Game Design Lessons in Star Wars: Fallen Order

After thoroughly enjoying Hades during the pandemic and breaking up with Hearthstone earlier this summer, I had some space in my life for a new game. Star Wars: Fallen Order intrigued me for obvious reasons – it’s Star Wars and the buzz about the game seemed to be positive after it came out. I recall people speculating that the main character, Cal, might appear in the second season of The Mandalorian (hold this thought) so it seemed like folks overall enjoyed the content. I envisioned the game as an action-adventure that allows you to mow through Stormtroopers and other foes with a lightsaber and some Force powers, so I purchased the game and leapt in!

I finished the playthrough this week, and the following are some lessons I took from the experience regarding game design and my preferences.

Gaming Expectations

I learned there is SOME action and adventure in Fallen Order though much of the time is spent navigating to the next destination on the map through a variety of special abilities, most of which are not available to you until later in the game. The introduction to the game features Cal jumping, climbing, and searching for a way forward interspersed with some elaborate cinematic set pieces. Fallen Order provides a tutorial on how combat and navigation controls function by introducing new obstacles and offering the solution to those obstacles. As Fallen Order moves past the introductory mission and gets to “the meat” of the experience, the controls for navigation become more necessary than combat skills.

Cal looking confused. I’m right there with ya, buddy!

After some trial and error I read some articles about the game and was smacked in the face with sentences like, “….you’ll spend the majority of your time in Fallen Order solving puzzles, platforming, and exploring. We didn’t know that going in, and it made the first couple of hours confusing.”

Yes, it WAS confusing!

The other tip from the Polygon article above that turned out to be essential was, “Your map is a three-dimensional hologram, which is helpful because so many levels and paths have a lot of verticality to them. It feels like navigating like a bowl of spaghetti sometimes. You’ve got a great map. Use it.” This is the best description of playing Fallen Order that I can now imagine. Each planet you visit has multiple levels that twist and turn and stack on top of each other. I would be hopelessly lost in those levels if not for the map, which also has a bit of a learning curve in terms of how to comprehend and manipulate it effectively.

Perhaps a good thing for me to do in the future is to read more about a game before I commit to it. That sounds rather simple and easy though it has not been my practice too often. I played Horizon Zero Dawn on the recommendation of friends and loved it; same with Battle Chef Brigade and other games like Golf Story. I had in my mind that Fallen Order would be one experience and it offers something else; it’s more Tomb Raider than Dark Forces, which is fine once I settled into it.

Continue reading “Game Design Lessons in Star Wars: Fallen Order”

The Last of Us Part II Strives to Disappoint

Spoiler Warning: The following post contains massive spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.

It was almost seven years ago when I wrote this after completing The Last of Us:

Joel’s life was filled with nothing but misery and pain for 20 years. Can you blame him for stopping at nothing to keep his final connection to his deceased daughter alive? He kept Ellie alive because he could not live in a world where she no longer drew breath. The experience of empathizing with Joel during his journey across the country and merging with him in that final sequence was harrowing. After the credits rolled, I was thankful I could put down the controller and turn the game off.

And not live in Joel’s world.

Earlier this year, I stepped back into Joel’s world by replaying The Last of Us and then playing The Last of Us: Left Behind for the first time. With The Last of Us Part II coming out, I wanted to refresh my memory about of all the elements of Joel and Ellie’s story that riveted me years ago. The backdrop of a real-life global pandemic made playing through the games unsettling in a new way.

I was curious to learn how the team behind the original game would answer the questions left hanging from the conclusion of The Last of Us. Joel’s lies about The Fireflies not needing Ellie because they’ve already found others with immunity seemed more flimsy this time playing through the game, and Ellie seems fully aware Joel is bullshitting her as the credits in The Last of Us begin.

  • How would Ellie discover definitely that Joel lied to her?
  • What will Ellie do once she learns that Joel killed The Fireflies to save her life?
  • What will happen to the relationship between Ellie and Joel once that reveal takes place?
  • Are surviving members of The Fireflies searching for Ellie because they still believe she can provide a cure? Or searching for Joel for revenge?

As I’ve said more than once about the long-rumored Kenobi show, “I don’t care what it’s about. Just give me Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan quieting drinking tea and musing about his past failures with Anakin. Everything else is window dressing; I just need that!” Any sequel to The Last of Us has to focus on the powerful dynamics between Ellie and Joel.

