Weekend Edition: Set Your S-Foils To A Relaxed Position

It’s the weekend and while normally I do these on Friday it was a particularly long week so sleep took precedence and I let this simmer for the night. I did take a little time to dip my toe into Star Wars: Squadrons and first impressions are good if a little barebones. The game itself is built on version 3 of the Frostbite engine which means overall it looks stunning, from environments to ships and even the characters look good if very slightly dated for the last gen. The game itself runs wonderfully even on an aging PC rig which is a hallmark of the Frostbite engine being able to provide a premium experience to a huge variety of gamers. Something that should always be appreciated especially at a time when people the world over are struggling economically for myriad reasons. Beyond just the aesthetics it should also be appreciated that the game was brought to market at, I think, a very honest $39.99USD. At this point I can’t say definitively for me if it’s accurate to what is available in the game in it’s totality but right off the bat it’s nice that they lowered the price regardless. It was long the opinion of the mainstream that with the inclusion of micro-transaction shops that games should be sold at a cheaper upfront price or that premium currency costs must come down. Largely neither of these things happened but every now and then a developer steps out of the norm and drops game prices and it’s a laudable act, especially in the case of EA and it’s associated properties.

So what about the games mechanics? It comes with everything you’d expect it to in a modern title with a bevvy of in-game options for everything from accessibility to graphical and control options. Chances are if you’re looking for it, it’s present somewhere. You can play the game with your choice of controller, flight stick, M+KB and even take advantage of a VR rig if you happen to own one for that extra bit of immersion. Right out of the gate the game presents you with two character avatars for the Empire and Rebellion and informs you that throughout the story you will eventually play as both. It was a nice surprise for me that the options are diverse, although lacking any alien option on the Rebellion side, in both voice and appearance. Unfortunately the options for customization are sparse but being a first person game you’re not going to spend a lot of time doing much other than hearing your character speak.

One thing that did strike me as odd is that the out of ship moments are actually played like an old style point and click game where your character is stationary and you simply mouse over people or objects to interact. I’m not sure why I expected anything else but the inability to simply walk to a briefing instead of clicking on a distant door and having the hangar fade to black was bizarre. This is the sort of corner I expect smaller indie studios to cut so that they could really focus more important gameplay elements. From a studio like Motive and a publisher like EA it’s not an avenue I expected that they would take. In spite of the inability move or really control my character in any meaningful way outside of a cockpit the scenes are well done, characters are voiced and animated very well so it’s hard to knock it too much. On the dialogue side something stuck out to me that I think I’ve laughed at before but never really latched onto as a criticism of a game. In one or two of the conversations you have with your squad mates there are times when they will ask you a question but naturally you are never given a chance to respond. A trandoshan that you fly with asks if you play a card game, Sabacc, because he wants to learn but no one else will play with him. A clear hustle if ever there was one but the conversation afterwards just sort of trails off as he awkwardly says you should get back to the mission at hand. In another conversation one of your fellow pilots off-handedly admits something about their past to you then follows it up with “Oh well, everyone finds out sooner or later” and goes on to explain the comment in more detail. As if you were the one that brought it up and they had not been in fact the one who outed their own secret to this rookie pilot who just met them for the first time. (Post publishing note: Also your flight tech on the Rebellion side makes some mildly racist comments towards droids which I thought was a little odd.)

I understand mechanically why these scenes are written this way because these characters are talking to a voiceless brick wall so they have to do all the work. What I don’t understand is why the choice was made to not simply complete the interaction by having your character simply have a conversation with them. My character has a model as can be seen at the start of the game. A voice actor was hired to voice their lines so why not just complete the scene? Pull the camera back and let me watch the interaction as a whole? Or if you don’t want to animate the player character then leave it in first person but don’t make me just stand there staring at them as they awkwardly talk at me instead of to me. Over the years it’s become a staple of these pseudo-rpg stories to give players throwaway Yes/No dialogue options just to give them something to do in these scenes, sometimes under the guise that it’ll somehow affect the outcome of the story. I hate to say it because I’m generally unhappy with that sort of thing but here it would have helped to actually round out these set pieces and make them feel complete.

