game beta; the adventure begins

Familiar Territory, Unfamiliar Experience

As I explained in my previous post, my game design project is a campaign module for the renowned tabeltop RPG — Dungeons & Dragons, using the Fifth Edition ruleset. Because this is my first time at the other side of the table as Dungeon Master, I’ve enlisted the help of experienced friends and online resources to inform my design. In this post, I will outline my progress in designing this adventure so far.

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Theme and Narrative; you all meet in a tavern…

I chose a setting that I’ve wanted to explore in a fantasy RPG for a while; a group of outcast adventurers in a travelling circus troupe that tour from city to city for money, while also encountering different subquests along the way. This general plot may sound familiar to Critical Role’s Mighty Nein campaign, and that’s because it is in a way. However, I want to set it apart as its own story by making the many quests and encounters within the module have narrative depth and weight that affects each character in the party significantly. In order to achieve this, I decided my module would come with pre-made character sheets that are highly recommended to use in the adventure. Each city on route for the tour of Mahléza Miserion’s Travelling Menagerie will have a plot hook directly relating to each character’s backstory, something that a DM usually does not know much about for a player-made character until their first play session. I spent a lot of time developing different characters based on circus acts and performances, while brainstorming a cultural conflict for my adventure world that would place them as outcasts within the game world. For this story, that conflict would have the mixing of different races be a taboo topic, leaving half-human children rejected by society and living on the outskirts of privileged lifestyles.

>>Click here << to see the finished (tentative) character sheets for this module

While I’ve made significant progress in my narrative by finishing each pre-made character sheet (using modular, class-based character sheet templates from DM’s guild), I’m yet to begin fleshing out the world around them and giving names to different places referenced in their backstories. I plan to now begin my write-up about the world as an introduction to the campaign, as well as develop a continent map for the game world. There are many resources online about map-making for fantasy RPG’s that I will make use of for this task. Once this is done, I can start creating encounters and quests to fill out each town on the character’s tour route.

Game Mechanics and Rules; proficiency in homebrewing

“A thematic mechanic, or a thematic mechanism, is one that is so integrally tied to the theme of the game that if you were to remove it, it would change the experience of the game itself. If you want to retain your theme, try to tie it in as tightly to the mechanics of your game as possible.”

Scott Rogers, designer of Rayguns and Rocketships.

First and foremost, I decided to adopt a milestone level system for this module rather than the default experience point system in D&D 5e. My reason for this is the narrative pacing of my campaign; there are certain story beats that require the heroes be a certain level to experience them fairly. In order to allow the players freedom to move the plot forward without needing to grind experience points first, they will level up to pre-determined milestone levels when reaching specific locations on the tour.

Something else that will set this adventure apart from the Critical Role campaign is that the circus troupe’s performances will be more integrally tied into the game mechanics with a few homebrewed rules and systems of my own. Each performance on tour will have a result determined by pre-requisite quests and a rolling system. This means the players will gain a different income and quest opportunities in that area based on how they go in their acts.

Apart from this planned feature, I have already homebrewed five new character backgrounds to fit the narrative and character backstories in my adventure module. I determined proficiency bonuses in two skills and two tools for each background, except for the Troupe Acrobat background designed for the character Lucia which instead has two skills, one tool, and one language. This is another example of designing my game mechanics with their relationship to the adventure’s theme and narrative in mind.

Troupe Leader
— Skills; Performance, Persuasion
— Tools; Land Vehicles, Thieves’ Kit

— Beast Tamer
— Skills; Performance, Animal Handling
— Tools; Leatherworker’s Tools, Herbalism Kit

— Troupe Brawn
— Skills; Performance, Athletics
— Tools; Cook’s Utensils, Drums

— Musician
— Skills; Performance, Sleight of Hand
— Tools; Dice Set, Calligrapher’s Tools

— Acrobat
— Skills; Performance, Acrobatics
— Tools; Weaver’s Tools
— Languages; Celestial

