Phantasy Star

The other day my girlfriend sees me sitting on the couch, sketching on graph paper in a notebook, with several pages torn out and laying about covered in similar sketches. “What are you doing?” “Mapping,” I reply, lifting up half a dozen pages. “This is all one dungeon, so I needed to map it.”

Now, Phantasy Star II isn’t the first RPG that I’ve resorted to mapping for; that honor would go to Sword of Vermilion (which is probably one of the most awesome RPGs I’ve ever played), but it’s the first that I’ve felt that it was utterly necessary to keep one’s bearings. These dungeons are some of the most difficult of any game I’ve played, because of the combination of multiple up/down tiles in all of the dungeons, the lack of detail to quickly distinguish between dungeon levels and areas within those levels, and the overall frequency of encounters that break one’s ability to keep one’s bearings from memory.

I’d mucked about with Phantasy Star II a few times in the past, because my first impression was positive: I liked the idea of a Sword & Planet RPG and found the character art charming. But I couldn’t get past the brutal grind necessary to survive a few steps into the first dungeon, much less figure out what the hell was going on with all of the transporters, and I ultimately set it aside for other things after a handful of false starts.

I got a retro RPG bug the other day, though, and decided to play Phantasy Star IV, since it was on the same Sega collection disc and I figured that it would follow the general rule of old RPGs where Newer = Less clunky. And for the most part, I was right. PS IV was a delight, with plenty of endearing characters, heart-wrenching moments, and a delightful tear-jerker ending. I didn’t even have to grind at all to beat it!

What I don’t get is why in the localization of Phantasy Star they would change the names of various characters but leave the unintelligible and utterly mystifying spell names. I mean, sure, by the end of the game I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t through trial and error, but at what point did someone say something along the lines of “Bindwa & Tandle are perfectly fine names for abilities, but folks will be really confused by characters named Rudy and Pike, so let’s call them Chaz and Gryz instead. That’ll go over better in the west”? Seriously, localize mechanics, not character names.

But anyway, I decided to go back and give PS II a chance again. Man, is it a slog, but I’m invested enough in the setting that I’m going to see it through to the end. And if you’re the sort of person who enjoys mapping, that’s where you’re going to find the fun in it. Because you are going to need a map!

But, since I found my old world map of Sword of Vermilion, I think I’ll give that another go, too!

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Is Mapping Unfair?

I was thinking about the mapping for my game, because i’m considering giving my players a couple of “work-in-progress” maps of the Maze of Nuromen, representing where they’ve been so far; the first to the group of goblins, who, since they started in the middle of the dungeon, need something for a bit of orientation, and the second for the alpha party, whose mapper is a novice.

The eldest member of the group pointed out to the novice mapper that he should be grateful that I’ve helped him with mapping and pointed to a few significant mistakes (“dude, you mixed up East and West; here, let me just turn your map upside-down. Now it’s right. I’ll draw you a compass rose”)

I guess the reason why I feel like mapping is unfair is because it’s much easier to draw a map based on what you’re seeing around you than what you’re being told. I mean, the game already takes into account “mapping speed”, implying that the characters, if not the players, are carefully measuring and taking account of things. Room descriptions can be somewhat cumbersome, because you have to tell your players what’s in the room that immediately jumps out at them (either an encounter or a more figurative ‘jumps out’, like a big statue or altar or whatever), what’s in the room, what’s in the room after careful inspection of the room, dimensions of the room (god help you if you’re in anything that’s not a rectangle or something that resembles a tetris piece!), the locations of the exits from said room, and you need to figure out the best order in which to tell the players this! The problem is even worse if the players are in the subterrain and the walls and tunnels are irregular. For instance, while Dyson is a phenomenal artist when it comes to dungeon maps, a lot of his maps I would have a difficult time describing effectively enough to my players for them map.

I like some of the things I’ve seen for 4e, which wholly embraced the board game nature, of which there are many vestiges found in Basic, of Dungeons & Dragons, that took iconic dungeons like the Tomb of Horrors and made printable tile-sets for the rooms and tunnels. No worrying about where the players were actually stepping, whether they did or did not walk over a certain spot or getting lost even though the character in game are mapping and are capable mappers (the player doesn’t have to know magic or be good with a sword to play a wizard or a swordman, but he has to be able to map to play a character who can map; that hardly seems fair).

But you can’t always print off your dungeons in handy tile or geomorph format, and you can’t always work your dungeons onto a HeroQuest board (unless you’re running a HeroQuest to D&D conversion!), so what’s a DM to do? Right now, I don’t have the answer to that. My game is running myriad OSR dungeons, all of which are using the 10′ square grid maps.

One thing I’ve been considering as a future solution, however, is flowchart dungeons. I’m inspired partially by Random Wizard’s interactive node maps of some of the old modules and also Matthew Schmeer’s incredibly bizarre One Page Dungeon, The Wizard in the Woods is Up to Something (Maybe), which has almost twice the real-estate of Maze of Nuromen on a single page thanks to its keyed flow-chart. Even Zork, with its massive underworld, is just a big flowchart. Thinking about how we conceptualize space, locations and the distance between them, the flowchart makes more sense than a rigidly scaled map, and is much easier to convey to your players. It’s easier to say “You’re in a large underground room held up by 4 pillars, there are 6 exits; north, northeast, east, southeast, south, and west” than “…there are doors north and south, and a door on the opposite end of the room from which you came in. Also there are two doors on the east wall at the northeast and southeast corners of the room”, which would be the Room 2 in the Maze of Nuromen.

After this dungeon, I might experiment with treating the mapped dungeons as a flowchart rather than in concrete terms. If they ask for or need dimensions, I can give it to them. We’ll see!