Survivor: Island of the Idols, week four

Checking over my notes for this episode, the first one says “aaron callin’ the shots, lol ok bud”. So he must have said something very, very dumb in the first couple minutes of the show.

We’re having the Power Couple Problem again. Most of Lairo is worried because Dean and Chelsea are spooning at night, and there’s some talk about how they’re going to break them apart. The Power Couple Problem crops up from time to time, but I’m skeptical it’s as big a deal in the actual game as it’s always made out to be. Like, even if Dean and Chelsea turn out to be soulmates and lovers and they get married and have ten kids who all go on to win Survivor someday, they still only get two votes in the game. Those are the same two votes Missy and Aaron get. There’s no in-game advantage to the Power of Love.

Let me attack this from another way. Dean and Chelsea are a dangerous power couple; Missy and Aaron are just typical Survivor allies. Surely any argument about why we “need” to break up Dean/Chelsea also applies to Missy/Aaron. Right? If I’m on Lairo and this is the pitch, what rationalization do I have to make that causes me to break up one couple and not immediately turn around to break up the other?

That being said, breaking up Dean and Chelsea is a good idea. This is absolutely something Missy and Aaron should be talking about. I just hope they’re smart enough to see that to an outside player their “power couple” rationale applies to them as well.

Over on Vokai Jamal mopes a bit, refuses to join the tribe for some reindeer games, and uses the alone time to track down an immunity idol. Jamal hasn’t exactly been knocking my socks off but I think this was a fair trade. The tribe sees him as more of an outsider, sure, but now at least he’s got a necklace. The important thing for Jamal to remember is that he did trade something: he sold some amount of his goodwill with the tribe to buy himself a chance to go idol-hunting. Finding the idol was not the end of his job; he now needs to figure out a way to earn back some of that goodwill he sold off. I like it when players take their lumps and then pick themselves up, and this season in particular seems to be designed to allow that to happen, so I will continue watching Jamal with great interest.

(Side note: is it just me, or are immunity idols a lot… skimpier than they used to be? The ones this season are tiny sharktooth necklaces.
Maybe they make them that way so they’re easier for lucky bikini girls to hide.)

The boat appears at Vokai and tells them they have to decided unanimously who is going to the Island of the Idols. Nobody wants to go, because everyone rightly assumes that leaving the tribe for a few hours can be dangerous (though part of me expected Kellee to contrive some reason to go back), but then Noura excitedly volunteers. And the tribe, who understands leaving is a bad idea but also doesn’t like Noura much, obviously agrees to send her.

The Idols’ lesson this week is about the art of persuasion. The fun part here for me was the bevy of flashbacks to prior seasons where a player was convinced to act against his own self interest. They showed Parvati and Cirie convincing Erik to give up his idol at the end of Fans vs. Favorites, and Yul persauding Penner to betray his alliance in Cook Islands, and Sandra winding up the Russel-go-Kill Bot in Heroes vs. Villains. This made me smile because these were all great moments orchestrated by great players and, oh, lookie here, I just so happen to observe that Parvati and Yul and Sandra are all coming back next season (season 40) for the Survivor: Oops All Winners.

I know this was a commercial for next season and not emphasis for Noura’s lesson because Noura can’t learn lessons.

Noura’s task — which she excepts with so much enthusiasm the Idols prod her multiple times with “are you sure” and “do you want to maybe think about this” — is to tell her tribe about the upcoming Immunity Challenge and get them to agree to let her be an important player in that challenge. It’s one of my favorites, the good ol’ “blindfolded and bumpin’ into shit” challenge, and one member of the Vokai tribe needs to remain un-blindfolded and call out instructions to her tribemates. This person cannot be Noura, because she would be terrible at it and tank the challenge, and the Idols both know this. Unlike with Kellee and Vince, there’s not even any pretense here that maybe she’s up to this task. I believe Rob’s exact words in his confessional were “she can’t coherently communicate anything to anyone”.

I can’t resist a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking here. Noura’s reward if she pulls this scheme off are individual, but it’s still a tribal game. If I’m in this situation I go back to camp and say, “Hey guys, here’s what the next challenge is and here’s what we can do to practice it. Oh and if you don’t pick me for caller I don’t get to vote at the next council, but that’s fine, because we’re not going to council because I’m using my knowledge to help the tribe win immunity.”

That’s… kind of what Noura did. A little, if you squint. Her pitch was more like “I know exactly what the next challenge is but I’m not allowed to tell you guys until you agree to let me be the most important person in the challenge.” This might have worked in a situation not involving Noura, but her tribe was skeptical. Equally bad is the idea that placing Noura as caller in this challenge is the functional equivalent of just deciding to lose the challenge. So Vokai does get some insider info and they do practice for the challenge, but it’s a real horrorshow.

Vokai tries in vain to help train Noura to be the caller, but something something obvious thing, as soon as they arrive at the obstacle course and Probst doesn’t force them to stick to their guns, they sit her out and appoint Jason instead. Which is a great decision because Jason is an absolutely excellent caller. Kellee then beast modes the puzzle at the end, securing immunity for Vokai again. So Noura’s having a bad day, but at least she’s not going home right away.

I can’t effectively summarize all the scrambling that went on back at Lairo. The teal deer is something like “nobody really knows what’s going to happen”. The three schools of thought seemed to be:

  • let’s vote out Karishma, that’s super easy
  • let’s break up the power couple by voting out Dean
  • ok you don’t want Dean, that’s fine let’s vote out Chelsea.

Tribal wasn’t any less chaotic. Elizabeth spoke surprisingly candidly about how many plans were floating around, and everyone seems at least a little worried about a situation where they were left out of some last-minute agreement. Karishma revels in the chaos, even going so far as to say “chaos is a ladder”, which —

Okay, no, I can’t let that slide. This offends me as a Survivor fan and as a Game of Thrones fan. Karishma, the character you’re quoting, whose name you probably think is spelled “Peter”, made that observation because he knew how to climb a ladder. He did not just smile and point to a ladder and say, “That is a ladder.” The quote doesn’t mean “chaos favors the underdog”, it means “chaos potentially opens an opportunity for an underdog to get ahead”. If you want the chaos on Lairo to work for you, you have to actually step up and play, and so far there’s just no sign you’re willing or able to do that.

Ugh. The fanboy took over for a second there. Anyway.

Chelsea admits blindsides are fun, and then immediately gets blindsided. The Lairo power couple is broken up, and Chelsea is the second person to walk away from this tribe with an idol in her pocket.

Who’s gonna win? I think Tommy is a good player in a good position on a good tribe. It’s hard to speculate about upcoming pitfalls for him (and probably pointless too, unless I can anticipate some game twist), but from what I can tell he has two things to watch out for: 1) Noura swinging the tribe against him when she rails against the “easy vote” next time they have to go to Council, and 2) Jamal’s immunity idol. These are things smart players can absolutely deal with and we’re just not going to know whether Tommy is that sort of player until we get a better look at Vokai’s inner workings.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week three

Jack seemed almost happy to have been blindsided. Maybe he sees it as a Survivor rite of passage? Maybe he’s just starstruck? Jamal doesn’t share his whimsy in any event. The two are on the outs, and they know it, but there’s still a lightning rod in camp named Noura that is constantly hounding everyone to do chores. There’s some discussion about how this is still an easy vote, but Jamal tries to shake things up by pitching a Dan vote to Janet. I’m not sure his case made a lot of sense to me, but Janet dutifully took it to Tommy, and Tommy mulled it over. I don’t think it made much sense to Tommy either. He wondered about it in a confessional, saying that even if the move did make sense, he doesn’t want to make Jamal’s power moves for him. Which is pretty much what a Jamal-orchestrated lobby against Dan would be doing.

I think Jamal just wants to be in control of the game. He knows he’s relatively safe in the short term and he knows his tribe has at least one really easy vote should they lose again, but he’s not in control of that scenario and he doesn’t like it. Here’s the deal, Jamal. You’re on a good tribe that shook you out of your Day One aliance. You’re one of the big strong dudes on that tribe. Why not just coast for a while? You seemed weirdly proud of “playing in first gear” last episode, why not just leave it there? Focus on getting to the merge with numbers and then start the left field power plays, yeah?

Over at Lairo, the editors whipped up a few rapid-fire moments that set me against Karishma. Karishma complains in a confessional about being an outsider in her tribe because she’s an old Indian lady, but she’s not actually that old (30-something, I think she said?) and there’s no indication anyone actually cares she’s Indian. She complains that she’s not being true to her culture by romping around a paradise island in her underwear, and oh boy won’t her conservative Indian community back home be shocked to see her. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this sort of argument, and I never find it endearing. Listen up folks, on Survivor people are going to see your boobs. You are going to prance around in your underwear, not because you’re a sultry tart, but because it’s a hundred degrees out there and everything is wet all the time. You are going to lie to people. You are going to be mean sometimes. You are going to tolerate dispicable behavior you never would at your home or your work or your school. You are going to poop in a hole and you are going to celebrate when you get a tarp and the nine people on the other tribe have to sit shivering in misery.

Getting good with all of that is a prerequisite to playing this game, as far as I’m concerned. At this point, 39 seasons in, I don’t buy that anyone is shocked to come onto the island and learn that, hey, maybe Mother and Father wouldn’t approve of my choices. So I was already kind of feeling like Karishma decided to be a mopey victim before stepping off the boat, and then she cut herself.

Nobody likes to cut themselves. And I’m not saying Karishma did it in purpose. And it did look like a serious cut. Serious enough to call the medical team over and bind up her hand. What upset her is that while she was bleeding out on the ground, none of her tribemates fawned over her injury. Nobody rocked her in their lap and stroked her hair and told her everything was going to be okay. Her response to this callousness was along the lines of “everyone on this tribe is dead to me”.

I wonder how many times medical has to be called over in a typical Survivor season. I expect probably several times per tribe, and I suspect most of these injuries are of the bumps-n-bruises variety that don’t merit screentime. Karishma’s cut was a little gross, but medical bound it up and she wasn’t airlifted out. She got the attention she needed, but it wasn’t the attention she wanted, which to her just confirms this fantasy she’s concocted that her tribe hates old Indian ladies.

The boat shows up to whisk Vince off to the Island of the Idols, leaving the remaining eight Lairo members standing there marveling at his exit. Dean immediately — as in, the split second Vince is out of earshot — talks about a plan to flush a possible Vince immunity idol by splitting the vote. This was really funny, because all of his tribemates were standing right there, so who was he planning to split a Vince vote with? He realized his error almost immediately, but the camera still did a zoom in on Karishma, so it turned into a fun little moment after all.

Vince immediately breaks down and starts crying when he realizes he’s sitting on a beach with Sandra and Rob. Once he composes himself they lay on the challenge: they want him to sneak into Vokai’s camp at night and steal fire. The lesson is something about staying calm under pressure, but I immediately saw an ulterior motive here: would there have been any benefit to Vince getting caught on purpose for a chance to pow-wow with Vokai this far away from a merge situation? We see a few moments where Vokai members are twisting and turning in the night, and the rain has put out their fire in any event, so Vince fills his canteen up with ash from their fire pit and calls it a win. Vince goes home with an idol.

I did note that Rob didn’t have Vince pull a Vokai name out of a bag before he went home. I wonder if that means Idol Island is going to twist next week. Perhaps there will be a grand reveal about the true nature of the island to all the players? Perhaps the reward challenge will be the idols visiting a camp and giving a group lesson this time? Or maybe the editors just figured we know how the bag o’ names works at this point and didn’t feel like showing it again?

I noted also that there was no confrontation between Vince and Elizabeth. Remember, Elizabeth came back from Idol Island with a kooky story about broken urns. Vince knows she lied. Elizabeth knows Vince knows she lied. This is an interaction that could land anywhere from conflict to cooperation, but just… nothing. Hmm.

