Fear the Con: A Postmortem Part 2

Continued from Part One

SLOT 4: TRAIL OF CTHULHU: SECRETS OF WYRMFELL

This was the first game I signed up for this year. Nearly every year I go to Fear the Con there is a game system I really want to try just to see how it runs, and this year GUMSHOE was high on the list. While this was the first time I had ever gamed under Jeb Brack, he’s had a storied reputation as an excellent GM in the community, and I was in the mood for some investigative fun.

The opening premise was fairly simple. A noble lord (whose name escapes me now) that we had all had previous dealings with wanted to put together an expedition out to a strange burial mound he’d discovered out in the fells near his manor. This one, named Wyrmfell, was named such because it was in the shape of a serpent. He’d recovered some strange artifacts that pointed to the existence of a strange proto-human race on which legends of fae folk may have been based. I was playing a globe-trotting archeologist, and our group covered most of the best 20s pulp adventure tropes.

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Wyrmfell was actually based on The Great Serpent Mound, and a edited version of this image was used as a map for our adventure.

The game was a bit more pulpy and dungeoneering than I expected, but still was an absolute blast. The system was very easy to pick up and after the con I immediately got on my computer and purchased a PDF copy of Trail of Cthulhu, and have recently backed a Kickstarter for another GUMSHOE game, The Yellow King. The rule book is laid out in a slightly clunky manner, but knowing now how the game is supposed to work, I really look forward to using it a toolkit for my own stories. I love mysteries, but they are often quite hard to make work well in tabletop games, and I welcome any system that enables me to tell those sorts of stories well.

The biggest feature of note, for those not familiar with GUMSHOE, is how the game makes everything about resource management. Investigative skills are never rolled, merely spent point by point, meaning there are never moments where everyone fails there rolls and no one knows where to go to progress. You do have to manage what you spend where, but overall it makes for a much less frustrating investigation.

Really my takeaways from this game were that I needed to run GUMSHOE sometime and that if Jeb is this good at running GUMSHOE, he may actually be able to turn me around on GURPS. I’ll have to see how next year’s con scheduling turns out.

SLOT 5: SPIDERS OF MY MIND

This was a playtest for a game being worked on by the award winning game designer Chad Wattler of Morning Skye Studio and his compatriot and fellow Fear the Boot host Dan Repperger. Spiders of My Mind runs on a couple of base assumptions about the PCs. Everyone is a convicted murderer who’ve been sent to an insane asylum. Everyone is actually insane. Everyone did, in fact, commit murder. Now, given all that, something bad is going down in the asylum and it’s up to you all to do something about it, because no one in authority is going to believe you if you tell them that there is some grand conspiracy going down with the new head doctor and the Mexican mafia.

Anyone who has listened to Chad on Fear the Boot may well know that he’s an ardent supporter of tabletop rpgs as a storytelling medium first and foremost. That said, the Morning Skye oeuvre is not so much in opposition to game mechanics as they are to character-focused game mechanics, and this is true of SOMM as well.

What functions as your character sheet is written during the GM, Dan in our case, as he performs an interview on your character. The interview identifies your character, your initial diagnosis, three important people from your background, and three “manifestations” for your madness. Your character has no stats, no skills, no aspects, and no health track of any sort. Nothing about your character dictates what you are good at.

And yet somehow this game still managed to have a really engaging die roll mechanic.

During play, situations that would normally call for a die roll or skill check of some sort were handled by a roll of five FATE dice. For those unfamiliar, FATE dice, normally in sets of four, are six sided dice with two + signs, two – signs, and two blank faces. In FATE, you roll them to generate a number between +4 and -4, heavily bell curved.

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Sometimes I think we just come up with new kinds of dice to give us an excuse to keep buying them.

In SOMM, these dice are used to an entirely different effect. The + and – results do not negate one another. Rather, they represent two present factors, narrative control and consequences.

Given that you manage to roll at least one +, your character succeeds at whatever it was they were trying to do. For every + beyond the first, you get a greater degree of narrative control over how the events unfold. You may have wanted to knock a guard unconscious, but with additional + results, you may be able to declare that not only did you succeed, but you did so silently, and/or that he has a full set of keys to your wing of the hospital on him.

This is important, because after you expend your narrative control, then the GM gets to unload consequences on you based on the number of – results you rolled. So, maybe you were silent and got those keys, but now you hear his radio squaking and someone on the other end is expecting a response. Also there’s all the blood. It’s all over him, the floor, and your clothes. How unfortunate it would be if someone saw that.

One super important element of this mechanic is that the player always gets to make their declarations first, and the GM *cannot contradict them*. It’s a very “yes and” game, with the pressure to keep up the “yes and” tone placed primarily on the GM.

I could write an entire blog about the full mechanics of this game, and I probably will once the game comes out proper. There are mechanics dealing with banking away negative results and how that pushes the PCs towards mental breakdowns and a day and night cycle system wherein during the night the PCs act like PCs in a tabletop RPG but during the day they are closely watched and have to behave like patients in a hospital, complete with group therapy during which the game switches over to a more free form, almost FIASCO like exploration of the PC’s backgrounds. It’s already an amazing game and I look forward to seeing it’s final incarnation.

The game was overall a blast. I played the worst person I have ever played in a tabletop RPG. I was quiet, obsessed with details, certain that everyone hated me, and in absolute denial over any wrongdoing I had ever done. I didn’t kill people. Accidents happen to people. It is just a coincidence that we had just had an argument. Maybe if she had listened to me she wouldn’t have fallen down the stairs onto that knife fourteen times.

Our group also had a conspiracy theorist pyromaniac, a Charles Manson-esque manipulator, and a vampire. He didn’t have any powers, but he did tear open throats on occasion. We had a jolly romp and uncovered a horrible conspiracy. Then the head doctor fell into the boiler. I don’t know how that happened. Terrible accident.

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Truly regrettable.

That said, there were also some interesting wrinkles that came up. It was nothing big enough to disrupt the fun of the game, mind you, but it was interesting to see from a game design perspective.

First was an observation on the character generation system. Now, character generation went quite smoothly. Dan was clearly quite prepared and there was scarecly a moment’s hesistation between the end of the interviews and his presentation of our diagnosis and character writeup. That said, I have no idea how they are going to encapsulate that in document form for when the game is published. From the outside it looks like a combination of mental health related research and absolute GM magic. This isn’t so much a problem at the game table as much as a possible difficulty with the publication of the game that I cannot wait to see how they tackle.

