80 Days review: Good, but way too frustrating

Like a lot of people, I’ve played the Android game 80 Days a bit lately.

I like a lot of the writing, which is generally quite clever. Although based on Verne’s novel, it has a lot of additions, in the form of worldbuilding and additional storylines. The world of this game is very steampunk, with an Artificers’ Guild who build glittering automata, and glass crystals used as computer memory devices. There are, de rigueur, multiple kinds of airships. Yet the writers are clearly conscious of the problems with steampunk, including its very strong tendency to glorify imperialism and other harmful historical trends. So 80 Days has stout women engineers, various countries throwing off the yoke of European domination, and a (potentially) wide-eyed protagonist, eager to see both the technological and social marvels of this new era.

80 Days screenshot: Munich and ViennaAlso, the game is incredibly pretty. The graphics are very nicely stylized; the technology is represented in blocky black-and-white illustrations that suggest steampunk niftiness without explaining how anything works. The interface — a mix of branching paragraphs, common to this kind of interactive fiction app, and a quick-scrolling globe dotted with transportation options — is smooth and generally gorgeous.

However, I still have a lot of problems with the game. First, maybe most prominently, is the fact that there’s no choice regarding the protagonist’s gender. Regardless of all the other choices you can make, the game is always played as Passepartout, the male valet of Phileas Fogg. Of course, in the original story, Passepartout is a man. But the game diverges from the source text in many important ways, so why not make this critical thing open to variation as well? As we’ve seen before with a lot of other games, the argument “But allowing women PCs would cost too much development time!” doesn’t make sense here, as they clearly spent plenty of development time on other aspects of the game (little animations for travel, a smoothly-spinning globe as the overall interface, etc.). And the background includes plenty of other women characters, so why not make arguably the single most important choice — the player’s own character — have more than one gender option?

In general, for a game that is all about choice, there is sometimes surprisingly little choice in 80 Days. In one play-through, one of the characters told me that some commodity was valuable in Vienna, and my money was already running low, so I bought the commodity and then tried to get to Vienna to sell it. I was in Munich or Prague (I forget which now), only one stop away by pretty much any means of transport. But, as it turned out, there was simply no way to get there. After an in-game day or two of exploring, planning and interacting at night, no routes to Vienna appeared. As an experiment, I decided to see if the game would ever give me a way to travel to Vienna. I think I spent about an in-game week waiting for any train or wagon or whatever, but nothing ever appeared. There was also no way to discover new routes, or discover some furtive means of transport via nighttime exploration, or anything else. It was like to game’s creators had decided to play with me: trust anyone in this game, and you’ll get screwed over — not by the untrustworthy characters, but by the game itself! Very frustrating.

Other times, the sentence fragments from which you choose the next arc of the story seem deliberately misleading. A choice of “I decided to avoid them…” might quickly turn into “…but I could not help myself from being attracted to their wares” or somesuch. It feels at times like the game’s plot is predetermined, and the choices offered are only illusory.

In another play-through, while traveling through Hong Kong, the game abruptly informed me one day that my PC had become addicted to opium. I had no choice but to sit there, destitute, for about two in-game weeks. There was literally nothing I could do to change this; all other options that I would normally have were greyed out or unavailable. I could either quit the game or continue on the awful path the game had decided to set me on. (There’s only one saved game at a time, so it’s either continue on with whatever has occurred, or restart from scratch.)

Screenshot from 80 Days: I awoke this morning...In my most recent game, upon starting a new day in Istanbul, the game told me that I had awoken in the Topkapi palace “in the silks of an Ottoman harem girl”. Basically, the incredibly tired and terrible “forced crossdressing” trope: the game trying to appear edgy by including crossdressing, while giving cissexist people an easy out by claiming that it wasn’t by choice. There are a ton of things wrong with this trope that I won’t explain here. Simply put, I find this writing lazy, transphobic and — perhaps worst of all — very detrimental to the sense of player agency.

Perhaps 80 Days is supposed to be only partly-interactive fiction, where we sometimes have to surrender ourselves to the author’s vision. But it seems that that vision is sometimes downright cruel, or actively making fun of the player. To have the story abruptly inform me that I’m addicted to opium, or tauntingly prevent me from getting to a place that the game enticed me into visiting in the first place, disrupts any trust I have that the story is leading me to an interesting place.

Maybe the occasional “railroading” is a comment on the nature of imperialism? Or the nature of life itself? Perhaps 80 Days is fundamentally about how we are sometimes just tossed on the seas of destiny, and how we don’t really have agency in our own lives? Well, honestly, I get enough reminders about that from my actual life. I play games to explore interesting, meaningful choices. For now, in spite of all its interesting worldbuilding and beautiful graphic design, I’m done with 80 Days.

Ryuutama continues

The weekly group continues to play Ryuutama. We’re getting more familiar with the system, albeit not fully learning it. (There are enough technicalities and exceptions in the rules that we continue needing to check the book on a pretty frequent basis.) It continues to bring us some nice, sometimes cute, sometimes dangerous, often almost quaint, adventures.

