Self-playing ‘games’

When I saw that there was a mobile game coming out for Ni No Kuni (“Cross Worlds”), I was very excited. I have had so much fun with the two games, especially the second. The world-building, the visuals (Studio Ghibli was involved in the first game, and the visual style was kept) and the gameplay all made them stand-outs for me.
Yesterday was the launch, and while I didn’t have that much time to dive into it, I really liked what I saw when I started it up. There is an actual story line, and NPCs and almost everything is voiced. So much content, and it’s amazing to think that it is basically an MMORPG on a phone.
It is an action RPG, and that means that part of the screen is given over to the touch controls, which takes away the haptic feedback one relies on when pressing buttons on a controller. And since the screen is small, there is less ‘real estate’ to put things like quest markers and mini-maps on, and the battles can get quite hectic with visual effects, especially if there are multiple players battling.

The way the designers ‘solved’ this is to automate nearly everything. If you activate a quest, your PC will automatically walk to their destination. When you start a battle, your PC will keep fighting for as long as there are enemies and automatically use their skills when they are available.
This means that the game, essentially, plays itself. Gone is the exploration, checking every nook and cranny of the map to see what you find. Gone is the skill needed for the battles. This morning I did the five daily Swift Solutions quests by merely activating them one by one, and the game did all the work: it went where it needed to go, it battled the monsters it needed to battle. All I had to do was to accept the rewards and activate the next quest.

It looks gorgeous, and I really want to like it, but there’s just too little ‘game’ for me to get excited for.

I made a fresh-faced Witch to play with, but I think this is as far as she’ll you. Unfortunately.

I have finished(*) Octopath Traveler, which is just as well, because I had gotten kind of obsessed with it. Every battle is a puzzle, and especially the boss battles (of which there are 32 in the character chapters and some additional ones in dungeons) require the right combination of abilities, equipment and tactics. Of course, there are battles against random monsters on the overland map and in dungeons, but once you have cracked their puzzle (so to speak) they don’t really offer a challenge anymore. And since I am bad at playing games, I had to walk back and forth a bit to gather the right characters and equipment for some boss battles, so in the end I was a bit overlevelled.
(*): I have completed all the chapters of all eight characters. I did not finish (or even enter!) some of the dungeons, nor did I take up the special end-game dungeon (to which some of the chapters make a masterful allusion!) but for now I will declare the game done.

Of course, being me, I considered how a game like Octopath Traveler would work out as a tabletop RPG. There is an official TRPG out, but that is in Japanese. One could easily add the Boost mechanic to a combat-heavy game like D&D. Personally, if I was interested in that, I would also fiddle with the rules for damage resistances and vulnerabilities to add the shields mechanic.
And for sure, the main part of the game is the combat, like in so many computer RPGs. But what made me care about the outcome, are the character stories and the NPCs they meet and the overall story arc of this group of characters. And I was thinking: what would it take to replicate that same ‘feel’ in a tabletop RPG? It could be a real cool Ryuutama campaign with some mature players who all signed up for being the star of the show for one episode, and then be a supporting character for all the other characters’ episodes. A pre-planned campaign wouldn’t work — it never does, because it takes away agency from the players — but you could prepare the next chapter based on the actions of the group and their preferences. What you could plan ahead is the continent/area where the stories would play out, but which parts of which stories would be placed where, would be up to the flow of the game. I was also struck by how some of the character jobs directly map onto the jobs available in Ryuutama: nobles, healers, merchants…

Instead of that, I have assembled a group to play Blades in the Dark with. A few years back, I was part of a BitD campaign that lasted quite a long time. I spoke a friend who had fallen off my radar for a bit. He is the GM of a campaign me and Klik both play in, but we haven’t played for about six months now. This is due to how busy he is, but he does have the bandwidth to play in a game. BitD is an interesting setting — when I described it to him, he immediately pointed to the Arcane series on Netflix, which is what reminded me strongly of Blades too. And it has a lot of player input and improv, so it doesn’t really require a lot of prep for the GM. I’m confident in my ability to wing it. I have assembled an interesting mix of players, and we’re having our ‘session zero’ next week. I’m looking forward to it.

