Open Design and the Thrill of the Hunt in Prey

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//This article contains spoilers to Prey (2017)

So, my academic career is, for the foreseeable future, over, and while I wait for my start date at my new job, I have all summer to relax, collect myself, and play some video games. What this meant for me was that I had a chance to catch up on those games I missed while I was in the trenches of my senior year, and I started with Arkane Studios’s Prey.

The fact that I adore this game isn’t particularly news. Arkane’s cornerstone series up to this point, Dishonored, is a series I adore so much I had the Mark of the Outsider tattooed on my arm. The game’s inspirations are not only Dishonored but other games I adore: BioshockDead Space, and System Shock being some of the strongest influences. Also, it’s a semi-open world game with great art direction, a unique premise, and strong mechanical focus, which, lemme check, yep, that is in fact a Bingo.

I wanna talk about Prey‘s mechanics, mostly because that’s my forte, and I don’t really have the qualifications to discuss the philosophy or literary pedigree of its premise or ending.  What I like so much about Prey is that, tip to tail, it’s a game about finding your own way. Every aspect of the game, from the mechanics to the story, funnels directly towards the central theme of solving a mystery.

For instance, take the quest design. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about the story, but I need to a little bit in order to describe why I love the way that the quest system works in the game. You see, to say that Prey has an unreliable narrator isn’t totally correct: the protagonist, the impeccably named Morgan Yu, is very reliable, in that he reliably has no idea what the hell is happening. Rather, what the game has is, to steal a term from systems design, multiple sources of truth.

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You as the player receive quests from January, a robotic operator that Morgan himself programmed (to the point of giving it his own voice) to aid the now-amnesiac Morgan of the present in resolving the Talos I problem in a very specific way. In fact, you watch a video that past Morgan recorded in which he basically says “Yeah, believe January, he’s the legit one”. However, another operator, December, who also speaks with your voice, ends up coming along and proposing literally the exact opposite solution. As if this wasn’t bad enough, your brother, Alex Yu, proposes a third solution unrelated to the first two, one which is also accompanied by a video of past-Morgan signing off on it.

So, while plenty of games give you the option of pursuing one of multiple endings to the main story, but separate them morally, Prey gives you similar option, but literally doesn’t tell you which one is right. While this could be seen as frustrating, like the game is tricking you, the game doesn’t then turn around and go “Hah, you picked the fake one, dumbass”, but instead feels like it judges your choice appropriately given the amount of information you’re given. The inclusion of multiple paths to the ending feel less like arbitrarily deciding “this will be my asshole playthrough”, and more like you’re actually taking a crack at solving the mystery. The branching quest design actually ties into the core themes.

Furthermore, Prey encourages you to try and solve mysteries in the game world, even if they aren’t pertinent to the main quest, especially in regards to the people on board Talos I. Since Talos I was a sci-fi corporate entity, they had tracking bracelets for every employee on board to enable them to be tracked. This location data can be accessed via a security-enabled terminal by the player, meaning that the player has the means to track down the locations of every single crew member on board the ship (or, at least, their tracking bracelet).

This is amazing. For starters, it’s such a good way to create a sense of realism on board this station, since instead of having nameless, faceless corpses littering the hallways like some sort of macabre decorations, every corpse has a name, and vice versa, every name haphazardly mentioned in an email or emblazoned outside an office door can be tied to a body. Furthermore, it means that Prey feels free to give the player tons of miniature objectives (such as hearing that someone took more than their requisitioned amount of ammo when they went out), and letting the player hunt them down and claim the rewards naturally, instead of engorging their quest log with tiny little meaningless quests. Again, it’s all about solving mysteries, but the fluidity of this system, combined with the fact that you as the player have to opt-in to them, mean that you actually feel like you’re discovering, hunting down, and solving these tiny stories instead of having them spoon-fed to you.

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That’s enough about the quest system. Prey also excels in that feeling of trying to find things out extends out even towards the combat and traversal mechanics. The fact that the first real gun the game gives you, the GLOO Gun, is arguably infinitely more useful as a traversal tool than as a weapon speaks to how much Prey wants you to explore with its systems and the physical world.

When you first start Prey, you feel like a completely powerless weakling as the base enemies are more than capable of completely ruining your day. Your weapons aren’t terribly effective, and the ones that are run out of bullets almost immediately. Enemies seem to appear out of nowhere, and running from them seems to have an equal chance of you running into more danger as you going home free.

As the game progresses, you end up feeling more powerful in normal video game ways: your guns get better, you get more ammo, you get better guns, etc. But despite that, the game also uses that sense of exploration and mechanical focus to provide the same feeling.