The past couple sessions, we’ve used the settlement creation rules to great effect. I’ve GMed, but due to various busy-ness, I haven’t had much time at all to prepare. With a little inspiration from real life, and some vague ideas for conflict from me, the players came up with some great ideas for the settlements that meshed very neatly with what little I had planned. The result has been several tidy little adventures.
Sea turtle crawling on a beachLast week, the PCs found a seaside settlement of people who made their tenuous livings gleaning flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on the beach. They had enshrined a giant sea turtle in a stone-walled catchment pond, and none the adults of the community spoke, following the Sea Master who hadn’t used her voice in years. To make matters worse, the tide was steadily rising and becoming less predictable. The PCs figured out the link between the tide, the Sea Master and the turtle, resolving the problem with some nice tension but no violence.

Last Thursday’s session involved tracing a river up its course, then walking through a long cliff-side tunnel to a village located in a sinkhole. Again, the settlement creation rules were very helpful. We came up with a village that subsists on mushrooms, inconsistently lit by poorly-maintained phosphorescent fungi, threatened by haunting echoes and giant bats. They once had flourishing mines, but now the village has fallen on hard times and regards the obsidian artifacts of the past as cursed.

The session ended up with a confrontation with one of the giant bats. This mini-adventure isn’t finished yet, but we should be able to finish it next session. I have a pretty good idea what will resolve the threats to the village, and it has again meshed very nicely with the players’ contributions to the Town Creation procedure. I wouldn’t be surprised if the solution the players work out is precisely what I have in mind, without any push from me. That’s certainly what happened last week. Perhaps we’re just lucky to be operating on the same wavelength, or perhaps we’re tapping into irresistible deep archetypes. Whatever the case is, Ryuutama has continued inspiring us to create some very flavorful, nicely-shaped, collectively-crafted little stories.

Two important posts

Two very important articles on different blogs have been posted recently:

A rainbow, apparently moving between two cloudsTanya D has some very important things to say about getting paid as a marginalized person. And how a lot of our work around diversity ends up getting repaid with well-meaning requests to “educate me!”, or even just “exposure”.

And I would be lying if I said this post on Go Make Me a Sandwich didn’t, yet again, hit me in the gut. Anna is saying a lot of things on her blog that are both incredibly important and incredibly difficult to deal with. And incredibly personal for me in a way that I don’t feel comfortable talking about on a public blog.

Celestial Empire no longer published

'Celestial Empire' in Chinese charactersI missed this post from Gianni Vacca back in September: Due to all the changes going on with Chaosium and their Basic Roleplaying/D100-based systems, Alephtar Games has lost licensing rights for Chaosium games, so Celestial Empire is no longer going to be published.

As I said before, Celestial Empire is easily the best game I’ve seen based on Chinese history. Gianni really knows his stuff, and it comes through in the book. So if you see Celestial Empire in a shop, pick it up — it may be your last chance to.

Blade & Crown errata: damage factors for thrown spears

A spearhead -- actually a boar spear, but hey, it could be thrownAnother couple small errata for Blade & Crown: the damage factors for thrown spears and javelins are probably wrong. I think the actual pierce damage factor for a throwing spear should be around 6, instead of the 2 it is listed as having. Javelins should be about 1 less than that, so say Pierce 5. This makes their thrown effect more in line with their hand-held use. Adjust to taste, of course.

“I wanna roll dice” vs. “Only roll when it’s truly difficult”

A lot of games, Blade & Crown included, have a specific statement that players should only roll for success on task attempts when there’s actually a chance of failure. If a halfway-competent sword-fighter is trying to hit a rock that’s just sitting there, there’s no point in rolling — they just succeed. And you don’t make a chef roll to make a peanut butter sandwich.

Illustration of dice use in Blade & CrownBut this comes into conflict with a very strong tendency among a lot of gamers: we play tabletop RPGs partly because we enjoy the tactile feel of rolling dice. So, for a lot of us, there’s a strong motive to roll dice every time we can.

That means sometimes we want to roll dice even for things that are guaranteed successes. (Or even guaranteed failures.) And that can cause annoyance or even conflict, because it turns something that was a sure thing into a possible failure. It’s easy to imagine a scenario like this playing out:

“What do you mean, I fell in the water? My AGL is 97, and the bridge is paved! How could I fail to just walk across the bridge?”

“Well, I said you didn’t have to roll, but you decided to anyway, and now you got a natural failure, so the only person you can blame is yourself.”

“I just wanted to roll the dice. I haven’t had a chance to all session!”

I don’t know if that kind of thing has happened in actual play, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has.

How to resolve this? I can see at least a couple solutions:

  • Have players roll anyway, but give huge bonuses to truly mundane tasks. Problem: if there’s literally no chance of failure due to huge bonuses, then it feels hollow. But you can’t have everything. Maybe make it so the rolls are only to determine whether it’s a success or a critical success.
  • Make sure there are plenty of challenging things to do, and lots of situations where PCs’ skills are really put to the test. But this can turn into “The whole world is out to get me” — i.e., the feeling that the setting or scenario is too difficult.

