Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stolen Princess Syndrome: A Tabletop RPG Read on WKC

CONFESSION?
I like beating up monsters. 


When a video game rpg has a good, fun combat system, I really enjoy the process of tuning it, figuring out the right approach and farming monsters for experience and loot. That's actually what I really love about the last couple of Final Fantasy games. FFXII had the best combat system, allowing you to tune and program your actions. FF XIII, while it runs on rails, actually has combat mechanics you can consistently tweak and tune- each time working to get your kill time down and your stats up. I like the mundanity of it. 

But I would cut my own throat if I had to do that in a game with a GM. I like stories, I like choices, I like characters. Actually, even when I'm playing through a video game rpg, I tend to tell myself little stories about what's going on. When I played Valkyrie Profile 2, I got irritated when a new mage character popped up in the party late in the game. I'd already leveled and equipped so many PCs that he became superfluous; I didn't want to grind to level him up. So I stipped off all of his gear and put him in the active party anyway. Whenever we got into a battle I imagined him saying “Um...please, can someone give me a weapon...” or “So cold....so cold here without armor...” 

That made the process palatable. But the one video game recently that really forced me to come up with an alternate story was White Knight Chronicles. That's really what inspired my post The Worst GMs from Video Game RPGs. White Knight is a pretty game, with an OK combat system, and a story arc where all the PCs send up having to carry the stupid ball down the field. It was in the middle of it that I realized that the GM of the game was a dick. Once I realized it was a bad tabletop game, everything fell into place...


SESSION REPORT: THE WHITE KNIGHT CHRONICLES CAMPAIGN
So the first warning sign comes at the start of the game. You've just finished making up your character, your Avatar. In the game that means choosing your appearance and gender. At the tabletop, you just finished rolling up your PC. You join the group and immediately get relegated to the back of the party. The other characters have real names, backstories, and they're clearly the focus of the GM's story. Leonard's the youthful hero, Yulie's the bow-wielding healer, and Eldore is the elder grizzled warriors with magic. You're joining a new group, one where the other players have played in the setting and know the GM's style. You play quiet, remain behind, because hey- it's a chance to play. I mean even later when the GM does a long sequence with the Leonard, you're willing to listen because you figure he's going to come around to you, but he doesn't. And then Leonard gets a big magical artifact right out of the gate. You look around at the other players- they don't seem to be reacting so this must be par for the course. So now you have four players in your group, but one of them can summon a giant fantasy robot from time to time to fight instead of him.
 
And then at the end of the first adventure, the GM pulls his first trick. The Princess you've been protecting gets grabbed. Despite the group being right there- despite the bad guys having to run to get to a giant lumbering airship, they manage to get away. The GM doesn't even let you roll. They're “too far” to catch up to, despite having been less than ten feet away a moment ago. He doesn't even let the archer take a shot. 
You begin to see where this is going. 

Still you press on, and have a couple of decent adventures. The recurring villain attacks and you defeat him- but of course he manages to fly away. You can buy that it builds up tension. Then after traveling through the desert, you arrive at a new city, at which point things start going downhill slightly faster. A new player joins the group, a girl the GM's clearly smitten with. Though she doesn't ask for it, she gets to have the coolest equipment. She gets to use a katana one-handed but no one else does. At least she doesn't get a giant artifact robot...yet. Of course it is pretty clear from the start that she has a dark secret.

Hint: she's in league with the bad guys.

But of course the GM won't let you follow that line of inquiry at the table. Whatever, you move on. It's another player at the table. And then you rescue the Princess again. And despite specifically saying that you wanted to keep an eye on her, the bad guys again manage to sneak up and snatch her away in the middle of an open stone courtyard. You grit your teeth and press on, even though the GM seems to have trouble remembering your character's name and you never get any scenes in the spotlight. Still it is an interesting world, the combats are decently fun, and the other players seem to be having a good time. Except for the new girl, Kara, the one the GM likes. He keeps taking her out of the room to do secret squirrel stuff and she always comes back a little creeped out. 

