Tabletop Roleplaying: Combat For Someone Who Hates Combat

I run a tabletop RPG campaign from time to time. We game online, using IRC for most everything, and we meet once a week on average. We’ve been gaming for about eleven years now, all in the same campaign, and just wrapped Session 355 last night. So we’ve been doing this for a while!

One of my players hates combat. She hates that the dice can unravel a huge plan of hers in one ill-timed critical miss, she hates that she’s on the spot with little planning if something does go awry, and she hates that there’s so much out of her control. She’s much more adept in the social situations of gaming — we famously went five months without a single dice roll — and I wouldn’t dream of having her drop from the game. But the other two players get a lot out of combat, both in the challenge and the creativity. What is a GM to do?

I haven’t seen a lot written on this subject. The games I’ve played are either fairly combat-focused (D&D, Pathfinder) or treated combat the same as everything else (Vampire, Mage). I don’t think anyone’s insinuating that if you don’t want to have combat, go play another game, but I didn’t find much relief in the books on my shelf. Fortunately, I have two other resources — nearly thirty years of playing games of all types, and three very smart, very resourceful players.

Combat Tracker

Combat Tracker 1

That tiny image there (click to embiggen) is something I implemented about 50 sessions ago, and it is the Omega Combat Tracker. Our game is based off of Pathfinder, with elements brought in from D&D4E. We’ve spent the last few sessions having our combatophobe run the tracker during battles, and it’s fantastic. Here’s how it works.

Initiative Order: I’d think you guys know what this is.
Initiative Score: This is not a number that ever changes, unless someone holds action (in which case, their initiative score changes to where they acted). That’s why it’s good to track it.
Damage Taken: This is more valuable than current HP totals. It lets the villains be tracked in the same way (“We’ve done 400 HP of damage so far, he’s GOT to be close!”), and it also means that I can’t look at the tracker and see that a character is in single-digits HP and then go easy on them. Now that my party has easier access to resurrection magic and there are plot ways to bring someone back, I’m more comfortable with this.
Primary Attack: They can make their own notes on how the other side is fighting. Is there a ranged guy? Get someone in his face. Is there a magic guy? Get someone in his face. Is there a dragon? Get someone you don’t like in his face.
PD/FD/RD/WD: Physical/Fortitude/Reflex/Will Defense. We have a new system here, built around speed of combat since we play online. The players mark their own defenses in, so I can check and see if a roll I make has hit without waiting for them to confirm. After they hit one of my enemies’ defenses, I mark down what that defense is, and from there they know what it is when they make their rolls.
Resistances: This way, no one casts Bufu on the guy who absorbs ice. Easily tracked.
Status Effects: Status Effects are the bane of my existence! They can swing a battle in either direction, but there’s always something to track and remember. Here we mark down the status effect, plus how many rounds remain on it.
Temp Negative/Notes: These should probably be combined, but in the past they’ve included “hanging off the side of a stone pillar,” “falling,” and “on a motorcycle.” All in the same battle, no less.
Dailies/Encounters Used: One element of D&D4E I really liked was breaking down abilities into three categories — abilities you could use all the time (At Will), abilities you could use once per battle (Encounter), and abilities you could only use once a day (Daily). Sure, it’s kinda video-gamey, but that works perfectly for the game we’re running here. This way we can mark down what people are using during the fight.

I ran the Tracker when we first started out, but I have a lot to do as a GM. Our combatophobe has taken over, and she’s been great — asking people what type of ability they used, marking down status effects expiring, making notes on the defenses (that “>31” there is her note of missing on a 31, so any rolls of 31 or lower just register as misses, no need to confirm with me), that sort of thing. Organizational skills.

But there’s not really any gameplay there, is there? That’s logging stuff. That may give the player something to do, but what about the character? What potential use does a character have in combat if the character does not, or cannot, fight?

The Controller

Those are some rad glasses, let me tell you.Persona 4 Golden is pretty goddamn close to a perfect game. It also has the exact kind of character I need in Rise Kujikawa. Rise is a Controller, a concept seen in Persona 3 as well with Mitsuru and Fuuka. The Controller narrates the battle, calling out weaknesses, enemy types, and attacks. She can scan an enemy to determine weaknesses so the party doesn’t waste time on ineffective attacks. As she levels up, she gains new abilities — restoring some small amount of the party’s HP/SP after battles, finding treasure locations in the dungeon, and boosting the damage of the All-Out Attack.

How can this work in a tabletop setting? I’m still figuring that out, and the player and I are driving to Chicago in a few weeks so we’ll have sixteen hours of total driving time to hash out ideas. But I can think of a few things right now, all abilities that may not even require dice, and will be based off of her existing stats:

  • Cast a low-level regenerative healing spell on the party.
  • Take the brunt of an attack that would otherwise kill a party member.
  • Increase the power of Dual Techs (her guidance allowing the others to maximize their own abilities)
  • Get a brief glimpse of what the next attack is going to be (give characters a chance to prepare for an attack that could wipe a few of them out)
  • Call out weaknesses or gaps in the enemy’s defense
  • Heal a crippling status effect as a one-off to keep someone fighting

There’s still a chance for player input in the battle, while removing the threat of dice unmaking a plan.

