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 CĂșchulainn, 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?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Xavier's Kingdom for Gifted Children

It's no secret I love Microscope. I've used it many times to craft histories and cities for campaigns, one-shots, and virtual conventions. But I also love Ben Robbins' other game, Kingdom. If pressed, I'd put that in my top five rpgs. I love what Kingdom does and, though you could say this about every game, it clicks with players who know the game's approach. This is the last of my hacks for January (alongside my X-Com/Pandemic/MotW and 13th Age/Base Raiders concepts). This is a new Kingdom seed and a love letter to the X-Men. 

The (name) School for Gifted Children is a (completely secret/ quietly concealed/ out in the open) school for young persons with amazing powers, commonly called Mutants. The school aims to (bring mutants and humanity together peacefully/ teach mutants to survive/ create a bond of mutant “brotherhood” for the future).

Humanity fears Mutants. They have existed (for a long time/ only a generation/ for a few short years). The strongest reactions have involved (paranoia/ hostility /violent assaults/ fearmongering). While the debate has raged on (many/ several/ only one/ no) (politician(s)/ organizations) has(ve) risen to take the lead on the issue.

The school itself is a (small facility/ lies on a modest estate/ sprawls across a large campus). Parents are (fully aware of/ have an inkling about /have been brainwashed concerning) the school’s purpose. Instruction focuses on (students’ talents/ making them well-rounded persons/ balancing powers and real world knowledge).

The staff itself (has a few Mutants/ strikes a balance between Mutants and Humans/ is almost entirely Mutant). Instructors on staff with powers (avoid any kind of/ get caught up in/ secretly engage in/ openly carry out) superheroics.

  • Government Registration: Many have called for a central database of all mutants. Others have gone further and suggested mutants be marked and labelled.
  • Kidnaping for Experimentation: Several organizations want mutant bodies, some for nefarious weapon programs and others to serve a Transhumanist agenda.
  • Mutant Militant Organization Rivalry: Another organization exists either in direct conflict or carrying out a more extreme version of the school’s agenda.
  • Student Dissatisfaction: Just because you're a mutant you don't have to attend the school. The staff have to balance drills and student body buy-in.
  • Instructors with Agendas: Some instructors live to teach, while others have political agendas and perspectives they work quietly to spread.
  • Alien Intervention: For some reason alien empires keep getting caught up in mutant affairs. That can seriously impact syllabi.
  • Parental Annoyance: Students have parents and parents have desires and ambitions for their children. While some have disowned their offspring, others argue about grades, teacher recommendations, and future placement opportunities.
  • Vigilante Activities: Some mutants fight for justice, and they may be sneaking out to do it. That can bring unwanted attention.
  • Mutants Social Unrest: In some areas mutants have been shut into closed communities. Tensions there can spill over.
  • Budgeting for Repairs: Repairing the Danger Room after a particularly nasty fracas isn’t cheap.
  • Hormones and Energy Blasts: These are teenagers with powers like telekinesis, fire control, and invisibility. What happens when you jam them together in a single place?
  • Mutant Plague: A virus, perhaps artificial, perhaps not, has begun to spread in the general mutant community.
  • Mutant Conversion Therapy: Rumors have come of a “cure” for mutantkind. It may be a trap or it may be a means to eliminate the mutant threat permanently.
  • Temporal Changes: Mutants have a habit of getting into temporal mishaps. This can create changes to reality only some people recall.
  • Educational Certification: It’s still a school. If anyone wants their degree recognized or credits transferred, it needs accreditation.
  • Secret Agency Infiltrators and Recruiters: Those in the know eagerly place moles, double-agents, and the brainwashed on site for future plans.
  • Staff & Students with Evil Relatives: An unusual number of mutants have siblings, parents, or cousins who turn out to be super-villains.

