a game.

The answer, ultimately, is nothing. Some people are more than content with playing one game, which is almost always Dungeons and Dragons, for their entire life, and more power to them, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you forced me into that situation, I’d probably just quit the hobby.

The games I bring to the table are always subservient to the ideas I have about the worlds I wanna explore. I, almost always, come up with a campaign idea first, and then select a system that’s appropriate. Oh, I want to run a Victorian mystery? I can hack GUMSHOE together for that. Hyper-lethal fantasy worlds inspired by Moorcock? Time to get an arm workout in and hurl Dungeon Crawl Classics onto the table.

There is no one game that is the best fit for every single idea I have, because I don’t want to play the same thing over and over again. I want to explore hundreds of worlds, meet thousands of characters, and ultimately do such a variety of things that no game stays on my table for long.

August 4th: Who is your most memorable NPC?

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The Angry Line Cook.

In my group’s running Star Wars campaign, at one point, my party had to meet a contact inside of a large bar/cantina (as you do in Star Wars). The situation was shady, and no one was quite sure what to expect when inside. While most of the party sucked it up and went inside via the front door, one particular party member, an individual who was at the time about as sneaky and as charismatic as a freight train, opted to sneak in through the kitchen door, one which would normally be used to collect shipments of food and booze, and to take out the trash.

When the PC, predicatbly, utterly botched his attempt to sneak, he drew the attention of a single Twi’lek line cook who, like every line cook I’ve ever encountered in my life, was just sort of vaguely annoyed at nothing in particular. The conversation that arose was, in my opinion, hilarious, as the PC was trying desperately to try and suave his way through the situation, despite, you know, being a heavily armed mercenary in a kitchen, and the line cook just wanted him to get the hell out, not because he hated the PC or was pro-Imperial or whatever, but because it was against health code and he had goddamn food to plate, man.

I loved this guy because he got to exist despite having no greater importance in the setting, plot, or arc of any character. He was just a dude, trying to get through his shift, who accidentally for one or two brief moments became embroiled in a conspiracy to topple the entire Galactic Empire. And then, he just went back to his crappy job. Something about that moment seemed extremely real to me, and I loved every moment of it.

August 5th: Who is your favorite recurring NPC?

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The Finder, hands down.

In my running campaign of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Tabletop Role-playing Game, the party, a group of revolutionary freedom fighters, has frequently been in situations in which they just need some information. In these times, they turn to a well-spoken, well-connected character named The Finder.

The Finder and his agents (who, thanks to a bit of cleverness on my players’ part, are known as “Keepers”) are collectors of information. He survives the Galactic Civil War not just because his information-brokering services are extremely useful to all sides, but because he knows information that could cripple any faction, from the structural weaknesses of Imperial Star Destroyers to the locations of secret rebel bases. He elects not to tip the scales one way or another, however, recognizing that he stands to make maximal profit by elongating the War, and that offering equal help to both sides is the most potent way to maintain that status quo.

The Finder is calm, collected, and perpetually in control. He always has exactly what people desperately need, and knows exactly the cards in his adversaries’ hands. The Finder is a character I love playing because, against a party that frequently shoots or talks their way out of problems, the Finder comes from such a position of power that even when his and the party’s interests align they still come out feeling bad about the whole thing.

Crucially, the Finder isn’t untouchable due to GM cheating, either. He’s never appeared via hologram, nor behind a force field, and the party’s usually interacted with him armed. He represents the kind of potential player action that I love: he is a domino, and the players know by the world that they exist in that, should they tip him over, the consequences could be substantial, and I love that.

Prey: Mooncrashing Into the Roguelike Genre

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I began my first run of Prey: Mooncrash like I played through most of the main game of 2017’s Prey: by looting, equipping, or scavenging anything that wasn’t bolted down to the floor. My objective was fairly simple: I was within a simulation of TranStar’s secret moon base, playing one of the myriad of Russian prisoners used as a guinea pig for Neuromod testing. I had to get to an escape pod and leave the Typhon-infested station, a course of action that shares a lot of DNA with the main story of Prey.