As it stands those are mostly small quibbles that don’t really detract from the actual game we all paid to play but it’s little things like those that can really make someone feel they’re getting far more bang for their bargain buck.

Red-2 Standing By

Piloting the ships so far feels good although I’ve only got my hands on your standard Tie Fighter and X-Wing but if they are any indication I look forward to getting my hands on more of the available lineup. One thing I appreciated was that they added a bit of granularity to the game by giving you the ability to toggle your power systems to favor weapons or engines and in the case of the X-Wing you also have shields to consider. There are also options to allow you to customize how much thinking you want to do while flying and either have the power switches change each setting by a little or simply max them out when hit. So far I’ve been playing on the Ace difficulty with instrumentation only meaning that the game eliminates any HUD elements extraneous to the panels which are in your actual cockpit. Aside from directional damage indicators and other honestly superfluous information I can’t say that I don’t feel like I have access to everything I need on these settings. I might turn on the HUD elements later just to see what they add but for now I’m enjoy the more stripped down view.

One complaint I can level at the games difficulty is that there feels like something might be wonky when you are up against capital ships and their turbolaser spam. One of the missions you fly has you directly engaging a star destroyer, not with the intention of destroying it but rather disabling it so you can escape. Fair enough. Well one of the reasons I play games on their hardest difficulties, with a few exceptions, is to test just how well put together the actual game mechanics are. If I find myself having to cheese certain encounters just to survive and get past them then it leaves me feeling fairly unhappy with the experience. Regardless of whether the reason seems to be janky hit detection, odd reaction timing, unclear animations or just being cheaply one-shotted for not being frame perfect every step of the way. The Avenger’s game had some of these issues where on brutal difficulty it seemed most of the challenge was to never being hit because you would just die. In that case the difficulty should just be re-named to “No Damage Run” because that is effectively what they are asking you to do. God of War 4 had several good incarnations of this on their hardest mode where you would run into specific challenges where you would lose if hit a single time which is entirely acceptable. The rest of the time you could count on the game being so well built that you could tune your Kratos to your playstyle and learn to overcome individual bosses or challenging fights.

In Squadron’s and in this fight in particular it doesn’t feel like I have the necessary tools to be able to actually do what I need to do in the way I need to do it. At the start of this portion of the mission you make an initial run at the star destroyer where you are shown what you have to shoot, you get utterly bombarded on the way in, erasing your forward shields and allowing you to take a few shots at your target. Roughly 90% of my runs had me dying as I’m shot in the back on my way around to make another pass. Okay so I adjust my tactics and decide to try and take out a few turrets at extreme range before I get too close in to reduce how much damage I’m taking. After a few tries at that eliminating those turrets doesn’t seem to do any good which means this scenario probably doesn’t take into account how many turrets are physically on the ship. As the AI in the scene remind you they aren’t your priority, focus on your target.


Shields double forward, engines at full, boost in towards my target to try and bypass some of the damage. Shredded before I get in range.


Shields double front, do some aileron rolls to try and throw off some of their turbolasers and save myself some damage. I get in take some shots at my target and die on my way past where I was going to circle around.


Balanced engines and shields to give myself maneuverability then as I escape full double back shields and use my repair to stay alive on my way out. Awesome, it works I make a wide turn letting my shields recharge and head back in from a distance. Blown away before I’m even in range.

You get the idea. Finally I resorted to cheesing the level, racing in taking a few shots the fleeing to the edge of the map well out of range to heal myself to full, charge my shields and head back. Amusingly enough this doesn’t work as the star destroyer almost always blew me away as I flew back into range. Eventually the only solution I figured out was if you circle around and approach over the rebellion MC-80 flagship for some reason the turbolaser spam wasn’t as targeted at you which gave me enough time to destroy my target, get a checkpoint and finish the mission.

