Inside the GameCola RPGcast: Crystalis and Final Fantasy

A behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Crystalis D&Dcast and the Final Fantasy RPGcast, complete with top-secret game materials for download!

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Inside RPGcast BannerIf you’re a fan of the videogame-themed RPG podcasts we occasionally do here on GameCola, you might be wondering how to pilfer our ideas for your own tabletop gaming sessions. Don’t deny it; I’d know that look anywhere. If you enjoyed the Maid RPGcast, there’s plenty of info available on the game’s official website, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything about the planning and mechanics of the Crystalis D&Dcast or the Final Fantasy RPGcast unless your search engine indexes things inside my head, in which case I’d recommend staying away from searches for “that dream with the giant fish head”.

Fortunately for you, I’m ready and willing to share anything and everything you might want to know about these two adventures that I wrote and ran. And then some, because I’m verbose like that. If there’s something you’re curious to know that isn’t covered in this post, I encourage you to leave a comment! Assuming you make it that far; this post looks pretty long already.

Crystalis D&Dcast:

In a classic instance of naming a series before knowing what you want to do with it, I made the assumption that the Crystalis D&Dcast would be the first in a long line of role-playing podcasts utilizing Dungeons & Dragons game mechanics. At the time, D&D was being discussed in a few different posts and podcasts around the site; I had no idea how impractical the rules would be for adventures like this first one. But more on that later.

Initially, I had wanted to introduce the staff to D&D with the original Final Fantasy, which already borrows some ideas from D&D and is straightforward enough not to spook any beginners. From there, I could start getting creative with the game mechanics to better fit the likes of Crystalis (my pick for the second D&Dcast) and EarthBound (which I was considering for the third), once the players had been given sufficient exposure to the basics. However, the gang almost unanimously clamored for Crystalis first, so I mustered up every ounce of my resolve and gave in to their demands.

First, I decided on which flavor of D&D we’d be using. The majority of my experience was with version 3.5, so that decision practically made itself. Easier for me to explain the rules to a newcomer than go out and buy Pathfinder books have all of us struggle with a system I wasn’t entirely familiar with. Then, over the course of the next several days (weeks?), I started allocating my excess brainpower to mapping out the general storyline whenever I was in a situation that didn’t require my full attention (for example, driving my car). A full-fledged adventure began to coalesce in my mind as connections started to form between the locations, characters, and encounters I wanted to include. Once everything was mentally in place, it was time to start writing.

Even when I know what I want to write, writing is not always a speedy process for me. I’ve learned that one hour of game time takes me roughly three hours to write, if I’m scripting all the dialogue and being thorough in my descriptions of events and settings. Generating stats and selecting abilities for combat-ready NPCs takes time; coming up with contingency plans for when the players go chasing wild geese takes time; and, in this case, finding monster stats from an NES game and converting them for use with D&D 3.5 rules takes time.

Striving for authenticity, I meticulously researched every aspect of Crystalis that would make its way into the quest: the physical appearance of every shopkeeper the players would encounter; the distribution of enemies throughout every tunnel and cliffside; the precise history of the game world, cross-referencing the in-game text for both the NES and GBC version of the game, plus the NES instruction manual. I loaded up old savegames, checked out screenshot maps and sprite sheets, and consulted walkthroughs and YouTube playthroughs. I’m a stickler for continuity, attention to minute detail warms my heart when I notice it in other creative works, and I wanted nothing less than to do justice to one of my all-time favorite games.

The process may sound arduous, but it’s absolutely worth it. Especially if you’ve got an interest in game design, delving into the nitty-gritty of a game can be fun and fascinating. For instance, there’s no practical reason for the tiny village of Joel to have two wells and a freshwater pond all right next to each other, but that’s an oddity you’d never notice until thinking about what it would be like to live in this world.

