What if horror games are actually driven by banality? Is Call of Cthulhu best when it’s mostly full of the everyday?Continue reading
Category Archives: Game Design
Chasing realism is a trap
Chasing realism is a trap.
This might be true of art in general, but it’s video game graphics that keep reminding me of it. Chasing realism is an expensive luxury. Unless realism is a core part of whatever you’re trying to make, it’s probably not worth fixating on it. That’s because…Continue reading
Dogs in the Vineyard, moral conundrums, quick thoughts
Somehow, despite a decade of posts on this blog, I’ve never gone in-depth into Dogs in the Vineyard or what I love so much about it. There’s more to Dogs than I could easily cover in a single post: cooperative story-telling and turn-taking, cinematic descriptive and narrative tools, a conflict mechanic that encourages brinksmanship and escalation, a well-articulated method for understanding what’s at stake… all those elements are a delight.
But there’s another piece that Dogs explicitly encourages groups to home in on. That’s the experience of wrestling with moral conundrums, something many modern CRPGs both want—and struggle—to deliver. That’s what I’m focused on today.Continue reading
Majora’s Mask, Time, & Consequences, quick thoughts
I’m thinking about Majora’s Mask again.
One of my RPG groups is currently struggling to solve several time loops and their various disasters. I love time loops (see my thoughts on Palm Springs). But at the end of our last run some of my players asked: “Are we actually getting anywhere? Because I don’t want to keep doing this if we’re not making any progress.” And that showed me that I needed to open up a little more, because, well…Continue reading
5e is wrong about Charisma
Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.Continue reading
D&D & Disease (in 5e)
There are a lot of topics that D&D isn’t ready-made to explore. As best as I can tell, disease (chronic or acute) is one of them.
This line of thought came up for me while talking with my sib about dangerous encounters in a weird fantasy / sci-fi / horror adventure campaign I’m running for some friends. It’s a roughly post-apocalyptic setting, based in The Hub, in which the apocalypse(s) in question took place a variable amount of time ago and in different fashions, depending on where the PCs explore. Some of the perils the PCs face include radiological disasters, and radioactive environments or threats.
My sib, naturally, asked what I’d done on the topic of cancer.Continue reading
Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide
This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends.
Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.
But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game.
Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.
Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.
Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.
But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”
Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.
And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.
Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.
Darktide has taken a different approach here.
There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.
And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.
Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.
But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.
A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.
I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.
This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.
Collaborative ideas for Blades in the Dark
I’ve been wanting to play Blades in the Dark for a while. Despite having had the system for several years, I still haven’t played it. I’ve played a game inspired by its sci-fi hack, Scum & Villainy, but my friend running that game paid very little attention to the system’s rules despite using the rules as reference material. The game was fun. It didn’t really let me see how any of the things that make BitD distinct actually work when run as designed.
Now it looks like I may finally have a chance to play! One of my friends is putting a group of players together, people I enjoy playing with. I’m looking forward to it.
And, even as I’m looking forward to game, I’m thinking through all the ways the system looks most likely to break, or where it looks like the GM will be carrying the heaviest workload. That’s reflex at this point. The spot most likely to be lost in the shuffle, as best as I can tell, is the storyteller’s implementation of the faction system—probably followed by tracking debt and its effects.
So I’m coming up with ways to share the load.
For context, Blades in the Dark comes with a whole host of background material. I don’t think any of it is necessary for a fun game. All the supplied narrative fluff can absolutely be ignored, as long as you have some forces in play that replicate the pressures those pieces of fluff offer: corrupt cops, competing gangs, and bigger and more powerful gangs (and individuals) scuffling for power far beyond the PCs immediate grasp. Groups should be able to come up with their own versions of Duskvol without any trouble, and fill them with the characters and groups they want to see.
But alongside that pre-supplied narrative fluff, the game also has a whole system set up for how to track the relationships and power of the different groups in the setting. I think tracking those is extremely important. That’s how the game tracks that pressure I mentioned above.
Now, there’s no reason the storyteller couldn’t bullshit their way through all of that tracking. That would be pretty normal, in my book. But much as the rules of Traveller are designed to simulate a crew’s constant struggle to pay off their ship’s mortgage, impelled into ever more risky and (hopefully) profitable exploits to stay a few credits ahead of their operating costs and debt payments, I think BitD is designed to push the PCs into bold action at the risk of utter catastrophe.
I really want to see how that works. I really want the group I play with to try using those interlocking systems (with debt, faction favor & power, etc). I don’t want to lose that in the overwhelmed-GM shuffle.
This is where my ideas about sharing the load come in.
Apocalypse World had some very functional ways to play a two person game, where people would take turns running different Fronts and groups of NPCs for each other. I see no reason not to do something similar in BitD. Each player could handle the basic duties for tracking countdown clocks and behind-the-scenes action for a few of the different factions, and divvy up the responsibility for maintaining a living, vibrant, dangerous world instead of putting most of that on the storyteller.
The obvious sacrifice here is a lack of surprise around some NPC actions. And players would have to be willing to hand over the various factions’ agency to the GM, or else take a turn as the storyteller when their managed faction have center stage. But with a bit of conferring between players and the storyteller, I think it’s perfectly manageable (we’ll have a group of players that I trust to play well together).
I also think it’s worthwhile to encourage or require players to manage factions that their PC is not allied or friendly with. That reduces the temptation to use NPCs to treat their own PC favorably.
I’m curious about doing this in other systems too. I think it doesn’t work as well in games with more adversarial dynamics or hidden information. But there are always chances to offload work from the GM, and to give other players more time playing off each other and with the game’s world. Always a plus.
I really hope this game comes together and actually works out. If it does, I’m sure I’ll have more details to share here in some months. If this idea works, and if that plus having players track all our various debts and whatnot lets us dig into how the system-as-written forces more audacious play, I’ll be pretty happy. Honestly, I’ll be happy to just play some BitD.
Back to LARP writing
I’m writing LARP material again!
It’s been a while. I’ve sat on an idea of mine for a little over a year, and I’m finally having the excited conversations with other LARP friends that keep pushing me to develop it. It’s a good feeling.
I’ve also been writing material for a different LARP that my friends are running. This means taking limited information about national histories, and group goals, and maybe a sentence or two about group flavor, and turning that into 400-500 words of group background with coherent flavor. It’s a rewarding exercise, something I haven’t done recently but have plenty of experience with. Plus, it’s wonderful being able to just produce creative work and share it with people immediately.
I’ve stopped doing that here, for a number of reasons, and I regret that sometimes. Maybe I’ll change that again in the future.
As for the fun LARP ideas I’ve been having, they’re tied to a combination of old story ideas I’ve mused over for about five years and a set of scene ideas that have inspired me in the past two years at Wayfinder. The basic concept: PC groups of treasure hunters and historians return to the ancient places of their ancestors in the Shunned Lands to recover lost relics, and in the process discover both why their old stories refer to a prior golden age and why that golden age ended in catastrophe. The rest of the game is all about facing the consequences of releasing the disastrous remnants of that ancient history.
My excited conversations have mostly been about puzzling through how to produce specific scenes, and what we’d need to make them work. It feels really good, engaging with my WFE friends like this outside of the camp season. That collaborative problem solving and supportive creativity is something I always miss during the rest of the year, when I spend most of my time staring at words and trying to cudgel them into some more effective shape.
Perhaps I’ll be able to work more of that into my other writing routines, and carry that excitement forward.
Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds
My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.
The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).
Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.
I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.
My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.
Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.
I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”
Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.
That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.
Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.