Here is a tutorial video for the game I’ve been developing, Salvage Team. Behold:
Here is a tutorial video for the game I’ve been developing, Salvage Team. Behold:
Hello again. If you have been wondering what I’ve been doing lately, then wonder no more. For I have done pretty much nothing interesting. I’ve been working on Salvage Team and Audatia during the days, and spent evenings playing video games, board games and roleplaying games.
The reason I’ve been silent in here is because I have had many forums where to share my groundbreaking observations and thoughts. At work, in my gaming groups… Logging them here has felt unnecessary.
But now I’ve been summoned to write about roleplaying in Finland, in the present and in the future. While I feel that extrapolating the future is probably beyond my capabilities, I shall share my observations of the present, and what I hope of the future.
Here in Oulu, I’ve been roleplaying a lot of different things, mostly on a whim. I’ve tried to improve and test myself in a myriad of games: Linear, Deus Ex-like conspiracy investigation, Lovecraftian horror, realistic fantasy, light-hearted Star Wars crime drama, straight Werewolf the Forsaken and others I might have forgotten about. Some of them have been system tests, like the Dawn of Worlds-based realistic fantasy thing (failed because of too many players), while some have been explorations into new systems, like Edge of the Empire.
Regarding other roleplaying games, trying out new things has been a theme around here. People have been crafting their own rpg systems, either scratch-built or modified from existing ones. Very few people have stuck with one game for extended periods of time. Almost no-one plays D&D, except for a few nostalgia-driven forays into the ancient first and second editions in the form of ready-made adventures. Others play Cyberpunk where they have built over the years a book’s worth of history and lore. Yet others play KERP, the Middle-Earth Role Playing Game, Dungeon World (or at least they used to play it a few months ago) and other, lighter games.
Then again, for the past few months, starting from my Werewolf campaign, Storyteller has gained a strong hold over the people. One of the players is planning on starting a Werewolf of his own, where he hopes to fix the stupidities of Storyteller. Right now I’m trying to get a Changeling campaign off the ground and am in the process of running a Wizard the Stolening mini-campaign series. Additionally, there is a lot of activity in the grim darkness of the far future, since there has been two full Only War campaigns, one active right now, Dark Heresy one-shots, Rogue Trader and now Deathwatch, where I’m playing as Battle Brother Nobilitus, an Ultramarine Tactical Marine and possibly the best individual in the galaxy.
Wizard is one of the most interesting of games I’ve ran recently. It all started with a one-shot game where a group of university students found an ancient tome of magic spells under a barn. I wanted to integrate Magic the Gathering’s more amusing spells into a modern setting. In the end, it evolved into a long mini-campaign series, following one of the emerging group of Wizards and ultimately the fate of the world now that magic is back.
So that is the present. I am doing preliminary thoughtwork for a sci-fi game set in the universe of Endless Space, using a heavily modified Edge of the Empire. Additionally I’ve thought about a mini-campaign series set in a sci-fi universe of my own, which would follow the evolution of humanity when a synthetic human replicas enter the fray. I would also like to finally run a Changeling campaign where the players play as themselves.
About the future. I’d like for our roleplaying groups to keep on doing new things and keep an open mind. There are precious few people who can do the latter, who have the strength and courage to sacrifice their free time into testing and pioneering instead of sitting in their comfort zones and keeping playing the same old games in the same old settings with the same old themes.
I want to see experience new things! Learn new techniques! I want to play in an atmospheric horror game, I want to be entangled in a complex web of romance and intrigue, I want to play as an entire group of people, I want to have dialogue with myself, I want to share control of a character with many players. I want to play as myself, I want to play as someone I know. Try it all. Challenge myself. Find myself. Improve myself.
Sadly, as I mentioned, there are only a few people who share my interests. The future of roleplaying will very likely be the same as now: People doing things they like. Some people will keep playing D&D (the best and only edition), some people will juggle between Cyberpunk and Storyteller, and some will be game for anything. Some people will always gather around the kitchen table with dice and paper, some will embrace technology and replace the table with a tablet. Roleplaying is a group-based activity, and those groups will most likely stick together. As our acceptance of connectivity increases and the technology evolves, perhaps our pool of like-minded gamers will no longer be limited by physical distance, but for now the most efficient way to play roleplaying games is face-to-face.
