10 Good Ideas: Bloodborne and Trick Weapons

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Well, it’s late late late September, which makes it a perfect time to wrap up my September blog series: 10 Good Ideas. What better game to conclude my list of great game mechanics than my favorite game of the Souls lot, Bloodborne? It works out doubly well, considering my lateness means that I’ll be talking about this Lovecraftian game of extradimensional horrors in this, the spookiest of months. Everything works out in the end!

The full admission with Souls games is that Bloodborne is, in fact, the only one I’ve beaten. I’ve gotten fairly close in a few others, but never beaten, whereas I’ve beaten every single boss of Bloodborne. I think the fast-paced combat of the game is a strong motivator for me (although I certainly still like the combat of the mainline Souls games), and a big part of that is the game’s exclusive usage of what it dubs “trick weapons”.

Trick weapons are, simply put, weapons with tricks. Less cheekily, trick weapons have alternate modes or abilities which can be triggered at a single button press, sort of like alt-fire modes in some shooters. Some switch between two different forms completely, like the Kirkhammer (which is a sword that you can sheathe into a tombstone to turn it into a massive hammer), whereas others gain temporary buffs upon activation of their trick, like the Tonitrus (which is a mace that becomes covered in electricity). For the most part, they’re like two weapons in one.

So, why am I calling these weapons out? Alt-fire isn’t exactly new. Well, the thing about weapons in Bloodborne is that, unlike other Souls games, Bloodborne lets you hold on to weapons through the entire game. Literally. The same Hunter’s Axe I got at the beginning of the game was the one that I used to kill the final boss.

On its face, this seems like a knock against Bloodborne. You just used one weapon? How boring! Could you imagine going through all of Half-Life with just one weapon, or all of Skyrim with the same crap sword? Well, no, because those weapons aren’t terribly dynamic. In most games, a gun just shoots, and a sword just swings, but in Bloodborne, weapons are dynamic. There are light and heavy attacks, you can hold and charge some attacks, and then you can activate a trick to transform your weapon, and gain a whole new suite of options. A single trick weapon has with it a fairly large set of choices to make when using them. Do I want the speed and flexibility of my shortened Hunter’s Axe, or the power and range of the lengthened mode?

Since every weapon in Bloodborne offers a fairly wide suite of options, this means the game can afford to have fewer. Again, this at first sounds negative, but I’m someone who hates when games force you to make ill-informed, numerically-driven, or otherwise boring choices, and that’s kind of what Dark Souls does with its weapons. Look at this wiki page for every straight sword in Dark Souls.

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What the hell is the difference between these three swords? I get that there are minor, minor stat differences (the physical damage varies by as much as four, the Strength requirements vary slightly, and the weight differs by one), but ultimately, these three swords are all, well, swords. You swing ’em, they’re sharp, and they basically, from a player feel standpoint, do the exact same thing. Or, at least, you certainly don’t see how they wouldn’t just looking at them (there are greater subtleties. The broadsword doesn’t thrust on a strong attack, for example).

This is stupid. I don’t wanna stare at an inventory screen to try and figure out which of these three essentially identical weapons I like the most. I’m down for inventory and weapon management, but not on such a minute level of granularity. Now, let’s look at some Bloodborne weapons, and in the interest of maximal fairness, let’s pick three swords.

Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a sword with a massive, bladed sheathe, allowing you to alternate between a normal sword and a fuck-off sized two-hander. The Blade of Mercy, meanwhile, splits in two, allowing you to switch between one- and two-sword styles. The Reiterpallasch, meanwhile, is a rapier that turns into a gun. Despite all being “swords”, relatively little observation lets you notice massive gameplay differences in these weapons, and each covers a very large subset of gameplay situations.

Trick weapons are clever because, by allowing one weapon to handle a variety of tasks, you ultimately minimize the amount of weapons needed for a game to feel like it has a “complete” arsenal. This minimizes the number of inventory management decisions the player has to make, while also ensuring that combat with the same weapon remains dynamic and interesting through the whole game.

Obviously, there’s a trade-off. A smaller amount of weapons means that the drip feed of loot won’t be as constant as in a more traditional RPG, but that really just depends on expectations more than anything else. Sure, Skyrim would be pretty boring if you only unlocked, like, four swords throughout its entire campaign, but most people seem pretty happy with Zelda games (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding) having only a couple of main weapons through the course of the entire game.

Ultimately, I think anything that trims down the amount of unfun choices made within a game is a good design choice, and trick weapons certainly do that, so for that, I consider them a Good Idea.