More than that, though, it’s about the players. If I wanted nothing but challenge, I’d be wargaming. If I wanted nothing but story, I’d be writing. If I wanted nothing but time with my friends, I’d be doing something that didn’t involve 1-3 hours of prep work per week. I want the game to keep going and I want all of my players to be happy, so I’m trying to build a system to allow a player to participate in combat without actually participating in combat, and I hope it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll just try something else.

You know, I should probably play Persona 4 Golden again. For research.

Yeah.

First Person vs. Third Person

Who uses a typewriter?
GIS for “writer” is pretty boring, but that’s hardly a surprise.

Well, first of all, I’ve never liked first person shooters. Bioshock Infinite was a remarkable experience, but more in spite of its mechanics, not because of them. Compare that to Uncharted, which I — oh, that’s not what we’re doing? Well.

The novel I’m working on, The Breakers, is my primary mental focus lately. I have a new opening, which better fits Mira as the lead character, and I’m working my way through what I had written out for the plot and seeing what, if anything, can be transferred over. I don’t want to just take Adam and Mira and swap them, and I don’t want to take a story that was written for Adam and instead have it be for Mira, because both of those are being dishonest to the characters. If I’m going to do this right, and I am, I’m going to start fresh and go scene by scene and figure out how I want to do this.

I’d written down my intended opening line and taken the time to be quite happy with it when I realized how I wrote it. As Adam, the opening line was third-person narrator. As Mira, first-person narrator.

I don’t know why.

I’ve started reading Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series again. Those are all in first-person, but I only started that yesterday at lunch, and I wrote the initial line for Mira yesterday morning. I’ve been doing the Icewind Dale/Hakuoki LP on Broken Forum, and much of that is in first-person, but I don’t do that to the point where it’s all I write. Also, I am thirty one years old and most certainly a guy, and not seventeen years old and also a girl. So one would think I wouldn’t default to first-person for someone so markedly different from myself.

But I did, and if it happened that easily, then I should let it happen. It’s got its pros and cons, and it’s going to be critical for me to keep them straight.

Pros to First Person Perspective:

  • It lets the writer, and therefore the reader, get more into the mind of the character.
  • It becomes easier to guide the reader’s emotions. You’re not telling the reader that they should feel a certain way, you’re just saying that the protagonist feels a certain way.
  • It lets the writer play with keeping information from the reader that could otherwise be apparent with a third-person omniscient narrator. (Think of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, a smart fellow in his own right, but with little chance of keeping up with Holmes himself. A third-person narrator might show more of what Holmes is doing, thus limiting the impact of the reveal at the end.)

Cons to First Person Perspective

  • The writer’s perspective is limited. You can’t show anything that the viewpoint character doesn’t see. That includes the villain scheming in his ivory tower, the window opening silently downstairs, or the bad guy sneaking up behind her in the night.
  • The writer’s method of storytelling is limited. You can’t show anything that the character doesn’t see, but you also can’t tell a story in a way that the character wouldn’t tell it. If your viewpoint character is a simple and straightforward type, you can’t start using flowery language to describe things. If your viewpoint character is a talented musician, you need to take that into account in how he or she views the world around them.
  • The main character needs to be likable. If the reader is going to spend a few hundred pages inside someone’s head, it needs to be someone the reader doesn’t want to strangle by the second chapter.

Mira’s character isn’t one that’s alien to me; she’s resourceful, witty, idealistic, overly optimistic, and very comfortable around people. She’s perfect for a dialogue-heavy story, which tends to be the types of stories I write. But she’s different from my other characters in a few ways; I haven’t written an adept musician before, I haven’t written a young character without some level of baggage in quite some time, and to address the elephant in the room, I haven’t written a female lead before. But I’m looking forward to meeting those challenges, and it looks like I’ll be doing so and getting as far into her head as I can.

So I should probably get back to it and stop writing this blog, then.

The Sliding Scale Of Sexism

Kansas City Star Lifestyle Columnist Jenee Osterheldt isn’t someone I read regularly. I pick up the Star out of the break room here at work and flip through it from time to time, and she’s usually in the back section with the comics, writing about something or other. I tend to skim her columns once I’m done reading the few comics I read anymore, but she doesn’t usually register in my brain. One column of hers did stay with me, though, and it’s tangentially related to today’s article, so I’ll briefly go through it.

THIS IS NOT OKAY
THIS IS NOT OKAY

Super Princess Peach is a Nintendo DS game that I have to say, up front, that I have not played. It’s a platformer, I’m reasonably certain, with the twist that you play as Princess Peach. Peach has a few tools at her disposal in this adventure, though, and those are “vibes,” which are all based off of emotions. Joy lets her fly, Gloom lets her cry tears that damage enemies and fill up pits, Rage lets her become invincible, and when she Calms down, she restores health.

In this platformer aimed at girls, Princess Peach doesn’t just run and jump off of enemies like Mario, they had to add in a whole separate system about how Peach’s wild mood swings turn her into a caricature of the crazy woman unable to control her emotions, flying off the handle at the drop of a hat, and only when she calms down do things get back to normal.

Because seriously, videogames?

Jenee Osterheldt did a column about this game that I vehemently disagreed with, but I cannot find this article online, and my memory is notoriously bad. My wife tells me that Miss Osterheldt liked the game because it told women that their emotions were not something that would hold them back. My argument against that point of view, if that is indeed what Miss Osterheldt meant, is that it took Princess Peach and made her into a hyper-emotional baby who couldn’t help but to sob her eyes out at the drop of a hat, and the game said this was a good thing. To me, it would be like taking a black character, giving him a comical afro, and have him jump around in the background making funny faces and acting the wacky comic relief whenever the white people were around and actually accomplishing things. And you know, for 40% of the time I liked Sazh in Final Fantasy XIII.