Adjusting & Gaming

I got more vitriol than I expected on my announcement that I would stop cross-posting to LJ. I decided that it was not worth it to add to my stress by carefully explaining my reasoning, so I just left it at that.
The plugin I used for cross-posting to LJ does not support DW — perhaps there is a difference in the APIs, or perhaps it’s the ancient XMLRPC library that is used. Rather than debug that or get a new library in, I am going to exchange that code for some hard-core curl calls.
But that’s not done yet, so this is a manual cross-post. It’ll have to do for now.

But my coding time is severely limited by my gaming time. A few weeks back, I bought Octopath Traveler second-hand, and I have been playing it ever since. I really, really like the game: the look of it and the music, but mostly the gameplay. Most turn-based RPGs see enemies as bags of HPs that have to be whittled down with various attacks and abilities, but OT makes every combat a little puzzle. Certain jobs can wield certain combinations of weapon types (and there are eight), with some overlap. So the apothecary can wield the axe, the hunter can wield axe and bow, the thief sword and dagger, etc. Enemies have a number of ‘shields’, from 1 upto 11 in boss fights, and they have weaknesses against an element or weapon type. An attack wit a vulnerability breaks one shield, and if all the shields are gone, the enemy is stunned and all attacks do their max damage. Each turn you also get a ‘boost’, which either allows you to make an ability extra effective, or to attack an extra time (upto maximum of 4).
So a fight comes down to determining what the vulnerabilities are (new enemies only show you how many there are, and only if you attack with a vulnerability does it show up on the list) and then optimizing your attacks so that you break as many enemies as soon as possible, so that you can mop them up with attacks that deal damage to all enemies.
Each of the eight characters has their own story in multiple chapters, and you travel all across the map, finding dungeons and shrines and what-not, to see their story unfold.

It’s really fun, and I am wondering what it would be like to do a campaign like that in a tabletop RPG like Ryuutama…

My interest in the Dark Souls video game franchise is well documented on this blog — I once even was interviewed for a leading Dutch newspaper about it. So of course I have an interest in replicating that kind of feel in a tabletop RPG. When I wrote an RPG in 24 hours, I produced Miasma, a Japanese-themed take on the concept of undead traveling through the ruins of a corrupted capital in order to fulfill their destiny.
For Miasma, my design hinged on adversaries telegraphing their attacks, and tactical grid movement. The system was diceless — just like in the videogame, not luck but planning and commitment would be the main deciding factors in a fight. Just like there is very little luck involved in the videogame: if there was, then it would be impossible to do consistent hitless runs. It works in theory, but it is slow and cumbersome.

There are more games with the express goal to emulate the video game. Jason Tocci has created a few, based on various (rules-lite) RPG systems. I GM’ed two sessions of Exhumed, but that fell flat because of a lack of narrative thrust on my part and the underlying system. Most RPG systems regard monsters as bags of hitpoints, and it becomes a series of dice rolls to see who is victorious — and that’s just not what Dark Souls feels like to me.

Now, there is an official Dark Souls tabletop RPG in preparation — whether it is an original work or a translation of the Japanese official tabletop RPG is unknown at this time. But the discussion came up on Twitter about what systems or games would be suited to run a ‘Souls-like’ game in. And someone pointed out a setting book for Dungeon World, which is a D&D-like fantasy game using the Apocalypse World Engine. Normally Dungeon World would emulate dungeon-crawling high fantasy games, but of course you can change some of the Moves and add other details to the character options to change its tone completely. Which they did.
The Cold Ruins of Lastlife is one of three ‘Chaos Worlds’, which are settings for Dungeon World to emulate certain types of media. I bought the PDF because I was curious, and all I can say is that it works really well. Perhaps not quite in the way I want a soulslike RPG to be, but there are some really inspired ideas in there.
Dungeon World does not have a combat system as such. Yes, everyone has hitpoints, but everything is left to fictional positioning. There are no rules for turn orders, and characters can try to do any crazy stunt they want to. And while it may be very obvious to everyone else, I had a bit of an epiphany: you don’t need to carefully model all the ways that monsters attack in Dark Souls and make a system out of that — you can just leave it to the GM. Make a list of common attack patterns and trust the GM to come up with an exciting fight. Add a few Moves for the characters to use to give them an edge under certain circumstances, and off you go.