I shot, wrenched, built, and ran my way through the moon base towards the escape pod, strapped in, and jettisoned off to space. The simulation came to a close, and I was informed that the memory data of another person on the moon base, this time an engineer, was available. Shrugging, I loaded into the engineer, and exited the first room to find … nothing. There wasn’t a scrap of loot in sight, not a bullet, not a bag of chips, nothing. It was then that I realized the genius of Mooncrash.

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You see, unlike other roguelikes, the scarcity of resources was not due to a bad dice roll or playing on a harder difficulty, the reason everything was gone was because I already took it. You see, Mooncrash features five playable characters aboard the TranStar moon base, and your objective is to get all of them off the base before the simulation corrupts itself to the point of needing a reset. However, until that reset occurs, all five of these characters, all five of these runs, coexist in the same world. That means, in short, that picking up some bullets or a medkit now means nothing will be there in your future runs. If you’re like me and vacuum up everything you can on your first run, your second run will see the path of your previous character barren, requiring you to take new paths to find anything of value.

This also goes for escape methods off the Moon. My first run ended with me hopping into an escape pod and flying away, easy peasy. When I loaded into the engineer for my second run, I saw that the escape pod was gone, presumably hurling through space with my dazed ex-prisoner inside, munching on all of the snacks I didn’t need to pick up. In this run, I needed an alternate route to escape, in this case being the last spaceship docked at the base. The rub was that this character couldn’t fly a spaceship, meaning I had to run through the world to find the Neuromod that gave me the piloting ability. This new escape means was much more involved and, as I explored the world further and started to get an inkling of the other three escape routes, I realized they only got harder.

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If there was a single-sentence pitch for the original Prey (er, rather, the original Prey that came out in 2017) it was “Play as you choose”. On top of the normal variety of playstyles available in a lineage of immersive sim-style games going all the way back to UltimaPrey notably constructed its main story in such a way that you could complete the game in a myriad of different, interesting ways depending on how you wanted to drive the story.

If there’s a single-sentence pitch for Prey: Mooncrash, it’s “Play as you choose, but choose wisely”. Opting for a playstyle now frequently means that you’re locking yourself out of it later, either because you’re consuming a resource that will be unavailable in future runs, or because the skillset required is limited to your current character, due to Mooncrash‘s five playable characters each only having a subset of Prey‘s skills available to them. This means that once the engineer either flies off the Moon or eats it after a Typhon attack, you aren’t going to be doing much engineerin’ until the simulation resets.

The idea of games that are completed over multiple runs is hardly revolutionary, but the idea of a limited persistence of the world between those runs is, if you’ll pardon the pun, game-changing. You still feel the freedom to solve the challenges of the game however you want, but instead of feeling like you have a Batman-style utility belt that grows and grows over time, until any given problem feels trivial due to the sheer number of ways you can tackle it, each of these solutions feels like bullets in a gun: immensely useful, but once you use it, it’s gone.

This structure of gameplay leads to so many interesting gameplay moments. Players are forced to think about how many resources they want to consume per run, deciding if they want to starve now by choice or later by necessity. Players can also invest in their future runs by using their current skills to clear obstacles in the path of future runs, obstacles that the character in those runs might not be able to clear. Normally games like these let you play the game in any way. Mooncrash demands that if you want to beat it, you must play it every way.

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Before you think I’m heralding Prey: Mooncrash as divinity on Earth (er, the Moon), it totally has significant problems. The base game of Prey featured a mute protagonist, but scattered enough information about them through the world that you still got a sense for who Morgan Yu was. Mooncrash‘s protagonists are also mute, but is far more scarce with the characterization of them through in-game texts and audio logs, resulting in a much weaker connection to the world. This lack of characterization also extends to the rest of Mooncrash‘s cast of characters, resulting in a much weaker sense of setting than Prey.