  • Counselors Office
  • Instructors Wing
  • Danger Room
  • Headmistress’ Chambers
  • Subterranean Aircraft Hanger
  • Front Hallway Crossroads
  • Baseball Diamond
  • Off-Limits Woods
  • Down by the Lake
  • Teachers’ Garage
  • Research Laboratories
  • Medical Room Closet
  • Secret Mutant Detector Facilities
  • Student Rec Room
  • Dining Hall
  • Isolation & Containment Chambers
  • Garden Maze

  • Former Villainess Turned Teacher
  • Student with Monstrous Appearance
  • Warrior with a Haunted Secret Weapon Past
  • Uptight First Graduate of the School
  • Shared Mind Collective
  • Alien Transfer
  • Devoutly Religious Instructor
  • Disgruntled Star Pupil Returning to Teach
  • Resurrected Clone FiancĂ© of the Vice Principal
  • Imaginary Concept Turned Human
  • Reprogrammed Anti-Mutant Killer Robot
  • Alternate Timeline Survivor
  • Excitable Superheroic Groupie
  • Reluctant Student with Deadly Powers
  • Pupil with Anti-Mutant Family Ties
  • Non-Mutant Butler
  • Depowered Superhero

  • Expel students caught using their powers to cheat?
  • A new student has powers that shut down his classmates abilities. Leave them in normal classes or isolate them from the others?
  • Let the students participate in a shared prom with local schools?
  • A new mutant-only drug is making the rounds. Conduct an undercover investigation locate the culprits?
  • A student has started a movement praising the ideals of a radical mutant supervillain. Ban such talk from the school?
  • A popular Southern instructor has been fraternizing with students. Expel him from the grounds?
  • Put a stop to students secretly training with the more lethal aspects of their powers?
  • Some object to the presence of non-Mutants. Only allow mutants on campus?
  • Have students battle one another to increase their skills?
  • Encourage more parental participation at the school?
  • Openly endorse mutant superheroics?
  • Move the school to a recently seized mutant-only region?
  • Lock away a student discovered to be a younger (clone/dimensional alternate/de-aged/amnesiac) version of an arch-villain?
  • Openly campaign against new Mutant Registration legislation?

Suggestions? Other ideas?  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

OCI: Portals, VR, and Campaign Iterations

This month's RPG Blog Carnival covers Gates & Portals, hosted by Tales of a GM. One of my current campaigns relies on the idea of Portals. This post covers that in depth. The first lengthy part talks about the evolution of the campaign, in particular the two previous iterations which came before it. If you'd just like to read the cool synopsis of what's actually happened in the campaign, jump down to the What We've Done So Far section. This is a long post and it hits on some ideas I've gone over in other posts, but I wanted to assemble a synthesis of that. 

Back in the ‘90s, we had a flux of campaigns. Many ones ened simultaneously and we had a sizable group of free players. That ended up re-configuring into two GURPS campaigns, a Champions run, two Rolemaster games, and one other. In that a local GM gathered some of the best players for an ambitious campaign he called "Hudson City Interface" (or HCI). The name came from the Hudson City, then being used in the Dark Champions sourcebooks. In this game, everyone would make up near-future characters, scattered across the globe. But no one would reveal their identity to other players. Those characters would then have an alternate identity and persona within the HCI, a shared VR hub. Going down one more level, those PCs would play together within Portals: VR game worlds of various genres.

HCI had a solid concept that borrowed from Dream Park, Mindplayers, Snow Crash, and other VR fiction. It adapted anime elements for its modern setting (in particular Bubblegum Crisis). This came well before .dot Hack, Log Horizon, Soul Hackers, or Sword Art Online. The game mostly alternated arcs of sessions between the Interface and the Portals. But a huge amount of play went on privately outside the game, with the GM describing out the “real world” of these characters in one-on-one play-by-email exchanges. Some portals lasted a session or two, while others stretched on and recurred. HCI had a large and overarching story which came out in pieces, mostly in those away from table interactions.

