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RPG Villains

You know who was an awesome villain?  Van Grants.  Most people probably thought I was going to say Kefka, and he really is a good villain, but he’s also sort of Emperor Joker, but six years earlier.  No, Van is the bad guy in Tales of the Abyss, and I guess that’s spoilers for the first ten hours of a 12-year-old game that stretches for nearly ninety hours, but whatever, it’s my column, I can write whatever the Hell I want.  What makes Van really cool is that he’s a guy.  He’s a really strong guy, but he’s just sort of a guy, with hopes and dreams and aspirations.  He’s not a demon lord, he’s not some genetically engineered super soldier who wants to become a god, he’s not an emperor and he’s not just crazy.  He’s an asshole.  Worse, he’s got a damn good reason to be an asshole.

Like, aside for a paragraph?  Luke’s dad is like the worst person in video games.  Dude is an actual rapist and he gets off scott free.  Like, fuck that guy.

Characters like Van aren’t actually uncommon in video games, because they’re a pretty common character archetype.  A hero wronged, turns to evil.  It’s a good villain, and a good tool in the toolbelt of a writer, because such a villain can be used to act as a foil for the hero, can explore more dynamic themes and can tie in for stronger plot details.  It’s why you see so many fallen heroes as the main bad guy.  Find a noble character, give them a terrible flaw and make them evil.  It’s great.  Shakespeare made a career out of making plays about these guys, and as a player, it’s sometimes fun to be on the other side of a tragedy for once.  In RPGs, though, it’s rarely the case.  I mean, it makes sense, if the players were cutting down giant robotsancient planetary defense mechanisms or just giant goddamn dragons, it sort of makes sense that the only thing that can challenge the PCs at that point is a god.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly lead to a very compelling villain.  Sure, it’s pretty cool to cut down a god, but it’s not the same if the characters aren’t attached to them.  There are exceptions, of course, Kefka becomes a god, but he’s still just a man who stole incredible power (which is why he goes from giggling, power obsessed mad man to a bored nihilist when he gets what he wants), he’s not a god to begin with.  Van never becomes a god.  Van is literally just a guy, and that’s what makes him work.  Because Van is a guy, he can show up, harry the players, talk with them, try to reason with them and become a part of their lives.  The characters get to become attached to him, and not just because his goal is vengeance and this is all personal for him (or that he’s Tear’s brother), but because he gets to interact with him.  From the first scene of the game to the final battle, the players get a chance to talk with, argue against, curse at, fight and get tricked by and lied to by Van.  This isn’t something you really get a chance to do if you fight a god or demon lord.  Even an emperor makes it difficult, because of the difference in social standing.

Consider Vayne Solidor as a contrast.  Vayne is one of my favorite villains in Final Fantasy because he’s right, but he’s also a Lawful Evil totalitarian who needs to be stopped yesterday.  He does get to interact with the PCs a little bit, and even then, much of that is couched through the interactions the PCs have with his younger brother Larsa.  Most of what we know about Vayne being compelling is through scenes the player sees that the PCs never know about.  There is a level of dramatic irony the game plays up a little bit, not as much as it could, which is interesting, but it does lessen the personal stakes.  Granted, Vayne’s lieutenant Gabranth gets to have a lot of the interactions with the PCs, and is very similar to Van in a lot of ways (although much less reason to be an asshole.  Seriously, Luke’s dad is the WORST you guys), but he’s not the one who gets a three stage boss fight before the credits, so he doesn’t get to count as the main bad guy.

I’m not saying the villain shouldn’t be powerful.  Magneto or Doctor Doom fit as the kind of characters I’m talking about, and they’re both incredibly powerful.  Also, Doom was God for awhile, and he still managed to be this while being actually God.  Kefka, too, is a great example and he was almost who I wrote about before I remembered Van, and there’s also Seymour and, kind of, Adyn.  All of them are compelling characters who have a connection to the party in a direct way, who interact with the PCs on a regular basis.  This is important.  The villain needs to be a part of the hero’s lives.


Game Anatomy: Souls and Stats, Dark Souls Part 2

OK, so this is a direct continuation of the last post I did on this subject.  In a lot of ways, it really is the exact same post as the previous one, but I had to break it up for space reasons.  If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.  Also, I had to break it up for my own sanity.  It was getting really, really long.  Now, moving on.


Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai  Reposted for continuity’s sake.

