Friday, April 26, 2013

Watering Down the Bad Guys

It's days like this that make me miss AD&D 2nd Edition and their total ban on anything demonic or related to the planes of the Abyss or Hades. I will get to my thoughts in a minute, but let's get some background first.

George was doing a read through of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting World Guide, and he did a 'state of the world' report to me, just for fun. Demons figure prominently in the world, and when I came to think of it, demons figure prominently in most Pathfinder adventure paths too. Demons here are the 'big bad' and it seems I just can't get away from them in the setting or published materials. Cheliax, the Worldwound, and a bunch of the enemeies in the Adventure Paths are all demonic figures, and I had a feeling that I misses the days where demons were special, extremely rare, and extremely secretive entities that were more manipulators than the en-masse-enemy-de-jour. I mean, this is Paizo's choice, and I accept it, but I like my infernal forces to be special, one-of-a-kind enemies, such as a demon who lives at the bottom of a dungeon and manipulates goings-on there indirectly.

Switch over to D&D4, and the initial situation is a little better, especially if you limit the game to the basic books. In the 4E Dungeon Master's Guide, we have rules to build custom monsters, and we used these to build 20th level human mercenaries, 16th level plant monsters, and all sorts of other non-demonic bad guys. Just playing with the basic book, you could run an entire campaign without playing the demon card, and just have enemies based on whatever you want. We ran a campaign like this for the longest time, with various bad guys popping up, and with demons playing a lesser role in the background - but still as threats.

Old habits die hard, and it does get worse in Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, a supplement on the demonic side of the 4E World. Here, the planes of hell are laid out in detail, with an uncharacteristic description of demonic planes and their populations of billions of demons laid out. Nothing kills a game like creating hopeless places like this and expecting DMs not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of what was just dumped on their carefully created campaigns. Yes, DM Fiat applies, you don't have to use it, but this is the official world, and demons have just been promoted to a major role in the ecosystem of the world and its monsters.

I do wish for a world where demons were special again, rare, and existing as the manipulators in the background, not troops on the battlefield. I guess it's a natural progression of demons as the bad guys, you seen it with the Drow as well. In the beginning, the Drow were wicked creatures of the underdark, sadistic evil elves, very rare and special when met. Then the drow became the enemy-de-jour, and you seen them everywhere, armies were on the surface world, and they appeared frequently in modules and on magazine covers. We then had the drow-as-antihero phase, and then today's drow as everyhero phase - they are part of the normal race mix. They have to invent creatures to replace the sadistic evil drow on old-days, like the githanki or something. Demons and their tiefling pop-PC-choices are following the same path, and sooner or later, you'll see something branded as 'worse than demons' appear, like the demons of the demons.

Back to the main point, demons are really prevalent in modern-day gaming, almost too prevalent. I miss the freedom to define the campaign's big-bad as anything you want it to be (aka 4E original 3 books OR Pathfinder minus Golarion), and not have later supplements redefine the world. It is enough to just have dragons and their humanoid servants be the campaign's enemy, or evil mages and their armies, and just leave it at that. There is a point where you need to step back and say, "We need to support referee's and their choices on what's important, and be sure the game company is not dictating a favored enemy or play style."

By making demons the big-bad, it tends to water down everything else in comparison. It feels like Dark Elves in Golarion are window dressing, humanoids are servants of demons, undead are second-fiddle players to demons, and dragons are not really important at all to the world and its history. 4E is a little better with the balance of importance of enemies and their factions, but we do tend to slide towards 'Orcus being the big-bad' at times, and it trends towards gods vs. demons in the end-game. All factions should threaten the world equally, undead lords in Pathfinder should be able to trash the demon's plans, the dark elves could rise and assassinate a demon prince, and even a dragon could get into the fray and kick serious tail. The world should be dangerous, and all enemy factions should be a threat.

Yes, what's in your campaign is your choice, but it is hard to get away from some of these things if you are playing the official releases. Those releases create a 'shared world' for all the players, and control their expectations. If all of a sudden, you see a game with custom enemies and the game doesn't support it, you may run into players that would see that as derivative or off-the-beaten-track. My preference is for freedom and custom enemies, special and rare when they need to be, and respected and celebrated as unique and powerful foes.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Where Are Our Immersive Experiences?

George was playing Call of Duty 2 on the big screen TV, and I watched him climb up sheer walls of ice (often falling off), race snowmobiles, hang from cliffs, and do all sorts of other cool stuff that just blew my mind. In reality, a lot of the Battlefield and Call of Duty games go like this, they break up the monotonous shooting levels with in-your-face action, car chases, hang-on-for-your-life moments, and plenty of cinematic spills and chills.

Contrast this with tabletop games such as Descent and roleplaying games like D&D4 and Pathfinder. In tabletop strategy games such as Descent, they place varied sub-goals on the map to break things up, but often the same turn-denial tactics win the day, and you are left with just the math and random chance to provide the excitement. My four figures against your ten, with infinite monster replenishments providing the impetus to end the scenario quickly. You can't run across a flaming log bridge only moments from collapse, dodge falling pillars as the temple crumbles around you, or leap aross an ever widening crevasse to safety. Scenario design could alleviate some of these problems, but too often tabletop games seem mired in the thought of 'math is fun' and expect that combat alone will solve all problems.

Roleplaying games fare a bit better - but you need a spectacular referee and players willing to throw caution to the wind to have a great time. A party that turtles up and avoids running through the collapsing temple, looking for another way around is going to kill your seat-of-your-pants fun; and similarly an unimaginative referee who presents a dull and structurally sound temple full of the same old goblins will get you back to that same old boring experience.

