Thursday, February 11, 2016

Trust Issues: GMs and Players

Trust? When did become a thing? I remember high school games filled with betrayal, paranoids hiding their character sheets from one another, notes darkening the air, GMs using our plans against us. I also remember those campaigns inevitably crashing and burning. As we got older, games with "secret squirrel" bs became tiring. Some players stayed in that mode. I remember a post-college superhero game where one player triumphantly revealed he'd been a villain all along and had sold the group out. Followed by another player revealing they'd known and had already stopped their plans. Followed by the first player holding back tears of fury before taking his ball and going home. Ugh. 

But that's "gross" scale weirdness and betrayal at the table. In this episode of the Play on Target podcast, we set our sights a little narrower. We consider about how to keep trust and why that's important at the table. Not "X was the traitor" or Paranoia RPG mistrust, but players being uncertain you're going to let them have any impact. Take a listen and tell us what you think. Off base? On target? Below you'll find more (of course) I didn't say in the episode. 

Here are twelve thoughts, epiphanies, and tips I didn’t get to in the episode:
  1. Play Fair. We take that as obvious in the episode, so we’re less explicit about it. Recognize burning a player’s trust has long-term consequences. I’ve watched a couple of excited and interested players curl up and go cold after a GM’s betrayal. In one case I caused it. On the other hand, I lost trust in my late friend Barry. We never believed him fully when it came to mysteries and he found it frustrating. He’d burned us with a nasty set of multi-session red herrings in a superhero campaign. (“Yeah, the murderer in the apartment building was here for someone else but accidentally entered a Viper Agent’s place and killed him. And then stumbled across the agent’s super-hidden stash of weapons and tech. But it all It had nothing to do with Viper.”).
  2. Don't Undercut Success. If a player has done something and done it well, be careful of immediately dismissing or throw shade on what they did. Like “Well, anyone could’ve done that” or “It wasn’t that big a foe because I reduced his levels.” I played a campaign where my character sacrificed himself bravely in a final scene. It was a good death for a Martyr archetype in a Hunter game. As we wrapped the GM said, “Yeah, you didn’t need to do that. (My Mary Sue NPC) had wings and could’ve done it easily without dying. But he said whatever when you made the choice.”
  3. Demonstrate Results. If I don’t trust my action have an impact, why should I bother? And I don’t mean always winning, but actually getting some kind of feedback for success or failure. Over the years I’ve been in countless games where players do actions with a secondary skill, only to get a “yeah, you succeed” response. Most often information gathering, building contacts, and the like are given no weight.
  4. Talking. We mention talking to the GM as an option and a good one. I will point out an example where that didn’t work. I joined a Cyberpunk game and asked if they needed a Netrunner. The GM said they did and that I’d have stuff to do. Cut to several sessions of sitting on my hand or attempts which achieved the equivalent of unlocking someone’s car door. I spoke to the GM about that, said that I’d really like to see more options and opportunities for my character. The GM affirmed he would and understood my feelings. Cut to several sessions of nothing, punctuated by an operation where my isolated character rolled dice three times and had two minutes of play time.
  5. Genre Pickiness. If a GM runs a solid and awesome game for you, give them the benefit of the doubt when they suggest a campaign premise or system you’re not as into. Especially if they’re enthusiastic- they’re spending their social capital after all.
  6. Iron Face. I’ve run for players who will never trust me (or any GM). You have to recognize that and not take their distrust personally. It means they’re going to treat everything as a trap, in game or out. Just be consistent and accept they don’t want curveballs. Sometimes these players have a history of violence done to their characters by bad GMs. Sometimes they’re just that way. However, be prepared to cut them loose if their prickly, distrustful mode is a strategy to get concessions.
  7. Ask. If it fits with your style, consider ending answers and declarations with an invitation to respond. What do you think? Seem fair? Is that cool? Does that sound OK? That seem like enough? That leaves the door open in case a player feels they aren’t getting a fair shake.
  8. Demonstrate Evenhandedness. In an Exalted game, it became clear the GM continually centered things around one player-- that player got more opportunities and bigger breaks in combat. This wasn't any fault of that player-- instead it was a particular GM tic. The most egregious example came when the GM essentially shut down his wife’s character’s action despite extraordinary successes because it didn’t fit his focus. Give everyone equal opportunity to shine.
  9. Humanity. We've done a bunch of episodes on the difficulty of “subjective punishments,” like alignment penalties, humanity losses, paragon/renegade meters, clarity. If your game includes those mechanisms make it a priority to discuss those before you get to play.
  10. Through Your Paces. Let me supply a super-concrete example of what I want out of trust at the table. I want players to trust that I’m going to get to them, not going to forget them, and give them their chance to act (or decline acting). If players trust you on that, they’ll patiently wait while you’re dealing with other people. They’ll get less antsy when one player drags things out a little. They know you’ll finish and their day will come. Do that by being hyper aware of who has gone and not gone. In early sessions ride the clutch a little. Players will sometimes finish a question declaration and then launch into another. “Let me put a pin in that and I’ll come back to you, but let me hear from X first.” Get moving. Show the players their time is of value. I appreciate Andrew in our 13th Age game. He keeps things moving forward and keep me honest about making their time count.
  11. Give Them a Puppy. Let the players be trailblazers and owners of some things. If they’re an Elf, let them supply some of what Elves are about. If they’re from X place, they’re the expert on that. Support that and bring it into play. Even if you’re not a collaborative GM, try some of this. If you give them something they have ownership over and you blow it up, have a damn good reason.
  12. Take Them at Their Word. Show trust to get trust. 
Play on Target: Building Trust

