I Am Setsuna and The Grind

i am setsuna

I Am Setsuna is an RPG in the classic JRPG style. This means that there is a Grind. I Am Setsuna does something a little novel with its grind mechanics that I think is worth exploring both for the ways in which it’s innovative, and in the ways in which it probably doesn’t do enough to fix the Grind problem.

Spritnite & Monster Kills

The roots of I Am Setsuna‘s anti-grind lie in spritnite. Spritnite are significant items in the gameplay: each one you find gives your characters dramatic new abilities. In I Am Setsuna, a spell or special attack that some games might grant you when you level up is instead granted to you through the spritnite you have equipped (much like materia in Final Fantasy VII).

This makes the discovery of new spritnite a significant event for the player. New attacks! New spells! New combos! Spritnite even comes with rather significant bits of world lore for those of us into exploring the story. The idea of getting new spritnite is a significant driver of your action.

The main way you get spritnite in I Am Setsuna is rather mundane, however. Merchants sell it. Even fairly early in the game, these merchants will be loaded down with a dizzying variety of spritnite. The action you take to get new spritnite is “find the merchant in town and talk to them.”

As a wrinkle, these merchants don’t take your typical gold coins. Instead, they are after monster drops – “materials” in the game’s parlance.

Monster drops are, for the most part, not based on rarity. There is one “rare drop” for each monster family, and there’s a few monsters whose appearance is random and who often escape combat before the player can act (this game’s version of Metal Slimes). But most monsters freely drop most of their materials with only one requirement: that you kill them a certain way. Kill them by hitting their HP almost exactly for an Exact Kill. Kill them by massively over-damaging them for an Overkill. Kill them with a particular character, weapon, or elemental spell for a Fire Kill, an Ice Kill, a Time Kill, a Light Kill, etc.

With those elements – spritnite, merchants, and monster drops – we have the basic loop of I Am Setsuna‘s grind: you want new spritnite, so you find the monster drops that the merchant needs to give you the spritnite. This means fighting the same monster groups over and over for specific or challenging drops, which gives you the XP you need to grind up. It also gives you the gold you need, via selling those monster drops (including all those you don’t need for the specific spritnite you seek) to the spritnite merchants.

Complexity & Variability

The ultimate effect of I Am Setsuna‘s grind loop may be the same as ever – fighting the same monsters over  and over again – but the different drops, the different characters you need to achieve the various types of Kill, the spritnite you get at the end, the freedom to choose which materials to pursue and which to leave alone…all this offers a lot of decision points, encourages diversity, and gives a significant reward for all that. These elements make the game’s grind significantly less annoying than it could be if they adhered too closely to old JRPG grind tropes.

In effect, you’re getting something of a voluntary fetch-quest generator. “Give me twenty bear asses” is replaced by “Give me two Glowing Stones, one Fir Branch, one Exotic Flower, and one Penguin’s Treasure,” with part of the fun being discovering what monster drops the necessary items.

The complexity of the system is key to this variability – there are a lot of potential places where a player can say, “I’m bored of doing this for now, let’s do something else,” and have that still lead to a valuable reward. You can change a lot of elements of the grind, and still be grinding. The rote repetition isn’t there at a granular level, but it is still there at the macro level, allowing the design team to still encourage grinding, just in a more nuanced way than many classic JRPG’s.

Monotony & Impossibility

Some of the failures of I Am Setsuna‘s grind loop aren’t exactly the fault of the system’s design, but rather it’s supporting elements. I Am Setsuna has made some significant choices that contribute to the feeling of boredom in the grind that have little to do with the grind loop itself. These include its soundtrack – though the piano melodies are fairly good, and set a nice mood, the difference betweeen one track and another with only one instrument is blurred. This means that there’s little variation in the sound that happens during the grind. Overworld theme – dungeon theme – battle theme 5-10 times, repeat.

