Archive for July, 2010

CPRG Musings: Legend of Mana

I’ve been a fan of the Mana series (or Seiken Densetsu, if you want to impress your local otaku) since Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu II) came out on the SNES. They are hands-down one of the prettiest, most charming series out there. In addition to Secret of Mana, I’ve played Seiken Densetsu (released as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Gameboy in the US), a translated ROM of Seiken Densetsu III, and Legend of Mana for the Playstation. That last one is my pick for the prettiest and most charming of the litter.

I originally bought it years ago and kept it for a few years before selling it. I remember being very satisfied with it. Recently I reacquired it and started playing again. It’s every bit as pretty and charming as I remembered, and sports a wonderfully colorful cast of characters in a colorful, quirky world. I’m particularly fond of the pirate penguins, who are proud to be pirates but are really just playing at being pirates (I love that they have to talk their walrus captain into threatening them, “I’ll kill ye all!” and then cheer when he does so). I like the school of magic, where one of the professors was trapped inside his own magic circle and now looks like a floating stained-glass window – and I like how he’s annoying and obstructive to the other professors, but they can’t do anything about it really ‘cause he’s apparently got tenure or something. I still get a smile when the principal of the magic school, who is apparently a demon, steals an ancient grimoire with intent to use a spell in it for “creating and controlling stars” to destroy the world (just ‘cause he can), only to find out that it’s just a recipe for fireworks – especially since everyone involved (including the professor who rushed off to try to stop him) decides that the result was kind of cool, then just goes home and forgets about the whole episode. The fortune teller, who tells fortunes by reading fruit, always cracks me up with her dubious and bewildered attitude toward the cryptic messages that the fruit gives her.

I’d love to see this kind of setting and color applied to a tabletop RPG sometime. It reminds me of a children’s story more than anything, but with a slight amorality, and somehow its darker elements don’t seem out of place to me. You know, when I put it that way, it occurs to me that it reminds me, in terms of tone and emotional scope, of Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey comics more than anything else.

As far as the mechanics go, I’m particularly fascinated that the Charm stat doesn’t influence social mechanics (since there are none), but rather determines your ability to inflict status effects on enemies. I also like the “abilities,” which are little moves like backflips, slide kicks, and grapples that you gradually unlock. You equip two at a time, and they have a heavy impact in combat. The workshops provide a great deal of mechanics to explore, and I’m particularly fond of the golems, who must be programmed by fitting Tetris-like blocks (each representing an action) into a grid.

But, there’s some problems.

First off, something that really gripes me (and did when I first played the game too): I don’t like being railroaded into murdering the last three dragons in the world in order to advance the storyline. This ties back into the comparisons I made regarding Chrono Trigger vs. Chrono Cross. In some other game (Shadow of the Colossus, for instance), I wouldn’t mind stuff like destroying ecosystems or rare and beautiful creatures, but it really irks me in this game. It’s the one element of the storylines that does not fit in. (Take note that these dragons keep out of trouble, and one of them even fosters and watches over a tribe – they’re not out burninating the countryside or anything.)

Something I noticed this time through is how passive your role is in the game. The majority of the “quests” consist of watching other people have stories, while you run along behind and kill monsters, then kill a boss at the end. You’re rarely actually a protagonist in the game.

The dungeons, while always pretty, are irritating. The layouts are very convoluted and hard to keep in your head since they don’t align to any form of grid at all (the screens don’t connect cleanly, and aren’t even in any uniform size), and there’s no map features. Couple that with the fact that the enemies respawn when you leave the screen, forcing you to fight them again and use up all your cognitive space; by the time the battle’s over, it’s hard to remember where you were going.

