Ethos of Play

DistemperedGus (of All Dead Generations) recently posted a series of Twitter threads on alignment, reaction rolls, and morale, all classic rules subsystems that he argues contribute to a particular classic “ethos” of play.

Because people talking about classic tabletop roleplaying games have become balkanized over various social media platforms, and Twitter is a hellscape, and I may want to link or refer to this collection of threads in the future, I am spotlighting them here. I also used Thread Reader App to create thread pages so that the threads can be read in a more bloglike format, for those that so desire:

Dark Souls 2 Rat King Covenant

It is probably worth noting, since this is the Internet, that my spotlight means “useful and worth reading” rather than that I agree with all threads on all points and in all particulars. For example, I would say that alignment as adventurer allegiance (rather than adventurer moral commitment) can function quite apart from moral essentialism, to say nothing of less savory interpretations. Law and Chaos as depicted in OD&D (and the refined “Basic” rulesets) is fuzzy in this regard, easily pushed in either direction. To be more explicit in notion, consider using alignment categories such as Unseelie, Neutral, Seelie, or Rebel Alliance, Neutral, Galactic Empire rather than Chaos, Neutral, Law (or, God help us all, the baroque murk that is the AD&D 3×3 matrix).


In case you want to create similar thread pages using Thread Reader App, here is how to do so A) without cluttering up someone else’s thread and B) without cluttering up your own timeline.

  1. Quote-retweet the thread in question with only the text:
    @threadreaderapp unroll
  2. Wait for the @ reply from @threadreaderapp (which in my experience takes a few seconds)
  3. Save the URL provided in this reply (which you could also derive from the original Twitter thread URL based on the tweet ID)
  4. Delete your quote-tweet that was originally addressed to @threadreaderapp
  5. Now the unrolled thread page persists for future reference

(You may need to follow @threadreaderapp first as well, but I am unsure.)

You can also easily print the unrolled thread pages to PDF, perhaps with the help of extensions to exclude distracting images, and so forth.

Dark Souls 2 Rat King: Rejoice!

(All post images are personal screen shots.)

Endgame Mirages

Panel from Berserk volume 12

Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?

A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.

Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.


1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36.

Simulation and Exploration

Neither simulation nor exploration! (Source)

People often use different words for the same (or highly similar) concepts, or the same word for radically different concepts. Academia in particular has driven home for me the mismatch of jargon and meaning across silos, but the same thing happens in nontechnical discussions. The confusion around creative agenda modes shows an example within discussion about tabletop RPGs. In general, I suspect actual communication happens far less often than people assume, in any domain. In this post I will highlight a few more terms that scenes seem to use in different ways, specifically simulation and exploration.

Forge-speak simulationism seems close to what OSR/etc gamers (myself included, I suppose) mean when we speak of exploration. When a big model theorist discusses simulationism it has almost nothing to do with whether, for example, sailing rules in a game accurately capture wind dynamics as might be modeled by a physicist. Recall that the subtitle of the original Edwards essay on simulationism is The Right to Dream. And Forge-speak uses exploration to denote a completely different concept, as should be superficially obvious when you look at the diagram/logo for the big model wiki, something more like engaged play. Here is a big model explanation of Exploration:

What’s Exploration? Exploration is playing the game. If you are imagining stuff, rolling dice, talking in character, or paying attention to someone else’s scene in the game- you’re playing and you’re Exploring. If you’re busy playing videogames on your DS and not paying attention, if you’re on your cell phone, reading comics, or otherwise in any common sense way not playing the game, you’re not Exploring.

And here is Ben on OSR/classic exploration:

The lack of knowledge is thus a source of peril and uncertainty. It is both an obstacle to be overcome and a hazard to be dared. There is also a thrill of discovery, of uncovering things that are hidden. If the game is being played well, what is uncovered are not boring things. Every dungeon is initially a mystery, every artifact a hidden wonder, every faction an unknown quantity. To explore a dungeon is to unravel the mystery of the place.