My rage today is because of this article, where Jenee Osterheldt goes to Twin Peaks Restaurant and finds it to be a fun and campy experience. A few quotes, chosen not to represent the article in full, but chosen to point out the things that jumped out at me.

A new sports bar that prides itself on “scenic views”? We’re not talking mountains, rivers or sunsets. We’re talking waitresses dressed lumberjack sexy: teeny-weeny khaki shorts, ab-baring plaid crop tops that display their pushed-up Victoria’s Secret-perfect boobs, and Uggs or something similar with colorful tube socks. And slogans everywhere like “You’re the man!” and “Embracing the outer beauty in all of us”? Please.

Grumpy Diva and I had a hard time not taking in the view but we didn’t want to just stare [at the boobs]. The fellas told us it was all about mastering the distraction. One person talks to the waitress and maintains eye contact while everyone else gets to look.

She told us to stand up. And put our hands behind our backs.

A man yelled, “It’s shot porn.”

Andrea smiled and said with just the right sting of sass, “Now put your lips on the glass and I’m gonna count to three.”

People stand up with their hands held behind their backs, trying to drink shot glasses very quickly, trying to keep all of it in their mouths, while guys stand around and cheer them on, making them the center of attention, making sure everyone is watching them. In this specific case, it was a group of at least two women.

It’s shot porn.

It’s shot porn.

I felt that this article was terrible at best and actively harmful at worst. Here is an establishment founded on the objectification of women, to the point where it invaded every aspect of the business, from the employee attire to the names of the individual food items to the freaking name of the restaurant, and here is someone writing and defending it, saying that it was all in good, campy fun, never mind that her article had her asking the men there how they best stared at cleavage without letting the girls know they were staring at cleavage.

Fortunately, we live in a Twitter world, and it didn’t take me long to track down Jenee Osterheldt on Twitter. I wasn’t just going to get angry, I was going to talk and get some actual answers. It didn’t go well.

Here is as good a link as I can get to the entire conversation. It doesn’t catch everything, but it gets the majority of it.

I do feel like this is harmful. Incredibly so. Miss Osterheldt’s claim that this was an SNL environment doesn’t at all match up with the marketing this place uses. At the time of this writing, their website has seven rotating images, only one of which doesn’t have a scantily-clad women front and center. The button to look at pictures of pretty girls working there is larger than the button for their menu — in fact, there isn’t a button for the menu. That’s up in the top bar, easily overlooked, and certainly not called out. This is a place that serves food and drinks that is presented like this, as spotted on the Huffington Post when I was doing quick research for this post.

It’s objectification. It’s still objectification if the girls are having fun. It’s still objectification if they have sass, if they take no mess, if they smile and laugh when someone catcalls them. It’s objectification if their body is being used to sell food, if their curves are used to hawk calendars and photo galleries on a restaurant’s website. They’re being used, not for their skills, not for their service, and certainly not for who they are, but for their bodies. Twin Peaks founder Randy DeWitt is selling their sex, and that’s not just wrong, that’s fucked up. Places like this exist to tell men that this behavior is okay. That it’s fine to leer at women, that it’s fine to have one guy distract the waitress so everyone else can look at her boobs. It’s fine to reduce a woman to a pair of breasts and a tight ass in little shorts. That the body is always more important than the face. That this kind of thing is expected behavior. That it’s okay to name a restaurant Tits. That the piece of meat serving you food is just as important as the piece of meat on your plate — they’re marketed about the same.

That sexism is okay as long as the girl laughs at the end of it.

It’s not okay. It’s never okay. This kind of thing is never okay.

Goddamnit, this is not okay.

The Hero’s Journey Shouldn’t Discriminate

I like it when I read something that gets me thinking. I like it when I read something that makes me ask questions, even uncomfortable questions.

I like it when I read something that makes me ask uncomfortable questions of myself, even if I wouldn’t qualify that process as enjoyable.

Sady Doyle wrote an article about the JK Rowling series that wasn’t, In Praise Of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger Series. Miss Doyle spends the article praising Joanne Rowling for not writing under an androgynous-at-best penname, for writing a series starring a female protagonist who uses her intelligence and is rewarded for it, who isn’t the Chosen One and isn’t looked down upon or ignored because of it, for writing well-rounded female characters who all stand out without being stereotypes… and you probably get the point. Her followup, The Further Adventures Of Hermione Granger, gets into her reasons for writing this.

I’m a novelist-in-training, let’s say. Popular Anarchy is a book I wrote, stared at, and ultimately shelved for a rewrite. I’m partway through that rewrite, though I would be lying if I said I was proceeding well on it. I have another book that I’m working on in the conceptual stage, somewhere between world design and outline. It’s called The Breakers, and I’m really excited for it; I’ve got a good set of characters, I think the world is interesting, and I’m pulling from different inspirational sources to make sure I don’t write the same thing again. A little more Romance of the Three Kingdom Hearts, let’s call it, instead of The Occurian Candidate.