The Immunity Challenge was another obstacle course ending with a puzzle. Once again, Lairo gets a big lead over Vokai, but once again, Vokai makes it up by blasting through their puzzle. Karishma was the butt monkey here, and the way she approached this puzzle made me wonder if she knew what a puzzle was or whether it was good to eat. This was not a level 10 brainteaser here, this was a ten-piece jigsaw with huge wooden blocks for pieces. Vokai takes their prizes home, and Lairo resumes scrabbling.

I had a lot of trouble following Lairo’s scheming from this point. There’s apparently still a women’s alliance (that Karishma is part of? or not?), and still a plot to split to vote to flush Vince’s (possible?) idol, even though it would hurt his allies (?) if he didn’t have one. Vince wants to join the girl’s alliance to get rid of Tom, Chelsea wants to bring Vince along with them… it was all a bit of a cluster and it left me with the impression that Lairo doesn’t have a better grasp on their alliances and loyalties that I do.

The crowning moment was Vince berating Karishma about giving him a name. He knows that she knows she’s on the chopping block, but she remains steadfast and won’t say anyone in particular. I don’t think this interaction makes sense for either player, but I think I see where they’re coming from. Vince wants Karishma to do some grown-up Survivor playing, and Karishma wants to not cause a scene the very night she’s in danger.

Or maybe not. If Karishma really didn’t want a big Mean Girl spotlight shined on her, she really should have kept her mouth shut at Tribal Council. Tom accused her of being terrible at puzzles (which, yeah, let’s be fair). Her response is that she’s the mightiest person to every play this game, that her strength and fortitude have untold depths, and she’s just about to break away and show everyone what Old Indian Superwoman can do… if only they’d give her the chance. She spent no small amount of time throwing shade on the other Lairo women for no clear reason I can figure. These are her allies, right? What’s the point of all this?

Probst closes Tribal Council out by asking a few people if what had been said tonight has influenced their decision. Everyone wants to just get on with it. Karishma then says “one sec Jeff” and whispers something into Elizabeth’s ear. Tom insists this is just an act, we never get to hear what it was Karishma said (I will be watching the opening Lairo confessionals very closely next week), and Vince sits on his idol.

There wasn’t a split vote and Karishma wasn’t in danger. It was a landslide for Vince. For the second time this episode, Vince goes home with an idol.

Probst gives the team props: “You may suck at puzzles, but you’re great at blindsides!”

That gave me an idea. Maybe while Vince was waterboarding Karishma for a name, her smart move would be something like “As soon as you left Dean came up with a plan to split the vote. It’s between you and me. Let’s work to get some numbers and vote off Dean.” That’d have been a good move, at least.

I’m hoping this whole Karishma-as-victim plotline is just something the editors have cobbled together, and she’s not actually like that. Either way, though, I already grow weary of it. If Karishma squeaks through the merge and doesn’t change her behavior at all, I think we’re in for a long season.

Who’s gonna win?
Vokai seems solid and I still think Tommy is the most solid player on the purple tribe.

Spellcrafting in Flumph of the Wild

I recently wrapped up my third online D&D 5e campaign, Flumph of the Wild. The campaign ran for 70 sessions over the course of about one-and-a-half years. It was loosely based on material in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which was the first major expansion to D&D 5e’s Monster Manual. The entire campaign took place in a vast monster-infested wilderness that existed to the far north of human and demihuman civilization. In this world, the standard D&D races had long since banded together and pushed out the various orcs, goblinoids and other nasties and then built a huge wall between them.

Wait, isn’t the big wall supposed to be in the north?

My players were under some pretty harsh restrictions for this campaign. First, I limited them to only “monstrous” player character races, like those found in Volo’s. No elves or dwarves allowed. And second, any class with a spellcasting feature was off-limits. Magic in this setting had been sewn up tight by some kind of cataclysm in the long-long-ago, and is not something mortal creatures were able to weild any longer. From a mechanical standpoint this meant no healing magic, and gave the whole campaign a very brutal feel. The party makeup ending up being:

• Adrex, a dragonborn fighter,
• Windy, an aarakocra monk,
• Red, a yuan-ti pureblood rogue,
• Birdie, a kobold rogue, and
• Raazu, a hobgoblin paladin*.

*(I did end up allowing a paladin with the understanding that the character would not have access to any spellcasting. Instead, paladins have the ability to use their spell charges on special attacks that do extra damage. I find this is how most paladins use their spell charges anyway, so it all worked out.)

It was never my intention to run a no-magic campaign, though. In fact, during character creation I let each player pick out one of the common magic items from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. These are low-impact items that tend to be more thematic than actually useful, although clever players can certainly find uses for them. The dragonborn took a wand that shoots harmless sparks and fireworks, for example, and a the hobgoblin took a pair of dice that always rolled 6s.

Then, in the second or third session, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work.

Early on, the heroes came across a killing field where several kobolds had been hanged from a tree. A bizarre rune had been burned into the earth nearby, the shape of which seemed significant enough that my players saved it for posterity. While chasing down leads as to what had killed the kobolds and why, they joined up with some lizardfolk to explore a ancient ruin nearby, where they all fell into a hidden magical chamber and became marked by the world.

The story is, the world in this setting is alive, and has its own kind of magic. (If you’re familiar with the Lifestream in Final Fantasy VII, that’s pretty close.) A second great cataclysm was coming, and the various warring sources of magic were vying for control. Various mortals were being marked with ancient runes that granted low-level casting ability, and the magic of the world, called quintessence, reached out and touched the PCs. Thus did each of them gain a cantrip based around the magic item they had selected. The hobgoblin’s magic dice, for example, granted the true strike cantrip, which enabled her to alter luck in her favor in order to better land attacks. To represent just how low mortal magic had fallen in this world, these cantrips were not usable at-will. Instead, players had to spend blips to use them.

(Oh yeah, here’s an old blog post about blips: Blips: D&D 5e Rules Variant (XP for Roleplaying))

Now that the players had some access to spells, I revealed how spellcasting would actually work. Anyone could craft any spell they wanted at any time, provided they accurately drew the spell’s rune and then passed an INT Arcana 20 check. This was a steep ask, considering that they’d only seen a couple of runes and had no other leads.

Magic tattoos!

Three other snags: anyone could in theory use any spell, but the spellcasting stat for all spells was Intelligence. This is typically a dump stat for 5e players who aren’t wizards, and there were of course no wizards in this campaign. I knew going in most of the characters wouldn’t have much aptitude for spellcasting in this system, but I was fine with that, because I don’t believe in dump stats. Also, to cast spells, you had to spend blips. One blip per level of spell you wanted to cast. Blips were also useful in this campaign for re-rolling checks or turning into XP, so the choice to cast a spell was never made lightly. A player could also only have a maximum of six blips, effectively cutting off spells of 7th level or higher. And finally, because these were purely martial characters and the world had not seen mortal spellcasters for a thousand years, there was a limit to how many spells you could learn: half your level plus your INT modifier, minimum of one. Since the starting cantrips counted against this total, most players had to level up a few times before they could even attempt to learn any more magic.

Nonetheless, they set out trying to decode the runes and figure things out. They started with the rune they’d transcribed from the site of the hanged kobolds, which turned out to be the hunger of Hadar spell:

The rune for hunger of Hadar.

Spellcrafting could be done as a downtime action. You first had to tell me what spell you were aiming for. You then had to draw out what you figured the rune looked like. Then you had to pass an INT Arcana 20 check. This could be done as a downtime action during a long rest, and there was no penalty for failure. In fact, it was possible to fail in ways that were enlightening. If you fail the check but draw the right rune, you can make future checks to learn this spell at advantage. If you pass the check but draw the wrong rune, your check is grandfathered in and you can tweak your rune’s design on subsequent rests.

For this system to work, I needed a way to generate spell runes on the fly. The way I did this was to find four ways to categorize spells in general, draw a handful of different symbols for each category, then build a general runic shape with those pieces. I saved everything as a Photoshop file so making a new rune (or checking to see if a player had gotten one right) was as easy as turning certain layers on or off.

Spell level. Higher level = more marks.

In D&D 5e, spells are already categorized by their general power level. The higher power the spell, the higher its spell level. Spells are arranged from cantrips (“Level 0”) up to Level 9. In my system, this is represented in the shape in the center of a spell’s rune, one mark per level of the spell. (Cantrips counted as Level 1 in my system, since they did require a resource to cast.) My players figured this out pretty quickly, and looking up a spell’s level is already trivial. I did require, however, that the marks appear in their proper order; it wasn’t enough to just draw four marks in the center if you wanted a Level 4 spell, they had to be the proper marks in the proper configuration. I don’t think a player ever got this part wrong while spellcrafting.

Reading order: necromancy, illusion, transmutation, evocation, enchantment, divination, conjuration, abjuration.

The other easy part was the spell’s school. This is another immutable property every spell has, it must fall into one of eight schools of magic. As the players discovered more runes in the world and noted what the effects were of each of them, they were able to piece together which symbol went with which school. And this is also something very easy to look up, once you know what spell you want to try and craft. I did want to have a pool of symbols that couldn’t be looked up, though, but could still be reasonably deciphered.

Reading order: aether, fire, earth, water, air.

The base of each spell represented its element. This isn’t something that’s spelled out in the rulebook, it’s something that had to be intuited (even on my part). Obviously not every spell is a literal manifestation of one of the classical elements; not everything is as clean-cut as fireball. So I had a few guidelines to follow for each spell. In general, if a spell dealt damage and wasn’t obviously another element, it was fire. Spells that created something solid, even if only temporarily, were earth. Spells that changed or moved things were air. And spells that didn’t do anything physical at all, but only dealt with the force of magic itself (such as detect magic or identify) landed in the catch-call aether element.

This also meant some individual spells were split up into multiple different runes. At one point they correctly sussed the rune for elemental weapon, which usually allows the caster to choose from one of several damage types. Because they had drawn a version of the rune with the aether element, though, what they actually did was make a version of the spell that could only be utilized for force damage.

My players never twigged to what these symbols represented, beyond a general “flavor” or “theme” of each spell, which was correct enough I suppose. There were a few times when a player had gotten most of a rune correct, but the element wrong, and so spent future downtime actions cycling through the various rune bases looking for one that worked. Which is exactly how I imagine a group of adventurers with no formal magic training but a basic grasp on what runes meant would actually do in the field. Hey, we know these five symbols, we know there has to be a base, let’s just try them all until it’s right.

But there was an important storyline reason I needed to keep track of where each spell was coming from, in terms of what was generating the magic.

Reading order: quintessence, divinity, blood, shadow, fey.

Where magic comes from was a pretty important theme throughout the campaign, and my players figured out very early that the “hat” part of each rune must hint at this source. Their biggest clue was the five cantrips they were given all had the same rune, despite being wildly different spells. An important note here is that the source of a spell doesn’t have an effect on what the spell can be or do, it just has to match the source of magic you already have. For the PCs in my campaign this was quintessence, so each spell they wanted to learn had to have the starburst-looking symbol on top. The five sources were:

• Quintessence, magic from the world itself. Notably this doesn’t mean nature magic or druidic magic; rather, it’s a natural magical field generated by the world as a function of its own existence. (I believe Forgotten Realms calls this concept “the Weave”.)
• Divinity, magic from the greater Powers. Powers had little influence in this campaign world, and most religions favored “living gods” like dragons, krakens, fey spirits, and suchlike. Divine magic was as a result very, very rare.
• Blood, magic generated by a creature’s own physical being. This is the source of a lot of magic in the campaign because it encompassed most of the magic used and granted by the living gods. Basically, if you’re flipping through the Monster Manual and a creature has the Innate Spellcasting trait, they’re using blood magic.
• Fey and Shadow, magic that seeps in from the Feywild and Shadowfell, respectively. These are other planes of existence that sit very close to the Prime Material, cosmologically speaking. They’re also physical places the players can travel to, under certain conditions.