Not like I needed inspiration for another RPG writing project, but it’s an interesting thought.

I don’t recall who wrote it, but a quote I read on Twitter said that every game is like a spreadsheet: there’s numbers and relationships between those numbers. And the goal of any game is to get certain numbers high (score, HPs, XPs) while keeping other numbers low (damage, etc). To do this, you have a few number cells you can manipulate that then influence all the other numbers in complex ways.
Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World takes this to heart: some interfaces in the game actually look as a spreadsheet! It’s a town-management sim in the Ateliers franchise, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019. In the Atelier games, you play an alchemist (invariably a girl in a frilly dress with a squeaky voice) who needs to solve various problems by gathering ingredients, synthesizing new items and defeating monsters. There’s always a time limit, so you have to make choices on what to spend your precious time on.
It is not different in this game: you get 100 turns to turn a little hamlet into a bustling city.

You play as the titular Nelke, a young aristocrat who came to the hamlet of Westwald to search for a legendary alchemy artefact, the Granzweit tree. And for some reason, all kinds of alchemists from all kinds of different worlds are drawn to Westwald, and they end up helping you.
Each turn consists of two phases. In the weekday phase, you manage your town: you can build new facilities (like ateliers for alchemists, shops to sell the items they produce to get funds, gardens and farms for raw ingredients, buildings with special effects, etc); and you can assign characters from your roster to work in a field or building and give them orders on what to produce. In the holiday phase, you can visit characters in order to raise their XP or friendship level; you can starts special research projects if all the requirements are met (often a certain number of a specific item, the alchemists involved have to be in your village of course, and sometimes there is also a requirement for a minimum friendship level). Another thing you can do is to ‘investigate’, which means assembling a group and walk along a route to collect items and battle monsters in turn-based battles. If you make it to the end of a route, you can assign characters to gather the materials that are present on that route during the weekday — and of course you need those materials for your alchemical recipes. The holiday phase has a clock count-down, and once it’s empty, the day is over and you have to get back to work…
Your father, the lord of the land, gives you orders (build your town to X number of people, earn Y amount of money by selling items etc), that you need to achieve within a certain number of turns. If you fail such a task, the game ends: your father recalls you back to the capital, and that’s it. But if that happens, you can create a special type of save file that allows you to start the game over with bonuses: characters gain XP faster, friendship levels increase faster, etc. So failing makes subsequent playthroughs easier, which is a brilliant design concept: even if you’re not so good, you can still make it to the end if you want to spend the time on it.

So basically it’s an excuse to assemble all of the characters of all the Atelier games in some kind of mash-up. And instead of the usual Atelier gameplay, it’s a pretty hardcore town management sim. The aforementioned spreadsheet is part of the interface: you can get an overview of all the items/ingredients in the game, how much of it you get each turn (gathering, growing or alchemical synthesis) and how much you consume (through sales or alchemical synthesis). You obviously want to balance this sheet for a smooth running of your town!
I quickly turned off the voice track (which only exists in Japanese), because I was getting tired of the squeaky voices that are so typical of Japanese ‘moe’ games and anime. And most of the dialog is pretty inconsequential anyway — something about one alchemist being fanatical about carrots and another hating them, etc. I ended up skipping most of that too after a while, but if you’re a hardcore Atelier fan, then of course you want to get to the very end of your favourite alchemists’ story-line.

On my third try, I completed the game. Unfortunately, I did not get the ‘best ending’, because I had not expected that to hinge on a single combat encounter — all of your careful town management doesn’t really factor in there, which felt bad. So for now I’m done with the game — I might pick it up again later, but by the end I was really looking forward to seeing the ending and play something else for a while.
The game got mixed reviews and mediocre scores, and that is certainly for a reason. But if you like town management sims and/or the Atelier games, then maybe it’s your cup of tea anyway. I had fun with it, after I started ignoring/skipping the parts that irritated me.