The Breakers has taken up a lot of my mental energy. I’ve put about twenty thousand words into my outline, and another ten or so into the world design document. Most of it is stream of consciousness rambling, which is how I outline things, so it’s not like I’ve written a short story about my world so I don’t write an actual novel about it. But there’s a bit in that document where I’m figuring out my protagonist, Adam Harper. I like Adam — I think he’s an excellent main character. He’s got flaws, strengths, an interesting set of friends, two of whom are also important characters in this book, and a family that factors heavily into what’s happening here. I’m proud of the work I did on him.

I never even considered making a woman my main character.

I’m mad at myself. In the midst of all this 1reasonwhy stuff that has me so up in arms, in the midst of me playing games ranging from JRPGs to Japanese visual novels/dating sims, in the midst of me raging at gender inequality and outright misogyny, I’m unconsciously enforcing it in my own work. There’s no excuse for this. I had a female character, Mira Jersic, designed long before Adam, but she was a supporting character in Adam’s story. Putting as much work into her design as I did didn’t make up for the fact that she wasn’t as important as Adam. The background work and extensive questionnaire I completed from her point of view didn’t mean anything if I put a ceiling on her level of import for no reason other than “a guy should be the main character.”

I’d like to say that there wasn’t anything sexist in my thinking on it, but honestly, I don’t know. I just looked at these characters I’d already made — two women, one man — and decided I needed a different main character. The character I made was male. Maybe that’s completely innocent. Maybe I was balancing things out. Maybe I was thinking of a specific story that only a guy could tell. But there’s nothing in my outline about that, and there’s nothing in the story I have outlined that is the kind of thing that can only be experienced/told/for a guy.

So I’m changing it. I don’t care if it takes me more time, I don’t care if I have to scrap stuff, and I don’t care if it’s harder. I’m swapping Mira into the lead role and starting over with The Breakers. I don’t know how different it will end up being, but I’ll gladly find out.

Bioshock Infinite: A Few Thoughts

bioshock-infinite-logoLast week I finished Bioshock Infinite. I’m not a first-person-shooter fan, or even a fan of the Bioshock games. My water phobia knocked me out of the original Bioshock when I entered a tunnel with a leak that slowly filled up with water, and I couldn’t advance without freaking out. I’ve picked up the important parts of Bioshock since then — I know what “A man chooses, a slave obeys” means — and I’d been watching Infinite for a while because I knew that Bioshock was a really good game, and I don’t have a thing about the sky like I do the ocean.

I’m also not a regular player of first-person-shooters, which is to say that I’ve played two FPS games since Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. For the record, I thought Resistance: Fall of Man was a damn good time, bought the sequel when it came out, and never played it. And so it goes.

When Bioshock Infinite got a ton of perfect scores from reviewers, I decided to try it out. I liked it, but not as much as they did. I don’t think they were wrong, which is a sentiment I have seen crop up around the internet as of late. There are things in Bioshock that really got me, especially the ending, but there are parts that just didn’t go that great for me. Throughout this, I’m going to compare Infinite to Dishonored, which might not be very fair to either of them, but the comparison came to mind early and often for me.

Columbia

I honeymooned in Disneyworld in 2008. There are three folders on my computer full of pictures from my trips to the Magic Kingdom, of dancers in Epcot, of animals wandering the miniature savannah at the Animal Kingdom, or Lego sculptures and bassoonists in Downtown Disney. There are pictures of every country represented in Epcot, of an ambulatory trash can following me around the park, of my wife and I hugging Minnie and Mickey at the end of our time in the park. I used my camera as a kind of anchor, something to prove to myself that I spent a week and a half in this place that never felt quite real, a place that honestly did feel magical and wonderful.

I took a lot of pictures in Columbia.

I’m celebrating my fifth anniversary this fall in Disneyworld. Lately I’ve been looking at satellite photos of Disneyworld on Google Maps, and I’m amazed at how well the parks are laid out. There can be a few feet and a fence separating the park-goer from the employee parking lot, from the rows of trucks that handle the equipment, and you never know. The parks are constructed in such a way that you forget you’re even in an amusement park, and the reality of the park becomes your actual reality. It’s incredible.

I tried to open a lot of fake doors in Columbia.

It felt like a Disney park, which probably means it succeeded. But I think I wanted more. I wanted more of the game to be about this incredible floating city in the sky, and I wanted to interact with it and come to know it more than I did. I don’t feel I came to know Columbia like I did Dunwall in Dishonored. I know that here I’m comparing games that are different genres, that I shouldn’t expect the same level design and verticality in a first-person shooter as I would in a Thief-like game, where they have to build multiple routes through the same area. But I wanted to spend more time in Columbia.

Skulking about the shadows of Dunwall, slipping in and out of multiple buildings, listening to the Heart’s whispers in my ear, hiding in shadows and listening to people talk to each other, I cam eto know Dunwall. Dunwall became a character in that game, and probably the best character in that game. Journals, diaries, bits of story picked up here and there, the world itself changing in accordance with my actions. The curious nature of the world built into the game itself, with the in-universe distrust of the charms, the plague being a constant force hanging over the game, all that came together to really make Dunwall a real place.

Columbia felt close, but everything too big, too garish, too loud, and then too brief. I could walk around the opening of that game for hours, and probably will load up that first level a few more times, just to see Columbia again. It’s an incredible theme park (right down to the roller coaster skyhook rails around the shooting galleries), but I kept pushing it for something it wasn’t going to be.

