Notes from the Newbie GM

You come here for the video game content, right?  Too bad.  This isn’t a video games blog.  This is an Aether blog.  Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me.  But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.

And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time.  Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots.  And it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am.  Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am.  As it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies.  These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.

In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now.  It’s been an odd experience getting this far.  Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.

All the Resources are Worthless

Everything geared towards the “New GMs.”  All of it.  Absolutely unhelpful.  Even the things that you think might be helpful.  You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential.  That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right?  Nothing.  If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything.  Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop?  Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know.  You’ve seen it in action.  You’ve lived it.  And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.

But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right?  Ehhhhhh…………..  No.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide.  I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful.  They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player.  All of it.  Absolutely all of it.  Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories.  And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject.  For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else.  So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.

So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing?  Well, first, spend some time as a player.  You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above.  It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s.  It will teach you things.  From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know.  Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing.  Go for the ones for more experienced GMs.  For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers.  Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.

Your Players Will Follow Your Lead.  Easily.

From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings.  To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material.  Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.

I have not faced that at all.  Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics.  They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing.  They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released.  And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me.  Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.

I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it.  Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it.  I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it.  I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that.  I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.

I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.

And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.

That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.

Take that sentence out of context.

Continue reading

Random Thoughts on What I’ve Been Playing

Batman Arkham Knight

Arkham-Knight-Shot-06.jpg

I said that the similarity between Shadows of Mordor and the Arkham games made me a bit less interested in playing Arkham so soon after Mordor.  Turns out, I was right.  I’ve loved the Arkham games, but Arkham Knight already feels a bit stale, just because I’m trying to pick it up so soon after an extended run with what’s pretty much the same engine.

There’s been a lot written about how the Batmobile sections drag the game down.  This is true.  The developers had this new gameplay component that they devoted a lot of time, effort, and segments too, and it wasn’t as good as they expected.  They took a risk, it didn’t work out, and you know what?  I’m fine with that.  What is really odd to me about the Batmobile is just how much they have to stretch to still fit what they wanted to do in the whole “Batman doesn’t kill” deal.  Drive into a mob at 140 MPH?  Look, they’re twitching with electricity, they’re only stunned, not dead!  Your cannon?  It’s a good thing you’re only fighting drone tanks.  Ramming cars around at high speed until they flip end over end?  Eh… you just forget about that.

You know, if they just put people in those tanks, rather than using drones, Batman would be able to do nothing against them. Continue reading

The Bloodborne Mumbles

I’ve been playing and publicly humiliating myself at Dark Souls for years.  I finally got myself through that.  You might think I need a break from that, but nope, apparently not.  After a scant few weeks away, I started playing Bloodborne, and stepping back into that engine, that design philosophy, that world of challenge… well, it felt good.  It felt right.  So much so that, after spewing so many words at Dark Souls, it just feels like there’d be something wrong with the world if I didn’t do the same for Bloodborne.  No Let’s Play here, because I don’t know how to get screens off my PS4 I want to play this one for myself, but I’d still like to get my first sessions’ thoughts down about the game.

Let’s make this happen.

  • First things first, the Otaku Judge and I’ve been in each other’s spheres for a good long while now. So when I finished up my Dark Souls run, he suggested Bloodborne to me, thinking I would like it, unaware that I had already picked it up and it was already on its way through the black magic and the mail.    And hey!  He was right!  I do like it.  Great minds thinking alike and all that.
  • Dark Souls was a very hard game to stay unspoiled from. I ran into things by accident.  Knowing I’d eventually be interested in playing it, I’ve been a lot more careful with Bloodborne.  This will be about as pure an experience as I can get here.  Very little spoilers for me.
  • We plug the game in and… not off to a great start. I’m really starting to get tired of always being asked to download and install a patch every time I buy a new game.  I get this thing, I want to play it.  I don’t want to spend my limited gaming time with this new piece of art I’ve been looking forward to just slapping some files together.    Screw that.  I don’t get to play online because of it, but whatever.  I’ll just try it out later.