Second was a phenomenon that came up in a couple diffferent games I played in but come up most often and most strongly in SOMM. On multiple occasions I noted players getting a deer in the headlights look when they realized they had narrative control and were expected to use it. To use the above example, a PC would attempt to knock out a guard, get a good roll, and the player would go “I knock him out real good!” Then, Chad would ask “Okay, what else?” and there would be this moment of bafflement as the player tried to come up with something. I don’t think this is a problem with the game, per se, nor, as I said before, was this the only game where I saw this happen.

I feel like this is a symptom of two major things. First, this kind of mechanic where players get this level of narrative control is still fairly novel in the grand landscape that is tabletop RPGs and many players have never encountered anything like it before. Secondly, and I can’t be sure of this, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the players who had difficulty with this mechanic were not often GMs, if they had ever gm’d before at all. This sort of off the cuff narration is a core part of running a tabletop rpg, but some people just never run.

Now, I’m of the opinion that everyone should take a turn at the GM seat at some point in their tabletop RPG career just to have a feel for what that side of the GM screen feels like. Oftentimes players tend to get a better feel for what behaviors make the game go smoother when they’ve been in the position of running and being expected to keep the game running. But, this opinion is not universal, and neither is the skill set one generally developes from GMing. I don’t think this problem is the SOMM’s fault, or even that big of a problem. I just found it an interesting phenomenon that SOMM seemed to shine a very bright light on.

SLOT 6: BLOOD BATH AND BEYOND

Holy shit where do I begin.

“Your life is a fifty/fifty mix of avoiding The Man’s tyrannical hobnailed boot and roller derby. Hatchetation Nation is your team, your gang, your family. Things were cruising along just fine until the this years moot. Now you’re on the roll because the other gangs want your heads. This complete ripoff of the 1979 film The Warriors will use the patented Brodeur You Tell Me system. When you see the ocean, you figure you’re home.” -Brodeur the Younger

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Yeah, pretty much that.

Now, if you think this already sounds like four of the best hours in gaming you’d be right, but you’d only be grasping the very tip of this iceberg of insanity.

This was not my first experience with the patented Brodeur You Tell Me system. That was Fear the Con 8, wherein we played members of GWAR cutting a swath of destruction across the globe. This was Brodeur’s first outing with his freshly minted You Tell Me system. The character sheets had no stats, only descriptive phrases similar to aspects from fate divided into different categories, along with three different resource pools each tied to one catagory of aspect. When asked what a given aspect meant, Brodeur’s response was typically “You tell me!” Rolls were done on a D12, the most metal of all dice.

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Full disclosure, I played the fine gent on the far left, Balsac, the Jaws of Death. One of his aspects was “All the Venereal Diseases”

If my recollection of this bit seems fuzzy, it’s because most of it stopped mattering less than an hour into the game. None of those resource pools gave you rerolls, you see. They only gave you a small flat bonus if you spent one and used an aspect that would be beneficial, and if you are familiar with GWAR, you can probably imagine what kind of aspects our characters had. What did matter was that the game did, in fact, have a reroll mechanic. That was where the fifth of Jack Daniels sitting at the table was for.

One shot, one reroll. No limits, and you could drink for your friends. As time passed, the cruft fell away until the aspects became guidelines and everything was dice, whiskey, and ultraviolence. It was glorious.

From the beginning of this new chapter, the cruft was already trimmed. We had character sheets, and they had words on them, but it was up to us to tell Brodeur what they meant. There were rules for sustaining injury, in the form of addditional aspects on note cards, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who took one in the form of “Flaming Shrapnel Based Non-Vital Brain Injury.” We were Hatchetation Nation. I played the only male character at the table, team skate mechanic/toady Lawrence Lickspittle. The team was headed by Victorious Vivian Voce, with “Zoom Zoom” Zoe Zooty serving as the Jammer and The MOAB Sweet Molly, Axel De Rosa, and Penny Wiseass serving as blockers and rounding out our team.

After being framed for murder at the gang/roller derby team moot, we had to make our way across town past the beret-sporting Che Gs, who largely perished in an unfortunate bus explosion, a Wizard of Oz themed gang whose name I’m fuzzy on now (Followers of Dorothy, I think) who we almost passed by peacefully until Molly had to point out that The Wiz was better, and the Baseball Furries, who really need no further introduction, all while our adventures were narrated by the silky smooth tones of the DJ Soulful White Boy.

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Pictured: DJ Soulful White Boy

The whole thing culminated in a showdown with the actual murderers and our roller derby rival, The VVitches, in a simultaneous battle between our leaders for control of the all important Boardwalk Ferris Wheel and a full blown roller derby to the death in which, short a player, Hatchetation Nation promoted Lawrence to team captain and he took to the rink, complete with skirt and halter-top cut tool vest.

Given the paired down mechanics and the alcohol tolerance of some of the players at the table, the game was ultimately a drinking game with a narrative. Not a single roll was failed the entire game. This was doubly impressive given that Axel Rosa’s player was already hammered when he got to the table (love ya Ryan) and Zoom Zoom’s player both wasn’t a whiskey drinker and was having unfortunate luck when the dice. During the big roller derby match, whenever the Jammer’s turn would come around, half the table would have shots prepared and we’d go down the line one by one giving him rerolls.

While the game was not quite as, em, ostentatious as the GWAR game (during the opening minutes of which one player just up and disappeared from the table), it was an amazing gonzo booze-fueled romp. While there may be things about the game mechanically that might be worth tweaking, I don’t know that they really matter in the long run. What I do know that I am deeply looking forward to next year’s Brodeur You Tell Me game, which I’ve been told is going to be Blaxploitation Thundercats based.

The rest of my trip was a blur of social mixing with my fellow nerds and more drinking. The following morning we gathered for brunch at Pieces, a board game cafe in St. Louis where I proceeded to drink more (hey I wasn’t driving and mimosas barely count) and dine on breakfast fried rice. Me, my friend Kevin, and Chad, the guy who ran Spiders of My Mind sat around and reflected on the weekend. Also, I learned what a slinger was. I don’t know if my life is better or worse for that piece of knowledge. I’ll likely only be able to make that judgement for sure once I’ve tried one.

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RIP whoever I’m riding with that year

Fear the Con isn’t the biggest con. There are a lot of things, like panels, cosplay, and guest signings, that Fear the Con just doesn’t really do. But, what Fear the Con does, it does better than any other con I’ve ever been to. What Fear the Con does is gaming. What Fear the Con does is community. What Fear the Con does, I’d argue it does better than cons ten times it’s size, and it doesn’t even charge you a fee at the door.

The organizers have already announced that they do intend to run a Fear the Con XI. It will be funded by kickstarter, just as this last one was. If you’re interested, I’d recommend going to the Fear the Boot forums and asking around. If you need to set up a room share when the time comes around that is where you will need to be. If you need a ride, people come from all over, and it is entirely possible that someone is passing through your area on the way into town. The Fear the Boot community wants nothing more than for more people to get to come and have a great time.