A pair of Dark Souls analogies may help further illustrate this distinction. OSR exploration has to do with the feeling you get when you hear the new area sound, which has been burned into my mind as the sound of a new vista opening up:

This feeling is tied heavily to interaction with the fictional context as a coherent and meaningful place rather than as game mechanisms or story progressions. (Tangentially, I would also add that this is more about imagined possibility than it is about immersion in the method acting or narrative transportation sense.) In contrast, big model exploration would be closer to what is going on when the player learns and exploits the pattern of an enemy’s move set:

This is more like a structural fitting in of the player’s voluntary actions with the mechanisms and interfaces that the game presents. You could get the first kind of exploration without engaging many of the Dark Souls game mechanisms at all. And you could get the second kind of exploration in a wireframe test arena totally disconnected from the stages or levels of the game (which would be the campaign setting or shared imaginary space in tabletop roleplaying).

Possible Ideals

Adi Shankara argues for purity of practices as roads to moksha (image source: Wikipedia)

Recently I was thinking to myself: people have written some words about tabletop RPG theory (understatement of the decade). This work is often “empirical” in the loose sense that theorists base conclusions on observing their own play experiences and the experiences of others (often second-hand) but it is not empirical in the sense that a social scientist would generally use that term. And so I was thinking, I have some quantitative data about player preferences, would it be possible to see whether this data could substantiate some of these claims using quantitative methods, or perhaps suggest alternatives based on something beyond anecdote? Specifically, I was thinking about that venerable Forge concept “creative agenda” and the various creative agenda modes proposed as incompatible: gamism, narrativism, and simulationism. These four concepts belong to a broader collection of ideas called the big model, though the GNS subcomponent has had the largest impact on general thinking about RPGs, of the big model concepts.

Before exploring creative agendas in data about player preferences, I had to make sure that I understood the concepts, beyond surface associations. This means taking the theorists seriously, and accepting definitions, even (perhaps especially) when the naming seems counterintuitive or disconnected from the lay understanding of terms. It is unproductive to approach the theory of electromagnetism with the stubborn idea that a field is properly only an expanse of ground covered by grass, flowers, and so forth. Ideally, jargon will involve some congruence between intuitive and technical meanings, but that is perhaps unrealistic to expect in all cases. Sometimes it is best to just use the imperfect, established term, and move on with your life.

After several conversations with people who have engaged heavily with these concepts and find parts of the big model personally useful, I have come to believe that I (and probably many people outside of the Forge and story games diasporas) misunderstand both the specific terms and the broader goal of this collection of ideas. Rather than explanation, I think the purpose of big model thinking generally, and the more specific ideas around creative agenda, is to present particular ideals of possible game practice. This is in many ways closer to a therapeutic framework in counseling psychology, such as psychoanalysis, person-centered therapy, CBT, or DBT. Therapeutic frameworks generally involve a greater focus on particular interventions and some alignment with evidence based practice compared to the big model, but once you understand the theory like this, the way people use and discuss it makes a lot more sense, at least to me.

Wilfred Bion, an early pioneer of group dynamics in therapy (image source: Wikipedia)

To be (somewhat) more concrete: the big model theorist looks at a collection of play goals aligned in some way, such as learning and challenge (“gamism”) and wonders whether purifying a play experience around only these play goals might be uniquely satisfying for the collective experience of a group of players. Similarly for other modes. This is what the big model means by coherent play. Whether this matches any particular experience is almost beside the point, much like the way a three-minute sprint mile is an ideal that has never been reached for the sprinter (though obviously the activity of sprinting is far simpler than tabletop roleplaying).

So what about the player preferences data? Based on this understanding, it would be a poor fit for big model concepts, even accepting that measurement at the individual level could approximate a group-level analysis consistent with big model claims. People will have to think a lot harder about ways to measure big model concepts before that will become possible, and from what I can tell there has been little enthusiasm for that kind of work to date. The data I have still has potential to reveal connections between what players enjoy during play and what players find useful in games, which I may explore in a future post.

Some simple takeaways for outsiders when trying to make sense of big model ideas: substitute “play goal” (or perhaps “ultimate play goal”) whenever you see the words creative agenda, and realize that the point of the theory is presenting possible ideals, rather than explanation. You may lose some nuance, particularly involving individual versus collective experience, but that is probably closer to the intended meaning than running with intuitive associations.