There was a point, about halfway through the game, where I found myself facing down a new area to explore with extremely few resources. So, since the game heavily encourages backtracking, thanks to some puzzles that can only be solved with late-game skills in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a Metroidvania, I decided to go back to older areas and try to scrounge up what I needed to move forward.

When I was going through those old areas, I found something interesting. Since I was fairly familiar with the areas and their layout, instead of feeling like I was getting jumped by enemies, I was instead jumping them, knowing how to sneak around enemies and surprise them from obscure corners or leading them into turret traps I had left before.

Furthermore, I was much more resourceful in these fights, using knowledge I’d gained in experimenting with the combat to beat enemies using only the environment. My inquisitiveness was being rewarded by the game.

When I first walked through these zones, I felt like a horror movie protagonist, slow and careful. Now that I had taken the time to explore the area, to play around with the mechanics, and to gain a better understanding of the resources in the area, my second time through I felt like Batman, or perhaps more fittingly, like a Xenomorph sneaking through the ventilation ducts.

I think that’s where Prey shines. Prey has a central idea: the player should explore this world in the way they so choose, and we should reward them for doing so. By facilitating this in every way the game can, it leads to this feeling where the player really feels like they are figuring the game out their own way, and not just ticking checkboxes off of a “mysterious” quest.

 

 

Why The Hell Can’t I Stop Playing Fire Emblem Heroes?

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I play it in bed. I play it on the toilet. I play it in front of my computer. I play it between classes. I play it DURING classes. I cannot stop playing Fire Emblem Heroes. In fact, with the exception of a bit of Overwatch, as well as me starting the first couple hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (a game I will probably talk about more once I’m deeper into it), Fire Emblem Heroes is literally the only video game I’ve played in the last, god, month?

What Fire Emblem Heroes is is a mobile game, Nintendo’s third after Miitomo and Super Mario Run, and it is sort of a Fire Emblem-lite. You control squads of four units on very small (6 x 8, in fact) maps, with the simple goal of eliminating the entire enemy force, which only comprises between three and six units. Units have special abilities, and gain advantage and disadvantage over opponents thanks to a simple rock-paper-scissors style triangle (swords beat axes beat spears beat swords).

Probably the main draw of the game is the way one obtains heroes, as the title suggests. Usually, Fire Emblem games provide a drip feed of new characters through the story, occasionally letting you unlock some through clever gameplay. Heroes, meanwhile, offers up a gachapon-style unlock mechanism by which you spend orbs, the game’s main currency, in exchange for “opening up” new heroes. You get a batch of five colored orbs, indicated the contained hero’s place on the weapon triangle, and can spend money to open them up, with each consecutive orb in the batch being a little bit cheaper. Since this is a free mobile game, of course you can buy the orbs with real money (I haven’t).

The most obvious reason that I might be playing this game a lot is time-based. I’m super busy right now, with two senior projects needing completion, plenty of homework in my other classes, a job hunt, a part-time weekend job, and two tabletop groups to juggle. Playing a full-fledged AAA game right now is kind of a hard sell right now, when I could be using that time to do, well, productive things.

Fire Emblem Heroes is so short and bite-sized that it means it’s perfect to slot into this schedule. The most demanding fights only take five minutes or so, and while the stamina system which determines how much you can do in a day seems like it’s aggravating some, for me it serves as the perfect end-cap for how much I want to play in a session before returning to whatever I was doing.

I’m also usually a huge sucker for games where you collect stuff (Pokemon, specifically), but I don’t think Fire Emblem Heroes necessarily has its hooks in me for that reason. I’m not hugely attached to the Fire Emblem series (the only game I’ve played is Awakening, although I’d quite like to play the others in the future), so seeing all of these familiar faces from the whole series really doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Instead, I think the character progression is what’s holding me close.

You see, characters in Heroes level up as they fight and kill enemies, and doing so unlocks Skill Points. These points are then spent on a hero-by-hero basis to unlock new basic and special attacks, as well as to unlock certain special feats and traits. One hero might gain the ability to drag an attacked enemy back a space, back towards the rest of your forces, while another might attack twice, so long as they initiate the combat. Unlocking these abilities I think forms the strategic depth of the game needed to hook me.

Fire Emblem Heroes obeys the first law of making instantly interesting gameplay: easy to learn, hard to master. The initial mechanics are easy: guys can move two spaces than attack. Faster guy attacks first. Weapon triangle grants buffs. Simple enough. However, as you progress through the game and your characters accrue more and more Skill Points, your strategic options grow in kind, as suddenly you’re paying very close attention to character positioning, to the types of enemy on the field, to whether you should initiate a combat or let an enemy come to you. Sure, none of these puzzles are equal to, say, a game of Starcraft, but they’re just mentally engaging enough to be a satisfying five minute distraction.