I want to say thanks to everyone I gamed with, everyone who played in a game I ran, and everyone who ran a game I played in. I’d like to thank Kevin, my good friend, who took a risk and took me at my word that this was going to be a good time. I want to thank the organizers, Adam Gottfried, Derek Knutson, and Bob Arens, and everyone who helped out. I want to thank the Fear the Boot hosts who have been at the core of this community, as well as the hosts of all of the other podcasts that have sprung up around the Fear the Boot forums and community.

I’m going to be there next year. You should consider being there, too.

Fear the Con: A Postmortem

Last month I attended Fear the Con X. It was a blast and there are so many things to be said about it that what began as a single blog post will probably end up being two or three. That said, I want to leave a broader discussion of Fear the Con and if you should attend for a later piece. Spoiler warning: if you like tabletop games, you should probably attend Fear the Con.

For the moment, I want to focus on my observations specific to Fear the Con X. I want to discuss what I did and what I learned as a result. Some of these details may seem a little muddy if you aren’t terribly familiar with Fear the Con, so for now I will give you this much; Fear the Con is a tabletop gaming focused convention held in St. Louis, Missouri by the hosts and/or community surrounding the tabletop gaming podcast Fear the Boot. Gaming is everywhere, the dealer’s room is small, panels are rare, and “guests” are nonexistent in the traditional con sense of the word.

With that out of the way, lets talk about the convention.

THE VENUE

In previous years, the con’s official hotel and the con’s actual venue were in seperate buildings over a mile apart. The old convention center has been under renovation for a while now, forcing con organizers to reconsider their venue solution. This year’s con was in a larger Drury in with balroom and meeting space enough to host the event. I for one do not miss the old space. It was by no means *bad*, but the advantages of having your hotel room and the con in the same space I feel far outweigh the advantages of the old convention center.

My only concern going in was whether or not the ballrooms/meeting rooms in the Drury were going to be big enough, and I’m happy to be able to say that at no point during the con did space seem to be an issue. Though the con no longer provides free beer and a working kitchen to order from, between the con suite, the pizzas provided at a per slice, pay-on-your-honor, the VIP diner that ended up open to everyone for the excess of food there, the free hot hotel breakfast and dinner, and the many local eateries a short distance away, I was never hurting for food, and people, myself included, brought enough strong drink to share.

The lesson here? I appreciate the old convention center and all it did for us, but the con is going to be just fine. The Drury is taking good care of it, and has outright stated that it has enough room for more than double the turnout that we had this year, which was an all-time high.

GAME 1: TALES FROM THE LOOP: UNDER THE SHADOW OF NUCLEAR ON

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The beard was not a part of my game, but it was for charity, and therefore awesome.

I usually try to avoid running games this early in a convention for fear that I may not be fully awake and present of mind enough to manage the task. That said, this year I found myself filling my schedule with games so fast that when time came to schedule my own I found that I had cornered myself into running my most mechanically intensive game during the first slot of the con.

Tales From The Loop is a tabletop RPG set in “an 80s that never was.” You play as children, ages ten to fifteen, typically tasked with dealing with some sort of weird-science related problem that none of the grown-ups are noticing or in a position to deal with. For the game I ran, I set the game in Russelville, Arkansas, home to the nuclear power plant Arkansas Nuclear One and, in the game, a set of secret labs attached to the power plant. I had not had time to familiarize myself with the settings in Tales from the Loop, but I was much more comfortable with using a setting a little closer to home.

The mystery at it’s core was a fairly simple one. The manager of the local Walmart is a not-terribly-bright, get-rich-quick-scheme sort of villain and, after learning of certain security deficiencies in the Nuclear One labs from a disgruntled former security guard now under his employ, decided to go take a look for himself to see if he could find anything that could secure him the fortune he felt he so obviously deserved. Inside he found and stole a device that looked like an early laptop that, though designed to make people smarter, could also make them easily controlled zombies. He tested it both on employees and on a high-school applicant, and discovers the brain-numbing effect, and decides it makes the perfect employees. It does not seem to work on adolescents, however. What he doesn’t realize is that, though the effect is slower, it actually inhibits inhibitions in adolescents, making them wild hooligans.

So, he starts bringing in more people and having them test his brand new device, slowly turning the town into his perfect workforce, not really thinking about the fact that he’s cannibalizing his customer base. Adults close to several of the kids have gone missing, and this prompts them to investigate.

My biggest worry going into this game was the fact that I had not had time to do any playtesting. I had not even had a chance to run the system. While the rules were not terribly complicated, I had no baseline for what players would do when exposed to them. More worrying was the fact that, as a mystery, the length of the game could vary wildly depending on how the group approached it.

Ultimately, the game was a great success. It did run slightly short, as I try to make my games at Fear the Con run at least 3 hours of the four hour slot, but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves and at no point did the group get stuck in decision paralysis or find themselves wanting for a lead. It turns out that when you make the PCs children they tend to be less likely to get bogged down in worries over tactics and consequences. The physical handouts I used for the game, largely just physical copies of notes and journal entries that could be found in game, seemed to get everyone’s attention without being overly distracting or becoming red herrings. There was very little that I prepared that didn’t get used, but there was only one scene that happened where I had no notes prepared for the location or encounter, and it still turned out to be an amazing bit of character building as well as a nice down time before things really got tense.

If I had it to do over again, the one change I’d make to the game is that I’d go back and grab my poker chips from my room to give players physical tokens to represent their Luck and their Pride, the two expendable resources available to them to improve their rolls. I had considered this at some point during my game planning, but at some point the idea just sort of fell to the wayside. I’ve found that players are more likely to remember this sort of resource if they are holding some sort of physical token to represent it. Tales from the Loop is weighted in such a manner as to force players to use these resources often, as oftentimes success won’t happen on an average roll. Several times I would see a player attempt something, roll, and look downtrodden until I reminded them of those resources.

I also learned that, if anything, running in Slot 1 is an amazing way to wake myself up and invigorate myself for the con. I’m oftentimes a somewhat high-energy GM, and having an entire table engaging with me woke me up way faster than I would have expected. In previous years, I’d typically look for something relatively low difficulty for slot one presuming I was going to be tired from the trip the previous day. As a result, sometimes I’d take a back seat and not be super on the ball until halfway through the game. Starting off GMing got me engaged way faster because I couldn’t just let the game run on without my participation. I will probably look to run in first slot again next year unless something comes up that I absolutely cannot miss.