While all of this was going on, I started recruiting players and, once we had a group locked in, coordinated schedules to find a time to play. I advertised the open character slots as follows—see if you can spot my subtle Mega Man 6 reference:

  • Zebu: Sword of Wind; Refresh (healing) and Paralysis magic; the wise man’s wise man.
  • Tornel: Sword of Fire; Telepathy and Teleport magic; the trainer and teacher.
  • Asina: Sword of Water; Recover (status recovery) and Barrier (force shield) magic; the kindly fortune-telling queen and love interest of Kensu.
  • Kensu: Sword of Thunder; Change (polymorph) and Flight magic; the brash and grumpy master of disguise and love interest of Asina.
  • [Optional 5th character] Stom: Master of spear; no magic; the martial artist soldier and pupil of Tornel.

In advance of our first session, I distributed pre-populated character sheets to the participants. Given that these were established characters and this was our first time playing D&D as a staff, it made sense to hand everything to the players on a virtual platter. I also offered a crash course on D&D to any interested party members—Christian “Tornel” Porter took me up on that, and I subjected him to a brief improv session that culminated in one-on-one combat under the Big Top against a sinister clown. This is my new thing, training newcomers to tabletop role-playing by pitting them against a clown.

With all the prep work out of the way (that’s a lie; I only wrote as much of the quest as I needed to have for the first session, and filled in the rest when I had time in the weeks that followed), we had our first session. A normal length for one of my sessions is three to four hours; I find that you can’t get anything done in less than two, and there’s always at least 30 minutes of game time lost to technical issues and digressions about burritos. The way I figured it, two sessions should’ve been sufficient to get the party from the inn at Nadare’s to the final battle. That quickly turned into “two sessions, plus however many more we need because these combat encounters take forever.”

You’ll notice that Part 1 of the Crystalis D&Dcast went up on October 1st, 2012, and that Part 10 went up on March 15th, 2013. That’s half a year we spent on planning, recording, editing, and writing about this adventure. Add another four months, almost exactly, if you count transferring the podcasts to YouTube as well. Even without posting about it, writing and coordinating a campaign is a huge commitment! But it’s also totally worth it.

At the conclusion of the campaign, I thanked my players profusely for their participation, and I requested their candid feedback via my Obligatory Questionnaire that I’ve been sending to my players since I started DMing back in college:

1.) What did you like about this quest?
2.) What didn’t you like about this quest?
3.) How’s my DMing?
4.) What suggestions/recommendations do you have for future D&Dcasts?

Obviously the last question was slightly different back in college, but the sentiment remains. I thrive on constructive feedback, and the responses I’ve received over the years have been invaluable in honing my tabletop craft. Of course, all responses are kept confidential, but I will say that a few observations and suggestions from the group really stuck out to me. First, the podcast format made it difficult for them to stay focused and visualize what was going on. Second, battles in particular took up waaaaay too much time. Third, playing a character they didn’t have a hand in creating made it difficult to be fully invested in the character. I agreed wholeheartedly with the group, and I vowed to address those issues for the next quest.

Final Fantasy RPGcast:

Just as Crystalis was coming to a close, Michael Gray was kicking off the Maid RPGcast, which gave me a good six months to recharge and gear up for my next quest, which was going to be Final Fantasy no matter how much peer pressure I got. As you’ll notice if you look through my notes and listen carefully to the podcast, I started winging more and more of the Crystalis adventure as time went on—for Final Fantasy, I wanted to do better. Just because I can improv doesn’t mean I should rely on it; action sequences usually work out fine, but I feel so much more satisfied with my dialogue and descriptions when I script at least some of them ahead of time. And boy howdy did I want to get the combat balance right—one of the biggest problems with the Crystalis D&Dcast was that hero and villain HP totals were unreasonably high compared to the amount of damage being dealt by standard-but-slightly-modified D&D weapons.

This time I was going to simplify matters by abandoning D&D and pioneering a straightforward set of game rules that were podcast—and newbie—friendly. No more movement speed; no more skill points; no more feats. Everything would be based around the gameplay of Final Fantasy, with hints of D&D supplementing the existing rules as needed.

