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Archive for the month “January, 2012”

#dndnext : Cautious Optimism, Part 2 – First Edition

Today, I’m going to piss off an entire portion of the D&D playing Community (such as it is): first edition AD&D was a great game for its time. It was ground breaking and amazing, and it had a lot to offer D&D Next. That having been said, there is very little it did that Second Edition AD&D didn’t to in a better, clearer, and more streamlined fashion.

This post is divided into two parts. In the first part, I’m going to go over some of the great things about AD&D. In the second part, I’m going to go off on a rant about the ways it is horrible, and needs to be left in the past. Just like the first post in this series, I’ll sum up the things I think D&D Next can take from First Edition, and some of the things I think it absolutely needs to leave behind. Even though it’ll be bullet pointed like it was in the last post, I’m terribly afraid it will still be a bit of a rant. First Edition tends to produce a 0.1 Rageahol blood level for me.

AD&D First Edition Was Awesome

Okay, last time on Student 20 Productions  I talked at length about the old Boxed Sets – the Red, Blue, Teal (Cyan?), Black, and Gold boxes that made up Dungeons & Dragons. Something I left out, however, was the original plan. Originally, TSR intended to use the Red Box as an intro-to-D&D. The plan was to take folks through 3rd level, and then have them switch up to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This was a good idea as far as it went, but they came out with the other boxes to pursue the market of people who liked the simpler Dungeons & Dragons, and weren’t interested in the “upgrade” to AD&D.

Fair enough, but folks like that were missing out in a lot of ways. AD&D First Edition offered a lot more in the way of character options, and had a vast array of additional stuff for creating adventures, reams of advice for the Dungeon Master, and Monster Manuals – entire books devoted to bringing a little spice (sometimes very weird spice) to combat and other “monster” encounters.

I know I already lined to it, but seriously - look at that thing!

It also expanded the magic system, and introduced new classes (Paladin, Ranger, Druid – before it showed up in the Companion Set). As the supplements started coming out, even more classes joined the troupe, including the Illusionist, Barbarian, and a cast of Japanese-flavored classes like Samurai, Ninja, and Sugenja – my favorite of which was the Kensai (Sword Saint). All of this added variety was a good thing, in no small part because, if you didn’t want it, you could always stick with D&D, and not join the AD&D party.

AD&D also added in the concept of “proficiencies” – things characters knew how to do. Basically, the Proficiency System was a rudimentary Skill System. It was simplistic, but it did something really cool: it made it so that characters needed to specialize. That is, no one was going to wind up being an expert in everything. It separated basic class mechanics from “skills” completely, so that a Fighter and a Thief (they weren’t re-branded as Rogues until 2e) could be on an equal footing when it came to things that had nothing to do with what their class was built for. In 3e, a Rogue always had more “skill points”, and could therefore be better at, say, Craft skills than a Fighter, whose paltry Skill Points needed to be saved for Fightery-stuff like Athletics and… well, other things would be nice, but Athletics is probably where they ran out of Skill Points. I never liked the skill-point deprived classes as much as the ones that had even slightly more generous skill point assignments because they were so very limited in their outside-of-class-ability talents. I could go on, but this is supposed to be about AD&D, not 3/3.5e D&D.

One great thing about 1e AD&D was the lack of Class Bloat: every time a class was added to the game, it was added because its specific flavor was needed. The Japanese-themed classes, for instance, appeared in the Oriental Adventures book. Now, I suppose one could easily argue that a Samurai is just a Japanese Fighter, with a specialization in the Katana and Wakizashi, but that’s just not the case. Moreover, classes like Cleric, Thief, and Assassin just don’t capture the same feel as Sugenja, Yakuza, and Ninja.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon - this book was cool. A little racially insensitive at times, and completely culturally ignorant as well, since it says "oriental adventures" but it really means "Japanese Adventures" - but still very, very cool.

AD&D did have some weird class stuff, to be sure; the original Bard from 1e AD&D is probably the first instance of a “Prestige Class“, for instance, but describing the entry requirements as “onerous” falls somewhat short of the mark. That having been said, it was overall a great system for Classes – because there weren’t all that many, each one felt special and magical and wonderful. If you wanted to cast spells and use a sword, you played a Dual or Multi-Classed Fighter/Wizard – Duskblade wasn’t an option, and I absolutely love that.

AD&D continued the setting-agnostic feel of the D&D boxed sets as well. Very little (read: pretty much nothing) about specific setting was included in the books; instead, very general guidelines concerning what a high-fantasy setting would be like were included. These general setting thingies were so broadly written that they encouraged groups to put together their own settings, or to expand heavily on the details given in the published adventures. If you wanted more detail for a setting, however, AD&D 1e provided campaign settings that are now iconic: Blackmore, Forgotten Realms, and Greyhawk, along with Hollow Word, were all incredible settings with much depth. The setting books tended to shy away from mechanics and stick to flavor and setting information. I still prefer the 1e versions of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk to any of their successors. (All respect to Dave Arneson, but I never much cared for Blackmore. I couldn’t tell you why on a bet, and I’d love to see it get a modern makeover, but it just never gelled into something coherent for me).

Bringing Back Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

Which brings me to a point I mentioned in my last post: we need AD&D back. The way Wizards is talking, we’re going to be treated to a highly modular system, with a core set of simple rules, along with additional “modules” that can expand the rules to make things as complicated as you like. Why not brand these “modules” as “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”?

They could keep the two separate easily enough. The books that are based entirely in the Core Rules (setting books or boxed sets, like Forgotten Realms and Dark Sun) could retain the D&D brand, adding in only those rules needed for the setting and nothing more (adding in things like Harpers for Forgotten Realms, or like Defiler Magic for Dark Sun, or like Spelljamming for… well, Spelljammer). Even books with new Modules could be kept on the D&D labels, as long as they were a.) only dependent on the core rules, and b.) Did not alter the mechanics of the core game. Examples would be books that added new PC Classes and Races, new Spells, and so on.