Violence

The first act of violence in Columbia is Booker DeWitt grabbing a man by the head and shoving his face into a rotating metal hook. It was deliberately chosen to be harsh and brutal to be in stark contrast to this pristine floating utopia. It was horrifying, as it should have been. I looked away.

Later acts of regular violence include burning a man’s flesh off of his body, sending enough voltage through a man’s body to pop his head off of his shoulders where it then detonates, taking over a man’s mind and making him kill his friends and then himself, cutting a man’s head off with a regular swing from your own rotating skyhook, shoving that same hook into a guard’s face while you hold him still as one of the game’s “execution” moves, a murder of crowd tearing a man to ribbons, and slicing a man’s face off, leaving a bloody hole in the middle of his head.

I played Infinite either at extreme range with the machine gun or the sniper rifle, or recklessly with the Charge vigor, filling my screen with as much noise as possible to distract myself from the gore. I understand the thematic reasons for having a violent scene like the first. I have a harder time justifying intense violence in games, just for myself. Had there been a toggle for reduced violence — the game has a 1999 mode for increased challenge, you could come up with another catchy name for a version that keeps faces attached to heads — I would have had a much better time with it.

Dishonored had violence – plenty of it, in fact. But I could play that game through in a nonlethal manner, which I did, so I never saw any of the violence. That’s even better than a blood toggle, as the game world built itself around my choice there to not kill anyone. Not every game can do that. Not every game wants to do that. That’s fine. But it still leads to me favoring Dishonored’s approach to the matter.

This is incredibly personal and subjective, and I’m not calling for all games to be made less violent. But I would like the choice.

Shooting

90% of my interaction with Columbia is shooting people. The other 10% is picking up audio logs and telling Elizabeth to open tears or locks.

I wish this game had been more. That’s probably on me — I can’t rightfully ding a game for succeeding at something that it’s not trying to be. But when the story is working, when you’re unraveling the mysteries behind the tears, when you’re wandering through that magical opening, and when you’re trying to make sense of the insane ending, Bioshock Infinite is up there with the best games I’ve ever played.

Just not as much during all the “game” parts.

We Don’t Have To Fear What We Don’t Understand

Next week I’m turning thirty-one. I’m okay with it; I don’t mind getting older. But I’m scared to death of getting old.

Bill Dwyre of the L.A. Times is an old man. I don’t know how old he physically is, but I can read this column where he called advanced statistics in baseball “gobbledygook” and know that he’s an old man. That column is embarrassing enough on its own, all but pining for a time when guys just “wanted it more” or whatever cliche newswriters told themselves in their time; that it’s attached to the dying medium of a newspaper makes it almost tragic. At least the L.A. Times isn’t locking its content behind a paywall, like the local Kansas City Star has done.

There are plenty of strong takedowns of Dwyre’s article already, like Graham Womack’s and Matt Welch’s. I don’t watch baseball, so I don’t have anything specific to add in that respect. But I do pay close attention to articles like this, if only to know what to watch for in my own life.

We’re all engineered to be selfish and prideful. The things that we like are the best things, and the things that we don’t like are less than the things that we do like. Our choices are correct. If I spend my day watching television and you spend your day playing videogames, the immediate reaction is to say that I made the right decision, and that the thing that I like is better than the thing that I don’t like. If there’s any reason to feel guilty of the thing that I like — societal or otherwise — this reaction is significantly stronger. It’s something I’ve struggled with before, and as I get older i’m very mindful of it.

I watch a lot of football, and football is obsessed with lionizing the previous generation. Anyone who played in the seventies is from the Golden Age of Football, Back When The Game Really Meant Something. A bunch of guys slamming into each other for regular three-yard gains, that’s when Football Was Football and Men Were Men. This current generation of football, the read options, the spread offenses, the disguised zone blitzes, any change to the rules, any change to the stars, it just further separates football from Football.

It’s not enough to idolize the previous generation, though, the current generation has to be torn down to make room for the memories. A few years ago NFL Network did one of their Top Ten episodes, with the topic being tight ends. #8 on that list was Tony Gonzalez, then playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ranking above him, a selection of “classic” tight ends, like Dave Casper, John Mackey, and Mike Ditka. I could fill an entire column with my hatred for this list, but I’ll keep it short; the list was made by a bunch of old men afraid of the current generation, so they tore it down to make room for their memories. The best tight end of all time, the only offense for the Kansas City Chiefs for a decade, a player who could not be covered by a linebacker, cornerback, or safety, a man whose only professional drawback as a player is “he is an enthusiastic, but only capable, blocker,” never mind his actual role on the team, and they rank him #8 so they can pat themselves on the back about how great things were in their day.

It’s cowardice.

I’m all angry again.

I get 90% of my videogame coverage from Giant Bomb, and I’ve noticed two really good changes this year. The first thing is coverage of iOS games, and they’re treated with equal respect on the site. There wasn’t a period of hand-wringing, there wasn’t a disclaimer of “these aren’t REAL games,” there’s just Brad Shoemaker obsessing over Kingdom Rush, Patrick Klepek getting spooked by Year Walk, and Jeff Gerstmann commenting on any number of ninety-nine cent games on the podcast. That’s fantastic. Gaming is changing, and there’s no point in being afraid of it for change’s sake.