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Initial Playtest and Feedback; my plan from here onwards

I put my newly designed character sheets to the test with a small one-off play test. It involved about 30 minutes of general character roleplaying, then 1.5 hours of a test encounter with bandits ambushing the troupe’s caravan. The footage above is a small taste of that session, which was done over discord using a dice-roll bot and microsoft word as an encounter map with character tokens to keep track of combat. My playtesters commented that they really loved the characters, both in their gameplay/mechanics and backstories. Some advice I received as a first-time Dungeon Master and module designer was to reduce the number of enemies in the encounters to avoid lengthy and confusing combat. I was also told I needed to flesh out the starting village, which I fully intend on diving into now that I’ve sorted out my characters and general plot points. I think that for my next session of playtesting I will enlist the help of a more experienced Dungeon Master and see if my module is sufficient enough to be easily picked up and used by someone other than myself, especially one with the skills and game knowledge to make the most of the material given.

To summarise, my main agenda right now is this;
— Create a continent map for the adventure that names and outlines all significant locations from the narrative.
— Start fleshing out each town and village with NPC’s and sidequests to be done, including those relevant to character backstories.
— Homebrew a rolling system for the troupe performances that helps determine degree of success and income for the party in each leg of their tour.

 

List of sources and resources used;
Stackexchange: ‘Is homebrewing D&D okay?’
Board Game Design Lab: ‘Intertwining Theme and Mechanics with Scott Rogers’
DM’s Guild: ‘Class Character Sheets Bundle’
Avrae Discord Bot
Critical Role Wiki: ‘The Might Nein’
WASD20: ‘How to Draw a Fantasy Map (Part 1: Landmasses)’

game pitch; a new adventure

I love playing tabletop role-playing games with my friends, so I wanted to incorporate the genre into my game experience design project. TRPG’s fall under the niche/hobby category of games and are about face-to-face, collaborative story telling aided by dice rolls and the guidance of a ‘game master’ moderator. Players act out their character roles and engage in different facets of adventuring determined by the game master’s chosen rule system. It’s a fun way to bond with friends while also experiencing escapism through fantasy, becoming fully immersed in the imagined play space.

“Basics of t-RPGs are to let a set of players share the creation of their own story, where they interpret the main characters. T-RPGs mix dynamics from both society games (for the ludic aspect) and improvisational theatre.”

Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.

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My TRPG of choice is Wizard’s of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. I have the most experience and knowledge with this rule system, though truthfully I’ve never run my own campaign as the game master and will usually take the role of player character instead. Regardless, I want to create my own D&D module to be used by myself and other game masters as an adventure guide. I’ll be brushing up on the official Dungeon Master’s manual and asking for help from some of my experienced game master friends. My goal will be to design a game experience that is immersive, compelling, fair for all players and, most importantly, fun.

“One of the distinguishing features of the RPG genre is its ability to immerse the
player in the world and story that the game creates. The example from a D&D adventure in the epigraph addresses the readers in the second-person, pulling them directly into the story world, situating them in a place, and immersing them. “

Cover, J.A.G., 2005.

There are countless resources online that will assist me in creating this adventure module, including many video tutorials and forum discussion posts over at r/DnD. The website Dungeon Masters Guild also has a variety of templates and game materials that can be downloaded for free. Creating an adventure for D&D involves planning and preparing the narrative, setting, combat encounters, exploration and non-playable characters of an imagined story, then organizing these elements into a document that can be easily applied to the official D&D rule system. I might also attempt to design new gameplay features for my adventure module under the framework of the D&D rule-set, a practice known by TRPG fans as ‘homebrewing’.

The most important factor to consider when designing an adventure module is that it first and foremost acts as a guide for game masters to follow when running their own D&D campaign. This means that my target audience when designing is not just the players but also the game master, as they enact the most important role in determining the players’ overall experience. So, while I may want to consider how the adventure can appeal to both new and veteran players, I should also keep in mind whether or not my module design is effective in aiding the game master’s efforts to run a campaign; having the document be easy to understand and convenient for the game master is key.

