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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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The New Reach: Tiers Mean More

My friend B pointed out that the flexibility of the Competence/Reach system as I had originally designed it is a flaw, not a strength. While it will probably appear as I described it as an optional rule, for general play it’s way too number-crunchy at high levels. If your group is into that, fine (hence the inclusion as a rule option), but I agree with B that, with most groups, this can lead to some very annoying game lag.

The problem is that, for the statistics-savvy player, this is a gold-mine for min-maxing. There’s nothing wrong with that… until it holds up game play as the player weighs the advantages of 5d20 vs. 10d10, or some other combination. To avoid this problem, we talked (B and I) for a while, and I came up with a solution that I think not only works, but helps to emphasize the Tiers of skill and simplifies the whole affair.

At Apprentice tier, Reaching means -5 to Competence, but you add in 1d10 (so an Apprentice with a Competence of 6 would roll 1d10+1 when reaching). At Journeyman tier, reaching means -10 to Competence, but adding in 2d10 (so if your Competence was 18, you would roll 2d10+8). At Expert tier, you reach with -15 to Skill, but add 3d10. At Master level, you gain the ability to choose any of the previous Reach modifiers (-5/+1d10, -10/+2d10, – 15/+3d10), or you can use -20/+4d10.

Grandmaster tier will most likely be an extension of the above  – you can choose -5/+1d10, -10/+2d10, -15/+3d10, -20/+4d10, or -25/+5d10.

Another idea I was toying with is to use different dice for different tiers – d6 for Apprentice, d8 for Journeyman, d10 for Expert, and d12 for Master/Grandmaster. With this method, a Apprentice could take a -5 to add a 1d6, a Journeyman could take a -10 to add a 2d8, and an Expert could take a -15 to add a 3d10. A Master could take the options of -5/+1d12, -10/+2d12, -15/+3d12, or -20/+4d12. The Grandmaster Tier would add a possible -25/5d12 to the mix. I’d prefer to have the Grandmaster use a d14, but that’s a pretty

A 14-sided die (by GameScience, also shows day...

Image via Wikipedia

uncommon die type (you can buy them here), and I don’t want people to have to go out and buy special dice just for my game.

Each version of the new system has its ups and downs. Most significantly, the second version makes getting to the next tier much more important. It also makes reaching at Apprentice level (and, to a lesser degree, Journeyman level) a dangerous thing to do.

I suppose I could split the difference. I could make Apprentice use d8, Journeyman and Expert use d10, and Master/Grandmaster use d12. Or, it could be Apprentice d8, Journeyman through Master d10, and Grandmaster d12…

Ouch. Braincramp…

In any case, the first option has the advantage of only needing a single type of die for the game. The different tiers are still important, but the difference between Apprentice and Journeyman is more subtle. Not much more, but a bit. I’m really not sure whether or not I want the tiers to be that significant.

What do you think?

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Of Campaign Worlds and Game Systems

Huh. I seem to be picking up daily views with only bi-monthly content. I wonder how much more views I would get if I published more often… Which is very meta-site and entirely off the point, which, outside of the title of the post, I haven’t even gotten to yet.

While tooling away at Elements, I’ve become more and more distracted by campaign settings of Game Masterings past. Two settings in particular: The Essence Setting and my 1,000 Storms setting. I don’t view these distractions as a bad thing. I’m trying to design a game system where both of these very different settings can be used equally. I’m not sure it’s possible, for a number of reasons I’ll eventually get to, but I sorta want to try. The real problem I’m facing is that I’m not sure if I should.

I suppose I should talk a bit about the settings and their differences before I dive in. They’re both fantasy settings, and neither one is set on Earth (I find I enjoy having geographical freedom when designing campaign settings), although 1,000 Storms is similar to a dystopia cyber/diesel/Martial Arts-punk Earth, and Essence is… well, complicated, these days. So, before I get into my issues, here, then, are (sadly very brief) overviews of two of the campaign settings I’ve run games in in the past.

Essence

This one is kind of tough to summarize… It evolved out of some of my earliest gaming, and reached its apotheosis (so far) while I was in High School, gaming with friends, most of whom I still keep in touch with to this day, some 17 years later (wow… I’m getting older…) Back then, Essence was pretty straightforward. It was a non-standard High Fantasy setting. Although it missed out on the Elf/Dwarf/Halfling/Orc paradigm, it contained (and still contains) several other fantastic races, from the aquatic Myralnyr to the fae Daoine Sidhe to many, many others. A lot of the world content came from that age-old campaign, ans involved a great deal of player input.

Now, Essence has grown to monstrous proportions in my mind. It has become a genre and epoch crossing setting, divided into time periods that, within them, cover just about every genre of play except any sort of Earth Historical. The time period we were playing in back in those old high school days has shifted towards Dark Fantasy crossed with Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider-esque exploration. A lot of mythology has developed, mostly based on ideas that came up while sitting around a pool table in our friend Joe’s basement.

Basically, it’s a Fantasy setting that contains within it many other genre with greater or lesser degrees of Fantasy attached to it. The Essence Heroes of the original game have become permanent Historical (even Mythological) fixtures in the game in much the way characters like Eliminster and Mordenkinen and scimitar-wielding Dark Elves became fixtures in other, more commercially successful fantasy settings I could mention. Meanwhile, if only in my mind, the setting has continued to grow.