As fun as the workshops are to interact with, the designers made a major misstep in not making it necessary or even particularly meaningful to do so. The game just isn’t difficult enough (it’s really really easy) to require that you develop good equipment or pets. For one thing, you level up way too fast, and actually have to actively avoid leveling in order to maintain even the slightest level of challenge. I ended up using crappy equipment made out of bones and stuff just ‘cause I thought it was cool, and never suffered for this decision at all. While you can go and seek out rare and wonderful materials to try out, there’s no reason to do so other than to find out what happens. I have to admit that just trying things out engaged me for a very long time – but once the novelty wears off, you’re left to realize that there’s not actually much of a game there.

Still, though, I have to come back to the setting. It’s one of the few that really grabs my attention and speaks to me, for some reason, and keeps me playing the game even though I know that the battles are just a chore and the workshops just a tacked-on, inconsequential feature.

fragments: AT TROY’S

This fragment is the first chapter of a novel entitled At Troy’s. It’s also as far as I got in writing it, apart from bits of dialogue for later, although I know the general shape of the plot from this point on. I’m really fond of it, though. The voice it’s written in always makes me smile. Here ya go:

  Continue reading


Just a silly side note, but…

In the game, everybody on the planet wears gas masks or air filters over their mouths, suggesting that the planet has a harsh atmosphere or there’s a lot of toxic dust or something.

Except, the player-characters don’t. And the three female NPCs don’t. One of them is bug-fuck crazy, so that makes sense. Another you only meet inside a building, where the air is probably filtered by machines. I don’t know why the third doesn’t need one. The only thing I can think of is that this way you can see their faces and recognize that they’re female.

But, wait, now I remember, two of the male NPCs don’t have masks either. One lives out in the middle of nowhere, is blind as a bat, lives off the land, and is crazy to boot, so it fits. What’s up with the other one? He’s just a guy that manufactures vehicles and runs stations that conveniently teleport them for rental. He’s not crazy, although he is pretty funny:

“Hey, the Catch-A-Ride station outside Fyrestone is more busted than my momma’s girly parts. I’d sure appreciate you takin’ a poke at that. Uh, I mean the station, not my mom. Hot dog down a skag den, know wh’I mean?”

“Hey, is Lucky only sending ya’ll on missions that, like, destroy my stuff? I swear he’s puttin’ bad guys in runners just so ya’ll can blow ‘em up.”

So, in closing, WTF?

[Heretic Saga design diary] 01: INTRODUCTION

 Heretic Saga is my big fantasy game. The big, setting-rich, multi-racial, magic and swords and shit, high fantasy game that I thought I’d never write. ‘Cause, like, what’s the point? Everybody’s already got their favorite elfy-dwarfy game, even if I think they’re all stupid. Except for Burning Wheel, which makes elfy-dwarfy interesting, in addition to being totally badass in a million different ways.

 But, like game ideas are wont to do, it wouldn’t shut up until I started working on it. The key to it is in my strong emotional reaction to the very idea – the fact that I think elfy-dwarfy games are stupid. Why do I think they’re stupid? That’s a long, hatemail-baiting story, but it boils down to how frustrated I am that words like “elf” and “dwarf” have lost all their super-cool folklore meanings because, if you’re talking to fantasy fans, they just apply to six-foot girly immortals with bows and four-foot drunken miners with (for some reason) Scottish accents. And here I am, with a random-knowledge database that is just overflowing with folklore regarding “real” elves and dwarves and other such things – loads and loads of cool shit that has, to my knowledge, never seen the light of day in a roleplaying game. (Vincent Baker’s Otherkind comes close, but it’s still not the same.)

 And, again, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this stuff per se. I play Dwarf Fortress, and sometimes I play D&D. I think Burning Wheel’s dwarves are the second-coolest high-fantasy-trope dwarves out there, with the top coolest being the dwarves from Terry Pratchett’s Disc World books. I also like Tolkien (although his elves and dwarves have only a tangential relationship to the ones I’m talking about).

 The standard high-fantasy gaming fare isn’t bad or wrong. I’m just tired of the same porridge every day. This genre of gaming needs new territory to explore, which means a new set of elements to play with, which means a new game. And the only real reason to be a game designer is that the game you want isn’t already out there, so here I am.