Right, so allowing the stats to overlap, while also having their own unique properties, does a lot to make sure that the character is never going to get screwed over by how they allocate their stats, provided they make a point of specializing.  There is an argument that can be made that cost of raising stats should be based on the stat, rather than the character’s level, but From Software also wants to make sure every choice made counts.  This does mean that a wide spread of abilities will hinder tinghe character, and it’s hard for the game to communicate this directly to the player.  Still, the way the rest of the game is built, a badly made character isn’t automatically going to lose, either.  Arin’s build on Game Grumps is probably a good example of that, but there are people who have beaten the game at level 1 with no weapons, so this is probably a pointless digression.

As a personal preference, I’m a little upset it’s harder to branch out into other things, especially now that I’m on my second run through the game and would like to experiment a little bit with magic, but I can also see why the game was developed the way it was.  I want to run a Sorcerer or pyromancer for my next run, but I’d like to play with the magic a little bit, first.

Stats, however, aren’t the only thing souls are used to purchase.  Souls aren’t just experience points, they work as gold, too, since buying ammo, tools and reinforcing weapons require souls.  This makes souls that much more important, in the long run, than just existing as a means to bring up stats for the character.  It means, early on, when the player first gets 20,000 souls, should they buy that expensive key, or should they level up a few times.  It’s a good choice, which is actually kind of a microcosm for the whole risk vs. reward that the whole game is based on.  It’s not just big purchases, either.  Arrows cost money, and the better arrows require more souls, and if arrows are important to a character, it could mean the actual difference between how many times the player levels up when going back to Firelink Shrine (yes, this exact scenario happened to me, but it involved buying Dragonslayer Great Arrows, so, perhaps it’s a little bit extreme).

It’s the same for buying magic, upgrading weapons or transposing large souls into new items.  Is it worth the hard earned experience points to get better equipment now, or is it more important to wait?  This idea is a central concept to the whole game, too.

Map design in Dark Souls is based around the acquisition of souls.  Part of it is about whether or not it’s worth it to go back and pick them up after being killed, and that’s something that will get covered, but another major thing is whether the player has picked up enough of them that they’d be willing to go back to a previous bonfire, thus resetting the enemies, just to make sure they don’t lose what they’ve gotten.  Dark Souls isn’t an easy game, and sometimes, From Software likes to drop ambushes on a player (or all the time in fucking Archdragon Peak).  Without the knowledge of what’s going to happen next, a lot of the time, it might seem safer to walk back to a bonfire, just to level up, than try and venture to the next bonfire.  The whole design of the levels asks the player the question “how much is that sack of experience points you’ve got worth to you?”  Is it worth risking an ambush and burning through resources to make it through, or is heading back and resting, leveling up or picking up some more stuff, more important?  It’s the whole reason why when something dies in Souls games, they stay dead until the area gets reset when resting at a bonfire (also to encourage players to explore instead of farming “lucrative” spots near bonfires).

Souls are the game asking just what something is worth to a player, and how much it’s worth to them.  Are stats more important than weapons?  Is venturing further worth the greater risk of dying?  Is all that experience worth going back for, because that place is hard?  There’s a reason the player loses all of their experience  when they die.  It’s not a punishment, it’s a question: why did you die, and is it worth it to get back what you’ve earned?  If it is, it’s possible the player is going to walk away with even more Souls than they had when they lost them in the first place.  If not, then maybe they weren’t ready for that part of the game yet.  It’s a masterclass in level design.

The final word on souls I’m going to say, since I’m already at over 2,000 words now, is that souls also offer one of my favorite narrative, in-universe justifications for why enemies come back whenever the area gets reset.  Since everything is undead, it doesn’t matter, they’ll always come back.  It’s kind of hilarious in a way.

Game Anatomy: Souls and Stats, Dark Souls Part 1

So, I finished Dark Souls III, beat all the bosses and found all the covenants.  Whether or not I decide to get all of the endings depends on how much I want to deal with the whole damn Lord of  Hollows bullshit.  I’m currently playing New Game + (or Journey 2 or whatever) and that’s pretty cool.  It’s been a bit since I did a game anatomy, so, I’m starting with this bit, which flows through all of the big From Software action RPGs, at least since Demon Souls.  I don’t know if King’s Field does anything like that.


Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai

Souls act as the currency in the Souls games, as well as in Bloodborne (sure, “blood echoes,” whatever, same concept), and in a lot o ways, souls are just regular old experience points.  Kill a monster, get a set number of dropped points, move on and kill more monsters.  Once enough points are accumulated, then a level can be obtained.  It’s not quite the same as most RPGs, where the experience automatically levels up the player, instead levels are gained by purchasing stats to improve.  It’s not a new idea, but it’s rarely been used as intuitively as it has here, and this is one of the things that makes the Souls games work so well.