Anyway, you eventually get to the next city. That's actually pretty cool- a mining colony built on the back of a giant monster. This could be good. But then the GM introduces a new NPC to the party. Cesar- he's that worst kind Mary Sue GM character. He's cool because the GM says so, he's the son of the ruler of the city, he has a shit-eating grin all the time when the GM plays him. He's constantly joking lamely. And of course, he's immediately hitting on Kara. Still, you think, I can put up with this for a little while. So you play along and finish the dungeon in the city- and then it becomes clear that Cesar isn't leaving the party. He's here to stay. And now you have to listen to the GM do scenes between his Mary Sue NPC and other NPCs.


And it gets worse when you get to the end of the next dungeon, as the GM doubles-down on bad choices. First, it becomes clear that Cesar is another chosen one. He gets the next super-cool robot artifact. An NPC- not you or the other party members. Second, after you beat the bad guy- the party doesn't get to finish him. Instead the bad guy's lieutenant does that. And third, because he hasn't done it enough- the GM snatches the Princess away, despite the group outnumbering the opposition, being within ten yards, and possessing magical battle mecha. They get away again. 

By now you've invested some time in the game. In some ways, you really want to see if things can get worse. They do- as the GM plays out scene after scene between Kara and Cesar. That gets more and more tiresome. You almost pray for death when the group of pygmies capture your group- another instance of GM fiat, given your overwhelming firepower. Somehow they not only defeat the group without a fight, they manage to tie everyone to posts for execution- because suddenly all of the magic the group has acquired doesn't work? The GM waves his hand and moves on to yet another scene of an NPC rescuing the party.


Luckily, it is about this time that Kara quits the group, more than a little fed up with the GM and the way his NPC keeps hitting on her- despite her obvious irritation with it. The next session, the GM has Kara (now an NPC) reveal her surprise- she was working for the bad guys! Cesar begs her to change her mind, and she seems about to, drawn by his clear charisma, but the bad guys take her away. Ugh. The next few sessions are a blur, with yet another session where the GM has the bad guys get away with the Princess before you can do anything. Then the GM introduces yet another obvious traitor NPC into the group. You try to follow up on that but the GM just keeps shooting you down. Quietly, you work out a plan with your fellow players- a fairly obvious gambit. When the traitor NPC springs his trap, you're ready for it, with preparations made beforehand. 

The GM is, as you imagine, a little pissed that his “clever” plot has been found out. He glowers for a minute and then says that the ground beneath the group's feet collapses suddenly- it was a double-trap since he knew the players would see through his transparent first trap. 

You sigh, clear the table and set up for another fight against a giant monster who will smack you around until Leonard and Cesar pull out their giant mecha. It will make the GM feel better. 

Eventually you climb out of the hole. You're a little relieved- this is clearly the last part of the campaign. Your misery will soon be over. You fight your way through yet another dungeon, with the same bad guys you've been fighting for the last two. The GM has a “puzzle” here which is easily solved not through any cleverness, but by exhausting the possibilities. Eventually you reach the end, and fight the boss who goes down easily. You've been saving up for the big fight and the GM looks shocked. So suddenly, that isn't the final fight. Kara reappears- and declares her love for Cesar, and how she was wrong earlier for treating him like he was a jerk and creepy. It is an awkward moment at the table with the GM playing out this dramatic scene between his NPCs. Then the bad guy kills Kara, which adds another layer of creepy to things. Eventually you fight the bad guy and beat him, but only because of the mecha. Still you get out and flee the temple as it collapses...

...and are saved once again by the actions of an NPC, as the Princess, finally rescued. summons a giant flying ship out of nowhere. 

A flying ship? Really. We walked all the way across the continent because this world apparently doesn't have horses and an NPC summons a flying ship at the end to rescue us so we could feel truly useless?

Delightful.


LASTLY
The fun doesn't end there. White Knight Chronicles 2 continues this tradition. Kara returns in a disguise even an idiot could see through...she's carrying the same weapon for god's sake...and her reveal is treated as a major surprise by the GM. And of course Kara reveals her love for the GM's NPC Cesar in a truly awful scene.

Anyway, the next time you're playing a video game rpg, consider what it would look like at the table. I'm not saying it couldn't be good- I talked about that a while back in this post- Emulation & Beyond: More Thoughts on RPGs & Video Games. But it does provide an amusing lens to look at what's happening and how much fun it is.