z71k5eq6ft9fnwmhtrxh.jpg

  • Dark Souls’ opening was full of lore and backstory. High concept fantasy stuff.  Bloodborne’s is a lot different.  The big thing they’re delivering is unanswered questions.  Hinting at the lore to come.  I’m a paleblood, whatever that is, and I’m here for blood ministration.  Going by the dictionary, that’s ‘the provision of assistance or care’.  To my blood.  I’m here for a transfusion with some of Yharnam’s super cool pimp blood, then contracts are mentioned, then character creation screen.
  • You get a lot of options with character creation. As is my wont, I spend a lot of time here.  I’m really attracted to the options you get with the skin color.  I briefly consider popping the Incredible Hulk in there, but since girls aren’t watching and I don’t have to show off, I go with something a lot more basic.  I end up with a willowy muse, who just happens to be very, very blue.
  • Demon Souls let me have my characters face, but didn’t have a lot to play with in creating it. Dark Souls was less limited, but in one memory I actually find really funny, totally played me by making my character completely skinless.  Kind of wondering if Bloodborne will end up jerking me around the same way.  I’m hoping they will, actually.
  • I originally intended to base my starting class on which one had the sexiest hat. Unfortunately, none of the classes change your equipment layout.
  • So, the embarrassingly long amount of time I’ve spent fine-tuning my appearance is over, back to the intro. I pass out, creepy wheelchair doctor disappears, here comes a werewolf made of blood.  Just like a Tuesday morning for me.  Werewolf burns for no reason, then from around the bed I’m strapped to, here pop a whole lot of creepy baby Ghoulies.

Bath_Messenger_BE.jpg

  • Okay seriously, I don’t like these guys. Don’t want to look at them.
  • Oh hell they’re touching my face!
  • Okay, that was horrifying and I’ll never be clean again. I’m free now, though.  Let’s play with the controls.
  • Okay, that is totally just Dark Souls. I can’t block, and my dual wielding button is moved, but otherwise, right at home.  The path I’m on leads me to a werewolf.  Let’s test my knowledge of this out.
  • Considering I’m unarmed and doing 12 damage a shot, I’m actually doing quite well. The werewolf can’t touch me.  At least at first.  But one difference from Dark Souls, when you’re locked on, your dodge is a quickstep rather than a roll.  The timings a bit different.  While it’s clear from the first time I used it that there’s some invincibility frames in there, I don’t know where they are, exactly.  After smacking him like twenty times with my bare fists, I get caught, and that’s the end of that.
  • That seems to have been the intended path, though. That makes me even more frustrated at that loss.  I bet I’d have gotten something super sweet if I had managed to get past that first werewolf.  In any case, upon death, I’m transported to the Hunter’s Dream, which seems to be the hubworld for everything else.  Big flashbacks to Demon Souls here, but unlike that time, it wasn’t something super sick wicked that killed me.

ss-detail16.jpg

  • Weapon time, though! I almost gave up on them, given that the Ghoulies have touched all these weapons and they’re super icky, but I’m not into that much abuse.    I know very little about how Bloodborne differs from Dark Souls, mechanically, but I do know that it requires a more aggressive playstyle, focuses on counters over guards, and has you fight groups of enemies a lot more often.  In light of that, I opt for the faster weapons over the stronger ones.  Figure mobility is more key here.  On top of that, this gives me the option to beat down werewolves with a cane, like the gentleman I was always meant to be.  Sweet.
  • Fast forwarding a bit, the first bits of lore you get about the game you find from talking to jerks hiding in their houses. And they’re always jerks.  Anyways, that’s some great use of light.  There are lots of doors, given that you’re fighting your way through city streets, but all the ones that will talk to you have a lit lantern next to them, or light peeking underneath, or some other use of lighting that just draws your eye to them.  Clever, and it feels really natural.
  • So, yeah, lore. The city of Yharnam is pretty screwed thanks to ‘the Hunt.’  I am a ‘Hunter’ and it’s up to me and ilk to slay ‘beasts’ such as those werewolves and all the other jerk townsfolk I’ve been smacking around.  Also, I’m an ‘Outsider’ and that means everyone ‘hates’ me even though I’m somehow supposed to make everything better and they can all go ‘die horribly in a fire’.
  • A few werewolves have been crucified and set on fire. Not necessarily in that order.  So far, I’ve mostly been smacking around a bunch of townsfolk who’ve gotten a little too bigheaded, rather than the beasts everyone’s talking about.  I wonder if this is going to end up being me just going mad and slaughtering everyone, my insanity driving me to think I’m some great liberator as I’m doing so?  The pieces all fit.