Also, Mooncrash has this impossibly obnoxious timer that counts down until the simulation resets, which I’m not convinced gels terribly well with Prey‘s exploration-heavy, experimentation-focused gameplay. There are ways to mitigate it, but they boil down to “give yourself more time”, which doesn’t feel terribly interesting. Moreover, it doesn’t really inspire you to play the game any different, it just makes you stressed out as you play. I’m not normally one to rally against timers in games, but this one rubs me the wrong way (maybe it’ll grow on me).

Despite these flaws, I still think Prey: Mooncrash is an absolutely wonderful addition to my favorite game of last year. The way this game takes immersive sim gameplay and the roguelike formula and runs with them in sucha fantastic new direction is just as inventive as the innovations of the base game. I highly recommend picking up Mooncrash to experience this new way to play Prey, and, if you’re like me, to get your mind spinning about to use scarcity in games.

NieR: Automata, and Carrying The Weight Of The World

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//WARNING: I am about to spoil all of NieR: Automata, namely all 5 main endings. Normally I don’t really care if you wanna spoil something for yourself, but I think NieR: Automata is really good and that everyone who can should play it. In fact, I believe this so much that I actually bothered to use the “Read More” tag on WordPress for this post, because if you wanna ruin this 10/10 game for yourself, that’s on you.

Moreover, because I’m writing this for people who have beaten Ending E, I’m not gonna spend a lot of time explaining the base setting and plot of the game, so even if you don’t listen to me you might be extremely lost. You should play NieR: Automata, is my point.

Continue reading “NieR: Automata, and Carrying The Weight Of The World”

The Best Thirty Bucks You Can Spend This Steam Sale

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It’s Steam Sale time, boys, girls, and people who don’t want to be gendered according to the traditional binary! While Steam sales have definitely lost a bit of their luster, thanks to a modified format removing the thrill of grabbing a short-time deal at the last minute, as well as just time all but guaranteeing everyone who cares has already snapped up most of the usually-recommended indie darlings, but I wanted to compile a list of great games you can snap up on the cheap. If you’re new to PC gaming, these will be some games that will start your collection off with a bang, and if you’ve been at it for a while, hopefully you’ll find a gem or two in here that’s slipped your attention before.

Fallout: New Vegas – $3.29

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New Vegas for this cheap should be illegal. In my opinion this game is the undisputed champion of the Bethesda-style open-world formula, which is unusual since it was actually developed by Obsidian using Bethesda’s tech. As probably the most popular game on this list, you can probably find thinkpieces, reviews, and retrospectives galore on the internet about this game, but if you wanna hear it in my words, Fallout: New Vegas is one of the greatest RPGs ever. The interplay (heh) between the factions leads for a truly open-feeling main quest where you the player get to make important, sweeping choices about the course of the game. Fantastic writing, great characters, excellent quest design, and fantastically open-ended gameplay makes this a game you could easily spend years playing.

Left 4 Dead 2 – $1.99

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The odds of you being a PC gamer and not owning a copy of Left 4 Dead 2 at this point are, uh, low, but on the off chance you’ve never played my favorite multiplayer game of all time, lemme give you the sales pitch. It’s a cooperative multiplayer game in which a team of survivors need to run through expertly-crafted levels avoiding hordes of zombies. The gunplay is tight, and the levels are semi-randomized, controlled by an AI “Director” who modifies the difficulty on the fly to ensure players are constantly the perfect degree of challenged, ensuring that every playthrough is unique, while still rewarding repeated play and game mastery. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and a great way to kill an afternoon with your friends. Highly advise picking this up.

LISA: The Painful – $4.99

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Don’t let its humble sprite graphics and obvious “Made in RPG Maker”-iness fool you, LISA: The Painful is a powerhouse of a game. Featuring a unique combat system in which every party member controls in a unique and interesting way, as well as a desolate and bizarre world sort of unlike anything else in games, where LISA really shines is its writing. If you have a bleak, and I mean bleak, sense of humor, I implore you to jump into LISA, a game that’s able to flip between horribly depressing and so-funny-you’re-crying on a dime, with jokes so exquisitely timed you’ll almost feel bad for laughing after some of the stuff you experience in this game. The RNG can be a bit too punishing at times, but this game’s still an exemplary way to spend ten hours, and proof not to judge a game by its engine.