After putting all this together, I had a system where I could whip up a spell rune for any spell I needed in less than a minute, and also had a campaign-wide puzzle for the players to work on. I also introduced a new spell called extract rune that would allow the players to take a spell’s run from a consumable potion or scroll they had, at the expense of the potion or scroll.

And that’s the Flumph of the Wild spellcrafting system in a nutshell. Thank you for reading about how I drew weird lines and then demanded my players figure out what they meant!

Survivor, Island of the Idols, week two

Survivor doesn’t use the standard bleeps and foghorns when someone says a network-unfriendly oopsie-word. They instead use a variety of vaguely tribal-sounding stings. So when I tell you this episode starts with Vince arriving back at the Lairo camp and demanding to know how the WHOOOOMPH his name came up, I hope you will understand he was not being polite. This man is a bit of a roller coaster so far. He goes from being weepy and a big simpering to demanding answers from Aaron while using no-no words. I would like to think this means Vince’s honeymoon phase with the game is over, and he realizes he’s actually here to play. I know from experience, though, that it’s just as likely that he has a bit of a swingy brain and is going to spend the season teetering back and forth between friendly and frothing. Either way it may well be entertaining!

Aaron is on the outs for not knowing about the Ronnie vote, and I did note that Lairo did not treat him with kid gloves afterwards. A lot of tribes will come back from that first council with re-assuring voices, coddling the people who didn’t see the swing and trying to make them feel secure. Not so with Aaron. It was made pretty clear that nobody trusts him and that he’s got a lot of work to do to get back into anything resembling good graces.

I expected Elizabeth to make her tribe a big fire after her sojourn to Rob & Sandra’s Island Paradise last week, but it was Chelsea that stepped up and built the fire instead. And while out gathering firewood to keep it going, stumbled across an immunity idol hidden in a tree stump. This looks to be an old fashioned no-strings-attached hidden immunity idol, which means it is certain to change the narrative at some point. We’ll keep an eye on it.

At Vokai, they really play up how Noura and Jason are on the outs with the purple tribe. Jason is the guy everyone thought was out looking for a hidden idol on his beach on Day One (and, well, now we know there’s really one out there). Noura is the bog-standard “nobody works hard enough” lady that gets on everyone’s nerves. The comedy of Noura’s interaction specifically is that she was apparently upset at being the first person in her tribe awake, and felt like her sleeping tribemates were being lazy? That’s ridiculous, but we’re then shown a rapid-fire montage of Noura complaining to just about every other player about how shiftless everyone else is, so maybe she’s just a ridiculous person.

In any event, the Vokai alliance is built around Jamal, Jack and Molly, and the pecking order runs down from there to Jason and Noura. This is the state of things when a boat appears to whisk Kellee off to the Island of the Idols.

Upon arrival there, Sandra and Boston Rob begin pelting Kellee with an avalanche of personal details about their lives, their kids, their spouses, their dogs, the color paint they chose for the kitchen, their preferred method of digging gunk out from under their fingernails, and just about every other irrelevant detail you can possibly think of. I immediately recognized this as the test; they were going to quiz her to find out how good a listener she is. The idea here is that listening to people and internalizing what they say is a way to build trusting bonds with other players. (Boston Rob says exactly this in a confessional during the scene, just in case someone at home hadn’t twigged to what was happening.)

This actually struck me as very interesting indeed, because this kind of endless personal yammering is usually not shown to Us-the-Viewer-at-Home. Obviously there must be hundreds and hundreds of hours of such footage every season, that just gets jettisoned in the editing bay. This is one of those things that seems obvious in retrospect but is never at the forefront of my mind while watching and analyzing the show, because it’s easier to look at what the editors want me to see and more difficult to read between the lines. So I appreciated the sobering moment.

(I observe, of course, this will not prevent me from speaking from absolute authority on this blog.)

Kellee was smart enough to turn down Rob’s initial offer of “get four out of five questions right, and you win an idol good for two Tribal Councils”. Rob’s second offer was three-out-of-five, and an idol good for three Tribal Councils. You could tell Kellee still didn’t like her odds, but the temptation was too great. Fortunately for her, they stuck to softball questions I think most Survivor addicts would know just by following their favorite players’ careers on the show. Kellee wins her idol (some strings attached) and returns to camp.

She tells her tribe the same sad story about finding three urns and getting a “no game” message, so clearly this is something that has happened in a prior season at some point. This explains why Lairo also bought the same lie unquestioningly. Next episode someone from Lairo is going to know Elizabeth lied, though, and it’s going to be interesting to watch that play out.

The Immunity Challenge involed swimming, climbing a ladder, and then playing Survivor pachinko. Lairo won the challenge, and this may have been a trick of the editing, but I think it was simply because they had a better strategy. The climbing section of the challenge involved lifting a heavy ladder out of the ocean and holding it while one tribe member climbed up to retrieve their bag of pachinko balls. It looked to me as though Lairo leaned their ladder against the wooden pole holding the bag, then reaching out from the top to take it. Vokai instead tried to steady the ladder with raw human girth in the water, and collapsed several times. Well, okay, time to go watch Noura and Jason squirm some more.

Jamal was borderline smug about his alliance back at the beach. Instead of feeding Noura some phony assurance and sending her on her way, he asks her point blank “Why should Jason go home and not you?” Noura slinked away from the answer, because what could she possibly say, ending on a kind of pathetic “I want to do whatever you want me to do”. I wondered at the time, though, whether it was a sensible question for Jamal to ask. This is Vokai’s first Tribal Council, and the strength of Jamal’s alliance is as yet untested. Nobody should feel this bulletproof on, what is it, day three? He does have the presence of mind, however, to split the vote between Noura and Jason, just on the off chance one of them has the idol.

Lauren, who is ostensibly a member of Jamal’s alliance but not in the top three, is the one who cooks up the plan to blindside Molly. When she floats the idea by Tommy, he calls Molly “Parvati 2.0”, and I guess that’s my cue to talk about Parvati a little bit. Parvati was one of the cute forgettable white chicks clique in Survivor: Cook Islands, one of my favorite seasons ever. In that season she found herself in a pretty solid alliance and only eventually lost because the smaller opposing alliance was headed up by a superhuman chessmaster. I recall she took her loss in good spirits and didn’t expect to see her again.

We saw her again in Survivor: Micronesia, where one tribe was made up of returning players and the other was made up of Survivor superfans. In this season Parvati proved that she actually learned something her last time around, and had transformed into something of a chessmaster herself. She used a combination of femenine wiles and good old-fashioned backstabbing to win the whole shebang. She played a third time, as one of the villains in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and made top three.

When Tommy says Molly is “Parvati 2.0”, that’s what he means. The editors pull a neat trick here, all throughout Tommy’s confessional, by cutting to Molly constantly giving this bright, cheerful grin. It’s a Parvati grin. Like Parvati, Molly locked herself into a solid alliance with two big guys. Like Parvati, everyone loves Molly but nobody really sees her as a threat. Which, like Parvati, is exactly what makes Molly a threat. Lauren cooks up this scheme to use Jason and Noura to blindside the big alliance by removing what she sees as the alliance’s strongest player, and eventually, Tommy sees the wisdom in doing exactly that.

Throughout Tommy’s confessionals, he talks a lot about what’s best for him personally in the game. I think his eyes are really on the prize here, and I think Vokai is in for a big shake-up if he and Lauren really are as smart as they seem.

At Tribal Council, Jamal keeps up his bulletproof demeanor. When Probst asks him about it, he says that Survivor is a slow burn. He doesn’t have to play in fourth gear yet, because he’s safe right now with his alliance. Jason, who is still squirreling around on the outs of his tribe, challenges the idea: maybe he’s playing a different speed than Jamal out of necessity? (Over in the Idols’ secret bungalow, Rob answers this with an “uh oh”.) Jamal’s counter is to brag about how his position in the game doesn’t require him to play in fourth gear, allowing him to save his energy for later on when it’s required. So he does understand that the game changes for individuals as it matures, and he does understand that it’s going to shift around at some point.

I think this Tribal Council’s outcome was a harsh lesson for him, that maybe he should have upshifted earlier. When the trigger gets pulled on the Molly blindside, Jamal has a look on his face that says he understands just how complacent he’d been.

To her credit, and I always appreciate this when I see it, Molly had a really classy exit from the game. She smiled brightly and wished her tribe the best of luck. I admit I do not recall exactly how Parvati left Cook Islands, but I’ll bet it was similar. If I’m really back on the Survivor horse for the forseeable future, I wouldn’t mind seeing Molly come back for another round.

Who’s gonna win?
I realy liked the blindside play this week, and expect there will be a lot of power moves as Jamal/Jack and Lauren/Tommy seek to gain control of their tribe. I think Lauren and Tommy have the upper hand here, since they have the grateful Jason and Noura in their pocket. And Kellee has a potentially important game piece that might mix everything up. I think more actual playing is happening on Vokai than Lairo right now, and I think Lauren and Tommy are at the forefront of it. Of the two, I’d say Tommy is my pick. He projects a different persona in his confessionals than he does on the island, which tells me he can maybe compartmentalize the game better than other players can. I think Lauren may eventually come across as a backstabber, and Tommy might be able to use that perception to step right over her.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week one

You could be forgiven for not knowing this, but for a while some eight- or nine-ish years ago this blog used to be prime juicy real estate for Survivor hot takes. That is until CBS aired a few seasons in a row that were soul-suckingly awful and I quit watching. Without making a big hullabaloo about it, what kept me addicted to Survivor for so many years was watching the gamestate shift and flow underneath contestants who had to strategize around twists and complications within a season, as well as the evolving meta encompassing all seasons. As with video games, it is the gameplay that held my interest, and the story was only secondary.

So I’ve been out of it for many years, only kind of half-wondering whether their broadcast strategy of “hey lets cast a bunch of donuts instead of people with actual intelligence and insight” would swing back the other way. But every time I checked back it seemed like the next season was another comeback season, now filled with players I didn’t know. So I never took another bite.

(A “comeback season” is one where the contestants are, in whole or in part, picked from previous seasons of Survivor. Some of my favorite seasons have been comeback seasons, but they’re less impactful if you don’t know who the people are because you didn’t watch them play the first time.)

But the perfect storm is happening. This season of Survivor just happens to air at a time when my Netflix and Hulu content is drying up, and it just happens to be the first season in a while with all-new contestants. So I decided to tentatively dip my toes back in and see what the whats-up is all about. And so–

Before I get into the gimmick of this season, I want to quickly share a few observations from a blogging perspective.

One, this is season 39 of Survivor. I haven’t watched the show since the mid-twenties. (Last season I watched is Survivor: South Pacific.) So if the meta has changed considerably and I come across as being a bit out-of-touch and curmudgeonly, that’d be why.

And two, I gather that Survivor is no longer themed by its location, as was traditional the entire time I watched it, but rather by each season’s gameplay twist. I seem to recall reading that the production crew just bought an island somewhere off the coast of Fiji and have been filming there for the past five or so years. Attaching the twist to the theme does excite me a little, because as I’ve stated, it’s always the gameplay that’s most interested me.

Which brings us to Survivor: Island of the Idols..

The contestants did not know the twist stepping onto the beach. Jeff Probst was not there to greet them. Some of them were dressed in business suits, which leads me to believe the production crew pulled a fast one, probably telling them they were doing a photo shoot or something, and then instead just whisking them off to the location. A few minutes in one of the contestants finds the season’s logo on a big sign, and people start freaking out about the title, because idols have always caused a lot of paranoia amongst contestants.