Fortunately, Final Fantasy is well documented. Monster stats, equipment details, game mechanics, and the game script are all readily available online, if you look around a bit. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be the definitive source on anything—conflicting and incomplete information abounds. In part, this is due to the game’s buggy programming confusing people who have trouble differentiating what is and what was supposed to be; in part, it’s because the game has been ported and re-released so many times that nobody even knows which version they’re talking about. My research this time consisted of ping-ponging between the Final Fantasy Wiki and a quartet of seemingly reliable guides on GameFAQs, all the while replaying the original NES version of the game (which was partly for research, and partly to try having a Black Belt and Thief in the party for once so I could confidently mark the game as Completed on my Backloggery).

You know what I learned from my research? It’s a miracle Final Fantasy works at all. It’s staggering to discover that nobody knows what Intelligence does, LOK2 actually raises the bad guys’ evasion score, and running away from battles is more contingent on a character’s position in the party order than their Luck stat. Understanding the intricacies of the game mechanics was a challenge to begin with, but adapting those mechanics to create a rules system from scratch—and one that human beings could use without doing constant complex calculations—was quite an undertaking.

I admit to tweaking the rules a few times as the players uncovered surprises that never came up during the playtesting phase (read: the practice session with Joseph “JOEV the White Mage” that culminated in combat under the Big Top against a sinister clown). However, I am incredibly pleased with how simple and elegant the final game mechanics ended up being, and the battles were definitely faster-paced than in the Crystalis D&Dcast. I still ended up improvising more dialogue than I wanted to toward the end, but that’s my own fault.

The real curve ball this time was losing control of the campaign before I’d even finished the introduction. I made the mistake of mentioning a pancake brunch as the reward for rescuing the princess. This was supposed to be a throwaway gag. It ended up being the driving force behind the adventure. Then the players started poking around the castle that I explicitly mentioned held nothing of interest. I hadn’t considered it initially, but if the players were trailing behind the real Light Warriors, then the treasury would’ve already been unlocked. Maybe the Light Warriors were maxed out on equipment and couldn’t carry one or two of the things in the treasure boxes, which would allow the players to have some reward for their impromptu sequence-breaking. Of course, I didn’t plan to be handing away a Silver Knife at any point during the campaign, but I suddenly found myself skimming through one of my FAQs for the weapon details and converting the stats to conform to my adapted rules system on the fly. Whee-haw.

This time, we finished the quest in the number of sessions we’d counted on, we cut the average time for a battle in half (totally guessing, but probably accurate), and the players had complete control over the creation of their characters. We still spent a great deal of time in combat (given that Final Fantasy is, by its nature, a combat-heavy game), but overall I think the adventure ironed out many of the wrinkles we had with Crystalis, and the feedback I received should help me further refine the gameplay and process of future RPGcasts.

Now, you might be interested to see exactly what was written and assembled for both of these adventures. Maybe you’d even like to run an RPGcast of your own. You’re in luck!

Additional resources: VGMaps, GameFAQs, The Spriters Resource, RPG Classics, Tom’s Crystalis World, Final Fantasy Wiki, YouTube

I’m providing these for your own personal use, so please don’t go redistributing these in whole or in part without permission (especially the D&D character sheets, which are copyright Wizards of the Coast, though I believe them to be sufficiently transformative so as not to infringe upon that copyright). Circulating amongst your gaming group is fine if you’re running a quest, though. Oh, and good luck making sense of everything, because I definitely didn’t write these with you in mind. As far as you know, any errors and omissions are completely intentional.

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About the Contributor

Since 2009

Nathaniel Hoover is almost certainly GameCola's most verbose staff member, and arguably the most eclectic. As administrator of the GameCola YouTube channel (GCDotNet), occasional contributor to every article category on the site, and staff editor, you're pretty much stuck with him wherever you go. Sorry.

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