There’s also not much in the way of visual distinction. I Am Setsuna does some beautiful things with its wintery setting, but most of its dungeons are a monotony of white and gray. Over the course of a grind it becomes stifling. Another snowy wood. Another snowy mountain.

Again and again, the lesson remains: the art around your game design is a crucial part of the overall game.

The system itself has flaws that exacerbate that monotony, too. For one, not every bit of spritnite will be something you can access when it becomes available. Your first access to certain kind of elements doesn’t come until much later in the game, but spirtnite that uses materials that can only be harvested with those elements is present in the merchant’s inventory early. Some spritnite also requires rare drops from certain bosses that you won’t be able or likely to get the first time through. This removes some of the drive to grind, because you will never be able to grind enough to get that spritnite. Might as well continue on, then, getting what you can when you can.

The framing of the loop system is also quite underwhelming. Giving materials to a merchant is hardly a significant action by your party. Though spritnite itself is a nice reward, the narrative that backs up your acquisition is a little hollow – no different in effect from grinding for gold. It makes the materials something of a burden rather than something interesting to find.

The materials themselves also have no distinguishing features or unique lore associated with them. Though several have very evocative names, the various branches, roots, and flowers all blend together, leading to more grind than intended when a misreading has you chasing down a material that you can’t actually harvest yet. And there are few worse feelings in a world where grind exists than grinding uselessly. This game’s grind loop makes that a real possibility.

The Good Grind

Grind is often a feature of large, sprawling games, rather than a bug. Today saw the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes hours to get going, and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has also been noted to have a slow start. The many sidequests and goof-off opportunities in open-world games tends to be one of the fun aspects of them – the ability to go off the main game and get lost for hours in the wilderness is, in part, a way to encourage a grind loop. Even without level gatekeeping, the purpose is to encourage you to consume what the game developers have produced, to devote more time to the game, and to see it as a greater value. Grind is abnegation play, just zoning out and pushing buttons for a while. Grind is Candy Crush and stopping random criminals in Spider-Man and ignoring the main quest in Skyrim. It can be compelling enough to be the main draw of the game!

To make the grind compelling, though, you need to hide the monotony and repetition behind it. I Am Setsuna succeeds in obscuring that with some complexity and self-determination, but due to its art direction, it’s sound direction, it’s narrative design, and it’s pacing, it doesn’t quite achieve a good grind.

Grind – or, more politely, abnegation – is something that most games have some of by design. Abnegation in my games might be significantly smaller in scope – more on the order of minutes than days – but even those minutes should contain compelling, repetitive loops. Agency, variety, and juicy rewards are good ways to improve the fun of the grind. The grind gets dull when it gets repetitive, or when it feels pointless, and so I should keep a close eye on dull cycles in my own design.

With luck, I can achieve a few minutes of good grind, and not wear out my welcome.


Design Diary: Monster Conversions


So, this year hasn’t been nearly as productive for DM’s Guild as last year for me. The main reason for this is because I became a dad, de-railing any previous plans I may have had. That said, naps and nannies have let me publish two releases recently that I’m excited about, as they build up my “DM’s Side of the Table” library.

They’re both monster conversions: Foulspawn and Creatures of Air. Both have taught me some interesting lessons about D&D monster design, and about constraints.

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Domains of Play


It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that Jason VandenBerghe is one of my *favorite* devs. He’s one of those “I want to be like this when I grow up” guys.


His beard alone is #facegoals.

He’s got a series of talks up in the GDC vault that revolve around developing his thesis regarding Domains of Play, a kind of player-typing system that helps developers look at their game through the eyes of many different types of players so that they can consciously choose their audience.

First: The Intro.

Second: Development.

Third: Over Time.

Fourth (this is an article): The Follow-Up.

A few things really resonated with me in terms of the regular practice of design. Let’s dig into them!

Continue reading “Domains of Play”

Character Creation is the Whole Game (Analysis)


This neat little microgame by Rob Beschizza is a pretty fascinating idea. You’re assigning points to six ability scores D&D style, but each time you add a point, your avatar goes on an unseen adventure and returns with gold, XP, loot, and, potentially, a promotion of some sort. The goal of the game is, apparently, to achieve as much as possible in your short life (much like life itself, I suppose!).