Meanwhile, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons label could be used for books that added much larger things to the rules, or that were dependent on other Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books. For instance, a Module that allowed for the creation of a character with specifically 4e sensibilities (at-will, encounter, and daily powers), or ones that added additional skills/proficiency to the core set, or that expanded social encounters to include a combat-like mechanic. Books that provided new magic systems, or added things like Incarnum, would also have the AD&D Label, since things like this could massively alter the game.

(A Direct Note to Wizards of the Coast: Please bring back Incarnum! That was, like, the coolest idea ever – although the obsession with the color blue and excessive use of the word “cerulean” could probably stay in the past. Also, if you’re going to have Incarnum Infused Races, it might be nice to have some that aren’t just humans with a funny paint job and a talent for this fairly weird kind of magic).

Alright – that’s the good stuff out of the way. I’ve skipped some things in the interest of actually finishing this post before D&D Next goes into public playtest; AD&D offered a lot that I’m not covering. These are the highlights, though, of the things I really loved about it.

TL;DR: What D&D Next can learn from 1e

I’m putting this here instead of at the end so it’s on the first page of the post. The second page of this post is a bit more… inflammatory.

Stuff to Keep:

  • The two-pronged D&D and AD&D Brands
  • Setting Agnostic Core Books – this can, and should, be done even for things like “Eastern Adventures” and “Arabian Adventures” kinds of books
  • No Core Class Bloat – A Wizard and a Sorcerer are both the same class, folks – they just use a different method to cast their spells.
  • Proficiency, or Skills that aren’t based on Classes or used to create Class Abilities. If a Rogue is better at being sneaky or pciking locks than anyone else, that should be part of their Class Abilities, not part of a skill system. Both my Mage and my Bard should be able to keep up on their Knowledge: Foopimancy Skills if they want.
  • A clear division between D&D Core and AD&D, with continuing support for both. A tall order, I know.
  • Very Strange Monsters should make a comeback – to wit:

Stuff To Avoid Like The Frakkin’ Plague:

  • Non-Human Class Level Limits, mostly because they make absolutely no sense, but also because they just plain suck.
  • A division between Multi-Classing and Dual-Classing – one or the other, please, but preferably multi-classing. If both are available, they should be available to all characters regardless of race, and while in the process of Dual-Classing, you should still be able to use the abilities of your old class without screwing yourself. Oh, and you shouldn’t be forced to abandon all advancement in your old class.
  • Mages whose bones break in a light breeze or when they are spat upon. Commoners have the same problem.
  • Racial limitations on class selection. I don’t actually go into this anywhere in this dissertation, but it’s still a crappy rule.
  • Very badly written and organized books
  • Table Bloat – oh, ye GODS, the Table Bloat in 1e…
  • Arcane or outright strange “Prestige Class” rules. Frankly, I think you can just let Prestige Classes stay in add-on Modules (the new AD&D books), and leave them out of the core rules completely. Yes, this belongs here – I mentioned the 1e Bard earlier, remember?

If you’re a big fan of 1e, I’m going to suggest you don’t continue reading. I’m going to rant a little, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m not trying to criticize anyone who likes 1e, although I think you’re foolish if you think it’s flawless (no game is). So, if you really love 1e, please feel free to skip directly to leaving comments about what you really love about 1e, and why you think its awesome, and what D&D Next needs to take from it.

Don’t get all pissy in the Comments section, though. That’s not going to do anyone any good. Neither is my rant, I suppose, but you know what? This is MY craft on the Astral Sea, and I’ll dive into any Chrystal Sphere I like, thank you very much. Oh yeah – harsh language ahead. You’ve been warned. Mom, you should probably stop reading now. I’m likely to get downright offensive.

Read more…

Dungeons & Dragons Next Part 1: Cautious Optimism

Wizards of the Coast

Image via Wikipedia

So, Wizards of the Coast recently announced that a new edition of D&D is on the way. They also announced that, starting this spring, they would have open playtest material, and were basing a lot of their design decisions on player advice. I’ve got a few things to say, and since this is my little slice of the internet, I thought I would, you know, say those things… that I have to say…

I’m planning to cover some serious ground in this series of posts – discussing the things I love and hate out of each edition is a start.

D&D has been a big part of my life for a good long time. It’s like an old friend to me, and I find myself coming back to it time and time again. I’ve played every edition of it except the very first one (0e, if you keep track of that sort of thing), and there are things I love and hate about each of them. Every time a new edition is announced, I get excited. I love the new ideas and the new takes on old ideas that accompany each new edition. I don’t always completely love each edition, however.

Dungeons & Dragons Red/Blue/Teal/Black/Gold Box Sets

As I said, I have no hands-on with the 1974 oD&D; in fact, my experience with D&D -and Role Playing Games in general – begins with the 1981 revised edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Despite having undergone a grand total of four revisions since oD&D, the Basic Set still had some pretty obvious connections to the War Game (Chainmail) that it had evolved from. Character movement speed, for instance, was expressed in inches. Tactical map combat was part of it, whether people realize it or not – it just wasn’t given much emphasis.

Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set

Image via Wikipedia - THe version of the Expert rules that I had. There's an older edition that a friend of mine had, but this is the one we had in our house.

The Red Box contained some pretty simple rules. You chose a “class” for your character rolled 3d6 for the same 6 stats D&D has today, and got with adventuring. It really was pretty much that simple. The Red Box covered levels 1 to 3, the Blue Box (Expert, 1981) levels 1 to 15, the Teal box (Companion, 1983) levels 15 to 25, and the Black Box (Master, 1985) levels 26 to 36. These different boxed sets each covered a different stage in a character’s adventuring career: Basic games and Expert games were similar in all ways except scale, Companion games generally dealt with establishing kindgoms and traversing the planes of the multiverse, and the Master Rules primarily dealt with world-shattering levels of power where the characters faced demon lords and even deities in combat. The Gold Box (Immortals, 1986) covered rules for characters becoming deities and continuing the game through a quest for immortality and “adventuring” as gods/goddesses.

Dungeons & Dragons Companion Set

Image via Wikipedia - the Companion rules. I had 'em, practically memorized 'em - but never actually used them. Weird, huh? It did contain mass combat rules that my brother and I used a few times - they were pretty fun.