Players could revolt at the entire idea, and shout 'railroading' at the collapsing temple scene and they would be partially right. You need to give and take though, and the cry of railroading can be a method of refusing to participate; you have total freedom in there to escape, and you need to give a little to see how the story comes out. You could call everything in roleplaying games beyond a generic sandbox as railroading, but where is the fun in that? The referee needs the freedom to setup cinematic deathtraps for the players to escape and beat, and these are the challenges in which heroes are made. If I am a player, I accept your railroad, and I shall beat this train in my own way - with style.

So back to the question, where are our cinematic and immersing experiences? The old game Paranoia had it right: if you are boring, you are dead. Take chances, and you shall be rewarded. Your character's survival, however, is not guaranteed. Smart play, daring risks, and decisive action are the path to victory - but even then, a bad dice roll could turn your brave plan into a fool's folly. The only certainty is failure through inaction or cautious play. This is the unwritten contract between players and referees that made that game work so well, and the groups that understood it had a blast. The groups that played the game like some 1984 psychological drama or post-apocalyptic game had less fun.

In itself, math is not fun. A new way of rolling dice does not make a game fun. Having plenty of character design options does not make a game fun. Putting twenty figures on the map for your team of heroes to fight does not make the game any more fun than placing ten. In fact, more figures and more stats means less fun and more work. Combat is dull if it is just a dry calculation of AC versus combat modifiers. We need those moments of excitement. We need for characters to fail and fall. Without failure, there is no risk, and thus, no fun. The definition of a game is an activity in which you can fail.

Where do we go from here? You need to look inside yourself, as a referee, and make that choice to take the game into your own hands - and provide those cinematic experiences to your players despite what the rules say. As a player, you need to rise to the challenge, and accept fate. If the bridge ahead of you is burning and falling to pieces, you should go for it. As a referee, they should have a chance to cross that bridge based on skill, luck, or ingenuity - it is not a 100% certain deathtrap. This is more changing ourselves than the rules or the game, to accept action-oriented cinematic experiences as our personal playstyle - no matter what the game.

Players: Take chances and accept fate. Inaction is failure.

Referees: Present cinematic experiences, and to hell what the rules say.

Monday, April 8, 2013

"If I do poorly, it's the game's fault..."

The above quote is probably the faulty ideal of modern game design, from pen-and-paper games to MMOs. Today's players are being trained to blame the game first for a lousy experience, and designers are encouraging that with 'no-lose' gameplay. Let's rewind a little bit, and see how this came about.

George wanted to boot up his old Everquest account, and see how the game has changed. Thankfully, it hasn't changed terribly much over the years, and that is its appeal. At high levels, the game is hard and unforgiving. If you don't spent XPs to develop your character at high levels, you will suck, and the monsters will use you as a dishrag to wipe the zone with. The game doesn't stop you from leveling past certain points, but if you don't put in the required time to fully develop your "alternate abilities" at certain level break points (55, 60, 63, 65, etc), take it from me, you character will suck. Monsters will out-dps you, you won't be able to enjoy the high stats of good gear, and you will be hindered as you level further with none of the cool high-level powers and abilities.

In Everquest, if you do poorly, it is your fault. The game doesn't hand-hold, you have to ask questions of the community, you have to research character builds and zones, and you need to do your homework in order to do well. It has gotten a little easier over the years, but the core concept of the game still remains. I think the statement "If I do poorly, it's my fault" is the defining belief of a hard-core, old-school gamer - we believe this, and we seek games out that give us that experience. The more unforgiving, the more arcane knowledge needed to do well, the more learning and perfecting technique needed - the better. You see it with some online shooters, and other games where mastering the game (without cheats) leads to success. There has to be a skill set you need to earn the hard way, and this separates the good players from the bad. D&D3 used to call it system mastery, and it still applies today.

Contrast this against games like Farmville, most of the newer content for the World of Warcraft MMO, or any other modern MMO where if you show up and do anything, you will succeed. If there is a challenge point in the game where only 10% of the people playing it can get past - that is seen as a bug or game defect, and the community complains until it is eliminated. If you do bad, it is often seen as the 'game's fault' first. This theory is the dominant game design theory in most new games, they handhold, they make it easy to level, and any sort of challenge is weeded out by complaints from the community.

In old-school games, these challenge points are what separates the bad players from the good. You get a series of these challenges, be they strategies, dungeons, learning your class in different situations, power selection and use, and any other activity where you need to learn and apply a skill set - and you get a natural filtering process. This creates a system where less-skilled players fall out and never get past certain points, and great players learn and adapt. Yes, this is an article on creating an elite group of players, with a real cost to get there. You won't be able to buy your way to the top, nor will you be able to grind your way up there with time - only skill will get you there.

I like to have my butt kicked, and have to learn a new set of rules every once and a while - even within the same game. I like not having things told to me, and having to figure them out or ask others. I like a game that creates tough un-winnable situations, and the only way through them is to adapt and excel at the limited set of abilities you are given. I like games that reward the time put into them, and that don't have easy ways to win, or ways to buy your way to the top. I like being that 'uber player' and I like games that make it next to impossible to get there.

If I am going to spend my time in your game to be the best at it, the highest measure of respect a game designer can give to me is to make it hard on everyone to be the best. Like in life, we can't all be the gold-medal snowboarder or star basketball player - but we can be that in MMOs. If you make it easy for everyone to be a 85th level Michael Jordan, no one will ever be the best or be special. You have just robbed me of the respect and awe of others, and frankly, I am less interested in your game. I will always play 'screw around' games, but games that I am serious about require a serious effort to them to succeed at.

Challenges where players quit and fall off are good. Not everyone can be the best. And if I do poorly, I want it to be my fault.