Most games that use the “experience points as currency” format generally have a large problem of being really complicated, and tend to get in the way of building characters.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, but generally, most skills or abilities have a cost, and that cost is rarely well balanced.  It’s mostly bad in table top games, where a lot of the time, skill in stabbing a bad guy is the same as skill in cooking.  It makes it where when building and leveling up a character, the player has to make sacrifices based on what should be two separate systems, instead of actually making choices based on what kind of character they want to build.  Even in games where combat skill and noncombat skill are actually separate systems, a lot of the time what can be bought by experience points means making unnecessary sacrifices in the name of what the player needs, rather than what the character wants to be.


Image copyright White Wolf. Pictured, one of the worst examples of that.  “Animal Ken” costs just as much as “Persuasion,” “Academics” and “Firearms.”  Also, it was really hard to actually find a blank one of these through Google Image search, even when searching for blank sheets.

The concept is generally less of a problem in video games than in table top, since video games tend to make sure combat and noncombat are separate systems, and that the player has access to the basics that make up their character from the beginning.  Looking at that character sheet above, making a cop would require the player to split their skills between Firearms, Athletics, Streetwise, Persuasion, Empathy, Investigation and Intimidation, and those are the basics.  A video game keep the systems separate enough that the player wouldn’t have to buy the ability to run right at the beginning.  However, progression systems that require the player to buy stuff with experience still often require a player to not have access to everything they should have, or need, of at least without grinding.  The issue isn’t specialization, it’s that rarely is the specialization well optimized for the player to have what is needed to fulfill the sort of character they need.  Look at the Elder Scrolls, where magic is split across 5+ schools of magic, weapons across 3, and skill in one of them doesn’t improve skill in another.  The issue isn’t actually specialization, but that the skills are disconnected and require the player to focus on all of them, or cut out things that would be useful for the point of a character.  For instance, depending on the character’s fighting style, the ultimate warrior might be the ultimate swordsman in Skyrim, but completely fail if they pick up a two handed sword.

Dark Souls doesn’t fall into this trap.  Yes, there are issues with specialization and making it difficult to branch out, but that’s another issue entirely.  The souls allow the player to buy what they need, as they need it, and they do so in a way that makes it so the player can shift into different, but related abilities with ease.  A combat based character who focuses entirely on combat stats isn’t going to have issues moving from a one handed weapon to a two handed one (yes, yes, Equip Load does mitigate this somewhat), or picking up a different style of weapon.  The stats that work with weapons help with any weapon, the stats that work with spells work with (almost) any spell and then the other stats keep the player alive.

The purchased stats allow for the players to branch out and experiment while still remaining within their archetype.  It does this by being clear what is happening to the player’s stats, by directly showing how the change in stats will alter their damage, HP and spellpower, but it’s also done by making sure that it’s the stats that are related have some crossover.  Sure, a dexterity based weapon is going to get better mileage out of a higher dexterity than strength (without infusions…), but that doesn’t mean that the strength is going to hurt.  The extra strength is going to add extra damage, no matter what weapon the player is swinging around and vice versa.  Yes, there are some exceptions, mostly with ranged weapons, but that’s not a general rule.

Sure, there are games that do this.  Oblivion, for example, strength adds damage to melee attacks, and Intelligence and Willpower do something for spells.  However, this is mitigated by the fact that there are three types of weapon skills: blades, blunts and bows.  Sure, a skilled bladeswoman with a high strength will do extra damage with an axe, but her base damage will be lower, since her blunt skill is lower.  In Dark Souls, if she picks up, say, twinblades, her high strength is still going to add extra damage, not as much as it would with a high dexterity, but it’s still there and it’s going to always have the same base damage, no matter what.  Not as good, yes, but not completely useless, and that distinction is what’s important.

So, I’ve written almost 1100 words on this already,and I’ll pass that before I finish, but I have more to say about souls, Dark Souls and stats, so I’ll be back to discuss more later in the week.


Lost Narrative: Prologue

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on writing a series that explores the narrative ins and outs of the various fictional media I study.  I’ll mostly be focusing on video games, but I’ll be extending articles to comic books and table top games as well.  While I will be comparing and contrasting these three mediums to more mainstream literature (books, film and television), I’ll be working from a more singular standpoint in my analysis.  The idea is to look for ways to understand the foundations of these forms of literature and how we can learn from them.