Subsurface Circular – $4.79

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It’s hard to refute that you’re not really getting a lot of game for your buck with Subsurface Circular, a game that I easily cleared in about an hour. However, what you are getting with Subsurface is excellent, with a dialogue-driven mystery game in which you, a robot detective, have to interact with other robots aboard a subway in order to solve a mysterious disappearance. The game uses its short run-time to explore the ideas of how robots would behave and really think within the confines of society, and the fundamental ways that interacting with a robot might differ from the way you interact with a living, breathing person. If you wanna play a game and, at worst, go “Huh, neat!”, Subsurface is a great buy at five bucks.

Just Cause 2 – $2.99

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In the most complementary sense of the phrase, Just Cause 2 is a dumbass game. Depicting a one-man army’s attempt to liberate a fictional Southeast Asian island nation from dictatorial rule, Just Cause 2 is best described as a “fuck-around simulator”. Drive fast cars, fly cool jets, and blow shit up on this comically large island paradise, and generally just have a ball messing around. Until a Crackdown game comes to PC, Just Cause is my ideal choice of game for just hopping into a world, running around, and being an idiot.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – $4.99

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Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is probably the hardest sell on this list due to its age: the graphics, particularly the UI, have not aged well at all, and the controls and level design are plenty cumbersome by modern standards. However, if you think you can look past it, you’ll find an RPG for the ages, with amazing characters, extremely good open-ended game design allowing you to be as suave or as brutal a vampire as you want, and the sort of fantasy that only a few other games have attempted, with, er, mixed results. If you wanna live out the fantasy of being a lord of the night, Bloodlines is a gem.

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator – $7.49

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OK, so, I might need to sell you on why you should play a gay dating simulator in which you, a single dad, meet and fall in love with a smattering of other single (mostly) dads. The dating simulator genre is full of pathetic excuses to conceal some softcore pornography, but Dream Daddy, somewhat surprisingly, is fairly wholesome? The characters are excellently written, with each feeling like a real person with a history, their own quirks, and their own stuff to work through. The humor is positively charming, the romance tastefully done, and no matter who you are, there’s a dad in this lot for you (I personally love Mat, the coffee shop-owning hipster of the bunch). If you just want a charming game to put a smile on your face, this is one for you.

Total Price: $30.53

Ah fuck it I was close.

Mistakes I Made In My Current Campaign

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My Fantasy Flight Star Wars campaign is coming to a close soon, after what will end up being over two and a half years of play. This will have been my longest campaign, with the largest group, that I’ve ever run. The game encompassed half of my college career, and has ultimately served as a way to stay connected to a group of old friends.

But, as in all things, I totally made mistakes over the course of the campaign, mistakes that haunt me and now are sort of a detriment to trying to wrap the whole thing up. But, instead of beating myself up over them, I think now’s a good time to reflect on those mistakes, especially as I start the early work of planning the next campaign we undertake as a group.

I want to make clear that I don’t think this campaign was bad by any means; indeed I actually thought it was a raving success. However, as I look back upon it now, trying to find loose ends to tie up and callbacks to make, I find myself wanting in my own storytelling.

I Didn’t Establish Good Villains (Mostly)

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The crux of a good story, especially the kind of melodrama that Star Wars peddles in, is a good villain. There have been thinkpieces upon thinkpieces about what makes a good villain, so I’m not going to waste my time detailing my opinion on the matter here, but what I can say with authority is that my villains were severely lacking.

The party, a gang of freedom fighters working to help unseat Imperial rule shortly after the events of Episode III, encountered a cavalcade of villains, from a shapeshifting Clawdite assassin with a grudge, to a Zabrak driven mad by his own Force powers, to an old prototype Trade Federation battle droid designed to kill Jedi.