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You Open Your Mouth But The Words Just Won’t Come Out: Dialogue Systems In Games

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//Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect spoilers follow

So, I’m in the process of finishing up Deus Ex: Human Revolution after bouncing off of it the first time, and I’m really enjoying myself. I’m a big fan of immersive sims, and the game offers a great deal of variety in how you deal with the assorted obstacles it puts forward. I especially like how varied your options are even within the duality of “loud” or “sneaky”: you can be a silent assassin, hack a bunch of turrets to do your job for you, quietly knock out the guards in your path, very loudly knock out the guards in your path, or sneak on through without touching a fly. On top of that, sometimes sneaking isn’t required, and you can simply talk your way out of situations.

This leads me to Human Revolution‘s dialogue system, which I really enjoy. It’s usually a pretty standard dialogue system affair, but there are key NPCs that you need to talk to, always in order to get something out of them, that launch the game’s “real” dialogue system. In these scenes, on top of the dialogue and your responses, the player is given a readout of the NPCs mood, their personality traits, and a dossier of their personality quirks (all justified by the player character, Adam Jensen, having augmentations in his skull that boost his social abilities).

With this information, it’s up to the player to use that information to try and bend the conversation in their favor. What I love about this is that the game doesn’t have some sort of arbitrary “conversation” skill, like Mass Effect or Fallout. In those games, you have a somewhat arbitrary measurement of your ability to talk to people, and if that number is high enough, it unlocks the “just get everything you want” dialogue option. Human Revolution has no such measurement, and instead, if you want the best option, you need to actually reason your way around your conversational opponent.

Actually, that’s not 100% correct. There is an augmentation you can spec into which can grant you a “just get everything you want” dialogue option, but when you trigger it, you actually need to select between three such options, each tailored to a certain personality type (either aggressive Alphas, defensive Betas, or timid Omegas). To unlock that “best” option, you still need to pay attention to your conversation partner.

I adore this system, because it actually makes you feel like some sort of shrewd negotiator. Instead of just mashing the “win the conversation” button, you sit there and think a little. “Well, I know this guy is trying to save face in this public setting, so if I really push him into a corner that makes him sound guilty, he’ll be forced to buckle”. It’s not exactly rocket science (for instance, when the personality hint tells you that you should directly confront a character when they try to weasel out of a tricky subject, one option is usually just labeled “CONFRONT”), but it’s certainly more interesting than a normal dialogue tree.

What if the game went a step further? Human Revolution just hands you a subject’s personality traits on a silver platter, but what if it didn’t? After all this is a game in which violation of privacy is a central theme, in a genre in which violation of privacy is a central theme, so what if instead of just being given a person’s personality traits for free, you had to research them, pick around their public and private histories to build that personality profile. By analyzing their emails, their phone logs, their public speeches and debates, their reputation with their friends, allies, and enemies, you built up a profile of your target as a conversational opponent, and then used that to bend them to your will? After all, that’s what people who actually debate for a living do.

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What did we do to deserve stock art?

I can actually pretty easily imagine a whole game centered on this. Imagine playing a detective or police officer, or maybe even an attorney. Games of this sort usually center on the collection of evidence or testimony, but imagine one in which that was only part of it? On top of that, imagine that your “targets”, perhaps witnesses or even suspects, have particular personality traits. Usually, games have such characters crack conversationally when presented with facts or with proof of their inconsistent testimony, but maybe on top of that you also needed to know how that person debates.

If you have a witness who’s had an incomplete account of events, and you have proof that they’ve been lying, your course of action can still change depending on how that witness reacts to being under pressure. Perhaps they’re notoriously slippery, and you have to really hammer them with facts to get through. Perhaps they’re pretty averse to pressure, and you have to gently present the facts to avoid a complete shutdown on their part. It adds another dimension to a normal dialogue system, and gives players more to mentally juggle.

The thing about dialogue systems as they tend to exist right now is that they’re tactically uninteresting. By considering a character’s personality traits, it adds a layer of strategic depth which the system as it is largely codified in modern gaming simply lacks. It also does something which many modern dialogue systems don’t, which is that it rewards gameplay rather than skipping it. Many games use dialogue systems as a way to let players who lean that way simply skip entire sections of the game. Famously, Mass Effect lets you just talk the final boss into shooting himself in the face, which is a neat concept, but in the end just means players don’t experience a part of your game that might have been interesting. In fact, despite having played the game four times, I’ve literally never done the first phase of the Saren boss fight due to this.

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I have absolutely no idea what happens if you don’t convince Saren to kill himself. Maybe you have a dance battle.

That’s kinda silly, don’t you think? If I’m playing the game, I want to, y’know, play the game. If we opt into a system where improving conversational odds against an opponent requires research, now we have a dialogue system which rewards gameplay. Maybe we do get to skip a boss fight or a dungeon with our conversational skills, but to do so, we introduce a whole bunch of new gameplay of rooting around computers and audio diaries looking for clues, of pressing associates of the target to learn more about them, and other sorts of detective work that wouldn’t be necessary if you decide to just, y’know, blast the dude in the face. A dialogue system like this feels like a different path, just like a ventilation duct or secret passageway, and less like a skip or a cheat.