SLOT 2: INSPECTRES: OVER THE BERM

This is going to be difficult to describe to the uninitiated, as this game’s entire premise was by and large an inside joke from the podcast. InSpectres bills itself as a rules-light mystery game with supernatural and reality TV show elements. Though I understand where it is coming from, I feel like describing InSpectres as a mystery game is both inaccurate and doesn’t do the game credit. Inspectres sits in a very similar genre to where Fiasco does. It’s a hijinks game. Though each adventure is framed as a mystery, unlike mystery stories and games, the ending really doesn’t matter, so much so that the players literally dictate what the truth is behind the mystery as the game goes along. It’s not a game about discovering the truth, it’s a game about the journey and the poor life decisions made on it.

In this case, it was a game where I performed an exorcism with a .357 magnum and a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque Sauce.

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Accept No Substitutes

Dan, one of Fear the Boot’s hosts and GM of this game, played a little fast and loose with the rules, largely to the table’s favor, and I think the game was better for it. After the con, I finally picked up a pdf copy of Inspectres and read the rules myself. At first, I had a moment of “oh no, I shouldn’t have been able to get away with some of the things I did.” But thinking back, everyone had moments like that, and letting things fly in the face of the rules, particularly in this genre of game, made the game better overall.

If you happen to run into Pat Roper, ask him to do his Ted Kennedy impersonation.

SLOT 3: ACTION CASTLE and ACTION CASTLE 2: RETURN TO ACTION CASTLE

This was the second game I ran, and the first game I signed up to run. It was the game I came in most confident about running and the game that I was least prepared for. It was the simplest game I ran and the most taxing.

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I couldn’t have inflicted this game on a nicer group of players.

Action Castle and Action Castle 2 are both members of the Parsely family of games (which I would after the con find out are made by the same company that did InSpecters). The idea behind Parsely games is that the players are taking turns entering commands into a text parser adventure game, in which the GM plays the computer. Those of you familiar with this era of computer games might imagine where this is going.

The group had a wide age span, ranging from “old enough to remember these games” to “not old enough to drive.” Though this worried me at first, the younger players picked up on the idea quite quickly and it proved to be no problem.

My second worry came when, roughly a half hour into the slot, the group completed Action Castle. I had two more adventures printed out, but if they rode through them with the same ease they did Action Castle I was going to be out of printed material less than halfway through the slot. I had more on my tablet, but I had not done any pre-reading on them.

Fortunately, it seems Action Castle is easy in part to serve as an introduction. Action Castle 2 was far more devious and head-poundingly obtuse than part one, and it took the group most of the slot to complete.

There were some unforeseen difficulties, but they were mostly on my side of the GM screen. Because I was the arbiter of everything about the game, I had to track things like inventory, which proved to be more difficult than I originally thought given there isn’t a pre-made list of gatherable objects. I will probably prepare one for future use if I find myself running this again.

Far more taxing, though, was the stress this game put on my voice. While I did put on a slightly robotic tone during this game, that in-and-of itself was not a problem. What I had not considered ahead of time, however, was *how much* I was going to be talking. Now, when GMing, you are going to be talking a lot. Usually you will have more to say than any single player at the table, because you are going to be responding to actions from everyone at the table. That said, since everyone’s actions were given straight to me, often in short, text-parser-friendly form, I realized about 3 hours in that I was saying about 6 words for everyone else’s two, often with very little time to rest. An example.

Player: Cast Rod

Me: I DO NOT KNOW THE SPELL: ROD.

Player: Spell List.

ME: L I S T

As a result, my voice was dying by the end of that game. It was fun, and I might do it again next year with one of the adventures I haven’t done yet, but I will make it a point to come to the table with several bottles of water handy and plan a break mid game.

DAY ONE AFTER HOURS: THE PATHFINDER CHARITY GAME

So, I wasn’t originally planning to play in this, in part because I misunderstood when the game was happening. On conplanner, the website Fear the Con uses for event sign up, the charity game was given it’s own slot, which I misread as taking place over the course of slots 1-3. In reality, it took place from midnight to four am. I happened to be drinking and consorting in the room that the game was to take place in, and Derek and Adam, the GM’s and two of the con’s organizers, were short on players, so I was roped in.

I didn’t mind, really. The main reason I hadn’t considered the game earlier was because of my misunderstanding of when the game was happening. Had I realized sooner, I probably would have chipped in the extra money to be able to make my own character, but I was perfectly happy with the human fighter I got to play. It was late, I was drinking, and I just wanted to hit things a whole lot.

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This is roughly how much I brought to drink to this game. We had a keg of local brew in our room that I felt needed to get shared.

The first half of the game I spent hanging back and drinking as most of the group put together a very elaborate plan to cause the downfall of the kingdom we were in so that we could overthrow it. Then things got amazingly weird. You see, a traditional part of the charity game is that people could donate to screw with the players, and I got to enjoy some amazingly creative screws in the form of some sort of fae royalty. Over the course of the game, I went from being a grizzled old warrior with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with an adamantine greatsword, to being a grizzled old warrior who thought he was a 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand, to being an ACTUAL 10 year old girl with a magical fairy wand. None of these changes significantly impacted my ability to murder. At the end of the game I took the throne and declared myself princess of the land. It was silly and amazing.

The one downside, of course, was the fact that I was up until the wee hours of the morning. Several of the players had planned for this and did not sign up for anything in slot 4, knowing they would need the sleep. I, however, really wanted to play in my slot 4 game. So, I spent the next day catching naps between each game session.

Continued in Part 2.

Predictions for the Tabletop RPG Industry

A preface: The following was originally a forum post I made on the forums for the podcast Fear the Boot (www.feartheboot.com). It was made in response to an episode on the same topic (http://www.feartheboot.com/ftb/index.php/archives/4994). This has since come up in conversations in multiple different venues during which it has been universally difficult to point people to a months old forum post for my views on the topic.

So, here I present my predictions in a more easy-to-find location. The above is to give context as the below post was written presuming that context was already had, and in some places direct references are made to the episode in question.

With that out of the way…

-Kickstarter

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Kickstarter is going to remain a major pipeline for small/indy level tabletop game creators to get published and make a non-zero amount of money on their product. The relatively low bar for a tabletop game kickstarter to be a success means we are unlikey to have catastrophic failures the likes of which have graced video game Kickstarters. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike with video games, if a tabletop game is at least close to delivering on what the audience wants, there is nothing stopping the audience from making the necessary tweaks to a game to ultimately get the experience they wanted in the first place. This is also in part due to the fact that making a tabletop RPG is simply an easier task than making a tabletop RPG. A TTRPG ultimately is a document. This document needs to be written, edited, formatted, and have the necessary art created. The game ideally should be playtested, but it is much easier to crowdsource tabletop playtesting than videogame playtesting, as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone, including WOTC and Paizo, use this very tact. In many cases, when a TTRPG goes to kickstarter, a rough draft of the document already exists and the funds are to do things like hire an artist/editor/graphic designer to make the document easier to use. It is actually quite difficult for these Kickstarters to fail, and I cannot fathom a scenario where one could fail on the scale of something like Star Citizen or Mighty No. 9.