Obviously, I’ll be looking at the various strengths and weaknesses of each medium, but I also plan on digging a little deeper and looking at the concepts unique to these forms of literature and how they work in favor and against the various works that make up their body.  I’ll also be looking at the meta concepts and how the expectations of the authors and the audience will shape the works as a whole.

For a preview, I plan on looking at things such as event-based narratives and why excellent movies like “Citizen Kane” would make a terrible video game.  I also plan on exploring things like alignment and morality meters and how they can, and sometimes don’t, affect how a game is played or how the audience approaches the work.  The goal of this project is for me to better understand my three favorite narratives.  At the very least, I should find out some interesting stuff about how we as a people perceive modern literature.

One thing though, I don’t plan to do too much about comic books.  I like to think Scott McCloud did a lot of that with his series on comics and there are many others who can provide more in-depth and intelligent discussions on that kind of literature than I can.  I would like to take a dip into the into post-modernism and metafiction of comics, but I think I’ll be limiting myself to that and providing links and literature to those who are more interested in comics than video games or table top RPGs.


Pirate game starts back up this weekend

I mentioned it last week, but I’m glad be going back to the Pirate D&D game.  I’ve decided to start things off with a dungeon, a nice one I came up with for a kid over at the GameFAQs Pen and Paper RPG board.  Any of my readers who thinks they’re going to get an insight by finding that post can go suck it.  Even if you do figure out which one it is, I’m changing enough of it that it won’t be what you read over there.

The samurai game ended well.  Honestly, I’m surprised it ended so well.  The players took on Malek, the big bad who killed the emperor of the Hisui Ten Empire, and Takashi, his Dragon.  Truthfully, the party was more scared of Takashi than of Malek, and probably for good reason.  Kate’s Swordmage samurai took down Malek like he was a little pansy, while Takashi had fun making the lives of some of the party members completely miserable.  He wound up doing some nasty stuff to some of the party members, even when the focused on debuffing the monster.

The current arc for the pirate game has them facing down a demonic invasion, and it’s going to be pretty epic.  Thanks to the machinations of a few bastards throughout Arcia, the barriers between worlds has weakened.  To be fair, it was never particularly strong to begin with, but now it’s basically about to be torn asunder, and if they fail, powerful demons are about to run screaming out of the gates.  If the Azure Dragon Pirates lose this fight, the next campaign is going to be like Legend of the 5 Rings if Diagotsu won the Second Day of Thunder.

I like to say I put my games on hard mode, and there’s some truth to that, but this campaign arc is going to be set on Ultra Hard (which, granted, is still ten steps below Gygaxian).  I’m researching monsters that focus on status effects that will screw over the PCs and really force them to think differently.  When I ran them up against Ritsuko last year, I was able to win since she was able to restrain, block and slow anyone who got close to her.  I probably should have focused on Atraeus instead of Ambrose, but hey, I managed to make almost everyone bloodied and I nearly killed Ambrose.  I think a lot of fights are going to wind up like that one.

Still, because of how hard it is, I think the players are going to like it.  They’re going to come out forged anew, powered by the darkness and madness they faced and ready to defend the universe from its next biggest threat.  That’s when it’s going to get even harder.  And I know they’re going to love every second of it.


More Tabletop Talk

I’m finishing my D&D campaign tomorrow night.  The entire attempt was to explore one of the countries, a Japan expy of sorts, and make something of it.  I think we did a good job, but the whole campaign has kind of been a bust.  Mostly due to poor planning, and bit of not caring, on my part.  Also, about halfway through, I mentioned we’d be going back to the pirate game, which was abandoned almost a year ago, and everyone seemed to immediately lose interest.

I’m actually looking forward to kicking this game to the curb.  I…have not enjoyed it.  It’s hard to admit that, but it’s true.  I think I did a good job of adding in a former PC as the big bad, but other than that, it’s kind of been a mess.  I had no real direction or goal in mind, nor did many of the players.  While Tinker and Bruce the (insert the many titles he has here) were good characters and liked by their players, I don’t think anyone else quite had the attachment they did.  Okay, Kero Kuma was liked by his player too.

