Thursday, August 24, 2017

Stuff, Then Some Game Design

Part of my nature is to work on a particular project for a time, so long as it remains interesting, then ultimately set that project down to work on something else.  I'll work on maps for a bit, then the trade system, then the wiki and the sage abilities, followed by some project like rules for ship combat, then ~ and I'm doing now ~ I'll work on monsters, until finally after six or eights months, I'll start working on maps again.

I've actually been like this since I was seven or eight ~ though my projects were less ambitious then.  At eight, I would write some stories, then I would copy all the cities out of my atlas that had more than 25,000 people into a list, then I would draw some maps out of the atlas, then I would use my almanac to make some diagrams depicting how much natural resources one country was making compared with another country, then I'd make a list of the largest countries in the world, to compare them, and then I would get the urge to start writing stories again.  This was all long, long before I ever discovered D&D.

So, the reader can see, I was always crazy.

This round of monsters, I had promised myself I would do at least fifty.  So far, I've done 30.  In about a week, so not bad.  It would be nice if I could sustain this for two more weeks, that would get a fair bit done, but I could feel with the beholder yesterday and the black pudding today that I'm already beginning to tire of it.  It is a lot of writing and most of it doesn't have an immediate application for anything.  Still, I do intend to do that 50 and if I can push myself to keep going after that, all the better.

I was going to work on the bonesnapper tonight before going to bed, but instead I thought it might be good if I wrote a post.  A post not about monsters.  I can see that some of you are enjoying the monster posts, so I'm going to continue to put those up for a while.  If I'm working on the wiki, it's still content of a kind.  Just different.

But more than a week ago I wrote a post where I left a hanging promise to explain why minimum stats for classes are important.  I never did explain that, did I?

This is going to sound crazy for some people, but in truth the model for making characters ought to include disappointment. You want to be a paladin, an illusionist or a monk, and you have your heart set on it.  In your mind, you think its logical: this is just a game, right?  And in a game, you ought to be able to be the Top Hat, the Racecar or the Thimble, if you want to be.  That's only fair.  And then someone comes along and explains that no, sorry, you just don't have the stats. Sorry.  Better luck next time.

How is that possibly a good thing?

To begin with, the classes are not just pieces.  An RPG can use them as pieces, and still work as a game, but there is very definitely something lost by making that decision.  See, the classes, like rolling an 18 and not a 17 for your stats, are also a prize.  If you roll sufficiently well, then you have the option to open different features of the game ~ and I know that you readers understand this because you've all played video games. How many times has it been that you've played a game for endless hours before discovering that Easter Egg in the game that lets you do something totally different?  Why do game makers provide those options as Easter Eggs?  Why don't they just tell you?

Human beings are hardwired to make discoveries.  It is one of the best things about being human. The internet itself is the best video game in existence, given that despite the thousands of hours we've spent playing the game, we're still looking for something new.  Something different.  Something we've never experienced before.  We keep looking because the net is vast and we know that there is something out there that will blow our socks off.  Eventually.  And we are always right about that.

The worst element of RPGs, and any activity that draws us, is the eventual boredom we know we are going to feel when we've ultimately destroyed any sense of "new" in a thing.  The monster layout I came up with was new and the wiki pages looked better when I finished them, which gave me a shot of endorphins and/or dopamine each time I wrapped a page up and went to the new one. But that shot is getting thin now and I know that soon it won't be enough to keep me interested. The maps give me a shot because I'm finding a new way to make them look or I'm doing new, different places in the world, like Tibet or Sinkiang, but eventually that shot, too, begins to thin out and I want something else.  This is how we work.  This is why jobs become deathly dull until we can get promoted or find some other way to keep ourselves jacked while plodding through the day. This is why marriages sour and end.  This is why the one thing I really did learn in kindergarten was that kindergarten is really, really boring when you're a year older.

If I let you, the player, try all the classes any time you want, because I play a different campaign every week, so you can get the feel of having a mage, cleric or assassin long enough to find out it's really not that different from a fighter, just more stuff, you're going to quickly get bored with the concept of classes.  If I dispense with minimum stats, so you can be a paladin with whatever, then the prize and novelty of the paladin quickly diminishes to those ribbons they still give in school for "participation."  It kills the character making process.  It kills the sense of "I have a monk and I waited two years in this campaign to finally get one."  It reduces every class to the color of gray.

But this, of course, is what everyone is doing now.  This is standard practice.  Basically, because the game is being managed and promoted like the substitute teacher that just wants all the kids in the class to be happy because "Fuck them, as long as I get through today, their usual teacher can deal with this shit."  The WOTC took the stance of giving the players everything they wanted, because the players wanted it really, really badly, and now that they have it they're bored of it.

So we sit down at the table and the DM, who doesn't have any reason to particularly care, hands out a bunch of pre-made character sheets that are probably fudged or "balanced," so that no one feels they've been shafted with a bad character, and the character-making mini-game is gone.  I don't care about this character sheet.  I didn't make it.  I have as much emotional feeling for it as I'd have for a public bicycle or being forced to accept the last rent-available car on the lot.  I don't care if this sheet lives or dies ~ because it is a sheet, and not something that I witnessed being formed.  I had nothing invested in the numbers.  There might have been hope in my heart for rolling well, but now I feel nothing.  Who cares.  I'll run incautiously into the fray and just get this over with.

Every step below the pre-made character sheet is the same principle. Oh, I can be any class I want, no matter what I roll?  Great. Then who cares?  It's not like the mage is better, not in this age of "balance."  It's not even different, not really, because I've run every class by now and the magic is, well, gone.  But sure.  I'll be a cleric.  Whatever.

The guys who invented the game, I'm quite sure, were not thinking about human nature when they came up with the concept of class minimums.  I'm sure it was no different than a lot of other games in their minds, card games where you're lucky if you draw four aces or you throw a seven.  Disappointment turns up in successful games the way that some fruit flies breed and others don't.  There have been hundreds of thousands of games that have been made since neolithic times, but most of those are gone because they didn't have that sense of ... imminent failure that makes a game interesting.

And here we are, having made the best game in the history of the planet, killing it because a bunch of babies want their bottle now now now now now.  And they're getting it, because the people making the decisions, the DMs, are just bad parents.  They don't know what they're doing.


Drain said...

A post after my own heart, Alexis, this was truly a joy to read.

I recall that you once tackled this very issue a couple of years ago, this one seems better informed by your recent combing of modern concepts but that might just be memory doing a disservice to your previous writing (there was, I believe, a baseball analogy, and it was similarly provocative).

Also: you've got mail.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hm. I see no additional mail.

Mike said...

Ability minimums for a class are a good thing as long as there is a mechanism whereby you can meet those minimums IF you are willing to sacrifice somewhere else.

Otherwise they are not an option but a "reward" for luck of the dice that has nothing to do with player actions. Just drop them completely.

Likewise the argument they are powerful so should be limited, simple just rescale their "power" so they don't need to be limited to those who are lucky with the dice.

I'm all for tough choices and not putting things on a silver platter but ability minimums as implemented in AD&D are not that.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Mike, your statements are unfounded.

Many, many tremendously successful and enchanting games are built 100% upon a reward for the luck of the die. The sense that "luck of the die" is a poor metric is a philosophy that is killing RPGs. You, Mike, like many others, want to buy your way into having more control over the rigid system, forgetting that you already have plenty of established control in what decisions you make with the character once it is rolled up.

This constant need for more and more control, which can somehow be traded for, by "sacrificing" something you don't want for something you do, is a consummate error in game design.

You're demonstrably wrong in your belief system. Go run a casino.

I won't publish any more comments that attempts to further this argument.