Appetizer of Bukako

A brief taste of the feast to come. All the spells are written, the layout is done, and we are just messing with some final details. Update: it is done! Get it here for free. Four samples:

[Earthquake] Mood of Gravity

By smearing the face with mud, dust, or jagged rock shards, the sorcerer’s soul fuses with a greater earth spirit, binding the emotions of the sorcerer to the movement of faults deep below. For the duration of the spell, annoyance and minor pains result in tremors while wrath and great pain yield proportional restlessness of the earth. When the spell ends, the sorcerer becomes numb to the experience of any emotional intensity until the spell can be prepared again.

[Enlarge] Engorgement

The sorcerer must prepare a dish from flesh of a four-legged animal, spiced well and thoughtfully. Upon speaking the magic words, and consuming the food, the sorcerer grows to the size of the animal consumed, persisting in that size until passing the animal’s remains. Only the sorcerer’s body changes, and upon the spell’s end there is a 1 in 6 chance of the sorcerer permanently manifesting some physical aspect of the creature, such as goat horns, horse hooves, or cat eyes. If the animal consumed was of a kind to lay eggs, the sorcerer will lay an egg within 1d6 weeks, birthing a creature of wonder or terror.

[Fear] Beacon of Terror

By prostration, tracing forbidden signs on the ground, and slapping the ground three times, the sorcerer causes an infinitely high beam of light to spring forth from the ground like a pillar rising to heaven. For any creatures of level four or less witnessing the radiant beam, taking any action other than fleeing the beam pillar requires succeeding at a saving throw. When the spell ends, the beam flickers out, but if the beam was called under open sky there is a 1 in 6 chance of attracting attention from spirits of the air, dragons in transit, or a flock of giant eagles.

[Message] Sending of Bats

During the dead of night while in a cave, earthy hollow, or dead tree, the sorcerer invokes the ancient pact of Chirops, which obligates bats to serve as envoys for the wise. In 1d6 turns, a colony of bats prostrates themselves around the sorcerer to receive a message, which the colony will then carry to a destination or recipient provided by the sorcerer, to sing the message thrice in a harmony of bat voices. There is a 1 in 6 chance the bats will be the size of condors—bat champions—only willing to serve following negotiation of terms.

JRPG Basic Mark 2

Here is a JRPG rules hack. I think this one is tighter than my previous attempt, and may even be playable as is.

First chose a base chassis (B/X D&D, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, whatever), and then apply the following rules modules.

Signature Weapons

Black Mage (personal sketch)

Every player character gets a signature weapon. Fighters get sword (because fighters are the magic sword class). For other classes, choose a non-sword signature weapon (or determine randomly): 1 axe, 2 bow, 3 crossbow, 4 dagger, 5 mace, 6 spear, or 7 war hammer. Adventurers can use weapons afforded by class or signature weapon, and attack with advantage when using a signature weapon. (This list of possible signature weapons matches possible magic weapons from the classic treasure tables; if you choose some other kind of weapon, such as revolver, you might want to modify the treasure tables accordingly.)

Homunculiths

Rather than traditional spells, adventurers draw power from magic crystals called homunculiths. Replace magic weapon plusses with homunculith sockets (so a spear +2 means a spear with two homunculith slots). Any character can use magic afforded by a slotted homunculith if the character can use the weapon and can supply the necessary magic points.

Magic-users can slot a number of homunculiths in various magical paraphernalia equal to character level. This can be hat clips, belt buckles, cane handles, whatever (describe the slots; the stone has to go somewhere, and has to be visible). Working homunculith slots into equipment requires a haven turn or downtime action for a magic-user. Only magic-users can make use of homunculiths in magical paraphernalia. Characters that would otherwise begin with spell slots start with one randomly determined homunculith.

Determine treasure using the treasure tables with some degree of strictness, but: replace magic scroll results with spell homunculiths, replace magic ring results with nexus homunculiths (used to summon daemonotheurgic entities; see below), and read arrow or bolts as bow or crossbow with homunculith slots (by bonus), respectively.