One year ago, when the COVID-19 restrictions had just started, Animal Crossing:New Horizons was released. I had pre-ordered and pre-downloaded it for our Switch, and it was the evening of March 20th when I stepped into that sea airplane to go on the ‘uninhabited island package’. Lots of people have written about how people visited each others’ islands and how overnight a whole community had sprung up around the game, so I don’t have to talk about that. Since then, lots of people have stopped playing — but not us. We even celebrated the new year in the game, with a friend visiting to see the count-down on our village square.

Every day, we do the rounds on our island. The days of hardcore fishing or bug-hunting are behind us, but it’s just nice and relaxing to fire up the game and walk around for a bit. Yesterday was our 365th day on the island.

A power interruption. We had gotten a letter from the company that manages the power lines that they’d be working on the infrastructure on Monday, from 08:00 to 12:00. That’s quite a long time, and no power means no heating, no hot water and no internet. I had reserved a spot at the office, but on Sunday I really didn’t feel like going — who would want to sit alone in an enormous empty office while being forced to drink the horrible tea there? So I cancelled the reservation — I could always use my phone as a hotspot, and if everything else failed I’d just take that time off.
We made sure to have all of our electronics charged, as well as the powerbank and all laptops. We got up extra early so that Klik could take a shower and I cranked the heating up so that the house would get a bit warm. I also made coffee and tea and put it in a thermos to keep it warm. And sure enough, at 08:09, the power went out.
…and it turned on again at 08:28. And stayed on. As usual, we were overprepared, but we’re not complaining. And I was glad I had resolved to stay home, because the trip to the office would have almost taken longer than the actual power cut.

My car got a new battery. Last Friday, my car refused to open with the keyless entry, and when Klik had opened it up with the key, it refused to start. (I had already left in her car to do the grocery shopping.) I had road-side assistance from Toyota, which I called on Tuesday. Within an hour a guy with a tow truck showed up, and he quickly determined that it was the (small) starting battery that didn’t have any charge left. We started the car with an external battery pack, and I drove to the garage. They took some measurements and the battery said it was OK, but it’s getting on in age… So I decided to have them put in a fresh battery.

I pickled some red onions. Super easy recipe, but quite delicious. I like to put them on my salad.

Some local friends started playing Dauntless too. I know these people from the local Pokemon Go scene, and they own a Switch too. We are in some communal chat groups, and on Saturday they sent me a chat asking if I played too. It’s been a lot of fun to team up with them and to show them the ropes. But they’re quite hard-core and have been playing through all 50 levels of the hunt pass in less than a week!
I am a member of a guild, but most of the players there live in Australia, so I often don’t have anyone to team up with when I play in the evenings. And while it can be fun to team up with a group of random players, that is really “hit or miss”. So having people to go around the islands with and helping each other is a lot of fun. It’s what makes co-op gaming so fun.

My second D&D group is approaching the end of the scenario. They’re playing through The Forest Shrine, my second D&D scenario, and they’ve arrived at the ‘end fight’. The first time they attempted the fight, it almost ended in a Total Party Kill and the group had to beat a hasty retreat. Since then, I’ve talked to a few of the players about their character’s abilities and how that interlocks with the rest of the group. The second time around, their tactics were much better and they really coordinated their actions. It’s still an interesting fight, but they were never in the kind of danger they faced during their first try — even though the opposition is the same. D&D really rewards ‘system mastery’ in that way.
I already have an idea of a sequel, but I want to talk to the players first on what they would like to see more of.

Goodbye 2020

Remember when Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out just as we went into the first lockdown, and it turned into a bit of a lifeline for many people? You could visit other islands and keep in touch with friends. People celebrated birthdays and weddings in-game, and there was a regular iftar on an island too. In my mind, it’s really intertwined with the situation.
So what better way to say goodbye to 2020 by opening up your island for visitors for the end-of-year countdown, and a friend visiting to send 2020 off in-game?