The Basic D&D Rules were great in some ways. They were simple – the actual character creation process took about 10 minutes, even for beginners. The books were well organized, and keeping the different “tiers” of play in different books made them seem more special. The art was good (all black and white, but still pretty good), and the boxes all came with adventures that many of us can still remember to this day – Keep on the Borderlands, for instance. The whole thing eventually culminated in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, which contained the whole damn thing – Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rules (Immortals got left out, but no one seemed to miss it very much). It also had basic setting infor for the Known World (Mystara) and Hollow World settings. D&D as a whole (back in those days) kept most setting-specific detail out of the rulebooks, which was another plus.

Dungeons & Dragons Master Rules

Image via Wikipedia - contained the new "Mystic" class, which in modern D&D parlance is a Monk with no Eastern/Asian flavoring. I've never been able to decide if that;s racist or not. Probably not, though.

I would love to get my hands on a Rules Cyclopedia – the old Basic D&D was a great intro to Role Playing game. That having been said, it did have some problems. You might notice that I put the word “class” in quotes earlier. The original Classes were Cleric, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard; in the Companion rules they introduced the Druid, and in the Master Rules, they introduced the Mystic (a Monk ny any other name…). If, however, you wanted to be a non-human, you didn’t pick a class – you picked a race that functioned as a class. You could be a Dwarf (essentially a Fighter with a few mining and toughness related abilities), an Elf (essentially a combination Fighter/Wizard who could find Secret Doors easily), or a Halfling (basically a Fighter/Thief who was a lot smaller than most Fighters or Thieves). This race-as-class thing never sat well with me.

Another issue with the Race as Class system was that Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings were very limited in maximum level. While all the Human Classes could advance to 36 (except the Druid and Mystic, which were generally weird), the Dwarf stopped a level 12, the Elf at level 10, and the Halfling at level 8. They got expanded combat abilities with additional experience, but they were severely stunted, and not well compensated for the draconian level limitations. As I’ll get to in a later post, AD&D suffered from this problem as well.

Another issue was that there were no options for multiclassing whatsoever. If you started your career as, say, a Cleric, you were stuck as a straight Cleric for all of your adventuring career. The lack of character options made all characters seem the same – and they mostly were, from a mechanical perspective. One 25th level Fighter was mechanically almost identical to another,  with the exception of which Magic Items they had, what armor they chose to wear, and things like that. There was some variance between Wizards, since it was pretty unlikely they’d have all the same spells, but that was about it. You don’t need a bunch of mechanical differences between characters to make them different, but it’s nice to have a few more choices as you go.

These rules (along with oD&D, and AD&D 1e-3.5e and Pathfinder) use the vancian magic system. This involved Wizards, Clerics, Druids, and Elves preparing their spells in advance, choosing from the list of spells available to them that they would be able to use throughout the day. While some people swear by this system, I don’t personally care for it very much – it requires a level of prescience that I don’t possess. When 3e came out and gave us the Sorcerer as an alternative, no one in any group I was in wanted to deal with the vancian magic hassle. In fact, most steered clear from Cleric and Druid as well. I don’t blame them, even though I loved the 3e Druid (despite their Alignment restrictions).

I know that this all seems to be going nowhere… but it’s not. I think that the old D&D boxed games should be carefully looked at during the D&D Next design phase. They have a hell of a lot to offer. I’ll summarize below.

TL; DR: What I think the Old Boxed Sets have to Offer D&D Next

I think the following things should be taken from the old Boxed Sets for the new Edition:

  • Very streamlined and well organized rules
  • Only core Classes and Races (Cleric, Fighter, Wizard, Thief; Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human)
  • Levelable Racial Abilities (they were the only way to level non-humans, which is bad – but the basic idea is good. in 3e’s Unearthed Arcana, they had Racial Paragon Classes, and I thought that was an awesome idea)
  • Tiered releases (the Basic, Expert, Companion, and Master rule sets – although I’d do levels 1-10 in the first set, 11-20 in the second, and 21+ in a third, and leave it at that).
  • Include a complete adventure module in each set (for the Basic 1-10 level one, I’d absolutely love a re-make of Keep on the Borderlands)
  • Setting agnostic rules

Stuff from the old Boxed Sets that should be left out:

  •  Races as Classes
  • Severe restrictions on non-human leveling
  • No multiclassing (this is something that should be included in the core system – multiclassing, I mean)
  • Poorly defined map combat rules (If you’re going to have them in the core rules – and I think it should – they should be streamlined, simple, and, most of all, well-defined)
  • Vancian Magic as the only option for spellcasters (Spellcasting classes should be able to choose from two or three different methods on a per character – not per class – basis).

In the next part of this series, I’m going to talk about 1e Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and how I think that the division between AD&D and D&D should be brought back – sorta.

I’m starting a Blog in the Wizards of the Coast community pages, where I will be re-posting this series, along with some other stuff that is D&D related. You can find it here, for folks who would rather read it/follow it there.

As a last note, if SOPA/PIPA passed, this post could theoretically shut down all of WordPress. I know they’ve been shelved, but we need to stay aware and on top of this issue, folks. Stay aware, and follow related  news.

VRP Madness Continued: My All Time Favorites

I’m not really sure how to start this post. It’s pretty easy to rant about stuff that made you hate a game, but things that make you love a game seldom seem to induce such entertaining passion. I think, though, that my best bet is to make a few picks, and then see where it takes me, which is more or less what I did in my last post.

My Brother (in this post) talked about story and had very little to say about play mechanics. I’m not going to go that route, because play mechanics can make or break a game for me. I can’t sit through a great storyline if the mechanics of the game yield no entertainment (this happens to me with Action RPGs on a fairly regular basis, especially older ones); meanwhile, if the gameplay is  frakkin’ fantastic, I will ignore story thinness and issues – or, at the least, I will ignore them while playing (again, Action RPGs are most frequently the culprits, as will become fairly obvious).