Apparently my thoughts have wider use than merely game design. I was contacted by Ms. Morris from the Open Site blog, regarding my post on game difficulty, which apparently had something in common about multitasking. Here is a test her team created that examines the user’s ability to multitask. Check it out, if you have a minute or two:
I have been busy lately with two things: My final thesis, after which I am finally done with education, and painting 40k-miniatures. Most of my game time went to finishing Eschalon II and playing Dark Heresy. So new game-related thoughts have been in short supply. In lieu of those, I present my thoughts on Frozen Synapse.
Frozen Synapse is a great game. It is something I would imagine myself having done. It is a tactical, simulturn combat game, where the player controls a group of vat-grown clones and attempts to eliminate the opposing ones. The magical word is simulturn: The game is divided into five-second turns (or was it ten second?), and the player pieces together a movement plan for the units for that time. When the player is satisfied with his choice, the computer runs the turn. You can do all kinds of tactical maneuvers: Cover advancing units, perform wall breaches with explosives, flank entrenched enemies, enter a building and cover all the windows. And watching your carefully laid plans unfold in real time is satisfying and fascinating.
When I first saw the Frozen Synapse, I was intrigued on how shooting would work. And the answer is: Weirdly. There are three ”basic” weapons: A shotgun, an assault rifle and a sniper rifle, respectively a short-range weapon, a medium range weapon and a long range weapon. Whenever a unit has a line of sight to an enemy, the computer calculates how long it takes for the unit to react. It notes the distance and whether either of them were moving or aiming, at least. When the time is up, the unit will fire a killing shot. As both parties will usually be in each others’ line of sight, the one who stood in place will win and kill the other. (It’s hard to explain. Go see a video, if you are interested. Or rather, buy the game.)
I understand where the system comes from: You can’t control your units’ shooting when the turn is on. And most of the time enemies are behind cover, trying to flank you. In the end, the system is clear and easy to understand, which makes for good gameplay.
But in my mind, I will compare it to X-com. X-com had one thing that I feel is a must to this kind of a game: Morale. When someone starts shooting at you with an assault rifle, I doubt the correct response would be to turn towards the incoming fire and training your weapon to shoot the shooter. No, you take cover. X-com (Specifically Enemy Unknown) did not have cover-taking, but when being shot at, the agents tended to panic, shoot at random directions or drop their weapon and run. It gave me a sense that I was orchestrating and assault by human beings. In Frozen Synapse, you are essentially (and actually) commanding robots. You can command them to run to open ground and get killed. When being shot at, they calmly turn around and die.
Another thing is the campaign. While I understand that Frozen Synapse is designed for multiplayer, the presentation is quite, let’s say, budget. The story is moved forward by text dossiers and dialogue between character portraits. There is a lot of cyberspace stuff and politics I don’t fully comprehend. I don’t even remember why I am doing anything or what my faction’s agenda is. I think the campaign would have benefited from a simpler plot and setting.
If this post feels like I’m disappointed by the game, it’s because I am. Frozen Synapse seemed like such a perfect concept that I hoped it had all the things I could imagine from such a game. But it didn’t. It was just a good tactical combat game. Nothing more, nothing less.
So. My one hundreth post. Since this is supposedly a momentuous occation showing that this blog was a project I did not abandon, I’d like to do something special. Like writing about a game that captured my mind. A game I have played more or less actively for nearly a decade now. A game whose mechanics have influenced pretty much my every design decision. A game called Magic the Gathering.
Curiously, I was introduced to the game by my sister’s female friend, one of the two female players I can recall having met in real life. As a young and simple teenager, I was captivated by the mythos of the game: The concept of mana and their colourful, mystical symbols, the presence of elves and monsters and powerful magic spells you cast as a mighty wizard. Soon I bought my first starter set with my friend and began playing. I made my first black deck (ooh, edgy) and remember distictly sucking at the game. It was fun little distraction you could take to school and play at lunch time. It annoyed the teachers too, so that was a plus. But still, it was a competitive game and I wasn’t any good at it. My interest began to wane. Then Mirrodin struck.