What “idols” actually refers to, though, is Survivor superstars Sandra and Boston Rob. They live on the titular island and, if you get sent there, their job is to send you to “Survivor Boot Camp” and teach you how to play this silly game. To be clear, these superstar players are not playing and can not win the prize. Their role is advisory only.

I could probably do thirty paragraphs on why I like this twist, but let me see if I can’t just hit the highlights. First and foremost, I really like Sandra and Boston Rob as characters, but I don’t think I really want to see them play again. Having them on site as mentors is a neat way to get my dose of them without devoting yet another season to them dancing all over everyone.

From a gamepay perspective, I really like this twist because it has potential to solve a problem which, until now, has only been remedied by having comebacks in some form, either inviting players back for a second season, or janky in-season mechanics where someone is voted-out-but-not-really. In Survivor, one mistake can cut your throat. Lots and lots of players have proven that they actually know their shizzle about this game, but didn’t really shine until their second time out. I feel like having mentors on hand will help the good players actually rise to the top this season. (The bad players won’t listen to teacher, anyway.)

The actual episode doesn’t lean on Sandra and Boston Rob as much as I was expecting it might, which is probably a good thing. So let’s meet our actual contestants!

Our yellow tribe is Lairo, and right off the beach, three alliances form. (I mean, Day One alliances never actually go anywhere, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.) Tom the ex-NHL player, Elaine the hard-workin’ country gal, and Vince the emotional Hmong have a heart-to-heart out in the woods. Unfortunately for them there are seven other people on their tribe who take notice, which puts them on the outs. A second (seven-person?) alliance led by Aaron is targeting them, inasmuch as that means anything. Finally, Missy the air force girl tries to put together a women’s alliance, which I have literally never seen work ever, but let’s be charitable and say maybe it did once in the ten or so seasons I didn’t watch.

Rounding out Lairo are a bunch of names attached to people I don’t know very well yet. I do have ten names per tribe in my notes, so we must have gotten at least a few seconds with each. I’ve seen the editors do a worse job with this.

Our purple tribe is Vokai, and I gotta say, two players here immediately stole my heart. First you have Jason, who steps on the beach, sees the big sign that says “ISLAND OF THE IDOLS”, and immediately wanders off to look for idols. Hell yeah, dude! He didn’t win any friends doing this, but it’s still a play I like a lot. The tiresome tribal routine of “let’s all be superfriends, idols are evil” never lasts long. Eventually in Survivor, reality sets in. If Jason gets some quality time with Rob and Sandra, maybe they can mold his enthusiasm into something that isn’t quite so conspicuous.

And then we have Janet, the tough old grandma lady, who walked onto the beach, grabbed a couple pieces of bamboo, and made fire inside of ten minutes. I had to rewind the scene and watch it again. The big joke about Survivor is how many people play this game without learning some basic survival skills first. Janet actually knowing a thing or two shows me she’s here to actually play.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Vokai between Dan, who is a bit of an Uncle Touchy, and Kellee, who is a self-professed germaphobe. Kellee and some of the other girls want to vote off Dan because they’re creeped out by him. None of the footage we’re shown looks like inappropriate touching to me, more of the standard “everyone has to live in this 10×10′ shack” kind of touching. In any event, Kellee actualy does the mature thing and just talks to Dan about it and it looks like it all got smoothed over.

At the risk of coming off as un-woke, I think this is something Kellee is going to have to toughen up on. Survivor is not about being comfortable, and physical contact with other people is inevitable. Part of this week’s Immunity Challenge involved building and climbing up a human ladder. We’re talking hand-to-butt, butt-to-face, face-to-junk, boobs and backs and everything just rubbing all over. Crying about being a germaphobe isn’t going to do you or your tribe any good when you get to that challenge where you have to eat a pickled octopus or whatever. Sometimes this sort of player does toughen up over the season, but sometimes they just whine a lot and then quit. I guess we’ll see.

I was really impressed by both tribes during the challenge. It was the standard meat grinder Survivor obstacle course, where everyone gets beat up and dragged through the sand and then has to put a big puzzle together. Both tribes tucked in and got it done, and it didn’t look like there was a weak link anywhere. Vokai took to the puzzle a bit faster than Lairo did, but nobody on Lairo really bungled the challenge. Vokai took the immunity idol and their flint and went home. Lairo pulled names out of a bag, sending Elizabeth the Olympic swimmer off to Idol Island.

Vince has a little bit of a moment back at camp, as he’s worried he might have botched the puzzle. But nobody at Lairo sees it that way, and rightly so. The person folks seem to be gunning for is Elaine, the lady everyone loves, because you clearly cannot take someone that friendly forward in the game. We’ll put a pin in this.

Elizabeth learns the horrible secret of Idol Island when she walks into the shadow of two gargantuan and amazingly cheesy busts of Sandra and Boston Rob set into the side of the island’s cliff. They come out and she has a bit of a fangirl squee, and then they reveal the Oath of the Idols:

They make it very clear that their job is to help her get better at playing the game, and then they ask her about camp life. I’m unclear whether what happened next is scripted or not. I suspect it might be — Rob certainly sounds like he’s reciting well-rehearsed lines the entire scene — but I’m not sure. I got the sense Elizabeth could have answered their question with anything, and the mentors would then tailor their advice to her situation. If that’s the case, Elizabeth gave the wrong answer for sure, because all she told them was “we don’t have fire yet.”

So Rob and Sandra teach her how to make fire, and that’s it.

Fire is important in Survivor, but it is not the end-and-be-all. The producers aren’t going to let you die of exposure. I got the strong feeling Elizabeth should have shared something about her actual position in the game which, to be fair, maybe there just wasn’t that much to say about Day One. If she had an opportunity to talk strategy and she squandered it, I don’t see her advancing far in this game. On the other hand, if the producers told the mentors their first job was to teach Firebuilding 101, the situation is probably fine and I’m misreading it.

A teachable lesson does arise, though, when Rob challenges Elizabeth to a firebuilding contest. This is the same contest as the tie-breakers at Tribal Council: build a fire tall enough to burn a rope, and you win. The stakes are high. If Elizabeth wins, she gets an immunity idol good for two Tribal Councils. With a bit of tribal game luck, this could get her all the way to the merge. However, if she loses, she doesn’t get to cast a vote at Lairo’s upcoming Tribal Council.

She agrees to play, because she’s a bushy-tailed starstruck Survivor newbie on Day Two, and of course Rob trounces her, because he’s played this game a million times and can make fire by clenching his buttocks together at the right angle. Afterwards he even asked her, hey, why in the world would you agree to that? And there’s this beautiful moment where you can tell Elizabeth felt dumb, because of course she feels dumb, because what she did was incredibly dumb.

And this really makes me feel like this gimmick is working as intended. As I said, the starry-eyed we’re-all-here-on-a-grand-adventure honeymoon phase of Survivor comes crashing down the first time your tribe has to vote someone out. Season after season after season I have watched players make a simple mistake during that phase and POOF! — their whole Survivor career is gone. Elizabeth got to make that mistake in a safe environment where all it cost her was her pride. The lesson, Rob and Sandra agree, is if something sounds too good to be true, it is. That Elizabeth needs to trust her gut.

“Trust your gut” sounded like bad advice to me at first, because a lot of Survivor players have done really, really dumb things because they trusted their gut. But on thinking about it a little more, I think I like it. If Elizabeth is the kind of player whose instinct is on point now that she’s sobered up to the reality of the game, trusting her gut could be very helpful. If she’s not, well, no amount of superstar pep talks are going to get her anywhere.

Back at Lairo, Elizabeth doesn’t tell her tribemates about the mentors or even that her vote is kaput. Instead she makes up a hilarious story about how Idol Island had three urns, and she was told to break one, and she broke the wrong one. I liked this a lot because she literally says in a confessional that she realizes now she has to lie in this game. I get the sense she would not have woken up to that fact had she not gone to Idol Island.

At Tribal Council, it’s revealed that Sandra and Boston Rob have a sweet little hidden bungalow from which they can spy on the goings-on. The whole council revolves around Elaine, who is very emotional about thinking she’s going home, and her whole tribe being very emotional about sending her away. At one point Probst asks… uh… Aaron or Dean or somebody, if it’s hard voting for someone you’re friends with. Aaron or Dean or somebody gives a long impassioned response about how tough it is. In the bungalow, Rob whispers, “Was it this hard for you?” Sandra responds, “[expletive deleted] no.”

I usually don’t like the overlong appeal to emotion at Tribal Council, but this early in the game, on this tribe, with these players, I think Elaine made the right move. Everyone likes her, and she painted a sincere (and funny! she’s funny!) picture of exactly why people want to vote her out: because she’s too cool and likable and nobody wants to sit the finals with her. She points out that that’s a Day 20 problem, not a Day 2 problem.

She’s wrong about this of course, and I suspect she knows she’s wrong. A lot can happen in 20 days, and you might find you can’t get rid of the person you need to if you miss your chance. But she was right to point it out in this way, because it makes her seem smaller and less of a threat than she actually is.

But okay, we want to see an actual blunder at Tribal Council, and for that we have to look to Ronnie the poker player. When asked why he might want to eliminate Elaine, Ronnie gives the bog standard “we need strength” answer. This simply doesn’t make sense in the context of Elaine, who is a hard-workin’ country gal workhorse type. I don’t know if there’s a weak link on Lairo, but if there is, Elaine ain’t it. And this is so blindingly obvious that I can’t imagine anyone who heard him say it actually believes he believes it. Which only leaves one option: he’s a skunk and a liar. That’s exactly how he came across, especially in the shadow of Elaine’s radiance.

Quick sidenote: the tribal singers that accompanied the voting process were on point.

There’s no discussion whatsoever about what Elizabeth experienced on Idol Island, and her non-vote ended up not being an issue. Ronnie the Skunk was sent home, six votes to Vince’s two. Ronnie cast one of those, I didn’t catch who cast the other. I’m sure it’ll be interesting to find out next week.

Who’s gonna win? Week one predictions are always terrible because you don’t even get to see half the players do anything strategic. That said, I think it’s very possible for Elaine or someone in her alliance to go all the way. I’m actually going to go with Vince for now though. Aside from being a nervous wreck, he does show some actual signs that he knows what he’s doing out there, and he might be able to use Elaine as a kind of friendliness smokescreen. Also, up in the bungalow, both Sandra and Boston Rob say they like Vince, and if they see something in the kid, who am I to argue?

Thank you for reading this thing about a show!

Addendum to Twelve Monkeys

Addendum to Twelve Monkeys
That Podcast We Did

00:00 / 1:25:27

Brick & McClain discuss time travel, fake movie clips in real movies, the sawtooth snap, new Netflix technology, and ChooseCo’s frivolous lawsuit.

Subscribe to That Podcast We Did:

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Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies:

The Villain of Edith Finch:

My The Witness Photoshop directory

Provided without context, other than to say, yes, all of these images helped me solved puzzles in this game.


Blossom Tales is a cute little game (but this is a negative review)

Thanks to the generosity of viewers and well-wishers, I’ve recently come into possession of a Nintendo Switch. The thing came with some credit for the online shop, which I dropped on a few titles that were on sale and looked interesting, one of these being Blossom Tales.

(Which I think I’ve been calling “Blossom Kingdom” all week. Eck.)

Ever since playing Breath of the Wild I’ve been lamenting the loss of, for lack of a better term, “core Zelda”. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a real, meaty Zelda dungeon again, in this brave new world of HD remakes and Skyrim-alikes and dance party nonsense, but a starving man will greedily eat scraps. To that end I was eager to give Blossom Tales a try. It’s a 2D Zelda clone about exploring dungeons, blowing up rocks, and fighting monsters with a sword. What’s not to like?

