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Full Steam Ahead – Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: none.

Hello again everyone! I’m now writing Full Steam Ahead from my wife’s computer! Sarah was gracious enough to let me transfer my files and games to her desktop (named Numenor). Hopefully, this means I will be able to get Full Steam Ahead back on track, and continue playing games without further delay. Seeing as this is something of a fresh start for me, it’s somewhat appropriate that the first game I play is a game about going back in time. It’s time to return to the middle-eastern fairytale setting of Prince of Persia.

R.I.P. Owner PC. 2010-2018, your name a tribute to how bad I was at naming things.

Press W to Pay Respects

There is a meme out there about unnecessary interactivity. Press F to pay respects. Having heard people talking about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I assumed that I would find it interesting as a story and uninteresting as a game, just like developer Chinese Room’s previous work, Dear Esther. I would say yes, both, moreso that I expected. I loved the story and the sense of place developed in the valley. I liked having the narrative broken apart and then discovered nonsequentially. However, I think that as a game, this could have been named Unnecessary Interactivity. It’s a lovely setting, but moving through it is very, very slow and the parts where you have to “tune” a memory are not adequately explained at first. Did I mention that movement is slow? The title of this post was inspired by my experience of the game side of it: I was asked to press a button but it didn’t make the experience any more meaningfully interactive.

This is the image I had hoped would capture my experience with the game.

By far the most frustrating part of playing this game was trying to get the image above. I was playing the game via Steam, in which I had remapped the “take screenshot” key to something other than the default. But that was before my hard drive failed and I had to reinstall everything, so I figured I could just alt-tab, reset the key binding, then go take the picture. Did you know that changing Steam settings while a game is running will force-restart a game? I found out in that moment, and then started to scream and pound on my desk. I was psychologically committed to finishing this game and writing a post about it. But I would have to do it all again, from step one, not even able to skip the long artsy intro. It turned out well enough, on the second try I had a much better time with figuring out how to “tune” some of the major plot point anomalies, but the fact that having to redo any part of it caused me such grief says at least as much about my experience as the picture that I intended to take.

As a plot, it was wonderful and interesting. As I described it to my wife, she had mentioned that it has been compared to the film Annihilation. So we watched that film the next day. These are very different stories, though I can see how they can be compared and contrasted, but because I had just finished Rapture and was watching the film because I wanted to know how similar or different it was, the strongest conclusion I could draw was this: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have been a film. It would of course require a few subtle changes, but the best thing about Annihilation was that it was able to keep a good pace. It felt neither rushed nor frustratingly slow as Rapture. And no need to mash any keys on my keyboard in the vain hope of picking up a little bit of velocity.

Full Steam Ahead – Endless Space

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 16 minutes

Earlier, while playing The Sims 4, Sarah brought up an interesting point for me to consider: how do I know when I’ve played a game enough to write about it? For some, the plot or story is easily completed in my spare time. For others, the story is loosely defined or not a central part of the game and I need to figure out how much of the game I need to play to get a good feel for it. Two hours? Ten? Twenty? Full Steam Ahead is a fun project, but I am not without my limits; I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are some games I will not be able to fully explore before writing my post.

Well, today’s game is called Endless Space, so I think we can all guess whether I discovered everything or not.

To quote Luke Skywalker, “This is not going to go the way you think.”

Powers of Four: Decisions

This one has taken me a while to write up because I’ve made the mistake of conflating it with agency. It is related, but when we decided that this was an important characteristic of a tabletop roleplaying game I think we were at this point focused on what the GM/DM/storyteller does with those decisions. OK, so you’ve been offered some choices, made them, but where do we go from here?

This is where I might start taking about “sandbox” in opposition to “railroad” if I wasn’t getting tired of those metaphors. I admire those who could run a true “sandbox” at the RPG table; I am not someone who can improv everything on the spot without making a cliche collage. What I have done, and what we identified as typical of an “open world” video game RPG, is to offer a set number of areas that need not be done sequentially. This took the form of there being a castle with four towers and a central keep. Each tower was designed as a stand-alone dungeon with opportunities for players to make choices and face the consequences. In the end, I could have done a better job of making those consequences have more impact on the finale, but it made a big difference to have towers 1, A, i, and α rather than 1, 2, 3, and 4. It means a bit of work on the DM’s part (especially when balancing 4e encounters was the order of the day; one would have to be ready to run four different encounters rather than one), but I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in the DM’s chair.