I watched some videos of gameplay of this mission supposedly on Ace difficulty and instrumentation only and I have to say, what I saw was not my experience at all which suggests that maybe my mission was bugged. I did forget to mention that my first attempt I actually did destroy the target and promptly died which meant that when I restarted the target looked destroyed but was not and so I couldn’t progress the mission meaning I had to do it all over. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t recommend at this moment playing on the hardest difficulty if you’re looking for a challenge as it will probably just be more annoying than anything. Dial it down a little instead and enjoy yourself.

Criticisms aside I am actually looking forward to playing more and I’ll continue on this difficulty just to see if maybe I had a bad one off experience with that first set of missions. Other than that I can’t wait to get into some fleet battles and see how it feels playing against other humans. That’ll probably determine whether or not this gives me an excuse to buy another flight stick to use with the game or just enjoy it casually with my mouse and keyboard.

I did want to find some time to talk about the CD Projekt Red controversy over their mandatory crunch time for the release of Cyberpunk 2077 but I think that’ll have to come next week. Until then I hope you’ve all been well and have some time to relax and enjoy life a bit this weekend.

Stay safe.

  • Anthony

Theater of The Mind: Combat

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a series of smaller posts regarding Theater of The Mind style D&D games and ways to make them more engaging if not more cinematic during their action and more evocative in their scenery. ToTM games can be tricky for all involved but for the DM especially because of the need to keep the details of a fluid game state coherent for the table. At the forefront of this challenge can be combat especially if you don’t use a battle map or other even informal manner of tracking what is happening. I have personally played in games where combat has stalled for ten minutes or more while a player and DM have hashed out differences in where one of them thought they had moved. Sometimes through no fault of anyone what a player says can be taken by the DM to be something completely different because everyone is looking at a battle through their own lens. Even a well realized and thoroughly described battlefield can morph slightly over a half hour as certain details are forgotten or misinterpreted. There have been occasions where I have ret-conned a feature from an area because mid-combat I realize it doesn’t make sense or would inadvertently turn my battlefield into an Escher reject. This is something I think I’ll touch on again in another post.

The other part of combat that we all show up for is the action, the swinging of swords, firing of arrows and exploding of fireballs. The question is how do we make each players turn more interesting than a roll of the dice, hit/miss, okay-next-person-go sort of routine affair?

The answer: Continuity.

I cannot emphasize enough how much continuity of action and reaction can immerse you in something like tabletop combat instead of having it feel like a very slow match of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. If this is how combat is at low levels in your games then it will only get worse as time goes on as things that are currently bags of hp become bigger, bulkier bags of hp. The skills and piles of dice may change but the conversation is the same, you hit and you get hit until you die or they do.

Before I get any further into this I want you to watch a video and additionally recommend that if you have any interest in film you should watch everything this channel has ever produced. Specifically though let’s start with this –

Among all of the very interesting information in this video there was one point in particular that really changed how I DM combat and it was talking about the difference between how Jackie films his action. Since Jackie Chan is a capable fighter there is no need to use fancy camera moves or other workarounds to make the combat appear real, there is a level of realism you can’t achieve with trickery. Following up to that point they talk about how Action and Reaction are kept together in a frame to allow the viewer to experience it all as a single moment instead of chopping it up to cover for inadequacies. We can apply this to combat in D&D in a very similar way by breaking down what happens in a turn and telling individual stories for our players as they fight. Let’s look at a sample turn you could find at any of our tables –

“Jane, you’re up.”

“Awesome, I’m going to draw my mace and swing it at this goblin in front of me.”

“Roll your attack.”

“Lets see, 12 pluuuuus 6, 18!”

“Excellent, you hit!”

“14 bludgeoning damage.”

“Ooof, quite a whack but looks like he’s still standing.”