In short, it’s a game about exploring bad dungeons, blowing up rocks, and fighting monsters with a sword.

To begin with, I will say the game is pretty adorable. I know there is a contingent of people out there for whom adorableness is the main or perhaps only factor in determining a game’s quality. If you are such a person, and you like top-down action-adventure titles, Blossom Tales is easy to recommend. The pixel graphics are charming, the soundtrack is lively and spunky, and the story has this very cute Princess Bride framing device. Fun!

Alas, I am a grumpy old man, and so cuteness alone cannot sustain me. Even so, I didn’t hate my time with Blossom Tales. It’s competently made, the buttons all do what they’re supposed to. The world behaves as you’d expect. You have a big bag of toys to play with. There are exploration challenges, and puzzle challenges, and combat challenges, and a few timing challenges. It’s a very comfy game, and no harm in that.

But it was very early on in my playthrough that I realized something was very, very wrong. The first thing that happens in the prologue is, the kids come into the cozy fireplace room, begging for a story, and Grandpa is like “how about the one where the green elf guy saves Hy–“, and the kids are like “BOOOORING WE HEARD THAT ALREADY.”

I mean, we certainly have. Between 22 and 25 times, by Wikipedia’s reckoning, depending on whether you count the CDi. And my first thought upon hearing that little gag was, gee, I wonder how long until I find the guy who yells at me for breaking all his pots.

Starting town, third house.

You play as Lily, and you hop out of bed and your uncle a neighborhood kid some fairy your grandma tells you to go to the castle. Once there you are given a sword and shield, told you can charge a spin attack by holding the button for a few secons, and then sent down into the basement to kill rats. Downstairs you find your first dungeon item, use it to blow up some walls, and fight your first boss. By the time you get back the reigning monarch has been put to sleep by the local bad guy, and only the power of the three multi-colored macguffins can save the day.

And from then on, well, it’s all here. You explore the Forest, Fire, and Ice Temples. You meet the NPC who lost 15 whatsits, just about one in every map location, and will reward you for bringing them back. You fight goblins and zombies and bees and bouncing mushrooms. You pay the NPC guy to play his archery minigame. You beat a boss by knocking his energy balls back at him with your sword. You carve your way through bushes and tall grass looking for coins.

Some of this could charitably fall under the pervue of homage, but other stuff is more blatant. The little flip Lily does when hopping down from a ledge is the same little flip from Link’s Awakening. The trees are big and bulbous, straight from Link to the Past. You open a secret tunnel in a graveyard by using a big fire spell to trip a ring of switches all at once, just like Ocarina of Time. You increase your life bar by finding quarter hearts. The edges on the overworld map screen are wreathed in clouds. After you complete three dungeons, you get an upgrade and now your sword fires lasers at full health. There’s an NPC witch you wants you to kill ghosts and then bring back their spirits in bottles.

The ghosts themselves aren’t ripped from any Zelda game, actually. Instead, they’re shy when you look at them, and chase you when you don’t.

And look — I do get it. Nintendo’s abandonment of the traditional “Zelda formula” leaves a big hole in the world for indie developers to fill. The genre has been so dominated by this one series for so long, that even a game developer making a top-down action adventure explore-y kind of game from a cave on the moon in the past is going to retread a lot of Zelda’s ideas, simply because Zelda has gotten it right so many times. I understand why developers heaving their shoulders against this rock want to acknowledge that the rock is there.

In Ittle Dew, you also increase your life bar by finding quarter hearts. But it’s cheeky about it. The helper buddy says, hey, let’s tape this piece of paper to the end of our health bar, and if we find four of them, it’ll be like having an extra heart! It takes the obvious game mechanic of incremental health powerups, which can’t really be improved upon by this point, and lampshades it with its own little quirk. The sequel uses crayons instead, so you can “draw your own hearts” as you go.

Oh, and Ittle Dew also has its own identity in the form of bitch-hard puzzle rooms that grow in complexity over the course of the game, plus the nice little innovation of most of them being optional. That’s the core the rest of the game is centered around, it’s the part of the Zelda formula the developers decided they were going to spotlight and expound on.

That’s exactly what Blossom Tales lacks, for all its cuteness. A major piece, perhaps the most essential piece, of the Zelda formula, is a sense of surprise. Something you haven’t seen before. Something that catches you off, wakes you up, dusts you off. Sometimes it’s a huge paradigm-altering gameplay mechanic, such as the layered worlds in Link to the Past. Sometimes it’s a shift in tech, like the use of 3D space in Ocarina. Sometimes it’s a bizarre new world interaction, like Twilight Princess‘s magnet boots, dominion rod, and spinner. Sometimes it’s just a little moment that grabs you, like the first time Tetra winks at the camera in Wind Waker.

Blossom Tales has nothing like that. The biggest surprise I got in this game was, after finding bombs and a bow and a boomerang, being wrong about the next dungeon item being a pair of pegasus boots. (Instead, I won the boots from a minigame, and the next dungeon item was the aforementioned Din’s Fire expy.) Instead of using the Zelda style to set expectations and then smashing them with something fresh and exciting, Blossom Tales just sets the expectations and then clocks out.

I mean, yeah, that’s fine though, I play a lot of games that are just some form of “look how much like this other game we are!” South Park is Paper Mario, Shovel Knight is Mega Man, Bloodstained is Castlevania, Etrian Odyssey is Bard’s Tale, Professor Layton is that stack of old puzzle books my uncle had in his attic. A game that takes an existing formula, and executes it well, can still be a fine game. Yeah?

In the sphere of Zelda-likes, this means designing excellent dungeons. And this, I believe, is why we see so few Zelda-likes out there: it turns out that designing an excellent dungeon is really, really hard. Constructing a fresh video game puzzle that challenges the player but still feels fair is difficult enough. Squeezing that completed puzzle seamlessly into a themed space in the game world is more difficult still. This type of game design is so difficult that even Zelda whiffed at it a few times in its best games. (Remember all those rooms in Ocarina that were just blatant box-pushing courses?)

If you try to make a good Zelda dungeon, and fail, you have a bad game. This is just a sad fact of the genre. If your puzzles are too easy or too obvious, the dungeons are boring. If the puzzles are too obtuse or too complicated, nobody will solve them without a walkthrough. This sort of thing is not for the faint of heart.

Blossom Tales‘s solution to this problem is to not even take a swing. The dungeons (and, by extension, secret overworld nooks that follow from Zelda dungeon philosophy) are utterly tepid. Each dungeon is a linear string of rooms, each with one thing to accomplish. Rarely — very rarely — there is a bonus side room with maybe some gold or a potion in it. Then you fight the boss and warp home.

Some of the “things to accomplish” are about what you’d expect: hit a switch to lower a gate, find a key to open a door, chuck a bomb at a cracked wall. All the classics. These aren’t really puzzles, though… they’re more like basic dungeon interactions. Connective tissue.

The actual puzzle-puzzles are all moldy oldies, lifted straight from the Lazy Game Designer’s Guide to Puzzles. You have sokoban, and pipe dream, and step-on-every-tile-once, and sokoban-but-with-ice-blocks, and… let’s see, there was one more I’m forgetting… oh, right, goddamn simon says. That’s an exhaustive list, by the way, not a sample. You will do all of these things, over and over and over again, as you work your way through the dungeons.

And these puzzles are boring! I mean, they’re conceptually boring, because they’re puzzles that everyone uses constantly. They’re genre staples. But while a typical Zelda game might have one dungeon with slidy block puzzles, or one minigame where you say whatever goddamn simon does, those areas are just a bite. They’re tiny parts, sectioned off, and usually themed well. In Blossom Tales every block puzzle is the same grey blocks on the same grid. Multiple times per dungeon.

There was one block puzzle that used the world’s theming in an interesting way, which I had to fail at once to gain enough knowledge to solve it properly. I’ll remember that puzzle fondly when I think about Blossom Tales in the future, even though it was still just pushing blocks. And even though it cracked on the second thing I tried. And even though it really was just the one puzzle.

These types of puzzles are boring for another reason, though: they’re solved not by intuition and experimentation, but by methodology. Solving sokoban is a thing you learn how to do, because it’s always some sequence of the same moves. Ditto for pipe dream and tile-stepping. These are puzzles which, if you’re familiar with them, you can look at any variant for maybe a minute and see the one way the solution can go.

(I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a challenging sokoban puzzle. I have a phone app with hundreds of such puzzles, which I enjoy muchly. But the levels of sokoban you need to aspire to in order to get an old hat like me out of bed is far, far beyond what you’re going to see in the cute little pixel game’s forest dungeon.)

(And, yes, Blossom Tales is going to statistically be some player’s first exposure to these puzzles. Someone out there has never played pipe dream before. It’s still not an excuse.)

You can make these types of stock puzzles interesting. NetHack spices up sokoban by forcing you to play NetHack at the same time, spawning in monsters that block some moves and provide a second failure state. Ocarina‘s sliding ice block rooms use the game’s inventory to give the player multiple ways of interacting with the blocks.

Blossom Tales just plops them in and washes its hands. It’s the dungeon design equivalent of a Steam asset flip. I guess I’m thankful it stopped shy of the 15-slider or the Towers of Hanoi.

One last gameplay gripe I had: fighting monsters was rarely interesting. The sword isn’t actually that good in combat, so I used my toolkit instead: my bombs and bow and what-not. This is fine and well, and maybe even a nice deviation from Zelda, where the sword is so clearly your primary. Unfortunately all your items work from an energy meter (a la Link Between Worlds), and the meter takes forever to fill up. So combat for me involved a lot of kiting monsters around while waiting for my bombs to grow back. I’m not going to harp on this issue, since combat is so little of what makes a good Zelda-like in my book, but it’s worth mentioning.

All this taken together forms my grungy read of Blossom Tales. There’s clearly talent on display here. The presentation is wonderful, the controls are fine, the world map has a nice pleasing flow to it. This game wasn’t pooped out by amateurs. It’s so frustrating that all this talent and hard work was squandered on something that doesn’t reach higher than “Look how Zelda we can be!”

I want someone out there to be Zelda. I mean, ideally, I want Zelda to be Zelda, but I guess that ship has sailed. (Or maybe it hang-glided?) Part of what that means, though, is engaging my brain in creative ways. The best Zelda titles are about inhabiting a physical space, and understanding why that space is built the way it was, and what that means for you as the adventurer climbing all over it. Sometimes a part of that thesis involves throwing a boomerang at a switch, yes. But a sandwich needs more than condiments.

Thank you for reading this long post about a cute game with bad dungeons!

A rebuttal to some random post on r/rpghorrorstories

I don’t have a Reddit account. The reason I choose not to have one is to ensure I can’t actually post anything to one of the many subreddits I lurk. I have the kind of defective monkey brain where, if I see someone being WRONG ON INTERNET I will bang the keyboard with my face and hands until the poor unsuspecting target knows how wrong he’s being. This is, of course, unhealthy behavior, but I find that the urge to pee all over a wrong person who is wrong passes pretty quickly. Say, by the time it takes to register a Reddit account, I probably won’t want to pee on anyone.

I feel compelled to pick apart this story I found on r/rpghorrorstories, though. Not in a “THAT GUY IS WRONG RAARR” way, but in a “there’s more to this story than the guy is telling” way. It, like many of the tales on r/rpghorrorstories, is the tale of a poor, innocent player who had a draconian DM that tried to kill everyone, failed (because the player is just that wily and resourceful, I guess?), and then yelled at everyone.