Magic Points

Since hit points come from hit dice, magic points must come from magic dice; adventurer MD by class: fighter = d4, thief = d6, magic-user = d8. (Generally, classes with high HD should have low MD and vice versa, so infer MD for other classes based on that principle.) Determine MP total similarly to HP total (so a third-level fighter gets 3d4 MP). Additionally, use the MD when determining damage from magic that calls for dice (so magic-users roll with pools of d8 and fighters roll with pools of d4). Characters recover spent MP during haven turns/downtime.

Spell Homunculiths

Choose a spell list. Determine the spell associated with each homunculith randomly. Ignore results with “summon monster” type effects (because nexus homunculiths handle summoning). You could use the traditional spells, the spells from Pits & Perils, Wonder & Wickedness, the spells I drafted as part of my previous JRPG Basic musings (black magic spells, white magic spells), some other source, or some combination. Here is the list of spell names from Pits & Perils: Bolt, Call, Calm, Cure, Fade, Fear, Find, Foil, Gaze, Glow, Heal, Hide, Know, Link, Load, Mend, Mute, Null, Pass, Rise, Ruin, Send, Stun, Ward. Determine the MP cost of each spell randomly by rolling 1d6. Once determined, the cost is set (so it is possible to discover a better homunculith with the same spell).

Nexus Homunculiths

Mist dragon summon from Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)

Nexus homunculiths are bound to summonable daemonotheurgic entities. Generate the entity linked to a nexus homunculith by rolling on a table of monsters, and then adding an elemental aspect: 1 fire, 2 ice, 3 lightning, 4 radiance, 5 shadow, 6 slime. For the table of summonable monsters, collect all the monsters in your rulebook of choice with HD of 6 or higher, crossing them off as adventurers discover homunculiths. Give each daemonotheurgic entity a name. Attach an action die to the daemonotheurgic entity. By default, this is d6:

  1. Attack
  2. Attack
  3. Attack
  4. Elemental
  5. Elemental
  6. Special (make this up when creating the entity)

Summoning an entity costs 1 MP. When summoning an entity using a nexus homunculith, determine entity HP using remaining entity HD.

Roll the entity’s action die to determine actions each round after summoning. The summoner can override the action die using a command, but this requires spending an action. Commanding the special attack will cause the entity to depart afterwards. The action die determines the monster’s action but the summoner’s player determines all other details, such as targets and so forth.

When determining summoned monster HP, roll the monster’s remaining HD and leave the dice on the table as they fall (or record the numbers per die). When the monster takes damage, the player may decide to which die the damage applies. If a die total is reduced to zero or less, remove the die and ignore any excess damage rather than process the spillover damage. Restore removed dice during downtime recovery. Healing a summoned monster allows rerolling some number of remaining HD rather than adding HP directly or restoring removed monster HD.

At the end of each combat round, spend 1 MP or the entity departs.

Starting with D&D

Does starting with D&D, compared to starting with other tabletop roleplaying games, lead to playing a wider variety of roleplaying games?

Ben and I ran a survey during the winter to explore attitudes and behaviors related to gateway RPGs (you can find the questions we asked here, along with some descriptive statistics). All of this data is correlational, so interpret any trends below keeping in mind that many unmeasured third variables could provide better explanations. Spoiler alert: after controlling for time-related variables, starting with D&D (compared to non-D&D games) is associated with playing a narrower variety of roleplaying games.

Also, note: I made a programming error in the survey which caused the play variety question to show up for only approximately half the participants. That kind of sucks, but even so the sample is still large (> 1000). The problem was that I based this survey on a previous survey as a template which had used random assignment. The good news is that the presentation seems to have been random. (In any case, you can find a link to the numeric data at the bottom of this post, if you want to perform your own analyses.)

Next, I am going to step through some analysis. The statistics are there if you want them, but I tried to write everything in English as well.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

First, here is a histogram showing the distribution of play variety (figure 1). Response labels were 1 = Strongly Disagree up to 7 = Strongly Agree.