Transformable_Cane_Combat.jpg

  • The Dark Souls engine was never great at having you fight groups. The camera’s too close and controlling it uses the same thumb as your vital dodge button, your defenses are pretty uni-directional, and the margin of error is way too slim.  Bloodborne keeps some of those problem, but fixes others, so overall, it is a bit better suited.  Namely, your dodge roll/quickstep is faster than it used to be and actually has some invincibility frames, so you can weave through multiple attacks a bit better, and, I don’t know if every weapon has this, but the alternate blade-whip mode of my cane was great for keeping groups of enemies at bay.  I still had to employ a good bit of my old Dark Souls scumbag tactics to get through, but I’m comfortable with that.  Positioning is very important, taking control of choke points or at the very least getting everyone to come at you from all directions, but so far, the levels seem designed to give you ample opportunity for that.

Continue reading

Ranting ‘Bout Rogue Galaxy

If a game is bad, people will make fun of it forever.  If a game is good, there will be someone out there who just will never shut up about it.  And it’s probably you.  Give it a rest sometime, jeez.  So what happens to the games that fall somewhere in between?  Are they just doomed to be lost to history, nobody who cares enough one way or the other to talk about them?

rogue-galaxy-08-20-14-1.jpg No, that doesn’t happen.  Thanks to the subjective nature of opinions and the endless possibilities of people and experiences, everything is loved by at least someone.  But it’s pretty easy for something to just disappear outside your personal sphere of experience in this world.  For me, Rogue Galaxy is just such a game.  I only knew it from some vague memories of some friends of mine renting it once.  I only bought it because I came across it while I was nostalgic for that friendship after it ended.  I hadn’t played it past the first act for years, finally beating it just now.  And man, that was an experience.  I’ve seen it largely described as an ‘average’ quality game, hence why you don’t see many people raving about it one way or the other.  Yet, it’s not average in the same way most other games are, in being good, but not good enough.  No, Rogue Galaxy mixes good game and bad game like oil and water, and somehow that balances out to average.  Which, as it turns out, gives me way more to think about.  I was planning on writing a post about the game, because if I have to spend all that time in a game that is ‘average’ and therefore clearly beneath me, I don’t want to be the only one to suffer.  But I just could not decide on what subject.  So I just decided screw it, I’ll just mash all the possible posts into one big dumb chimera post.  This is that post.  And now you’re reading it.  Your life has never been better.  Let’s go stream of consciousness on this sucker.