A dialogue system with greater complexity that just “are you smart or dumb” or “are you good and evil” opens up some fantastic new design space to think about the way your characters interact with each other. Dialogue systems right now are a hotbed for design creativity (see Oxenfree or Dropsy), so I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done here, looking at the groundwork laid by Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

10 Good Ideas: Mass Effect 2 and Interrupts

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Image from Kyle Foster’s Youtube Channel

Let’s be real: if you played Mass Effect 3 through to the end, you took the Renegade interrupt and stabbed Kai Leng. If you didn’t, you should have. Kai Leng is my most hated character in the entirety of Mass Effect (disclaimer: have not played Andromeda yet), and getting the chance to shatter his stupid goddamn DeviantArt-ass katana and stab him in the gut like the bitch he is felt so good SCREW YOU KAI LENG YOU KILLED CHARACTERS THAT WERE SO MUCH BETTER WRITTEN THAN YOU.

Ahem. Excuse me.

Interrupts, a mechanism introduced to the Mass Effect series in the second installment, are pretty simple: while a character is talking, you occasionally get the opportunity to, well, interrupt them, usually with a line of dialogue but occasionally with something kickass like stabbing somebody’s fanfiction in the chest.

Interruption as a concept is technically a concept that’s existed in game writing presumably for as long as games have had writing (I don’t know that there’s an easy way to see the first time a game character interrupted another, but I’d be interested to know!), but it typically they’re pre-written into the dialogue. For games with heavy dialogue or subtitles, this usually results in a line of dialogue being displayed with a dash or ellipses at the end, basically screaming “something is going to interrupt this”. Hopefully the dialogue is timed right such that the interrupting sentence begins while the first speaker is still talking, or else the whole thing sounds terribly stilted. There’s even a whole TVTropes page about it.

Mass Effect 2 attempted to alleviate this problem by mechanizing the concept of interrupts. When you see the button prompt during a conversation, you can mash it it have Shepard interrupt the current speaker. Sure, the execution isn’t always perfect, and the timing can occasionally feel wonky, but it’s certainly better than having a subtitle just awkwardly cut off halfway through, or having someone politely stop mid-word so that someone else can interrupt.

Here’s the thing: human beings interrupt each other, a lot. The concept of interruption is actually an extremely meaningful tool when it comes to analyzing human interaction. Interruption is indicative of certain personality types (specifically assertive or controlling people), as well as moods (discomfort, excitement, or anger). An interruption is a sign that the topic being discussed is one of importance to the interrupter. It’s also a sign of comfort with one another. I know, much to my friends’ irritation, I pretty consistently attempt to complete my friends’ sentences. In the same way, it can be used to mark the power dynamic in a conversation, as one person gets less and less of a chance to get a word in edge-wise.

We’re in a design space right now where people are interested in building complex dialogue systems. The Walking Dead has a timer on dialogue, forcing players to formulate a response in a given amount of time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution lets players spec into augmentations giving them complete personality readouts of conversation partners. LA Noire pioneered hyper-realistic facial mo-cap so that people could actually read the faces of their conversation partners. And yet, relatively few games, at least to my knowledge, have tried to harness the power of interruption to add depth to dialogue.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave you entire psychological readouts of key conversational characters

Of course, some have, most notably in 2016’s Oxenfree, which allowed players to choose dialogue options at any time, allowing for interruptions, polite conversation, or silence. Giving players more granular control over the timing of the conversation like this is excellent, and can be used to create more interesting relationships between characters. But, to my knowledge, the mainstream introduction of mechanized interruption occurred in Mass Effect 2, and because it allows for more natural and human dialogue, it’s most definitely a Good Idea.

 

 

10 Good Ideas: Gears of War 3 and the Retro Lancer

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Gears of War as a series effectively canonized the modern cover shooter. Chest-high walls, the “roadie run”, the cover button, all of these things, while not necessarily originating with Epic’s 2006 title, were all packaged very neatly by it and presented as the starting point for an entire subgenre of the shooter game, with its influence extending far beyond its own titles.

The thing about cover shooters, however, is that they by their very nature they encourage a sort of very methodical sort of gameplay. There’s a reason the genre is also known as “stop ‘n’ pop”: you move to a piece of cover and sit there, popping out to shoot enemies whenever they, themselves, pop out of cover, before advancing towards the next piece of cover. Rinse and repeat. Compared to more aggressive shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, and especially compared to the modern wave of movement-focused shooters like TitanfallGears of War feels kinda slow. There’s a fair amount of waiting involved, between waiting for enemies to reveal themselves from behind cover, to waiting for the right time to advance between pieces of cover.