Now there is nothing wrong with going through combat like this and in fact it was exactly how I did it for quite some time while using ability descriptions to let players or myself add a little flair to it. Of the things I did like about 4th Edition the descriptions that came along with almost every action you took in the game I thought helped elevate turns in combat. Although like anything else the twentieth time you read the same description it can get a little stale so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. Nowadays I have moved on to something more akin to choreographed action which merely means that every action I order the player narrate will logically follow into whatever happens next. Most of the time these narrative descriptions will not have any mechanical effect but I do sometimes allow them because the Rule of Cool, but we’ll get to that some other time.

Now we’ll take a look at what my combat usually looks like these days, using the same scenario above –

“Lets see, 12 pluuuuus 6, 18!”

“Excellent, you hit! How much damage?”

“14 bludgeoning damage.”

“You draw your mace and swing in one smooth backhanded motion, the goblin barely has enough time to get his shield up to deflect the blow. You feel the flanges of your weapon dig in and splinter part of his shield and knocking him off balance.”

[We’ll shorthand the dice rolls here.]

“Now the goblin, light on his feet he recovers from the hit and spins, you see the flash of steel as he does, with your upward swing leaving you exposed the goblin’s curved blade finds purchase on your midsection. The cut isn’t deep but it stings.”

The idea here is to help make combat a little more personal by providing believable Action and Reaction for your players, even if you are doing all the narrating. While it may be hard to expound on an entire fight at the drop of the hat the way combat works in tabletop games gives you plenty of time to consider each move. Descriptions can vary depending on how hard a hit is by the amount of damage inflicted and misses of course can be anything from a complete whiff to a blow successfully defended. There is no need to get overly descriptive with every swing or fired arrow but it’s amazing how even a little here or there can raise the stakes of your combat. Eventually combat in your games can become about the narrative and less about managing numbers on a sheet. The abstract nature of how hp works for both PCs and NPCs I think that sometimes hamper the inherent drama of combat. Being at half hp as a numerical value doesn’t really have the same impact as the totality jabs, cuts, bruises and close calls you can have through a more narrative driven experience. A critical hit against a PC while numerically impressive is more memorable when they think back to a blow they narrowly managed to deflect that otherwise would have decapitated them.

If you’re nervous about being able to describe these things on demand or worry about having the necessary vocabulary there are plenty of player made resources like this available around the web. Many of them found by searching for 5e or tabletop combat descriptions. My best advice for working this into your game is to start small and expand, there is no need to jump straight into elaborate explanations of combat actions. Simple actions are a good place to start and will help you build a solid foundation for describing each action and reaction in way that they flow naturally into one another. Lastly get yourself some visual aids and use this as an excuse to revisit some of your favorite action movies but this time pay close attention to how fights play out. Take time to pinpoint offense and the correlating defense and narrate them in a sentence or two. Once you become comfortable with the discrete actions that make up an overall fight describing them on the fly becomes much easier.

It may also help to have a discussion with your players and see if they prefer to describe their own actions or if they are okay letting you narrate. Either way is great but it’s just one more avenue for them to become more involved in what happens during combat. It can also allow characters who are more straight forward mechanically to have something to think about between turns, a way to add some flair to their hack and slash. Even if they opt to have you narrate what they do I have yet to meet a player who doesn’t enjoy listening to their dice rolls being translated into epic action by the DM.

Well, I think that’ll do it for now, hopefully this provides some inspiration or direction to DMs and players alike. I think these are probably mostly going to be stream of consciousness posts for a while so the editing will be minimal. Sorry about that but if I keep them going I’ll try to condense them down a bit more and maybe do a pass or two before putting them up.

Naturally if you have any suggestions for future topics or critiques/comments about this post be sure to let me know! And as always, whatever way you and your players enjoy your games is the right way to play them. No advice that I or anyone else gives you should be taken as the absolute gospel on how anything should be done.

Until next time, happy rolling.

  • Anthony

Like Ms. Black Intended

On a personal note it’s been a long week and today just couldn’t come fast enough but with it finally here how about we talk about some things that will help us collectively unwind.

