I (and possibly others) find that the most difficult aspect of being the GM in a tabletop RPG (henceforth know simply as RPGs in the context of this post) is letting go of the reins. On the flip side, I think many players also find it difficult to take those reins. The so called “power” of the RPG is that it’s a collaborative story which is moved forward by both the GM and the players. Does it actually work like that? In my experience, not always, and if it does, the question is: does the experience remain “a story” or does it turn into something else?
The big caveat is that RPGs don’t need to have an end. Like life, what’s got the current focus is just a point on a timeline that for all intents and purposes has no visible end. When the players have achieved their current goal, the GM can present them with another…and then another…and another. Each of these “adventures” becomes a story within a greater “campaign” set in the much wider “game world”, a construct that insinuates that there are millions of stories going on at any given time.
A story, then, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Published modules follow this, in part because there’s no real way to make a truly open ended module. Yet there are tons of gaming groups out there who will tell you without prodding that their group has been playing the same characters in the same game world for years without considering the question of “are we done yet?”
Are these adventures stories if people “play the way they are supposed to”? And by this, I mean with the players driving the direction, and the GM filling in the foundation underfoot as the party rushes ahead? Consider as an analogue a baseball game; it has rules, players have positions and purpose, and things continue until a definitive end is reached. Contrast that to kids on a playground; they don’t have a goal except for “having fun” and would keep playing forever if their parents didn’t collect them and take them home. The first offers a driven “story” that trends in a single direction, while the second is more of an aimless wandering that only ends when people agree to end it.
This isn’t to say that stories can’t exist on the playground, but from a GM perspective, it’s incredibly hard to maintain a specific narrative if the players are exercising the agency they are allotted to the full extent that they’re able. Every GM has at least one experience of how he or she set up an elaborate showdown or situation that they were intensely excited about, only to find the players turning 180 degrees away from the encounter to do something totally unrelated. If a GM’s job is to respond to players, then the GM has no choice but to put his or her plans on the back burner and follow the players.
In this respect, the players are making their own stories, but at what cost? Standing at the foot of the mountain carved in the visage of a skull, lava pouring from the eye sockets while dragons wheel about in the air above it, the party…turns around and decides they’d rather explore the sewers of the nearest major city. If the whole point of the adventure was to infiltrate that mountain and defeat the Ancient Evil, then that story is left untold (for now). Instead, the players are exercising their ability to go anywhere and do anything…and are putting a massive stress on the GM to come up with a whole new set of encounters, purpose, and reward because of the the party’s newfound wanderlust. There’s no doubt that the players know that “the point” of their adventure was to get into that mountain (it’s the kind of meta-thinking that is actually OK in an RPG), and their agency gives them the right to do anything else, and while the GM can come up with ways to get them back on track (abandoning their role in defeating the Ancient Evil will certainly have repercussions that will invariably find the party), are the players purposefully subverting “story time” in exchange for “playtime”?
In closing, I’m not condemning the more free-form gameplay; it’s how I used to play when I was younger, having been one of those GMs/players who just kept the ball rolling week after week without a defined purpose except what we happened to come up with. I have concerns now, though, as I personally find it more difficult to be flexible in how I’m able to respond to player agency that moves away from the “goal” of the session. I’d love to be part of a freewheeling group where the session starts with “what are we all going to do today?”, regardless of whether it’s the GM or the party who asks. In light of that, I find myself reliant more on very specific details, whether it’s the helping hand of a published module or my own homebrew concepts. I figure that if the GM is going to lay down a “hook”, then the players should very strongly trend in the direction that the hook leads, even though it flies in the face of the agency that RPGs provide.
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Listen, I’m no longer the kind of gamer who spends a lot of time pouring over numbers in a bid to find the best bang for my virtual buck. Games have gotten really good at cramming tons of gear and weapons and skills into their offerings such that parsing the data to min-max a build could very well be a full-time job. Even being a lowly consumer of this information leaves a whole lot of crap to sort through. I get the appeal: I used to revel in games that came with 300-page manuals (back when games came with manuals) and there’s some part of me that really wants to get out of the tutorial of Crusader Kings II with my sanity intact.
Agents of Mayhem is kind of the anti-stats game. It’s easy to hit the ground running (and you will do a lot of running) and you’ll never once miss the chore of crunching numbers because you’ll be too busy whoaing at the absurd, over-the-top kinetic action and laughing (or at least chuckling) at the bonkers characters that populate the game.
If you’ve played the Saint’s Row games, then you know 75% of what AoM offers; I consider this a Good Thing because I loved the SR series for its open world setting and it’s insane characters, plots, and gear (the only well-known game series where you can wield a jelly dildo as a weapon). If you’re new to the SR universe (of which AoM is a part, although admittedly a “spin-off”), then the Agents might actually be a better introduction to the setting than the existing SR games.