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

The Year in Cthulhu RPGs 2014

Perhaps we can truly see the dark and limitless power of the Old Ones through their ability to eternally remain in fashion. Or at least to dive deep into oversaturation, and yet not become uncool. So even after a year in which AEG delivered Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Set, we still have more and more. Will a final product release coincide with the heat death of the universe?

In any case, I’m once again inventorying 2014 rpg products for particular genres. I’ve already covered Supers, Post-Apocalyptic, and Steampunk & Victoriana. I’d hoped to have these by the end of 2015, but that didn’t happen. So we’ll just pretend the eerie gap connects to the leap year or something. Perhaps the Lunar New Year (which I still missed). In any case for this list I decided to try something new. Usually I lump all the Horror items in a single unwieldly list. This time I broke that into Horror: Cthulhu and Horror: Everything else.

A surprisingly even split.

If you’re a podcaster or blogger and want to talk with me about these series, drop me a line. I got nominated for an ENnie last year, so that’s something…maybe. If you’re a designer for games I’ve mentioned on any of these lists and want to talk about your work and thoughts about the genre in general, I’d love to have a chance to do that.

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I’ve group entries by major publishers and then individual new core books or oddities, followed by category roundups. I’ve considered something “Cthulhu” if it explicitly references that, calls itself Lovecraftian, or uses non-bastardized names of the Old Ones. Some of that’s subtective. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I consolidated some material into” Category” items at the end. I’m certain I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

1. Call of Cthulhu: Chaosium
This year’s roar came from the new 7th Edition's semi-appearance and delays with the Horror on the Orient Express. Kickstarter. Both suggested problems with Chaosium’s publishing strategy. That would be confirmed in 2015 with a complete management shake up, cutting of lines, and a refocus for what remained of the company. We'll see what that new approach brings. Call of Cthulhu has many competitors, but remains the beast at the top of the heap. Will the new edition draw in other companies or will they go another direction?

This year’s big releases are the Keeper Rulebook and Investigator Handbook for CoC 7th. These pdfs landed late in the year, just making it in. At first I assumed that Chaosium had oddly split the core rules into a Player and a GM book. But more oddly the core rules seem to be contained in the Keeper book. The Investigator volume adds to the character options and isn't necessary to play. Apparently there's some weirdness with the naming? A strange situation.

As with previous new editions, Call of Cthulhu 7th lifts a chunk from its predecessors (literally and figuratively). It makes incremental rather than revolutionary changes (percentile stats!). If you like CoC you've probably already decided to dive into Ry’leh or not. Is it a good jumping on point for new gamers? It remains a fairly traditional game with lots of skills, detailed equipment, and the ability for none of that to matter when you actually face adversaries. So maybe, but less so for new players coming out of Story Games. Also, as far as I can tell, Chaosium still hasn’t released print versions of these rules. (You can get the Keeper Rulebook pdf for $28!).

The company did back that release with two modules: Cold Harvest and the revised Ripples from Carcosa. The first is a scenario set in Stalinist Russia. I'm unsure if it connects with the earlier Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37. Chad Bowser does the writing, so I suspect it’s dynamite. On the other hand, Ripples is an odd choice to drop as an entry product for your revised system. Rather than the standard 1920's it has two historical and one near-future scenario. The revised campaign release Horror on the Orient Express seems seems the most conventional release (and works across editions). But of course it isn't. It’s a weird, sprawling, massive campaign of non-traditional mythos with elements drawn from Thomas Ligotti. It's amazing, but not where I'd want to start new players. It also falls on this list by virtue of finally arriving to KS backers (a year late).

2. Call of Cthulhu: Other Publishers
The big question is whether other companies who've produced CoC products will follow down the 7th edition path? At the present the trail looks fairly empty. Hopefully Chaosium can generate enough excitement and support to lure them. That’s vital since these publishers have put out amazing products over the years. For example, the ongoing "Age of Cthulhu" series. Starfall Over the Plateau of Leng offers an investigation moving back and forth between the real world and Dreamlands.