Continuing with the video game metaphors, we also identified the Rockstar/GTA style of “open world” where there is a point A and a point B, but you can take any path through a grid of streets to get there. This does not mean there are no boundaries, because the storyteller still needs to be able to describe interesting things at each point, but it’s probably the most preparation-intensive way to do it when you’re playing a system like World of Darkness. It’s something I would like to try more of, though limited time and patience for being sufficiently prepared is a bit of a daunting challenge.

And then when it comes to the “railroad” the video games we thought of were the Legend of Zelda style (see the fishbone diagram I mentioned in the main post) and the Bioware RPG style, which is more of a curved line with many branches. You can play a lot of the game out on the branches, but there is a main arc to get back to eventually. In a Zelda type game, there are diversions, but there really is only one way forward. These more straightforward modes of progression can offer different levels of agency, but there is a much better defined way to measure progress in the plot. These work well when planning time is at a premium and I certainly don’t mind being “railroaded” especially when the other choice is to bang my head against the wall because I can’t guess what the DM secretly wants me to do/find. Many of our games end up falling somewhere between those, and that’s been OK even though it can sometimes make previous choices feel less important.

So, again, as in all of the rest of the series, I am not here to say that one way is better than any other, just that there are some that have worked better in some situations for me and my group than for others. I hope that this series, mined from the notes I took from that one particularly interesting conversation I had a few months ago, is something that you have found worth the time to read. Alastair returns next week with the next episode of Full Steam Ahead.

Full Steam Ahead – Cosmic DJ

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 1 hour

There are several games I’ve covered (and many more to come) in this series that are difficult to write about. Some are simply too short for me to get much of a read on them. Others are outside my area of expertise. Others are big enough games that I would have to dedicate inordinate amounts of time in order to do them justice.

Others are just kind of weird. The weird games are often the most difficult to write about for a variety of reasons. First of all, weird is an awfully subjective term. For all I know, the weirdest game I’ve ever played could be completely mundane to someone else. What’s more, I always feel like there must be something I’ve missed, some key to help me understand the game, and that I’m not giving it a fair shake.

Cosmic DJ is a short game. It is a game about dance music, a subject where I’m competely clueless. And while it’s not terribly complex or difficult, it is certainly weird.

Growing up, local FM radion station 106.1 (The Goat) had a DJ whose name was Poncho Parker. There, that’s a thing you know now.

Powers of Four: Characters

At the beginning of this series we identified the following four types of characters rather than types of players in a tabletop RPG:

  1. A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
  2. Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
  3. Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
  4. Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative

When inviting people to play a roleplaying game you should know if any of these aren’t going to work. Where the consequence of failure is character death, and this happens frequently, players who play themselves may be a bit too invested in their characters to enjoy it when they make one bad roll and that’s it. This is also the case when the player wishes to be integrated into some kind of grand plot arc. D&D is, so far, the best game I have played for types 1 and 4 above. The rules make it relatively easy to make characters into heroes.

The problem I find with this is that the path of least resistance for the DM is to present weak challenges and keep the XP spigot wide open, allowing the player characters to take a walk up the gentle slope to godhood. It gets tedious and is ultimately uninteresting to me when there is a shower of rewards without significant risk. It is, therefore, a challenge for me to run an interesting game for people who love to play these characters because introducing the risk of death or irrevocable failure is at odds with huge investment in a single character. It’s a challenge worth taking, I think, because wanting to play those characters is a valid desire for those players and I like diversity at the table. It just can’t be taken too far; if someone wants a pure power fantasy I won’t recommend joining any of my tabletop adventures or campaigns. At the same time, I will refrain from the rocks fall, everybody dies sort of excess sadism unless I warn characters beforehand that I am running something in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors.

That moment when you find out that this fictional world doesn’t revolve around your own character.

Type 3 represents the characters I typically play, which lends itself to some investment in the continued life and success of the same character. At the same time, it means that I should be able to part with a character (or see them completely fail) if my player-ego doesn’t run too high. This, and the wish-fulfillment type 2, can work in D&D but are also a little more suited to World of Darkness where characters are not 100% disposable, but are usually far from gods-in-the-making even with a few extraordinary abilities. Trouble arises when the desire to be the most powerful or the sleaziest man alive overrides the spirit of cooperation required for any group of players to function. I find that these are the easiest types of characters to write for as a DM as long as the players are willing to be flexible and show restraint in their expectations. I only find it challenging when I am the player who really needs to be doing more of those things.