You play as a team of three Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M (Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds), with “Mayhem” being the “good guys” supergroup much like S.H.I.E.L.D., complete with a floating HQ called the ARK. The ARK serves as your base of operations which you can return to in between missions or whenever you want to get away from free-roaming the futuristic vision of Seoul, South Korea. While at the HQ, you can upgrade your team and their weapons, craft new auxiliary armaments, pimp out your rides (of course), buy perks for your team with the money you collect, and even train at various difficulty levels in the holographic simulator.
When you’re ready to return to Seoul, you can accept a mission from the storyline, a mission to unlock Agents that you haven’t collected, one-off missions for advanced loot, or just to wander the city in search of action. The story is basic Saturday morning cartoon fare: Mayhem is fighting the forces of L.E.G.I.O.N. (the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations), complete with cannon-fodder henchmen, tougher middle-tier bosses, and analogous named villains that are perpetrating the bulk of the evil that you’re thwarting. As you make your way through the city, you’ll encounter drop-in mobs that spawn around you on occasion to keep things lively, static mobs that seem to be going about their dastardly deeds, and even event mobs that end in a tougher enemy that drops better loot than you’d get from mowing down henchmen. With more focused missions you’ll engage in actions such as assaulting enemy held territory that requires you to “hack” terminals (a simple mouse-button QTE) in order to claim the area for Mayhem. When you’re unlocking new agents, the game takes you through a preamble which you play with your team, but which eventually switches you over to the new Agent so you can play through a snippet of his or her backstory and how they relate to the Mayhem organization. If you’re tired of working for The Man (who is actually The Woman), you can scour the city for one-off trials like racing, track down loot chests, or just engage in some namesake fun.
The action can be incredibly frentic. Enemies can spawn in from any direction, and often while you’re focused on mobs in other directions. The game doesn’t pull punches in that respect and it’s super easy to find yourself running in circles and weaving through enemies with the trigger held down simply because you’ll be guaranteed to hit something in the process. When the battle is done (or when it slows down a bit) you can collect dropped cash or materials, which isn’t something I’m a fan of because I always suspect I’m leaving loot on the street.
In order to help with the second-to-second action, it’s easy to cycle between characters (sort of) using the mouse-wheel. When you start you’re given a team of three — Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack — which means no real customization, but that’s OK because Hollywood is a decent ranged character, Fortune is a decent crowd control player, and Hardtack is a decent close-ranged character. Each Agent has two special attacks: their signature special, and their unique “Mayhem” ability. The signature attack is regulated by an individual cool-down, but the Mayhem ability is regulated by a “Mayhem meter” that fills when enemies are killed. The Mayhem meter is also individual to each character, so there’s a bit of planning there if you want to rely on a specific ability for an upcoming segment. Like Master x Master, another team-based game, any Agent that isn’t active will heal damage over time, although collecting the purple fleur-de-lis that mobs will sometimes drop can heal and pump up the Mayhem meter at the same time. I have to say that I do not like the mouse-wheel cycling mainly because I never remember which direction to roll to for a particular character, even though it shows their order in the lower right corner. I tried using the number keys, but that didn’t seem to do anything. I’m not sure if there’s a keybind for an alternative method of character switching.
Seoul is a big city, and I’ve heard that it suffers from “open world syndrome” — i.e. so big as to provide a lot of space but is mostly absent of purpose on its own. When you’re on a mission you’ll get sent to specific locations, and will often be required to go somewhere else. You can travel around by “nicely” carjacking a vehicle, or you can summon an AI Mayhem car which is a lot faster and comes equipped with a nitro boost for those hot pursuits. Each vehicle handles differently: the tiny smart-cars have no pickup but are pretty easy to control, while lumbering buses are like rolling cinder blocks that are good for ramming other vehicles in missions where you need to stop a rolling target. Whenever required, use the Mahyemmobile, because it’s the perfect combo of speed and handling. If you’re on a free-roam, there are things to do. I’ve seen various terminals at random locations around the city, and based on my experience with Saint’s Row, I assume these will trigger street races or other one-off activities that can earn you cash or loot. There also seem to be open-world events, like waves of mobs that culminate in a mini-boss and which drops better loot than you’d get from random enemies.
At the end of the day, though, AoM has one mission: balls-to-the-wall mayhem, and in that it succeeds. Explosions are big. Combat is satisfying and can get crazy. There’s a lot of upgrades to be had in the service of customizing your Agents and building your mission team. It also retains the SR humor, which is a little on the juvenile side (Hollywood launches grenades with a hip-thrust, and Braddock threatened to “put [her] foot so far up her ass that she’ll sneeze boot polish”) but when offered in the context of stupid and silly fun it’s pretty obvious that it couldn’t be presented any other way. It all just fits together really well. I don’t think that AoM is a “first-tier” game (something you focus the majority of your gaming time on) but I don’t think it was designed with that in mind either. It’s the kind of game you turn to when you want an oversized reaction to a really angry and violent action that can scratch a virtual itch and maybe put a smile on your face in the process.
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I tried the Guild Wars 2 Path of Fire open access weekend a little bit, and I’m pleased that ANet is still riding high when it comes to their design and art direction. I completed the initial intro, got the raptor mount made available for the test, and then just kind of dicked around for a while. I didn’t go nuts with exploration since I’ll be back to it when the xpac launches later in the year. I’ve still got almost the entire Season 3 content to complete, and the last episode of Season 2 as well.