Furthermore, the sheer quantity of heroes you get, as well as the difference in abilities between them, means that you can always mix up and try new strategies. You can lumber forward and fight enemies with brute strength with a bunch of knights, which are very strong but can only move one space a turn, or you can hope to decimate a foe’s melee units with a barrage of arrows and spells before they even get close.

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The arrows strategy also gets much better if you get lucky like I did and pull a five-star version of the best archer in the game early into your playtime.

The beauty is that all of this is condensed into a game that just takes a couple of minutes to complete, instead of hours. Each match feels like a tiny little puzzle, one where you have to work the numbers out in your head. There’s no RNG in the fights at all, just pure strategy, so the game strikes this beautiful balance of having just enough tacked on to each character to create a vast array of possible strategic situations, combined with a wide range of characters to choose from, all condensed into an extremely short play time. Sure, a full length Fire Emblem game would be boring if it were this simple, with no equipment system, support system, or even classes, but you’re not playing a full Fire Emblem game, you’re playing a five minute one.

Ultimately, I feel like Fire Emblem Heroes works because it fills a nice niche as far as games are concerned. The game isn’t brain dead, you do need to engage with it on a mental level in order to plan around assorted character abilities, positions, and tactics, but it doesn’t require near the same tactical investment as a round of Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch, and that strategy is condensed into such a tiny little span of time that it doesn’t feel like an investment of time or energy at all, just a quick little diversion to distract from the day.

Running Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a Tabletop RPG

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Boy, this one’s…this one’s gonna be niche

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about running a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure tabletop game. It’s a combination of two of my most niche interests into something that would require a group so oddly specific that I’ve basically resigned myself to never, ever doing this ever.

But, man, it’d be cool.

For the uninitiated, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is the story of the Joestar family, a bloodline for extremely stern people who basically constantly find themselves at the center of a great deal of trouble, from fighting vampire kings to chasing serial killers to fighting the President to fighting the time-stopping, blood-sucking uber-villain of the series, DIO.

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Yes, he is named after Ronnie James Dio and, yes, you are supposed to spell his name in all-caps.

In Jojo’s, a party of heroes usually ends up in encounters with enemies one at a time, in a “villain of the week” sort of format. Most characters of note in Jojo’s possess what are called “Stands”, which are these sort of ghostly manifestations of their inner psyche, each of which has a unique power. Some of them, like DIO’s “The World”, pictured above clenching his fist, have immediately useful powers like stopping time. Others have more niche abilities, such as “Highway to Hell” in Part 6, which has the ability to kill any target in range, so long as the stand’s user…kills himself.

That’s the joy of Jojo‘s, and why I think it would make an excellent tabletop setting. Jojo’s is all about people with extremely specific powers trying to out-think one another, to put each other into situations where their powers will shine. The most recent season finale of the anime, finishing off the Diamond is Unbreakable arc of the manga, had two stand users basically just outwitting each other for an entire battle, as the hero, who’s ability is to reconstitute anything he punches into its original form, faces off against the antagonist, who can turn anything he touches into a bomb. The battle is less of a direct fistfight and more like watching two very precisely laid-out plans weaved into one another.

So, specifically, why would Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure make for a good tabletop game? Well, what I just said above has me instantly interested. Traditional RPGs can sometimes devolve into rote “I hit him, he hits me” combat, in which combatants just smack each other with weapons until one of them falls over. JJBA instead has fights which feature a distinct pattern: Meet the villain. Figure out what his power is. Concoct a ridiculous strategy to defeat it. Execute. And then punch them a lot. Actual physical combat is usually the last thing in the fight, and it usually provides a satisfying conclusion to the fight.

As a result, every time players would show up to the table, they’d have a new puzzle to solve. First they need to put their heads together to figure out what the hell the enemy is even doing, which is easier said than done. Here is a list of actual abilities that Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters have had:

Basically, the sky’s the limit for what sort of antagonist you can have. When you have that down, your players have to actually be clever and figure out specifically how they intend to use their specific abilities to beat this foe. Then, they get to enact that plan, and change it on the fly, and beat foes with the strength of their strategy, instead of just through sheer force of numbers and statistics. Then, when they finally have the enemy in a corner, it’s punchin’ time.

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I highly encourage to let players scream wildly while they do this.

Another nice part about Jojo’s, other than its resistance to getting stale and how it incentivizes creativity, is that it’s episodic. Like I mentioned in my superhero game post, games featuring a “villain of the week” structure are extremely resistant to player schedules, allowing you to simply tell a story with whoever’s around the table that day, without worrying about where the other characters went off to.