Now, Gears of War itself has actually acknowledged that through its design. A fair number of enemy types, namely Wretches and Tickers, actively charge players in cover, forcing them to take immediate action. Gears also balances its weapons, generally, such that those weapons which take you out of cover are the most powerful, with shotguns usually providing instant kills and the Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet always providing instant kills upon landing.

The thing here is that these mechanisms end up sort of in opposition to the game’s movement systems. Gears characters are big, hunky marines with the physique of linebackers. They don’t move with much quickness, except for the roadie run, which is a single mad rush in a straight line forward with very little steering ability. Beyond these tools, all the player has is a sort of clumsy roll that can take one a very short distance quickly, with some animation delay between the end of the roll and the next player input. Essentially, what this means is that trying to move into position to use any sort of short-ranged weapon leaves the player vulnerable. You’re defenseless for a short time after using the roll, have no control over your direction while roadie running, and are kind of just a sitting duck while walking. Long story short, you can either move or shoot.

Enter Gears of War 3, the final* episode in the main series, and the introduction of the Retro Lancer. The gimmick behind the Retro Lancer is pretty simple: instead of the series’s iconic chainsaw bayonet, it has…a regular bayonet. With that, the command which normally revs the chainsaw bayonet up instead launches the player forward in a weaponized version of the roadie run, bayonet forward. If you hit any sort of enemy, you skewer them, instantly killing human-sized enemies.

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The thing about the Retro is that it provides an aggressive movement option where the game never had one before. Previously, your options were to either move or attack, whereas charging with the Retro was both. This doesn’t sound terribly significant at first, but what it does is incentivize player aggressiveness in a series and genre normally all about slowly progressing forward. Instead of dividing gameplay into attacking or moving, the Retro Lancer lets the players mount an attack and, as a result, change positioning.

Let’s back up a smidge. Once you’re actually in a piece of cover in Gears, the decisions that you have to make aren’t actually terribly interesting, in my opinion. You wait for a guy to stand up, then you stand up and shoot him. The only thing that changes about the game state is that there’s one less guy shooting at you. You can choose to move forward, but that’s pretty universally a bad idea unless there are, let’s say, two or fewer enemies left, or you’re on a pretty low difficulty.

The Retro changes that dynamic by offering a new decision. Let’s say you’re in a piece of cover and you realize that you’re in a bad spot. In a traditional Gears dynamic, you’re offered two options: try and clear the room from your disadvantageous spot, or cut and run, leaving yourself exposed to enemy fire. The Retro offers a third option: an aggressive push outwards, a marriage of the two decisions. And here’s the best part: to maximize the Retro’s usefulness, you need to charge towards enemies, encouraging you to violate the “my cover-your cover” dynamic the game normally has while also not making such a decision very dumb. Charge towards an enemy flank, stand up, rev the Lancer, and you’re probably dead. Charge towards an enemy flank, immediately skewer someone, then push towards cover, and your odds are slightly better.

Providing incentive on breaking from the player norms of playing a cover shooter is what the Retro Lancer encourages (and in fact, a focus of a lot of Gears of War‘s design decisions), and that is a Good Idea.

A Gaijin’s Perspective on Gaming in Japan: Tabletop Gaming

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I was slightly familiar with the Japanese tabletop gaming scene upon heading over there. I knew that one existed, because I was aware of some of the games that had made their way over to the States. A few Japanese tabletop RPGs have been translated to English, most notably Ryuutama, the above pictured Golden Sky Stories, and Tenra Bansho Zero. Japanese board games have found a bigger foothold in America, with games like Love LetterMachi Koro, and Kobayakawa.

A question I had about this hobby in Japan was one of space. I stayed in four apartments over the course of my time in Japan, and none had suitable space to host a group of 4 to 6 (an average amount of people for a tabletop gaming group) for a long gaming session. On top of that, having a table big enough to host a Dungeons and Dragons game, let alone a larger board game like Dead of Winter or, god forbid, a Warhammer game seemed unlikely.

The response to this problem, it seems, is threefold. The first factor in the survival of tabletop gaming in the cramped space of Japan is that the scene has evolved to make games easily played in a small amount of space. I spent a decent amount of time perusing Japanese tabletop hobby shops, most notably a chain called Yellow Submarine, and judging by what those stores kept in stock, it seems like trading card games are definitely the number one tabletop game genre.