Like my last post, these are in no particular order. Also, there’s a game on this list that my Beloved will severely disagree with, unlike my last list. I imagine there will be an interesting discussion. Perhaps I can get her to record a video counter-point for my inclusion of Skyrim on this list… Anyway, you;re going to find more in common between these two lists than the other two because, let’s face it – some games really are that awesome.

Where to start? Which game to I want to rave about first? Hmmm… Oh – I know! Just like last time, I’ll start with one that’s on my brother’s list! Here we go:

Chrono Trigger

Chrono trigger's cast, more or less

Chrono Trigger's cast. The original box art is awful. Not Original Mega Man awful, but pretty bad.

Did I Finish It?: Six times at my last count. I imagine I’ll finish it several more times in the future.

A certain amount of any “I loved this game…” involving SNES or NES games will always be nostalgia. There’s no getting around it – I’ve gone back to play games I loved as a kid, and found them unplayable. This happens more frequently with Atari 2600 games, but it happens a lot with SNES and NES games. A good example is the original Final Fantasy: while I can play the re-makes for the Game Boy Advance, PSP, and so on readily enough, the actual original NES game is impossible for me to play now. The difficulty is preposterous, and the visuals give me a headache. The stilted dialogue, the almost silly frequency of battle, the limited graphics: all of it combine to make a game that I just can’t enjoy anymore – and yet, I still have fond memories of the thing.

None of that applies to Chrono Trigger.

This is, in my opinion, the best game Square (Now Square/Enix) ever made. It beast the entire Final Fantasy series by a fair margin in my book. The combat system is close to perfect – fun and engaging, with opponents you can see on the map screen and occasionally even avoid. The story is fantastic, the characters are great, and you can have an impact on how the game progresses and ends. The art is beautiful in an old-school-game sort of way, and the Dual and Tri attacks are cool to watch and effective.

If you like RPGs at all and you haven’t played this game, you really should. I suggest getting the recent DS release (which I bought for my fiancee as a Christmas Present), since it’s got a lot of neat added stuff, but (unlike the Final Fantasy 4 DS remake) is still the same game.

An Honorable Mention goes here for the sequel Chrono Cross. I didn’t like it as much, and the color-splash thingy in the combat system frankly annoyed me, but it’s a fantastic game with a great story and what I still think is the best opening music in the history of video games.

Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas box art
Image via Wikipedia
Now that’s good cover art right there,

Did I Finish It?: Not yet, but that’s not the point.

My love of Open World RPGs didn’t start with Fallout: New Vegas, but it’s the best one I’ve ever played, bugs and all. Yes, it was very buggy on release – and it still is, with the PC version suffering from the same “I can’t exit the game properly” and occasional Crash To Desktop issues that also plague Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. I don’t care. This is a fantastic game.

The world feels very real here – it’s huge and easy to get lost in. There is so much going on in tis game that it’s almost impossible to properly comment on it, since any real commentary would fall short. There are lots of characters, each one individually crafted and loaded with personality (with the exception of some of the troopers for the various factions). The massive wilderness is breathtaking. And here’s the bit I love the most: it doesn’t matter one lick if you never ever even glance at the main plot. In fact, the vengeance basis of the main plotline makes it so that you can just decide that your character thinks he/she is luck to be alive and wants nothing to do with the folks who tried to kill him/her.

This makes its opening the freest of the free. Unlike some other games I’m about to rave about from Bethesda, the main quest is great, but you can ignore it without feeling like your character is being willfully ignorant of the world he/she is in. Maybe your character is terrified of seeing the man who tried to kill hi again. Maybe your character isn”t interested in vengeance. Maybe a lot of other things: the point is, you can do what you want, and have perfectly good in-character reasons for choosing whatever path you like. You can even skip over all the introductory hand-holding by just leaving the starting town shortly after character generation.

This is my favorite Bethesda game so far, although I hold out high hopes for Fallout 4 (which is, if you think about it, inevitable now that Skyrim is out). It does right everything Fallout 3 (which is also awesome) did wrong. The only problem I have is the Perk-every-other-level thing, but that’s not a huge deal.

The Elder Scrolls 3, 4, and 5 (That would be Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim)

Did I Finish It?: Morrowind sorta, the other two, no – but, again, that’s not the point

Starting with Morrowind, all of the Elder Scrolls games have been fantastic. Daggerfall (Elder Scrolls 2) was pretty good too, but it’s overly complicated and by the time I played it, the graphics were horribly dated.

These are open-world games to the core, with main quests you are free to ignore or follow to your heart’s content. Each has its issues, some of which are baffling to me, and all three are/were kinda buggy, but I don’t care. They7 have good stories whether you follow the main plot or not.

My specific objections to each:

  • Morrowind has a clunky UI and inventory system. It works when you get used to it, but it’s still unintuitive.
  • Oblivion has multiple minor issues  – the creepy dead-eye stare of the NPCs, the awful Pie-Chart speechcraft mini game, and the Psychic Guards are all minor things. The only major problem I have with it is the leveling system: you’re better off intentionally not leveling by choosing for main skills things you have no intention of using. As you level up in the game, you start running into bandits wearing fantastically expensive armor, which begs the question of why they’re bandits at all: if they sold their armor, they could live on the residuals for more than a year.
  • Skyrim is my fave of the three, but the main quest is the weakest of the three as well. Moreover, you’re forced to play through a goodly portion of it just to get the best power in the game, while all the other Best Stuff thingies are gained through not-main-questlines and the unbelievably in-depth crafting system. The lockpicking system is stolen directly from Fallout 3/New Vegas as well, but I see this as more of a bonus than a weakness.
The freedom in these games, coupled with the great Alchemy crafting in all three (best in Skyrim, but really good in Morrowind and pretty neat in Oblivion) and the amazing expansions releaced for Morrowind and Oblivion make these games infinitely replayable. Oh – and did I mention how awesome the mod communities for all of them are? That applies to the Fallout series as well, by the way – but that’s pretty useless if you’re playing the console version. I’ve always wondered why they never converted the tools for consoles, a la Little Big Planet – but I guess with these games, that would be terrifyingly complicated.

Final Fantasy 4, 5, and 6

Final Fantasy 5 - this screenshot shows off the incredible "Jobs" system of the game. I always made my male characters into wizards and my females into badass warriors, just to go against JVRP stereotypes. Is that sexist?