I’m glad to be going back to the pirate game.  That was the first game I ran in 4e (and the last I ran in 3.5), and the characters were liked by their players and well developed.  Also, it was easier to plot for, as the characters were heroic mercenaries and they each had some kind of developed goal or plan in mind.  Plus, the characters were just plain awesome.  I mean, it was the first appearance of Ambrose Bluesteel and Atraeus Voltar (aka Atraeus the Devil), as well as the reappearance of Elymas- appearing the same age as he did in his first adventure 50 years ago.  This is the campaign that makes my setting work kind of like a comic book, and that’s the way I like it.

Because of the comic book feel of the game, the pirate game is also really easy to write for.  The party is pretty cool.  It’s a varied mix of character types and styles, which makes for some interesting inter-party dialogue and relationships.  It also lets me explore the totality of my world and give lots of different types of quests.  These guys have gone dungeon crawling, pulled Ocean’s 11 style heist, took down an evil cult, smuggled and even done a pretty gruesome assassination.  I think I’ll be having fun.


Tabletop Speculation

Apparently, they want to make the already damn near impossible on easy Seth even harder. Fuck Capcom.

This essay is probably best ignored.  I’m tired, sick and hungry and not thinking straight.

A couple of days ago, I started thinking about my Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, Arcia.  I’ve talked about it a couple of times: it’s the dungeon and steam punk world filled with airships, international espionage and Dwarfs wielding shotguns.  I think it’s pretty cool, since it matches my style of total craziness, but I’ve been struggling with using D&D for the setting for two editions now, and I’m starting to wonder if I should just say “fuck it” and make my own system.

For the most part, D&D 4e (and 3.5 if I tweak some parts) works pretty well for my setting.  I expect the characters to be powerful, larger than life badasses who take on challenges ranging from drug dealers to Eldtritch Abominations, and D&D’s scope does that pretty well.  Further, the game has a lot of “openness” to it, especially with the “fluff-light” powers/rituals system, which keeps players out of the books and in the game.  It also allows them to give evocative descriptions of the cool stuff their characters do.  I haven’t heard a fighter say “I attack it” since I started playing 4e, and instead, I get a cool description of a power.  I still get “I shoot them” when I play Shadowrun.  Unfortunately, I have a few problems with the system too.

Part of it is purely stylistic.  I really don’t like limiting the options of my players, so I have a hard time saying “no” to a race or class, even if it doesn’t fit within my game.  While I haven’t had a problem with a class, ever, there are a lot of races out there, and it’s kind of weird to have a planet with about 25 sentient, “dominant” races on it.  I don’t mind elves, dwarfs, orcs and halflings and a few others, but once we started adding Devas and Goliaths, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with them.  I try to make things a little different, if only to play with the expectations of the audience.  We all know what to expect when we see Drow, so I changed them from spider-worshiping Calligula style matriarchs to egalitarian, Spartanesque warriors who defend the surface world from the alien invaders from the Underdark.  That’s great if I only have  handful of things to deal with, but every book seems to add 4 or 5 more races, and I just don’t know what to do with them, especially if the default fluff sucks to begin with, like Deva.

Other problems are more mechanical.  I really don’t like the class level system, because I think it puts a creative block in the minds of the players.  I think the best way to make a character is to come up with a concept, and find the mechanics that fit it (although the other way around works great for some people, just not me).  A class level system can serve this well.  Unfortunately, I’ve found that some players use classes as a crutch rather than a source of inspiration, and don’t look beyond the basics.  Of course, this is all nebulous and mostly an imagined problem.  My other mechanical problem is that D&D focuses on specialization rather than versatility.  I recognize that the nature of the game is that of squad based combat, and each member of the party needs to fill a role, I’ve found that D&D’s specialization goes a bit too far.  It’s very difficult to make a Fighter who’s good with all weapons, or a Rogue who can stab, shoot and scrap.  Magic users are better at this, but that’s because magic users tend to get an unfair advantage (although 4e is helping with this, it’s still kind of there)

I’ve been looking at Savage Worlds as a possible replacement for D&D, but there’s something about the system I don’t like.  I haven’t played it yet, so I’m loath to pass judgment, but something about it when I read makes me think it’s too easy or simple, or something.  Again, like my problem with class level, it’s a nebulous, possibly imagined problem.

Who knows what I’ll do.  I have some concepts for a system kicking around in my head.  It uses a dice pool system like Legend of the 5 Rings, using d10s, and roll keep gameplay.  I also want to take a bit from Mage: the Ascension and have an open magic system, but limit by stamina (and not fucking Paradox).  Who knows.

Anyway, I’m off to eat and rest.  Hopefully tomorrow’s rant will make more sense.