This game is a hoot. Touted as a “roleplaying shooter” or RPS, Borderlands is a hip, quirky, funny, and all-around enjoyable game. Some people might debate whether it’s a roleplaying game or not, but, as I might have pointed out already (I don’t remember if I’ve said it in any recent posts or not), CRPGs are actually just adventure games with character advancement mechanics and a combat system, with no real relationship to actual roleplaying.

Borderlands meets that criteria. It’s an adventure game in that you must explore places and solve problems (all of them simple problems revolving around killing things and/or finding things, but that’s actually par for the course for a wide swath of both CRPGs and adventure games in general). It has character advancement, with experience levels and skills of a sort that you buy with points granted by gaining levels, plus some other things that I’ll talk about in a minute. Instead of some kind of tactical combat system, it has a real-time, first-person shooting combat system – but, really, all that amounts to is a different vocabulary. Nobody tries to say that Oblivion isn’t an RPG, and it’s essentially the same thing (even using the same software, I’m given to understand), just lacking guns.

As I said before, this game is a hoot. The setting is fun and funky, a sort of dangerous frontier planet that draws adventurers and mercenaries due to legends of an alien structure called the Vault that’s bound to contain tons of loot. Then you’ve got desperate little settlements beleaguered by psychotic bandits, and corporations that stand to profit off of the whole shebang. But that’s not the point – the point is the *character* of it all. Consider these advertisement soundbytes from one of the ubiquitous arms-dealer vending machines, spoken by a guy with a Russian accent:

“Vladof! You don’t need to be a better shot, you just need to shoot more bullets!”

“Is shooting bullets not cool enough for you? Get yourself a Maliwan, and set some people on fire!”

The whole vibe is like that. There’s a certain cavalier, who-gives-a-shit, tongue-in-cheek, existentialist quality to the whole game, right down to the ending and the song that plays during the ending credits. The Vault is kinda real, but it’s also kinda not, and it kinda doesn’t matter. There ain’t no heaven, and nothing really means anything, but it’s actually kind of fun that way. It sure is fun to shoot stuff, at any rate.

I want to talk about the mechanics for a while, which are totally boss. So, you’ve got four character classes. Each class has a special “action skill” with a cooldown, although I consider only one of them (the Siren’s Phasewalk skill) to actually be interesting. Beyond that, each character has three branches of other skills with a whole ton of different effects. Each point that you spend on a skill in one branch contributes to unlocking the next tier in that branch. It’s not possible to gain enough levels to get every skill either.

What I love about these skills is the way they work. The Hunter (sniper specialist) has a skill called “Smirk.” What it does is, whenever he kills an enemy with a critical hit (defined not by chance but by where you hit the enemy – frex headshots), he and all his teammates gain a percentage boost to XP for a few seconds. The Siren has a “Phoenix” skill that activates upon killing any enemy; during this state, she is on fire (and burning all enemies close to her) and has a percentage chance for her shots to not use up ammo.

What I like about this is how effects are stated, in very simple terms and dependent on a.) level of skill and b.) character level. I also like the way that they work; they’re either constant, or they’re like, “when you do X, then Y happens.” They’re simple, straightforward, and allow you do to special things just by having them – you don’t have to spend “technique points” or whatever to use them, you don’t have skill levels that you have to increase through practice. You just have a set effect that gets better if you put more points on it, but is already useful out of the gate. And they all add significantly to your tactical options in a firefight.

(All of those principles are things I’d like to see in table-top RPGs. If you’ve been keeping up with MADcorp, you probably already know that.)

Add onto this a type of inventory item called a Class Mod. Each Class Mod adds to certain skills, enabling you to further specialize or to cover bases that you didn’t have enough skill points to cover. Also, you can hit a New-U station, pay an amount of cash based on your level, and redistribute all of your points whenever you feel like it. Which is awesome.

