Your Destiny Is Where You Start

I started this blog with the best of intentions, yet dropped it as soon as I got busy. But I’ve been thinking a lot about my own tabletop gaming, lately, which has led into reading other peoples’ thoughts on the topic, and back around to my own, in a loops of increasing self-awareness of my own gaming tendencies and preferences. So, that said, I’m back! I realized that I really did want to share all of this with people; an audience, large or small, is a helpful thing in hashing out ideas because even if they never respond just know that they’re there (or could be) almost forces the writer to consider the expression of their thoughts more carefully.

I very much tend toward the “old school” when it comes to tabletop RPGs. I say this as a person who came into gaming in the early-to-mid 1990s, which was something of a transition time as RPGs had suddenly found themselves having to compete with more accessible and addictive games like Magic: The Gathering and the long-time King of the Castle (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) was rather desperate to win back its audience from upstarts like RIFTS and Vampire: The Masquerade. In fact, RIFTS from Palladium Books was my eventual introduction to the role playing game hobby — but it isn’t where I started.

Growing up, I had played all of the “family classics” like MonopolyRisk, and Clue, and was thus pretty well convinced that I just hated board games. To this day, I find most of the games Americans my age and older grew up with to be boring time-fillers as opposed to enjoyable activities. In the time before Internet ubiquity, it also wasn’t as if I could just hop onto Reddit and discover whole new worlds of hobby interests. So it was almost by cosmic accident that my parents got me a copy of HeroQuest (designed by the folks at Games Workshop, even taking place in the Warhammer Fantasy world, though marketed in the US by Milton-Bradley). I will never forget the Christmas of my 5th grade year, as that was when I came away with a grand haul of eldritch and macabre playthings: Monster Face (or “Mr. Potatohead For Aspiring Necromancers”) and Creepy Crawlers (which served quite well to create new monsters for HeroQuest, including at least one giant animated intestinal tract!). HeroQuest was also among them, and it immediately intrigued me. I probably spent the next couple of hours reading the rulebook and flipping through the book of quests, putting together plastic miniatures, and so forth, and eventually got my parents to sit down and actually play through the first quest with me in the role of Zargon the Chaos Wizard.

From there, I of course had to introduce the game to my best friend, and we derived hours of fun from playing both the published quests and coming up with our own — even designing new heroes to delve Zargon’s dungeons before we had even encountered the notion of official game expansions and house rules. HeroQuest didn’t last all that long for us, however, as the very next year a new friend in my first year of middle school introduced me to RIFTS, a full-on role playing game which I immediately saw as a conceptual expansion from the simplistic HeroQuest game system. I know that this is something of a decade-or-more later parallel to what many gamers went through before me with games like Dungeon! and the D&D Basic set and reading their accounts make me feel like part of a club, even if I was later to the roll call.

Many games came later, both board games and RPGs, which introduced all manner of play styles and genre concepts to my young friends and I, but through it all HeroQuest has remained definitive in how I think of a fantasy game. While I have of course expanded my style repertoire with overland adventures, political intrigue, and genuine role play, the dark dungeons, encroaching evils, and foreboding exploration of HeroQuest sticks with me in a way that nothing has ever been able to match. I am therefore an unapologetic fantasy RPG aficionado. I see endless potential in the simple dungeon conceit and its various spin-offs — whether in the Underdark of some D&D universe, or the abandoned tunnels of the World’s Edge Mountains of Warhammer — and never get board of mapping or making my players map. The sense of exploration, of delving into the unknown deeps of the world, is satisfying at a deep level of the psyche, and it’s damned fun to boot.

Design Influence from Beyond the Table — Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness

Though most gamers I know play, or at least have enjoyed, both tabletop games (RPGs, board games, card games, miniatures games, etc.) and video/computer games, there’s definitely a split between primarily video gamers and primarily tabletop gamers. I hear a lot of tabletop gamers insist that video games aren’t “real games”, or that they’re all stupid, lowest common denominator-baiting and artless experiences. Well, I sure can’t argue that most triple-A titles are just that—all of the “gritty” first-person shooters predicated on not-so-subtle racism, for example—but that hasn’t always been the case and there are still exceptions today, without even entering the realm of smaller titles and independent development teams. What’s more, for those of us who grew up playing both kinds of games, influences can cross back and forth fairly fluidly. I’d like to occasionally explore a few of these influences in my own gaming life.


Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness start menu

Though in recent years, the series has gone downhill as Konami, the publisher behind it, has gone progressively crazier, the Castlevania video game series can be traced as a major influence on a lot of my personal taste, from visual style to music to overall “flavor”. I’ll probably write something about the handful of especially notable entries into the franchise, but today I’d like to focus on one in particular.

Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness (also known as Castlevania 64, though with an additional story campaign and a shorter bridge campaign linking the two original campaigns from C64 with the new one) is generally one of the least well-liked of Castlevania games. Hell, of all of my old friends with whom I’ve been gaming since middle school or earlier, I’m the only one who doesn’t hate this game. In fact, I love it. I love it so much that I’m currently replaying it on my actual N64 hardware. I love it so much that, since 1999, it has influenced my RPG designs.