Other releases include Tales of the Crescent City, a large sourcebook for 1920's New Orleans. The anthology format includes essays and adventures, making it a solid resource and companion to the earlier Secrets of New Orleans. Investigator Weapons, Volume 2: Modern Day feels like a throwback. It's been a while since I've seen a "gun" book for anything other than Shadowrun. It's the kind of thing my high school group would have fawned over and then ignored in play. The book's 240 pages, with illustrations for the individual weapons. It this is your bag full of guns, then more power to you. World War Cthulhu: Europe Ablaze presents scenarios for Cubicle7's take on WW2 and the Mythos. Finally Byzance is a MASSIVE French supplement covering the Byzantine Empire. It hints at either a huge community playing Dark Ages Mythos campaigns or the dedicated work of Medieval Studies Grad Students. Either way, a cool look a historical corner often overlooked in gaming

3. Call of Cthulhu: Pegasus Spiele
This German publisher more than deserves their own entry for this year, delivering even more CoC material than Chaosium. I have to begin with another huge and amazing volume: Gaslicht- Horror in den 1890ern. Here Pegasus Spiele takes on Cthulhuby Gaslight (3rd Edition), expanding, revising, and creating new adventures. It looks amazing and shows the strength of this line overseas.

You can see that in the other mammoth releases like Düstere Orte, a collection of six adventures set in "dark places." Die Träume des Nophru-Ka and Der Tag der Bestie are the second and third parts of a gigantic 18-chapter world spanning campaign. Each volume has six linked scenarios and clocks in at about 300 pages. Things finally slim down from there. Niemandsland- Edition Stahlgewitter revises and consolidates an earlier book covering WW1 and the Mythos. Wuchernder Wahn und andere Abenteuer collects material from Cthuloide Welten magazine. Totholz and Der Preuße both present single CoC scenarios designed for conventions and tournaments.

4. Trail Of Cthulhu: Pelgrane Press
At least half of the Cthulhu game threads I read revolve around Trail. It seems to be the key Gumshoe product (alongside Hite's other masterwork, Night's Black Agents). Part of what makes ToC releases special is the split between solid adventures and ambitious sourcebook projects. Dreamhounds of Paris is one of the latter. It brings together Lovecraft's Dreamlands and the rising surrealist ideas of the 1930's. I'm surprised we hadn't seen this combination explored before. To complement Dreamhounds, Pelgrane also released The Book of Ants, a systemless, player-facing surrealist book filled with glimpses and weirdness.

Another large volume, Mythos Expeditions covers travel-oriented adventure for ToC. It includes ten scenarios as well as additional rules for travel and survival. Locations range from the Sargasso Sea to Paraguay to Mongolia. Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu is a collection of WW1 adventures. One of the three, Sisters of Sorrow, appeared previously, but I believe the other two are new. Slaves of the Mother finishes out the “Cthulhu Apocalypse” trilogy. It has three scenarios set several years after the Earth has fallen to a cosmic horror. Soldiers of Pen and Ink explores something rarely covered in rpgs, the Spanish Civil War. The investigators pursue a mystery even as the country bathes in blood and war. Finally the monthly series Ken Writes About Stuff includes a ton of Lovecraftian or Lovecraft-adjacent material.

5. Achtung! Cthulhu: Modiphius
This was a huge year for Achtung! Cthulhu. Released the previous year Modiphius followed up with strong support and new adaptations. Since then we’ve seen the company invest heavily in this line with crossover products and an upcoming miniatures skirmish game.

This year significantly expanded the setting via three products: Guide to the Eastern Front, Guide to the Pacific Front, and Guide to North Africa. Each hefty sourcebook (128 pages) offers new character options, details on military operations in the area, deeper monster info, and an exploration of the role of the Mythos in the region. Similarly Terrors of the Secret War offers a bestiary. It includes horrors both cosmic and human.

Achtung! Cthulhu expanded their support beyond Savage Worlds and CoC (6th) with reimplementations of their core books: Fate Investigator's Guide to the Secret War and Fate Keeper's Guide to the Secret War. Ryan Macklin handled the conversion to Fate Core. He always has striking ideas for the system, so Fate players may want to look at these. Modiphius also offer a limited edition combining the two books, The Fate Guides to the Secret War.

Smaller products included several adventures. Kontamination is a stand-alone module set in late 1944. They also adapted their Zero Point campaign series to other systems with Heroes of the Sea and Three Kings. Lastly Plotting Cthulhu and Secret War Documents are pdf-only releases designed for generic use as well. The first features plot generators and the second form-fillable documents from the period.

A new Cthulhu RPG with a unique system. Designer Jonathan Rowe has a lengthy post on his site about what made him skip existing systems in favor of new mechanics. I like that he doesn’t completely dismiss the others, pointing out what he likes from those approaches. Cthulhu Abides has a stated  focus on flexible Sanity and new ideas for handling magic. The game calls itself “Pick-Up & Play (PUAP) RPG.” I’m curious about the systems built to support that. It focuses on Edwardian England, placing it in that strange post-Victorian era of industrialization which culminates with World War I.

Abide: accept or act in accordance with; be unable to tolerate; to have one's abode; to continue in a particular condition; to wait for, await. I assume this last one’s the sense the author intends. But try as I may I cannot hear that word without thinking of The Big Lebowski.

A new Spanish rpg offering a new take on Cthulhu. The pitch line talks about reinvention and bringing the Mythos into the modern era. The game seems to focus on secret societies and groups. In fact the PCs are members of the cults you’d normally fight. The art's striking and I like the simplicity of the character sheets. Cultos Innombrables has gotten decent reviews. If you're curious I recommend checking this review or this one via Google Translate. I haven't been able to find much follow up on this line, but I may be missing it in my hunt. Very cool seeming, especially if you know Spanish (which I used to, but that’s a long story).