Type 2 is, I think, the only thing that really works in an OSR meat grinder that the “evil DM” wishes to run. You simply can’t go into a game where character death happens at the snap of the fingers with a carefully crafted backstory and emotional investment. I don’t mind playing these, but definitely need to know ahead of time that I am NOT to play a character that I truly care about. I’m probably not going to run a whole lot of this with my regular group, but will for one-off events like Extra Life.

What I am trying to say here is that there is no right or wrong character type for a person to want to play, but that we have had some friction when we try and cram characters of type 1 and 4 into games that just don’t support that kind of investment. Considering character types is just another way to “know your audience” when thinking about starting up a game.

 

 

Powers of Four: Agency

Agency is the character’s capacity to act, rather than simply have events unfold around them. The thing that makes the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) so neat is spreading out the agency among several players rather than having one person, an author, decide what every single character does or does not do. It is not evenly distributed in most TTRPGs; the DM/GM/Storyteller being responsible for most of the characters that exist in the fiction. It’s not appropriately called a “game” if the person running the show narrates the entire thing. Players, in order to be players, must be offered the opportunity to act. The kind of options for action that are available, and the consequences of those actions, remain the purview of the person running the game.

Your agency is your capacity to act. Threatening the Froggit is not necessarily an effective course of action, but you can try it without getting blocked by Undertale’s game mechanics.

One way to offer players a chance to act is to present choices or dilemmas. Whether between two good options, two bad options, or one clearly good and clearly bad there is a direct choice: kill the werewolves and in doing so break your oath to the moon goddess, or let them sack the nearby village and deal with the displaced families afterwards. The DM who writes/runs these kinds of adventures probably reads up on ethical dilemmas and imagines how to weave it into a tabletop adventure for fun. Having dice and characters make things more fun than imaginary trolleys, after all. This is generally the style I like to play: I don’t get everything I want, but my choices and the choices of those around me matter in an important way.

Another way to do this is to offer deliberately blind choices. For horror games this usually means a choice between bad or worse, with no indications and/or possibly false indications to the players which is which. There really is no “winning” here, no solution to the problem or way to overcome the insurmountable. The choices the characters make are more about showing who the character is rather than what they can do to affect their situation. Although the game is interactive, the characters have a low degree of agency in the plot. If it sounds like I’m writing about this in a negative tone, it’s because this is a type of game that I find it hard to get into. It’s fine to run this game if the players know what they’re getting into, but possibly campaign-ruining if you have been running lots of heroes faced with ethical dilemmas type stuff and then want to show everyone that your new villain is really badass. It’s a fine way to run a game; I know what I am getting into when I play a game with “Cthulhu” in the name. I just don’t know a lot of people who can really get into that sort of thing and I’m a “maybe” at best.

The third is like a puzzle, sometimes literally and sometimes just functioning that way. There is one way to progress. The players need to solve for x. The only way to really lose is to give up, and the way to win is to find the answer (which could be a combination that opens a door or something less concrete like the identity of the person who committed a crime). This is something I can get into when it’s a video game, less so when it is a tabletop RPG, even less when I have created a character and a backstory. It just doesn’t mix well for me. If my agency is to be limited to things that solve the puzzle and things that don’t then I would much prefer to come in with a pre-determined character well-suited for the game to be played. I loved Portal and other such games, but I need my D&D or my WoD to be different than this.

Toriel doesn’t quite grasp the concept of agency here. Yes, the human acts when they flip the indicated switch, but any apparent alternate actions are blocked in favour of the one intended for the player.

The fourth way is where choices are basically made for you, which is where the word “railroading” has been a popular but possibly misleading way to describe what is happening. I’ve come to the belief that preventing a campaign from derailing is actually a good thing for a GM to do if the general consensus is that the game is intended to be consistent rather than absurd. That doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the players into a single course of action and making them feel more like their characters are being dragged along for the ride. This isn’t how any tabletop campaigns I have played in have been intended to run; it is what happens when a DM wants things to go a certain way so badly that they get a bit ham-fisted about it. I’ve done it as DM. It’s not a good way to go; the complete and total lack of agency almost never makes for a good game. If your group is doing something where the person running the event is more of an author than a game runner and encourages what amounts to audience participation, I guess this can be okay, but it’s generally the thing you want to avoid. And to be clear, prodding the players to leave the bus depot and explore the town after three sessions might qualify as “railroading” in the eyes of some, but that’s not at all what I am talking about here.