What I can see happening, on the other hand, is this low bar making it difficult when/if someone comes to Kickstarter with a more complex, ambitious TTRPG product in mind. I fear that we may see an instance in the near-ish future of someone coming forward with a Kickstarter for a TTRPG of considerable crunch and depth only to find that it is difficult to explain to the general population why their game is going to need a couple hundred thousand to produce Capital Ships: The Broadsidening when the FATE Core adaptation they just backed needed a tenth that much money.

-Paizo

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I think in near-ish future we are going to see Paizo start to diversify their brand. We are already seeing the earliest movements towards this with Starfinder, and I think this move is indicitive of a greater motion towards launching more games.

I think this by and large because I think Pathfinder is running out places to be developed. Pathfinder has hit a point where they are running out of clear reasons to produce more content other than because they are a company that needs to make money. At the same time, they have expressed that they are keenly aware of customer worries about a new edition of Pathfinder. The last thing anyone wants is a Pathfinder 2.0 motivated primarily by the need to have a new line of books to sell.

One solution, and the one I think they are most likely to take based on their current direction, is to simply make more, other games. Presuming Starfinder does well, I would not be surprised if they expanded their line of RPGs further, taking advantage of the fact that they are one of the few companies in the RPG market right now with a good pipeline for creating mechanically complex, crunchy games reliably and successfully. I expect that, presuming Starfinder does well and proves this pipeline works for games other than Pathfinder, we can expect to see at least one more game in their main lineup in the next 10 years, and at least two more in the next 20. I don’t think support for Pathfinder will completely drop off, but I do think that with the pressure to put out new product to pay the bills no longer entirely on one line you will see them released much less often, and the resulting product quality will be much appreciated.

-Catalyst

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I think that Catalyst’s current business model is not sustainable.

That is to say, the way they are creating their books is damaging their end product consistently enough that it is damaging their brand. Catalyst currently has most of their writing done by freelancers, then brings these freelancer’s works together to make sourcebooks. They presently have only one or two editors managing the entire line, depending on who you ask. The end result is that Shadowrun 5th Ed has had some serious editing and cohesion problems. You run into problems like one part of a book referencing another part that doesn’t exist, indexes that are so innacurate they are functionally useless, and balance issues that are absurd even by the standards of a game where I keep a bag of 100D6 handy whenever I play.

I don’t think this is going to be the death of the company by any means, but I do believe that they are going to have to figure out a way to shift gears in the near future. I expect that at some point 5th ed will get an equivalent to 4th ed’s 20th Anniversary edition. It is my hope that at this point they will approach this new edition with more editors on staff and are able to make 5th ed a more polished product. 5th ed is not a bad game. It’s really solidly designed at it’s core. But, Shadowrun is a game where you cannot really ignore the supplimentary material. As far back as 3rd edition the core book simply assumed you were going to buy the gear book, the magic book, and the hacking/technology book. I don’t really mind this approach, but their current pipeline is not handling publishing the amount of material they are publishing gracefully.

I don’t think Anarchy will stick around, which makes me sad, because I think it is a great idea, but what I have heard is that it is plagued with the same editing problems that the rest of the edition is plagued with, and the last thing you want is to need an FAQ to play the simplified version of a game.

-WOTC

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I do not think there will be another edition of D&D in 10 years. I think they are going to support 5th ed for a while, and it will get a full, solid run, but I do not think it is going to make the kinds of returns a giant like Hasbro is going to want to see, especially with their resistence to PDF publishing. I don’t think they are going to lose money, but I think Hasbro will be unenthusastic about the idea of supporting the D&D line beyond the next 5 years or so. We will not likely see 6th ed in the next decade. I expect WOTC, like Paizo, will still support their flagship game, and also like Paizo I expect the new products coming out for that game will slow to a crawl, but unlike Paizo I do not expect them to diversify into other TTRPGs.

-Technology

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I expect that while the technology that supports and improves the tabletop gaming experience will continue to be developed, I feel that much of the tabletop experience will remain fundamentally unchanged. The biggest change will likely be just the further proliferation on tablets/mobile devices supplanting books at the gaming table as PDF continues to prove to be a cheaper, more convenient alternative to traditional books. I do not feel like online solutions will ever supplant face-to-face interaction for tabletop gaming, because tabletop gaming is written with face-to-face interaction in mind. I do, however, foresee someone at some point designing a game with both the limitations and unique advantages of online spaces in mind. I don’t think this will completely revolutionize TTRPGs, much like how Dread didn’t lead to everyone replacing their dice with Jenga towers, but I think they will diversify the design space in an interesting way.

I do not think the GM-Box is coming. The GM-Box doesn’t provide significant advantage over a video game.

I do not think smart glass/interactive tabletop technology is going to have as big an impact on the market as people think.

-Other Predictions

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DriveThruRPG will continue to be a major market force, especially for small press RPG stuff. There are no clear deficiencies in their design save for maybe lack of curation. It will take someone coming up with a really out-of-left-field idea to act as a competitor.

Mid-sized RPG companies will in the near future continue their focus on toolbox-games. The market is clearly leaning towards rulesets that enable GMs and Players to realize their own ideas over selling them ideas pre-made. FATE Core was a clear example of this, though Apocalypse World’s design is also clearly meant to be tinkered with. In that light, Apocalypse world could be viewed as a game engine with an example game baked in. I expect that in the next 10 years we will see at least two more of this sort of game make it relatively big, and many other quality products to use these systems.

D&D will still be shorthand for TTRPG to people outside of the hobby, even as that term loses importance within the hobby.

Being a full-time professional game designer will become a rarer thing than it already is.

Dan will eventually publish Skies of Glass and/or Epoch of Rysos. Then, we will have two Ennie winning show hosts.

Star Wars will get another RPG relatively soon.

Someone in the next 20 years will try to turn their tabletop game into an MMO again. It will fail. Again.

Paradox will release a Vampire: The Masquerade grand strategy game. It will be glorious and impenetrable.

A Quick Update

So, those of you who started following this blog after reading my hot take on The End of Homestuck might be interested in my more in-depth writing on Homestuck as a whole over at The Artifice.

Homestuck as a Case Study in New Media Narrative

This blog is not going away, mind you. It will still be home to some of my less formal observations. Hopefully I will have time for more of those in the future.