This isn’t a review of the game, but I do want to make a few points about why I enjoy it. It definitely has some problems. For example, the controls take a lot of getting used to. It was the first attempt at a 3D Castlevania game and it suffers from some of the same control and camera issues that you find in games like Super Mario 64 before it. 3D platformers had an ugly duckling phase. Though I still can return to many of these games and enjoy them, I can see why some people find them to be frustrating. Another problem that people have is with the visuals of the game: the low polygon count and the low-resolution textures stretched over them don’t make for a gorgeous game, and that’s before dealing with the N64’s need to fog everything over beyond a handful of yards away from the camera to cut down on RAM usage—and that’s all with the RAM expansion cartridge! So, haters: I get it. But let me talk about what’s good.

The graphics aren’t great, but the N64’s graphical fogginess actually help rather than hinder. See, one of the complaints about this game is that it doesn’t “feel” like a Castlevania game—a complaint which puzzles me. It may not feel like one of the post-Symphony of the Night 2D games of the Metroidvania style (which I’ll get into more in a future post), but it wasn’t trying to. It was an attempt at producing a 3D game in the older style of Castlevania games from the 8- and 16-bit eras. It updated the game play enough to make it feel like a larger scale experience while still keeping a fairly linear “get from A to B, jump over pits, avoid traps, kill some monsters, fight a boss” program of advancement. There are no RPG elements, outside of an inventory screen to hold onto health items and the like and a handful of NPCs with whom to interact for purposes of plot advancement or purchasing expendable items for your inventory. That fog worked with rather than against the level design to provide a sense of isolation and of being trapped even within some very large environments (for instance, towers with very high ceilings and corridors so long that you cannot see from one end to the other). The old classic Castlevania games took advantage of the hardware and game play conventions of the day in different ways to produce a similarly isolated feeling with dark environments and monsters which often were not deadly in themselves but which made safe or confident travel impossible. These games are characterized by slow, methodical movement through the environment, with Legacy of Darkness even taking the ways in which secrets were hidden in little alcoves throughout the 2D games into account and turning them into small byways of any given level to be found out through exploration.

This emphasis on traversing an inherently dangerous environment, searching out hidden areas, and making the player feel alone and surrounded by a powerful supernatural force is exactly the feeling I want to evoke when I’m running a Gothic or dark fantasy RPG. I want my players to feel excited to explore, but also to be frightened by the supernatural elements and to feel apprehensive about opening that next door or rounding the next turn. While I make ample use of combat in my games, I want the atmosphere to be the thing, so all of the action is built around building and relieving tension.

I learned, too, from Legacy of Darkness that the feeling of tension is more important than any facts which produce it. There is a scene in one of the earliest levels in which a giant monster’s claw pierces the hull of the ship you are in and water begins to pour into the cargo hold. The music changes from a slow, atmospheric piece to a fast, repetitive tune with more bass. Suddenly, you feel in a hurry and you find yourself making risky jumps and running past enemies and traps rather than dealing with them as methodically as you normally might—despite the fact that the water never actually rises to a dangerous level. You only really convince yourself that the water isn’t rising if you decide to stand around for a while, but the whole situation is designed to make you feel like you can’t afford to do that. That’s not to say that a GM shouldn’t penalize the characters of players who decide to dawdle when things are clearly becoming more urgent, but it is to say that danger can sometimes be only apparent if it serves to drive the build-up of tension, the establishment of an atmosphere of uncertainty, and to push the story forward without making the players feel railroaded or, just as bad, as if you’ve thrown them a bone. As many a GM has learned, the right flavor text at the right time can do a better job of making the players feel fear than the deadliest monster or trap thrown in as a purely mechanical challenge.

Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness continues to inspire my setting and storytelling style in my tabletop RPGs by making me, as a video game player, feel in awe of an environment that dwarfs me, anxious in the face of driving urgency, and alone in a mist-shrouded world in which even nature seems suborned to a supernatural threat. In short, it manages to embody much of the Gothic spirit in an action-oriented game, a feat which deserves recognition alongside the classic Ravenloft campaign setting.

Storytelling Approaches in Tabletop RPGs

While I didn’t plan for my first post here to be a response to anything, the blog posts in question happen to discuss something that’s been much on my mind, lately. It’s interesting how the minds of a whole community seem to converge on similar topics from many angles.

John Wick (of 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings fame) wrote this post about the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) module, Tomb of Horrors, and Alex Karaczun rebutted here. Where Wick simply complains about the module based on his childhood experience running it, Karaczun makes a point that gets to the heart of the RPG experience: it’s all a question of design emphasis and personality.