Did I Finish It?: Each one multiple times

These are the best games in the Final Fantasy series, in my opinion. I don’t really have a lot to say about them, but it seems that you’re required to include some sort of Final Fantasy game or two in any list of favorite VRP games. For the record, Final Fantasy 5 is my favorite: fantastic Jobs system with great characters and some genuinely good storytelling, even if it gets a little thin towards the end.

These games haven’t weathered the years as well as Chrono Trigger did, and if you want to try them out, I recommend getting the most recent re-releases for each – especially the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy 4, which is frankly amazing and better than the original in every way I can think of.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment: the Job system in Final Fantasy 5 is something that Square should have kept for later games. I know it wouldn’t fit well into some of them (10 springs to mind), but I loved it so very much. The idea that I could improve my characters how I wanted to, and assign them to the roles I needed them to play at any given moment was awesome. The way you could “buy” abilities that could then be used while playing other jobs made it even better. This should have become the FF default system as far as I’m concerned. It’s almost identical, by the way, to the Jobs system in Final Fantasy Tactics, another game I loved.

Lunar: Silver Star Story

This game has the best story of any JVRP game ever. I'm sorry, it just does - even though it's based on the "rescue the girl" trope.

Did I Finish It?: Oh, YES. Oh, very YES.

I love this game so very much. Yeah, the plot is based on a trope that borders on cliche – essentially the same plot of virtually every Mario game ever made. It works here, though, because:

  1. None of the female characters in the game are portrayed as being helpless
  2. the “princess” you’re set to rescue stays in your party long enough for you to develop an attachment to her
  3. Well, there was a 3, but it’s way too much of a spoiler. Coming from me, that’s saying something.
I know it’s not exactly feminist friendly, but, again, I don’t care. This game is amazing. It is JVRP perfection, and the fact that they keep re-making it again and again has to be some kind of testament to that – doesn’t it?

Baldur’s Gate Series

I love this game. Seriously - I love it a lot.

Did I Finish It: Yes – both games plus expansions, including once using Baldur’s Gate Trilogy, which might be the best mod ever made for any game ever.

During the late 90s and early 2000s, Bioware was responsible for a rash of D&D video games all built of something called the “Infinity Engine”. Now, I want to state that literally all of these Infinity Engine games are amazing. The Icewind Dale series, the Baldur;s Gate Series, and Planescape: Torment are all fantastic games that deserve to be on this list. They’re all worth your time even to this day, and that ain’t nothin’. You can, by the way get them allevery one – in Windows 7 compatible formats from Good Old Games – and if you don’t have them or haven’t played them, you really should.

Still, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are the only ones I always make sure are installed on my computer, usually with the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy mod added in. Great characters, real meaning in in-game decisions, and a strong and friendly Mod community make these games eternal. BG has a fantastic storyline well told. The UI is a bit clunky by today’s standards, but it’s worth it for the writing, character development, and fantastic combat system. This is the closest to a real D&D experience you can get without actually sitting around a table with other people.

I need to mention, at least in passing, that there are also Console games called Baldur’s Gate. These aren’t nearly as good, and are basically D&D flavored Diablo clones. They’re great fun and worth playing, but they don’t hold a candle to the PC games.

I could go on – for a few hours probably – but I think these are representative. My next post will be about D&D Next. Look for it in the next couple days.

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VRP Madness 9.2: That is, 4.1 + 5.1 – A companion to two posts

In his two most recent posts, my brother went over endings of video games, and over what he called the worst games he’s ever played. In my ongoing series of walking-in-my-brother’s-shadow posts, I’m going to be rolling both of these into one entry. There are two reasons for this – first, I’m lazy and a day behind him. Second, the two topics seem closely related, so my laziness is working to my advantage for once. It’s a complete coincidence, but it’s nice when things work out, isn’t it?

My brother, as you no doubt will have read by now, discusses the idea that multiple endings are a good thing. I basically agree, although I do think that there are times when one ending is sufficient. All things being equal, multiple endings give the illusion that the decisions you make on behalf of your character matter, but things aren’t always equal. In the Legend of Zelda series, the plots are so straightforward that they really permit only one ending – either you finish the game and the bad guy doesn’t destroy Hyrule, or you don’t and he does. Non-VRPs frequently need only one ending. For instance, how much sense would multiple endings for Super Mario Brothers make? Even still, most of the time, my brother’s right: multiple endings rock your face off.

This also applies to a closely related genre – the Survival Horror game. Silent Hill is an amazing series, in no small part because you can complete the game, and yet still loose utterly. The idea that you can play the game to its completion and still fail adds to the tension required for basing a game on terror. It isn’t an absolute requirement, of course, but it helps.

The Worst Games

My brother lists several Worst Games, and I agree that the games he lists are, in fact, pretty bad. I mean, they’re all pretty decent games when you’re playing them (except the Lord of the Rings one), but he’s absolutely right that, at some point, they just go completely off the rails. I never even finished Final Fantasy 8, and I’ll be getting to that in a minute.

He leaves out games that he didn’t finish, and I’m not willing to do that. There have been some games where the game itself was just so damn godawful that I couldn’t finish it. So, I thought I’d do my own list, and include some that I just plain couldn’t finish. I’m going to open with one that I share my brother’s opinion on, and see where things take me from there. Just like his list, these are in no particular order.

Final Fantasy 8

Did I Finish It?: No – and I never, ever, ever will.

I hate this game so much that it’s impacted how I feel about VRPs in general. After the brilliance of Final Fantasies 4, 6, and 7, I was primed for something fantastic. What I got instead was the most obnoxious main character I’ve ever encountered, a air-headed bimbo-anti-feminist eff-tard for a love interest, a story that was more padding than actual tale, a collectible card minigame that is more fun than the rest of the game it’s in put together, but is completely ruined halfway through the game,  and a combat system that has the illusion of being awesome for he first few hours of the game, but then descends into utter tedium.