Speaking of which, I did return to S2, and have been having some concerning issues completing requirements. I’m not sure if it’s a case of my class not being the best option for the job (which seems rather silly considering the content is designed to be soloed) or if my perchance for not eating, breathing, and sleeping the mechanics of my class, the game, and the encounter is finally catching up to me. I’ve learned to carry a gear repair canister (or 16) with me during these, because “continue from checkpoint” seems to just insta-rez me where I fell, allowing me to continue without much of a setback.
In other news, the latest patch for No Man’s Sky was released last week to whispered fanfare. NMS is a poster child for many things, with most of them being a warning on the pitfalls of hype.
Me, I like to use it as an example of why we shouldn’t ever throw a title so far under the bus that we can’t retrieve it later. NMS was probably one of the most high-profile cases of overpromising and under-delivering meets pinning hopes and dreams on a product by filling in the blanks that the games industry has ever produced. A lot of people wanted a game where they could meet up with friends and explore the galaxy together, but there wasn’t even a hint of that feature in the original game. In the end it turned out that there was no real reason to do anything that NMS was asking us to do; meanwhile, people wanted a game that would at least allow them some level of permanence so that they could at least leave a footprint that maybe some other player could find, although beyond that I believe that the overarching dream was to have a game in which players could work together to make their own interstellar empires despite the unfathomable void between star systems, like the most massive survivalbox game ever created.
There have been…three patches, I think…each of which has added more “stuff” to NMS. Players can now build bases on planets. Players can buy enormous freighters. We can also terraform the landscape in true voxel fashion (remember when voxels were in fashion?). And the latest patch adds in what Hello Games claims is the first step towards actual multiplayer modes.
Hello got a lot of shit for the release of NMS — much of it rightfully so — but so many people cling to their narrowly-focused opinions of the launch so tightly that they are unable and unwilling to walk back any statements in the face of the fact that Hello is trying to make right. There’s no doubt that a game should play the way it says it plays on the box when it launches, and there’s no doubt that consumers should hold companies accountable for dropping that ball, but it should be done in the service of letting the company know that better is expected of them. Crucifying a company is the reason why we can’t have nice things and the surest way to ensure that we’ll never get nice things. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of life with the Internet that the possibility of patches means never having to say “oops!” when a product is released, but the only “shame on you” that can be said in a situation when a company tries to make good after a public humiliation is on those who refuse to give the company another shot.
And in lighter news, I plowed through several more episodes of Travelers on Netflix this weekend. Really, this show was always in my recommended viewing list but I always glossed over it because it sounded rather formulaic: a group of folks from the future return to the past to right a cataclysmic wrong. It wasn’t so long ago that network TV was pumping out time travel series, pretty much all of which have fallen off the face of the earth. We’ve had our 12 Monkeys and our Looper and the granddaddy Terminator movies (which have fallen on hard times). Is there a way to make “future people stop humanity from fucking itself sideways?” interesting again?
Hell yes. In Travelers we slowly learn the specifics of the future and why people need to return to the past but I won’t go into them here as they’re kind of spoilery. Rather than send actual people back in time, the conceit here is that the “travelers” project their consciousness into 21st-century humans at the time of death of the host — whether that’s from natural causes, accidents, or suicide. There are many traveler teams, and all are (supposedly) working on different, compartmentalized aspects of setting up a timeline that will hopefully repair the future situation. As you might imagine, this doesn’t come with accepted complications. Not only do the travelers have to work on their mission objectives within a more “primitive” culture, but they also have to continue the lives of those that they have come to inhabit: an FBI agent with a wife, a new mother with an abusive ex-husband, a heroin addict, a high-school football star, and a mentally disabled woman. Changes to this “protocol” are inevitable as strangers try and pick up where their hosts left off, but there are less subtle modifications that are impossible to circumvent: the mentally disabled woman is now a highly articulate doctor, and the high-school quarterback is now super-focused on his academic success. In the other direction, there’s the looming question as to whether or not the body of the heroin addict is going to cost the team a crucial member.
The creepy part, IMO, is that the future is vague and that the traveler project is so finely tuned, heightening the idea that things are so bad for humanity that legions of people are giving over their lives to specialize to insane degrees so they can perform their duties in the past. Each team member has a role: the leader, the tactician, the medic, the engineer, and the historian. A team is meant to operate in isolation, so they need to protect themselves (tactician) which may lead to questionable injuries (medic) while they use their “future knowledge” to secure resources (historian) and build the tools necessary to achieve mission objectives (engineer).
The show doesn’t turn hokey for a second, not even when they do allude to the conditions of the future. Being a sci-fi show I think that their traveler’s nature is, of course, the most interesting part of the series, but like Battlestar Galactica the technology and “sci-fi-ness” of it takes a back seat to remind us that no matter the setting, all dramas are human dramas, whether they take place in the 21st century or in the future.
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