Generally, I think these villains suited their purpose well as the enemies for a single adventure or arc, and managed to be memorable. In fact, I feel like my players probably have fond memories of some of them. However, where I failed, in my eyes, is in setup and in really taking advantage of those villains over time.

You see, part of what makes great villains great is that you should be able to see the villain in action before the hero takes them on in the ultimate confrontation, to build suspense and get the audience thinking about the villain, even if the thought is just “Damn, he’s cool”. Darth Vader slaughters a hallway of Rebel troops as his first appearance. Hans Gruber has multiple appearance leading his thugs and terrorizing the employees of Nakatomi Plaza before McClane ever encountered him. My villains, conversely, had a tendency to just sort of … appear.

Similarly, when my villains stepped out of the limelight, there wasn’t a sense they were waiting in the wings just biding their time for the right moment, or a sense of dealing with the aftershocks of their actions even after their stories, they just sort of vanished. Again, some of the best villains remain a thought in the back of the hero’s head even after they’re considered beaten. Dio remains the central villain of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure long after he’s killed, twice. Killmonger, sterling villain of Black Panther, causes a permanent change in the titular hero’s world view after his defeat. My villains, conversely, just sort of vanished. Although, this is also related to …

The “Plot” Was Just A Series Of Events

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I realize “a series of events” can, at its basest level, describe any narrative, but the thing I failed to do was meaningfully tie individual, smaller events to the larger narrative of striking out against the Empire. A larger-than-I-care-to-admit portion of the campaign simply … happened, without even a simple callout in the rest of the campaign. These events seemed simply to happen in their own little microcosm of the universe, untouched by other events. The player’s actions prior to these little adventures didn’t impact how they played out, and the player’s resolution of these events didn’t have impact on further matters.

The problem with this manner of story construction is that it creates an implied reduction in the weight of events during these side stories. Whether or not my players thought this actively I don’t know, but the way I structured these stories created a clear distinction: “story stuff that matters” and “side quests that don’t”.

Not to say that a tabletop campaign can’t have one-off episodes that don’t particularly matter in the grand scheme of things, but the consistency with which side stories didn’t matter in the overarching plot bothers me.

As an aside, the actual mechanical system of Star Wars would have been ideal for incorporating this sort of thing. With a dice system built on introducing unexpected complications on the spot, Star Wars would be an ideal game in which to constantly  throw in callbacks, for when you flub a Diplomacy roll and a dock worker says “Hey, wait, didn’t you get my brother arrested when you did that ship heist?”

I Didn’t Enforce Party Unity

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Credit goes to the absolutely phenomenal Will Nunes for the party portrait

The final party of PCs in my group ended up at a total of 6, being initially five with a late addition. The characters were these:

  • Two brothers, one a musclebound idiot and Jedi dropout, entangled together in a life of bounty hunting
  • Two alien renegades from far-flung worlds, one Clawdite and one Chiss, who broke themselves out of slavery
  • A Twi’lek ex-Senator, driven out of politics into a life of academia and, now, a life of merry adventure
  • A human private-eye, scraping out a living with his protocol droid in a backwater space station

These four categories are more significant than as just organization tools, they also represent the primary connections linking the characters together. The party was unified initially after the bounty hunters ended up allied with the alien renegades after attempting to sell them, after they were sprung by the senator. This reason for sticking together as a party is tenuous, for obvious and italicized reasons, but ultimately the lack of unifying character traits left the party a little non-harmonious.

The private eye ended up melding with the party moderately well, with his character and the burly bounty hunter getting along great on account of both of them being idiots, but ultimately I felt like this group never quite built an in-character rapport, partially because there was simply nothing for them to discuss other than the mission at hand.

This issue is particularly embarrassing because it is the subject of so much advice online about RPGs. There are so many ways to solve it, from implementing Apocalypse World‘s Bond mechanics, to filling out a group template. I violated the key rules of party creation here: everyone in the party should want to do the quest, and the first session should not be when the party meets.