The other thing came out of a podcast, and I don’t have a transcript or the podcast itself handy, so I’m going to paraphrase. In the midst of a discussion on Gears Of War: Judgment, Ryan Davis made a casual derogatory remark about the fiction in Gears of War, and Jeff Gerstmann cut him off. “I don’t think the problem is with Gears of War, the problem’s with us. Just because this doesn’t resonate with us doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are people — I’ve seen them! — that really, really care about the Gears stuff, and that means Epic’s doing something right there. It doesn’t do anything for us, and that’s fine. It does a lot for them, and that’s great.” Ryan Davis hesitated, then said, “You’re right! That’s a good point! I’m sorry!”

That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t listen to much new music. I don’t watch any new TV. I’m excited for games that remind me of things that I played when I was younger. I read a lot of books again, books that I’ve read multiple times, books that remind of my childhood or young adulthood. But I’m trying to balance this out. I try to read books by new authors at random, to find new stuff so I don’t get in a rut. I play games I wouldn’t otherwise, like Asura’s Wrath, Hakuoki, and Bastion, to try new things. I’m on a forum full of people older than me and younger than me, and I find that mix of viewpoints and opinions really valuable. I need to keep finding it that way, too, or I’ll stagnate creatively and personally. And if that happens, why bother trying at anything anymore?

I don’t understand a lot of what’s popular now. I don’t understand the appeal of the ‘fun.’ band (I cannot figure out how to reference them) or paranormal romance novels. I don’t understand the appeal of tower defense videogames or anything like DOTA. I don’t understand the appeal of the Adventure Time show, or why you’d want to put a bunch of GIFS in your book reviews on Goodreads.

But my lack of understanding doesn’t mean it’s bad, it doesn’t mean I’m right, and it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It just means they’re different, and there’s never been anything wrong with being different.

I don’t mind getting older, but I don’t want to be like Bill Dwyre. I don’t want to get old.

It’s Time To Get Serious About How Serious We Are In Videogames

Edward Kenway, allegedly much more interesting than his humorless grandson.

Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4 today, a week after the rest of the internet announced it for them by leaking everything from box art to Gamestop posters to plot synopses to bar codes. The timeline of the game’s development doesn’t make it strictly a reaction to the reception to Assassin’s Creed 3, but a few words I’ve read in the previews have pointed to that being at least part of why Edward Kenway is who he is. One of those words was “Ezio,” and if the plan is to have Edward be like the charismatic Italian from the three Assassin Creed 2s, then the series has a chance to be great again.

There are plenty of problems with Assassin’s Creed 3, but I want to focus on one of the biggest problems for me. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of my favorite surprises of this generation, Brotherhood was nearly flawless, and Revelations had some incredible high points, and easily avoidable low points. The element holding these games together was Ezio Auditore, and his journey from the easily-angered novice assassin in AC2 to the world-weary snarker in Revelations, the end of his story. Ezio was a fantastic character, one of the best of this generation, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he was never afraid to smile.

The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 2, for me, was running along rooftops, boffing archers in the back of the head, and then throwing dirt in the eyes of guards that came to investigate before inserting hidden blades into eye sockets. When I was done with that, I’d run up to the highest thing I could find and then fling myself off of it into a hay bale. Do you know what that is? That’s hilarious. And while Ezio wasn’t cackling like a madman as he plummeted 150 feet into three feet of hay, he handled most twists and turns in his story with a wink and a nod, a general acknowledgement of how crazy these things were. Sure, he may be chasing after the most corrupt of the Borgias, but he’s going to take the time to chat up the pretty lady. He might be investigating the disappearance of Altair’s artifacts, but he’s also going to go on a picnic with this gorgeous bookseller who seems to be the only other person in Constantinople with the same level of smirk.

Connor lost all of that. He had an unbearably tragic backstory, sure, but so did Ezio. There was hardly ever a smile, hardly ever an acknowledgement that this was fun, just grim political drama played out around a young man who couldn’t be bothered to even learn what was really happening. There was no fun in Connor, which was strange because much of the game was still fun, if you define fun as springing out of a haystack with an ax to ambush an innocent deer.

Lightning vs. The Guy With The Purple Feathers In His Hair

Another series had a similar problem for me, which is a shame, because five years ago I considered Final Fantasy to be my favorite videogame series. Final Fantasy XIII, the showcase for Final Fantasy for this generation, told a story that was almost entirely devoid of mirth, and what comedy that was there seemed to be a little too close to a minstrel show with the portrayal of Sazh. This is a series where Cecil regularly broke out into dance, Bartz was Bartz, an octopus played the piano, Cloud dressed in drag, Squall dreamed he was a moron, Zidane paused mid-escape to grab a girl’s butt, Jecht got drunk and fought a shoopuf, and Vaan repeatedly botched talking to girls. It’s a series that wasn’t afraid to laugh, and it was much stronger for it.

Why is it so important to be able to smile? Because without it, we have no point to return that character to.  Lightning’s always been a bitter pill, Connor’s always been a stoic jerkass. Why do we want to get invested in this character? They’re not any fun, they don’t have anything to be happy about.

Compare to the Investigation Team in Persona 4.