So, what we have is a setting where players can build characters that can do basically anything, where every fight is unique and a chance to be creative, a game that requires smart thinking on part of the players, and a game that will work with a volatile group. You know what we don’t have? A game. Like, an actual system to use. Surely, I don’t have something already primed and ready to go?

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Behold, my face as you fell into my classic bamboozle

However, there is a system which I think is a perfect fit: Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream. MaoCT is a system in which children have adventures alongside their own personal monsters, otherworldly things which are unique to the child and have unique and interesting powers. Find “monster”, replace “Stand”, and done.

MaoCT uses the One-Roll Engine, which is an extremely simple and fantastically clever dice system which I am a big fan of. The system is designed from the ground up to allow for versatile and unique powers to be represented mechanically, and the fantastically good character creation system, which ties monster abilities to parts of their body, works pretty well in Jojo‘s, where it is frequently the case that protagonists have to attack specific weak points of an enemy.

So, I have a system, a motivation, and an infinite wellspring of characters to create, mechanically represent, and set against my players. Now, sadly, all I need are players.

Campaign Idea: March of the Hellgates

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I’ve been inhumanly busy lately, between my schoolwork, the two tabletop campaigns I’m running (and the one I’m playing in), my job, and pursuing a post-graduation job, but I still have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for games to play, and I’ve recently had an idea for a kitchen-sink campaign setting that’s got me very excited, if very wishing I had more free time.

The name of this setting would be March of the Hellgates. The setting centers on the world of Astacia, a high-magic, D&D-ass D&D setting full of wizards and magic and arcane secrets and monsters. The one thing this setting is missing is divine magic. While the concept of religion exists, the idea of divine beings having a tangible effect on the real world, at least an undeniable and traceable one, does not.

Everything’s going swimmingly in Astacia until, one day, a hundred years ago, these great fiery portals called Hellgates open up across the land. Demonic armies literally spew forth from these rifts, razing the countryside, reaving armies, and enslaving the populace. To defend against this threat, eight of the greatest sorcerers, now known as the Sorcerer Kings, perform a ritual that destroys their physical body, but allows them to ascent to astral beings, and in this brief moment where they are able to maintain their power in the Material Plane, they carve massive swaths in the demon armies and force them to retreat.

The Sorcerer Kings vanish, unable to contain their power into material bodies for any longer, and the devastated Astacia is forced to rebuild. Riding on the end of the conflict, a mageocracy (that is, a government controlled by magic users) called the Arcane Protectorate establishes itself as the new high power in the land. The reasoning is that magic users are what literally just saved the world from destruction, so why not put them in charge?

While the Protectorate isn’t totalitarian per-se, they are an extremely bureaucratic and self-concerned organization, which meant it was a while before they tackled their first big problem: the Hellgates. When the last demons retreated through the Hellgates, they weren’t closed behind them. They were just sort of left open.

Finally, an expedition team is mounted to travel through a Hellgate, and this is where the meat of the setting is. When the team reaches their destination, they find themselves not in Hell, but another world, one called Mendallen. Mendallen is a desert world, currently controlled by demons, but most decidedly not the origin of the demons. In fact, as it turns out, the Hellgates serve as a sort of highway service connecting the assorted worlds that the demons have invaded at one point or another, thus establishing a multiverse ripe for exploration.

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That’s the meat and potatoes of the setting. Astacia serves as the “hub” for the game, out of need for a focal point, and its unique standing as a world recently (in the grand scheme of things) invaded by demons. Some of the worlds connected by Hellgates are under demonic control. Others, like Astacia, are not. However, the common trend is that control is inescapable. All of the worlds that resisted demonic occupation did so by instead submitted to an alternative evil.

Take the world of Covina, for example. Heavily inspired by D&D’s Ravenloft and Magic the Gathering‘s Innistrad, Covina is a densely wooded, dark gothic world, one where citizens hide behind their town walls at night out of fear of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. Covina is host to a variety of horrifying monsters, such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and most interestingly, a cosmic horror-scale monster called T’sholoth that lives in the ocean. T’sholoth is horrifying: it mutates and aggravates the monsters in the night, it drives men mad with whispers in dreams, and it basically has stunted all civilization on this world by forcing people to cower in fear.

However, when the demons invaded Covina, T’sholoth pretty much single handedly obliterated them, both with hordes of mutated monsters and its own direct involvement. T’sholoth is an unspeakable horror, and the damnation of the plane, but were T’sholoth defeated, the demon armies would easily conquer Covina.

That’s the core question of Astacia. Astacia freed itself, but now the Arcane Protectorate wields absolute authority. While the Protectorate hasn’t necessarily done anything too bad yet, they’re still extremely concerned with maintaining power, to the point of heavily regulating magic users, and making a point to research, perfect, and grandstand with powerful instruments of war. Their taxes can be rough, their punishments severe at times, and they have a tendency to be very paranoid.