I appreciate it as a bit of a study in minimalism. Character creation is probably half the fun of any RPG, as the complex character options in various tabletop RPG’s and, well, anything there’s a Monster Factory episode on demonstrate nicely, and turning it into a game in and of itself is a nice bit of elegance.

Lessons Learned

  • Fit as much as possible into a single action. No sense in complicatin’ things up.
  • Building a character is inherently rewarding. Envisioning your fictional avatar is a fun toy in and of itself.
  • Discovering hidden options adds replayability. With a game loop this short, the ability to add to different stats and experience subtly different stories adds some replayability. If the game wanted to enhance this aspect of itself, it might make unique endcards for the higher-ranking achievements (I got up to Warlord while I was playing, which is a neat title, but it’s the same job screen you see above).
  • Clarity helps the experience. First few times I played, I didn’t realize you could go into negative points or reduce your scores, and the various careers or paths you follow aren’t really differentiated, leading to feel pretty samey in practice.

One Year on DM’s Guild


After a little less than one year selling products through the DM’s Guild, I figured this new year would be a good time to analyze some actual numbers. I’m probably on the smaller side in terms of sales on the platform (no bestsellers), but I’ve got consistent sales and well-reviewed products across a range of purchase models and product types, which gives me a lot of ways to slice and dice the limited amount of data I’ve got.

So here’s a few Interesting Things, if you’re into the data crunching. It’s a long post, but I am kind of a nerd about this stuff! Sneak Preview:

  • I made about 1/10th of what I’d make per word as an actual writer (or less!)
  • Pay What You Want might not be worth it from a creator’s standpoint
  • People don’t comment on products
  • Products linked to WotC Storylines lead to better sales overall

Want some more details? Okay!

Continue reading “One Year on DM’s Guild”

Design Diary: The Amazon


I’m involved in a little project of creating a DMs Guild product that includes the updates of various character archetypes from earlier editions. One of those character archetypes is The Amazon, from the second edition Complete Fighter’s Handbook. You can see a work-in-process version below.


My hope here is to talk a bit about the process of designing these things as I’m going through them.


My  goal is to allow people who enjoyed the kit from the source material to realize the the archetype in a satisfying way in the current game. I prefer to use a light touch where possible.

Research & Analysis

The source material for this kit is weighed down with come good ol’ fashioned 1980’s gender baggage. Though it does an admirable job of confronting the gender bias that might have persisted in the audience, the very fact that there is a kit specifically designed for women warriors is…kind of remarkable in it’s ability to create the Other in game rules.

That said, the archetype is certainly a fantasy staple that persists into the modern age, and it’s an appealing warrior archetype – an outsider, dedicated to war, suspicious of the society she finds herself in…there’s a lot of juicy potential in that narrative.

I also consulted the Amazon monster entry from the 2e era, and derived from there a few more variations on the theme. I identified seven different “flavors” of Amazon described in the source material.These seven kinds of characters formed the core of my design.

Design Notes

To meet the primary design goal, I considered what was most remarkable and unique about the kit as presented. The “bonus for being a SURPRISE competent woman warrior” wasn’t something that made sense in the Forgotten Realms assumptions of D&D (where gender equality is the norm), and some of the 2e-era role-playing restrictions weren’t exactly something I wanted to tie into the mechanics of the class. I wanted it to be up to the players and the DM how this hero was treated, and to presume she was treated no differently than any other woman warrior in the Realms – though she may see herself differently.

I gravitated toward the proficiencies the character requires or receives as a bonus as distinguishing – the mount, the spear, and the bow. Adding on the flavors from the monster version of the Amazon, this came to mean seven significant kinds of characters:

  1. A charioteer
  2. A mounted archer
  3. A sailor
  4. An elven variant
  5. A dwarven variant
  6. A gnomish variant
  7. A halfling variant

The racial variants had significant deviation in their proficiencies and in their apparent playstyle, so they couldn’t just be rolled into One True Amazon very easily, without erasing some of their distinctive traits. These seven character types became “The Seven Sisters” in the current design – seven city-states that bear witness to the ancient ways of the Amazons.