The premise had several opportunities. The GM could play different genres within the same campaign. They could easily use and integrate modules into play. It supported several levels of mystery. NPCs could appear in portals, the interface, or the real world. Fun could be had finding connections between those. As well, group played might off each other- trying to discover various RW identities.

On the other hand, the framework had many disadvantages. Portals dragged on for many sessions, with players becoming attached and reluctant leave. It also required repeated character creation sessions. Different player opinions on portals and what they wanted from them made things tense. Importantly, the portals' VR nature meant they had less weight. What happened there could be treated as a game, without seriousness or consequence. Finally HCI had a great deal of complexity. All players had to participate heavily or get left behind and confused when meta plots came up. The reliance on out of game communications and effectively one-on-one PbF play with 7-8 players taxed the GM heavily.

Ultimately HCI died in mid-campaign, to the disappointment of the players. Part of the failure came from the GM’s reluctance to pull the trigger on the cool plots he’d set up. When players pushed to figure out a big secret, he’d defer or create another layer. So while the "real world" level had depth, it had no resolution. He wanted to keep all the plates spinning. Social tension at the table created problems, with new players added late to an already full table. Finally the sheer volume of PbF was unsustainable. The GM burned out and dropped the campaign without explanation or promise of continuing. He took it up again a few years later with a select set of those players, alienating others who’d enjoyed it. But that campaign lacked the spark and fizzled out again.

I didn’t play in that campaign, but heard about it through my wife. I’d also spoken and batted around ideas with the GM before he ran. I saw what happened and tried to learn from the problems. I decided I would run a game, called Ocean City Interface (to move it away from the Hudson City reference). Initially I came to it because I wasn’t sure if I could run a sustained Legend of the Five Rings campaign with our Sunday group. But rather than try or aim for a shorter campaign, I thought I could bootstrap one into the other. To do that I made a dumb choice that I’m lucky didn’t upend everything. I started them out in the L5R world of Rokugan, thinking we'd begun a samurai game. Three sessions in, I switched things up when a crisis event occurred.

They found themselves awoken in a VR interface, having been together in a created world. However, that world felt stronger and more real than it should have, subsuming their memories. More importantly they discovered OCI didn’t have a samurai portal. Somehow they’d gone to a non-existent VR world. The campaign took off from there, with the players working in the interface and dealing with events in the real world. They discovered they all lived in Ocean City, though they didn't actually meet until late in the campaign. They went traveled through various portals and returned to Rokugan several times. Eventually they learned this all connected to Mage the Ascension. The PCs were Awakened in a world which recovering from a magical catastrophe. The Portals were real places, refuges for Mages who had fled before the disaster. The Ocean City Interface was a means for Technocracy survivors to take control of the world and cut off passage back. The whole campaign ended in a massive battle in Rokugan following the Emperor’s death. That conflict stood in for their final struggle against the Technocrats.

The campaign barely managed to hold together. While the players expressed overall enjoyment, it had many weaknesses. On the one hand, we had real world problems impact the campaign. We added a problem player after the start. Selfish and disruptive, he made things uncomfortable for other players. For a long time one of the other, older players kept his worst tendencies in check. But then that veteran player died. His death shook the group and for a time I considered shutting things down.  On top of that had a house fire that put us out for many months. We only managed to play irregularly during that time. When we returned the problem player kicked into a higher gear. But their tenure with the group, passive-aggressiveness, and martyrdom-complex made correcting the behavior hard. In the end, I wrapped the whole campaign quickly to be done with it.

I made many missteps in this campaign. First, I did “switched up” the campaign without consulting the players. They'd gotten into the groove and we could have done a solid L5R campaign. But I was so wrapped up in my idea I didn’t see that. Second, since we started with L5R and had the longest continuous sessions throughout, players became attached. If another portal frustrated them, they could think why aren’t we playing L5R? Third, in the beginning  I tried to echo the previous GM’s approach, doing a ton of PbF individual material. Responses varied so a few players got more info and attention. Eventually that overwhelmed me and I cut it off for the last third of the campaign. But that inconsistency frustrated players. Fourth, I kept the “real world” stuff loose and unfocused. The players wandered around without direction. They’d find a clue and then be distracted by portal business. Fifth, I made the mistake of switching systems around for the portals. The previous GM had done that as well. But in my case the players hated some of the new mechanics. In particular they despised the Fading Suns and Dying Earth rpg systems. Add to that having to learn new rules all the time and it just didn’t work.