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From what I could tell, Cardfight!! Vanguard definitely seems to be the “in” game in Japan right now, although card shops always seemed to have large sections of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and even Magic. On top of that, bargain bins had collections of tons of games past their prime that I didn’t even recognize, indicating a fairly long history of games at least attempting to take the spotlight for the local card game scene (after all, Cardfight!! is only about six years old).

The prevalence of TCGs makes sense. They require relatively little space to play, and also tap into what seemed to be the innate otaku drive to collect stuff. TCGs are, by their nature, super collectible and, if they take off, super profitable. TCG decks are pretty easy to transport, and if Friday Night Magic is any indication back home, pretty easy to cultivate a scene around.

Japanese board games are still a thing, but the games that seem to be popular, or at least, the design trends that seem popular, are for minimalism. Most of the shops I went into sold big box games like Dead of Winter or Arkham Horror, but looking at what was stocked the most, and most interestingly, what games were made in Japan, the games that were most prevalent were very small games, many of which were in boxes no bigger that a TCG deck box. I ended up picking up a few of these, partially because they packed really easy, and partially because the minimalist design seemed to also translate to their components, rules, and art style.

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Pictured from left to right: Maskmen, Insider, Night Clan, and my US copy of Coup

 

With minimal design as the first factor, the second factor contributing to the Japanese tabletop game scene is the prevalence of public game spaces, where people could go to play assorted games. Yellow Submarine, as well as most of the hobby shops I went in to, dedicated as much as half of their floorplan to tables for people to play games on. This isn’t terribly uncommon back in the States, but the premium put on square footage in Japan makes this more significant. Clearly, providing this space must be important for a shopkeeper to devote that much space to it.

This is probably similar in social construction to the arcades I talked about in my last post. There’s no real room to host a bunch of people in your apartment, nor will social norms allow you to get really rowdy at home around a game, so a public space like this lets you meet up with your friends and really let loose playing a game. This ties back to the first point: if you’re playing your tabletop games at a shop, not at home, games that you can easily throw into a bag and take with you on the train are probably going to win out over big box games.

The third factor in the Japanese tabletop game scene is that, whenever Japan does take on a game or a genre that orginates from the West, they do so on their own terms to better suit their needs. Take tabletop RPGs for example. When I saw my first shelf of Japanese TRPGs, I was surprised by two things. The first was that Japan appears to call them “Tabletalk RPGs”, which I have to wonder is just a mishearing that accidentally propagated through the subculture, and the second was how small the books were.

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Pictured from top to bottom are Insane, the Dark Souls TRPG, a book I absolutely do not know, Dungeon World, the D&D 5 PH, and the Pathfinder Core Rulebook

I know “the books are small” is basically just a rehashing of the first point, but small RPG books are just sort of not a thing in the US. We can make small board games (see Coup), but western RPG rulebooks are, as a rule, generally enormous. The classic D&D triumvirate of books are three, fairly large, hardcover books, and even “small” games like Dungeon World or Fate are still noticeably larger than the Japanese standard book size. They do tabletop RPGs, a most-decidedly Western invention, but they toss out the standards that don’t suit their needs, like the devotion to ridiculous books.

I think it’s worth nothing that this “we took it, but we changed it to fit us” mentality actually goes for a lot of things in Japan. With very few exceptions, I noticed few things from “home” that made its way to Japan did so unchanged. This rang especially true in Amerikamura, a neighborhood of Osaka that’s sort of like if you shoved hip-hop streetwear, post-Cold War Cuba, and modern Manhattan together? Japanese culture takes what it wants and ruthlessly modifies it to its own ends, rather than paying reverence to any sense of “authenticity”.

Some things that just can’t be easy “Japan-ified” just seem like they straight up do not do well in Japan. I actually, by accident, found a Games Workshop store in Japan, but frankly, there were not a lot of people in it, and I wasn’t able to find a lot of GW merch in other hobby shops around Tokyo and Osaka. That makes sense: Warhammer and other miniature wargames require a lot of space, not only to play, but to store armies and paints, and space required to assemble and paint your units. Combine this with the fact that I don’t think any tabletop wargames really capture Japan’s aesthetic tastes (except maybe Infinity, which I expected to see more of, honestly), and it’s understandable that tabletop wargames aren’t terribly popular in the land of the Rising Sun.

So, yeah, make games small, play them in shops, and take big games and make them smaller. Those are the three tenants that seem to drive the Japanese tabletop game scene. It’s working, too: despite going in at weird hours, there were always a good number of people in the hobby shops alongside me, and there were always games going at the tables. I’m happy, too: seeing the industry adapt and thrive in this very different social and economic space forces creativity, and designers hoping to see this hobby from a different angle can easily do so just by looking elsewhere.