A generic Lovecraftian supplement covering esoteric New England. That's a smart and relatively under-exploited section of Cthulhuiana. I don’t mean the area, that’s been trampled across by tons of supplements. But the idea of authors bringing their local history knowledge to bear for interesting self-publishing. The Guide has seven chapters plus an introduction. These cover geography, inter-war society, prehistory, Native Americans, monsters, witchcraft, and a catch-all list of weirdness. It comes in at 144 pages, slightly smaller than typical digest format. The layout's simple and efficient. Recommended for GMs running in this locale and era. Could be a good model for others wanting to combine local history knowledge with Cthulhuiana. Perhaps an examination of the strange planned city of Gary, Indiana and its connection to occult designs?

I've mentioned this company on a few other lists. They seem to focus on quickly turning around projects to match new systems and churning out products to catch hype. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I've seen interesting stuff come out of excitable publishers. But the few reliable reviews I've seen make me leery. They released four Cthulhu-esque products this year. Present Day Cthulhu offers a take on modern Lovecraftian Adventures. They released this in two flavors, one for Fate Core and the other for Multiverse Adventures. Both contain the full system rules as well as "Mythos locations, Monsters, NPCs, the Dreamlands, an example scenario, several cults, a secret history of the Earth, and uncanny Mythos tomes, with the spells and powers they contain." All that in a short books. Cyber-Cthulhu and Cthulhu in Space are both Fate Core sci-fi versions of the Mythos. These again seem to follow a similar pattern: reprinting the whole of the CC rules and adding some fluff to it. Caveat Emptor.

A Swedish rpg, based on a fiction series. The name translates as “Swedish Cults.” You can see a little about the source books here. Short version: a linked set of stories about the Mythos tied to Sweden and Swedish history. The Indiegogo campaign for the core book offers this pitch "The real universe is cold, evil and beyond human understanding....The truth, however, has revealed to the few. Most of them have been crushed by this knowledge. But not all. Instead, they have embraced it, sought to take advantage of it. Become the old gods' servants here on earth. These people are called cultists...You are one of them...Or maybe even worse, you're a monster, a hybrid that is struggling to survive in a hostile world. A world that the other call Sweden." It reminds me a little of Cultos Innombrables above, though with more existential horror.

11. Revisions & New Editions
Sometimes I don't "get" game premises. Not dislike them, but rather I have a hard time noodling out how arrived here. Now I love cats. They're my pet of choice despite allergies. But once again I have to express my astonishment that there are two competing feline adaptations of the Cthulhu Mythos. On the one hand we have Call of Catthulhu which released a "deluxe" two-volume version of their game: The Nekonomicon and UnaussprechlichenKatzen (The Cat Herder's Guide). On the other side we have Cathulhu: Velvet Paws on Cthulhu's Trail, a translation of a small German game, Katzuhlu from 2006. Outside of furred circles, another revised edition came from Stardust publications for Dark Aeons, The Book of Shadows. That presents updated magic for the modern, loosely Lovecraftian, card-driven rpg. Finally Eldritch Skies received a Savage Worlds version (after some turmoil with their Unisystem version). Battlefield Press released Eldritch Skies (SW) and Distant Vistas. The latter's a small expansion with new rules and options.

12. Sourcebooks
The Void offers a mix of relatively hard sci-fi and Lovecraftian elements. Wildfire followed up their initial release with several smaller but substantive supplements. Secrets of the Void focuses on the backstory of the setting. It delves into the history of the Old Ones, new aliens, cults, and other secrets. Characters Unbound I: Player's Guide adds a lifepath system, new talents, and a host of optional character play rules. Horrors of the Void I: Body Horror offers four new monsters. Each body horror-focused terror gets several pages on how to use them in a campaign. The book also includes info on existing beasties.

Glimpse the Beyond reads to me like Mage: the Ascension vs. Cthulhu. That game added Dwellers In Nightmare, a character sourcebook, and Dreams of the Old Ones, an alternate "baddies won" setting. Shadows Over Vathak's a Pathfinder black powder sort-of Lovecraftian setting I’ve reviewed. They added several sourcebooks covering "The Colonies" a specific large island off the coast: A Game Master's Guide: The Colonies, A Player's Guide: The Colonies, and Vathak Grimoires: The Drowning Ceremony. The material's aimed broadly and useful wherever in Vathak you might set things. Oddly they label the player and GM guides as an 'Adventure Path,' though there's no scenario here. They also released, Enhanced Racial Guide: Bhriota, the first of what I assume will be a series of racial books. Finally there's Mythos Too, part of the Mythic Monsters series for Pathfinder. Here you can get stats and CRs for the Color Out of Space and flying polyps among others.

