Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Nerfing

The original brandname Nerf  was used to describe the soft foam material used to make indoor sports toys, a product that became available in my lifetime and in my memory.  Objects such as baseball bats, volleyballs, footballs and such were marketed as toys that could not harm children, even babies, or old people ... and became a slang term that meant "harmless."  But nerf objects were not sold TO children ... they were sold to parents, who bought them for toddlers.  Nerf balls could be fun ... for a few minutes.  What we really wanted, growing up, were real footballs and real baseball bats.  Nerf things were for kiddies ... we wanted things we associated with adults.  Nerf meant "not real."  Not grown-up.  We used it as a pejorative.

Nerfing, on the other hand, is a somewhat nerfed term for that pejorative.  Wikipedia says, "A change to a game that reduces the desirability or effectiveness of a particular game part."  Why not just call it, "Making the game harmless?"  Or even, cheesy as shit and designed for infant children?  Why soft-soap the original definition of the term?

Well, for one thing, the Kings of Nerfing are unquestionably the Wizards of the Coast, who have been systematically nerfing succeeding generations of players out of Magic: the Gathering since the game was spawned.  Virtually no one I knew five years ago who played the game seriously still does.  Game-breaking cards are brought out every few months, with a lack of foresight that makes Editions of D&D look like a kid in a pedal car trying out for NASCAR status.  Basically, the game that made the WOTC survives on art fetish, power lords with their parent's money and the steady passage of time that makes 5-year-olds into 9-year-olds.

Wizards of the Coast is a subsidiary of Hasbro ... which, coincidentally, also owns the Nerf brand of products.  Coincidence?

Setting this rant aside, the long and the short describes issues I've had with nerfing D&D for decades ... which began as elements of empowering players at the expense of rules in the early 1980s, with the addition of new classes and new abilities, that were never properly balanced in game play (the barbarian and the cavalier were meant to be "balanced" by role-playing rules that were impossible to enforce and ultimately not a detriment).  As time has progressed, every element of the game has been under siege at one time or another, to make it softer, less harmful, less inhibiting to the player's personal wishes or self-projection as heroes, less measured by die rolls and ultimately less disappointing, particularly in the very inconvenient way that players had of dying when the game called for it.

From a business point of view, the whole "dying part" just didn't work as a marketing strategy.  Come and play our game, buy our game, create your character ... and then lose your character at some random moment when a chance die roll happens.  I mean, from the perspective of sales, that just sucks.  It's like opening a newspaper and seeing that someone was beaten to death with a baseball bat that your company made.

As an aside, here's an article about young baseball players being killed with metal bats.  And here's the line that the Easton Baseball & Softball Equipment company uses to describe their product: "the most efficient energy transfer from handle to barrel for maximum 'whip' for a quicker bat and more power though the hitting zone."  Note how that sounds if we picture a kid in Compton using the bat to end the life of another kid in Compton.  But it's okay, because all these deaths in the article are accidental.  We're not talking about anyone using a bat for any other reason than baseball.  We're definitely not talking about it.

Which is why you won't find any references or quotes about death associated with D&D in any of the puff pieces you read, or any of the pages on the WOTC's website, or any of the vlogs that will tell you how to run the game or how to play the game.  If you go looking, you'll be very hard put to find anyone saying anything like, "... and there's a chance your character will be killed."  Being killed is something that happens to NPCs and monsters.  Or, at least, that's the only time it's mentioned.

Except, of course, for the long-running flame war that continues to ask the question, 44 years after Chainmail, is it okay to kill a player character?
"When PC death is permanent, whether due to play style or your RPG/setting of choice, it can be a huge blow to the player who’s impacted. Why should this happen as a result of what’s supposed to be a leisure activity?"

Yeah, hey man, this is supposed to be fun.  I mean, just look at baseball.  When one team loses it can be a huge blow to the way they feel.  Why should this happen?  Or in chess, when one player loses ... that must feel awful.  Why are we making people feel awful when they just want to play a game?  The rules of chess should be changed so that players just move pieces around on the board and talk to one another, pretending to be bishops and kings.  Why does there have to be all this killing?  Role-playing the pieces would be WAY more fun.

In many ways, this nerfing makes it very, very hard to talk about D&D seriously. I was thinking earlier today about writing some post that would describe game strategies for each class, targeted towards using their singular abilities in combat and role-play situations.  Basically, what should the fighter be doing or saying when the charismatic druid or bard is doing the talking?  Or what strategies ought a thief or a druid employ in a fight, to produce the best results.  I think I could work up such a post and it would be useful to a lot of players.

If this was 1983.  And it was actually hard to make arrangements in order to negotiate with minor functionaries to get an audience with a mayor or such, as opposed to modules that start with the mayor introducing the players to the local king.  Or when it was hard to survive an attack by 20 goblins, when basically the players are encountering and foiling super-wizards almost immediately, with magic items bought at the magic shop.  Or when the healer, not a cleric, wasn't there to flood the room with healing ability anyway.  Or if the classes were actually defined as having specific abilities that weren't endlessly nerfed by perception rolls and such.  It's difficult to write a "strategy" post about a modern game that doesn't require any strategy at all to play ... because the system has been rebuilt to the point where even death isn't on the line.  We keep saying that it's "role-playing" and not "roll-playing," but we keep giving the players more and more dice to roll to ensure their survival, while removing more and more of the boundaries against what the players are free to do.

It's a joke.  We replaced a strategy and tactical game with ... foam.

I don't think it's a coincidence.

Today, this is the emotional and "fun" level of a typical D&D game, complete with the bickering fight that occurs at the end:



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