You can read the story in its entirety at this link, at least until it gets moved or delisted or whatever, I guess I don’t really know how Reddit archival works:

Before picking apart the actual story, I should probably explain that I don’t actually believe most of the stories on this subreddit are real. Reddit (or, at least the subreddits I tend to lurk) is a site where people share experiences with each other, and being part of that kind of community pressures you to share the most interesting experiences you can, which gives people incentive to lie. If you lurk at a community for a while, it’s really easy to start picking up on the social mores they work by, and concocting a riveting story to capture everyone’s attention is a snap. So, every story I read on this and other similar subreddits, I try to take with a grain of salt.

This particular story, though, I found very interesting because I believe a version of it actually happened. Not the version related by OP, to be sure; there’s too much selective memory and lily-gilding for that. But OP shares just enough interesting details about his experience with this DM — more than he probably intended — that reveal the parts of the story that went left unsaid. Here are some conclusions I drew:

  • The DM in the story is probably a jerk. I doubt I would enjoy playing at his table.
  • The players in this story are just as complicit in the eventual blow-up that destroyed the table, if not more so.
  • The OP almost certainly has not run a game himself. His only D&D experience is as a player.

I’ll explain why I think these things as I go. (I’m omitting some stuff from the post; you can read its entirety in the link above, if you like.)

Now, we’d already been having a few issues with the DM by the time I rejoined the group.

You don’t play D&D with someone you have issues with as a DM. I mean, you might sit at the table with them and roll dice and talk about orcs or whatever, but bad blood at the table never translates into good D&D. I remember a lot of games in my early 20s with DMs we had “had issues with”; we would actively try to sabotage those games, because it was the only reliable way to have fun with them. (I, of course, don’t recommend doing this.)

So, either this player identified issues with this DM, and then decided not to talk to them like an adult and help them improve, in which case what was he expecting… or he did voice his concerns (in a rational and polite way) and the DM, in his infinite maliciousness, decided to ignore or punish him. In which case, what was he expecting.

Don’t play at tables you know are sour. Use the time to find a better table.

He claimed to hate railroading the story, but then would refuse to let us have side quests or anything interesting that we requested–either it was his story or nothing.

I feel this DM’s pain. I know firsthand how much players hate being railroaded, and so of course I would tell any group of players that I wasn’t going to try railroading them. Of course it doesn’t logically follow that I’m now responsibile to give them “anything interesting that they requested.” That’s absurd.

At my table, it is absolutely “my story or nothing”. I spend hours every week writing and planning and putting things together. If my players adamantly refuse to engage with any of it, well, yeah, they get nothing. In practice this doesn’t happen with either of my current groups, because I game with nice people who buy into the social contract that 1) I’m not going to waste their time and 2) they shouldn’t actively try to undermine all my planning.

It’s this idea that players have some right to an interesting game, even if they ignore all the DM’s writing and planning, that piqued my interest about this horror story. There is fault on both sides of the table.

He was very much one of those Player vs DM people, and viewed the players winning encounters as ‘losing’.

This is a red flag that pops up a lot in the various D&D forums and subreddits, this “vs. players” DM that is unfairly antagonistic. Having played with many bad DMs over the years, I am highly skeptical that this sort of DM actually exists. The DM has infinite capacity to “beat” the players. Just say, “And then five more orcs show up!” until the players are all dead or until everyone gets bored and leaves. Beating the players is trivially easy.

The alternative makes absolutely no sense. A DM who honestly views players winning encounters as “losing” should… logically… never have more than one encounter per campaign? Right? The very first combat encounter is a TPK, because he can throw titans and tyranosaurs and tarrasques at you? And then you all die and he wins?

I have another theory as to why this DM is so hostile, which we’ll explore later.

…I wanted to explain why my bard had left the group and leveled up to 7 in the process to be consistent with the rest of the party. I don’t remember the specifics, but it had something to do with…

…I pulled aside the DM and asked him if how he wanted to go about having my character meet back up with the party. That conversation is fuzzy for me, but it boiled down to me being told that my character was going to magically reappear with the group, even if I didn’t want to do it that way because his word as DM was law. Already not off to a great start, but I figured that it wasn’t a big enough deal to make a fuss over it.

I’ve bolded the line in these two quotes that make me feel like this story is embellished quite a lot. Isn’t it interesting how OP remembers very tiny details about this very long story, but has no head for specific information about his character or, indeed, interactions with the DM? In a true horror story that actually happened, you would think these details would be at the forefront of one’s mind.

In the parts OP does admit to remembering, though, we see a clear example of player antagonism. He’s joining a game already in progress, where presumably the DM is already engaged in a narrative with the other players. (Which puts the lie to “he always wants to win every encounter”, as noted previously, because the game is past its first encounter.) It’s perfectly fine to spend the time and energy working a new or returning character back into a story. It’s also perfectly fine to just hand-wave it, declare the character to be “magically there”, and get on with things. OP says this is a revolving door campaign, where players were coming and going all the time. I haven’t run a campaign like that in many years, but I remember driving myself mad trying to improvise story for every meeting and parting. If I were to run a game like that now, I wouldn’t bother trying. You’re magically there now, sure, fine, let’s do the adventure now, shall we?

Note too the binary in this player’s mind. if the DM does something he “didn’t want to do”, it’s because “his word as DM was law.” I have dealt with many players like this over the years, and even been one from time to time. There is a pervasive and possibly growing idea in the various online D&D communities that the DM’s job is to provide the players with funtimes, and give them whatever they want, and always have something great planned for any random or lulzy thing any player happens to do. It’s exhausting to think about.

Despite OP saying this isn’t a big deal, it was apparently a big enough deal for him to change his approach to the game. Specifically, when players feel like the DM is cheating them somehow (being overly adversarial, not giving them what they want, saying “my word is law”) they begin to check out of the game:

About a half-hour into the session, the party clearly is not interested in following the main lead that the DM has left us.

This isn’t really anyone’s fault; if you find yourself at a table you’re not a good fit for, and you’re not going to have fun whether you expend the good faith or not, why go to the effort? Even if this is just a simple disconnect in playstyle, and there should be no harm or foul, it can still cause problems for the table. And the player, who doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong (because maybe he hasn’t!) sees in his part no blame for the game falling apart. And what’s left? Just the jerkass DM, of course.

This pattern of “the DM didn’t give us what we wanted, so let’s ignore his stuff, which causes him to give us even less of what we want, which makes us ignore even more of his stuff” becomes a self-feeding cycle. Let’s look what happens next:

More than one of the party members were trying to find a bounty board or some sort of lead for an odd job of sorts.

There is a lot to unpack in this statement.

First, a job board filled with bounties is a thing you find in video games. It is not a real thing or even a D&D thing. I have read countless prepared adventures during my time, dating all the way back to the 1970s, and I cannot recall one description of a town or tavern having a bounty board filled with low-effort combat encounters for the players to pick and choose from. The idea is ridiculous outside of its intended place as quick and dirty grind-quests in video games.

Second, this happened after the players already decided they didn’t want to do the DM’s prepared adventure. Here, I actually will hold the DM to blame. If you all sit down to play an adventure, and then all the players say, “We don’t want to play the adventure, point us to the job board!” the proper response is to close up all the books and end the session. Watch a movie or play Smash Bros. instead. If there’s no harm in refusing to play what the DM has planned (as OP has already agreed), surely there’s no harm in refusing to run a game only the players want. This DM wasn’t mature enough to make that call, to everyone’s detriment.

As a DM, I would be absolutely livid if all my players decided they didn’t want to play the adventure I prepped, but then insisted I run for them anyway. What a terrible way to treat someone. I’ve tried running games in that headspace before, and it’s barely possible. And oh look at what happens next in our horror story:

After a bit of huffing from the DM’s part, we’re given a bounty to kill some giant spiders in a nearby forest. Finally, some easy combat!

Note to all players everywhere: if your DM is huffing and puffing, he is not enjoying himself and something needs to change, fast. Why on earth would you, as a player, press on in a game where the DM is so clearly distressed? If this person is your friend, and you’ve put them in that situation accidentally, why would you double down?

Oh, phew, that’s right, because as a video-game-mentality player, all you care about is “easy combat”. And since the DM isn’t a person with feelings, him agreeing to give it to you means you can finally put all this silly “not getting exactly what I want” to bed, and get on with getting exactly what you want. Hooray! Everyone’s happy! (Except the DM but who cares.)

I’m going to summarize the actual encounter OP had in the forest, but I do want to quote this part:

We get to the forest, and it’s exactly what you would expect for a spider’s nest: webs covering everything. Eventually, the party’s path is blocked by a massive web covering the entire trail. After very little deliberation from the party, we decide to burn the web down in order to get past it. The second our party member says their torch touches the web, the entire forest goes up in flames.

This part is just funny to me because, yeah, if the webs are covering everything, and you set fire to the webs, then everything flammable is going to be on fire. The only way you can not expect this is if you’re approaching it as a video game, where the spider webs are flammable but the wood and branches they’re attached to aren’t. (See OP’s own admission in the comments section of his post!) This is a resonable DM call and it’s exactly what I’d do to my players if they took this action in a scene I had described in this way. Actions have consequences, and fire is a particularly destructive action.

So these players set the forest on fire, which causes a nearby spider demigod to take offense, and combat kicks in. Except it turns out — possibly because the DM is hot and not having fun — it’s not the “easy combat” the players want or expect. It turns out to be a harrowing battle against a demigod creature the DM adapted from 4th edition (which, of course, OP calls foul on).


Nobody at the table was mature enough to see the problems with this game, walk away, take deep breaths. So now everyone’s locked in this hatefuck of a spider encounter that the DM doesn’t want to run, the players don’t want to play, and everyone is made sufficiently miserable.

I’m actually a little impressed at how the DM handled this encounter. I’m pretty good at on-the-fly combat enounters, but I don’t think I could have cooked up something this interesting on zero notice when I was already in the headspace of, “These players don’t care about anything I spent work on this week.” A minor bounty against some spiders that turns into a tussle with a demigod in the middle of a huge ring of fire sounds so badass I might actually steal it and drop it in my own campaign.

Clever and blameless OP, paragon that he is, casts banishment on the demigod to buy his party some time to escape. (Which OP describes as “outwitting his death sentence”, and we’ve already established why that’s dumb.) This causes an argument at the table, because that’s all anyone at this table is capable of doing at this point, and then this happens:

Me: “How many spiders are there around the ring?”

DM: “Fucking hell man, use your imagination. A lot. Hordes. What do you think. Now stop asking irrelevant questions, you’re starting to piss me off”

Isn’t is strange how the earlier conversation, which potentially included an admission of blame on the player’s part, was “fuzzy”, while this one, where the DM uses bad words and admits to being mad, is remembered with perfect clarity?

Anyway, this is a grossly inappropriate response to a grossly inappropriate question. Yellow flag on both parties. No DM should react this way during a game. (No DM should be running a table while this angry, either, but that ship has sailed.)

However, he’s not wrong when he declares the question to be irrelevant. We’ve already established a huge horde of spiders circling the PCs. The exact number isn’t calculable or interesting. No player can do anything useful with that information, and it’s not worth extra work on the DM’s part to track it accurately.

There’s this little dance we do while playing D&D. As a DM and a player, I’m on both sides of it. The world we’re meant to inhabit is ostensibly a real one, with physics and science and butterfly wings and whatnot. But it’s not possible for a NASA supercomputer to properly simulate that kind of world — a real one — let alone some guy with some books and graph paper. As a DM, you want to simulate as much detail as is necessary to make the adventure work. Common things like distances, materials, colors and smells and sounds. Your instinctual understanding of the game world is probably a lot broader than that, but you don’t have enough bandwidth in your voice to bring it all across.

