My Experience With The Dark Souls Tabletop RPG

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I was lucky enough to recently get a chance to play a translation of one of my white whale RPGs: the official adaptation of the Dark Souls video games. Released in Japan only, and thus, in Japanese only. I, however, lucked out, and happened across a post on a Discord server of a GM who had translated the game, and was looking for players. The one thing he needed were a few pages of the bestiary, but he was in luck: I actually own a print copy of the game from my vacation in Japan, and was able to scan the pages he needed. With that, we were able to play the game.

There were a few reasons I expected Dark Souls to play sorta weird. For one, this was a game made by and for a completely different role-playing culture than that in the States. I’ve heard a variety of rumors and claims about how the tabletop gaming culture differs in Japan, but as someone who never thoroughly researched those claims, or played in a Japanese group myself, I’d feel weird echoing them here. Secondly, this was a translation, and with only enough Japanese to get a table for one and find a bathroom, there’s no way I could confirm the accuracy of it.

Anyways, the system proper: the Dark Souls TRPG, as one might expect, has an extremely heavy emphasis on combat. Lucky for it, then, that it has one of the most interesting and engaging tabletop combat systems I’ve played in a while.

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Much like the source material, Dark Souls is all about the conservation of Stamina. In the tabletop game, however, Stamina comes in the form of five dice, rolled at the top of every round. Almost anything you do in the game costs some quantity of these dice, with varying stipulations on how much dice, as well as the side of the dice that are showing. These Stamina Dice are used for both attacking and resisting damage, so the careful usage of them is key.

For example, for the Knight I was playing, one swing of my sword required spending Stamina dice whose total was or exceeded 5, which could be fulfilled by a single die if I rolled high enough. I could chain attacks by adding an additional 5 + the number of previous attacks to the total Stamina spent, allowing me to spend 17 Stamina in an all-out attack, equivalent to getting a good stun lock on a Dark Souls enemy.

Damage is, interestingly, not randomized. Every attack deals a known amount of damage, and every enemy has a Damage Threshold. An attack that deals less damage than an enemy’s DT does nothing, an attack that does deals one pip of damage, and an attack that exceeds the DT by ten deals an extra pip of damage (dealing an extra two if it exceeds by twenty, and so on). You can block damage by spending dice equal to your shield’s Guard Cost, reducing damage by a certain amount, or you can evade an attack by spending dice equal to your Weight Load, a system I find immensely clever.

There are other ways to avoid damage, namely to do with initiative. Initiative is rerolled after every character’s turn, with the character who last took a turn removed from the list, until the list has no more characters on it, at which point everyone rerolls and you start from the top. The character with the highest initiative goes first, but if any two characters roll the same initiative roll, they are “batted”, removing both of them inactive for that turn. This means that, if a boss is potentially about to act, you can use some initiative-modifying abilities to move around initiative numbers to bat them, instead allowing one of your allies to strike.

There are also special skills that characters can obtain with their own costs. Two abilities stood out in my game. My ally got Backstab, allowing him to spend three matching dice to deal an instant 100 damage to an enemy (an astronomical amount), and I used Parry, which let me guard for two matching dice (no matter their value compared to my shield’s Guard Cost), and block an additional 5 pips of damage, making me a walking damage sponge.

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The way the game interpreted physical space was unexpected, opting to take a fairly abstracted approach. All characters are by default assumed to be “in range” of anything, with the range of attacks differing between hitting an individual or everything. This is wrinkled a little by the existence of “Safe Zones”, a set of spaces in each encounter that a character can enter for the cost of two dice. Safe Zones are completely removed from combat, incapable to attack from or be attacked in, but are consumed after use. The beauty of ranged characters is that only they can continue to attack from within a Safe Zone.

The layout of the prepublished adventure we ran was fairly standard, essentially a hallway of randomly placed rooms with a few branching paths, some boss rooms, and a bonfire. Our job was to traipse around a cavern looking for some Ashes (I dunno, man, Dark Souls stuff), and take down a couple of bosses in order to escape an eerie cave that we were trapped in. The actual adventure design was pretty bare-bones, it’s clear the complexity is meant to come from combat.

Actually, speaking of Bonfires, there’s one other mechanic of note to mention about Dark Souls: the Malice Chart. Besides having a hilariously paradoxical name (like the “Murder Table” or perhaps the “Malevolence Spreadsheet”), this is a mechanic designed to balance the infinite restorative and resurrective properties of the bonfire, which would normally allow players to hurl themselves at problems for eternity. Instead, every time characters die or rest at the bonfire, the GM rolls on the Malice Chart, and doing so risks one of a variety of world-level effects to occur, ranging from health, initiative, and damage buffs for every enemy, to increased weight and stamina costs for players. The Malice Chart provides a sort of soft timer for quest completion in the game: players are incentivized to complete a dungeon as fast as they can, lest it become unwinnable.

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I’m extremely happy I got to play the Dark Souls TRPG. Its combat system is extremely tactical while remaining fairly rules-light, and it captures some of the feeling of crossing blades in the video games very well. If this game ever makes its way to the States, or if you find yourself in a position to play a translated copy of it, I highly recommend it, because it’s honestly a game unlike any other tabletop RPG I’ve played.

