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.

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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”

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.

How Yakuza 0 Creates Combat Depth

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Yakuza 0 pulled me in almost immediately, and never let me go until the climax of the game forty hours later. I’m positively in love with this game for a wide variety of reasons. The world of Yakuza‘s Japan, centered around Kamurocho and Sotenbori, is both lovingly realized and a tribute to two of my favorite real-life Japanese neighborhoods, Kabukicho and Dotonbori. The humor is wonderful, and the characters are exquisitely written. However, I’m not a writer, I’m a game designer, so I want to talk about the way Yakuza 0 handles its combat.

Consider that a lot of games noted for having good third-person melee combat. Platinum’s long line of games come to mind, but in this case I’ll name-drop Bayonetta. One could also make the argument for the Soulslike genre, originating at Dark Souls, and the Batman: Arkham games canonzied an entire brand of melee combat all its own, so I’d me remiss not to bring it up.

When you look at all of these games, consider where the focus lies in that combat. In Bayonetta, the focus is generally all about mastery through an increase in player skill. Bayonetta‘s field of enemies aren’t terribly hard to figure out, and Bayonetta as a character is fairly durable, so the focus of the game is learning to master the moves available to Bayonetta. In Dark Souls, the goal is mastery through learning the environment and enemies. Everything about that game, most notably the way death and enemy respawns work, is focused on having a player face the same challenges multiple times, until they learn enough about the challenge to be able to defeat it. The Arkham games are generally about mastery through the collection of moves, as Batman collects a variety of tools over the course of the game, which the player weaves in to their combat along with unlocked moves.

Yakuza 0, despite having a great amount of focus on combat, doesn’t really focus on any of these three approaches. Enemies don’t really have learnable attack patterns, none of Kiryu nor Majima’s moves are terribly hard to learn, and while the moves learned throughout the game are useful, both protagonists begin the game extremely capable of wiping out large crews of mooks single-handedly. Instead, Yakuza 0 focuses on rewarding combat experimentation and discovery.

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You see, the combat of Yakuza hinges on the collection of Heat, a resource obtained by landing hits on enemies (as well as other things, depending on the moveset currently equipped), and lost over time and when hit by enemies. Heat can be spent on Heat Actions, punishing attacks that launch full cutscenes of Kiryu or Majima just hilariously beating the shit outta dudes, usually one-hit KOing weaker enemies and dealing massive damage to stronger ones.

There are a lot of Heat Actions, ranging from hurling foes off of bridges, to smashing their teeth in with the handle of a baseball bat, to stepping in between two attacking foes and causing them to accidentally knock each other out. What Heat Actions are available depends on the character and enemy’s state and orientation, what item the character is currently holding, both in their hands and in their inventory, as well as what environmental objects are within reach.

Yakuza‘s combat is, by and large, not hard. In order to challenge you, the game either throws out a boss battle featuring three or more health bars, or a pack of enemies in a quantity usually reserved for Dynasty Warriors games. Generally speaking, the entire game can be beaten fairly easily with just the base set of moves, in conjunction with just chugging a functionally endless supply of energy drinks to restore Health and Heat.

Since difficulty is not the crux of Yakuza‘s combat, the primary challenge of the game is instead to try and be as badass as humanly possible. I don’t think anything is more indicative of this as the way the game handles weapons. Kiryu and Majima can both use a style slot to equip a permanent weapon, up to and including a gun. Guns do tons of damage from range, are repaired relatively easily, and cannot be blocked. However, they’re the least visually interesting attack in the protagonists’ arsenals. As a result, I basically never used them.

Instead, over the course of the game, the player’s mastery of the combat system is based on learned and utilizing the assorted triggers for Heat Actions, in order to wipe out groups of enemies in as cool a manner as possible. While early fights in the game are somewhat clumsy, later game fights against similar enemies in similar locations are much more cinematic, as Kiryu and Majima obliterate their opponents with a variety of stylish moves. The game reinforces this: using these Heat Actions usually correlates in a much higher reward payout for the fight.

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The result of focusing on a combat system which rewards exploration and experimentation, rather than more traditional means of mastery, is that the skill ceiling for the game is lower than other third-person action games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, it means that Yakuza 0 allows players to perform extremely gratifying combat maneuvers with relatively little mechanical expertise, which is nice for players that want to experience a combat system at its top levels without the time and effort required to master a game like, say, Bayonetta.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a game like Bayonetta or Dark Souls, the combat of Yakuza 0 has to share a lot of design focus with other things, namely large amounts of story and sidequesting, meaning the designers have to account for players who might not be playing Yakuza for the combat. However, on the opposite end, Yakuza 0′s grounded setting means that the potential enemy variety is pretty low, considering you’re only fighting … regular dudes. So, the designers knew that if they didn’t give the combat system of Yakuza 0 some amount of depth, it would have become a slog extremely quickly.

With Yakuza 0‘s combat, the designers managed to create a system that is fun and dynamic while still being easy to pick up, and one which conveys the strength and aptitude of the two protagonists, the greatest badasses of the long-standing series, while still allowing players to feel a sense of progression over the course of the game. I really appreciate a game like this that manages the tricky balance of making combat incredibly engaging and exciting, while keeping the mechanical barrier to entry low.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Super Mario Odyssey And Clever Puzzle Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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