 

A Gaijin’s Perspective on Gaming In Japan: Video Games

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I’m back, and I’m hideously jet-lagged! I just spent the last two weeks (and some change) wandering Japan. This was my first trip to Japan, my first trip to Asia, and my first time travelling alone internationally. To summarize the more general feelings on the trip: Japan is the best and everyone should go there because it rules in all the ways you think it would and in quite a few surprising ways too.

Now that that’s said, I wanted to talk for a little bit about gaming as a subculture in Japan. I visited three large metropolitan cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, each of which is home to at least a million people, with Tokyo being home to nine million. While I was there, alongside my sightseeing adventures I went out of my way to try and peek into what it was like to play games in Japan, both video games and tabletop games.

We’ll start with Japan’s video game scene, which I think can be divided into three main subcategories: console games, mobile games, and arcades (pachinko and pachislot probably could form a fourth category, but I didn’t go into any pachinko parlors because they were very loud and intimidating and had no English signage).

Console gaming seemed relatively common, judging by the frequency of stores selling games. Granted, I spent a lot of time in large media retail neighborhoods (namely Akihabara in Tokyo, and Nipponbashi in Osaka), but most stores which sold any sort of media had at least a floor dedicated to console games. Unsurprisingly, Sony and Nintendo seemed to rule this market, and handhelds seemed to have an edge over consoles.

Even outside of “retro” or “collector’s” shops, I found it fairly easy to find games from a couple of console generations ago. Stores I would consider analogous to American big box electronics stores had PS2 and original Xbox games for sale alongside modern releases. I wonder if the urge to upgrade to the latest and greatest isn’t as strong in Japan as it is in the States, a trend I also noticed in people having older mobile phones.

The way games were physically presented were also slightly unusual from my perspective. Few games had any sort of spine art aside from the name in plain black text on a white background, and from the looks of it this trend is at least as old as the Gamecube. I wonder if the console game space is considered a bit more of an “otaku” market in Japan, and advertisement is considered less necessary: the fans’ll know what they want. The only things that did seem to have stylized spines were Western games, usually quarantined to their own shelves.

Mobile gaming seems to be much more of a thing in Japan, which makes sense. Average people have a decent amount of downtime on trains in the big cities, giving you perfect time to play a little bit of a smaller game. Advertising for mobile games was everywhere, on TV and on billboards and posters in train stations. Games that seemed popular (or, at least, were advertising a lot) included Granblue FantasyFinal Fantasy XV: A New EmpireLineage IIPokemon GoClash Royale, and Puzzle and Dragons, among others.

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The last point of note for video games is arcades, and oh man, Japanese arcades are intense. Everyone in the arcade gave off a vibe like they’ve been going to the arcade every day for the last ten years. People were just chain smoking and slamming tall boys and playing Street Fighter or Guilty Gear with skill that was visibly beyond just some dudes button mashing. There was some exemplary skill going on in there, and on top of that, a sense of community, like these guys and gals have been running sets against each other for months, maybe years.

Watching this was interesting, but the stuff I found really cool was a section of games that required more intense setups than a normal home game console. To this end, I ended up playing a lot of Gunslinger Stratos.

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The Gunslinger Stratos controllers (and my pants)

Gunslinger Stratos is a third-person arena battle game (a genre that appears to be very in style in Japanese arcades right now), where you control your character through two lightguns with buttons and control sticks built onto them. The game involves a lot of running around and shooting people, but the way you switch weapons is interesting: you have to physically reconfigure the controllers in order to make new weapons appear. For instance, for a character I was playing, placing one gun physically on top of the controller turned both of my one-handed weapons into a single sniper rifle. It was very cool.

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Also check out this sweet battle Grandpa

The game I found the most interesting, though, was Lord of Vermillion. Completely unplayable outside of the specialized cabinet, Lord of Vermillion utilizes two screens. The first, a typical screen in front of the player, shows the game scene, a sort of RTS battle between armies in what appeared to be a sort of mythologized Feudal Japanese setting. The cool part, though, is the second screen, which is a sort of tabletop surface between the player and the main display.

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On this screen, the guy I was watching was playing actual, physical trading cards, presumably with NFC chips in them, which was creating units in the game space. Moving the cards along the screen moved the units, and it looked like moving them in certain ways activated special abilities (at least, that’s what it seemed like, I can’t read Japanese after all).

This is awesome. As someone has always been very susceptible to the craze of trading card games, the idea of being able to manifest the characters on your cards in a game space, in the way promised by episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh! back in the day, was incredible to see. On top of that, it conjured up this really cool idea of being able to walk into any arcade in the city with this deck of cards that represents your personal collection, your army, and literally throwing them on the table, bringing up your customized army into this game space, adding that personal customization to an otherwise impersonal gaming space. Combine that with the fact that you have this physical collection, this representation of your characters in the game, and I was hooked. 