13. Modules/Scenarios
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History of Horror RPGs (Part One: 1981-1990)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Good Moogles, Bad Cockatrices: 12 Reasons to Love/Hate Final Fantasy XII

I’ve put 376 hours into Final Fantasy XII. That seems gross, but I have an excuse. I played FFXII heavily on release; it grabbed Sherri and me. We swapped out plays, worked through the guide, and tried out combinations. Mostly we explored every tiny corner to complete everything. At 261 hours in the house caught fire. That meant an eight month break while they repaired the house and cleaned the salvageable property. Mercifully that included some of games and memory cards. But we’d been away long enough we couldn’t pick FFXII up. We’d lost our sense of the play and we’d saved right before the last dungeon. So we moved on.

Then this positional vertigo thing sent me to couch & console. I began with the remastered Final Fantasy X, but the slooooooow start frustrated me. So I set up the PS2 to go through some of my favorites (actually just two SSX Tricky and SSX III) before popping in FFXII. I’m another 115 hours in at this point. I’m sure I’m past the halfway mark, but there’s so much to do I can’t say for certain. I just hit level 51.

So here’s what I love and what I don’t love about Final Fantasy XII. I’m already in the tank for JRPGs in general, so keep that in mind. As always I think there might be a few lessons for tabletop games to be learned here. 

1. World Opens Up Early
Kelvin Green hit on this in last post’s comments. FFXII learned many lessons from MMORPGs. Mostly importantly there’s a feeling of space, room, and exploration. And the game doesn’t keep you from that. There’s an obligatory introduction mission or two, but even that feels like you have some choice. As important, you assemble your full party quickly.
1. Plot in the Distance
Eventually you’ll move on the track of the main quest, but you have a lot of other options. To make that work, a chunk of the story happens in cut-away scenes. These take place elsewhere, showing the machinations and maneuvers happening concurrently. The party still fills a vital role, but there’s also a sense of distance between you and the bigger story. It feels real, but perhaps not as engaging as it could be if you’re in the thick of things. At least it doesn’t have the complete lack of autonomy and agency that FF XIII does.

2. Friendships
I really like the main party of six characters. Some are stronger than others, but I appreciate their backstories. They’re complicated and interesting. But beyond that we have awesome friendships and relationships among the group. Vann has recriminations towards Basch at the start but gets over them. Penelo and Vann have great interactions, and they feel very true. Balthier and Fran are clearly peers and platonic comrades. The game even has some conversations between female characters that is not about the party dudes.
2. The Outfits
In general I like the character designs- both of PCs and NPCs. But there are some exceptions. All three of the lead females have odd attire. The least problematic is Penelo, especially if you imagine the weird bare arm and leg portions are actually oddly colored fabric and part of her suit. Ashe’s costume makes no effing sense. It echoes her wedding dress from the opening cut scene, but beyond that it looks uncomfortable and barely held on. But the worst is Fran, with a skimpy suit, prominent cleavage, and astoundingly high heels. It becomes worse when you visit her homeland and realize all of the Viera are also scantily clad, heeled, impossibly thin bunny girls. It’s a weird choice and a strange adaptation of their original cartoony appearance in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. On the plus side, two of the male characters also show a lot of skin. But none of that’s as male-gaze weird as this.

3. Interesting Systems for Play
FF XII gets a lot of hate for its combat and control system. They’re wrong. It’s fun, satisfying, and requires smarts. You have a three person team. Each character can be “programmed” with what the game calls Gambits. A gambit combines an action and a circumstance. So “Ally Status= Poison” could be combined with “Antidote.” This allows you to set up healing patterns, responses to weaknesses, and the use of self-buffs. You run a leader character who generally follows these actions. But you’ll find yourself switching and changing orders to match circumstances. You can easily swap between characters in a fight, set new orders, change equipment, or modify gambits. Random battles become fun tests of your builds- without the slog of constant menus and button inputs. There’s still intensity- watching the world to keep distances, look for new spawns, and avoid gang-ups. I love the random battles and grinding in this game. The drop frequency and bonus system for fighting the same creature type enhance this.
3. Drop Rates
You can almost always get drops, but not necessarily the ones you need. The game offers some control over drop rates by chaining creatures in battle. But often it’s impractical to do so, given the zone layout. But even if you do manage to chain a creature you can still be waiting a wicked long time for a rare drop. It’s worse with Stealing or Poaching which the chains don’t affect. Add to that creatures give out different things for Drops, Steals, and Poaches. The same frustration can apply to treasure chests. These respawn if you go several zone away and return. To make up for this, chest have a % chance to appear. Then they have an even chance to have money or a treasure.

4. Always Something Interesting to Do
I’ve almost never gone, “OK I have to go do this next segment of the story. If I don’t I’m stuck with no options.” You can always take another path, run into a dangerous area, try to find more stuff. The main story primarily triggers two things: what the shops have and additional sidequests. I love running around in the game and just seeing what I can find.
4. Running
There’s a teleport system between save points and it works well. Most of the time. There are occasions when you’ll find yourself running and running. You could pay for a Chocobo to ride, but in some places they won’t go into a zone and will desert you mid-trip. I don’t mind because I dig the landscapes and there’s plenty to see and fight. (So it isn’t the living hell that is Star Ocean).