My first favourite card was Timesifter. It was a card that gave extra turns to the player who had more expensive (mana-wise) cards in their deck. It was a quirky card that my opponents dismissed. It wasn’t good. It was expensive and relied on expensive cards which made the whole deck unplayable. It was a card no-one wanted. I guess I felt sorry for it, which probably says something about my character. And the moment I made a Timesifter deck sparked the beginning of my fascination with cards no-one wanted. As most of those cards were… difficult to utilize, I delved into one of the most fun (relative) sides of Magic: Combos. Taking some strange and weak cards and making them work together to form an infinite amount of mana, an impenetrable defense or instant victory was a true puzzle. How can I take this insane drawback and make it into an insane weapon? Seeing a scruffy underdog combo deck win a soulless and sleek blue-black control deck that uses only the best cards brings always a cheer to my heart.
This required me to know more about the game rules. How do things interact with each other? In what order do things happen? What happens if I have two Timesifters on the table? As I researched deeper and played other games more, I began to appreciate how Magic handles itself. Many tabletop games tend to be ambiguous about things. A good example is the Gandalf Card mechanic in Lord of the Rings Boardgame: You can buy a Gandalf card at any time. Can you buy it after drawing an event tile but before resolving it? Are the tiles meant to be played immidiately after they are revealed? These questions might seem petty and inconsequential, but I think having the players make assumptions about rules is bad design. What if two players form conflicting interpretation of the rules? Those kinds of situations tend to escalate into arguments, especially in a competitive games. I’ve seen it many times, unfortunately.
Magic does not have ambiguity. Magic hates ambiguity. Every action the player takes is carefully defined in the comprehensive rulebook (which is nearly 200 pages long at the time of writing), and every possible situation is covered in the rules. If they aren’t, they will be in a moment. When two decks with lots of Instants (cards you can play outside your turn) and funky effects square off, the players will know exactly what to do and in which order, and can plan around that. This clarity can be attributed mostly to the most ingenious mechanic of the game: The Stack.
A brief definition: The Stack regulates the order in which cards are played. On every phase on your turn, you can play cards and abilities first. If you play a card, it goes to the Stack. Then your opponent(s) can respond by playing their cards. If they do, the card they play goes on top of your card. Then you can respond to their card. This goes on until both players pass. Then the topmost card of the Stack is resolved, meaning that the effect in the card happens. Then the active player (whose turn it is) can play a card again. And the opponent can respond to that. Again, if no-one responds, the topmost card resolves. This enables things: Assume you have a card that deals 3 damage to a creature and an opponent has a card that increases a creature’s Toughness by 3. If you shoot an opponent’s creature with your card, intending to kill it, he can boost its toughness as a response, enabling it to tough out your damage. And if he boosts the creature in order to deal more damage or to avoid it, you can shoot the creature before it receives the boost as a response.
This might make the game feel like very, very heavy. But the thing is, it doesn’t. In normal play, the Lightning Bolt/Giant Growth-scenario described above is pretty much the extent of the complexity in it. Most turns take only a minute: Untap your things, draw your card, play a spell, attack with a creature, see if opponent blocks, pass turn. Like any other reasonable game. But in the case there is a card combination that can blow up in your face if you play it wrong, there is an extremely detailed process you can fall back to. You won’t have to make any guessess about the rules, except possibly against advanced players who wield crazy decks. (ahem)
This clarity and focus is what inspires me. The game is simple, yet allows for complexity. When designing rules and especially processes, I always look back and ask myself “How do I explain this in Magic terminology?”. And even when I specifically avoid clear-cut mechanical processess, like in Spy, I still ask “What exactly are the rules allowing me to do?”. So here’s to Magic: The Gathering. May your quality stay as high as possible!