My brother went over the horrible characters, but I just don’t think he went far enough. None of the characters are especially interesting. Two women fall in love with an emotionally dead jackoff – and it’s presented as some kind of fantastic romance. In one scene, Rhinoa is dangling by one hand from a cliff, and although it’s supposed to be a big, tense moment, I took my time on the way to rescue her in the vain hope that she might fall to her death, improving the game significantly in doing so. No such luck. Square could have improved the game if it was just possible for that weak, sappy, wet-noodle stereotype to die. The only thing that would have improved the game more would have been if Squall could have died – preferably horribly – as well.

Final Fantasy 8 was such a horrifying waste of time for me that I can count on one hand the number of Japanese VRPs I’ve finished since. I couldn’t even get through the comparatively better Final Fantasy 10 because I couldn’t stop thinking about the atrocity that was 8.

Beyond the Beyond

Did I Finish It?: Not even close.

It’s been a long time since I played this one, and, frankly, I didn’t get far enough into it to comment on the plot. It was one of the first RPGs available on the Playstation, and since I’m an RPG fan…  I’m sure I remember it being worse than it actually is, but the combat system was mind-blowingly, will-suckingly dull. It also used a combination of polygonal and pixel graphics that hurt my brain at the time. Looking at picture os it still hurts my brain today:

Out of respect for the brain cells of my few readers, however, I'm not posting video. If you feel compelled to seek out the game, I personally think you would be better off hitting yourself in the head with a brick - but that's just my advice.

Oh, and after checking the Wikipedia entry for it, I don’t feel so bad about not being able to remember any of the plot. It’s… pretty generic:

Long ago in the world of Beyond the Beyond, a battle raged between the ‘Beings of Light’ and the ‘Warlocks of the Underworld’. Before the planet was destroyed, the two sides signed a treaty leaving the surface world to the Beings of Light and underground to the Warlocks. After hundreds of years of peace, inexplicable happenings begin to occur. The player must control Finn, a young swordsman, to stop the evil power that has broken the treaty and invaded the surface world. – Via Wikipedia

I mean… wow.

Fable 3

Did I Finish It?: Not yet, but I probably will some day.

This one is kind of an odd duck because it does so very, very many things right. Graphically, it’s impressive, although the character art style isn’t my cup of tea. The play control is outstanding (most of the time), and the magic system is cool. In many ways it’s a distinct improvement over Fable 2. But then…

In order to become “friends” with someone, you have to do them a “favor”, which typically involves running out into the middle of nowhere and digging something up. To then become their “best friend” or “boy/girlfriend” you have to repeat the procedure. Now, I will grant you that being able to get an entire town to fall in love with you by dancing in the middle of the square (a la Fable 2) is unrealistic, this procedure is just plain annoying.

There are no menus. Instead of going to a menu screen to, say, select a different weapon, you push start and are transported to a magical room that you must then navigate by walking around to the different options. Calling this annoying misses the mark by a bit. I can see what they were trying to do – by removing as much of the UI as possible, they were hoping to increase immersion. It failed.

Most irritating, however, is the second “half” of the game. You are forced to make a variety of promises in the first portion of the game (you don’t have a choice, like, at all). This all leads up to taking the throne from your brother, who has been an absolute bastard. He then proceeds to explain to you – and all the people you made promises to – exactly why he was being such a complete bastard: Something That Should Not Be is coming to destroy Albion (the country you’ve just assumed leadership of). The Something That Should Not Be (STSNB) is very Lovecraftian – an ancient and terrible evil that seeks only to bring suffering and slaughter. It’s primary form is a living black tar-like substance, and it’s frankly creepy.

You already know how horrible this stuff is, because one of the allies you made a promise to had her entire region laid waste by it. Moreover, your mentor was briefly possessed by the crud, and was left horribly psychologically scarred by it. The scene in which you first encounter the stuff is memorable in that it feels almost more like a Survival Horror game than a Fantasy RPG. The scenes involving it that you’ve already been through ain’t art, but they get the point across: the STSNB is a Very Bad Thing.

Now, your Brother was being an absolute bastard so that he could amass a treasury that would be able to buy enough mercenaries, siege weapons, and so on to fight off the STSNB. All of the folks you’ve made promises to hear him tell you that it’s coming in a year. You need something like 1 million pieces of gold to have enough to keep the people of Albion safe. In his entire reign of being an evil fucktard, your brother has managed to amass 10,000 or so. It’s up to you now to decide how the Kindgom will be run. Will you keep your promises, or will you continue your brother’s reign of terror?

It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Allow me to heave a heavy sigh.

You are faced, as King/Queen, a series of decisions that all essentially revolve around whether or not you keep your promises. Without fail, the person you made your promise to argues in front of you the need to spend a shit-ton of money right frakkin’ now, or you can go with Stephen Fry arguing that you should continue your brother’s tradition of being an evil jerk. Never mind that literally everyone who is asking you to spend money right frakkin’ now knows that if you don’t save a bunch of money everyone in Albion will die horribly, consumed in terror in less than a year. Never mind that the one who asks you to spend the most money is the one whose land has already been destroyed by the coming terror.

You are only given a choice between “I am an angel, a perfect being, who will be beatific in all things, even though it means all my people will DIE HORRIBLY AND IN TERROR AND PAIN” and “I am the world’s biggest bastard, and I will keep my people as miserable as possible, but they’ll live”. All of the people you made promises to seem to be completely incapable of grasping that, for just one year, they might have to bite a few bullets.

For instance: at one point, you are given two options: end all child labor and provide government schools, or force the kids to work even longer days than they already are. There is no option to, say, abolish child labor, but wait just one frakking year to establish a state-sponsored school system. In another instance, someone calls upon you to keep your promise to re-open a University; you can spend the money to make the University state-sponsored, or you can re-open the university as a for-profit institution where people have to pay tuition. You can’t, I dunno, just wait one fucking year to re-open the University. You can’t, say, make the tuition based on what the University student can afford. You can’t do anything other than re-open the University – and, wait for this one, even though all you promised was to re-open the University, it’s treated as breaking your promise if you ask people to pay for their own education.