5. Lots of Build Options
Final Fantasy’s notorious for crazy advancement systems (Sphere Grid, Learning Skills from Items). This one gives you a good sense of where you need to build and the option to tailor characters. Buys take place on two huge “license boards.” Buying a license means you can cast the spell, use the technic, handle the weapon, wear the armor. You still have to acquire these in play, but the game makes it clear what you currently have. As a completest, my goal from word one is to buy ALL the licenses for everyone. You don’t have to do that- and you could easily tune characters for distinct roles. The International Version of FFXII apparently includes an optional profession system (echoing FF Tactics’ approach).
5. Monolithic Character Builds
While the license boards offer lots of room, it’s pretty easy to grind a little and buy everything. That can make the characters feel a little samey. Unlike other games, the characters don’t have huge differences in what they’re good at. In both FFX and FFXIII characters have definite strengths with certain roles. That’s less present here.

6. Cool Lands
I really love the landscapes here and their variety. Each zone feels distinct, even when they’re running similar climates (desert, jungle, tundra). Some zones feel huge, others run up and down hills, a few have complicated architectures and paths for getting around. The cities also feel vibrant, alive, and huge. I love running around them. They don’t feel like simply a connected set of shops and stalls.
6. So Cold
There’s an obligatory snow level in the game. I like snow levels. They offer interesting dynamics and visuals. But all I can think of when I’m watching the characters run through this is: begeezus crust, put a jacket on, dumbass.

7. Tons of Hunts
Every zone has an interesting assortment of creatures. There’s a nice balance; if you’re in areas close to your level you’ll have to modulate your approach. But beyond that the game has two different “Hunt Clubs.” The first has you talking to patrons who want a particularly nasty beast killed. The fights can be huge challenges, especially if you go in unprepared. You gain material rewards as well as little bits of color & setting information. You can also go after “rare game,” named monsters that pop up according to certain trigger in different areas. Again, if you’re not expecting them they can wreck your day. Add in several huge monster side-quests & the hunt for summons. If you’re tired of grinding you can always switch to a meatier challenge. The game has lots.
7. The Zodiac Trap
The Zodiac Spear’s a truly dumb thing in the game. The Spear’s the best weapon in the game and you can find it in a chest late in the game. That’s provided you haven’t opened any of four special-but-unmarked treasures chests elsewhere in the world. They’re in different zones and parts of the story. AND THE GAME GIVES YOU NO CLUE THAT THIS WILL HAPPEN. One of these chests is in an area you go through early, when you’re desperate for loot. There’s a lot of hidden information in the game, but that’s the most egregious example. How some monsters get triggered, where to find certain summons, what drops what…all of this you have to get from a strategy guide or Game FAQs. I love guides so that isn’t a problem, but I can see where it could frustrate.

8. Monsters
I did the heavy grinding in Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. Those games had excellent & cool monster designs, beautifully animated. But I think I love the designs from FFXII even more. From the weirdness of the Adamantitan to the freakiness of the Coeurl-type to the insanity of the Esper Cúchulainn, they’re consistently striking. Even palette swap versions manage to feel distinct from one another. 
8. Traps
You can see traps if you have Libra up…and you will. You can then steer your main character by them. But the other two folks in your party? They’re idiots. They will throw themselves on them. There’s no way to disarm traps. Your only option is to cast Float so you don’t trigger them. But that can drop at any moment and then “Boom” effing Basch has once again stumbled over a bomb.

9. Always a Challenge
The game always seems to have places and creatures offering a challenge. And you can wander into danger spots easily. You have to regroup, fall back, and figure out a smarter approach. Some areas have several entrances from different zones, leading into more and more dangerous spots. In one case the obvious crossroads hides a nasty beast. While you eventually learn what to do and improve your gear, zones always hold dangers. Elementals pop up in many places. They don’t agro until someone casts a spell near them. You have to pay attention or you might find yourself pulled into a nastier fight. You can see beasts on screen like an MMO, and you’ll have to figure out how to isolate and pull them. And sometimes fights can turn on a dime. Something triggers and suddenly you’re having to compensate. I was grinding for a particular drop last night, set up pretty well to deal with everything in the zone. But then one of the creatures landed a major status effect spell on my party, hitting all three at once. That included Confuse which sets party members striking each other. I had one character down and another weakened before I managed to change my action queue and flip things around. Even then one of the status effects meant that Phoenix Downs raised them with 1 HP- so they’d get up and be knocked down again. It was awesome and sudden.
9. Give Me Gambits
Gambits set your characters actions and priorities. Pretty quickly you’ll start to think of some great things you could combine- operations for certain cases and so on. But you won’t have the syntax for them. You want characters to use the Charge ability to restore lost MP. But it isn’t until the middle of the game that you get a trigger like “Character’s MP < 20%.” You don’t get “Creature= Water Weak” or other elemental conditions until well into the game. That means you’ll have to rely on a small command vocabulary for a long time.