Not only that, but the Sorcerer Kings are still a presence, even if not a physical one. Those who reach out to the Ethereal Plane can sometimes be visited by a Sorcerer King, who might bestow knowledge or a quest upon the traveler. The extent of their power is unknown, as is their motivations. On top of that, they’re completely unmatched: the Protectorate has no idea how to reproduce the ritual that created them, despite constant experimentation. Are the eight Kings going to become watchful guardians of the realm, or oppressive god-like beings like T’sholoth?

I think this idea is ripe with fascinating, interesting ideas. If done will, a campaign could take place within a single world (like a group of monster hunters surviving the woods of Covina, or a caravan of traders wandering the desert of Mendallen), or could span multiple worlds as a party travels the multiverse. Any genre of fantasy wanted can be explored here by just travelling to a new plane, and anything boring can just be left.

However, there are three things that make me very excited about this setting, that make me want to run it ASAP:

1. Higher powers are weird

Paladins are banned from this campaign, clerics draw their power from the ethereal Sorcerer Kings, and the gods, if there are any, don’t regularly make their presence known in this world. There are definitely great forces in this setting, but what they want and exactly what they can do are far more ambiguous than most high-fantasy settings.

2. Heavily exploration focused

This campaign is built from the ground up on the premise of going to new, bizarre places. The sheer variety of places to go, things to encounter, and problems to solve is multiplied exponentially by having a variety of planes, meaning you can do a sandbox-style game in such a setting fairly easily.

3. Weird magic

Sort of following point 1, magic in this world is bizarre and doesn’t work in a very well-defined way. While the Protectorate tries its best to normalize and control magic, things like the Hellgates, the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings, T’sholoth, and other oddities mean that there is plenty of magic that is just nothing but question marks. In my opinion, I think that makes for the best kinds of magic.

Getting Your Hands on Feats

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of feats lately. For the unaware, feats are a catch-all term for one-off segments of rules that can be added to a tabletop RPG character either during character creation or as a reward for progression. Feats I think got their claim to fame in Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, which is arguably the most character tweaking-focused game in existence, although it has since gone on to be a standard in most games.

My game, Blackmarked, also features feats (heh). Generally speaking, I like feats as a way to give characters special one-off rules which let players differentiate their characters from others of the same class/build, and as a way to build character abilities piecemeal to “build-your-own-class”, so to speak. Blackmarked is classless, but you essentially end up constructing a D&D style class from scratch over time by building feats. If you took a character that progressed X amount of time in Blackmarked, and wrote the sequence in which they got assorted feats, stat boosts, and other improvements, you’d pretty much be staring at a class description.

Furthermore, feats in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition help a game that otherwise has fairly limited character customization. Feats let your Warlock wear plate mail, let your Battle Master Fighter throw spells, and lets your Rogue ride a bear into battle. Feats really give your characters legs by spicing them up with interesting and creative abilities. I’m currently playing a Fighter in my 5E game, and finding myself bored with the relatively slow trickle of interesting abilities that Fighters get, even as a Battle Master, so Feats are where I turn to find new and interesting things for my characters to do.

Not everyone thinks feats have a leg to stand on, though (OK I’ll stop). Googling the topic yielded this RPG.net flame war, in which people argue the validity of feats as a means of character customization. Some of the anti-feat points (caltrops?) are valid. They’re massively hard to balance, meaning that games with feats, notably including Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, 3.5E, and Pathfinder, are subject to players cherry-picking broken feats to construct vastly overpowered feats. The power/coolness disparity between feats can be crazy sometimes (one commenter brings this up: “We’re putting ‘cast all your spells while being a fucking bear’ on the same level as ‘uh, don’t provoke opportunity attacks when casting spells, and you have reach 2 with melee’.”).

Furthermore, and this falls heavily into an OSR sort of mindset, is that feats are an example of locking gameplay choices behind character creation decisions. An example mentioned in the thread is the idea of a swordsman swinging his sword in a circle, hitting every enemy within reach, an ability that Dungeons and Dragons 3.5th Edition locks behind the “Whirlwind Attack” feat. In most every game, if a character attempted to spin around with their weapon and hit everyone around them in a circle, the DM would probably either flat out forbid them from doing so without Whirlwind Attack, or impose a massive penalty on the task to the point where it becomes near impossible. What ends up happening is that, if you want to viably spin around and murder everyone within arm’s reach of you, that’s a call you need to make during character creation/progression, and if you’re making the choice during combat, it’s too late.

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And since you didn’t take the feat, you can’t satisfy your dream to become a human lawnmower.