Seeing how arcades have been able to evolve in Japan since the eighties-style arcades we think of in America is really interesting. In their inception, arcades were cool because you couldn’t play these games at home. As home consoles became more and more common, the usefulness of the American arcade was reduced. In Japan, however, that wasn’t the case. Perhaps since home consoles never really took off to quite the same degree as in the West, arcades were still needed as a place to play “home console” games.

On top of that, Japanese apartments are usually small and, in order to maintain good relations with your neighbors, quiet. Thus, arcades also provide a space to get rowdy with a bunch of other people playing games together, in a way that would leave you all cramped and your neighbors pissed if you did it at home. Combine this with games that literally can only be played with specialized cabinets, like Gunslinger Stratos and Lord of Vermillion, and arcades held their positions as one-of-a-kind experiences in Japan.

So, yeah, the Japanese arcade space is crazy. And, on the note of public spaces for playing games, next time I’ll talk about the Japanese tabletop game space, which I find equally fascinating as well as indicative of Japanese culture in general.

#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 26-31

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Well friends, this is the end! The last six questions for #RPGaDAY 2017, to be answered and shared between members of this hobby. When this post is published, I should be back home from Japan, probably still ungodly jet lagged, and I’ll have plenty to say about that. However, until then, you’ll have to be satisfied with the last few answers to RPGBrigade’s annual conversation starters, because my ass is not going to be getting out of bed for a while. The penultimate set of answers can be found here, and here are the final questions answered!

August 26th: Which RPG provides the most useful resources?

My guess is that 80% of people doing #RPGaDAY are going to give the same answer for this question, and you bet you’re ass I’m going to as well.

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Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number is like 50% composed of some of the best GM aides gaming has ever seen, ranging from the A+ random planet generation tables to some fantastic advice on adventure and alien creation. The best part of all of this is the detail: Crawford spends paragraphs on every result for his random tables, describing what the results really mean, how they could affect your game, and how you can spin them off to make for interesting new adventures.

Just, take it from me, Stars Without Number is an essential tool for any big sci-fi game, and arguably is a useful resource for people running, really, any game. But, hey, you don’t have to take my word for it: the core book is free.

August 27th: What are your essential tools for good gaming?

There are three things which I believe are essential to every single campaign you run, and by essential, I mean completely optional but I really like them and, since I am an internet blogger, I am so pretentious as to misinterpret that as essentialness.

The first is a notebook! Every good campaign comes with a good campaign notebook, a place for the GM to jot down both all of their prep, assorted custom random tables for use when players venture into improv territory, scrawl down random notes during a session, and just to doodle maps, faces, and whatever else in the game inspires your sketching urges. I’m a big proponent of getting a special notebook for every campaign, instead of jamming everything you do into one big catch-all notebook. Sometimes this does go out of control, including recently, when I purchased a notebook and then got so excited about it that I concepted out an entire campaign just to justify the purchase.

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This notebook, to be specific

The second essential thing you need is dice! Anyone who’s been in the hobby long enough will probably accumulate just a comically large pile of dice, some of which are inevitably completely useless (I have a set of d12s which show signs of the Zodiac?) but just cool to look at. In just as dumb a manner as the notebook, I like to have dice specifically associated with a campaign in question. This is partially because it turns your dice bag (which, let’s be real, is an old Crown Royal bag, just admit it) into a sort of collection of memories, as you look over your dice and remember the games you bought them for. Another reason is because I’m an addict and love excuses to buy cool dice.

The third and final thing which is positively essential for any game is a laptop, phone, or anything else with Googling capabilities. While technology is frequently an unfortunate distraction on the table, when you’re GMing, no matter what, you’re probably going to get asked a question that is either incredibly dumb, requiring extremely niche knowledge, or both. For this, you’re going to need to pop open an incognito tab, type in “Google.com”, and figure out how many blocks of C4 your can stick to a horse before it becomes slower, or how much blood is in a giraffe, or how many employees usually work a night shift at Denny‘s, because your game has gone terribly awry.

August 28th: What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group?

Unquestionably this episode of the YouTube series Kid Snippets. It’s never really relevant to anything, we’re all just morons.

August 29th: What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?

Uhh, I actually have never funded an RPG Kickstarter. This is awkward. Let’s see, give me a second…

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Spire: The City Must Fall is a fantasy RPG by…oh, hey, look at that, Grant Howitt, depicting a fantasy world ruled by a bourgeoisie class of high elves. Your characters, the normally despised dark elves, are watching their culture being destroyed in the streets, and have decided that this regime must fall, and it must fall hard. It’s a storytelling game about a slow, dirty climb to the top of the ivory towers, if only to push those that reside there off the edge.