10. Balthier
He’s the best. He’s awesome. While everyone else in the early stages is working through their personality conflicts, he’s practical, greedy, and pokes fun at everyone’s attitude. Later he gets a little bit of dark backstory, but he doesn’t mope about it. Balthier’s a sky pirate and cool without trying. He would get a good chuckle out of the ‘heroes’ from other FF games. He has my favorite line, “I'm only here to see how the story unfolds. Any self-respecting leading man would do the same.”
10. Palette Dullness
While the world’s bright and colorful, there’s a weird neutrality to the hues on the main characters. Vann and Ashe have the same color hair which looks weird. It’s a call-back to Vagrant Story, I think- and an effort to be realistic. It’s OK, but feels like a missed opportunity.

11. Ivalice
FF XII’s set in Ivalice, one of the few series settings to have multiple games across several systems. We first saw portions of it in the tough Vagrant Story action rpg for the PS1. More importantly Final Fantasy Tactics deepened the world. That amazing game set many of the future details (skill types, the use of the Zodiac motif). Later two follow ups Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA) and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (DS) extended the lore and added a variety of non-human peoples. Unfortunately only one more Ivalice game would arrive in the US aftr FFXII, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (DS), a painful pseudo-RTS. I like Ivalice; it feels consistent and complex. It’s a more conventional fantasy setting, harkening back to the earliest FF games. But I dig it.
11. Complicated Story
s’wa? Who is that? Wait, why is he betraying them? So wait, you can manufacture this stuff but some of it is a relic and they made a sword to break it? And what are the Espers then? There’s a lot going on in the game and it isn’t always spelled out clearly. I like it better than the hand-holding plot walk-through of other games. But the level of depth here can get in the way of buy-in.

12. Character Subtlety
This may sound odd, but I love the subtlety of the characterization here. I’ll admit I didn’t dig it at first, coming to it from brighter games with cartoony personalities like Final Fantasy X and Dragon Quest 8. But on a second playthrough, I love how everyone interacts. They have problems and dramatic pulls, but they evolve and change. You can see their growth and decision process. And they’re hit with big questions, especially about the limits of power in the service of a good cause. Ashe is torn on this, caught between a duty to protect her people and duty to restore her kingdom. The other characters counter-balance that with wariness about the destructiveness of the powers they’re harnessing.
12. No Romance
I’m a sucker for love stories in these games. I dig the room to make up my own head canon (Tidus + Lulu). But FFXII is bare-bones in regard to this. The closest we get is Ashe’s feelings and sorrow over her husband’s death. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Video: January Blog Round-Up

A new experiment for the blog. I put together a quick video overview of the topics & posts from January. My first time working with video, so it's a little rough. Suggestions, feedback, and criticisms welcomed. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When Does Your Game "Open Up?"

As I’ve tried to shake off the last of this positional vertigo, I’ve played a lot of Final Fantasy XII. It’s my favorite FF game, and probably my top JRPG now. That's a topic for another post. As I played I noticed how FF XII opened up. That’s made me consider how I “open up” rpgs at the table and why.

What do I mean by open up? I mean the point at which the rpg gives you more freedom of choice (or a notable illusion of that freedom). You’ve been kept in line, moving from piece to piece, making your way through maps and quests. Suddenly you have room to move, the ability to backtrack, and choices of direction & goals.

Japanese RPGs often hold that moment back for a long, long time. The classic “airship” change happens when you get a transport that opens up new possibilities. Ships, riding beasts, teleport points, tanks which can cross deserts, tech or tools to enter new places, etc. Usually until that point you’ve followed a highly determined story. Each completed quest suggests the next or creates a hunt for the right trigger. Final Fantasy 8, Wild Arms, Atelier Iris, Valkyrie Profile 2, White Knight Chronicles, Blue Dragon, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II; all these follow this path. Some games, ChronoCross and Valyrie Profile: Lenneth offer choice, but they’re minor and lock the player into one of a few paths.

Some games never let you off the rails. Final Fantasy XIII’s notorious for this. Your characters move in a straight line, literally and figuratively. Plot points come in a clear sequence. Areas and locations have no spurs, junctions, or real choice. You only go backwards to solve a puzzle. For most of the game you can't even set your party composition. You play who the developers say to from your cast of six. Then, about 2/3rds of the way through the game, FF XIII opens up. Sort of. You reach another world, open and wide ranging, with tons of zones and many directions to travel in. But that world’s empty, populated by monsters, a few set pieces, and a great mass of hunt missions. The area may have opened up but the game doesn’t.

So why do video games do this? To...
  • Offer Tutorial: Demonstrating controls, system mechanics, interface, combat difficulty.
  • Introduce Setting: If not the world, then at least the starting place. Often with an info dump of history.
  • Connect to Character: Beyond the introduction of the character(s), there’s the attempt to establish sympathy and connection with them. Backstory, sudden hardship, 'save the cat'.
  • Establish Plot: Set the starting points of the hero’s journey and establish the overall threat.
  • Demonstrate Tone: The initial area either shows the tone of the game or the opposite of it. In the latter case, that initial area will be devastated.
  • Advance from Zero: Give players a safe and controlled area to try out their abilities. Offer them a chance to build up with modest danger.
  • Avoid Overwhelming: You could read it as condescension. Players can’t handle all of the ideas and elements so they have to be slowly doled out.
  • Set Stakes: Often the opening creates important ties and then “fridges” or threatens them. Creation of connections to destroy.
  • Show Off: The game has great stuff to show you and you’re going to see it.
  • Adhere to Convention: Games work this way so we have to follow that pattern. This may be unintentional.