Fable 3 wasn’t that great to begin with, to be perfectly honest with you. The preposterous number of fetch quests, the lackluster writing, and the fact that every commoner in the whole of Albion is voiced by one of four voice actors (a male or a female adult voice actor, or a male or female child voice actor – usually appropriate to the character), never mind the fact that your Hero of Legend can’t even jump make it only okay at best. Weird UI choices and a few other things make it a bit more annoying. But the end of the game – oh, man. It’s just so terrible. I’m not far from the end, and I’m ready to spend every penny in may treasury just to let the stupid people die. It’s that bad.

Dragon Age

Dragon Age: Origins

Image via Wikipedia; boredom via Bioware

Did I Finish It?: Are you kidding? I didn’t get past the opening area of the game. After spending five minutes reading the meaningless dialogue of yet another pointless NPC, I was just done.

Here we have a sad case of Bioware trying so very hard to re-create the wonder they had with the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series, and falling short of the mark. The game has its ups and downs, but it unfortunately falls mostly on the down side.

What we have here is a great story buried under mountains of, well, crap. I’m not going to speak to the primary story of the game – as far as I can tell, from everything I’ve seen, it’s about as good as everyone says it is. I, however, will never know, because I can’t get into it.

In the intro section, I was greeted with paragraphs upon paragraphs of text from NPCs who, in the end, had nothing to do with anything. Almost every opening game, tutorial quest involved backtracking and multitudes of frankly useless and unnecessary steps. This isn’t typical modern-game tutorial hand-holding. This is being strapped into a high chair and force-fed strained peas. I realize that the force feeding ends eventually (sorta), but I just couldn’t get past it. It seemed like literally every character needed to tell me their life story, and only at the end did they let me know if there was anything I could do for them – and there frequently wasn’t.

But wait, you say, You constantly talk about how much you love Baldur’s Gate 2 and Final Fantasy 6 – don’t both of those games have lots of dialogue? What about Skyrim? it’s full of dialogue as well! What now, Mr. Hypocrite?. You’re right – I love BG2, and I love Skyrim.  I was also very fond of Morrowind, Fallout 3, and Final Fantasy 7 – all of which are dialogue heavy. There’s no hypocrisy here, though – Those games all dispensed their dialogue in small bursts, and NPCs that really didn;t have much to do with anything also didn’t have much to say.  In Dragon Age (and Mass Effect, for that matter), on the other hand, if you brush up against someone, they feel the need to tell you their life story. Now, I mentioned Mass Effect had this problem too, but it;s not on this list. Why, you ask?

I hated the combat in Dragon Age as well. This one I can’t really talk to much about, except to say that it wasn’t my cuppa. It felt too artificial and board-gamy, which is fine as far as it goes, but it just didn’t gel for me into something fun. The environments were also drab, dull, and repetitive. Finally, it was too… mean. I don’t care about grim in games – I love Silent Hill, after all – but Dragon Age isn’t just grim. It’s mean-spirited.

But Wait! You said you didn’t get very far in it! True enough – but I watched my Fiancee play quite a bit, and my impression did not improve.

And now, the zenith. I know I said these aren’t ranked, but this next one is the worst. For a lot of reasons. I’ve saved it for last because, well, it was critically acclaimed. Game Informer loved it. So did most of the other critics – it got 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, and I hate it so very much. Welcome to:

Final Fantasy 13

Did I Finish It?: No. Neither did my fiancee. She did better than I did though, albeit only out of sheer determination to continue her Final Fantasy Completist Streak.

Rather than final Fantasy, I like to call this game “Walk Down the Hall and Push A”. I imagine for Playstation 3 owners, it’s “Walk Down a Hall and Push X”, but you get the idea. I know I come from a school of VRP players who believe that More Freedom = Good – hence the Terrarria obsession, and the absolute sublime joy I get from Skyrim. That having been said, I still maintain that Lunar: Silver Star Story is one of the greatest RPGs ever made for any system ever, and probably always will be. In Lunar, you have essentially no freedom: you vill follow the story aund you vill like it! And damn straight you will – fantastically crafted with enagaing characters and, despite its absolute linearity, you have plenty of room to explore, and – in the Revised Edition, anyway – extra dungeons that have nothing to do with anything. The combat system is simplistic but workable, and even has basic tactical movement worked in. Lunar is as linear as it gets (or so I thought), and it’s still one of the greatest RPGs ever made – better than Chrono Trigger, and that’s saying a hell of a lot.

The level of freedom you have in Final Fantasy 13 makes Lunar look like Skyrim. Square should be ashamed.

For the first twenty frakking hours of the game, you walk down one completely linear corridor after another, smashing the crap out of the A button to do anything. Interact with the environment? Press A. In a battle? Press A. Trying to skip one of the poorly scripted, poorly acted, nonsensical cutscenes? You can’t – you’re stuck with them, but if you could you would Press A to do it. Basically, walk down the corridor and press A. A lot. Until your thumb is reduced to a bloody stump. Then, continue to press A some more, using some other appendage that you’ve come to hate, as you continue into your fifth hour of play.

Treats to look out for: Endless battles. When those are over, you can… have another! Yay! Also, if you want to have the slightest fucking clue what the hell is going on, you need to read through all of the gameworld encyclopedia stuff that keeps popping up as you get into the game. Within the first five hours, you’ve accumulated approximately the same word count as Stephen Kings’ Under the Dome. In another three hours, you’ll be tying the entire Gunslinger series.

Okay, you know what, Square/Enix? Either write a novel or make a game. There’s a fucking difference, you long-windeded pretentious cockbags! I love to read, and I love to play games, but asking me to read War and Peace in order to have a fucking clue what’s going on in your game is kind of asking a lot.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough – you need more than exactly one interesting character in an RPG. Half Life 2 has a dozen, and it’s a fucking first person shooter – not a genre known for its incredible characterization.