Overall, participants reported having played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs (N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64), somewhat unsurprising for players with enough engagement to talk about games online. Based on the figure above, it looks like the distribution is censored, probably due to range restriction in the measurement. That is, the question we asked probably has trouble distinguishing between people at the high end of the distribution. Additionally, there may be some self-serving bias where participants overestimate the variety of games played. Some models (such as Tobit regression) can take censored data into account.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge)

What about the focal comparison of starting with D&D compared to starting with a non-D&D game? There is a marginal statistical difference, but the effect is quite small, which is clear if you look at a visualization superimposing the two distributions (figure 2). Using a t-test, the difference between means is 5.44 for non-D&D and 5.28 for any edition of D&D (t(947.326) = 1.67, p = .095). Tobit regression provides similar results for the effect of starting with D&D (b = -.249, SE = .136, t = -1.83, p = .067, 95% CI [-.516, .018]). The following two figures use kernel density estimation, which is (to oversimplify) similar to a histogram, but smoothed. (“Non-D&D” here includes “other” results, which was n around 500. I skimmed the free text response for those participants and there are only a handful which could be considered a D&D variant.)

What if we increase the granularity, distinguishing between TSR D&D and WotC D&D?

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)

These figures (3 and 4) might make it look like there is a clear split between the influence of TSR D&D compared to WotC D&D, however keep in mind that starting edition is confounded with date entering the hobby. WotC D&D came out more recently, so players that first land on WotC D&D tend to have started more recently (mean year = 2011) compared to players that started with TSR D&D (mean year = 1997). Dramatically, players also started much younger with TSR D&D (mean age = 12.37) compared to WotC D&D (mean age = 18.29). Both of these factors would give players starting with TSR D&D more time to explore other games, on average, so we should probably add both as covariates to control for that association.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge)

Indeed, when you control for the age/time related variables, you get an entirely different pattern (see figure 5), where starting with either generation of D&D (TSR or WotC) is associated with less variety playing other tabletop RPGs compared to starting with non-D&D games. Based on this data, I think this is the tentative conclusion. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a value judgment that I will leave to you. This could mean that people are more likely to be satisfied with D&D. It could also mean that people with more variety-seeking personalities are more likely to come across non-D&D games initially, and it is this trait, rather than initial exposure, which is responsible both for the exposure to the initial game and the decision to continue exploring other games. This result concerns individual behavior, not broader cultural influence; it is possible (and seems likely to me, though I lack supporting data) that broad brand awareness of D&D expands the overall player pool and so has a net positive effect on the absolute number of people exploring other games.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge)

The associations according to a Tobit regression including the covariates: TSR D&D (b = -.560, SE = .181, t = -3.09, p = 0.002, 95% CI [-.916, -.204]), WotC D&D (b = -.337, SE = .151, t = -2.23, p = 0.026, 95% CI [-.634, -.041]), year started playing covariate (b = -.066, SE = .008, t = -8.04, p < 0.001, 95% CI [-.082, -.050]), age started playing covariate (b = -.032, SE = .014, t = -2.37, p = 0.018, 95% CI [-.059, -.006]). (This seems to be a decent pass at an appropriate model, but notably the results are similar using standard OLS multiple regression.)

Here is the raw numeric data. Here is the Stata code I used for the analysis in this post. Please let me know if you have any questions, discover anything else, notice any errors, or have any suggestions.

Fatal Instinct

Palpatine’s advice

A wolf tears an adventurer from horseback, leaving the adventurer at 1 HP. A mind flayer death-lord looms over an unconscious adventurer with brain drill raised high. Some decisions confront the referee. Have the next wolf attack the unhorsed? Crack open that skull?

Ruthless actions can sometimes feel like an arbitrary referee choice, even if demanded by best move game logic. Considering the integrity of the imagined world, objectives other than pure ruthlessness may make more sense. For example, in the wild predators often attempt to separate the weak from a herd, withdrawing from combat with a prize, rather than following the completion-oriented impulse of reducing all opponents to zero hit points. In the context of a game, however, avoiding scorched earth can sometimes read as a pulled punch.