“The game master is both a referee and a story director. On the one hand, he checks
the player characters’ actions. He validates actions and their results according to
game’s rules. On the other hand, he is responsible for story’s unfolding. He has to
describe the environment and to interpret the set of non-player characters (NPC). As a consequence, he produces a frame for the story and adapts it to player’s actions.”

Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.

The theme of my game design project will be based on the existing lore of the D&D universe, which takes inspiration from Tolkien fantasy. I’m currently dreaming up a world and narrative for the adventure module and seeking inspiration from online campaigns that are live streamed or recorded and uploaded by the game master. One of my favourite online campaign series is Critical Role, run by voice actor Matt Mercer. I’m definitely interested in creating some pre-made character sheets for new players who are unfamiliar with the D&D system, or veterans who would like to jump in straight away without needing to create their own character first. I’m interested in a narrative that involves a band of outcasts or misunderstood ruffians who come upon the dark secrets of a sleepy village (or two) by chance. They’re left with a choice of covering up the corruption, or putting an end to it. D&D’s alignment system will be handy in this situation.

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My main concern with this project was the logistics of testing the adventure module and receiving feedback while in self-isolation due to the current global pandemic. I’ve been looking into online solutions, including the virtual tabletop website Roll20, and a variety of D&D bots for Discord servers. I plan to test combat encounters and exploration sections of the adventure with friends, and get feedback about my module manual online from other TRPG fans through discussion forums like Reddit. Since I plan to keep the adventure as brief enough to fit a ‘one-off’ campaign, meaning it can be completed over one or few play sessions, I may also be able to do complete play-throughs with different groups of players. Then, from those experiences I can flesh out areas I feel required more preparation and planning that I had not previously considered.

General Project Timeline

Week 6 – 7: Apply pitch feedback to my project and develop the game narrative + explore resources and tutorials for creating a D&D adventure.

Week 8 – 9: Start prototyping and testing the adventure module.

Week 10 – 11: Apply beta feedback and findings from the first rounds of testing to the adventure module.

Week 12 – 13: Final testing of the prototype and working on the project dossier

References;
Cover, J.A.G., 2005. ‘Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Perspectives from Narrative, Game, and Rhetorical Theory’.
Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009. ‘From tabletop RPG to interactive storytelling: definition of a story manager for videogames’. Joint international conference on interactive digital storytelling (pp. 121-126).

Game Media Digital Artefact; Let’s Play FFIV Remakes

I’ve been working on a “Let’s Play” series of Final Fantasy IV (1991). This game has a special place in my heart; it was one of the first games to make me realise while growing up that video games are media texts capable of telling complex, compelling narratives just like film, television, and other forms of digital media. However, I believe that if it weren’t for my encounter with the Nintendo DS remake (2007) of this classic SNES game, I probably would have never played a single Final Fantasy game in all my life. For this reason, I wanted to make a digital artefact that analyses the intertextual value of remaking classic video games on newer platforms with increased software and hardware capabilities. The “Let’s Play” format allows me to share my own meaningful FFIV experience with an online audience that features comment, praise and critique on each of my selected remakes. Hopefully I am creating a valuable media paratext with social utility for fans of the Final Fantasy series, and also for newcomers who wish to learn about the Final Fantasy games and their stories.

Active audience members, fans in particular, challenge media researchers to look not only at their consumption of the primary object of interest but also at how fans interact with other fans, how they make sense of their interests, how their interest is sustained through intertextual means, and how they go beyond mere consumption to active production of media of their own that comment on, praise, and critique the media products that so interest them.

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans: A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media, 4(3), 321–334. 