All of this just totally explodes in relevance when you play multiplayer. Actually, the whole damn game gets better in multiplayer. Not only does it change the landscape of optimal skill and arms choice, but the number of enemies increases proportional to the number of players, allowing you to really and truly have some fuckin’ fun.

The equipment mechanics are friggin’ awesome. For one, it’s all randomly generated based on a few templates, so you get different versions of the same gun, with different mods on them and different pros and cons. You have to balance fire rate, fire power, magazine size, accuracy, and special effects (like the potential to set people on fire or electrocute them). You can also do side-by-side comparisons, enabling you to quickly judge how this new gun you just found stacks up to the one you’re already using.

And one more mechanic, my favorite of them all: when your hitpoints get dropped to zero, you start dying and go into a “Fight For Your Life!” mode where you can’t move around, your aim gets wonky, and your vision starts going out as all the blood flows out of you. An on-screen timer shows you how close you are to bleeding out. However, if you can kill *just one enemy* before that timer runs out, you get a “second wind” and rejoin the battle with full health. What that means is you can play the gamble and just get all up in the enemy’s face, taking hits all the time but dishing out damage by the facefuls with easy-peasy critical hits (at this range) – if you’re good enough and don’t get unlucky, you’ll get repeatedly taken down but also keep getting back up within the next second or so. It also means that if you keep your distance and try to play it safe, you’re less likely to get taken down in the first place, but if you do, you’re so distant from the enemy that it’s hard to get a second wind. I preferred the former approach (particularly with the Siren, whose prevalence of area-effect, crowd-control, and speed abilities seems custom-tailored for it), but I love that the game made me think about it.

My second favorite thing in the whole game: “badass” is a mechanical term. It’s applied to enemies that are tougher and worth more XP than other enemies of their level.

Downsides to this game are that it’s quite short (although there’s expansions, but I haven’t tried them), and the quests get kinda repetitive. Most of all, though, I think they could have gone even further with the whole existentialist thing. As it is, they kind of pull their punches a little bit, and let you think a little too much that some of the things you’re doing are making the world a better place. I’d like to see more suffering happen as a result of your actions, but cast in a way that made you laugh it off rather than feel bad about it. Considering how many ugly things this game makes you laugh at, I don’t think it was out of the designers’ reach to do this.

But, all in all, this game is a hoot. I recommend it to anyone who likes or at least tolerates shooty games.

Beyond the Wire presents four games for $2 each!

I’m currently in some dire straights financially right now, but I’m not one to just ask for money, so I’m sellin’ some games! I’ve put together a store webpage where you’ll find four quick-and-dirty games being sold in PDF format for $2 each. These games are:

Knuckleheads!:  a slapstick RPG in the Three Stooges/Laurel & Hardy vein
Construction & Conquest: a customized wargame using LEGO
Crow’s Hoard: a card game similar to Hearts, but a lot crazier, and
Caffeine & Nicotine Live Action Roleplay: an experimental RPG inspired by the film Coffee & Cigarettes

Please, if you like Super Action Now! or The Rustbelt or MADcorp, or even just like reading my blog and you want me to be able to keep designing/writing, buy these games, and talk your friends into buying them. They’re cheap and short. I’ve played them all and they’re all fun.

(I don’t understand automated PDF stuff, so I’m just gonna email the things out to the people who buy ’em. I only get to go online a couple of hours every day, so bear with me if you don’t get ’em right away.)

Musical Magic

So, I’ve got this fantasy game I’m working on. It’s essentially a Burning Wheel hack, with some changes in emphasis and a small but significant injection of Otherkind. (And, of course, a different setting that hopefully represents a sort of fantasy you don’t see often in RPGs.)

In the skill lists, I’ve got different skills for every musical instrument. These vary between races, as well. There ended up being a lot. Looking at this, I think people might be a bit confounded as to why there’s this much detail on what’s usually a glossed-over issue in RPGs. But I think it’s important. Lemme explain what was going through my head.