But I decided to try it again five years later.

A couple of players requested a new OCI campaign. They hadn’t played in my earlier version. Besides them we would have one veteran from OCI 1.0 and three newbies. I set some principles for this campaign. 
  • Transparency: At the beginning I made clear the campaign's structure: what we’d be playing and how we’d be playing it. I talked about the system and pointed to some of the game themes.
  • Player Choice: Rather than Portals chosen by the GM, the players selected them. In fact, each player would select one of their own. They would be considered the “leader” within that portal, and we’d reinforce that during play. I created a list of 28 possible portals, each with a name, simple “x meets y” description, and list of tropes. The players talked among themselves to make sure they had a good spread of genres.
  • Establishment: We would do each portal in turn, returning back to the “Alpha” world in between. A portal would last 6-8 sessions. Once we’d gone through a full cycle of the portal worlds, we’d return to the start. On following cycles the portals would be tighter (2-4 sessions) since we’d already established the premise and goals. I also made clear the order we’d go in.
  • Clear Goals: When players arrive in a new portal, I make objectives clear. They might have several goals, but they know what they need to be doing. When they solve a problem, I make the next one’s on the horizon. At least some problems can be solved in the span of sessions they have. That idea holds true for sessions between portals when they return to the Alpha World. I make sure they have something concrete and specific to investigate, usually connected to the most recent portal. Eventually I’ll loosen up on that. Still I try to keep the reins in the players’ hands. If they choose to go X, then we go X.
  • System Continuity: Everything- the Alpha real world of Ocean City and the various Portals- uses the same system. That's Action Cards, our Fate-flavored homebrew. We tune some of the surface mechanics genre (skill and stunt lists). As well each portal adds a unique element or system. For Sellsword Company, we had managing a mercenary group. For Neo-Shinobi Vendetta, they had unique cyberninja powers to choose from. For Masks of the Empire, each player received a unique magic item they built at the start. For Sky Racers Unlimited, we added mechanics for aerial dogfights and building planes.
  • Character Continuity: Players create new characters for each portal, but there's a connection between them. The player-deck structure of Action Cards allows this. A portion of their deck remains in across portals. That core element is fleshed out with drafted cards for the particular world. Since each portal has a unique card frame design, the base cards serve as a reminder of the link. Players can buy up “shared” cards, but they’re a little more expensive.
  • Stakes: From the start I wanted to make clear that while these portals might or might not be “virtual” they had an impact on the Alpha world. People, events, and forces from them could impact their daily lives. At time has rolled on, it’s become more and more clear that the Portals aren’t exactly VR, but they’re also not exactly a full reality.
  • Slow Introduction of Complexity: Rather throw out many, many threads and NPCs, I’ve restrained myself. I use index cards at the beginning of sessions to note important outstanding threads and NPCs. That gives me a firm sense if I’m too complex (I have too many cards to put out).
While I’m positive about the campaign, I’ve hit a couple of rough spots.
  • Just People: For the Alpha World of Ocean City itself, I had the players make up competent people with a small strange ability (compelling voice, ability to hide, talks to computers, etc). They have skills, but at core they're ordinary people and not adventurers. That’s made them a little skittish about some of lines of investigation. I have to keep that in mind. Throwing them directly into a High Adventure gun-battle doesn’t fit. They’re evolving, but I need to offer them challenges appropriate to their characters now.
  • Player Loss: We began with six players. Two I expected would play through the first portal or two and then drop. One left after portal one and some sessions in Ocean City. The other left after portal two. I’d expected that, but I didn’t have a graceful plan for writing them out. I could have planned for that better.
  • Time: I’ve tried to keep the initial portal instances tight, but haven’t always succeeded. I think I’ve got a good balance of “I Want to Keep Playing This” and “I Want to See What’s Next.” But it’s tough. I’ve been lucky that the group’s good and I’ve been delivering an engaging experience throughout.
The group finds themselves members of a fantasy mercenary company. They have a vague inkling this is a game, but can’t see other evidence. They’re given a mission which brings them into conflict with Northern Raiders. They win and then descend into an ancient dam where they’re forced to disable a sentient magical structure.