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Research

After settling on my concept, I began to research my topic by gathering any useful sources of information that would help in forming an analytical framework and guide my digital creation process. I started by reading popular news articles from game media websites ([1], [2], [3]) about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ video game remakes. These lists mostly outlined reasons for and against remakes in terms of each game’s formal elements; graphics, sound, gameplay features, controls, characters, narrative etc. Although this structuralist approach is essential to the appraisal of a remake, there is also a post-structuralist layer beneath the surface that is important in understanding why changes to the game’s formal elements are considered either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

I decided to gather some primary data by polling fans of the Final Fantasy series on Reddit (r/finalfantasy), in two threads that can be found here and here. There were many different responses reflecting individual player experiences.

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I also looked at an interview with the original lead designer of Final Fantasy IV, Takashi Tokita, which discusses the PSP remake release. It provided rich insight into the development of this version and how it aimed to capture the integrity of the original while still enhancing the experience, something that I found through my primary research is important to many fans when assessing a remake.

Finally, David Heineman’s (2014) analysis of public memory, retrogaming, and nostalgia was useful in understanding why players enjoy and anticipate remakes. It allows them to revisit an aspect of shared public memory with a fresh coat of paint and quality of life improvements designed to enhance an experience that already is avidly replayed in retrogaming communities. This essay also briefly touches on emulation, a method of replaying old video games on PC that transforms the experience with new features (save states, romhacking, fast-forward). Because of these convenient features and ease of recording footage through console emulation, I chose to use this method when creating my “Let’s Play”.

What is interesting about nostalgia in video gaming is that re-released games do, in a sense, afford players the possibility to return to an exact same “home,” a virtual environment that was present when they originally played a particular game.

Purchasing a used Nintendo Entertainment System and playing the original Final Fantasy game more than twenty years after it was initially released results in a much different kind of nostalgic experience (one that requires one’s physical and mental attention) than can be provided by more passive nostalgic media experiences, such as viewing a film or playing records.

Retrogaming communities facilitate shared reminiscences about those “homes” to which participants continually return.

Heineman, David. (2014). Public Memory and Gamer Identity: Retrogaming as Nostalgia. Journal of Games Criticism, 1(1), 1–24.

 

Analytical Framework

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The design of my analytical framework was guided by Clara Fernández-Vara’s Introduction to Game Analysis and my research.

Firstly, my goal is to unpack the intertextual value of remakes for two different types of players; those who have played the original game, and those who have not. It is clear that my approach to appraising a remake should change under this condition, as it represents a shift in context surrounding the player’s experience. For example, with Final Fantasy IV, a fan will play the remake and assess it in relation to their personal experience with the original game. However, a newcomer will go through the meaning-making process differently. The value of a Final Fantasy IV remake to newcomers could be found in the ease of accessibility when released on newer platforms, or in any other changes and updates that help lower the entry barrier.

After considering the context surrounding player experiences and the socio-cultural environment in which the remake was released, I analyse the player experience itself. This is a post-structuralist look into how the remakes are received by players. My “Let’s Play” will act as a shared and documented player experience that pays careful attention to each remake in relation to each other and the original game. While doing so, I will be mindful of acknowledging player experiences and opinions that are different to my own, based on my primary research from Reddit and other fan forums.

Which brings me to the final point of my triangulation, the changes made in each remake’s formal elements. These will be observed through comparison, and then discussed in relation to the context and player experience. In Final Fantasy IV, the most relevant of these formal elements are the graphics (backgrounds and character sprites/portraits), music, difficulty, battle system, localisation (script), and various smaller gameplay features.

 

Methodology and Progress

I had originally intended to upload this “Let’s Play” series to the Twitch streaming platform, though later changed to YouTube instead. I outlined my reasons for this change in my project beta; the game did not suit the live stream format due to long periods of repeated grinding and dungeon crawling that halted progression through the game’s narrative, and it was also alienating my existing aggregated Twitch audience (I usually live stream competitive digital card games and tournaments). This was apparent through a lack of initial engagement with my digital artefact.