There may be more ways that agency in the form of choices for action may be offered in the TTRPG, but these are the four that I came up with in my conversation with the storyteller from my most recent WoD campaign that describe almost all of the TTRPGS we have played so far.

Powers of Four: Setting

One of the first things I did when my HDD quit after seven years was choose which games to reinstall. I decided that Skyrim was on the list. I have on various occasions tried a second playthrough but for some reason August was a better time than others. I think one of the reasons why I got back into a video game from 2011 is that Tamriel is an extremely rich setting, and the writing is detailed but not overbearing. For example, I chose not to care about the civil war quest line at first because I remembered more about it from my most recent attempt at a playthrough. I thought I was bored with that part. But then I tried to explain to my wife the differences between the Empire and the Stormcloaks and found myself having to take a lot of time to do it properly. Once I got into talking about the facts about both sides I found that there was something to care about even if clearing forts is a little tedious. Despite a little bit of corny dialog, the setting is highly consistent and does not engage in much absurdity. Other games with different kinds of settings, like Great Ork Gods, crank up the absurdity because it’s fun. This is something I and the storyteller from my recent campaign identified as one of the key choices to make.

Sure, the placement is glitchy and the object (body) really should have been removed upon reload, but I feel like this is a good representation of how the Stormcloak Rebellion went for Ulfric in this playthrough.

One of the goals I have as a DM is to run a campaign, not necessarily a super-long one, but something more aptly called a campaign rather than an adventure where people love the setting so much that they want me to run something else in the same setting and/or seek permission to run something in that setting themselves. I don’t expect it will ever compete with Forgotten Realms as a setting, but it would melt my heart if someone could ask for a setting by name rather than “the same world as your last campaign.” One of the things I will be watching closely is the consistency/absurdity balance. As the person running the show I will need to keep the group interested while also considering what I want to build, which will definitely skew towards the consistent. I really don’t appreciate when I or someone else really wants to do build up a world that exists in our imaginations beyond the field of view of the player characters, but others insist on making it into a farce of pop culture references and self-parody. It’s fine to do those things as long as that’s the kind of game the group has agreed to play, but it’s something I find harder to enjoy than when it’s baked into the game from the start. Going from consistent to absurd usually doesn’t work well for me.

However, as much as it is jarring when it gets dark and serious in a setting where I expected something more along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I find it preferable to the reverse (going from consistent to absurd). There is one time that stands out to me where something shed a lot of its absurdity; I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was a player in a Risus campaign which started as a fandom mashup of stuff our group liked, but as we probed into the penal system of a very “enlightened” civilization we came to the horrifying realization that in their desire to eschew traditional prisons they invented a new kind of psychological torture. This wasn’t originally the intention, but if I am going to have intentions about this sort of thing, I hope to be able to strike the balance as well as it was done in that campaign.

As much as I enjoy Skyrim, I can see getting into something more absurd again as long as it’s the kind of game that my group wants to play at the time. Whether by meticulous planning or by skillful improv, it’s something that I think is really important to consider in some way.

Full Steam Ahead – The Ship: Tutorial & The Sims 3

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 12 minutes and 84 hours, respectively.

Welcome back to normal Full Steam Ahead! I’ve come through the month of Adam with only moderate trauma. That means, for the foreseeable future, when the games I play for this series are bad, I’ve no one to blame but myself.

Somehow, that’s less comforting than I wanted it to be..

Wish I hadn’t used all “Come Sail Away” jokes for the last post about The Ship. Too bad there’s only ever been one nautically-themed song.

Four Characteristics of a TTRPG

Picking up from two weeks ago, I had mentioned that the World of Darkness campaign I was playing in has gone on indefinite hiatus. I sat down for tea with the storyteller who was running that show to talk about what happened and why. I wanted to try and put some names to the thoughts and feelings we were having, and we came up with four characteristics of a tabletop RPG which separate the kind of game that our different players want to play. It’s not intended to analyze every aspect of the TTRPG experience, but to provide some language we can use when talking about being more intentional about choosing those games. The four we came up with were:

  1. Setting
  2. Agency
  3. Characters
  4. Decisions

Setting: It’s more than aesthetic preference. Some people just don’t care for playing pretend in medieval Japan and would much rather go to space. Some settings also lend themselves to differing levels of agency and characters: it’s not impossible to do survival horror in a high magic pseudo-Arthurian setting but it’s not easy to pull off. Likewise, heroic power fantasies are not often draped in the low light and cigarette smoke of a noir setting. The other thing to consider is how much absurdity vs. consistency people enjoy: Monty Python and The Holy Grail, or Lord of the Rings? Even if you love your friends, they might not be suitable players for that OSR dungeon crawl and that’s okay. I am here to say that it is okay to tell your friends that zombie apocalypse is not your jam.