I Didn’t Set Up Situations For Characters To Shine

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In most tabletop role-playing games, characters end up inevitably finding a niche, or a set of niches. You have your burly fightin’ man, your smooth-talking party face, your industrious inventor, so on and so forth. Generally, when it came to my Star Wars party, however, the idea sort of fell apart.

The reason why is ultimately a sort of chicken and egg argument. What I mean by this is, there were ultimately two factors which fed into each other as a positive feedback loop, exacerbating the problem:

  1. The player characters focused on only a few key skills, most notably skills related to combat and conversation.
  2. I created scenarios which, by and large, were most simply solved via the use of combat and conversation.

To understand this issue, allow me to describe the party dynamic a bit better. In the party, there are three player characters who I would term “Extremely Focused”. These three are characters laser-focused upon a subset of mechanics, to the point of neglecting almost all others. These three are the two bounty hunter brothers, who are the party’s combat experts, and the Twi’lek senator, who is the party’s conversational expert.

The remaining characters are what I would call “Jack Of All Trades” builds, who diluted their skill pool between a multitude of skill sets. These characters fan fight a bit, sneak a bit, science a bit, fly a bit, and so forth.

Unfortunately for us, the main “modes” in which tabletop role-playing games are played is combat and conversation. So, as the game commenced, we got to, well, talking and fighting, and we discovered that the three Extremely Focused characters were far more effective in those fields as expected. In these scenes, the other characters either hung back or made the odd effort of their own, considering success as sort of a rare surprise instead of “the point of the build”. The spotlight was thoroughly on the specialists.

The problem compounded with my adventure design. I leaned towards including combat and narrative components to encounters because A) they’re just sort of the default when designing RPG adventures, and B) they were the skills everyone dabbled in at least a little, so I could guarantee that everyone could do something. The converse wasn’t true: if we took some time to perform some engineering, the Extremely Focused characters would be forced to shrug, as their hyper-specialized builds gave them nothing to do. So, everyone is stuck playing second fiddle to the specialists.

As time went on, the problem of efficacy also emerged. The Extremely Focused characters had dumped experience points galore into their focuses, turning them into silver-tongued devils and whirling dervishes of death. The Jack of All Trades characters, meanwhile, had a few ranks in a multitude of skills. This ended up creating a weird sense of disparity when I did attempt to create spotlight moments for multiple characters, where we’d cut from the bounty hunters blazing a trail through dozens of Stormtroopers, to the party mechanic, trying and failing to construct a detonator over an excruciating number of attempts. It dissuaded me from attempting such shifts of spotlight in the future.

Moving forward, I don’t necessarily think the specialist and multipurpose characters should be kept mutually exclusive, nor should I move the characters from one camp into another in search of some vague sense of “unity”. Instead, I think the right answer is to design scenarios carefully.

The real answer, I suspect, is to build scenarios that don’t highlight a single character, but instead encourage meaningful couplings of characters. Perhaps the engineer is optimizing and building equipment for the soldier, or the hacker is disabling defenses so that the rogue can safely sneak through. Scenarios could be introduced which encourage such pairings, where just one party member alone, no matter how optimized, can handle it.

Conclusion

Again, I still think this campaign was a great success, and had a lot of fun running it. However, we’re all the most critical of ourselves, and I can’t help but cringe thinking of my past mistakes. But, if for no other reason than I love it too much, I certainly am not going to stop GMing any time soon, so the best thing to do at the end of this campaign is look back, acknowledge the mistakes I’ve made, devise solutions, and move forward.

Learning From The Best To Create A Card Game That Lasts

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Everybody and their mom is trying to make collectible card games right now. Chasing the monstrous cash-cows that are Magic: The Gathering in the physical space and Hearthstone in the digital, company after company is trying their best to put out to find just the right combination of spices that can properly topple one of these giants, or at least firmly plant its own territory in the market. Some have managed to find their own way in this market: Eternal and Duelyst have seen success as digital card games alongside Hearthstone, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Limited Card Game model has produced several lasting hits to hit the table, most notably Android: Netrunner.