Growing the Scene: Fighting Games and the Mass Market

I like fighting games, despite not being all that good at them. I’ve loved them since I started playing the terrible SNES port of Mortal Kombat when I was way too young by most people’s standards to be playing Mortal Kombat. There has always been something deeply appealing about the direct, one on one competition against an equally capable foe that has always had a draw to me.

My neighborhood friends would gather at one of our homes, each of us bringing what multiplayer games we had to the gatherings, and fighting games would often dominate the playtime. The short matches meant that controllers could get passed quickly and everyone got hands on the game, though the fact that whoever was winning got to keep playing encouraged us to get better. I was never a child of the arcade, but we had something similar in our little friend groups.

This… is not a thing that happens so much anymore. Much has been said about how online has all but killed couch and Lan multiplayer culture, but I think the effect has been much more pronounced in fighting games. While I think there are definite and large benefits to fighting games going online, I think there are some major economic issues that are not getting addressed in the larger conversations about fighting games.

I’m not doing this to say online competition is bad. The internet has really been great for competitive fighting game circles. You are no longer limited by your geographic location in finding human competition. New tech can be learned quickly by checking forums online cutting down a lot of the initial grind of learning a new game. Though traditional couch gatherings of friends are no longer the norm, nearly any region in the nation hosts at least one regular fighting game meetup where enthusiasts can sharpen themselves against other enthusiasts. Competitive play is streamed from all over the nation and beyond allowing us all to see what it looks like when these games are played by the best.

And, I think this is kind of a problem for the success of these games as big triple-A projects. Everything that the internet has brought to fighting games has been a great boon for the competitive player and the enthusiast, but has been incredibly detrimental to casual interest in fighting games.

Once upon a time, your mettle was tested against whoever you encountered face to face. Most likely, this was your local friend group. If you had a local arcade with a machine for a fighting game that might prove as a gathering point as well. You’d test your mettle against this relatively small circle and, as long as you were able to keep up with your friends, you’d win a reasonable number of games and feel good about playing.

I feel like this was an important part of the commercial success of fighting games, because while the enthusiast and the competitor is going to want to seek out greater and greater competition to prove themselves to be the best or sharpen themselves against equally hardened competition, casual players in almost any genre of game tend to fall off when their win rate drops below a certain point.

Many other genres have ways of mitigating this effect. Many of the biggest multiplayer games on the market right now bank their success on these techniques. Call of Duty and Overwatch both give players moments of power above and beyond their competitors with killstreaks and ultimates, and in both games the weight of winning is spread across a team. Similarly in MOBAs, though you feel the rush of every victory, the weight of loss is easier to bare when you can blame it on your AWOL support or the top laner who fed. Fighting games are unique in that the pressure of winning or losing falls directly on the shoulders of one person controlling one character versus one other person controlling one other character.

Pressure aside, this also creates another problem in online environments. Skill Gaps. There is a strange phenomenon I have noticed in online fighting games. After the first month or so, online matchmaking among low end players gets really touch-and-go. It’s not that you cannot find matches. Rather, new players will reliably encounter the same pattern.

First, when you begin playing, you are paired with other novices. Many of these players will not even bother to play single player or training before hand, and if you have even a passing knowledge of fighting game conventions these matches will be free wins for the most part. Then, presuming you stick with the game for any period of time, there will be a sudden shift in gears and you quickly find yourself losing most of the time.

This occurs because there is a gap in skill progression among the community. If we were to use a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is a complete neophyte and 10 is an international competitor, the 3-5 range is largely nonexistent in most online fighting game matchmaking. You have 1s and 2s who are just picking the game up, and they will either drop off when they get slammed up against a 6 or, if they tough it out, will get good and start winning again.

The problem is that sort of dedication comes from enthusiasts of the genre, and the results are apparent if you talk to anyone who plays video games but not fighting games. You will hear a lot about how they don’t want to put the time in or have to deal with getting stomped over and over by players who put more time into that one game than they have free in general. There is this general feeling of being at a basketball court playing one on one matchups where at any given moment Stephen Curry might just step up and play you. For some people this concept is super exciting, but for many the idea of being trounced by someone clearly in a different weight class than you sours the whole experience.

It’s easy to simply shake off these worries and tell casuals to get good. After all, if they care, they’ll put in effort. If they don’t, who cares? But we live in a world where Street Fighter 5, the biggest fighting game in the world today, is failing to meet sales expectations. This should be worrying to fighting game fans. The first fighting game dark ages came from market saturation, leaving an era without competitive titles that didn’t end until 09 when Street Fighter 4 brought fighting games back to the market forefront. I’m worried that we might be slowly heading back towards another dark age as fighting games become more and more niche and fewer and fewer players are willing to put in the time and effort to break into the genre when so many others provide much smoother introductions to competitive gameplay.

I think part of the reason people don’t like to talk about this problem is that it doesn’t have an easy solution. Online and in game resources exist, but casual players don’t want to have to study a game before they play it. I honestly feel like a lot of this could be alleviated with better single player AI opponents, but that is a field that could be a major time and money sink and is of little interest to the core fighting game audience. Ultimately the best thing that can be done right now is outreach. I didn’t know about my local fighting game group until I ran into them at a public event. Gathering new players and building a base of new and intermediate players can do a lot for the health of a local scene, and if this happens in enough cities, you may actually begin to see an effect on matchmaking.

Fighting games are bigger than they have ever been, and despite the fact that I’m not actually all that good at them, I still love them. I love the struggle. This year I got to see the biggest fighting game tournament in the world broadcast on ESPN2. I want to continue to see scenes grown and new fighting game players be born. I’d hate to see things begin to backslide because the next generation didn’t have a group of peers to get their start with.

12/14/2016 EDIT: Turns out I’m not the only one with these concerns. Here’s many of the same points being made by someone wildly more qualified to make them than myself.

http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/18266197/street-fighter-v-daigo-beast-umehara-mission-save-street-fighter

The End of Homestuck

Never let it be said that I have never been willing to see something to the bitter end. Roughly one month ago I came home from work, kicked off my shoes, sat down on my bed, plugged my laptop into my television, poured myself a glass of wine, and watched the finale of mspaintadventure’s Homestuck.

Here, roughly a month later, I am still trying to decide what I think about what I saw that evening.

Reactions to the ending have varied, but tend to range from confused resignation to outrage. I myself tend to err more on the former, but I cannot deny that I can at least see the basis for what fuels the ire of the latter group. The ending gives us a lot to mull over, but very little in the way of closure.

For those of you not familiar with Homestuck, I’m sorry, but the comic is seven years old and to bring you up to date would be another article in and of itself. If you are interested, I still wholeheartedly recommend the comic in spite of it’s divisive ending. I’m going to try to put things into somewhat broadly understandable terms, but I make no guarantees that everything will make sense out of context. Further, I am making no effort to avoid spoiling the ending in this discussion. So, if that is a concern of yours, go get caught up on Homestuck, this article is not going anywhere anytime soon.