It falls to players, then, to ask probing questions about the scene, to increase their own understanding of things. They don’t have the same instinctual understanding of the world, though, so they don’t know which questions are worth asking in a given situation. This can lead to some really bizarre rabbit hole scenarios, where a player asks an innocuous question, and the DM answers it, possibly with improvisation, and the players pick up on the answer as a crucial detail and spend the next 40 minutes agonizing over the significance of this metal tube or bale of hay or whatever.

There’s some give and take on both sides of this. It’s a skill both DMs and players need to hone over time.

There is a type of player, though, that will ask incresingly irrelevant questions not because they’re trying to increase their understanding of the scene, but because they’re fishing for the answer they want. In a scene where we’ve already established hordes of spiders coming out of the burning woods, it’s kind of dumb and maybe a little passive-aggresive to insist on knowing exactly how many there are. Is there some cunning plan that involves having more than 117 spiders, but fewer than 153? Is the character standing there, in-universe, for minutes on end, painstakingly counting individual spiders? Maybe this would be a good place for the DM to ask, “Why do you think that’s important?” but, as is abundantly clear, nobody at this table is playing in good faith anymore.

A few rounds of combat later, the PCs try to break the line of spiders. The DM declares the retreat to break OP’s concentration on banishment, causing the demigod to re-appear on the scene. Another perfectly-remembered conversation ensues:

DM: “The second you move, your concentration breaks. [the demi-god] pops back into existence, and moves to attack you

ME: “Wait, what the hell? The time on my concentration isn’t up. Why did it break?”

DM: “You can’t move and concentrate on a spell at the same time.”

ME: “Yeah, you can in 5e. The only things that can break concentration are taking damage or casting another spell that requires concentration.”

DM: “I’m getting sick of your shit! WE AREN’T PLAYING 5E! THIS IS MY HOMEBREW! That’s not the way that I say concentration works in my world. Now, you have a choice. You can move, and break concentration, and have [the demi-god] attack you and the party, or you can stay behind and let the party escape. Although, if you do, she’ll kill you instantly.”

OP is 100% correct in this interaction. In 5e, rules as written, cocnentration on a spell is only broken if you sustain damage (and fail a save), or by casting another spell that requires concentration. (You can also drop concentration on a spell, at any time, even if it’s not your turn.) OP can be completely forgiven for believing this is how his movement would work in this case, and being surprised when it doesn’t.

But OP is not the DM. OP does not get to determine how the rules are applied in a given scene. That’s the DM’s job. And this DM, in this encounter, was seven kinds of pissed off. I don’t agree with the DM’s call here, but I definitely understand it. Whether the DM is a jerk or not is kind of irrelevant to the way he’s been treated at this table, by this player’s own admission. Never mind the D&D angle, in what context is it smart to push someone and push someone until they finally snap?

At this point, I was honestly speechless. I just gathered my stuff and left the table.

And this is the first intelligent, mature thing this player has done in this entire story. Kudos to him for that!

Believe it or not, my intention is not to pick on this OP. He had a terrible D&D interaction, and ran to the internet to tell a version of the story that paints him as the hero. This is Human Experience 101.

It’s also not my intention to glorify this DM. I’m sure a version of this story told from his perspective would be similarly embellished, just in the other direction, and I would no doubt find lots of stuff to pick apart in that story as well.

But even in this story, as presented, where the author paints himself in the best possible light, there are some very troubling trends on display. In the minds of this player, and in those of Reddit commenters who agree with him, it is perfectly okay for a player to:

  • Dictate how their character is introduced to the game (without regard to the DM’s plans),
  • decide to completely ignore the adventure the DM intended to run,
  • insist the DM run something anyway, once the adventure has been discarded,
  • pepper the DM with pointless questions about an improvised scene that aren’t of use to anyone, and of course
  • run off to the internet and demonize another human being.

It’s not just this story. It’s something I’ve seen over and over again in lots of D&D communities where I lurk, and the problem seems to be getting worse: players approach D&D as a video game, DMs are not capable of providing that experience, everyone has a bad time as a result. And because the ratio of DMs to players is so lopsided, horror stories skew very far in one direction. I could re-write this post for some new horror story every week, if I were so inclined.

We have this weird situation where DMs are in high demand, but players also seem to hold them to unreasonable standards. What might a new DM who reads this story take away? If they side with the DM it’s, “Wow, some players are really demanding and entitled! I’d better clamp down to make sure my players aren’t like that.” (And then alienate his players by being overly punitive.) If they side with the player it’s, “Wow, some DMs are absolutely terrible! I’m going to work really hard to not make his mistakes!” (And then bend over backwards to please their players, possibly burning out as a result.)

It really doesn’t surprise me to learn that some of them act like jerks, sometimes.

I don’t really know what to do about the situation, other than share my thoughts and advice where appropriate, which is why I wrote this big ol’ nasty post on my big ol’ nasty blog. Here’s what I would have told the people in this story, before this unfortunate event occured:

To the DM: Deep breaths. There’s no need to ever run a game under these circumstances. Getting this super mad at your players is not healthy. If you put a lot of work into a story you want to share with a group of players, but this group has decided to ignore it, end the game and find new players. You have all the bargaining power here. Players constantly complain about how hard it is to find a game, even online, because there are too few DMs to go around. Someone out there wants to play the game you want to run. Don’t waste time on people who don’t.

To the players: Deep breaths. There’s no need to ever play at a table under these circumstances. If you don’t want to play the game your DM is presenting, the best option is to go along with it anyway and see if maybe your mind can be changed. If you don’t want to change your mind (or the DM is unable to change it, after an honest effort) it’s time to find a new table. Trying to force your DM to change into something he doesn’t want to be will not end well, even if you manage to succeed for a time.

To everyone: Please do not stop making up stories about some terrible D&D game you played once. I find them endlessly amusing, occassionally thought-provoking, and as long as I enjoy D&D I will never, ever stop reading them!

Ideas for FFIV: Free Enterprise

If you’re not familiar with Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise, the gist is that it’s a version of Final Fantasy IV that starts you with the airship, jettisons all the cutscenes and plot flags, and mixes up everything else. For my part, it’s the best randomizer I’ve played, both in terms of how much I enjoy playing it and how well I feel it presents the base game in a new and interesting way. I could write an entire article about how good it is and why, but I’ll just leave it at “very plenty good” for now.

FF4: Free Enterprise Homepage

One difference I’ve noticed between Free Enterprise and other randomizers I’ve played is that the FE devs seem to have a very strong vision for what their randomizer ought to be. The design philosophy seems to be: leave as much of vanilla FFIV in tact as possible, while creating lots of opportunities for new routing and combat challenges. So when I recommend these new features, I do so in the spirit of the rando as it currently exists. I don’t want to see a “kitchen sink” approach taken to FE, where absolutely every option that pops into someone’s head eventually gets added. In terms of content, I want as little added to the rando as is possible. I don’t want to suddenly see geomancers and blue mages, I don’t want a bunch of new characters from The After Years, I don’t want the janky spell-on-hit weapons from FFIV Advance.

What I want are new ways to create interesting routing and combat challenges. Here are some ideas me and my Twitch chat have come up with, over the course of a few dozen FE runs this past year.

Cid needs to be slightly better.

Not a lot better, just slightly better. FFIV has a lot of early- and mid-game characters that never get developed, because you aren’t supposed to have them after about the halfway point in the game’s story. FFIV Advance solves this problem by adding a new dungeon with a bunch of endgame gear for the leftover characters, but this probably isn’t possible for an SNES romhack. I’d argue it’s not desireable, either.

These characters are Tellah, Edward, Palom, Porom, Yang, and Cid.

Tellah, Palom and Porom don’t need any help. They’re caster characters, so they can equip some or all of the endgame-appropriate equipment already in the game meant for Rosa and Rydia.

Yang doesn’t need any help either, because he doesn’t actually get more powerful with equipment. Just the experience levels he gets are enough to make him really strong in the end.

Edward needed help, because the best he could do was to equip an endgame bow and arrow, which made him “like Rosa, but with no magic”. FE added the -spoon flag, which allows Edward to equip the Spoon. This is a powerful endgame weapon that puts him on par with Cecil for damage output, and probably ahead of Kain and Edge. (The joke here is that Edward is a “spoony bard”, see?)

The best Cid can do, though, is a weapon called the RuneAxe, which is pretty weak as far as weapons go. He has strictly better weapons, including all the bows and arrows, but these make him even worse than Edward used to be; they make him “like Rosa, but with no magic, and also still really slow”.

One possible fix might be to allow Cid to equip the Avenger, a two-handed sword that adds berserk to its user. This is a pretty powerful endgame weapon that Kain and Cecil can both use, although those characters have other options that might be better. If the Avenger is Cid’s only endgame option, though, it gives the character a pretty distinct flavor, while sticking with the personality of the character.

A second option might simply be to make the RuneAxe better, by altering its stats to be more in line with, say, the Murasame or White Spear. This is a weapon no other character uses as far as I know, so it really wouldn’t be stepping on anyone else’s toes.

More boss dependencies!

FE randomizes boss locations and statistics in a pretty interesting way that makes it usually possible to fight late-game bosses if they roll into early-game positions, and make early-game bosses a threat if they roll into late-game positions. There’s a lot of weirdness with this system, and a few bosses can be pretty nasty no matter where you see them, but pushing through the boss fights in whatever order you find them in is much of where the fun of the rando comes from.

There isn’t really any sense of needing to kill a particular boss, though, with one exception: killing the Mist D., wherever in the game it happens to spawn, causes Rydia’s dead-ass mom to cough up a key item in the village of Mist. This is an interesting interaction unlike anything else currently in FE. It creates neat situations where you’ll encounter the Mist D. in a place you’re exploring anyway, and then make a side trip for a free key item. Or, if you’re starving for key items, you might prioritize some early game bosses you would skip otherwise, hoping to find the Mist D.

Gating off more key items in this way would be against the spirit of the rando, I think. (The Mist D. is a unique case in that regard.) But there are other things that could be gated off, which might then be entered into logic to create new routing possibilities.

  • Dead guards block your way into Damcyan (both the keep and the treasure room) until after you find and kill Antlion. This treasure room is a somewhat quick early-game check, so blocking it reduces your chances of finding great gear before your first boss. Blocking the keep means being able to put the Hoovercraft into logic.
  • Instead of gating Cecil’s class change behind the Ordeals event, gate it behind finding and killing the D. Knight. This boss is notoriously nasty in some areas, so players tend to avoid him if they can. But Cecil is so terrible as a dark knight, and so great as a paladin, that the hunt may really be worth it. Lots of lulzy troll seed potential here!
  • Instead of using items to teach Rydia the Odin, Asura, Levia, and Baham spells, unlock them only after finding and killing those bosses. Or, require both! Levia and Baham are both good enough that putting Rydia through the extra hoops is probably warranted.
  • Similarly, Edge only learns his Flood and Blitz spells if you find and kill the Eblan king and queen. This probably doesn’t matter that much, because nobody ever uses those spells, so maybe make some of Edge’s other advantages latently locked until this fight, like his Dart command or his second weapon slot.
  • Wherever the Elements happen to roll, they will refuse to fight you until you’ve found and killed Milon Z., Kainazzo, Valvalis, and Rubicant somewhere in the world. Instead, they give you a generic message similar to the one you get if you try to complete Zot without the Earth Crystal. Maybe they give you a hint as to where to find one or more of these fights. If paired with a flag that forces a required item behind this fight (wherever it is), this alone would transform the seed from “find the key items and win” to “go on a big boss hunt!”
  • The crystal at the center of the Big Whale is inoperable until you find and kill the CPU. Maybe the beds, big chocobo, and transport to the Giant don’t work until then, either. (Of course this creates a dumb situation where the CPU can’t roll into hits vanilla boss slot!)
  • Instead of requiring the Earth Crystal to get into the Troia treasure room, the guard requires you to kill some boss out in the world. Dark Elf is the obvious choice, but one could also make a fun case (backed by NPC dialogue!) for Valvalis, the Magus Sisters, or Dr. Lugae.
  • Change the HP threshhold at which Edward automatically hides to something really dumb, like 90%, until you find and kill the WaterHag and see Anna’s inspirational message. (This one might actually be too aggravating, depending on where and when you find Edward!)
  • As a sort of hint system, the guard rooms in Baron Castle fill up with helpful NPCs the more soldiers you injure. (They’re there convalescing, and since the only way to get to this room is to defeat whichever boss is in Baigan’s slot as the false captain, they’ve now come to their senses and willing to help!) By my count there are fifteen such NPCs spread through three different boss fights: four in the Kaipo soldier encounter, three fights with three soldiers each in the Fabul gauntlet, and Yang’s two Guards. Four of these soldiers are “lost forevers” since they try and retreat if you kill their underlings, thus incentivizing a different approach to these fights. Information could vary from the location of key items, to character identities, to where you can find choice gear. (“I heard about an Artemis Bow in the Sylph Cave!”)

