I've spent a few days now in a MUSH full of people I don't know using a typing format I don't really understand playing games I'm not in, with me watching like Ebenezer Scrooge staring through a window at a life long forgotten, and it's showed me a few things. One, when I don't know anyone and all of the other people know each other, I'm going to hang out on my own and get lost in my own head. I'm trying! But I'm really bad at it! Two, it reminds me that I haven't been involved in anything tabletop for years now, not since Final Fantasy Omega basically ran out, and getting back in could be incredibly difficult for me. To explain why will take some time. Let's give it a shot.
I moved to Kansas City roughly ten thousand years ago with two friends of mine, the players in almost all of my high school RPGs. We all decided we would run a game when we arrived, so we'd have that constant in our lives while we all attempted to adjust to a new city, new living arrangements, new friends, new jobs, no college, no fallbacks, no plan B. This failed catastrophically! SPOILER ALERT: We all ended up okay. But the game I decided to run was going to be something fully home-brewed from the d20 system, and would be a Final Fantasy game. It would be set in a modern world, styled a lot after Final Fantasy VIII, and the player characters would be part of a mercenary group, they'd be young, and they would know each other. One of my two players moved away from KC a year later, but we kept the game going online in IRC. Shortly after that, another friend and my girlfriend joined a separate game in the same universe, and we shifted between a two-player in-person game and a two-player online game, with occasional four-player online games, and eventually the player that moved had to leave full-time, and we went three-player online up through the game's ending. So the format changed a lot!
My pitch for the game ended up being this, in Session 7; that the world of Damocles, the world in which the player characters lived and fought, was the fifth world in a series of worlds, worlds that had been created and subsequently destroyed in an attempt to create a perfect world. In my setting, an otherworldly force came to the Planet when Meteor was called in Final Fantasy VII, disappearing into the Planet, regaining its strength, and then wiping it out hundreds of years later. It then created the worlds of Final Fantasy VIII, IX, and X, each one failing its ridiculous standards of perfection until the world had to be destroyed. There were parts of those destroyed worlds that could not be fully deleted -- fragments of a power beyond our intruder's power, so they had to be secreted away into a side pocket so they could not interfere with the actual perfect world process. That side pocket would be called Kingdom Hearts. The otherworldly force itself? EDEN, a hidden GF in Final Fantasy VIII that has no in-game explanation. I made the final boss of the entire Final Fantasy universe a hidden power-up in a game not enough people like.
I HAVE A WHOLE TIMELINE WRITTEN FOR THIS. I just don't have it open right now, and I'm not going to write ten thousand words on fanfiction.
...I did that already.
But enough about setting! Let's talk about what made Final Fantasy Omega weird and different, and why I may have a hard time playing or running in anything ever again, despite desperately wanting to.MUSIC
I don't know about you guys, but when I think about Final Fantasy, I think about the music. I've been to either four or five Distant Worlds: Final Fantasy concerts. I was in the audience for the first-ever symphonic performance of Dancing Mad, Final Fantasy VI's operatic final boss theme. When I recently played Final Fantasy XV on the internet and discovered that you could buy soundtrack discs of past FF games and listen to them in the Regalia, I would put that on, a song would come on, and I would not only point out what it was, but when it played in its game, its overall significance to the series, and then launch into a discussion of the part of the game it played in. Musical memory is incredibly important to me, and it is a huge part of Final Fantasy for me. Clearly, this would have to be represented in the game.
It started easily enough. I asked my players to all pick music for their Limit Break, music that would play when they did a cool thing that was all about that player. I picked the rest of it. We'd have some background music that played during sessions -- usually music from a past Final Fantasy game or Kingdom Hearts game, appropriate for the setting. I had a selection of battle music, and the main enemy had his own music. When we shifted to playing online, we played in IRC because I could make sure we all had the same sound files in the same folder, and I'd type "/sound opening.mp3" to play the opening music, and it would open and play that file on all of our computers.
There are 926 files in my Omega Sounds folder.
At the end, let's... okay, let's take a look at Naoko Kyuudou, my girlfriend/fiancee/wife's character in the game. At the end of the game, Naoko had:
- Her main Limit Break music, a mix of Ryoshima Plains I & II from Okami, with drums added at the beginning from a bonus CD.
- Her Omega Limit Break music, which is that same opening drumbeat from before into The Sun Rises from Okami.
- A quiet theme, music that would play in a Naoko-important scene that didn't involve punching people. This is an acoustic guitar/Japanese flute version of an Ayumi Hamasaki song, which was chosen to link together Naoko's original Ayumi Hamasaki theme and her new traditionally-Japanese-instrumentation Okami music.