I think my biggest frustration with Homestuck’s ending is not actually with the ending, but with myself. I cannot help but shake the feeling that it is I that am at fault. I feel like I am missing something. I feel like the answers are there somewhere but I am failing to read the subtext appropriately. To that end, this article is as much for my own reflection as it is for any audience. I make no guarantee that there is any revelation or enlightenment at the end of this road. I only invite you along for the ride.

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The final animation opens on the drawing back of curtains, a recurring motif signaling the beginning of an act proper. We see Calliope the Muse, alone and severe. From our last dialogue with her we know that she is preparing to do her role in the undoing of her brother, and that she has resigned herself to what she expects to be her demise. This is further informed by information further back in the comic. She, like Lord English, is the product of a single player session of Sburb. We know that these sessions are both tremendously more difficult than normal sessions and, for the victor of such a session, there is a choice. Either live on with immense power as a terrible and destructive force in the universe, or give your life to be a great boon to all of existence. Caliborn, Lord of Time, chose the former and became Lord English. Callieope, Muse of Space, chose the latter.

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Next, we return to the scene we last saw before the animation. The Wandering Vagabond and the Peregrine Mendicant stand atop the volcano on Jade’s world, the Land of Frost and Frogs. This volcano is clearly meant to be the Forge designed to craft the new World Frog that is Sburb’s victory condition.

Remember when I said things were going to be difficult to follow without context?

Though I don’t remember it ever being explicitly stated, it seems based on this scene that a key part of completing the forging process is the destruction of the Queen’s rings in the forge. As they melt down, out comes flying a tadpole, roughly the size of an 18-wheeler from what I can tell in the few shots where we see it with any sort of reliable reference.

The following shots are beautiful, if not maybe a little drawn out. This was a common complaint among friends of mine who also followed the comic. For amount of plot that needs wrapping up and the amount of time in the animation to do it, it feels like an inordinate amount of time is spent on the birth of the new galaxy. I understand the reasoning. This is the moment they were all fighting for. This is a big victory rally for our heroes. It is a scene that is supposed to carry the weight of the plot.

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But, of course, there is still an antagonist to be addressed. Midway through the birth of the frog scene we get a brief glimpse at Calliope the Muse’s final act, becoming a black hole and beginning to devour the Green Sun. After the scene, we see her work come to fruition as the last remnants of the Green Sun flit away into the black hole and it becomes a static, stable, but no less dangerous spacial gravity sink.

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We hard cut to Lord English. Last we left him he was locked in combat with the ghost of Meenah, having obliterated the other ghosts with her. We immediately see the green flames of energy he is typically cloaked in dying off and his eyes, which flash in the images of various billiard balls, solidify into 8 balls. We never see Meenah in the course of the animation. We do see, however, Vriska, with her own ghost retinue, marching forward. Vriska has the chest that contained “The Ultimate Juju.” It became solid after its interaction with John, unsticking him from continuity. Behind Lord English, the cracks in paradox space caused by his rampage shatter, showing Calliope’s black hole literally tearing through time and space.

Now, this is right about the point where things become hard to follow. The handling of Lord English in the finale is perhaps one of the most contentious parts of the ending.

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I feel it important to note that the Black Hole at this point has a marked resemblance to the eyes of Lil Cal, the puppet who served as Lord English’s vessel and prison at one point. I don’t think this is an accident.

Vriska opens the chest while the black hole expands behind Lord English. Before we get to see it’s contents released, we cut back to pre-English Caliborn closing that same chest. Here we see Homestuck engaging in what it has made something of a time honored storytelling tradition as we watch two sets of events that, though temporally and spatially are far separated, are thematically tied and therefore thematically synchronous, which is a thing that has weight in paradox space, as demonstrated heavily in [s]Cascade. Here we see the true source of Lord English’s power. After all, he is not the only God Tier Sburb player, nor is he the only God Tier to harness the power of the Green Sun. What makes him special is what he begins to do in this scene.

In every scene where a God Tier player dies, we see a shot of a clock of sorts, ticking back and forth between two options, “Heroic” and “Just”, the only two deaths that a God Tier player cannot get back up from. We see Caliborn, armed with the Juju-breaking crowbar, begin to destroy his clock, thereby rendering him immune to this judgment. Caliborn is therefore the only truly immortal force in creation.

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We cut back to Vriska. The Juju rises into the air and takes shape. It is the Sburb symbol as it appears in the beta kids (John, Dave, Rose, and Jade, for those of you who may have forgotten) session. Each of the four sections is emblazoned with the god-tier aspect of one of the four of them. It shimmers a rainbow of colors and floats there for a moment while Vriska stands triumphant and self assured. The Juju goes white again before crashing down behind Vriska, cracking the ground and sending up a plume of smoke. We get another shot of Caliborn destroying his clock, followed by a close up of the Juju as a door appears on it.

We then cut to a shot out in the white space by the Black Hole. Aradia is there. I am not sure what she is doing. I am not sure what happens to her. This is all we see of her.

We get another brief shot of Caliborn destroying his clock before we cut back to the kids who were baring witness to the birth creation. The Sburb symbol, understood to be the gate to the player’s final reward, goes from being the red color used to delineate the alpha kid’s session to stark white, matching the color and, consequently, general appearance of the Ultimate Juju. A door appears upon it, mirroring the door that appeared on the Juju in the face off with Lord English. John shoots Karkat a thumbs up, and we pan to show Jade in possession of Earth, shrunken down to convenient travel size.

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The following shot implies a couple things without directly saying them. We see that much time passes. Anything of the Earth that was is an ancient relic if not dust. The carapace people seem to become the primary sapient lifeforms on the planet other than our main characters, and what we seem to be shown is them reaching their endgame, even being shown a congratulatory message from Sburb, “thank you for playing.” It is important to note, however, that these seem to be visions of the future, as we cut back to the crowd.

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We have a cut back to Caliborn, having destroyed the clock. He begins to take in the power that would fuel his rampage as a victor over a solo session who chose destruction over salvation, cut between John going to open the door to their ultimate reward. The last shot we get is John reaching for the door before the screen goes black.

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And that’s it. We get a few closing notes of music, then one more page where the curtain is drawn on Homestuck. The End.

So, what happened with Lord English? What happened with the other characters? Did the door take them to their final reward? Did it take them to the battle with Lord English? If it did, how did that go down? That seems like it would be an important bit to see. If not, what did the final Juju do to him? Did he get kicked into the Black Hole? Did he get sealed in the Juju somehow? What happened to Aradia? Or Meenah? Or Vriska, for that matter? Vriska was still alive. Did she just give her life to go out like a hero? That would be awesome, and maybe worthy of some sort of note.