No great post ideas in my head right now. There’s a finnish game convention happening this weekend to where I’m going. It’s called Ropecon, and it concerns mostly roleplaying and board gaming. I hope it will generate something to ponder. For now, yet more little points of interest
Two days ago I designed the principles of the artificial intelligence for my thesis project. Despite being annoyed that I have been force-fed coding for the first one and a half years of my time in Kajaani University of Applied Sciences, I felt grateful for understanding how computer logic works. It enables me to efficiently communicate my ideas to programmers and to see whether something is viable or not.
Witcher 2 annoys me from time to time with it’s stupid combat and old-fashioned boss fights. I take many breaks and am generally hesitant to get back to the game. It contrasted nicely with Star Wars: Republic Commando, which I replayed for the third time. That game knows what it’s doing and executes it perfectly. Beside it’s simplish fps- and squad control mechanics, it is a Star Wars game that does not have the opening crawl to John Williams’ most famous piece. That already makes it unique.
I integrated myself into a roleplaying game as a player. The Game Master started it by giving us a history lecture about the political and social situation of Europe in 1300. It took about an hour and was quite detailed. I must admit that I am extremely sceptical about the game, but the cold and rational part of my mind told me that this is a golden opportunity to witness a radically different way to roleplay from a close distance. We’ll see whether it will be worth it in the end.
Twilight Imperium is a quite polarizing game. It has spaceships, interstellar trade, politics and hexes. On the other hand, it has victory point mechanics, the game balance is all over the place and game sessions tend to bear witness to seasonal changes. It’s newest expansion alleviates the latter points by having secret, instant win-objectives, being very structured (and by extension, very balanced) and being potentially very short. The first two games received mixed responses from my group, but I liked it more than the basic game. I’m quite embarrassed to notice that I have been playing more and more Beat Hazard and Audiosurf. The games are easy and require virtually no thought. I feel like I’m just tossing my life away and doing nothing productive as I am playing them. I’m frustrated because I’m doing fun things, in other words. Funny is
human my psyche.
I seem to have problems with thinking about things. Specifically thinking about them too much.
Most roleplaying systems are more than just systems: They are frameworks for a very specific kinds of experiences and themes. Dungeons & Dragons is brainless dungeon asskicking. Storyteller (White Wolf’s d10-system) is about wielding inhuman powers and straddling on a fence between humanity and vampiricity/lycanthropy/magism/dickitude. Star Wars is all about the lure of the Dark Side and great destiny. Zombeja! Ovella! is about feeding the others to a zombie horde so that you can escape. A system that just handles combat or the interaction between characters risks being too vanilla.
Therefore I began to think about Champions of Ilea’s theme and the experience the system wants to give the playes. I realized that I did not have any, and the project grounded to halt. Now I’m thinking about redesigning the whole system from scratch. This is how progress is made.
Speaking of progress, I replayed Prince of Persia Sands of Time. Yet again I marveled how much polish the game has. Nearly every action and every facet of the game is there for a reason. A smooth player experience is at the forefront, and everything is crafted around it. The cool combat maneuvers are showcased with camera angles that do not impede the gameplay. The game is consistent with itself, as there are virtually zero mechanics that do not feel derived from the core controls. The oft-disliked combat system is actually a tactical puzzle rather than a mechanical skill challenge, which goes well with the platforming of the game. What maneuver was this monster weak to? Should I knock that monster down or should I finish that one with the dagger?
I also have played The Witcher 2. As I mentioned, there are Quick Time Events (cutscenes where you press buttons as prompted) in the game. It was quite surprising that the game handles the almost universally reviled gameplay mechanic quite well. Fistfighting is the prominent example: Geralt and his opponent face each other, a button flashes on the screen and if the player presses it, Geralt attacks and deals damage. If he fails, Geralt takes damage. The system works because the button presses happen before combat animation, not during it. In many other games that sport Quick Time Events the player must follow the button prompts in the awesome attack animations, missing the action itself easily. The Witcher 2 lets the player witness the fruits of their labor. The system reminded me of Sands of Time’s combat system and it’s camera angles. As the player does not have to input 5+ button press combinations, he has more time to watch the action on screen.