So, let’s say you want to stand on the shoulders of giants and create your own card game. By all means, you should! Just because a few games are currently dominating the space doesn’t mean that you can’t try to put your own spin on things. Gaming history, both physical and digital, is littered with examples of competitors rising in previously monopolistic markets and finding their own place, and even besides that, you should just make whatever games you want.

However, if you’re going to make a competitive card game, it’s worth learning from those who came before, because some of these games have been in existence for a while, and in their legacy you can find extremely valuable tidbits that can help your game, no matter what spins it takes on the model, succeed even more than it would on its own.

CCGs Need To Balance Their Game Value

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More so than any type of game, CCG players are inherently always thinking about the money they’re putting into the game. This is to be expected; after all, trading card game packs are essentially the original loot boxes, with players dumping tons of money into packs only to get garbage cards. Where physical games have an advantage is that the cards being pulled are physical objects, which a person can then sell, trade, or do whatever they want with. Digital card games tend to not have that luxury, which means that the sting of buying a bad pack of cards hurts twice as much.

Random card packs are generally player-antagonistic to begin with, for all the reasons that randomized loot boxes are. By and large, they’re tolerated in Magic for two reasons. The first is the one I listed above: cards can be traded and sold, allowing costs to be recouped. The second is that Magic‘s player base is so large that there is a large secondhand market for cards, meaning players who don’t want to participate in random packs can simply buy all the cards they want.

If you lack these two key characteristics, your players are essentially forced to buy packs for the cards they want, which is problematic for fairly obvious reasons. If you need to buy multiple packs to get the card you want (if at all), the player’s buying power per dollar, measured as how many of the cards they want they can get for one dollar, is reduced immensely.

There are a few solutions to this which are floated around. The first is to offer players a constant drip feed of free cards. Many games do this as a reward for good play (packs are commonly offered as rewards at Friday Night Magic, and Hearthstone gives you packs as rewards for arena wins). However, I’m not entirely convinced by this, because it generates a positive feedback loop: players with good cards are more likely to win, and thus more likely to get these free card rewards, while those players with bad luck are forced to buy packs, thus making already frustrated players even more frustrated.

The other solution used to increase pack value is one popularized by Fantasy Flight Games: derandomize the packs. The smallest unit of Android: Netrunner cards is more expensive than a single pack of Magic cards, but contains four times the cards and, on top of that, the contents are completely transparent. Every pack for the same set contains exactly the same cards, and on top of that, contains enough copies of each card to run a full set in the game. Players in search of specific cards know exactly where to get them in Netrunner, and thus waste less money on packs full of duds.

Keep A Fluid Meta

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I feel pretty comfortable saying that card games have probably the hardest time balancing themselves for competitive play of any type of game. Every time a set of cards is released, the number of potential interactions between two cards increases exponentially, let alone combos involving 3 or more cards. In this way, it’s almost inevitable that extremely broken card combos will emerge over time, completely missed by the original designers because it is simply impossible to consider every possible implication of a new card. Moreover, the competitive meta of a card game shifts over time, meaning cards that are bad at release become incredible in the meta five years from now, and vice versa. Consider Shivan Dragon, a Magic card that was a top-tier pick of its time now worth twenty cents, and Pot of Greed, a YuGiOh card with the simplest possible effect that is now banned in tournament play.

Because of the ever-expanding possibility space of competitive card games, it can be really easy for players to find a dominant strategy and have said strategy consume the entire meta. Magic‘s history is colored with numerous decks which have dominated competitive play for up to months at a time (see: TarmogoyfNecropotenceJace the Mind Sculptor, Delver of Secrets, etc.) Hearthstone‘s player base was (is?) up in arms over the perpetual dominance of single strategies. YuGiOh is, well, balanced like a grand piano on a seesaw, but plenty of decks have see their time in the light for that game, including the pictured-above Six Samurai.