And here we reach the point of contention. Aside from an epilogue that the creator mentioned would probably be coming at some point down the line, this is the end. I think the only reason I’m not more bothered by this ending is that, at some point, I began to suspect this was the sort of ending we were going to get. It’s a very late 90s, early 2000s JRPG sort of ending. It reminds me of the endings to Final Fantasy VII or Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s a “its not about the details” sort of ending.

But, and here’s the crux, it is. Homestuck has always been about the details. Its world lived and breathed on these details. And that is why I am worried that perhaps there are simply details I am missing. Is there something that would explain or, at least, heavily imply how the Lord English fight ended? Did I miss something?

For now, I don’t know. I can only wait to see if the epilogue comes to fruition. I understand that now that the comic is over, Andrew Hussie has a Kickstarted video game that is probably taking the lion’s share (horse’s share?) of his time, so I honestly don’t expect to see it any time soon. In the meantime, I suppose I will continue to rewatch the ending, along with [s]Collide and everything between and that came before. I will continue to theorize and ponder.

I rode this train to it’s destination, but I’ll be damned if I know how we got here or where we’ve ended up.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon: Just a Weird Freaking Game

So, recently I got the odd urge to hook up my Nintendo 64 and be nostalgic for a little bit. Then I remembered that my Nintendo 64 had died some two or three years ago, and found myself checking local used game shops. It took a couple weeks of looking around before one of my regular shopping stops got one in. When I got home and unboxed it (thing was in its original box, no joke) I played a few minutes of a handful of titles. Perfect Dark, Turok, WWE No Mercy, Mischief Makers, they were all good, and I drank it in.

Then I popped in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, and remembered that before my old N64 went kaput I was set on revisiting this old title. A save file, an hour and change into the game, sat on my memory cartridge. I decided to give the game a whirl, and that whirl lasted until last weekend when I beat the game for the first time since I’ve been legally able to drive.

I won’t say that the game hasn’t aged, or that it aged exceptionally well, but I do think that it is unique in ways that makes it an interesting study in game design. You see, MNSG (I cannot shorten it to just “Mystical Ninja” as that is the title of the games SNES predecessor) is an open world adventure game of the same variety as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. At first glance one might even accuse MNSG of being a sub-standard rip-off. And that would be understandable, but misinformed, as Mystical Ninja came out a few months ahead of Ocarina of time. So, what we have is in fact an earlier, rougher attempt at what Ocarina of Time would later perfect, and it is interesting to see what another team earlier in the N64’s lifetime chooses to do without yet having had a 3D Zelda game set so many of the conventions of that particular genre in stone.

I suppose I will start with the basics. At its core, MNSG is an action adventure game. You travel across Japan visiting towns, talking to villagers, and clearing through dungeons, referred to as castles in this case. On the way, your party of two, of whom you can only play as one of at a time, grows to four, and each of the four ninjas gain new abilities and equipment that both increase there general capabilities and serve as solutions to various roadblocks along the way.

Occasionally, giant robot battles happen.

Seriously though, at very uneven intervals over the course of the game, there are boss battles where the game you have been playing gets set aside and your party summons a giant robot. At this point you are treated to a brief minigame of the robot, Impact, blasting his way across the landscape to get to the battle, then the battle itself, which is done from a first person perspective within the robot during which you have no control over your movement, and must defend yourself from attacks by punching, kicking, mouth beams, and nose bullets.
The battles are mandatory and have controls of similar complexity to a fighting game, though the controls are not explained outside of the instruction manual, which is exacerbated by the fact that of seven boss fights, the giant robot fights are fights two, five, six, and seven. Also, six and seven are back to back, forming a marathon final boss battle.

This is the sort of design direction that informs MNSG as a whole. The whole game has these moments where you can practically hear the game designers saying “sure, why not.”

The four characters, though visually interesting, offer little in terms of gameplay variety. Ebisumaru, the fat best friend ninja, primarily exists to bypass certain sorts of doors, with the only gameplay affecting equipment in his repetoir being a hammer made of meat that, though not increasing in damage as you level up your primary weapons, guarantees that enemys will, if they drop anything, will drop health pickups. That said, there are only two things enemies drop, the other being money, so you rarely find yourself hurting for health that bad.

The plot of the game is simultaneously straightforward and really, really muddy. The game starts with a group in a peach-shaped spaceship shooting Oedo Castle with an “Instant Stage Beam”, turning the castle into a european-style castle full of robotic minions. You then go in to rescue the inhabitants of the castle, then go on to travel Japan, righting the typically strange wrongs committed by these “Peach Mountain Shoguns”. On the way you begin gathering the four Miracle Items, though it is not revealed what they are for until over halfway through the game, and the exact nature of the antagonists’ plot, once clarified, is absurd to the point of bordering on surrealism.

The level design is super busy. It is probably the biggest contrast between this game and Ocarina of Time. Where the dungeons in Ocarina of Time feel quiet and ominous, with punctuated moments of action, in MNSG the dungeons are alive, frenetic, and feel live a working mechanism. They tend to have a fun house aesthetic, and as such they are really entertaining to maneuver when the platforming cooperates.

Which is not nearly as often as I would like, as there are nearly no camera controls in this game. The C-buttons on the N64 controller are all applied elsewhere, so the closest thing you get to camera controls are that if you stand still the camera will attempt to position itself behind you, though its luck of the draw as to which direction around you the camera will swivel, and often the camera will get stuck on walls or other bits of the environment.

Still, going back, I really, really like the game.

It’s super different. The developers took a lot of risks and tried a lot of new things. The world feels really large and alive, and despite the fact that most of the location names are in Japanese I found them all unique enough that I rarely had difficulty finding my way. The music is a super catchy mix of traditional and pop Japanese stylings, and the dungeon themes in particular are all super high energy. The writing, though somewhat mangled in translation, is super fun and quirky.

Overall, Ocarina of Time is a better game, no doubt there. But, there are elements of this game that I don’t see much anymore that I miss. I would love to see some of the frenetic level design used in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon to make their way into more modern games. For that matter, I would love to see another Mystical Ninja game in this genre.

Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Starring Goemon was a departure from the norm for the Mystical Ninja games, and the following game, Goemon’s Great Adventure, was a return to formula. What Goemon games have been made since haven’t made their way stateside.

If you have an interest in game design, I highly recommend seeking out this game and giving it a spin. Its not the best game, but like many smaller game productions on the market recently, its a game that is playing by its own rules towards its own goals, and is an interesting design study as a result.