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What the Fucket Detective is Bucket Detective

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Bucket Detective might be the weirdest game I play all year. A game by Jesse Barksdale, the creator of the deeply unsettling and weirdly funny the static speaks my nameBucket Detective is a short walking simulator-type game which gingerly tiptoes the line between dark comedy and just flat-out disgust.

Bucket Detective stars David Davids, a character who Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek correctly refers to as “an irredeemable piece of shit“. David’s motivations are simple, idiotic, and amoral: his wife isn’t giving him the weird, kinky sex he wants, so he decides to write a book, inexplicably called “Bucket Detective”, in order to attract women. Unfortunately, David is a garbage writer and an idiot, so the going is slow in writing his magnum opus. After a meeting with an unscrupulous friend, David is given a shortcut: go to a building that very quickly turns out to belong to a cult, and help them resurrect a dark god in exchange for finishing your terrible book.

Calling David an antihero is just flat-out incorrect. There is no redemptive arc, no empathizing with his dark motives. The only things that make you possibly see from David’s perspective are the fact that you control him, and the weird, innate human need to empathize with things too dumb for their own good, like the twang of guilt you feel when a bird flies into a window.

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This, in my opinion, is the most interesting thing about Bucket Detective. As Barksdale himself remarks, a lot of video games use the empathetic quality of the medium as a sort of wish-fulfillment, a way to assume the role, however temporarily, of a character that lives a life in some way better or more interesting than our own. Even villainous characters, or amoral characters, typically feed into a dark, inadmissible fantasy to just sort of go apeshit every once in a while (see Grand Theft Auto V‘s Trevor), or the character of the stylish, ultra-cool villain (see Hitman‘s Agent 47, or even someone like Shadow the Hedgehog).

Bucket Detective grabs the player, however unwilling, and forces them behind the eyes of an amoral, irredeemable dumbass whose single goal is to, and these are the game’s words, not mine, “make penis spit with pretty girls”. There is no fantasy to be fulfilled here, no moral grey area to explore, David just sucks.

But, interestingly, he isn’t annoying. When people watch movies, read books, or play games with characters that they dislike, frequently they express annoyance with the character. A common example of this is Shinji Ikari, the moping, inactive lump of a protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even video games’ resident Unlikeable Dick, Duke Nukem, whose pompous arrogance is more and more of a put-off the further he gets from the era in which he almost deserved it.

David, bizarrely, elicits no such venomous reaction from the player, or at least from me, which perhaps says more about me than it does the game. I think this speaks to excellent writing from Barksdale, and a superb, and arguably necessary, understanding of how to portray this sort of character. David is a trash human, but he’s a sort of miserable hyperbole of some fairly commonplace human feelings: he’s unhappy with his ho-hum life, he wants a romantic partner that he feels is out of his league, and to an extent, he’s willing to put other people behind him in exchange for following his dreams.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who has any of the above senses is a piece of shit, nor am I suggesting David’s redeemable in his actions. David sucks, and you probably don’t. However, David’s reasoning in his actions remains constantly comprehensible. You’re never yelling at the screen that he should do something else, because you know every decision he makes, makes perfect sense to him. You’re never yelling at him to stop being an idiot, nor do you ever really want to slap him across the face. David’s the kind of train wreck you just look at from afar, shake your head, and go “what a fucking mess”.

It’s like, you know when you see a Youtube video of someone trying to rob like a convenience store or a vape shop or something, but they just hopelessly mess it up? David’s kind of like that: he sucks, you know he sucks, but for some reason you can’t get upset with him. I think it’s because he’s an honest character. He is greed, selfishness, and hedonism incarnate, but he’s greedy, selfish, and hedonistic in a way that, were you to sort of de-escalate the game from it’s melodramatic narrative, you’ve maybe felt before, at least in brief flashes and in much lower stakes.

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Remember this guy, who tried to rob a vape shop but accidentally flung his handgun over the counter? David kinda reminds me of this guy.

David is also, purely from the perspective of narrative function, a competent protagonist. He moves the plot forward, doesn’t waste time bungling the few tasks set out before him, is never wracked with indecision or guilt, and doesn’t waste time or word count giving himself undeserved praise. I think this represents a key game design insight from Barksdale: he already made his character completely insufferable within the narrative, which meant that anything that made him frustrating on a meta-narrative or mechanical level would have probably gotten the player to quit the game completely.

I think Bucket Detective represents an infrequently-explored frontier in games, specifically in game writing: how to make the audience like, or at least willing to tolerate, a character who’s an absolute garbage fire. Bucket Detective does so with a sort of vague, fundamental feeling of familiarity combined with the empathy we subconsciously give to the incompetent, but I doubt that’s the only method.

I’d go deeper, but frankly, Bucket Detective takes an hour to complete and costs four dollars on Steam. Go play it. If you find yourself unable to tolerate David, congrats, it’s probably because you’re a better person than me. But if not, think about how it feels to become David for an hour, whether you can feel any sense of empathy for him. If you’re a writer or designer, and really wanna push yourself to the limit, I think an interesting exercise would be to make a character like David, a character that is terrible in every sense of the world, but still manages to grab the player at least a little bit, even if they’re ashamed to admit it.

 

 

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”

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.