Conversely, the strongest game move can sometimes feel like the referee (rather than the integrity of the game world) has personally decided to kill your character in particular, even if it really does make the most sense in the game world context, unless the referee makes decisions in the same way for all opponents. This is because, as a matter of psychology, given incomplete information people infer intent from behavior. Also suboptimal.

Ideally, there will be some ruthless opponents, some merciful opponents, some strategic opponents, and some inscrutable opponents. As a referee, it is all too easy to fall into patterns. You might find all your opponents acting like they are playing battle chess or that adventurers keep getting captured.

Below are several approaches to determine opponent ruthlessness impartially.

Generally speaking, my principle is to follow the thread of imagined necessity until some aspect becomes uncertain and then call for a roll. And that is the way I would see deploying any of these approaches, probably transparently and with the player rolling the dice.

Situation-Agnostic Behavior Table

Roll d6:

  1. Vindictive sadistic gleeful viciousness
  2. Continues attacking the adventurer with intent to kill
  3. Changes target, attempts to attack a different adventurer
  4. Attempts to capture or restrain adventurer
  5. Maintains hostility, but switches to display of aggression/intimidation
  6. Objective met, cautious retreat (maybe something spooked the opponent?)

Reaction Roll

Image from some Mortal Kombat game

Make a reaction roll, using whatever system your base game chassis provides. Here are the classic outcome bands from B/X (page B24):

Monster Reactions

  • 2 Immediate Attack
  • 3-5 Hostile, possible attack
  • 6-8 Uncertain, monster confused
  • 9-11 No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
  • 12 Enthusiastic friendship

You would need to reinterpret these dispositions relative to the question of whether the opponent fights with maximum intent to kill or not, but that should be an easy exercise for the reader, and has the advantage of reusing a system.

Charisma Test

Call for the player of the threatened adventurer to make a charisma check. Failure means focused fire, attack to kill, whatever. Success within four points means continued attack but letting up or switching targets. Success by more than four points means the opponent has made a point and is looking for an out. Set the DC (if that is a thing in your ruleset) based on how mean the opponent is.

In addition to persuasiveness, charisma also represents force of personality, confidence, and so forth, attributes that may dissuade attackers both animal and intelligent. There were cougars in the hills where I grew up, and if you encountered a cougar the best approach was supposedly to stand still and make yourself as big as possible. I never had to test that, but I imagine that standing tall in the face of a wildcat would take some charisma.

Teamplay

Alex’s podcast

On my last grocery run, I listened to the first episode of Alex’s podcast Text to Table, which is a discussion of Troika with David Wilkie (Anxiety Wizard). One detail jumped out at me, which was the dynamic of play that David described in his Troika game. The focus of play seemed to be more interaction between player characters rather than exploration or problem solving.

The characters in the party included a lonesome monarch, a zoanthrope, a chaos champion, and maybe some others but those are the ones I recall. In the game the zoanthrope tried to eat the king’s crown, triggering some sort of existential crisis regarding kinghood, and then there was some interaction between the king and the chaos champion, details somewhat unimportant. What I want to highlight here is the interaction of player characters as more autonomous entities as compared to a team working together to accomplish some goal. (Please read this as descriptive rather than judgmental; the game sounded memorable and fun.)

I am always on the lookout for key play aspects that distinguish different modes and cultures of play. (For example, degree of proceduralism.) Whether players form a team working together to confront challenges (or not) seems to be another one of these key aspects of play, more interesting for the fact that it is rarely described explicitly, even in games that try to discuss things like play agendas explicitly. Looking at another game, in many ways Apocalypse World is a highly traditional design (each player controls a single character with stats, there are rules for fighting, characters improve, and so forth), but many or most of the rules (and examples in the text) seem geared toward priming confrontations between characters, resulting in a kind of soap opera dynamic. That is, much of the play seems to involve generating drama between player characters rather than navigating challenges between player characters and the fictional environment. In contrast, in TSR D&D and many OSR games, the (never? rarely?) stated assumption is that player characters form a band of picaros or commandos intent on dungeon heists. There seems to be some highly influential spectrum between autonomous interaction and team-based problem solving.