Investigation Team GO
Investigation Team GO

Persona 4 Golden is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. That humor serves two purposes — it humanizes the characters, and it endears them to us. It also gives us something to invest in — we’re not hoping for some fantasy time when the characters can be happy, we’ve seen it. We see it in how they interact with Nanako, with the trip to the beach, with the ghost stories together at the ski lodge. A smile doesn’t prevent the writer from being able to deploy drama throughout the game, it just weaponizes that drama. Separating Connor from Achilles doesn’t make us feel anything but anger toward Connor because it’s Connor’s own fault, and they just yell at each other all the time anway. Separating Charlie from the rest of the Investigation team because you know all those wonderful moments because you played them, you laughed along with them, you’re invested in them. Angry Man With Gun isn’t a character any more than Joe Doom was in Doom.

It’s okay for videogames to be fun, and it’s okay for the protagonists to have fun when they’re in the game. It feels like a bunch of people missed that this generation and made as many humorless games as they could, all in a row, and we were buried under a glut of grim-faced men holding guns on box art, because in the grim dark future of videogames there is only grimacing masculinity and laughter is for babies.

Even To The Moon wasn’t afraid to crack jokes, and I bawled during that game. Repeatedly. Those jokes further made those characters people, more than any number of maudlin chords and This Is When You Are To Be Sad moments would have, so when those moments did come along my heart broke just like it was supposed to. The jokes never took away from it, they just made it so much more powerful in the end.

It’s supposed to be fun, people. Don’t be afraid to smile.

Angry Thoughts On Jay Kristoff’s Novel Stormdancer

stormdancerI finished Stormdancer, a novel by Jay Kristoff, over the weekend. It tells the story of Yukiko, daughter to a huntmaster in not-really Japan, though with plenty of steampunk laid over the top of Japanese myth. I picked it up for the same reason listed on the cover by Patrick Rothfuss:

“What’s this? A Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures and a strong female protagonist? Yeah, I’m all over that. Though honestly, you had me at ‘Japanese Steampunk.’”

I’m not a very good critic. There’s a lot I don’t notice when I’m reading a book. Was the Japanese proper? I have no idea, my knowledge of the language comes from games like Persona 4. How was the writing? It seemed okay, I guess — the opening of the book was a bit of a slog, with a lot of world detail getting in the way of actual characters. But there were three things about Stormdancer that I didn’t like, and as someone who’s trying to write himself, I wanted to get them down in words.

There are spoilers here for Stormdancer, so the two people that read this never-updated blog can be warned.

Violence In Steampunk

I love the aesthetic appeal of steampunk. Buckles and goggles and airships and age of exploration with the industrial age laid on top of it. I like that a lot. I’ve played plenty of videogames that use that design idea. I’ve read a decent number of books that explore steampunk as well — Stormdancer, The Court of the Air, and The Falling Machine come to mind right now — and I picked up a few short story anthologies, creatively named Steampunk and Steampunk 2.

I’ve come to expect a few things in steampunk literature. Class conflicts, absolutely — the rise of technology makes life terrible for the lower classes, and that plays into the Victorian era, as I very badly understand it. Aerial feats of derring-do, yes. Airships, certainly. Goggles, of course, you can’t not have the goggles.

The violence.

Stormdancer doesn’t drink deep of the blood of its enemies, but it goes into some body horror territory with the Guardsmen, and Yukiko is very often elbow deep in the blood and guts of her enemies. The book ends with a tremendous body count, with her father, her father’s love, and Yukiko’s ill-advised love interest dying within maybe ten pages of each other.

The Falling Machine went overboard in its violence. I understand that it’s steampunk superheroes, but the scene with one character on a chair being forcibly transformed into a mechanical creature is the kind of thing I’d be hammering on the start button to skip, were I playing it as a game. It stopped being descriptive and started just being cruel.

The Court of the Air gets downright nasty at times, though I admit my memory of it isn’t very sharp. I remember some incredibly horrible things being mentioned in the setting, like ripping off some child’s arms so he would be a king or something. I don’t know. I just remember thinking, “What the hell, author.”

Maybe this is just me talking, and maybe I’m not reading the right books, but this just seems unnecessary. You don’t need to swear hundreds of times to make your work edgy, and you don’t need to take glory in the torture of your protagonists and supporting characters to make them troubled, or make your work stand out, or whatever.

Character Death

This one is very particular to me, very much a personal taste, so I’ll keep it short.

There are ways to challenge characters without killing people. You can still hurt a character, make them suffer, make them grow and overcome, without killing people.

By the time Stormdancer ends it has killed every single member of Yukiko’s family — three in flashback if you count her dog, and one and a half in the story proper — Kasumi (father’s lover) and Masaru (father). Masaru has a touching final moment with Kasumi, giving him motivation and loss, and then he goes and dies inside of three pages saying Yukiko from getting killed by Yoritomo.

It’s lazy.

Character dies. Other character mourns. There’s nowhere else you can go with that now. There’s no resolution, there’s no payoff, it’s just a dead end. It ties it up neat and easy, removes any chance for that character to have happiness in that aspect of her life, and then you move onto the next bit of suffering.

I’m not against character death, but I feel like every character death needs to happen for a reason, an actual reason, and really serve the story. That’s my personal take on character death. I understand that not everyone agrees with me, and it’s a matter of personal taste. Perfectly fine with that.

Misogyny

This one is very particular to me, and I will not keep this short.