JRPG openings vary in key areas; for example, Duration. How long is the party held in this constrained environment? I like Final Fantasy XII in part because it opens up early, at least in comparison to other JRPGs (look at FF X and XIII). Hand Holding’s another issue. How long does game baby you with easy combats or with explanations of systems? Ni No Kuni’s terrible about this. Even when you reach the last portion of the game, it still pops out alerts for things you’ve handled thousands of times. Some games remain closed but allow a measure of Self-Control. For example in the Suikoden games you can usually pick most of your party as you head down your set path. In Disgaea you can spend hours and hours diving down into the Item World rather than doing the actual game. That can make for a widely different experience. In other games you can create hugely different builds which change the challenge.

Again I’m talking about JRPGs. The "opening up" often comes much earlier in RPG designs from other countries. Bethesda’s the poster-child for this. Morrowind’s crazy. You get dropped off a boat with a couple of instructions and little else. I actually find it overwhelming. I like more direction and a support for the early stage. Yes, it’s funny and striking to wander immediately into something that kills you dead. There’s that sense of old-school challenge. But it wears me down, because I’m a lazy video game player. So I’ve never gotten out of the Dustmen’s HQ in Planescape Torment or past the first village in any Elder Scrolls.

I’m wondering where my campaigns (and in turn other GM’s campaigns) “open up.” I have different wants from tabletop and video games. The funnel I’d accept from a Tales of... game would make me insane in a Rolemaster campaign.
  • Middle Earth: Tight at the start. I put the party in the middle of a mission with a well-defined goal. I want to acclimate them to the setting and put the mechanics through their paces. I haven’t run in Middle Earth before, so I want to see how the canon impacts play. I expect to keep things on rails for a few sessions. By then I’ll have most of my pieces on the table and shown the big challenge/threat. Then they can go where they want and choose their approach. (So, what maybe four-five sessions before it opens up?).
  • Frost, Stone, and Darkness: Assigned missions and started them on the road to their destination. Since several were new players, I set up first session fight to get read the party. After that I put the various threats (external, internal) and mysteries on the table. They could pick what to go after, how to react, who to investigate. Their choices, some surprising, have shifted the game. (Felt to me like I opened things up after session one.)
  • Ocean City Interface: We discussed the shape of the campaign clearly beforehand. They began with the offer of a mission. I’d established they’d take it (so false choice). However they had free reign in how to handle things when they got there. They established the obstacles and chose how and in what order to handle them. The game then popped back to the real world. I set some details about their situation and let them run. (Again, felt to me like the game opened up after session one.)
  • Guards of Abashan: Collaborative build for the city setting. Opened with several different crimes they could deal with. Continued that pattern throughout. (Opened up right from the start).
  • Legend of the Five Rings: Collaborative clan building. Spent some time establishing NPCs in first session and then their daimyo charged them with several tasks to deal with during the upcoming season. They could choose order & method or even delegate those tasks to others. (Opened up early).
  • Changeling the Lost: I’ve run two of these campaign. In the first they arrived out of the Hedge and I kept them constrained and figuring out their place in the world for four-five sessions. Then it opened up as they encountered the greater world of Changelings. In the second they again arrived straight out of the Hedge. I set the opening and then told them they needed to offer a service to each of the Courts to gain access. They could choose any, but the cards were stacked they’d help one (Winter) over the others. (Varied between, some holding back for a few sessions).
  • Last Fleet: Collaborative world building using Microscope. We then talked about the campaign structure. I opened with a pretty scripted prologue- though their choices and actions affected which groups and ships survived. They then traveled through the Void for about eight sessions. That was closed- moving between interactions on the ships and “away-team” missions. Then they found their way to a new realm and the game opened up- allowing them to choose where to go and who to ally with. (Game opened up after many sessions 9-10).

Of course, I haven’t run some kinds of games. For example, I think by definition a Hex-Crawl opens up right from the start. On the other hand, a Dungeon Crawl, while it might have choices of approach, funnels the characters (sometimes literally). I also haven’t run a player-driven campaign like Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, or Urban Shadows. It seems these open up from the start, giving choice and autonomy when done right. Other PbtA games have a tighter frame and don't open up the same way (Night Witches, Monster of the Week). I’m also not thinking about things like campaign modules or adventures paths. Some open up or work hard to create the illusion of opening up. Others dispense with that.

Here’s my food for thought
  • When do your games “open up”?
  • How much set up and establishment does a game need? What do you gain?
  • Are some reasons for keeping things locked down more valid than others?
  • What makes you feel like the campaign’s given you choice and freedom? ...Character choices, options for solutions, going wherever you want?
  • Is not opening up the same as railroading? Do players read this in different ways?
  • Why would tabletop GMs hold off opening up? Do they have different reasons than a video game?