Agency: One of the reasons I have a little bit of trouble with enjoying survival horror type games is that I love when my choices matter more in the fictional world than they seem to in the meatspace. It’s not enough that there seems to be a revived interest in the kind of thoughts Lovecraft had about race in the real world, now I have to pretend that ancient monsters are on an inexorable warpath to drive humans insane and kill us all? I’d much rather be a dashing rogue who at least tries to shoot Cthulhu in the face and keep his composure while doing it – and at least have an outside chance of being a little bit successful.

Characters: Robin Laws’ Player Types describe what kind of players come to the table. In my discussions with the storyteller from my most recent campaign, we decided that distinct from the player type, there are also character types that certain players tend to play while others like to mix it up with different types of characters even if they mostly represent the same player type. We identified the following:

  1. A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
  2. Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
  3. Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
  4. Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative

Not all tabletop RPGs are very good at accommodating every single one of these, therefore it’s inadvisable for people who are itching to play a character integral to a big plot to go dungeon crawling. Discussing what you want to play with the DM/GM/Storyteller is a good idea and both parties should be willing to take “no” for an answer: whether that is accepting that a character concept is not suitable for the game that is being run, or declining to play that game. I have kept myself out of at least one campaign based on the fact that my two best ideas for characters were wildly incompatible with the type of game that was being run.

“And then Stanley chose the red door.” How choices are presented to players has a big impact on how much players will enjoy the game.

Decisions: What kind of choices are offered to players and how do their decisions affect the plot? We identified four distinct styles. Simply offering “good” and “bad” choices don’t make a game interesting. We know that good guys win, bad guys lose, England prevails is boring if not problematic. The simplest way to avoid this is to present situations where two good choices have different costs, or two bad choices offer different opportunities to mitigate the damage. Rather than “slay the dragon” it is “do we convince the dragon to go burn someone else’s town or do we use foul forbidden black magic to become powerful enough to destroy the dragon?” Of course, getting thrown two bad options with no third way or deus ex machina to fetch a “win” might frustrate some players. If the DM is excited to create that kind of dilemma then they need players who are into that sort of challenge.

The second style is to offer bad and worse choices, where the players cannot know which is which until after the consequences are set in stone. This is generally how it has gone in the horror type games I have played. This is especially frustrating to the power gamer sorts who love to win, but also to many other player types who are invested in their characters.

The third style is like a puzzle. There is a solution to be found that moves the plot forward and satisfies a win condition, and your job is to find that solution. This works well when players go into it with the right expectations. The trouble is when the player who loves this style goes into a game more like the second style described above and expects that there are answers to find and a correct way to do so. It just gets all the more frustrating when everything goes to hell.

The fourth style looks kind of like a fishbone diagram. There is a plot and it moves forward. Your choices affect the flavour of the outcome, but that outcome is assured. I have come to dislike the term “railroading” as it seems to get tossed around whenever a player’s zany idea gets a flat “no” from the storyteller/DM/GM. I generally don’t like games where it’s really someone else’s work of fiction but where I am given trivial decision-making power. I would much rather just enjoy a performance than have my input tacked onto the side of it if that’s what it is going to be. That I can derisively refer to as railroading. But unless the DM/GM/storyteller is VERY comfortable with improvisation, this style starts to emerge if things are going too far outside the expected narrative and I don’t mind a little bit of this if it is done responsibly.

So we’ve got all this descriptive stuff, how does this help me choose a TTRPG?

Looking at this from my own perspective as a player, I can do most types of setting except for the bleakest of the post-apocalyptic, generally play a part of myself, and enjoy a high degree of agency. If that’s the game someone wants to run, I can consider committing to it. I am not sure I can commit to doing Lovecraftian stuff where agency is minimal; if that’s what a good friend wants to run then I wish them well but won’t try to force myself to play the type of game I am just not into and hope that it won’t be taken as “I don’t want to spend time with or play games with you.”


What’s next? Full Steam ahead resumes its regular run next week and will appear at least once in October. Then my next four posts will be a deeper dive into each of these four characteristics. Now that this is becoming a series where I keep expanding each point into four more, should I come up with a name for it? Powers of Four? Suggestions are welcome in the comments section.