Or maybe, like so many things, it just comes down to the social contract: how often we call for dice rolls, and how we interpret them. Hmm.

Have you encountered this tension? How have you resolved it (or not)?

Campaign notes as literature

My monthly Blade & Crown game has been going for a little over four years now. I have a terrible memory, and so I keep somewhat detailed notes about what happens in each session. I keep these notes in a wiki, as I’ve alluded to before. Doing it this way makes the notes easy to navigate, allows for full text search, makes for easy editing, and all those other advantages that wikis have.

A pilgrim's map of the Arothaem RoadAnother advantage is that the text is easy to reformat for other purposes. As a lark, a year ago, I took all those years of notes and formatted them using the Blade & Crown template: two columns, 8pt text, nice page borders, etc. The resulting document is 38 pages long! And that’s just the first three years.

The text is fairly dense — I try to keep the notes detailed enough to not miss important details, but terse enough to actually be readable. It’s easy to imagine that, with more text to make it flow better, it could form at least a novel, if not a series of novels. And it’s easy to see how so many RPG campaigns over the years have ended up as the kernel around which famous prose fiction authors have built their careers.

However, I think the events in my B&C campaign are too episodic, with too many loose ends and red herrings, to satisfy a novel-reading audience — we create this art it for the benefit of the people around the table, after all, not for a reading audience. It’s also tempting to write those notes up here — I could blog for years and never exhaust them! But it feels somehow wrong to do that as well. I’m not the sole author, after all. And I’m betting you don’t want me to tell you about my campaign.

Nonetheless, it’s fun to realize what an amazing story we’ve created together over the years, and to occasionally glance over those notes and remember all the fun little surprises and dramatic scenes and jokes we’ve made for each other. There’s real enjoyment to be had in reading RPGs in this way.

Fresh Out of Tokens episode 30 is up!

Fresh Out of Tokens logoEpisode 30 of Fresh Out of Tokens, featuring me, is up! When we recorded this last month, Tanya, David and I talked about all kinds of things: making it (or not) as a woman/trans/POC/otherwise marginalized game creator; diversity considerations when designing a game; how to find and make great gaming groups; what we’re playing these days; and plenty more. It was quite a fun conversation. Go check it out!

Con of the North: Get event requests in today!

Eek! Life is busy, and deadlines sneak up. I just realized that the deadline for event requests for Con of the North is today! If you’re planning to go and you haven’t already submitted your event picks, go to the online registration page and let them know which games you’re interested in.

I’m scheduled to run two games:

The Wonderful Island

A brilliant satire of Taiwanese politics: Gain votes through street campaigns, rallies, TV debates or just fighting in the legislature. Smear your opponents with a negative press campaign or publish a fake popularity poll – and never let your fellow politicians know which party you’re really working for. Whether you’re Green, Blue, or just a politician, you’ll love this game.

FRI22-24 (Friday 10pm-midnight)

With the national election coming up in just over a week, this is more topical than ever.

Blade & Crown: The Iron Moon

On the island of Morensia, a civil war is brewing. Your band of mercenaries, the Company of the Iron Moon, resolve to defend your home town of Chaegrae from marauders (read: other mercenaries). You have your small but dedicated force, your native knowledge of the area and half a town wall to work with. You must succeed — mercenary pride and your own life depend on it. Adventure in Calteir.

SAT18-22 (Saturday 6-10pm)

I’m hoping to have a nice, flavorful mix of mass combat and derring-do roleplaying in this one. Lots of chances for players to narrate the outcome.

And of course I’m hankering to play in many more. I hope to see you there!

Ryuutama: The Dragon and the Frog

After real life annoyingly asserted itself Monday night, those of us who were able to come had our scheduled game of Ryuutama. I was GMing, with a scenario idea that had occurred to me a few days before.

So far, all our games in Ryuutama have been about traveling through an island surrounded by steep cliffs, with gorgeous mountain views and deep blue ocean waves all around tiny villages hugging the coast.

'Frog Rock' in Taroko Gorge, TaiwanIn Monday’s game, the PCs discovered a village dependent on a river whose water was running dry. The PCs traced the river into a deep gorge, leading high into the mountains. They confronted a tempestuous, imperious dragon, then negotiated with a petrified frog. There were discussions about red lightning, golden crowns, and taxonomy, and ontology. In the end, they managed to get the crown returned, and the water flowing again.

At first, I was thinking we wouldn’t have enough time to finish, and that it would be another dangling thread in our weave of Ryuutama canon. But we kept charging ahead, and even though we took nice excursions for froggy pastures and mountainous beauty, we still managed to reach a satisfying conclusion in time. The players very nicely anticipated my scenario, adding details that not only didn’t conflict with what I had in mind, but in fact deepened and in one case seemed to directly prefigure it. And though there was conflict, there was no violence at all. It was another rather nifty session of Ryuutama.