Those are some interesting and thematically-appropriate ideas that would mesh well with the existing rando options. Of course, arbitrary barriers could be added in just about anywhere, requiring arbitrary bosses to be defeated, which could then all be randomized. That would be a bad direction to go in, though, and against the spirit of what FE is so far. The reason the existing Mist D. block works so well is because it makes sense in the lore, and it’s the same thing every seed. The random element should be where you find the boss, not which boss you need to find, or why.

Make a “weak” version of Edge.

Right now, Edge is just about the best character you can possibly get early in an FE seed. FuSoYa is strictly better, but the rando has flags to make him start weak and only power up as you kill bosses. This is a cool idea, but the best they’ve done for Edge so far is a flag that removes him as an option for starting characters.

There’s not really a problem here that needs fixing, but there’s an opportunity for something potentially great. The reason Edge is so good is his base level and equipment set vastly outclass anything in the main overworld of FFIV. In the base game, you don’t get Edge until you’ve completed the overworld, gone to the underworld, and returned. By the time he joins you have already seen the last of Cid, Yang, the twins, and just about every other character.

What he needs is an experience curve that brings him more in line with Kain, and a worse starting equipment set. Say, a single Boomrang or Silver Dagger, Leather Armor, and a Cap. A L5 Edge with 100 HP and terrible gear would put him on par with a starting Cid, or Yang, or anyone else really.

But here’s the brilliant bit: we now have a “weak” Edge suitable for starting the seed with, and a “strong” Edge suitable for destroying the entire overworld. We can do this with every character in the game!

  • “Strong” Rydia starts with gear comparable to what she has when she rejoins the party in the Dwarf Castle in vanilla, and one of her elemental summons (Shiva, Indra, Jinn, or Titan) unlocked at the start.
  • “Strong” Kain has the gear he rejoins with in the Tower of Zot in vanilla.
  • “Strong” Cid comes decked out with all his best stuff from the Tower of Zot, and actually serves as a neat dividing line between “strong” and “weak” in this context. Edge is so “strong” because his default level outclasses everything in the first part of the game, which happens to coincide with right around the time Cid leaves the party in vanilla.
  • “Strong” Rosa, Palom and Porom come in with mid-tier caster gear, like Wizard Shirts or Tiaras. The twins start with middling stat-boosting weapons, like the Lilith Rod and Silver Staff. Rosa instead starts with an Archer Bow and some Poison Arrows. Palom’s starting level should probably not be high enough to let him out of the gate with Quake.
  • “Strong” Yang just joins at a higher level than usual, maybe with two claws equipped instead of one. (Maybe even randomize these, leaving Cat Claws out?)
  • “Strong” Edward doesn’t make any sense, but starting him at L20 instead of L1 would make him more durable at least. In fact, it might be appropriate to start a “strong” version of Edward with one piece of really good endgame gear, like a Ribbon or a Protect Ring, which would immediately be yoinked and placed on a more deserving character.
  • “Strong” Tellah doesn’t make any sense either, outside of just starting with better gear, and should probably be extempt from these shenanigans. If you really want to give him something, maybe start him with one extra each of white and black magic.
  • “Strong” Cecil also doesn’t make any sense, and we’ll exempt him too. The way to make him stronger is to just promote him to paladin.

Now that we have all this done, we can mix and match the “strong” and “weak” characters in various game modes. Some ideas:

  • “Strong only” mode, where all characters are the “strong” versions. (Reduces how much time is spent gearing up new characters, without overpowering anyone for the back half of the run.)
  • Two characters are chosen at random to be “strong”. They may or may not be one of your starting characters. (This is essentially the current behavior, just with Edge potentially replaced with someone else.)
  • Starting character is guaranteed “strong”; nobody else is.
  • All characters are “weak”; no chance of an early Edge carry. (This is essentially what the current “no free Edge” flag does.)

I should emphasize that “strong” in this context only means “as strong as Edge currently is at the start”. So, a “strong” character should be good enough to clear all content up to and including the Magnetic Cave, but that’s probably it. (It’s worth pointing out that, in a typical vanilla run, Edge is weaker than the rest of your party at the point where you find him.)

This could go the other direction too. Make every character weaker by starting them at L1 with no gear at all, forcing you to scrounge for treasure or shops until you can scrape together a few boss wins.

“Shopping Mode”

Currently, the way to gear up any party in FE is to fly around opening up lots of chests. The quality of gear that can be found in boxes is variable (and adjustable in the rando settings), but most of the good stuff you find comes from treasures. Conversely, very little shopping is done in a typical rando run, outside of a few choice items players keep an eye out for. For the flags I like to play, that list is less than ten items total.

What we do here is flip the incentives; we make treasure boxes less valuable, and shops more so. Instead of gearing up by finding stuff in the wilderness, you have to shop for every piece, for every character. (Maybe pair this with “all characters start as ‘weak'” as outlined above!) Step one: instead of treasure, boxes give GP, maybe the sale price of whatever the box was supposed to contain, or some percentage of it.

At the start of the game, the only two shops that are open are the Fabul equipment shop (which has a smattering of random, low-tier gear, nothing better than Edge’s Short Sword), and the Troia Pass shop (which has a smattering of random, low-tier items). Shops that are currently gated (Baron, the Feymarch, the Hummingway Cave, etc.) remain so. Their inventories are also suitably randomized, but cannot contain anything phenomenal. You might find, say, a Blizzard Spear, but not a Dragoon Spear.

Any location that grants a piece of equipment from the monster box or key item pool unlocks a random shop somewhere in the world. Instead of finding, say, the Drain Spear, you’d get a fanfare and a message window saying, “The Mist weapon shop is open!” These shops can contain anything the seed is capable of generating, except for really high-end lunar equipment.

There are more of these locations in the game than there are shops to open, so fill any remaning “shop slots” with a single item added to Kokkol’s inventory. Immediately after turning in the Adamant and Legend Sword, instead of gifting the Excalbur, the prize is instead the opening of Kokkol’s shop. The Excalbur is immediately for sale, but the rest of the powerful endgame lunar equipment is not. These are unlocked one piece at a time until the shop is full, or the player runs out of spots to check. This should be the only way to get equipment like the Masamune, Stardust Rod, Ribbon, or Adamant Armor. Since this means some lunar equipment might not generate, there should probably be logic ensuring Kokkol can’t end up with useless equipment. There’s no reason to sell Masamune in a seed with no Edges, after all.

More monster box variety.

Currently, there are lots of early game dungeons that are basically worthless to visit. Sure, you might luck into a powerful sword in the Watery Pass, but it’s just as likely you’ll find comparably good stuff in the Antlion’s Nest, which has a guaranteed key item roll at the end. In dozens of FE seeds I think I’ve done the Watery Pass, like, twice.

On the flip side of this coin you have dungeons like the Tower of Bab-il, Sylph Cave and Lunar Subterrane which are probably guaranteed required, considering how many monster boxes they contain. Depending on your flags, monster boxes contain some combination of key items, powerful gear, or summon magic. Locations with high concentrations of these are definitely choice, and even locations with only one such box might gate your progression.

As a side effect of most FE players electing to turn off random encounters, these monster boxes are the only non-boss encounters in the game. So I think we can do with some variety here!

By my count (and this is a back-of-envelope figuring, I haven’t double-checked) there are seven duplicate monster boxes in the game. By which I mean, seven boxes which have the same fight (or near enough) as another monster box found elsewhere. These are:

  • The box full of Mad Ogres in Bab-il. (There’s already a box full of these in Eblan.)
  • Two boxes full of Ghosts in the Sylph Cave. (We’ll leave one.)
  • A box of Malboros in the Sylph Cave. (There’s another box that has Malboros and Treants that’s more interesting.)
  • Two Behemoths in the Lunar Subterrane. (We’ll leave one of these too.)
  • A box with Karys and Warlocks, also in the Subterrane. (There are two of these, we only need one.)

(We’re ignoring the Alerts in the Tower of Bab-il; it’s thematically interesting to have a mechanical security system in that location, and besides, they summon all sorts of critters.)

The idea here is to turn those seven boxes into regular treasures, containing items from the regular treasure pool, then add seven new monster boxes, with fresh encounters, to locations that don’t already have them. This incentivizes players to check locations that now have monster boxes for key items or good loot, and adds a little more enemy variety than a typical FE run sees. Also, it moves potential checks out of the Sylph Cave and Subterrane, where they’re gated behind underworld and moon access, to earlier in the seed where those checks could more organically gate progression. (It’s worth noting that without these extra boxes both of these locations are still chock full of checks!)

Here are my suggestions for what to do with the seven new boxes:

  • The center box of the Mist Cave contains six Imps.
  • The far side of the secret passage on B3(?) of the Watery Pass contains a battle against a group of jellies. (Say, one black, one white, and two each of yellow and red.)
  • The secret chest in the Baron Waterway save room contains an Aqua Worm and three Elecfish.
  • One of the chests in the room on B2 of the Magnetic Cave contains a battle against two Mages. (A nice reference to the FF1 WIZARDs, who also frequently guard treaure on spiked squares.)
  • We’ll replace the Mad Ogres in the overworld Bab-il chest with a D. Machine for some out-of-depth robot dragon fun.
  • The weird out-of-the-way chest just before the Falcon in the last section of the Tower of Bab-il, that always felt like it should be a monster box, but isn’t, for whatever weird reason, just because the developers felt like screwing with us I guess. Anyway we’ll put one of those cool Eggs that hatches into a Q. Lamia here. (This also makes the overworld stretch of Bab-il more attractive, from a key item standpoint, if you don’t need it for underworld access in your seed.)
  • The secret box to the right of Kokkol’s stairs contains the rare underworld trio: a Gorgon, Tarantula and GlomWing. (FFIV trivia experts will appreciate this one, for sure!)

Of course, now that we have a unique fight in every monster box, we can also have a “randomize monster box” flag, so you get a Behemoth in the Mist Cave and some Imps on the moon. Or, if it’s possible to add the current boss scaling logic to monster boxes as well, we could mix the bosses and monster boxes together. (This is probably not possible considering most monster boxes don’t have map sprites. Or maybe all of their sprites are just a treasure box?)

These ideas aren’t exhaustive, of course. They’re just what I’ve had rattling around in my brain as I’ve been working through a dozen seeds on stream and processing a dozen more videos of Free Enterprise for YouTube. The randomizer is already excellent and I’m sure whatever direction it continues to develop will be fun and interesting to watch.

Thank you for reading!