Discussing this with Eero Tuovinen, he mentioned some terminology around drama versus adventure or PvP versus PvE, which are relevant but don’t seem to quite capture the differences on this spectrum. For example, PvP seems to connote a degree of conflict that may be absent from autonomous character based games (it certainly didn’t seem like the player characters in David’s Troika game were trying to kill each other or competing directly in any way). Further, there was probably some adventure going on, so saying that the Troika game was not (categorically) an “adventure” game seems like a mistake, though maybe prioritizing drama versus prioritizing adventure gets part of the way there. This distinction does seem to underly at a deep level what it is that players are doing when they play however.

Unlike D&D, Troika ties advancement to using skills successfully rather than to a clear gameplay goal such as recovering treasure, defeating monsters, or completing event milestones, so there is some textual support underlying this mode of play, whatever your opinion on causation between text and play experience. Troika differs in many other ways from traditional play assumptions, such as the surrealist setting prompts, so there may be additional dynamics at play here, but encoded incentives seem unambiguously relevant to the question of shared goals at the least. I also think that it would be a mistake to oversimplify this to broader play culture, where “story games” are about drama based on interactions between autonomous characters and “OSR” games are about goal-oriented team play, given that the player base of Troika is probably mostly located in the OSR (or what have you) play culture.

Personally, my default mode of play tends toward team-oriented. The elements of play I enjoy most are exploration and problem solving, both when I run games and when I play games. Some media touchstones of action in these kinds of games (to reference a few TV shows) include seeing how the characters of early-seasons Lost explore the island, or how the characters in The Walking Dead manage to carve out a niche for themselves in the apocalyptic landscape. These are the team-oriented aspects of these stories. I think there are some practical advantages to team-based play in that teams support varying degrees of engagement whereas the mode of more autonomous player characters requires all players to be on point as needed, somewhat like improv, though I imagine perhaps systems could help here (providing tables of voluntary action prompts relevant to character backgrounds, for example).

Please relax and enjoy the show!

…an immersive visual and audio experience…

I last played Final Fantasy VII when it came out originally. I liked the original, and probably count as a fan of the franchise generally, though my favorite iteration remains Final Fantasy VI, and I have slightly less experience with the modern action-leaning incarnations (X, XII, XIII, XV, and various spin-offs). Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the most sustained attention I have directed toward a video game in the past 10 years, taking about 40 hours total. While this may partly be due to the current shelter-in-place pseudo-quarantine context, it nonetheless speaks to the engaging spectacle and beauty of the reimagined Midgar. So keep that in mind as you read on. There may be spoilers throughout regarding the original FF VII storyline, as well as some spoilers near the end about the way the remake approached the material.

In the train graveyard

The original game was linear—almost all FF games are linear to some degree—and especially so during the initial Midgar sequence, which is the only material the remake covers, ending as Avalanche leaves the city. Since I started writing this review, I also played through the Midgar sequence of the original on Nintendo Switch, which took me about six hours, meaning the expansion/inflation is about sevenfold. Though lengthy for a prologue or tutorial section, the Midgar sequence works well in the original partly because the railroad feels subjectively like it opens up once the player finally reaches the overworld map and can begin to explore the mysteries of the Ancients and Sephiroth in a more self-directed manner (though this is somewhat illusory, as there are often a limited number of choices and a clear next step). In contrast, the Remake is one scene—quite literally—after another, leavened somewhat by numerous side quests (though many of the side quests are thematically weak “find lost cats” style collect tasks). The side quests seem inconsequential most of the time, and are limited to particular chapters. The strongest aspect of Remake is the visual care with which it was clearly constructed. In comparison to the original, the way the developers maintain and add detail to the original designs is impressive. Even putting aside the new plot elements—which I will discuss more near the end—the game aspect of Remake also has some shortcomings.