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The game seems pretty interesting, even beyond the relatively unique fantasy revolutionary setting. The classes described are instantly interesting, from the hyena-worshiping Carrion-Priests to the noble-turned-bottom feeder Knights of the Docks. The brief description of the rules describes benefits for knowledge and planning, as well as the accrual of stress, both of which sound both evocative and interesting.

And, yeah, seeing as this is the third one of these that I’ve mentioned his name, Grant Howitt’s name attached to this project fills me with confidence, as he’s put out a variety of both microgames (including Honey Heist and Doctor Magnethands, games I’ve mentioned previously) and a pair of Kickstarted releases, Goblin Quest and Unbound. The veteran crew, of both RPG industry vets and Kickstarter vets, puts me at ease, and a promise of transparency helps me feel not that bad about dropping sixty bucks on a book I’ve never seen.

The Spire Kickstarter will be long done by the time I post this, but, hey, maybe there will be a slacker backer option available?

August 30th: What is an RPG genre-mashup you would like to see?

Easy. Fantasy road trip.

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No, fantasy games are not already this. I’m not talking Lord of the Rings here, which is just a fantasy game which takes place over a long distance and period of time. That’s maybe 80% fantasy, 20% road trip, and what I want is essentially the reverse.

Think about all of the unique things about American road trips, especially a road trip in a really shitty car. The car itself is a source of excitement and adventure, as you constantly pray the thing doesn’t fall apart on the way, forcing you to find a local repair shop and track down some parts (a real thing that has happened to me!). Beyond that, there’s stopping, briefly, at dumb little road attractions like massive balls of twine or giant rocking chairs of whatever. There’s staying at tiny garbage hotels or AirBnBs in towns you’ve never heard of, maybe enjoying the evening in a small town bar with some locals with lives completely unlike your own.

The thing about road trips is that you don’t stop in every podunk down and offer your help for quests or whatever, your stops are mainly there to either obtain something needed (be it food, drinks, a snack, gas, whatever) or to stave off your own incredible boredom and soreness from sitting in a car for hours. Fantasy adventures tend to have this very “roughing it” vibe, but that’s not what a road trip is. Road trips are far more focused on exploring, on being places that you’d otherwise have no reason to be in and planning on the fly. It’s about seeing a lot of weird and beautiful and boring stuff all in rapid succession.

A fantasy road trip is not a great quest across the kingdom to claim the Relic of Whateverthefuck to slay the Evil King, it’s a group of friends hopping in a ride and taking a trip, pretty not sure what they’re going to come across, but venturing forth with equal parts curiosity, fear, and a desire to keep moving forward.

August 31st: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

Oh man, a lot.

I’m excited for The Witcher tabletop RPG from R. Talrosian Games to finally be out, because the Witcher universe is one that I find extremely cool and seemingly a natural fit for tabletop gaming. The idea of a system which is equally interested in preparation and planning as the fight itself is one I find extremely interesting.

I’m also excited for Wrath and Glory, the first Warhammer 40,000 RPG to come out since the license was lost by Fantasy Flight Games and given to Ulisses Spiele, the creators of The Dark Eye. I have nothing against the FFG titles (I own quite a few, in fact), but seeing a new take on this extremely dumb setting, especially something that’s a little more freeform and exploratory than the FFG games, all of which had very prescribed premises, excites me.

(I should note that technically neither of these games has been formally slated for 2018, but I’m just being pessimistic in terms of The Witcher, which was supposed to come out a year ago, and optimistic for Wrath and Glory, which was announced the day I’m writing this).

I’m excited to be playing Genisys, which technically comes out this year but I probably won’t really be playing until next year. Genisys, which is a setting-stripped edition of the rules for Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game, could be an extremely cool system to run a nice, rules-medium game with a lot of creative liberty on both the player and GM sides. The custom dice this system uses are great for letting situations snowball out of control in Star Wars, so I can’t wait to put them to use in other settings.

I can’t wait for PAX South 2018! I already bought my pass, and I’m excited for hopefully even more tabletop fun this year. If things go as planned (which they probably won’t), I might even have some games of my own to show off! I’d love to go to San Antonio with a game online I can point people to, and maybe even a prototype RPG or card game in my bag to have people play, but even just being able to see what other people are doing is usually great as is!

For my world, the thing that I find maybe the most fascinating is that I very well might move for my job in 2018, and while a location, or even if I’m going to move or not, isn’t set in stone yet, this will be the first time I’ve ever truly moved away from home. This means new FLGSs, new groups, the ends of old groups, the discovery of new scenes, increased access to new conventions (being closer to Gencon or one of the bigger PAXs doesn’t sound bad at all), and just new people in my local space in the community. I honestly have no idea what to expect, but that’s the fun part!