The party returns to the “real world” of Ocean City. They discover they’ve been logged wirelessly into a VR simulation. They never signed up for what they find is called "Ocean City Interface." Discovering newly added contact info in their phones, the six meet up. They investigate in several directions. Eventually they uncover a recent murder linked to this. The victim bears a weird similarity to a character from the Sellsword portal.

Eventually they follow leads back to a crazy computer expert. He was been booted out of OCI, but not without a fragment of source code. He’s kidnapped people to attach them to a micro-VR he’s built from that code. The group raids his hideout and discover the kidnapper has the ability to see through cameras from a distance. They take him down and anonymously call the police to aid his victims. Back at a PC's house, the group begins to questioning. He drops several names and references. When the kidnapper realizes the group doesn’t know anything, he activates some power.

The group finds itself transported into another portal. They assume roles in the game, but find they're able to keep meta-communications via a linkshell. They have access a in-game interface, but it does little beyond minor info. They decide to go along with the simulation to see where it takes them. The lines between their two selves begin to blur.

In this portal, they’re cyber-ninjas betrayed by fellow clans and brainwashed to serve corporate masters. These five (formerly seven) shinobi clans work from the shadows. Having broken their programming, the PCs now secretly hunt those at the conspiracy's head This leads them in search of a broken ninja, an encounter with a mysterious rival shinobi, and finally an assassination mission at a future amusement park. While in the portal, they detect other players- but only get code names.

Ocean City: Alpha World
The group returns to the real world. For a strange moment one of the PCs seems overtaken by the nano-kami from the NSV portal. But the force of this artificial intelligence is cut off quickly. The PCs discover that their captured kidnapper has been shot, and one of their number is missing. Another PC agrees to head off the grid to conceal the body while the rest investigate.

They look into what’s happened and what Ocean City Interface actually is. Then abruptly they find themselves in another place.

Atlantis: Interface Hub
They’re drawn into a VR, without the exact detail of the two portals they’ve previously visited. Is calls itself a closed beta for some kind of online entertainment. The names of the admins (five, formerly seven) match up to some of those dropped by the kidnapper. The group discovers they’re listed in the beta and given virtual space and credit. However, neither of the two portals they’ve been appear in the listings. The group confirms they can move back and forth at will between this "Atlantis" and the real world.

Ocean City: Alpha World
The party continues to look for their vanished member. They discover she’s apparently one of the bad guys and aided in the kidnapper's shooting. This leads to a strange corporation. Observations of it suggest many employees have behaviors echoing the ninja clans of Neo Shinobi Vendetta. Have they come from there to Ocean City? Is the simulation built by them? Or is there another connection? The plot thickens when they realize the shooter bears looks like the strange Shinobi they met in the portal.

Another line of investigation leads the group to their shared upbringing as orphans. They discover a weird family syndicate clearly hunting certain orphans with special gifts. Through clever detective work and legal machinations, they expose this operation. When they confront a lawyer  for this strange clique he calls on a bestial transformation. They accidentally kill him, but his body vanishes. With more questions than answers, they leave. Tat night they find themselves pulled into another portal.

The group becomes agents of a great empire. Each bears an ancient and potent magical mask, the unique symbol of their role. A section of the land, magically closed off for almost a century has mysteriously opened. The PCs are to go there, survey, offer aid, and bring the locals back into the Empire’s embrace. They’re also to ascertain how the vanishing happened in the first place.