One of the underpinnings of the setting is the Essence – various different energies that act sort of like a combination of the classical Elements of Alchemy and The Force from Star Wars – they are a source of power to the talented and/or trained, and suffuse everything. Essences come in flavors, some familiar (Earth, Wind, Water) some less familiar (Sun, Moon, Life, Death), and some that I think are fairly unique or at least very rare.  Essence suffuses the setting whether the time period calls for High Fantasy, Magipunk, Super Heroes, or what have you. Were a mage plucked from one point in history and placed down in another, his or her magic would still work, since it’s all based on the same energies. Thus, even cross genre play is made fairly easy.

The Essence Setting started out as an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons setting, but the classic games were played in GURPS. I have also used 3e and 4e Dungeons and Dragons for the fantasy portions of the game.

1,000 Storms

This setting is very different, and was partially inspired by the Final Fantasy game series. Well, sort of.

The world it takes place on – Storm – is a fallen one. People hide from the ravages of the wild in domed city-states living under strict population controls in a caste system. Only one sport – Blood Ball, which has weekly body counts in the low teens – is played. All forms of martial training are outlawed and vilified, but some few families still train their children in secret, and some rare wandering masters still take students under their wings. The price for getting caught is dear.

1,000 Storms has a lot of themes: Lying just to Live, Opressive Government, Conspiracy, Privacy (or the lack thereof). The setting is part J.R.R. Tolkien, part George Orwell, and part William Gibson, with a healthy dose of Jet Li. Or something like that.

1,000 Storms was originally run using a diceless game system that I had come up with that I don’t think I ever came up with a name for. It was very story driven, and the system itself involved developing characters from childhood. Character Creation was integrated into the game, and it was supposed to be tough to tell when you were done making your character; in a very real sense, you never did finish character creation.

1,000 Storms could work in another system – that’s not the issue – but I really wish I could find, dust-off, and try again with that old homebrew. I think it had a lot of potential.

Should I go On?

So, here’s the thing I’ve been grappling with: should I go on trying to create a single, universal system? Or should I skip the single universal system idea and get more… specific? I want a universal game system, but it has occurred to me that there really is no such thing; will any system that runs Essence well also run 1,000 Storms well? Is it even reasonable to hope that it could? Probably not.

I maintain that gaming is essentially System Agnostic – you can play any sort of game you want with any sort of system you want. That said, some systems are better suited to some things rather than others. You can, for instance, do completely story-driven, combat-free play using the full ruleset of GURPS, with 500 point characters, well defined super powers, and all the combat stats you could want, but it isn’t the right tool for the job. You’d be better off with a system that was a lot simpler in structure.  Truth & Justice, maybe.

So, I don’t know. I’m seriously considering trying a campaign setting specific system. Any comments?

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Closer to Playtest than I Thought

So, a friend of mine took a look at what I have of 16 Bit Heroes a few days ago, and pointed something out to me that I had missed. I have been under the assumption that I needed to finish the system book before I could start playtesting. That would mean a few more months of steady work. He told me I was wrong. The system is about two chapters away from complete readiness, and could probably be played with only a small part of each of those chapters complete.

In other words, my friend Pat let me in on a secret that I should’ve guessed at myself: it’s idiotic to wait until you’re completely done designing to start playtesting.

He’s right, of course. For instance, how can I possibly guess at how to properly put monsters together without seeing the characters in action at various levels? How can I find the balance between overpowered and underpowered with magic items unless I try a few out? How can I know where to set values at for the spell creation system until I know how that system will impact the rest of combat?

So, now I have a revised list of things to do before 16 Bit Heroes playtesting begins. If you want to know what it is, read the following list. If you don’t care, skip it – you won’t hurt my feelings. Although, it is a pretty short list

  1. Complete the ALPHA Spell and Technique Creation System. This is needed so that magic and combat techniques can be used during playtest. Part of this will include the creation of a few simple monsters for Summon magic.
  2. Complete a simple outline version of the Combat System
    Dragon Quest (1986), also known as Dragon Warrior.

    Image via Wikipedia

    . It doesn’t need a lot of details yet – basically a simple flowchart or numbered list. The details can be forged through playtest.

  3. Complete a basic equipment list – basic weapons and armor, basic adventuring equipment. This is all done in my head and needs only to be written.
  4. Create a couple basic monsters. As mentioned above, this is needed for Summon magic. It’s also needed for combat encounters.

That’s about it. Experience can be hashed out during playtest, as can most everything else that needs doing. By providing only the magic creation framework for the start of playtest, I can leave the creation of an initial spell list to the playtesters (which is cool, since it’s how several spells in the world’s most popular role playing game came into being oh so long ago).

So… instead of looking to start playtesting near the end of the year, I’m thinking a couple weeks, maybe a month. Once I have everything that I think is needed for playtest, by the way, I will find a way to post it here, along with a new license for use for when people  want it.

I’m excited about this. It was an eye-opener to say the least, and I just want to say “thanks” to Pat for pointing it out to me. In any case, I’ve got some writing to do.

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