- A version of that on piano, for reasons that will be important later.
- A symphonic version of that theme, which I was saving for a dramatic moment later on.
- An electric guitar version of her main theme, which tied into her boyfriend's musical theme!
- A theme shared between her and her first boyfriend, party member Champ Justice, which combined her hopefulness and his militaristic drumbeat in a really cool remix of a song from Super Mario 64 (?!).
- A vocal piece from The Ordeal (see that section)
- Another vocal piece from The Ordeal
And then her Aeons (Naoko's a summoner) all had their own themes, and then her family members have their own themes, and on and on and on.
See that emphasis on Okami up there? That was on purpose. After we settled on Naoko's new theme, I started going through music from Okami and then music from that same composer for similar instrumentation and styles, and all of Naoko's family members and plot-important events and things tied to her would get music in that same mode. I kept this up with all of the characters; they had their own musical styling, so I kept drawing from those styles for the characters and those close to them. One character has an emphasis on drums! Another, acoustic guitar. Another, screaming guitars. Another, ethereal timelessness. Another, pop! It's exhaustive and exhausting.
And then there was the music editing. In Session 14, I decided to make good on a few hints I'd thrown at the controller of our other summoner, Darien Reinholder, and his personal Aeon, Logos. Logos was a fragment of Alexander, which is basically a giant holy city that shoots lasers. Alexander is my favorite Aeon. In a dramatic moment, Darien activated his Limit Break, and Darien's player even queued me up, saying "Maestro, please," ready for his limit break to play.
It did, only it was a new version of the song, because earlier that week I loaded up that song in Wavepad, cut everything past the intro, and put another song after it, as Darien's call to Logos was instead answered by Alexander, massively changing the way the battle was going to go. It started a long-running trend of me sneaking music into the shared folder without letting anyone know what it was.
The BEST version of music editing I ever did was cutting the classic Final Fantasy victory fanfare, that thing Prompto sings, short with a gunshot that threw both of my players into terrified silence, then bringing up a dreaded villain's theme straight into a battle theme. They didn't trust the victory music ever again.
But see, that's using music to tell a story in a tabletop RPG in a way that you can't do with just words or actions. It's not necessarily better -- I like it better because it speaks to who I am as a person -- but it's different, and I don't know how to play without that.WRITING
In a game with three player characters and three GM-controlled PCs (each game had one to round out the party, and then when Darien's player retired he handed Darien to me), I never wanted the GMPCs to dominate too much screentime. So instead, I wrote the occasional short story about them, and then posted them on Google Drive for our characters. Sometimes it was to do something offscreen, sometimes it was building on an in-session moment, and sometimes I just wanted to make a dumb joke. These were usually around 2000 words. I started writing enough of these where they got session numbers -- Omega Session 211.5, for instance, so they could be found if you read the sessions in order. (We saved the logs of the sessions, and I posted them later that day.) Occasionally, my players would also write their own, because all of my players were writers. This was fun!
Then I wrote a piece of interactive fiction over the course of many months that ended up creating a new GMPC.
Inspired by Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a visual novel/dating simulator set in the Meiji Restoration era of Japan, I wrote a story with Mist Walker being chosen by Kalil (one of our PCs) to infiltrate a mysterious organization he encountered called the Boryokudan. Across four parts, each of which had at least 30,000 words (and one of which had an entirely new protagonist), I would write a story, put up about three decisions, and then make him make the decision, writing the next scene based on that decision. The best compliment I got at this point was that I had to post these new entries at a time when all three players could read them, as everyone rushed to read it as soon as it went up.
After finishing Let's Play Boryokudan, I topped it by taking all of the GMPCs and putting them in their own Let's Play Omega series, where the party could send the GMPCs off to do things they wanted to do, but didn't want to devote a whole session to. Each player got to make decisions for one of the four, with me always controlling the fourth (for important story reasons).
I once wrote four interludes in a week. I really, really loved it.GARAMONDE
Do you know how each Final Fantasy game has an arena, where you can go battle lots of people in order for great prizes? We did that. It was the Garamonde Tournament of Champions.
We did it twice! The first year had 8-fighter tournaments in Swordplay, Fisticuffs, Summoning, Spellcraft, a 16-team Tag Team Tournament, and then the main event, the 32-fighter No Limits Tournament. They all had weird rules, it was great.
Each fighter had a recorded intro, and by recorded I mean I recorded myself shouting into a microphone, then mixed it over music.