Their first obstacle is an evil Geomancer determined to control access to the outside. The party brings locals into their confidence and manage to root him out from his castle. With a new base of operations, they head north to one of the seven lost magical towers. On the trip they discover that at least one other player is in the portal with them.

They find that the Tower has been mysteriously cut off- affected by the insanity of a Sound Wizard. They fight their way in, disabling the traps and wards. Emerging they find another force has arrived. Those adversaries have with them one of the artificially-intelligent walking Colossi. Usually used for service, they’ve repurposed it. The group resorts to subterfuge and misdirection to overcome the superior force, and they enemy eventually retreats.

Ocean City: Alpha World
Back in the real world, players discover more and more strange phenomena. At least one PC’s hidden secret power seems to be growing. They meet with a self-proclaimed Luchadore devil-wrestler dealing with children infected by “Mindworms.” When they follow up, they find out he’s not wrong. A strange Hopping-Vampire spirit exists within the kids. They party's hunted briefly by a flying figure, bearing a mask not unlike those of the most recent portal. Finally they make a connection between strange energy traces scattered across the city. The flare ups of these spot fit with the timing of their forced transition into the portals.

When they go to the sites, the group find itself shifted over to a world not visible to everyone around them. They see bastions, fonts, energy sculptures, and defenses overlaid on the sites. These seem to control a ley-line energy. The players trace that back and find one site weirdly out of synch with the rest, scattered with the wreckage of a great battle. When they approach, a two-fisted guardian attacks and warns them away. After convincing him they’re friends, he tells them his story. He’s the last of the Dragons, a group dedicated to fighting forces who want to control these sites and gain powe. Because the party made it here, he expects they must be the new Dragons. When he tries to show them something else, the group slips into another portal.

They’re the B-team pilots aboard an experimental grand cruiser participating in an intercontinental aero-race. The course will take them across a world devastated by Mad Science, only just now returning to bloom. When rogue dragons take out the A-team pilots, the group must scramble to the rescue. They save the day and receive a promotion.

Now they’re heavily involved in the hotly contested race of seven ships from various countries. One vanishes in the Atlantic crossing, but the other six proceed on. Intrigue, publicity, and mechanical upgrades keep the group busy for the first leg of the race. Then, while on forward air patrol, they pick up a faint distress call. They convince their Captain to delay in order to follow up. The squadron finds a Sky Bandit base, with an escaped Aero-Bus from the lost liner. The party breaks in, rescues the bus, and fights off scrambling bandits in a brief escort mission. From the survivors of the lost ship they learn it was sabotage which took out their vessel.

Next the group heads to Baltimore, the region's capital. They’re assigned to bodyguard the European Heavy-Weight Champion for the big match taking place on their ship. It’s a publicity coup which agents of the fallen Spanish nobles try to disrupt. They don’t succeed. But the players learn the notorious Boston gang, the Kennedy's, has kidnapped the Champ's sister. They investigate and rescue the sister from a moving train. Then they race back to the main event where they prevent a lethal robot doppelganger from killing the American Champ.

Finally, before leaving Baltimore they follow up on info from airfield raid. That leads to the Helldiver Club, a seedy bar built in a beached battleship. They discover a major information network selling details on the ships in the race and planning for accidents. The group breaks up the ring when another faction's spy sets off a bomb to cover her escape. They return  to the ship, but suddenly the player’s in-game interface pops up. A list of names scrolls by, apparently the real identities of players currently in the portal, including their own.

That’s where we left off. We’ll have a few sessions back in Ocean City and then on to the final Portal, Assassins of the Golden Age, my mash-up of Mage the Sorcerer’s Crusade and Assassins Creed. 

I'm sure Sherri will have some comments on this. 

This post is part of the RPG Blog Carnival Gates & Portals, hosted by Tales of a GM.