I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Candle in the shadows: A multi-part Chronicles of Darkness Primer Part 1
The sweltering heat of your classroom is nearly lulling you to sleep and your potbellied professor isn’t helping matters. As you fidget in your seat to at the very least stay awake, you notice that the clock at the front of the room is broken. The hand that counts each second appears to be stuck, clicking with stubborn effort yet unable to move forward.
Wearily, you focus on the broken clock almost straining yourself to inspect the broken thing. You think you can hear the strained clicking of the second hand in your ears, until you realize that the clicking is all to real and has drowned out all other sounds around you, and its growing louder. Strange panic begins to overtake you as each deafening click pounds in your head, bringing a sharp flash of pain.
Unable to look away, you see the internal working of the clock with each small flash, with the small bundle of gears and cogs that will the machine to life. Every second that passes brings more visions and pain. The walls that enclose you are held up by strange piping and servos all feeding into a giant set of cogs where the ceiling should have been. Looking down to where your professor stood, you recoil in silent mouthed dread as a man made of wire and stained glass turns his gaze to you with gold and cold eyes.
The ticking is thunderous now as you return your gaze to the clock. It appears so small in comparison to the massive machinery the now encircles you. It seems small, insignificant and meaningless when one gazes at the big picture…..just like you.
The stained glass man is next to you now, you see him reach with claws made of sharp wires and yet cannot move or resist his attack. Afterall, why should you resist……you’re nothing but a cog in the great machine.
Tick…..Tick….. “ Jason?? Jay, are you OK?”
You open your eyes to see your professor shake your shoulder gently. The machinery and the stained glass monster are gone as if they never existed at all. You shake your head in acknowledgement and mutter an apology as you stand up and hurriedly grab your belongings. You look up at the clock as you stand to exit the room and put this nightmare behind you. The clock is working seamlessly.
You exit the room and laugh, just a strange nightmare…nothing else.
Welcome, to the first in an ongoing series of articles detailing the games and setting of the Chronicles of Darkness. Through this series, I would like to introduce or reinforce to veteran players of the value and storytelling potential of this often overlooked game line. Before all that though we need a brief history lesson.
1) Darkness Reborn
In the year 2003, White Wolf Publishing ended it all. Through their Time of Judgement storyline, the publisher brought the end of the world to their immensely popular World of Darkness(WoD) game line. Such a move was bold, as the World of Darkness consists of amazing and thought-provoking games such as Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse and Mage the Ascension, just to name a few. Players were aghast at the idea of their beloved games ending; however, White Wolf had a plan.
A spiritual successor to the original World of Darkness was announced and was met with excitement and skepticism. Promising a ruleset that would allow easier gameplay and crossover potential, this initially branded World of Darkness line was released in 2004 and has chugged along ever since, taking horror into new and unexpected places. The Chronicles of Darkness feature a base book that contains all the basic rules and setting for mortals in the Chronicles of Darkness, while the various game lines expand the players options for supernatural creatures and story hooks, all retaining the majority of rules making the whole setting easier for players and storytellers alike.
2) What’s in a name?
With the return of the original World of Darkness game lines, White Wolf Publishing has rebranded their successor games into a setting named the Chronicles of Darkness. To avoid obvious confusion, any of the games or books listen in this series will be referred to as such.
While the Chronicles of Darkness performed (and still does) well and has a legion of fans, comparisons to the World of Darkness game lines exist and are perfectly understandable. The differences between the two settings can often appear vague from outside eyes, but take it from me, the Chronicles of Darkness is a bold and experimental game line that brings an endless variety of horror to gaming tables everywhere. This is also not a criticism of the WoD, I am a fan and player of those games as well. Moving forward, this primer will compare and contrast the various settings in a way to showcase the depth that the Chronicles of Darkness contains.
3) We need to talk about Metaplot
One of the most obvious changes from the WoD, was a distinct lack of metaplot. While the WoD was famous for the beautiful and rich stories it told, it was also hampered at times by a large ever shifting mythology that was often intimidating and almost inaccessible to new and old players. The Chronicles of Darkness was created with a very flavorful base setting, that allows any storyteller to add anything and everything they want to their stories.
In this new world, the prejudices and rivalries between their various supernatural groups were erased, the cosmology defined across the various games in an effort to showcase a more modern and darkly eclectic reflection of our world. The focus shifts from global conflicts to a much more personal and local setting dripping with plot hooks...hell on of my favorite stories I've ever told started with a taco run.
4) Through a broken mirror
The world featured in the Chronicles of Darkness was made as a darker reflection of our own modern world. This world is a scary place full of mysteries and monsters, creeping closer to the thin semblance of reality that its unknowing people endure under. Horror exists in a kaleidoscope of multitudes and that is one of the Chronicles of Darkness's greatest assets.
Want to tell a ghost story? Easy!
How about a surreal modern fairy tale? Done, next.
Ever want to peek behind the curtain and see how the gears of the world really works?......be aware, these gears are very real.
Any story can be told with this system, all that is required is your imagination, and a willingness to explore the shadows.
Next time, we will be looking at subjective and personal horror in the base setting of the Chronicles of Darkness and how storytellers and players can get the most out of them.
Michael Jacobson is a freelance writer and an Active Duty US Sailor. His work has been featured in products like Snowhaven 2nd Ed, Night Horrors: Shunned by the Moon and many upcoming projects. He is currently ankle deep with running 1 D&D game, Werewolf the Forsaken game and attempting to understand how to edit a podcast.....it's harder than it looks.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games