We did it again an in-game year later, this time with Swordplay, Melee, Spellcraft, Summoning, Tag Team, and No Limits, but we doubled the number of entries in each tournament (yes, that means I had to write intros for 64 people for No Limits), plus I wrote multiple interludes for each in-game day, there was a concert and an animal show, and I designed championship belts using WWE Smackdown vs. Raw for the Playstation 2 and posted pictures of them for each tournament. The second tournament featured cameo appearances by characters we'd all designed in other games -- two World of Warcraft characters, an Eberron character, and a character my wife made for a game that I never ran and instead became a character in the novel that is sitting pre-editing on my hard drive. A WEDDING
Two beloved NPCs got married! My wife went through wedding magazines and websites to design the entire wedding theme and apparel, I put together a playlist, one character gave a speech, and one character performed the ceremony. I revealed this was going to happen by using an online tool to make an actual wedding invitation. We had this be an actual session. Everyone really, really enjoyed it.
Tabletop roleplaying y'all.
This is the thing I am proudest of, as a GM.
After clearing the idea with my players -- because I had to ask all of them, because this was going to be the single meanest thing I ever did to them, though I did not tell them how this was happening, just that it would, would that be okay -- I broke the party into solo sessions only, starting at Session 260. In those sessions, I was the cruelest I have ever been.
Cruelty as a GM isn't the Tomb of Horrors, or a total party kill. It's not instant-death traps or unbeatable enemies. It's about a decision that you don't ever want to make. It's the middle section of Life is Strange, Episode 4. It's Toriel. It's the worst. I was the worst.
Each character was put into a perfect world, one that existed outside of the real world -- and one that they would never actually want to leave. One of the main villains managed to do this, so no one would be there to oppose him doing the things he wanted to do, and all of the PCs vanished from Damocles.
Naoko, whose parents died in a car accident when she was five years old, was transported back in time to the age of 19, the same age as her actual opening session (and I used the original session opening music, which was a small touch I was inordinately proud of), into a world where not only had her parents survived, but also had three more kids. Naoko was not going to join a military organization and become a fighter -- she had a college visit to make, and a little brother to take to the library, and two little sisters to care for, and a whole normal life that she didn't know she could have.
Kogel, who spent so much of his time convinced that he had no future, zipped ahead some ten or so years into the future, where he'd restored his island, married his girlfriend, and had a son, with another on the way. He'd made peace with everything. He'd saved his brother. He'd saved the world. Everything and everyone would be fine.
I made them give it all up to come back.
Each of these pocket worlds had about ten sessions of just role-playing. Time to try to figure out the puzzle, time to try and understand what had happened, time to get used to living there, time to not want to actually leave.
The pocket worlds were when I first started dabbling with vocal tracks for music, too. Normally I stuck with instrumentals, thinking that the music would be distracting if it had words, but here I picked particular scenes to have a 'regular' song play. Each character had two queued up and ready, though Kogel only hit a story beat for one of his, leaving the other to be one of those Japan-only bonus tracks, I guess. Naoko's tracks were Vienna Teng's "Nothing Without You" and Angels & Airwaves' "The Adventure," while Kogel had "The Cave" by Mumford & Sons.
"But Matt," you say, "you have three players! What was the third doing?"
The Ordeal began with Kalil being dragged out of his Ordeal by the Aeons and folks that were linked to him, where he had been a nice and obedient member of the Army of Chaos (it's fine don't worry about it). Once he came back to the world proper, he found out that everyone had been missing for six weeks, everything had gone very bad, and there were a lot of problems that were coming up all over the world. But Kalil could use the vast network of allies and friends the party had made over 260 sessions to try and fight it all while still looking for his friends... but there would always be too many things to go fight. He would have four missions to pick from, and he could, at most, cover three, because they only had two airships plus his own method of traveling. Somewhere would always be ignored.
I gave every city in the world a Panic rating, and missions he couldn't cover would go up 2. Missions he sent a ship to, with a party on it, would go up 1. Missions he went to himself, which would then be that session's activity, would stay unchanged if he did well.
While the others were dealing with never wanting to leave a perfect world, I made Kalil deal with a world trying to shake itself to pieces, and he was the only one that could stop it.
I gave him XCOM.
The Ordeal ended in a massive, multi-hour boss fight in Session 300 against the villain responsible, with Kalil breaking down the barrier between worlds so everyone could come back together, all set to Florence + The Machine's "No Light No Light."