Memorialization

These gameplay shortcomings include some strange difficulty/balance issues, intrusive minigames, and confusingly modeful play. As a brief aside, Remake offers three difficulty modes: classic, easy, and normal. Hard mode becomes available after you beat the game. “Classic” is a nod to players desiring something closer to the original combat system. This is realized by replacing player controls with AI for basic attacks, dodging, and blocking, leaving the player to only select special moves and spells when the stamina bar (or whatever it is called) fills. Hard (which I have yet to try) only becomes available after beating the game; hard mode prevents the player from using items and makes rest areas only restore HP (no MP replenishment). Classic mode makes the combat much easier, rather than just changing the style, to the degree that it almost feels like cheating. I would say that the combat difficulty is moderate near the beginning of the game (probably easy for anyone even slightly better than me at action RPGs) and gets steadily easier. I defeated every boss on the first try except the Airbuster robot and the motorcycle sequence monster truck thing (which uses a different combat mode). So, the game has to be pretty easy, even on the highest difficulty mode available initially. I deferred to Classic mode twice early on, once with the rabid dog quest and once with the first Reno encounter (because he is twitchy AF). This is a long way around to say that the goal of FF7 Remake seems to be more sumptuous visual novel than gaming experience.

Picking flowers

The minigames are either forgettable or mildly frustrating. Further, they tend to be separate from other gameplay skills and unique to the particular minigame, rather than building on previously developed skills. In the Remake’s defense, the minigames in the original are just as distracting (and far more prevalent than I remembered, even just limited to the small portion I replayed). However, the original generally has clearer breaks between game modes, allowing the player to easily predict how the game will behave, whereas in the remake gameplay, cut scene, minigame, and in-between modes blend together and functionality sometimes disappears or shifts confusingly. The Remake also has issues with communicating contingency to the player, by which I mean connection between what the player does and what happens in the game world. Sometimes it is unclear whether you are just pressing a button to advance or performing some skilled action. For example, I still have no idea whether Tifa’s progress in jumping chandeliers in the Shinra building had any connection to what I did with the controller, but I ended up with a keycard in the end so whatever. I suspect the Remake would be improved without most of the minigames. (It seems like the developers recognize this at some level, because one of the perks unlocked by beating the game is the ability to skip the motorcycle sequences when replaying chapters.)

This calls for a song

The combat is satisfying, and fits the FF VII style, especially once you get the hang of some basic tactics. There is a slow motion, bullet time effect that occurs when you pause the action to issue commands, which is realized beautifully. Most of the strategic decisions involve distributing materia—the items that enable casting spells or using other abilities such as summoning—between characters. There is a subsystem with a separate experience point economy for upgrading weapons, but the choices seem hard to get wrong so the whole subsystem could probably have been automated and hidden from the player without loss.

No promises

Now I am going to discuss the Remake-specific aspects of the story. The game has a lot of potentially meta content, as in communication from developer to player directly rather than through storytelling, so much that it has to be intentional. Throughout the Remake, mysterious ghost things (“whispers”) intercede to shape the narrative, and while a final interpretation will need to wait on the next installment, it seems like the whispers will be an excuse to write a new plot going forward, especially given the final premature encounter with Sephiroth which, no matter the direction future games take, short-circuits some of the slow burn of discovering the nature and power of Sephiroth in the original game. The strange title and marketing also makes more sense in the context of future divergence; it is not Remake part 1 because part 2 will be a different story. I suspect the subtitles of future games will make this clear; perhaps the next installment will be called something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The closest analogue to what I think the developers intend is the rebuild of Evangelion, the first installment of which roughly kept to the original anime. However, the second and third Evangelion Rebuild movies became steadily more baroque additions with new plots and characters.

Cloud chilling

The neo VII project more broadly—perhaps a series, perhaps a nascent “cinematic universe”—is ambitious and as yet unclear, though it seems from the signs in Remake that the creators are comfortable taking a demolitions approach to nostalgic fandom. While I have no trouble maintaining distance between the new and the old—after all, the previous game remains unchanged and cheaply available on many platforms—I suspect that many other fans feel differently, so this seems like a strange stance to take on the part of the developers. In total, the game was enjoyable and visually striking enough that I can see myself playing it again at some point, but as such a small portion of the original plot and with cumbersome retcon groundwork, Remake also feels like a opportunity missed.

(All images are screenshots I took during my play-through.)