Patrick Rothfuss said “strong female protagonist” in his recommendation on the front cover of the book. Yukiko is a pretty strong protagonist, I’m not going to rant about her here. I think she did pretty well, and he did a good job writing her as a warrior and a girl, and how those aren’t mutually exclusive, nor do they overwrite each other. She remained a character, not a tool.

Too bad all the other women in the story were fucking victims.

Why is the emperor a bad man? Because he’s a terrible abusive rapist. Oh, and he desires his sister sexually because why not, let’s make sure everyone dislikes him so when he gets his mind crushed by Yukiko at the end everyone is cheering. There’s a throwaway line with the second-in-command where he says that the consort for the emperor will be sent home once the signs of his… eager attentions fade. Because of course that line’s there.

What happened to Yukiko’s mother? Oh, she was killed, while pregnant, by the emperor, so he could continue chewing cardboard scenery and give Masaru some motivation. Because of course she does.

Yukiko runs into another woman in the Kage village. She has been horribly disfigured by the emperor because, I don’t remember, the emperor is a Bad Man. Because of course he is.

Kasumi dies because of course she dies, she’s the woman. She is there only to provide motivation to Masaru. The last guy in that group, whose name I don’t recall right now and I apologize, he lives. Because of course he does.

The emperor’s sister, a strong ally in the plan to take down her brother, dies offscreen at the end. Killed by her brother. I don’t remember if he said he enjoyed her death, or how, or if I just filled that part in because of course he did.

When it’s time for someone to yell at Yukiko, what do they call her? Slut, whore, filth, bitch, because of course they do. Of course they do.

That undoes — that more that undoes any success your protagonist had. You can’t say that you’re writing a strong female protagonist if she’s the only one who doesn’t get horribly murdered or raped for the crime of being a woman in your story.

It’s lazy at best. It’s hateful at worst.

Regardless, it has no place in contemporary writing.

Final verdict — sorely disappointed, vaguely disgusted.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Final Fantasy Puns

So they’re apparently going to make Final Fantasy XIII-3, which is surprising since that specific game is terrible. Apparently no one told Square.

I vented about this to a coworker, and things got a bit weird.

Matt: I think this franchise has definitely jumped the moogle.
Richard: I think that the series’ airship left the port a while back.
Matt: I think that series never got the tonberry out of the gate.
Richard: Square is really getting esperate.
Matt: It’s definitely not the behemoth it once was.
Richard: Is their ultima goal to drive away the fanbase?
Matt: It sure seems that way. The designers can’t get their heads out of the clouds.
Richard: I’m with you in that XIII-3 will definitely be a bomb.
Matt: But what difference can we make? Just fighting the tide, us.
Richard: These strange decisions are making dedicated fans like yourself wakka way from these games.
Matt: I certainly don’t want to seymour of where this franchise is headed.
Richard: They need to come up with a new strategy esuna rather than later.
Matt: This has become a Holy terror. They need to Fire everyone involved with XIII, and stop trying to compete with the games made by Activision-Blizzard. Monster corridors aren’t going to Protect them against the betrayed fans, so they need to Restore their design with all Haste and Heal this series before all that’s left is the Death of Final Fantasy.
Richard: *applause*

I feel that was a good use of my time.

The Future of Final Fantasy

At E3 2012, Square Enix unveiled a rather impressive video showcasing the new Luminous Engine. They called it Agni’s Philosophy, though they didn’t say that there was an actual game in the works. This could just be a tech demo, like the fanboy-baiting Final Fantasy VII PS3 demo at the beginning of this generation. It could be a sly preview for a game we’ll see sometime in 2019, with Square’s current development timelines.

What it isn’t, though, is pretty clear — it isn’t Final Fantasy XV, it isn’t Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it isn’t Final Fantasy Type-0. And that’s bad.

Final Fantasy Type-0 is already out in Japan, and has been for a while. Square Enix has promised that the PSP RPG will make it to the West eventually, but E3 came and went without a single mention of it or the rumored Vita HD version. Not getting a Final Fantasy in the States seems almost impossible in this day and age of releasing Final Fantasy IV on everything this side of the Colecovision, but I’m starting to worry that Type-0 is vaporware.

And speaking of vaporware, Final Fantasy Versus XIII will almost certainly miss any theoretical 2012 release date, meaning we are on year six since its announcement with only a few minutes of what might have been gameplay to show for it. I remain intrigued for it — what they have shown looks incredible, with a Kingdom Hearts HD feel to the combat, good character designs, and an interesting tie to the mythology of Final Fantasy XIII. But it’s moved engines once already in its development, and Nomura stated in mid-2011 that they hadn’t even begun full development on it yet. I’m concerned that the first two hours of Versus XIII will be incredible, and the remaining 78 pedestrian.

Final Fantasy XV doesn’t even exist yet, but I’m already anxious for its announcement. We’ve had multiple missteps, the JRPG is in decline, and the Final Fantasy name has come to mean spin-offs and re-releases versus high quality RPGs. Whatever Square does here is going to be huge, less for the game and more for what it means for the future of the genre and the future of the franchise. The game itself also needs to be good, but that shouldn’t be too hard; hire the Ivalice team back, lock the director of XIII in a closet for four years, and just let them make the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy XII. Cast Troy Baker as the male lead. Put a moogle in a musketeer hat and have him join the party. Nolan North voices the moogle. There, I’ve saved Final Fantasy. Wasn’t that hard, was it?