First up I was delighted to see the news that there is a new Ni No Kuni game in the works as I was quite a fan of the first two. Not perfect by any means but immensely entertaining and very reminiscent of classic JRPGs with some modern aesthetics and mechanics.

Looking around for more information I ran into this article over at Gematsu which gave some details about it and my luck this week has apparently continued, unabated –

Level-5 and Netmarble have opened the official website for Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds, its massively multiplayer online RPG due for iOS and Android in 2020 in Japan.

I generally try to not to be too down on a game series I enjoy going in a new direction just because it may no longer appeal to me but I feel at least a little bit justified here. It’s not so much that they’re shifting focus on a core mechanic to something new or exploring a new area, story or even changing leads. It’s combined, in my opinion, two of the worst ways to enjoy RPG’s, as an MMO and exclusively on mobile. Before I get knocked for being an elitist or something by looking down on mobile gaming I play my fair share of games on my phone and have enjoyed many of them. Unfortunately as fun as they can be there is generally nothing to be gained by porting a full game to mobile for anyone other than the developer or publisher. It makes the game more accessible and immediately puts it into an arena where borderline predatory micro-transactions are par for course so monetization becomes much easier. In addition to this development costs are lower on almost every front so it’s hard to argue with why they do it from a profitability perspective. For us as players however it seems like we mostly lose as we can no longer enjoy the games on larger displays without using sketchy third party emulator programs and are now subject to the monetization I mentioned. Mechanically I have yet to find anyone who actually enjoys using the game controls on a mobile device and instead just finds them varying levels of usable or not monstrously uncomfortable or awkward. As it turns out a medieval rack would probably be cheaper than a chiropractor but, is it worth it?

The whole switching to an MMO thing is another rant that I wont subject you to right now but suffice it to say they’re just not really at their best in this format. I’m sure there are probably one or two out there that pass for half decent approximations but I have a hard time believing they aren’t just shadows of their fully realized siblings. Naturally I can be wrong about any of this but to date I haven’t seen much evidence to the contrary.

I guess I’ll be left hoping that if the mobile game is successful enough maybe they’ll return to full releases in the future, until then I hope a new audience of people can find some enjoyment in the series.

When it comes to content that is based on properties I love or in some cases grew up with and in a few rare cases both, it’s hard to not look at it with an exceedingly critical eye.

This week I, and many other people, saw Netflix confirm that it was in fact producing a live action Resident Evil show and then I read the actual tweet–

When your heart swells with good news and then you die immediately from a lurking aneurysm in your brain.

Now for all I or anyone else knows this show could end up being amazing but I have an unfortunate feeling that we’re in for a story which will be meaningless to longtime fans, confusing to newcomers and packed with references that just annoy everyone. I’ve spoken about this before when talking about games that are adapted into other media, specifically movies and TV, in that there is a delicate balance which must be struck by the writers and directors. They cannot be so in love with putting their own stamp on it that they ignore the established fiction nor can they rely too heavily on merely turning in a copy of someone else’s homework. Choosing the Wesker kids as your stars to me feels like someone suited up, when dumpster diving in RE lore and dug up this idea while proclaiming, “No one else would think of it!”

It’s true and you might be right but there could very well be good reasons for that.

Resident Evil is indeed a legendary property in gaming for many reasons, and to a lesser extent well known for both the good and very, very awful things that came out of the movies but the Wesker kids moving to Raccoon City is not one of them. My gut tells me that they should have started with one of the baseline stories that really cemented RE in the pantheon of all-time greats and used that solid base to branch out into some of the lesser known characters and stories. As Capcom proved last year with the incredible Resident Evil 2 Remake release there is plenty of hunger for seeing those classic stories done up right for fans old and new.

I hope it turns out fantastic but for the moment I am at best, pessimistic.

Last but not least and very quickly, this game looks fucking wild and I am incredibly curious–

I’ll leave it there for this week. I hope you’ve been well and have a relaxing couple days ahead of you.

Stay safe and happy gaming!

  • Anthony