Everything else is window dressing.

ellie-lostCertainly knowing this, the team behind The Last of Us Part II provides a lot of window dressing. The game owes a debt to shows such as Lost, Breaking Bad, The Wire (especially Season 2), and Game of Thrones. The primary moments I was truly invested in as a player are told in flashbacks (Lost). The image on the title screen shows a pivotal scene from the conclusion of the game though you do not realize that until the very end (Breaking Bad). Instead of focusing solely on the characters already established, the game introduces a variety of new characters including devoting a significant amount of playtime as Abby (The Wire). And to top this all off, the player spends hours of time as Abby after we see her brutally murder a prominent character, Joel, quite early in the game (Game of Thrones).

The Last of Us Part II was designed to be disappointing; quite on purpose. As I’ve been in my own state of quarantine since March, I was able to avoid spoilers and still have not reviewed commentary about the game. I am honestly not sure how others have reacted to the sequel. What follows is a bit of a running diary of how I processed the purposeful disappointment that plays out during the experience.

Continue reading “The Last of Us Part II Strives to Disappoint”

Hades Is Relentless in Teaching and Rewarding You

It was late September when I joined the Cult of Hades players. I had been patiently waiting for Star Wars Squadrons to release so I could devote countless hours to chasing the feelings I had while playing X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in my younger years. Numerous people I follow on social media were mentioning Hades and gushing about it; and the interesting thing was the people were not in the same circles. My Twitter feed is an amalgam of folks from tabletop roleplaying games, Hearthstone, sports, and politics – and people from each sphere of influence were talking about Hades.

I was intrigued.

Not knowing much about the game, I purchased it on my Switch, and the last six week have been DELIGHTFUL as I’ve been sucked into a pleasing gameplay loop that feels like a combination of Diablo II and various “one-more thing to collect” mobile games like Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. And yet the game design is not exploitative of the player’s time or resources. There’s a hypothetical version of this game where the player could spend money to purchase upgrades or make the game easier – like how Candy Crush levels are near-impossible unless you play them 100 times or purchase special upgrades for a few bucks. Hades sometimes feels like that though the upgrades are all built into the experience; it’s not trying to bilk the player of additional cash even though the game has multiple currencies for various upgrades. The allure of collection and progression is baked into the gameplay loop. For those not familiar with the loop of Hades, a primer.

You are Zagreus, son of Hades, living in the underworld with his family, their pet dog, Cerberus, and a few other members of note. Zagreus wants to escape the underworld as he does not get along with his father, so he must leave the House of Hades, which means fighting past monster-filled rooms. The gods of Olympus learn about Zagreus’ quest and offer him support along the way in the form of bonuses (Boons) so he can be faster, stronger and/or more resilient. Zagreus begins his quest with little in the way of Health or resources, and achieving success in terms of escape is not something that happens quickly.

Zagreus dies. A lot.

Continue reading “Hades Is Relentless in Teaching and Rewarding You”

Go Nowhere with Side Quests

In recent months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Red Dead Redemption 2. I started before the holidays, and the slow pace of the early game tripped me up. It took some cognitive adjustment (and a few tutorial articles) to get my bearings in this new version of the Old West. The game is beautiful, and gives players a vast canvas to devote countless hours to do – well, just about anything.

From hunting wildlife to donating to beggars to playing poker to bonding with a horse to furthering women’s rights to shooting up a “the whole damn town” with a frenemy, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players a trainload of options for how to spend their time while controlling Arthur Morgan. In addition to tens of hours of primary plot lines to follow, which I’m still nowhere near completing yet, the game has various tiers of what I’ll label Random Encounters. It is these encounters – and how they could relate to a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons – that have been on my mind in recent days.

Arthur
Arthur Morgan – Friend. Outlaw. Legend.

I wrote years ago how I learned to structure D&D sessions like the original Red Dead Redemption. At the time, I was running a 4th Edition campaign setting that I was making up on the fly. I needed to build a foundation in my mind so I didn’t get lost in my own world. Enter my experience with games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption:

In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.

Back then, I channeled my preparation time into creating prominent NPCs that players could interact with during sessions, knowing the general areas and missions those NPCs would trigger. It was a formula that worked well with my group, and helped me prepare for each session. Clearly, adventure books and modules accomplish this same goal; those texts provide details on important NPCs, and the DM steers the players in the direction of those NPCs to advance the plot.