The counterpoint, then, is that you average idiot can’t actually just spin around with a sword and make a series of competent, meaningful attacks against everyone around them. Wielding a sword is hard, and doing that while twirling like a ballerina is even harder. Add on that a bunch of people are surrounding you and, presumably, slashing at you, and you’re pretty likely to mess it up unless you’re a competent swordsman. That competency is what the feat represents.

I think a common theme is thus: people who like feats like them because it allows them granular, precise control over character creation, and people who don’t like feats don’t like how they seem to lock choices about what a character can do behind character creation choices, and how boring and purely mathematical they can be.

To claim that I have a solution to this is ridiculous, but I did have a burst of inspiration whilst reading this argument that gave me an excellent idea. The inspiration came from an obvious source: the literal meaning of the word “feat”:

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That’s right, a feat is an accomplishment. It is born of action performed to such amazing effectiveness that it is worthy of elevation. This is where my idea came forth: if my characters want feats, they’re going to have to earn them.

So, here’s roughly the system. Feats up through character creation are identical. You can choose to take some, and they provide little mechanical bonuses for your character, from stat bonuses to new abilities or whatever.

What’s new is how you get feats during regular play. On top of the cost of experience, as well as prerequisites, each feat has an action associated with it. To purchase the feat, you must have performed the associated action that session. By spending experience points on the feat, then, you are canonizing that moment, that action, as an essential part of your character’s story and being.

For instance, say we have this feat:

Acrobatic Fighter

Action: Completely avoid an attack that would have killed you with a Dodge action

Gain 2 Mastery in Dodge.

Ignoring the rules minutia for a second, this technically is just a slight mechanical boost, but instead of just being a boring little statistical buff, by design, having this feat tells a story about your character. It speaks to the time when you were fighting knights in the burning ruins of your home village, and deftly spun out of the way of a rogue arrow, or the time you were in melee combat with barbarian chieftan and rolled out of the way of his warhammer.

This way, you can have these tiny customizations you can make to your character, but you’re not locked out of these options in regular play. In fact, if you want a feat, this system encourages you to play in a manner befitting of a character who would have this feat. Your otherwise boring mechanical bonuses are tied to interesting stories and interesting play, and instead of limiting your choices during play, it offers you a new layer of choices as you map out your character’s progression through your actions in game.

 

The Journey of a Thousand Miles: How I Prep Session 0

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Session 0 is a concept in tabletop roleplaying games in which the players and GM assemble for a session prior to the “start” of the game, and comprises character creation, group orientation, as well as some general course-setting for the campaign to follow. Generally less useful if you’re running a pre-written campaign, I tend to love Session 0 as a chance to get my players grounded in the world they’re about to embark into. I consider Session 0 an integral part of how I run my games, so I’m going to write about how I prepare.

  • Figure Out The Game

This one’s kind of a no-brainer, but important nevertheless. To have a group going, you need a game for that group to play. Sometimes this is easy, and the group will either unanimously want something to play, or will have formed with the explicit purpose of playing a game (my primary group formed this way, around Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line).

However, no one’s lucky all the time, and sometimes you’ll have a group, but not a clear idea of what to play. As GM, part of the initiative is on you to select the game to play, but you don’t get complete control. As the member of my group with generally the most RPG experience, as well as the one who tends to own all the books, I like to make a short list of games I’d be interested in running, and let players choose from that list. That way, players get to still choose their game, but there’s no chance of me being stuck running a game I hate. I also tend to make these lists full of very different games, such that my player’s options are varied and they don’t feel like I’m pigeonholing them.

For instance, here’s the pitch sheet I made for my newest group. I selected five games I wanted to run (2E/3.5 Dark Sun, Shadowrun 3E, Dungeon World, Wild Talents, and Eclipse Phase), gave each of them short write-ups on how they play, the setting, and the tone, as well as other considerations that players might take into account (like availability of books, as well as campaign formats).

  • Read The Book A Lot
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You have no idea how many good stock photos there are of people reading

As the GM, it’s your responsibility to know the rules cover to cover, and this goes doubly so for character creation, and doubly so again if your players aren’t familiar with the system. Not only are you going to have to know how character creation works, you’re going to have to field dozens of the same two questions, both of which require intimate knowledge of the rules: “What does this stat actually do?” and “If I want to do X, what should I invest in?”.

Also, I mean, you’re GM! You’re going to need to adjudicate on the rules anyways, so you’re going to need to know all of this stuff anyways, so why not knock it out now? It also helps to scan through now and take note of any rules that you think might not jive with your group, or things you think are interesting and definitely want to include or draw attention to.