There is a lot of talk about 13’s “innovative” combat system. I will admit that there are a lot of ideas there, but none of them are especially good ideas. There’s this whole “paradigm shift” mechanic wherein you can create pre-programmed AI for two out of three people in your party, while maintaining a small amount of control over your primary character, who is usually either Lightning (the only vaguely interesting character in the game), but may be Offensive Black Stereotype B (Sazh Katsroy, who has a 70s/80s disco era afro with some sort of animal living in it, and who – I wish I was kidding – shucks and jives his way through combat while dual-wielding the only pistols in the game[1]), or Ultra Annoying Girl Stereotype Specifically Designed To Piss Off Feminists (named Vanille), or Emo Kid Who Kind Of Looks Like Justin Bieber (A fellow by the name of Snow). In any case, as far as I can tell, all this paradigm system does is:

  1. Remove most of the control of the characters fro the person playing the game, causing you to press A repreatedly to prompt them to do the only think they can currently do
  2. Cause you to spend at least one or two rounds every combat using tactics that make absolutely no sense under the circumstances
  3. Read an assload more text to figure out how, exactly, the moronic system is supposed to work
  4. Misuse the word “paradigm” horribly
It boggles my mind that many of the positive reviews highlight this inane combat system as one of the greatest parts of the game.

I could go on for hours like this, but you know what? I’m not even going to bother. The only thing the game really has going for it is that it’s pretty as all hell. It reminds me of the most horrible advice I’ve ever heard a mother give a daughter: “It’s better to be pretty than smart”. It was horseshit when the lady said it to her tweenage daughter at Wal-Mart, and it’s horseshit in the context of a video game.

As a side note, I will eventually be posting a Video or something similar from my fiancee on the subject of Dragon Age, Final Fantasy 13, and other games that really, really piss her off. Listening o her rant about games she hates is one of my great joys in life, and I want to share it with the world.

Next time: my favorites. Probably. Unless I decide to talk about D&D Next.

____

[1] – He kind of reminds me of Deon Richmond‘s character Malik in Not Another Teen Movie – except that movie was parody and satire with a healthy dose of irony; the whole idea of Malik was that he was the Token Black Character in a teen coming of age comedy and he knew it. Malik, in other words, spends the whole movie lampshading this trope, and it’s hilarious.

Sahz, on the other hand, is just fucking offensive. I quit the game about an hour after meeting the character because I just couldn’t take it. He’s like something out of a minstrel show.

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VRP Madness (3.1): Going Off the Rails

Before reading this post, you’ll need to read one of my Brother’s again – specifically this one.

Are you back? Fantastic. As you’ll recall, in that post my brother describes what he calls three sub-types of RPG – Fixed, Semi-Fluid, and Inconsequential Fluid.  Now, I’m not going to go with Semi-Fluid in this post because when spoken aloud, it sounds far too much like “seminal fluid“, and that creeps me out. I’m going to go with quasi-fluid instead. The quasi- prefix and the semi- prefix don’t mean exactly the same thing, but I think they’re close enough to interchange them for the purpose of avoiding my own bizarre skwik factor.

I will disagree with my brother in the most complimentary way I can think of: these three aren’t sub-categories. These are actual categories that aren’t based on cultural/geographical distinction. By creating three categories here, he’s actually taken the old, Japanese/American division of RPGs and thrown them out the window in favor of a three-tier grouping that can whether the fact that there are many, many games that originate in neither America nor Japan. For instance, I can call Fable II a quasi-fluid game without calling it an “American-style game”. Since Lionhead Studios – the guys who developed the Fable series – are a British company, I think it’s probably better not to call their game “American”, don’t you?

My brother’s brilliance aside, I would like to suggest a fourth group, which I will call Completely Fluid. A Completely Fluid game is one where there really isn’t a story at all – there’s a situation and a world, and that’s it. Any other story you come up with is yours. Generally, games like these don’t really have endings at all. My brother can be forgiven for not thinking of this himself – I doubt he’s ever played such a game, and if he did, he might not have thought of it as an RPG. I imagine that a lot of people have played some of these games without thinking of them as role-playing games, but that’s exactly what they are. Moreover, proper COmpletely Fluid games are a pretty recent development, and no major studio has latched onto the idea (although one studio has become a major studio by pioneering, if not inventing, this group of games).

I can think of many examples of Completely Fluid games, but most of them are essentially clones of one. The two distinct examples that come to mind for me are Minecraft and Terraria.

Now, if you don’t know anything about Minecraft, I can only assume that you don’t pay any attention to the world of Video Games at all. I’m not a fan (yet) of Minecraft myself, although I haven’t played the full game extensively. Actually, that’s not accurate – I haven’t played the game for more than five minutes. It seems that there’s a threshold for that game, after which one is totally addicted, and I’m assuming that threshold is somewhere around the one-hour mark. I can’t afford to have a Minecraft addiction – it would interfere with my Terraria addiction.

Terraria has been described as a 2d version of Minecraft. That’s not correct, but it does, at least, bring the basic image to mind. In Terraria, you mine for ore, build an (ever-expanding) domicile for yourself an a growing collection of NPCs, and craft stuff. You also fight an astonishing array of less than friendly creatures and do one hell of a lot of exploring.

As I said, a Completely Fluid game consists of a World and a Situation, and not a plot. In Terraria, you find yourself on a world where “corruption” is encroaching, the Eye of Cthulhu is coming to teach you the pleasures of pain, and a few other things are going on that are equally distressing. Now, the situation is impending in every game. In the end, you choose when, or even if, things ever come to a head with the Eye, or any of the other “boss monsters” in the world.

These two Completely Fluid VRPGs have something else in common – the ability to run multiplayer servers, so you can share the adventure. They’re also very mod-friendly, evidenced by the massive mod Community.  They both also feature randomly generated worlds that can be exported and shared, and have a heavy crafting focus.

In any case, the purpose of this post is essentially to bring these games to light. I suppose you could make the argument that they;re not RPGs at all, but I would have to disagree.

 

Next up: VRP Madness (4.1): more on endings. Or something like that. Whatever, it’ll be a companion piece to this post from my brother’s blog.

English: Fluid physics animation.

Image via Wikipedia; now look at this animation, and start saying "semi-fluid" to yourself over and over again. Keep track of how long it takes you to get completely skwiked, and let me know in the comments. Think of it as an experiement in subliminal context.

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