Where Red Dead Redemption 2 is intriguing is that some tiers of the Random Encounters do not serve a purpose in the classic sense of game design. Completing the encounters does not increase skills, earn your character money, or unlock new items. The encounters are simply there; they exist to be experienced by the player. It’s rather strange because many other areas of the game drive you to complete specific actions to craft an item, earn more money, or improve your character or equipment in some way.

Continue reading “Go Nowhere with Side Quests”

Bard On!

The Bard is a class that I never played before, so when I was invited to play in a new Tomb of Annihilation campaign earlier this year – I figured it was time to give it a try. I lived vicariously through the exploits of other players talking about Bards and celebrating them through social media. The concept of playing a Bard always seemed enjoyable to me; it’s a character with high charisma that can solve problems in unique ways and bolster the efforts of the rest of the party. When playing in a campaign, I typically like to be up-close and personal in melee range making attacks and eliminating monsters, so playing a character that does not exactly shine in one-on-one combat would be a stretch.

I took on the challenge!

Character Development

One thing I wanted to do with the Bard was come up with a relatively simple backstory that did not rely on the character going through significant traumatic experiences early in life. Perhaps influenced by recent fatherhood, I created a character that is a family man first, performer second, and adventurer third. He’s got a stable home, a spouse, several children, and he travels the Realm from time to time to perform his music and assist other adventurers.

During our first session, I even had him ask the first major NPC we encountered, Syndra Silvane, to send money to his family in the event that he did not survive the quest to locate the Soulmonger. It was interesting to roleplay a character that expressed hesitation about the perils of adventuring rather than being eager to run in the direction of the next big, bad evil thing.

When creating my Bard, I thought about his name for a long time.

A very long, long time.

I borrowed/stole a device from Saga and named him The Stone. For a few moments before my son was born, I thought about Stone as a possible name; my wife wasn’t as keen on the idea. Pearl Jam is my favorite band, and Stone Gossard is one of the members. Plus, I’ve been curling for the past 5-6 years, and the rocks in curling are often referred to as stones. My wife and I ultimately decided on the name, Hugo, for our son – mostly inspired from this lovable guy.

The Stone featuring Dirk

With the name locked in, The Stone, the next step was to find some art that inspired me. While creating the character, I noted that a Bard could specialize in a small variety of instruments. The instrument that jumped out to me was bagpipes. YES! My Bard is going to play the bagpipes, and that obnoxiously glorious noise will be a part of future gaming sessions. I thought about a band we saw at a Renaissance Festival many years ago, Tartanic, and how they were wildly entertaining with pipes and drums. The next step was to conduct an Image Search on Google for: bard bagpipes.

Yes, this guy is – without a doubt – The Stone.

Oh, he’s magnificent!

Swap out the jug for a hand crossbow and we are set! I sent a question to our Dungeon Master, and asked if The Stone could have a companion animal. I clarified that the only thing the dog would do is carry around a tip jar on his back for times when The Stone performs. She enjoyed the idea, and allowed it, which has provided for some hilarious situations as The Stone tends to his pet in the severe jungles of Chult!

Continue reading “Bard On!”

Scheduling & Summaries: Pillars of Campaign Momentum

One of the nifty things about social media is it allows you to live vicariously through other like-minded people engaged in fun activities like playing Dungeons & Dragons. While it can be enjoyable to see tweets with descriptions and pictures from the gaming sessions of others, a constant response in my brain is, “Where do they find the time to play this often?” Quite frankly, it has been a challenge to maintain a tabletop campaign in recent years for a number of reasons. There seems to be a dwindling window of time available for hobbies as we get older and more responsibilities are tossed our way.

So this article offers a few helpful tips to keep a campaign moving.  How can you go from playing once every few months to gaming more consistently? And how can you keep the players interested in plot points that were introduced many weeks (or maybe even months – or years) ago?

Adventuring in the Middle Ages

Has anyone ever ran a campaign where characters in the game world had to juggle their personal call to adventure with the realities of raising a family or holding down gainful employment? Probably not, because it would lead to the following conversation:

King Yavin IV: Our kingdom is plagued by the undead. The source of this foul curse seems to be coming from the east. I sent my most-talented warriors and sages to solve the problem, and they have not returned. No word from them in weeks…. I fear the worst! Would you follow their path, and end our suffering? I will see to it that you are all handsomely rewarded.

So’lana Arquist (Bard): Most honorable King Yavin IV, your need is great, and we can certainly take on this most-important quest. Tough, perhaps we could delay the start of this quest as I’m booked to perform each night at The Dove’s Inn until the new moon arrives.