First off, lemme tell you that each different type of weapon is its own skill, even down to differentiating maces from flails and bladed polearms (like the halberd) from spears. I really like the idea that musical instruments are treated with as much nuance as weapons. I think it says something about the game, and how much thought should be given to culture in the course of play. (Culture is also important for a variety of other reasons throughout the game’s mechanics, especially chargen.)

Second, it lets me define the differences between different races’ music. Men mainly have plucked and bowed stringed instruments, while the dweorgen (sorta like dwarves, emphasis on “sorta”) mainly play zithers, things similar to xylophones, and batteries of drums; you get the picture. I really like having these differences, and I like what they say about the races themselves.

Third, through a modified version of BW’s Fields of Related Knowledge mechanic, I’m able to draw comparisons between the instruments of different races. For instance, the mannish guitarra and the gholan oud have many techniques in common, thus someone skilled with the guitarra could pick up an oud and play it to some degree, and vice-versa. Given that the potential to transcend racial boundaries is a central mechanic of the game, I really like this.

(FoRKs are also one of my favorite mechanics from an RPG ever, because they enable the designer to put a lot more detail into skills, and to include both specialized and broad skills without sweating over it. It’s far more flexible and interesting than systems where one roll = one skill. It also rewards knowledge of the skill lists, but it isn’t required, so you can have big-ass skill lists without worrying about people getting frustrated about having to learn it all. They can do it if they want, and will be rewarded mechanically for doing so.)

Fourth, I’m a musician. I’m interested in this stuff.

But, still, it occurs to me that there’s no built-in reason for the players to care about it. It’s a peripheral issue, unless someone really wants to play a scenario focused on music. So, how to make it worthwhile?

Here’s a thing: all the little nuances with weapons are only worthwhile because they start mattering once you get into a fight. This stuff with music should matter in a similar way.

Then, I decided, why not have music intersect with the magic system?

And, no, not in that stupid fantasy bard way with a list of songs that’s actually a spell list. And, no, not in the manner of music causing crazy magical effects (although that’s not out of the range of possibilities for sorcerers who are also musicians).

The idea I hit upon was music being useable as a social skill. *Any* social skill. You can use it to persuade, intimidate, interrogate, command, deceive, whatever. Music has the power to touch people on profound emotional levels. While not overtly magical, that’s still a sort of magic.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In this system, all rolls involving magic are either Boundless, Bottomless, or both. Boundless rolls are the same as open-ended rolls in BW: sixes explode. Bottomless rolls mean that any aces you roll introduce complications (this is, for instance, how unlucky curses and divine disfavor are implemented). Boundless rolls mean that you can potentially surpass the limits of your actual ability. Bottomless rolls mean that unbidden effects can occur.

This magical use of music will be both Boundless and Bottomless. Inspiration can lead the musician to play something truly transcendental that he’ll never be able to play the same way again. And you also never quite know how else your music might affect the people who hear it. Music has been known to save lives and to destroy them, and many things inbetween.

What remains to do here is some nuance. All races have access to different kinds of magic; e.g. sorcery is for the race of men only, while hexwork is practiced by both men and the treowan, and only the dweorgen can cast runes. So, what are the nuances of the different races?

This should tie into their different instruments. I’ve already got precedent in a set of rules for combined arms and opposing arms. Like, for instance, long-reach weapons give you an edge at a distance, while knives give you an edge up close and personal; flails have an edge against shields, since the chains can wrap around the shield to evade the opponent’s guard; piercing weapons have an edge against armor. (I’m an arms nerd, so I love making and using rules like this.)

So, I’m thinking, what are the pros and cons of a string quartet versus a solo violin? What’s a dweorgish zither good for? What’s the difference between the treowish flute and the mannish flute?

One thing that immediately comes to mind is that dweorgish music is similar to the compositions of Harry Partch — whose music scared the pants off of me the first time I heard it. Seriously, I experienced a visceral terror (and also a certain wonder). That could very easily be worked in. Otherwise, this stuff’s gonna bear some thinking about.