You can, however, fudge this. For my Session 0, we ended up doing Shadowrun, and thanks to a delightful Bundle of Holding deal, I had a bookmarked PDF of the core rulebook that I could use to easily flip through the rules to clear up any deficiencies in my game knowledge.

  • Buy A Sick GM Notebook

OK, maybe this one’s just me, but since I handwrite most of my GM notes, I like to have a custom notebook for each of my games. For my Star Wars game, I write my notes in this very cool Kylo Ren Moleskine, and for this Shadowrun game, I got this cool, minimalist cyberpunk notebook off of RedBubble (although I wish it was a little larger, although I guess that’s a problem with RedBubble, not the artist).

  • Gather Friends, and Character Create

OK, so Session 0 begins, and it’s time to create characters as a group. The benefits of creating characters as a group, instead of coming to the table as completed characters, should be fairly obvious. Characters won’t step on each other’s toes in terms of party roles (as opposed to four people coming to the table all having rolled up healers), the GM is present to provide guidance and rules clarification (and that rules clarification gets to be said to the entire group once, instead once per individual), and people also bounce off of each other’s ideas and help each other come up with interesting characters.

As GM, your job is to make this (possibly painful, depending on the system) process as easy as possible, by being there to answer rules questions, by having rulebooks available and searchable to resolve questions and to list out character options, and to explain the character creation process in general. Shadowrun, for example, has a fairly laborious character creation process, partially due to a Priority System used to allow characters to dynamically assign priorities to aspects of their character like their race or magical ability, and partially due to how gear-centric a setting Shadowrun has, causing players to go trawling through pages upon pages of equipment lists. I was constantly bouncing between people, making sure that everybody was getting through the step they were on as smoothly as possible.

Another point to note is that players in your group might character create at different speeds, depending on their familiarity with the game, and with RPGs in general. I’ve found little success in babysitting the whole group, making sure no one goes on until everyone is done with a given step, and instead I have found it totally viable to simply sit down with the players who are maybe struggling and help them step-by-step, while letting your power players charge ahead at their own pace (although, if you do this, it might be work taking a peak at your power players’ sheets prior to Session 1, making sure they did indeed do everything right).

  • Why Are These People Together?

Arguably the most important question that you’re going to ask during Session 0 is this one:

Why the hell are these people together?

Party composition from a mechanical standpoint is important, but keep in mind that roleplaying games are story-oriented, and if you haven’t given some thought to the reasoning why your party is narratively a single unit, you’re going to have moments where a player goes “Wait a minute, why doesn’t my character just leave?”. Worse yet, party infighting might break out if two characters’ ideologies differ too greatly, and while some party tension might be interesting, too much will grind the game to a halt.

Now’s the time to notice if two members of the party seem like people that aren’t going to get along, like a Lawful Good Paladin and a Chaotic Evil Barbarian, or a police officer and a drug dealer. If such a pairing of opposites exists in your group, you have a set of options.

You can just have one character change until the tension no longer exists, which sort of infringes upon a player’s right to play what they want, but generally the fun of the group as a whole is more important than the fun of individuals, and if a character is set to be too destructive, the invasion of agency is worth it.

You can also have the players decide upon the reason why these two characters are coexisting, usually as a result of circumstance. The Paladin doesn’t like the ways of the Barbarian, but in the face of an oncoming demon horde, the Paladin isn’t one to question extra help. The police officer dislikes the presence of the drug dealer, but the dealer has a strict rule to never sell to children or otherwise disrupt lawful citizens from doing what they need to do, and that code of ethics is enough to stop the cop from intervening. Keep in mind that stories in roleplaying games are dynamic things, and if the thing keeping two party members from killing each other is circumstantial, remember that circumstances change, and maybe have a contingency plan for that day.

The final option is to plan for the conflict. Both players recognize together that their characters are going to butt heads, so they plan out roughly how they want that conflict to go, together, in such a way that it won’t disrupt the group as a whole. This way, both players get to play what they want without compromise, and the potential for interesting roleplay moments increases. It may seem restrictive to plan these things out in advance, but you can keep the plan vague: “When the point comes that the Barbarian tries to kill an innocent, the Paladin will try to intervene, and we’ll have a short scene that can resolve these ways, none of which involve PvP or significant disruption to the campaign”.

Even beyond actual animosity between party members, use this discussion as a place to bind the party together in the story. You can potentially craft interesting relationships between party members here, flesh out backstories, as well as simply figure out what motivates the characters. If the entire group is together due to common motivations, even if that motivation is cold hard scrilla, that makes it easier for you as GM to figure out what to dangle in front of players to get them moving.