No one rolled a single die for thirty-nine sessions. It was all role-playing and decisions. It was the finest thing I have ever done as a GM. I could never have done anything like it if not for 250+ sessions of incredible storytelling, acting, and emoting from my players and I leading up to it, and clearly this only works with players who love roleplaying. I'm incredibly fortunate, and I know I'll never have anything like that again.HORIZON
This is the finest thing I have done as a creator.
I created Horizon as a challenge to myself. I wanted to do something special for my players, so I had a musical performance at a theater in the city of Night's Run. A pianist, Julia Tilmitt, would play a piano concerto that transported its viewers to somewhere magical, but she used these performances to tell the story of a certain set of people in the Old World, a time over a thousand years ago. The events were incredibly plot-important, but I wanted a fun way to tell them, so I did this.
I picked a series of piano-only pieces of music, cut them so they flowed into each other, and I narrated over top of them. I had a stopwatch next to me, and I had timestamps on my printed sheets of paper, so I tried to hit the narration in time with the music, because I wrote it in time with the music. I did four of these in-person.
The fifth had to be online (and we were up to roughly 25 minutes per performance now), so instead I pre-typed the entire thing in Excel, then copy-pasted each line in rhythm with the music. This meant I was no longer trapped by how quickly I could read! It was good! This happened at a Garamonde, and then ended with a massive battle and then followed by a vocal performance of "Watershed" by Vienna Teng, with Julia being the singer, because *gasp* JULIA WAS ACTUALLY PART OF EDEN ALL ALONG AND WATERSHED WAS EDEN'S SONG.
There were two more performances during The Ordeal, one for Naoko and one for Kogel, done in the same style.
But then I decided there was going to be a sixth (the fifth was supposed to be the last one, and said as much in-game), and I put it on the calendar because I knew I had to have a deadline if I was going to do it, and it was going to be the greatest thing I'd ever done. I worked on it for three actual real-world months.
I made it a video.
Working in absolute secret for those three months -- during my lunch break, using my laptop when my wife couldn't see it -- I picked out five pieces of music, wrote the script, selected a hundred photos or so, learned Photoshop to change the ones that I needed to change, learned how to use Premiere Pro to make a video and how to make text fade in and out and learning how to make effects and how to move images on a screen, made a video, tested it a few dozen times, uploaded it to Youtube and made it private (due to copyright I had to put it on a new account and give them the credentials), and then when the time came, in-session, I gave them all the credentials, put the video on the TV in my actual house so my wife could watch it, and I sat on the far side of the room, on the floor, my back on the wall, watching it and trying not to watch my wife because it was also the scariest thing I'd ever done.
When it ended, she turned to me and said, in this tiny voice, "So can I watch this any time that I want?" and it remains the best compliment I've ever received in my life.IN CLOSING
Tabletop roleplaying! Allegedly! And that's just the big stuff! A few other things:
- I made a wiki!
- I made an actual working calendar with links to sessions taking place on that in-game date. This meant I had to make up months for this fictional world, and then get images for the calendar so I had to go find images that represented in-world locations, and put all of the characters' birthdates on the calendar...
- We had multiple character birthday parties.
- I wrote multiple poems for in-game events and then one for a school assignment.
- There is a file with music and voicework from Sephiroth, with lines pulled from Dissidia 012 duodecim, so it's actually Sephiroth's voice actor, recorded from a PSP onto my laptop.
- My wife sings on a piece of music, words that I wrote, over a guitar line that a friend played, as an in-game character.
- A voice recording featuring my original two players playing the roles I designed to be like them in real life, plus me as both a villain and a supporting character.
- Multiple Moogle Memos
- Entire sessions designed in the service of one joke
- A character ability that required me to have an actual tarot deck on hand and also to learn what tarot was
- A homemade airship battle system
- A Google Sheet with shop inventory for multiple shops, all of which I had to make up, so there's a bunch of items that are designed after things I like, including something modeled after every party member from Persona 3 and 4.
- For instance, the Hat of Shirogane, modeled after Naoto from P4:
- Description: This blue and black cap looks like the kind of thing a detective might wear in some old serial, and wearing it fills you with the willing and eager spirit of investigation.
- Power: Daily: Investigation Team GO! For the duration of the scene, all alies share the wearer's Gather Information, Observation, and Sense Motive skills.
- Tonberries all named after NFL wide receivers.
- Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 characters, all of whom I can detail if given the name.
I miss it, massive, unwieldy beast that it became. But when this is all I've done for the last decade-plus, how in the world can I do anything else? How can I care about how many hit dice something has when I gave Bahamut four separate musical themes? How do I come back from this?
I'm honestly asking, because I do think I want to game again! Just... goodness