I’ve been trawling through the “free to play” category on the Switch e-shop, just to try some things out.
I started out with Spellbreak, in which you play a wizard running through an arena where you need to find equipment that will make you more powerful. With that equipment you can attack other players (or bots) to ‘banish’ them and take their loot. Meanwhile, a storm steadily closes in, so all remaining players are forced towards the same spot. It’s the umpteenth iteration of a battle royale game — PUBG started the craze and Fortnite really popularized it with their free-to-play variant of the same concept.
The first game I played, I actually won! Turns out that your first game is always against bots, so that you can get a taste of the gameplay, and the feeling you’re actually good at this! Good move on the part of the makers, but as more and more real players got mixed in with the groups I played against, my ranking dropped considerably! I’m really bad at aiming projectile weapons, and with people jumping and flying around, it just doesn’t work for me. (I also never learned to play with a keyboard & mouse, and so pretty much every first person shooter is off-limits to me. And yes, I played this with a controller, but I never got good at aiming in the first place.)
The monetising was all aimed at cosmetic items and emotes and stuff like that — not essential to win — obviously, because who would play a game where the person who spends the most simply wins?behem
It’s just not my game, and so I uninstalled it after a few rounds. I don’t think I enjoy competitive multiplayer games like that.

This week, I installed Dauntless. In that game, you hunt ‘behemoths’, big monsters that have something to do with how the world shattered into separate ‘islands’ or something like that. I haven’t even bothered to read up on all of the background, which I’m sure is pretty deep but not really needed when playing.
Apparently it’s like Monster Hunter in that you, eh, hunt monsters. By attacking particular pieces of the behemoth (like its tail or legs) you can ‘harvest’ parts of the monsters, which you can then use to craft weapons or armour that is infused with the power of that monster. And of course, if you crafted an ice weapon, that’s pretty powerful against a fire monster, and vice versa. There are different types of weapons with their own specialities, and through quests and bounties you can earn things to improve your equipment, etc. There’s a lot to do, and there are various game modes that offer you different challenges — though in the end it all comes down to slaughtering an un-ending parade of monsters!
The game can be played alone, but the best experience is to work together with other players. I don’t have voice chat enabled and while there are emotes and phrases for in chat, nobody has time for those during a hunt: while you’re fiddling with your controls, the Embermane you’re fighting might be charging towards you! I do think it’ll be a lot of fun to play with friends, but since I don’t know anyone who does, I’m just a rando in a party of rando’s. Kind of liberating that you do not need to coordinate with someone else which hunt you’ll be going to do, too. I am not a stellar player though: my personal rating is almost always (far) below the rating of the team as a whole, though I do have my moments. Instead, I try to revive other players as often as I can, because that’s a better contribution towards the team goal than attacking myself. 😉
And this being a cooperative game, it’s not cheating if you spend real money to get better items in the game. So there are players who have sunk quite some cash into the game and have better tools and weapons — and that’s fine, because you’re not playing against them anyway. The monetising is at times rather “in your face”, but it’s absent during a hunt, so it doesn’t bother me much.
I’m not sure how long my obsession with it will last, but it’s certainly fun to fulfill missions or set your own goals and to hunt some monsters.

It’s been quite a while since I posted here. But I don’t really have much to say, because not much has been happening.
We’ve started to relax our strict distancing a bit with our respective families. Klik has resumed her visits with her mother, but she does keep her distance (no hugs etc). And yesterday we visited my parents for a ‘garden date’: we sat at one end of the garden, they at the other. It was good to chat with them in person again, and we could also do a few chores for them that they are not equipped to deal with adequately anymore.

I’m playing in three online RPGs, and running one — that’s maybe a tad much, but so far I’m really enjoying this increased activity. Lots of fun with great people.

Other than that, most of the time we’re just playing Animal Crossing — I don’t seem to have the energy or focus for much more. I’m doing a lot of online stuff with it (mostly getting DIY recipes from villagers on other islands), and today we managed to get the coveted 5 star rating for our island! We might do a little video tour to show it off to our parents…