Dominant strategies are like death to card games, both in that they will bring unto them a decisive end, and in that they are inevitable. Pretending they aren’t going to happen is a fool’s errand, so having a strategy to deal with them is the only option. The most simple solution to this problem is a competitive ban on the cards that form the cornerstone of these strategies. This can backfire, however, since players might be pissed after spending a large amount of money to get powerful cards, only to have you deem them unplayable (especially if they paid that money to you).

Another option, much more easily performed by digital games than real ones, is a rebalancing of the cards in question. By tweaking the specifics, broken card combinations can be made more competitively friendly, but the art of game balancing is a difficult one, and decreasing a card’s potency too much is essentially equivalent to banning it: it’s just that the meta deems it unplayable, instead of you.

A third option available to you is to print a counter. Magic does this a lot: new sets frequently include cheap, easily-accessed cards which provide counters to dominant strategies from older sets. This strategy ties your game balance directly to your card release schedule, but is my generally preferred solution, especially in games like Magic that allow sideboarding. Players can still opt to play whatever deck they want, with players running powerful decks having to play around the gamble that their opponent hasn’t packed hard counters, and players running sub-powerful decks choosing whether to spend a sideboard slot on hard counters for a deck their opponent might not even be playing. This allows a competitive meta to remain relatively open.

The Barrier To Entry Needs To Be Low

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Look at this YuGiOh card. What the fuck, right? I have a passing knowledge of how YuGiOh is played, and this card still completely confuses me. Look at all of this goddamn textThere are two text boxes.

This is bad, that goes without saying. An important part of competitive card games is ensuring that, at any point, new players can enter the game and feel confident in knowing how to play the game. A lot of digital card games offer tutorials or story modes to ease players into the systems, but not all of your players are going to do that, or pay attention, and even still said tutorials rarely include the more complex strategies included in play.

A lot of card games solve the issue of rules complexity by compartmentalizing and homogenizing their rules. The first word, compartmentalizing, refers to keeping certain rules or mechanics contained within a subset of the cards, meaning that if you’re playing in a format that only allows for a subset of available cards to be played, you’re dealing only with a subset of all of the rules. A player getting into Magic now doesn’t need to know what the keyword “ninjitsu” does, because all of the cards with ninjitsu were in a set from over a decade ago.

The idea of keywords ties into the second idea, homogenization. Most card games use keywords as shorthand for more complex rules, meaning that the player merely has to learn keywords, instead of the effects of individual cards. When a Magic player learns what “trample” does, they now understand what every card ever printed with trample does, at least in part. In this way, the game rules are sort of encapsulated as a language, and just like a language, you don’t need to learn all of it before you’re ready to speak.

However, rules complexity isn’t the only thing scaring away new players. The above two ideas, cost to play and strategic diversity, can also serve to draw or repel new players. However, another big component is the player base itself. Card games, after all, are inherently competitive, so ensuring that a player likes the people they play with is crucial. My personal experiences with the Magic community are about as mixed as a mixed bag can get, with some wonderful interactions and some absolutely miserable ones. Hearthstone tries to decrease potential bad behavior by decreasing vectors of player interaction: direct chat between opponents is largely only possible via a limited range of emotes. Legend of the Five Rings has had some missteps in recent years due to misuse of elements of Asian cultures, which have turned off some new players sensitive to those topics. If you let your community get toxic, the only people you’ll have left are the toxic ones.

In Summary

Making a card game that lasts is hard, for all of these reasons and a million more that I would get into but am not because I’m coming on 2000 words and ain’t no one wants to read that much. But, despite that, I think making card games is still a worthwhile venture. They tap into the childhood nostalgia a lot of us have, memories of us as kids playing assorted, potentially bad, card games with school friends. They’re perfect breeding grounds for player innovation and creativity, with an open possibility space ripe for trying new strategies and building novel decks. Moreover, when done right, they can foster wonderful social spaces where people can come together, maybe even in person, make friends, and play games. That’s kickass, and I’d love to see people hit the ground with a running stride in making these things, because the world could always use more games.