In the world of tabletop roleplaying games, there’s been something of a split in philosophy for as long as I’ve been in that world (since the mid-’90s). Some like to call this the old school/new school divide, but that’s the sort of “my generation is better” simplification that makes substantive discussion impossible out of the gate. It’s not about old versus new (or old versus young, if you like), but about literary versus cinematic. Think in terms of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A lot of die-hard LotR fans really hated the film adaptations, while other equally die-hard fans loved them; who’s right and who’s wrong? Nobody. Both populations need to acknowledge that, yes, obvious and significant changes were made in translating the story from novel to film, but both also need to acknowledge that most of those changes were inevitable. A straight, scene-by-scene translation would be impossible without far more time than a trilogy of movies will allow, and even then you can’t perfectly reproduce a lot of the feel Tolkien was going for in a cinematic setting; the two media are just too different in the way things have to be presented. There’s no more wrong with loving the movies than there is with loving the books, but they’re too distinct to allow for equivalency. And, frankly, that’s as it should be. Movies mimicking the books would have just shredded what was good about the books without bringing anything worthwhile of their own to the table; what is entertaining in a novel is a boring slog in a film because film doesn’t engage on the same levels that a novel can, and vice versa.

Karaczun’s strongest point is that

I hold very firmly with the design perspective that the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game is about exploration. The fun of the game comes largely from what a lot of contemporary gamers call “the boring stuff.” I can recall as a young man, of (then) 14 years old, how vividly I imagined the “boring stuff.” I imagined far off shrieks, or moans. The skittering of vermin just around the corner ahead, or an imagined sound of soft footsteps following the party just out of range of the torchlight. And given the way exploration was handled within the rules, far more in-game time was spent between encounters than encountering them.

Modern game design, for the most part, is about the encounters. Exploration is often secondary, if not entirely overlooked.

“Modern game design” remark aside, I do see that very distinction at the heart of RPG debates. Wick’s games themselves make for great examples, here. 7th Sea, the one with which I am most familiar, is an extremely cinematic game: It’s all about swashbuckling and swinging from ropes and fighting sea monsters with canons, and it very deliberately gives the players a lot of agency in the game world. This is all great fun, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such design choices. But it isn’t the only way to do things, and it isn’t the best. The cinematic route has its exemplars that do what they do wonderfully, one of my favorites being Fate Core, with its collaborative ethic, but that game is designed to encourage a totally different type of storytelling from the game I am currently running: Dungeon Crawl Classics (or DCC for short).

These two systems happen to serve as a great illustration of the contrast I’m talking about. DCC isn’t the crunchiest game engine out there, but it’s definitely all about letting the dice fall where they may and living with the results. The designers themselves made note in the book that they intentionally left a lot of possible rules out of the book to leave room for the groups using the game to fill those holes in if they wanted to or leave them open to ad hoc ruling—the exact design philosophy of Gygax and Arneson in OD&D and, shortly thereafter, AD&D (first edition, anyway). But other than those holes, the dice say what the dice say. The Judge (to use DCC terminology) is neither there to make the game strictly “balanced”, nor to punish the player characters, but to give the players a world to explore. Adventure arises not just from tearing through monsters and snagging treasure, but from tracking down leads to the next dungeon, questing to learn new spells and find exotic magic items, or even just fill in the map of what’s through that next mountain pass. Much as any feudal peasant, the PCs only know the land of maybe a five mile radius from their homes; what distinguishes the PC from the run of the mill is a desire to see more than that before they die, knowing full well that there’s a good chance of dying during that very quest of discovery. This type of game thrives on a sense of luck, whims of the gods, and hidden information, and any players in this sort of game ought to know what they’re in for. If death isn’t a very real possibility hiding around every corner, the sense of discovery gets reduced to a sense of tourism; the PCs may as well be on an air-conditioned bus tour through Bavaria rather than marching through a fantasy kingdom toward an ancient crypt haunted by the restless dead. The overland slog, mapping out dungeons, questing for even scraps of useful information, is a decidedly literary tack; it takes longer to develop the setting, but the players get the sense that they’re actually learning about an organic place which doesn’t necessarily exist just to entertain them but entertains them because it exists.

Fate is far more cinematic. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s very different. In Fate, the players and GM collaborate from the beginning on the sort of game everyone wants to play. The GM may or may not have devised the setting itself in advance, but the players and GM create the game, in terms of tone, starting point and beginning story objectives, in the same way that they create their characters: by discussing them, writing them all down, and then hashing out what was written down in terms of game mechanics. Game creation and character creation alone take up the entire first session of any given campaign, and it is designed into the game that the PCs and setting are inextricably interwoven from the start. The mechanics of the game reinforce all of this, producing a game in which the setting overtly exists specifically for the PCs—and, by proxy, the players. The whole thing is structured around their characters, rather than (as in the last paragraph) their characters existing to explore a larger world.

Calling someone else’s deliberate, and valid, design choices “pig vomit” is not very helpful. Instead, an open discussion of those design choices, when and where to make one rather than another, can improve all of our games. Sharing a bad experience can be helpful because it shows us how a design choice which works very well for one group may not be the best for another—after all, both blog posts linked above detail how ample warning was given to the players, both in-game and out, so we can’t say that anybody went in uninformed. Admittedly, back in the ’80s and up through the mid-’90s, there were fewer system choices so a lot of these conversations were harder to have, but today, we have ample opportunity to explore various design possibilities and game ethics and, just as importantly, for not making it personal when someone else prefers a different tone or emphasis.