  • So, if you take yourself some sci-fi and start softening it up, at some point it starts to become pretty indistinguishable from fantasy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Star Wars rode that line beautifully.  Dune did as well, at least until it came to Sting in his underpants.  Then it was all fantasy.  Rogue Galaxy takes the line about as far as it goes, to the point that you wouldn’t be amiss calling it a ‘Fantasy Game with Sci-Fi Elements’.  You should try that sometime.  You will gain friends.  Anyways, if you took away all the space stuff, you would have yourself the exact same game in a slightly different genre.  You have your elves, Scottish dwarves, kings and queens, swashbuckling, pirates, magic, animal people, all that.  The separate planets are all monoclimate, and only have one city each, so they’re all largely indistinguishable from standard videogame countries.  The atmosphere is such that it all works, though.  You take your story seriously, and that leads to questions like “how do I keep running into the same people with a whole galaxy to play with” and “how do you get a worldwide government in place that can all agree with each other” and “why don’t I get to see more of this entire stupid planet than just this postcard-sized space of real estate?”  You get a bit lighter with it, you get to get away with it.
  • Just one thing I want to share, here’s an excerpt from a walkthrough for the game, put together by one “Shinji” Chow: “All in all, an average RPG that all RPG gamers should try and give a shot at.”  It’s a bit of a jump from “Oh meh” to “Everyone has to play this!” but I remember being the exact same way about RPGs at the time this came out.  That is largely the reason why the PS2 era is taking so blasted long for me to get through in my “Beat Everything” endeavor.

723636-929240_20060421_001.jpg

  • The back of the game advertises “Over 100 hours of gameplay!” The game actually took me 47 hours to beat, so a bit longer than most games that make that claim.  Thing is this game gets harder to want to play the farther along you get yourself into it.  When I got to the end, I had stopped enjoying it a long while ago and was going by sheer force of will.  The developers here seem to have forgotten that your hours don’t count if they suck.  So much in this game seems designed to just take more time without adding to the experience.  Most of the worst of it’s optional, so, you know, fine.  All that stupid pokemon bugquest, all the worthless encounter grinding for more points, all the trial and error item crafting, I ignored it all, and never missed it.  But there was one thing they forced you through that absolutely killed my interest in the game.  Cut-and-paste dungeon design is never forgivable, but this game takes it to the extreme.  It got to the point where I was dreading any indoor dungeon, because I knew it’d just be the same few rooms over and over and over.  I just don’t understand why they did it.  This game obviously had money behind it.  They shouldn’t have had to resort to such lazy, lazy design.  But maybe they blew it all on that big ol’ dolphin pimping sidequest.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that the ctrl+c dungeons took what could have been a solid game and dragged it down into the mud.  This was singlehandedly the reason I am so glad to be done with it.  I would have loved the game so much more if it’s dungeons had just left you the first instance of any given hall or room, but then they would have all been like five minutes long.
  • One thing that did kind of irritate me was discovering or opening up some big lost area that nobody’s been to for centuries, and finding it full of people. Like, somehow everyone else got there before I did.  What even was the point of that?  Aside from a few shops that I don’t need because you can teleport at save points, they added nothing to the area.  Fallout 4 does something similar, dropping drugs that were only developed post-war and motley pipe weapons to areas that supposedly haven’t been touched in the past 200 years.  If you’re the first person to get somewhere, that’s supposed to mean something.  That’s a place that’s different from all these other locations you explore.  Both games just spew it all away.

Rg-dorgengoa.jpg

  • I’m glad it turned out Kisala was adopted. That way I don’t have to think about Dorgengoa having sex.
  • There’s no getting around it. Rogue Galaxy’s plot is as simple and clichéd as it’s possible for a JRPG to be.  You can see any given plot twist coming for miles, and nothing gets any real mileage.  The game’s really comfortable there, though.  It’s not a story that ended up as such due to a lack of creativity; it feels like it was deliberately written to be as rote and familiar as it could be.  It’s not a good story, per se, and never gets engaging or draws you in, but it’s not really trying to.  It’s kind of an admirable thing, seeing so much design, time, and effort go into making something so deliberately standard.  It’s the plot equivalent of junk food.  Not everyone wants it, and too much of it is definitely a bad thing, but a bit once in a while is not such a bad thing.

496769-rogue_galaxy_20060425025407253

  • I have a huge amount of trouble keeping the names of Rogue Galaxy and Rogue Legacy straight.  Same with Radiant Historia and Radiata Story.  Feels like somebody could make a small little change in order to make life just a little bit easier for a certain sexy informed game connoisseur.