Farcha Oxblood (Fighter): Yes, nothing is as satisfying as ridding undead vermin from this world! However, my partner is away on business and our children need someone to stay home with them. You have my swords, of course, when she returns.

Rinzin (Rogue): Yes, yes…. Later would work better for me as well, your majesty. I’m scheduled to see a surgeon for a medical procedure. Since our last run-in with a group of mages and a flame imp – long story, I won’t trouble you with details – my back has been killing me and it needs some work. I should be in tip-top shape in a few weeks!

Sister Maven (Cleric): I’m ready to cleanse your land of these abominations, though I would need the assistance of the others here today. I will remain focused until the time comes when So’lana, Farcha, and Rinzin are ready to venture east!

King Yavin IV: Oh dear….

Coordinating the schedules for four or more adults is a challenge, and it seems to get increasingly complex as we age. Ideally, everyone in a gaming group would have the same level of commitment to the game and make attendance a priority.

Life happens though. Children need attention, work requirements escalate, emergencies come up, illness strikes, and hobbies such as playing a tabletop roleplaying game for a few hours must be pushed aside for other pressing demands.

D&D Session PlanningIn recent months, I’ve found that three strategies are most effective in dealing with the realities of running a game composed of people in theirs 30s and 40s who are invariably juggling multiple real-world responsibilities.

First, accept that each player is not going to attend every gaming session. The struggle to find a time that works for everyone can limit how often the game is played, and that delay can sap the enthusiasm of every player involved. When all the players involved understand that sessions will take place without one or more players at times, the group can collectively move forward more efficiently with scheduling.

Second, attempt to find a consistent time that works for the majority of players. I recently tried to schedule a game that would run on the same night of the same week each month. For example, “Let’s all agree to meet from 6-9PM on the second Tuesday of each month.” That type of scheduling makes the game predictable for everyone, and can be added to calendars and digital planners as a recurring appointment. The problem with this is it may not work for everyone in the group, which leads us to the final option. Continue reading “Scheduling & Summaries: Pillars of Campaign Momentum”

Do You Want Some Exposition?

A challenge for me while running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons is efficiently detailing important story details to the players at the table. There are standard ways to accomplish this, and the most common is the text box in a published adventure. The text box highlights the information that the players should be told when they enter a specific area. The design of adventures force the DM to notice this text with the equivalent of a neon sign that flashes, “Stop! Read this!” Another option for DMs to deliver vital plot details is to use a NPC to convey information to the players through some conversation. While I use these methods often, I’m always experimenting to do something creative at the table that gives important details about a character, a location, or a quest that doesn’t involve me reading a block of text or speaking through a NPC.

Flavor text D&D
It’s impossible to miss the must-read flavor text in adventure books!

I detailed last article how I collaborated with other DMs to build NPCs for the initial session of a Tales From the Yawning Portal campaign. During the second session, I had three primary goals that I wanted to accomplish with the players. First, I wanted them to have some interactions with the rival adventuring group they agreed to partner with in Undermountain. Second, I wanted something to split the adventuring groups up so, third, the party could explore a ruined stronghold in a session or two without assistance.

I knew the first goal would happen organically at the table, and I was confident I could find a clean place during the session to have the vain leader of the rival party abandon the partnership with the party. The third goal required me to create a stronghold for the party to explore. The players had previously purchased a map from a NPC at the Yawning Portal to “an abandoned stronghold that is rumored to house great treasures.” Now I had to figure out what was on the map! Continue reading “Do You Want Some Exposition?”

Ego Check with The Id DM – Episode 13 – Carina Kom

Carina Kom bio pic
Carina Kom

This week I’m joined by Carina Kom,  Co-founder and CEO of Crash Wave Games, which successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign for their next game, Iron Tides. Ms. Kom discusses her years of experience wearing various hats in the gaming industry, which led her to forming her own company. She talks about her interest in understanding player behaviors in videogames, including how players respond to in-game reward systems and overall difficulty settings. She elaborates on her experience working on free-to-play and pay-to-win games. The second half of the interview is devoted to Iron Tides, which is a Viking themed strategy-survival game that is inspired by games such as Darkest Dungeon. She speaks about the benefits and challenges of playtesting with the diverse casual and “hardcore” gaming audiences. She described the systems in Iron Tides, and how some of them grew from a tabletop philosophy.