Now, by cutting and editing my “Let’s Play” footage I am able to create an abridged and cinematic experience for my viewers. The first episode of my series, uploaded to YouTube and then shared both on Twitter and Reddit, received significantly more engagement than my live streams. I even got a few subscribers on my brand new channel. The only issue I’ve run into so far is low audience retention, which is likely due to having about 2-3 minutes of just analysis and discussion about the remake at the beginning of the video. I plan to change this in future by moving that content to the video description, and instead jumping straight into gameplay. I’d also like to improve my video thumbnails, using other popular “Let’s Play” channels as a reference point.

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Audience Retention

I am emulating three different versions of FFIV on my PC and recording my footage with Open Broadcaster Software. This footage is then edited in Sony Vegas and uploaded to my YouTube channel. Each episode is about 25 minutes long. Between each episode, I seamlessly switch to a different FFIV remake, picking up from exactly where I left in the previous episode. In order to achieve this, I have to play through each version up to my desired game state and then create a save file at this point. Although it sounds tricky, I have made a written plan of the exact points in the narrative I want to stop and start at so that I can prepare save files ahead of time. This method also benefits greatly from the console emulators’ save-state and fast-forward features.

 

Conclusion and Reflection

After receiving feedback for my beta, I aimed to integrate more course concepts into my media analysis. The Heineman reading about nostalgia and retrogaming was very relevant and useful to my topic. When discussing how some gamers prefer 2D sprites to 3D character models from some remakes, or changes to the game’s musical score due to hardware limitations, I was able to apply concepts relating to shared public memory and the re-visiting of familiar virtual spaces and how they facilitate a nostalgic, retrogaming community. I have also been using passive audience engagement as a feedback loop, with an increase in views, likes and subscribers indicating a successful iteration cycle for my project. Overall, I am very happy with the trajectory of my digital artefact, and I feel like I’ve laid the foundations of a project I’d like to continue outside of this subject. My digital literacy in video-editing has definitely improved, as previously I’ve only ever done live streams with very minimal time spent video-editing my own projects. As for how I’d approach this idea differently next time, I found it difficult to increase the depth of my analysis throughout my “Let’s Play” commentary, as I was focused on gameplay and using a casual tone. I think this project would benefit from a supplementary blog post or video essay that clearly outlined my main arguments about the value of each remake.

the “let’s play” shuffle

 

There are numerous remakes of classic video games in existence across all genres and eras of gaming. Some are praised for bringing old classics back in peak form, while others suffer criticism due to questionable design choices or other disappointing decisions that leave fans upset by poor performance and a disregard for the original game’s legacy. It begs the question; what criteria do gamers consider when assessing the value of a remake? What makes a remake successful?

It’s also important to understand the intertextual value that remakes have for fans of a series. It’s no coincidence that the titles being updated, their legacy carried forward through the rapid progression of gaming tech capabilities, are usually very popular or considered a ‘classic’ by fans. Some examples of highly anticipated upcoming remakes would be the ultra-hyped Final Fantasy VII for PS4, or Nintendo’s recently announced remake of the Zelda series title Link’s Awakening for the Switch. These remakes allow fans to re-experience a beloved game from childhood in a new form, or can bring newcomers and younger players into the fold by migrating the experience onto modern platforms.

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I’m excited to be playing one of my favourite games of all time, Final Fantasy IV, and streaming the experience to my twitch channel. I believe that it will be enjoyable for both myself and my audience to play through a classic game in a fun, unique way by swapping between different remake versions throughout the “Let’s Play” series. I hope to be successfully comparing, analysing, and evaluating each iteration in community discussion, creating a case study for the intertextual value of video game remakes.

 

References

Doucet, L. (2015). Doing an HD Remake the Right Way : FFVI Edition. Fortress of Doors.

Leadbetter, R. (2012). What Went Wrong with Silent Hill HD?. Eurogamer.

Schreier, J. (2019). Final Fantasy VII Remake Feels Great To Play, But The Project Might Not Be Finished For A While. Kotaku.

Souppouris, A. (2019). The Link’s Awakening remake feels exactly like it should. Engadget.