In turning to the existing 5e rules to see how these characters would be realized, I saw a lot of support for most of these characters. Fighting on horseback, with two weapons, and with ranged weapons (thrown or bows) are all fairly decently supported. In my initial run, I created a subclass for an Amazon Warrior, providing seven different potential benefits all centered around that Amazon group’s particular style. However, subsequent drafts found this to be a bit unwieldy and unnecessary – there was nothing particularly special about being a horse-archer in 5e D&D that taking Sharpshooter and Mounted Combatant wouldn’t achieve, and a lot of class abilities, in trying to incentivize the style, were re-treading ground already tread by  other rules elements. In addition, I felt that fighting with a spear or a sling or chariot shouldn’t be something you “graduate” to at 3rd level – you shouldn’t start the game wielding a pike and then turn it into a spear after your first few adventures. That’s not an “upgrade.”

So I simplified. Looking beyond subclasses, I sought to build these characters using as few new options as possible, and especially in realizing their unique fighting styles from level 1. In doing so, I identified three main areas that, without new options, were a little anemic:

  1. There needed to be some reason to be a charioteer for that character type.
  2. For the spear-fighting “hoplyte” character type, there needed to be a mechanic that raised spear damage to the level of most martial weapon damage, while still letting them wield it in one hand. Fighting with a spear needed to be there.
  3. For the halfling variant, there needed to be a mechanic to raise javelin and sling damage to the level of most martial weapon damage.

These also didn’t strike me as exclusively Amazon in nature. To embody an ancient Greek spear-fighter or one who uses primitive weapons (or a chariot!), one needn’t necessarily be an Amazon. I did want to ensure that campaigns that didn’t use feats could still access these types.

The answer seemed to be fighting styles. Though these fighting styles are a bit bigger and more complex than the existing options in the Player’s Handbook, the concept itself allowed multiple character types – in multiple classes – to access these mechanics. It also addressed the need to power-up weak weapons from Level 1, which was important in achieving a feel for the character.

Ongoing Concerns

These styles are a little inelegant and wordy. They combine many benefits under a single option. Their lists of benefits feel more “feat-like” than “fighting-style” like. I think these are important in concert, but I also wonder about just creating new equipment to fill that void (a javelin, spear, and sling that count as a “martial weapon” in and of themselves?), though I think that would rob the Amazon of some of her “ancient” flavor. There should be some way to give every campaign (even those without feats) a first-level fighter who uses “simple” weapons as effectively as most fighters use martial weapons. I’ve got concerns about mounts and chariots that relate to how 5e in general treats mounts and animal companions – I don’t like how the charioteer isn’t at “full strength” without a chariot, and there’s not an easy mechanic to ensure they always have a chariot in a fight (at the very least, sometimes a chariot just isn’t appropriate for a fight you’re doing). At the moment, our charioteer is kind of a wasted option in a campaign that takes place in cramped kobold warrens or somesuch.

A Lesson Learned

The aesthetic of your character – the weapons and armor you prefer to wield – are fairly ground-level concerns. You should look the part of the warrior you’re embodying from basically 1st level on, even if you don’t have all the bells and whistles yet.

No Man’s Sky is Almost the Perfect Vaporwave Game


Think pieces on No Man’s Sky seem to be almost as abundant as plutonium these days. The hype. The disappointment. The “broken promises.” The rush of individuals trying to explain what it all “means.”

If you’re interested in broad commentary, Superbunnyhop, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Errant Signal all, I think, have useful perspectives on it. But when I see a game that seems to be stumbling, I like to see what I can learn from it.

Continue reading “No Man’s Sky is Almost the Perfect Vaporwave Game”