Enjoy the (lucky) 13th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:

You can also listen to the show right here:

 

Please consider leaving a review on iTunes and help spread the word about the show. New episodes are released the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The next episode will post on May 2nd , 2017.

If you are interested in coming on the show for an interview, or would like to become a sponsor, contact me to make arrangements.

Ego Check with The Id DM – Episode 6 – Susan J. Morris

susan-j-morris-bio-pic
Susan J. Morris

My guest for Episode 6 of Ego Check with The Id DM is Susan J. Morris, a fantasy author and editor that is best known for her work editing Forgotten Realms novels for Wizards of the Coast and novels for Monte Cook Games. She has published multiple books herself and designed Dungeons & Dragons for Kids. She also wrote a writing advice column for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog. In the interview, she spoke about how she started running roleplaying games and transferred that experience into her professional life. She speaks about growing up as a homebrewer of campaign worlds rather than relying on published content. She speaks about her experiences working with Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook Games, and the unique challenges of working with new content in the Forgotten Realms. She details her work as an editor, and offers advice for those interested in publishing their work.

Near the end of our talk, Susan shared some words that I want to highlight below. She spoke about the challenge of being a writer because it is a task that does not often result in positive feedback. I think her words are vital for all of us involved in producing creative content:

If you’re not writing for yourself, you’re going to be very disappointed long-term. I think you need to write things you love and that you enjoy — and then you can share them with other people, but the enjoyment should come from the writing and from doing it for yourself. Everything else should be kind of secondary or you’re very dependent on other people’s opinions for your happiness and fulfillment, which I think is never a good way to go. Writing as it is has very few moments in which you get reinforcement.

Create the content you want to consume! Personally, some of the most fun I’ve had as a writer have been spending time on articles that do not get much attention. I mean, who else is going to write over 4,000 words to determine the best track list for a hypothetical 12-track Use Your Illusion album by Guns N’ Roses?

Well, this guy too!

Enjoy the sixth episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:

You can also listen to the show right here:

Please consider leaving a review on iTunes and help spread the word about the show. New episodes are released the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The next episode will post on January 16th, 2017.

If you are interested in coming on the show for an interview, or would like to become a sponsor, contact me to make arrangements.

Ask Iddy: What to Do When the Thrill Is Gone?

elves_at_the_council_of_elrond

I recently received two related questions from a long-time reader. I responded to him quickly, though I also wanted to expand on the answers as the topic seems universal to gaming groups. The questions focus on how to alter the routine of a gaming group when it feels like the sessions are no longer quite as fun and the thrill is gone. You can find the questions and my answers below, and please contact me if you have other questions!

I’ve been running a game for about 14 months now, and my group took about half a year to complete Phandelver. We hadn’t played before, but I believe we’re doing well. Upon finishing, we decided to start anew with Out of the Abyss. Because of the unusual setting, I find it rather hard to DM that campaign, and the group is a bit frustrated with the limited resources and equipment. We recently played a one-shot with the Phandelver characters and everyone was very nostalgic. Now there’s Storm King’s Thunder, and I believe the Phandelver characters could just transition into that setting. I feel the temptation to rest the Out of the Abyss campaign and start Storm King’s Thunder instead. Is that a legitimate idea? Or can I be confident that Out of the Abyss will become more “likeable” over time?

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the question, and the obvious care you have about the gaming experience for all of the players involved in the sessions. To provide a clear answer immediately, yes, your idea is legitimate! I believe it is the DM’s job to monitor the enjoyment level of the players (and him- or herself) and adjust accordingly. There are several options available to you, and I believe any of them are legitimate to pursue.

First, you mentioned you are finding the Out of the Abyss setting “rather hard to DM” because of the “unusual setting.” There are resources available to aid your efforts if you wish to continue running Out of the Abyss, such as Sly Flourish’s aptly-named series, Running Out of the Abyss. He has written seven detailed articles about individual chapters in the Out of the Abyss campaign, and his first article in the series addresses how a DM can adjust to make the adventure more forgiving to players.

Personally, I am also most comfortable when the campaign is tethered to a typical fantasy environment. I have taken campaigns into the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Elemental Chaos in the past, and those sessions tend to be a bit more challenging for me to run effectively. When the environments, creatures, and obstacles become more fantastical, I find I’m less confident in my descriptions of events and how the world “works.” When in doubt, simplify the elements from the campaign book or reduce the number of bizarre elements in any given session to something that feels more suitable and familiar to your style.

Continue reading “Ask Iddy: What to Do When the Thrill Is Gone?”