  • Ask Them What They Want To Do

Finally, and crucially, the last thing I do during Session 0 is ask my players what kind of campaign they want to do. Do they want a lot of combat, or very little? How much diplomacy and politics do they want to get involved with? Do they want to interact with this part of the setting? How about this other part? Do they want long, sweeping quests, or quick jobs to complete?

Some of this is unspoken, too. Look at the character sheets. If a player took ranks in a certain skill, or gave themselves certain specializations, that’s them communicating to you that they want those things to appear in the game. If everyone in your Star Wars game took ranks in Piloting, that’s your players communicating to you that spaceship piloting is a thing that they want in this game, potentially a lot. My Shadowrun players took lots of ranks in Knowledge Skills in relation to gangs and gang politics, signalling to me that my players want to deal with the criminal underworld element of the Shadowrun setting quite a bit.

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With this prepwork, you have a game, a knowledge of that game’s rules, a party that will work as a cohesive whole, and a rough blueprint for what kind of adventures you need to start preparing (and a rad notebook, optionally). With all of this, you should be armed and ready to begin a successful and fun campaign.

The Switcharoo: Impressions on the Nintendo Switch

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Really switchin’ things up around here. Just really having a switch of thinking. The thought to write this was like a light switch going off in my head. Switch.

So, last night marked the most informative press conference we’ve gotten about Nintendo’s new console, the Switch. Designed to be a hybrid of home console gaming and mobile gaming, as well as featuring a laser focus on local multiplayer, the Switch is nothing if not a pretty unique piece of hardware. If you don’t already know the full specs of the Switch, there are far better write ups than I could provide, but here are the CliffsNotes:

  • The “console” that plugs into your TV contains within it a tablet which can be removed and taken on the go.
  • The two side pieces of that controller above, the pieces stylized in the logo (called joycons), can be played in the above configuration, slid off to function in a manner resembling a Wiimote and Nunchuck, used as two seperate controllers, or slid onto the sides of the tablet to form a Wii U-esqe controller.
  • Games are back to coming as cartridges, probably for easier on-the-go handling

So, as a designer, I think my biggest fear in regards to the Switch is actually the price point on the peripherals. Just one joycon costs fifty dollars, and a set of two of them as a bundle costs eighty. Throw in the controller mount, and the total goes up to $110. As a reference point, that’s:

So, the peripherals are expensive, so what? My point is that expensive peripherals, obviously, raise the barrier of entry to get said peripherals, and thus reduce the number of people who have them. As a developer, you’re not going to be able to reliably assume people have 4 joycons lying around, at least not as well as you could if they were, say, thirty bucks. You can only assume people have what comes standard with the console.

If you’re getting some deja vu here, this is because I’m framing this in a way to parallel another recent peripheral:

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The Kinect for the Xbox One was another innovative controller at a relatively high price (it currently runs for a hundred bucks). When the Xbox One launched, one of the promises was a Kinect in every box standard, meaning developers could reliably make Kinect games knowing that the base market they were pursuing was 100% of Xbox One owners, the same as any other Xbox One game. However, in search of ways to cut sticker price, Microsoft decided to go back on packing in Kinects, returning them to a paid accessory, and the Kinect ecosystem responded by immediately dying. As it turns out, people usually aren’t stoked to spend an extra hundred bucks when they just bought a three hundred dollar console, and still need to buy some games, so no one bought Kinects, and thus, the value proposition on developing for the Kinect got way worse. Flash forward to 2016, and two Kinect games came out all year.

While their reasoning is different, I think Nintendo is marching towards a similar fate here. Having just dropped three bills on a Switch, plus probably at least sixty bucks more for a game, people aren’t going to then spend another hundred bucks to get another controller, especially not when the games that need them are, while not necessarily bad, definitely not strong enough to push hardware sales. Do you think people are going to buy peripherals for a Bomberman game in 2016? Do you think people are going to spend a hundred bucks to play Arms with a friend? Really?

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DISCLAIMER: I actually think Arms looks rad as hell, but I’m not spending $170 to play it with a friend

I guess the hope is that you and your friends will all have your own Switches, and thus can just bring your controllers around to friends’ houses to play, but then the problem becomes that the current lineup is so paltry that the gamble of getting multiple people to buy a Switch to complete the console experience for any one of those people is silly. Plus, what if people wanna try yours before they buy their own? What about showing family? What if you just wanna play with different friends than the ones who own Switches?

I want the Switch to succeed, and with a few more games lined up that are to my tastes, I’ll probably end up getting one myself. My problem is that I think Nintendo is trying to hype up this “ideal” experience with the console that relies on the faulty assumption that people are going to drop hundreds of dollars for the peripherals of this thing, and when that assumption fails to come to light, you’re going to end up with a console that largely has some of its most interesting features largely underutilized by the general public.